Reflection and Prayers ~ Mothering Sunday
It’s A Family Affair
Today’s lectionary reading comes from the gospel according to Luke and I think it’s particularly appropriate for a church meeting! Jesus is getting grief from the religious teachers as he’s hanging around with people of questionable reputation! In response, he tells them a few stories, including the now renowned parable of the prodigal son. Or should it be the lost son? Or lost and found son? And who says the troublemaker should get top billing?! What about the other son? Or the dad? And who’s missing?
Let’s keep some of those questions in mind as we listen to a less familiar version of the familiar tale…
Luke 15:11-32 – Good As New (amended with permission)
I wonder how you heard that story. I wonder if any phrases stood out to you or whether you empathized with one of the characters in particular. I wonder, thinking back to last week’s sermon, whether it disturbed or comforted you. For many people, it would be the latter, wouldn’t it? Most takes on this story – from Rembrandt’s famous painting to my own previous reflections on it (e.g. – https://www.stdavidsuniting.org.uk/the-prodigal-son/– understand the story to be an encouraging tale of God’s reckless grace and extravagant love. And whilst that’s true, of course, reading it this week, I got something very different from it.
You see, before sharing this story, Jesus is on a roll. Responding to the puritanical condemnation of his enjoyment of life, Jesus responds with stories about loss. First, the lost sheep; then the lost coin; and to complete the rule of three, he tells us the story of a father and two sons, usually entitled ‘the lost’ or ‘prodigal son’.
But what if the story is about loss of another sort? Mothering Sunday is as good a time as any to ask where, exactly, is mum? Is her absence more than just a patriarchal omission? Could Jesus’ parable have guided the original audience to the story of their founding family – of another father who played favourites; of his dreamer son who fell out with his siblings and was lost to a foreign, famine-hit land; of the beloved wife whose death had untold consequences (Jacob, Joseph, Rachel & co.)? In short, what impact would it have if we were told that the mother in the family had died. Could it be that unspoken grief is woven throughout the story? If we imagine that into the story, what might we learn?
“Once, there was a man with two sons”, says Jesus. “The younger one said to his father, ‘Dad, let me have the money you intend leaving me in your will’. So the father made over to both sons the share of his estate…”
For the younger son, the shadow of his father’s death is, perhaps with good reason, felt in the present. So he dares to speak it and receives what was coming to him before cutting himself off from his friends, family, and home without a second thought. Could it be that the family home was crowded by grief that was almost tangible, constant, and too much to bear for the younger son? Could it be that he just needed to get away? To distract himself; to lose himself in drink, sex, travel…anything to numb the pain inside?
And what about the father who enabled this to happen? We hear nothing of a conversation between the two of them – not a word of dialogue asking his son why he wanted his inheritance early; why he wanted to leave his family and run away to a strange and dangerous land. Was it, perhaps, easier for the Dad to meet the wild demands of his son, rather than meet his emotional needs? There does, after all, seem to be a lack of communication in the family. Just look what happens when the son returns…
“We must get him into some decent clothes right away.” Dad says to his servants. “My new jacket – I haven’t worn it – I’m sure it will fit him. And I’ve got a bright shirt and new shoes to go with it. Let’s have a big party and get some good food in…”
Notice anything strange there? The father doesn’t speak directly to his son. Instead, he speaks to his servants! Rather than listening to his son, rather than asking how he’s been or acknowledging his lived experience; rather than talking about the emotional depths they’ve both swum through, the father is quick to get him changed out of the clothes which carry his painful story and put on a party frock instead. It seems like partying to avoid pain runs in the family…so let’s not mention your mother, let’s not talk about Bruno (a reference for the Encanto fans – a film which actually has a huge amount of resonance with this story). No, let’s eat, drink, and be merry, forgetting our troubles…and forgetting our other children, it seems, for one brother is still out working whilst the party is in full swing!
I mean…what’s that about? He’s the one that’s stuck by his Dad. He’s the one that’s stayed at home all this time. He’s the one who put his dreams – and his own grief – on hold; who’s had to take on the accounts book because his Dad just couldn’t cope; who’s dealt with his Dad’s mood swings and heard his weeping at night whilst his brother’s gone off and had a whale of time. So this guy is physically and emotionally exhausted, when, instead of weeping, he hears music.
Perhaps his loyalty and support of his father has paid off. Perhaps his Dad has turned a corner and wants to choose to live again. Perhaps his Dad has even put on a feast for him to say thanks for all his love and help over the years. But no…no…his ungrateful, selfish brother has returned, his Dad is indulging him yet again, and, true to form, the rock of the family been forgotten about and taken for granted.
And then, when he expresses his anger – when, unlike his Dad and immature brother – he’s actually able to articulate how he feels, his Dad, as usual, doesn’t want to hear his hurt and instead makes it about his brother yet again! And so the older brother knocks back a cocktail of jealousy and grief, anger and pain instead. Welcome back, bro!
Perhaps. And perhaps it’s no great leap to see why I can read this story in that way…but as Jesus would have known and practiced, sketching in the possible details of tales from the Torah was a common practice of his storytelling people and their relationship with scripture. Doing likewise today can help us live into the text.
But so what? You might be thinking. What does imagining the story in that way achieve? How is that in any way relevant to a church meeting service?
Well, I think the story of a screwed-up family dealing with loss, pain, and miscommunication is very relevant to our church meeting. I think the story of men who don’t listen and women who are absent; of children who avoid difficult truths and others who feel increasingly exhausted and resentful about keeping the family household going is, if anything, a little too on the nose for us right now!
Like church families across Wales, the UK, across the western world today, we have many difficult discussions and decisions to make about who we are as a declining church in an increasingly secular, post-covid world. Which isn’t me throwing in the towel as I happen to think that there are a huge number of advantages about being a smaller church…I actually think it may be closer to what Jesus intended, whilst the metaphor of reducing the stock to leave a richer, more vibrant remnant has something to it. Yet we do have losses to name, challenges to face and doing that as a family can be bloomin’ hard.
One of the lessons that I learnt through losing my mother aged thirteen was that my Dad wasn’t a superhero. Kind, perhaps. Generous, sure. But man was he out of his depth when it came to emotional literacy! After my Mum died, a bit like the family in today’s story, we didn’t really talk about her or how we were feeling. Any attempt to share pain or express anger was quietly and politely ignored. And that’s not what a grieving teenager needs. And so, for a while, I resented him for that. I mean, like the father and younger son in the story, I was more than happy to put on a smile and a party to avoid the pain, but you have to clean up the mess sometime. And, at times, there was A LOT of mess!
Yet, as I grew, matured, and processed the grief, it was clear to me that my Dad did his absolute best. An only child to divorced parents in the 50’s, he was sent off to boarding school and never really learnt how to articulate pain; how to talk about one’s emotions. Keep calm and carry on was the order of the day. That’s how he dealt with his grief and so he expected us to do the same. Over time, I came to understand this. That we are all products of our upbringing and context. That sometimes we simply haven’t been given the tools that might benefit others. That sometimes we hurt or frustrate one another from a place of our own brokenness. And that we need to treat one another – and ourselves – with an unceasing amount of grace.
That’s what today’s parable says to me. That the family may have hurt each other unwittingly. That denials and egos, pain-avoidance and emotional immaturity led to strains and stresses within the family…but they were still family. Still held together by bonds of love and loyalty that no trauma or crisis could ever break. Still invited to eat together, work together, party together – naming hurts and forgiving them. Isn’t this the picture of church that Christ calls us into? Isn’t this the life of grace into which we’re welcomed?
So if today, or in the coming months, if I or another church member resembles the father of the story – unable to listen, unable to accept the loss in our midst – perhaps you can treat us with grace, sketching in our backstory, seeking to forgive the hurt we might cause, and appreciating the qualities we bring.
And if I or another church member resembles the younger son of the story – running away from the truth and leaving the hard work to others – perhaps you can treat us with grace, acknowledging the fear that lies behind our resistance to change, seeking to forgive the hurt we might cause, and looking for the good we bring to the family.
And if I or another church member resembles the older son of the story – resentful of siblings and refusing to join the party – perhaps you can treat us with grace, taking some of the burdens from us, seeking to forgive the hurt we might cause, and giving thanks for all we do for the family.
It will not be easy. We will not always succeed. We may need to take deep breaths, pray for patience, swallow and speak our frustrations at different times…but we will do so as a family; a broken yet beautiful brood of prodigal sons and daughters; as screwed-up siblings of the preacher who partied with screw-ups; the friend who forgives the frustrating; the Christ whose grace and goodness might reform and transform us afresh today. May it be so.
On Monday of this week, as I walked to the church buildings in the morning sunlight, I had great fun composing an email to someone within our wider church family – we’re talking a committee chair in London – who had frustrated me. The passive aggression within it was breath-taking and I was enjoying imagining their pompous reaction when they’d receive it…when my 8am alarm went – which signaled time to pray my Lenten prayer. Y’know – the ‘make me a channel of your peace’ one. The one about bringing pardon where there is offence, union where there’s discord. Nothing about sarcastic emails, unfortunately. I reluctantly listened to what I think God was telling me. And seeing as it was helpful to me, I thought we might pray it together now. As we say the words, I encourage you to think how you might…or might not…live out this prayer today…
Living God, thank you for the gift of this moment.
Please help us be aware of our grounding in you.
In this time of great uncertainty, as our churches face difficult discussions and decisions,
please make each of us an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us bring love.
Where there is offence, let us bring pardon. Where there is discord, let us bring union.
Where there is error, let us bring truth. Where there is doubt, let us bring faith.
Where there is despair, let us bring hope. Where there is darkness, let us bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let us bring joy.
O Master, let us not seek as much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love, for it is in giving that one receives, it is in self-forgetting that one finds, it is in pardoning that one is pardoned, it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life. Amen.
Prayers of intercession – Mary Robins
On this day, which celebrates the gift of life given to us by our mothers, we give thanks for their care for us from infancy, through childhood and youth, until we have reached adulthood, and even beyond. As my mother used to say- “ a mother’s work is never done”. We appreciate all that has been done for us, and all that has been given to us; very often at the expense of going without themselves.
We give thanks for all the joys that we have shared together; treasured moments and memories that will always be with us. Gifts, freely given, that are priceless.
We pray for those mothers who have lost contact with their children as they have sought a life elsewhere; sometimes in other countries and even on the other side of the world.
We also bring before you mothers who have lost children, and mothers who are fearful for their children’s safety and well-being. We ask you, Lord, to bring comfort, healing, forgiveness and peace of mind to all grieving and hurting mothers.
Although there are conflicts in many parts of the world, foremost in our minds is the plight of the people of the Ukraine, plunged into a war by the misguided ambitions of one man. Words cannot adequately express our feelings as we see the horrible tapestry of war unfolding day by day. We pray for the mothers and people of the Ukraine that the bloodshed shall cease and that peace and justice may be restored to that land.
We pray for the leaders of all nations that they may be given the will and wisdom to bring peace to this world so that all people may flourish. May they do that which is right in the sight of God.
In the words of an old hymn:
Heal thy children’s warring madness,
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days
Please God, hear our prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. Amen.
Footnote- In writing this prayer my attention was drawn to Psalm7, v14-16