Growing up, my Grandfather was considered a saint. He was kind and funny. He was a wiz in the kitchen, and he always made you feel good. He was beloved by all, and was known as a champion for the underdog. That narrative was affirmed at his funeral as we told stories of his kindness and generosity. He was without blemish and probably could have remained so had I not asked questions. But over coffee one day, I had a conversation about the saintliness of my grandfather with my aunt and uncle. Over the course of our conversation they slowly opened my eyes about how my grandfather was more nuanced that I realized. What I interpreted as kindness they helped me see as, at times, avoiding conflict to the detriment of others. What I saw as peacemaking could be interpreted as not standing up to bullies. Slowly the one-dimensional man I knew developed layers – layers of goodness and weakness; layers of helpfulness and harm; layers of perfection and flaws.
We regularly do the same thing with those who have died – whether canonized saints or beloved family members. In death, we honor all the goodness about them and gloss over the bad parts. A classic example is one of my favorite modern-day saints, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spearheaded a movement with grace, insight, and boldness and inspired generations. But I remember reading later in life how his treatment of women in the Civil Rights Movement was not always as admirable. Slowly his layers emerged for me. Although I still admire his work and writings, his life is more nuanced now.
Now some people will argue that we should not speak ill of the dead – that we should show our respect by letting go of the bad and only honoring the good. In some respects, I understand why people do not want to dishonor the dead. But I think telling stories that only make others seem perfect without honoring their flaws hurts us more than helps us. That is why I love the parable of the two sons from our gospel today. I resists calling the parable the parable of the prodigal son because I think both sons have something to teach us.[i] In the parable, we can easily see the two brothers in one-dimensional ways. The older brother is the good and faithful son for loyally supporting his father and the family business. The younger brother is the bad son who insults his father, squanders his ill-gotten inheritance, and shamefully asks for more than he deserves. Those one-dimensional stories are stories we know. We have friends, family members, or maybe some of us even who are those characters – the responsible older sibling, or the troublemaking younger sibling; the child whom the parent always brags about, or the child about whom the parent seems embarrassed; the child who brings the family honor, or the child who brings the family shame.
But like any good parable, these characters are not as one-dimensional as they seem. I was thinking about the younger brother this week and I realized we never hear about his impression of the party his father throws. We suspect he is grateful for his father’s forgiveness, and we honor the humble way the younger son repents, but that party must have been hard. Everyone at the party knows his sin. Asking for his portion of his father’s inheritance before his father’s death was tantamount to wishing his father were dead.[ii] In order for his father to give the younger son the money, he would have had to have sold off some land – a fate even worse for a culture who understood their land to be God’s promised gift.[iii] Though his father’s forgiveness must have been a relief, I cannot imagine the rest of the town being so gracious. I wonder whether the son stayed humble and repentant during the party; whether he was able to relax into his newfound forgiveness, laughing and joking; or whether he felt uncomfortable, bristling from his neighbors’ judgment and sideways glances.
Of course, we cannot forget the older brother. The dutiful, obedient, hardworking brother loses all his perfection in his reaction to this party. The older brother throws a temper tantrum of epic proportions. He whines about the abundance his father shows his brother – perhaps rightfully so, since the money and fatted calf used for the party comes from what is left of the older son’s inheritance.[iv] He complains about how he has never experienced such bounty and celebration. He resents his father’s lack of gratitude for all the older son’s dutiful work. Some of the son’s indignation is warranted. He was, in fact, the good son, and his younger brother had behaved badly. But the rewards of the story are not playing out so simply. The older brother overreacts. You see, his response is equally disgraceful to his father. In the day of this parable, the host of a party was never to leave his guests. Going to his older son would have been seen as disrespectful to the guests he had invited.[v] But just like he goes out to meet his younger son, the father goes out to meet the older son, offering him similar generosity and abundance in the face of his son’s sin.
Part of why we love this parable so much is that we can identify with all the characters. We are a people of nuanced layers too. We have our younger son moments and our older son moments. We have moments when we are bastions of forgiveness and grace, and moments when we withhold that forgiveness and grace. Those among us who are known as having deep wells of patience have our moments when we snap. And those among us who are known as being judgmental or stern have our moments of insightful kindness.
Our layers are why we have seasons like Lent and days for healing prayers. In Lent, we shuffle home from our partying, wastefulness, and self-centeredness and return to our forgiving Lord. In Lent, we bring our resentfulness, jealousy, and self-righteousness to the altar as we long for another way. In Lent, we bring our judgment of others and our judgment of ourselves and exchange them for freedom for humility and compassion. Having a healing service in Lent allows us to do those things in a tangible way – not just to pray for physical healing of ourselves and others, but to pray for spiritual healing for those layers that are not as beautiful as others.
In order to honor that work of self-reflection and repentance, the church gives us what is called Rose Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or even Mothering Sunday. The idea is that being half-way through Lent, we take a day to break our fasting in these forty days. In many parishes, to reflect the respite from penitence and fasting, the vestments and paraments change from their usual Lenten array to a beautiful rose-colored array. On this day, we take a break from wallowing in ashes and our sack cloths, and we find refreshment in our Lord’s forgiveness and redemption. In England, apprentice boys took this day off to visit their mothers, hence the one designation as Mothering Sunday. We hear that invitation into gladness today in our psalm, “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile!”[vi] After weeks of repentance, heaviness, and weight, today the church invites us into forgiveness, lightness, and joy.
Rose Sunday is like the father in our parable today – full of forgiveness, grace, and love for us and all our layers – the good and the not-so-good – because we all have the layers. Today the church runs out to greet us, leaves a good party, and meets us where we are – and loves us. Today, the church says, “I see your layers, and I love all the parts of you, fully.” Today the church is a fool for forgiveness, not wisely teaching us a lesson about humility, but senselessly lavishing upon us grace, love, and freedom from our self-centeredness and self-righteousness. On this refreshment Sunday, the church invites us to remember that we are beloved children of God, a God who knows all our layers and loves us anyway.
I invite you today to take on the fullness of refreshment this day. Whatever you have been working on this Lent, whatever guilt you have been harboring, or whatever sinfulness you have been examining, know that your sins are forgiven. Know that you can come forward for healing prayers, not asking for healing and wholeness, but celebrating the healing and wholeness you have already experienced. Know that you can come to the Eucharistic table not just for solace only but for strength; not just for pardon only, but for renewal. As we say in our Rite I prayers, Jesus says to us, “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”[vii] Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Perspective Matters,” February 28, 2016, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4553 as found on March 3, 2016.
[ii] N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004),187.
[iii] Leslie J. Hoppe, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 119.
[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Parable of the Dysfunctional Family,” April 17, 2006, as found at http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/newsletter374062.htm on March 3, 2016.
[v] David Lose, “Lent 4 C: The Prodigal God,” February 28, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-4-c-the-prodigal-god/ on March 3, 2016.
[vi] Psalm 32.1-2.
[vii] Matthew 11.28. BCP 332.