If you read your newsletter this week, you will already know today is Laetare Sunday – the Sunday in Lent where we lift our Lentern observances and peep out from under them to spot Easter, right there, on the horizon! For one week only the colour lifts from the deep dark purple to a slightly lighter brighter ‘rose’ and the psalm for the day reminds us to rejoice! It’s also the day in the UK, where we celebrate Mothering Sunday – the day hijacked by hallmark and turned into a commercial affair for the chocolate and flowers industry (unless you’re living in my house this weekend, sorry mum…).
I know that you lot don’t mark Mother’s Day until May but forgive me for sharing a bit of Mothering Sunday history, because it fits so snugly into this morning’s gospel reading that I can’t resist it.
The original Mother’s Day was not about our Mums at all. The first Mothering Sunday was about the church. Exactly 9 months before Christmas, girls working in domestic service were allowed to return home for a rare weekend off, their last one before Christmas and they were instructed to ‘go a’mothering’ – to go home to their mum – not the one who gave birth to them, but the one who spiritually birthed and nurtured them in the faith of Christ. Mothering Sunday was about going home to the Mother Church. It was about going home.
And this morning we meet our well-known brother – the one we call the Prodigal – on his own journey from and to home. We know the story, don’t we? He asks his dad for his inheritance early and goes off to a distant country to squander all he has in dissolute living. He spends all he has and then gets hungry. And ‘when he came to himself’ he decides the best cure for his hunger is a huge slice of humble pie and he turns around and goes home.
He dares to hope his father will greet him with compassion. He recites his well-prepared speech and doesn’t even get halfway through before he is cloaked in the finest robe, lavished with the finest jewels, the fatted calf meets a sticky end, and they begin to celebrate. The welcome home party rages…and there is that one notable absence – our other brother – the elder one.
He’s out in the field and he hears music and dancing and then he hears the news that makes his blood run cold; his brother has come home – and all his resentment and anger and bitterness rushes to his cheeks and clenches his fists and seals his feet securely to the floor. His dad comes to him – like he went to prodigal – and tries to envelop him with that same compassion, but elder brother’s resentment says no. He’s at the house, but there’s no way he’s going home.
And the dad says the most compelling and costly line in the whole story; son, we had to celebrate and rejoice. We had to. It’s the only response.
And today we remember our own home – the father’s house – Mother Church. And in these old familiar words, this homecoming, we find ourselves.
And countless preachers have asked their people, ‘where are you in this story’? are you far off and needing to come home? Are you languishing there, hungry among the pigs? Are you taking the first tentative steps homeward? Or are you that elder brother; angry and resentful for all you’ve given, with such seemingly limited return? Are you standing, arms folded, feet glued to that outer field, refusing to come in and welcome home the prodigal?
But I am drawn to the father’s compelling and costly line – we have to celebrate and rejoice. Because it is true, and it is also a lot.
Friends, we are going through a time here where we’re experiencing growth! Each week we have people come and join us for the first time, or the first time in a long time, and our welcome and greeting makes all the difference.
And Jesus knows humanity from of old – he knows there will be prodigals who will come stumbling in, stinking. Suffering from whatever the equivalent is of dissolute living and sitting with pigs. He knows they will come in rehearsing their reasons and excuses for being away so long as they beg for a place at this table.
And he knows there will be those who run to greet them, arms wide, robes hoiked up, compassion flowing, ready to envelop and cloak them, adorn them with jewels – even though we know they might just as quickly be sold to afford the next drug fix. Jesus knows you.
And he also knows there will be those who have served diligently and have cleaned this place and – to be honest – would prefer it not to be messed up. He knows there are those of us whose feet will be glued to the floor and hands firmly stuffed into pockets and, even if we try, it feels too much to even take one step to embrace the new, or re-embrace the old, especially if they have hurt us, or threaten to do so in the future. Jesus knows us too.
And yet, that costly and compelling line is for each of us – us prodigals, us elders, even us fatted calves – we have to celebrate and rejoice. We have to. Because this is the way our church grows. This is the way the kingdom grows. This is the way our mother church births and nourishes us into life and into the future. Generation after generation.
This week I’ve read one blog post over and over – thanks to Gabby for sharing it on the facebook page – and I want to end with some of the words, by Debie Thomas, who says this…
“We have to celebrate and rejoice.” …Did you know you have to celebrate? Did you know that joy is a must in your father’s house? That partying is a duty?
Your father stands in the doorway, waiting for you. Waiting for you to stop being lost. Waiting for you to come home. Did you know your choices are so powerful? You get to write this ending. You get to write this ending.
It’s getting cold outside. The sun is setting, and the party beckons. What will you do, as the music grows sweeter? What will we choose, you and I?
What will we choose? Amen.