Monday, March 19, 2007

Sermon: 4th Sunday in Lent

“It didn't have to happen that way. We could have sat down and talked it over. But my husband is a hothead, and my sons—one fumes; one sulks. The tension between them had been building…” And so begins the Parable of the Missing Mother based on the parable of the Prodigal Son, written by Kathy Coffey. I used it at the Women’s Retreat two years ago as one of the meditations.

I love how she enters the story of the Prodigal Son through the eyes of the Missing Mother, and this morning, I invite you into this parable through the mother, and to hear the story of the prodigal son in a new way.

“I will always regret not being home the weekend of the explosion. I returned from my sister's to find an eerie quiet in the house, and my youngest son's empty room. "What have you done?" I accused the men who looked guilty. They were quick to list the charges against him. It had escalated beyond the usual skirmishes, perhaps because I wasn't there to settle it with a little humor, some time apart, a good din­ner. By the second week, the thrill of the combat had worn off. They were no longer boasting how they'd gotten the bet­ter of him, and were starting to worry beneath the cool cam­ouflage of unconcern. His absence was gnawing away at me; I longed for his quick tongue, the flashing fall of his laughter. He was young and naive; he'd never traveled alone. Was he safe? Had he been mugged along the road? How long would his money last? The questions prodded me awake in the middle of the night, as my husband snored beside me.

After a month, I noticed my husband taking long walks down the road, usually at twilight when there was no reason to work there. Was he starting to miss him as much as I did? It emerged in our talks that my husband recognized his own impetuosity in our younger son. They both had the nature of a spring storm: intense and fierce. They would hurl furious words, then all was calm. Except this time. No one had intervened; no one had suggested a time to cool off. My husband felt terrible about the damage done, and grieved that the loss was permanent. It took a lot of talking, and he needed time to sit with his grief. But I think the incident made a deep impression. We agreed that if he ever did come home, we would not take him for granted again. We would love him for lightning flash and thunderbolt; then we would cradle him securely when the storm was spent.

After four months, I went searching. My husband seemed sunk in a stupor; the eldest son was sullen and depressed. If the youngest was ever to be found and brought home, it was up to me… By the time they found me, exhausted with the futile search, the wine had gone flat and the leftovers of fat­ted calf had congealed. No matter—both my boys were safe. I slept with a deep security I hadn't had in months. As I drift­ed off that first night home, I reviewed the story the servant had told me. According to her, the first sight of that unbathed boy galvanized his father. He ran down the road with the energy of his youth. The servants heard the pounding steps and shouting, so they rushed to see what was happening. He drowned the boy's apology in his huge embrace. I knew that my youngest had been enveloped in enormous arms, right there on the dusty road. When my husband called with exuberance for the ring and sandals, of course they were ready and waiting. As the serving woman brought the gold and leather, she heard my husband bellow, "This son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found."
Of course tomorrow the euphoria will wear off and I'll have to deal with the eldest. He's still filled with the poison of resentment and I'll need to find out what's really causing his anger. But I don't know if I can top what my husband told him. The servant reported that he said, "You are with me always and all I have is yours." If that doesn't reassure the boy, I don't know what will. The words have been for me a lovely pillow, the cornerstone of our house, the surety of my
husband's good heart.” [from “Hidden Women of the Gospels,” Chapter 10, by Kathy Coffey, ©2003, Orbis Books]

Kathy Coffey captures for me the true Spirit of the Prodigal Son with this imaginative and telling look at this parable…

As Jesus once told this parable and Coffey retells it in her own words: there are no families that don’t have such hassles in their family life, isn’t it true that often there is one child who is sulking and another laughing: failure and achievement often sit side by side at our kitchen table. And yet, the father lovingly embraces the son who ran off, and calms the son who is fuming at his return… The father loves. He forgives his child before he can really apologize. He tells his other child that he is always with him and all that he has is his. They are words reassuring…

As one author put it, “The prodigal knows he’s a dead son. He can’t come home as a son and yet in his father’s arms he rises from the dead and then he is able to come to his father’s side. The dead son, the no good Prodigal Son, is home. He has been raised from the dead by his father’s embrace. He has done nothing to earn it…” (Robert Farrar Capon)

The father in the parable is often identified with God, and we are identified as the two sons, the younger and the elder, the one whom fumes and the one who sulks… The parable shows us through the father figure, that God’s forgiveness is for us all. It is grace. Not because we earned it, but because God wills it. And the son is restored, but what about the good kid? Don’t many of you here feel more like the eldest than the youngest. The one who stood by his parents, never leaving and yet feeling left out at the end… We may wonder if the eldest ever did go in and enjoy the party and welcome back his brother. But the real questions for us, is will we? Will we, the good kids go in when the not so good are welcomed back? And the father looks at us and give us those words, “You are with me always and all I have is yours”

No matter what, its all yours, you are always with me, says God. Drop the resentment, the anger, let it go and come, enjoy the party! The only way we get left out in the cold is if we stay there ourselves. And the missing mother, from Coffey’s retelling, for me is the Holy Spirit; who is blowing through the whole story trying to bring everyone back together, to bring life to the dead, to make that family whole again.

No matter what part of the parable you see yourself in, the father or mother, the Prodigal Son, the good ol’ son, know that here at this table you are invited, welcomed at this party, this feast…for in the midst of our Lent, God gives us Godself to us, in bread and wine, the bread of heaven and cup of salvation, so that God can live in us and we in God. May the story of the Prodigal Son and the words of assurance from our God be for you a lovely pillow, the cornerstone of your house, the surety of God's good heart for you. Amen.

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