It has been argued, and rightly so, that this gospel passage (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) has been misnamed “The Prodigal Son.” Prodigal means: ‘lavishly, wastefully generous’ – to such an extent that it inspires awe and marvel. It is exceptional generosity. However, the influence of this gospel can be felt in the more common definition of a ‘prodigal’, more commonly understood as someone who foolishly spends his/her parent’s money.
There are, in fact, two prodigals in this story – the son who was a prodigal child, and, if you pay close attention to the whole story, you will also notice that the father is fairly prodigal himself. He is lavish, even wastefully so, in his generosity to his son.
Some scholars have argued that, if the son was foolish, it was because, well, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. I mean, imagine giving your child half of his inheritance – before you die! What did the father expect from his son? On the one hand, it seems foolish and wasteful. On the other, it is an incredible, marvelous, unconditional, trusting act of generosity.
Jesus told this parable not so we could pass judgment on the prodigal son, or to compare and contrast between him and the son who was faithful and dutiful. Rather, Jesus told us this story so we could learn something more about the father. The One he knew as ‘Abba’, Father.
God loves us with a prodigious love. God is wastefully lavish, with a generosity beyond measure – so much as to inspire awe and wonder and marvel. God loves us and trusts us even though God knows that we are often foolish, squandering the spiritual inheritance we have from our baptism in Jesus on things profane and secular – even ‘dissolute’. God loves us unconditionally, always forgiving us, always welcoming us back into the fold with great rejoicing and celebration.
Which is a good thing, because we – you and I – tend to be prodigal sons and daughters of a most prodigious God. So, it is argued, this gospel story should probably be named, simply, “The Prodigals” – because it is a story about both sides of what it means to be ‘prodigal’ in our lives in Christ. Prodigal like the father. Prodigal like the son.
It is fitting that we speak of prodigious love on this fourth Sunday in the Season of Lent. It is also known as “Refreshment” or “Mothering” or “Rose” Sunday – a time when we are allowed a little lighthearted break from the solemnity and penitence of Lent. Hence, the Rose colored vestments and, today, a special celebration of two of this church’s prodigal daughters – Ruth Pring and Betty Williams – for whom the newly renovated sacristy is named.
I didn’t know Ruth Pring, but some of you remember her. She was active in the Altar Guild at about the same time Betty Williams was – and both women served under the Altar Directress of all Altar Directresses – Nathalie Richardson. For some women in this parish, that name can still strike fear in the tender corners of the heart.
When Betty spoke of Nathalie, two things would happen before she told the story. First, one corner of her mouth would give way to a grin while the other corner tried desperately to maintain decorum. It never worked. The second thing to happen was that Betty would remind you that her name was not Natalie but NaTHalie. I suppose that was so because somewhere in Betty’s mind she believed that Nathalie was still around, and if she was, she wanted to make sure, if she were within earshot, that she didn’t do anything to annoy her. I can imagine that even a scowl from Mrs. Richardson could wilt the strongest psyche.
I suspect Betty, and perhaps Ruth, often felt like the Prodigal Daughters to a Prodigal Altar Guild Directress – but that had more to do with the foolish part of the definition of prodigal than the generous part. How amazing, then, that they also became so wonderfully, lavishly generous.
I understand. I was once a Prodigal daughter on the Altar Guild at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, ME – which was the congregation that supported my ordination process. Ruth Pillsbury was ‘Directress” of the Altar Guild there, some say, since before Christ wore sandals. I don’t know this to be true but the mythology I remember was that she had a military background. She certainly ran the Altar Guild like a drill sergeant.
When you were on Ms. Pillsbury’s Altar Guild, all altar linens were to be washed using a specific laundry detergent (Octagon Powder, as I recall) which she measured out in the precise amount she considered sufficient to accomplish the task and distributed to new members of the Altar Guild at the beginning of the month in paper bags, the top folded in two crisp folds and stapled, lest their be any accidental mess. You considered yourself off probation when you no longer got a monthly bag of Ms. Pillsbury’s ‘soap powder’. That probation period could take as much as a year – or two.
She expected the corporal and purificators to be washed, starched, folded and ironed with the same precision as she folded your soap powder bag. If not, she had absolutely no problem returning them to you to be redone. She never spoke a word. She would simply inspect them silently and hand them back to you. You understood immediately and complied until you got it right.
She hated waste in any form and was especially distressed if the clergy had consecrated too much wine for communion at the Eucharist, insisting that we consume any leftovers in the sacristy after mass as part of our duties.
One day, in a bit of a flummox because I was doing double-duty – chalice bearer and altar guild – the sleeve of my alb caught the rim of one of the beautiful, large, ornate silver chalices, spilling the consecrated wine all over me. I gasped as the wine soaked through my white alb, through my clothes and even onto my skin. A heavy silence filled the room. Miss Pillsbury pulled herself around to look at me, growling in complete horror, “That’s the consecrated blood of our Lord!”
I was like Dorothy, standing before The Wizard, my knees knocking. Everyone else seemed frozen in place. Even the two young acolytes, two tow-headed boys who normally stood together with goofy smiles like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee were turned into pillars of salt. One gasped and the other said under his breath, “Uh-oh!” Even the Dean, John Beaven, a man for whom the word ‘affable’ was surely created, stood silent and pale, silently wishing himself to dissolve into the corner he had pressed himself.
I was instantly reduced to tears – not an easy task, then or now. Miss. Pillsbury, who had put her hands on the counter, her head bowed as if in silent prayer, now turned her head slightly sideways to look at my tear-stained face. My voice cracked as I sobbed, “What am I to do, now, Miss Pillsbury?” It was more a plea than a question. I hadn’t whined like that since I was 4 years old.
Then, a miracle. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I might not have believed it, but it was there, on the stony face of Miss Pillsbury, just as surely as there was the stain of consecrated wine on my alb. It was a hint, a glimmer, a mere shadow of a smile that slowly crossed her face, ever so slightly lifting the corners of her mouth and brightening her eyes.
She looked away again and then back at me, sideways, cleared her throat and then said, “I suppose we’ll have to burn you.”
The Dean began to giggle, which signaled Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee to guffaw. I felt my initial confusion melt into relief and managed to smile through my tears. That would be enough of that. Miss Pillsbury cleared her throat again, and we all snapped back into work-mode, smiling secretly behind her back. Now and again, someone would walk by and poke my back or put their hand on my shoulder in a silent gesture of sympathy.
The story went forth and it was said that this was the one and only time Miss Pillsbury actually smiled while ‘on duty’ in the sacristy, remembered as an amazing act of prodigious generosity.
You know, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. They don’t make them like Nathalie Richardson. Or Ruth Pring. Or Betty Williams. They are a generation of Prodigal women who loved and served a Prodigal God by loving and serving on the Altar Guild. You may have heard that Bobbi Villanuava died this week after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She loved serving on the Altar Guild and she loved serving with Betty Williams. So did Eleanor Kernaghan, whom you may remember died several years ago. So, in fact, did we all. We all miss Betty terribly.
Now, Bobbi and Eleanor were very different than Nathalie or Ruth or Betty but every single one of those women were prodigal in their love of God and their service on the Altar of this church. So are the women – and the one man – who presently serve on this Altar Guild.
In many ways, it is a foolish, lavishly wasteful ministry. Tending to starching and ironing purificators that will be used once and then need to be laundered again when a paper napkin might do just as well. Trying to discern the cruet for the wine from the cruet from the water. Enduring snide comments about the white communion wine. How do we know when to put out more wafers for consecration? How can you tell if the wine has been consecrated? And, however do we know the liturgical color of the day?
And, for what? Does anybody notice? Does anybody care? I can’t tell you if God cares – well, not about the minutia and the details. What I know is that God cares deeply and loves it when we love generously, lavishly, wasteful, because that’s exactly how God loves us. And you know, sometimes we don’t notice and sometimes, it seems that we don’t even care. And yet, God loves us anyway. Sometimes, even more.
I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect there’s a special place in heaven for former Altar Guild members. I suspect Ms. Pillsbury is there, sharing a laugh with Nathalie and Ruth and Betty, who are joined by Eleanor and, this week Bobbi. All the fair linens are starched to a fare-thee-well and all the silver and brass are polished to a wondrous gleam.
They are, I’m quite sure, admiring our newly renovated sacristy from above, where there’s a place for everything, and everything is FINALLY in its place. There are even places for things we didn’t know we needed to have a place for. I imagine Betty is looking down, shaking her head and saying, “Why couldn’t they have done that when I was around to enjoy it?”
We are, each one of us, prodigal sons and daughters of a most Prodigal God. For love – like vocation, as Gail Goodwin reminds us (and Jon reminded us last week) – makes more of you than you thought you could ever be. Nathalie and Rruth and Betty are now larger than life because of their prodigal love of a prodigal God made manifest in their vocation in the Altar Guild.
As St. Paul reminds us, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” And let the church say, “Amen”.