There are a few stories in the Bible that even those who do not attend church regularly – indeed, those who are not Christian – know, at least by title. The Prodigal Son is one of those.
I think that’s because stories about families strike a very familiar cord. If one is not like the ‘prodigal son’, one is like the elder brother. Or, we know brothers or sisters like this.
“Mom always liked you best.” Remember that? Tommy and Dickie Smothers built their stage act and then their entire career around the tension between siblings. I just learned that they are very much alive today. Tom is 84 and Dick is 81. They retired in 2010 but re-runs of their routine continue to draw knowing smiles and deep laughter.
I grew up knowing that I was my grandmother’s favorite. I knew it. Everyone in the family knew it. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I was her favorite as it was that we had a special relationship – a certain bond, a special connection – that was different from any of her many children or her many more grandchildren. Part of that was because until I was nine years old, I lived with my family in the apartment one floor above my grandparents, so I was with her most of the day, every day.
Everything I know about God
and Jesus and the Holy Spirit I learned from my grandmother. She used food,
primarily, to teach. There were special meals or desserts for most of the saints
which she borrowed liberally from other ethnicities.
She always made fig cookies and Zeppole for St. Joseph’s Day, and green sugar cookies for St. Patrick’s Day. She also made “the bread of the dead” for All Saints Day and sweet almond cookies for All Soul’s Day. And, of course, Lazarakia Bread for Lazarus Sunday. She always told the story of the saint which had a connection to the food she made in that saint’s honor.
Hearing the stories of the various saints was like hearing about family relatives who lived a long, long time ago. My grandmother wanted us to know about them so we'd know them when we got to heaven for that big family reunion in Life Eternal.
My favorite was Grasshopper
Pie for the Feast of St. John the Baptist (Grasshopper. Locust. Get it?). My
least favorite was St. Lawrence on August 10th. That’s when we learned to grille
chicken and beef and pork. Why? Because Lawrence was grilled to death. (I'm serious. Ewww, right?! It's a wonder I'm not a vegetarian.)
Of course, my grandmother always made Hot Cross Buns for Good Friday. My Grandmother said that when St. Benedict (July 11th) was served a poisoned roll by his enemies, he blessed it and a cross appeared on the top of the roll and he was saved. In the Middle Ages, monks would pass out rolls, with crosses cut into them, to the poor and starving that came to their door. (In case you’re wondering, they are supposed to be eaten on Good Friday without the gooey icing on top.)
My grandmother loved St. Hildegard of Bingen – even named her firstborn daughter after the saint - well, Hilda. She also made this wonderful confection for St. Hildegard which was a beautiful marriage of a crepe and a muffin.
They are known as Nun’s Puff’s, but my grandmother always said it in Portuguese, which was actually translated, indelicately, Nun’s . . . um . . . let's just say "gas". I mean, we are in church and it's an Episcopal church, for goodness sake, and we have a reputation to uphold for being polite.
Every year on her feast day (September 17th) I recall the mischievous look on my grandmother’s face when she would ask, “Do you know what day today is?” And I would answer, “It’s time for Hildegard’s NUN .... gas (I'm sure the reader has guessed 'farts')!”
Other kids got in trouble for saying that, even in Portuguese. Not me, because, you know, I was her favorite.
On the Saturday before the fourth Sunday in Lent, all of the grandchildren would gather to make a traditional Simnel Cake. My grandmother and I would put the raisins to soak in the brandy - homemade by my grandfather - before going to bed Friday night.
We would gather in her kitchen sometime on Saturday afternoon, after all the other Saturday chores had been done, including polishing our shoes and laundering our white gloves.
We would line up all the ingredients on the kitchen table - the older kids measuring the liquid ingredients, the younger ones allowed to measure the dry ingredients. One of us was assigned to greasing the pans, another - usually one of the boys - to chopping the walnuts (which we first had to crack - usually with a hammer - and get the meaty walnut out before chopping).
And I, only I, was allowed to sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into the batter. Because, you see, I was the oldest. And . . . well . . . you know . . . .
And my grandmother, only my grandmother, was allowed to pour in the hot applesauce. We all stood back when she did that, in a respectful silence which was tinged with a bit of awe saved only for sorcerers and magicians.
And, indeed, she did cook up laughter there in her kitchen. In the midst of the doldrums of Lent, she was making Bolos do riso - "Laughter Cakes".
Oh, but here's the special ingredient - the secret of "Laughter Cakes".
After every ingredient had been added and stirred, and before she poured the batter into the muffin tins or cake pans, she would gather us round the Very Large Mixing Bowl. And then, she would tell us not to worry. That Lent was a very sad time, but that soon, it would be Easter. Jesus would play a wonderful trick on Satan, and death would not kill him.
And, because death could no longer kill Jesus, death could no longer kill us. Because of Jesus, we would know eternal life in heaven where we would all someday be, once again.
She would tell us this and then say, "So, laugh, children. Laugh into the bowl. Laugh into the cake. Laugh at the Devil. He can't win. He can't ever win! Only Jesus can win. Only Jesus! Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!"
And, we would. Laugh. Loud. Right into the bowl. I swear people ten blocks away could hear us laugh. It was the best part of making - and eating - that cake. When you have a piece of Simnel Cake at Coffee Hour, see if you can taste the laughter.
The story of the prodigal son is a wonderful choice for Refreshment Sunday. We had a highly prodigal Coffee Hour last week and we’re having another again this week. Prodigal means being ‘wastefully extravagant’; ‘having or giving something on a lavish scale’. We apply that term to the son, but it seems to me that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. The father in the parable is pretty prodigal himself, isn’t he?
The parable is meant to
demonstrate to us the prodigal nature of God. God loves us lavishly. God’s love
for us is wastefully extravagant. Jesus is saying to us that nothing we can do
can separate us from the unconditional love of God.
The thing of it is, for me, is that the image of God is most clearly seen in the one who isn't in the story - the woman, the wife of the father and the mother to both sons.
For me, one of the most touching moments in the story comes when the father sees the son coming home and runs to meet him. God is always there. God is already there. God is always waiting for us to come home. God will always meet us more than halfway.
No matter who we are or who we think we are or who we think we want to be; no matter where we’ve been or where we think we’re going, God loves us unconditionally and is waiting to lift whatever burden is on our hearts.
I don’t know if you believe that. I don’t know if you can believe that. I don’t know if something is standing in your way – some old hurt, some deep pain, some resentment, something you’ve done that you’re ashamed of or would be humiliated if anyone ever found out.
None of that matters. Not any of that matters. Our God is a prodigal God.
In the midst of all of the tension in the world – the war raging in Ukraine, soaring gas prices, the continued, unending squabbles that have become the daily stuff of political life and all the normal, everyday tensions of this modern life – it’s important to take a moment and remember the unconditional love and absolute forgiveness which God has for each one of us.
So, maybe once this week,
when no one is looking or no one is around to hear you, try laughing into your
food. I'm serious. Give it a try.
Pour your morning cereal and laugh as the cornflakes land in the bowl. Laugh as you blown on the hot soup you’re having for lunch. And, laugh right into the bowl of potatoes as you mash them to have with your supper.
Laugh because you know that,
no matter how bad things get, God always has the final say.
Laugh because you know that Good Friday may be coming, but so is Easter. Laugh because Death does not have the final word.
Laugh because you know that our God is prodigal. God loves us extravagantly, lavishly, wastefully – so, as the psalmist says, Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30).
Laugh because even though you
may think you need to do more or be more, God knows that you are enough.
And, laugh because you know that you - only you - are God's favorite!