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Mothering Sunday and Coming Home: A Sermon for the Baptism of Henry Casterline

Today is Laetere Sunday, the fourth Sunday (and midpoint) of Lent. Laetere means “lightening.” It’s traditionally been a day of reprieve from your fastidiously observed Lenten disciplines. The lighter vestments that I’m wearing are symbolic of the tone of today. The readings, you’ve noticed, are a lot brighter and more hopeful than last Sunday’s.

In England, this day is known by another name, as well: Mothering Sunday, not to be confused with our Mother’s Day. On Mothering Sunday, people who had left their hometowns for work (household servants, factory workers) were permitted by their employers to return to their homes for the weekend. This was before labor laws gave people regular, weekly time off. Once home, the custom was to attend your “Mother Church,” the church you’d grown up in.

Here at St. James we’re also baptizing a new member of the faith, Henry Hudson Casterline. And it’s fitting that it’s on Mothering Sunday – not only because it’s a more celebratory day in Lent, but also because Henry’s mother, Regina, actually grew up here at St. James. So, here you are in your Mother Church, the church you were baptized in. Dorothy Heyl, Regina’s mother and Henry’s grandmother, was also baptized here. She and her husband, Tom (Regina’s dad), have been active members for many years. Dorothy sings up here in the choir. So, three generations, all connected to St. James and here under one roof this morning. This is really special.

You have today for little Henry’s baptism what is without question one of the best Gospel readings one could have, the parable of the Prodigal Son. It comes from the Gospel of Luke and has been called the “Paragon of Parables.” Like the best of them, No matter how many times we’ve heard or read it, it can seem both familiar and strange. “There was a man who had two sons,” it begins. The younger son asks for his inheritance early, and then travels with it to a distant country where he squanders it all. To ask for an inheritance early was as good as rejecting one’s father; the Old Testament commands its followers never to pass on or ask for inheritance before the death of the one granting it. So he was defying that rule and, in so doing, also the fifth commandment to honor your father and mother.

After that money is spent, the land is swept by famine, and the youngest son is forced to seek work taking care of someone’s pigs. There are of course details here a Jewish audience might appreciate more than we do – the early ask of the inheritance and, here, the offense of having to care for pigs, ritually unclean animals in the Jewish faith. This, then, is a very dramatic fall for this once privileged son, and it’s in this, his lowest state (as happens) that things begin to change: our translation says he got up and “came to himself.” Another that he “started to think straight,” and still another, more simply, he “repented.” To “come to oneself” is a nice translation, implying that who we really are is what we are at our best, not our worst. That’s the benefit of the doubt the Christian tradition always gives us.

The Prodigal returns home, apologizes for what he’s done, and is greeted with open arms by his father, who spares no expense in welcoming him back: kill the fatted calf, find the best robe (this might remind some of the Old Testament story of Joseph, whose doting father Jacob gifted his son a gorgeous robe, token of his dad’s favoritism).

At this point in the parable, all is well, only there’s another son. As the feast for the youngest son is taking place, the eldest son returns from a day’s work in the fields, finds out that his father has killed the fatted calf for his returned, wayward brother, and he becomes angry and resentful. The father assures him that his love for both brothers is the same, unconditional and unwavering, then pleads with him to join the festivities.  We never find out if he does.We may see ourselves in one or both of these brothers, probably depends on when we hear it and what we’re going through at that time. Someone in Bible Study last Wednesday surprised us by likening herself to the father in the parable, forgiving to a fault and easily taken advantage of (to which several people with older children then chimed in in agreement). Many of us saw ourselves in the older brother, dutiful Scarsdalians that we are. A few related to the Prodigal, or could recount moments in life when we felt this way. All these characters describe a little bit of us at different times. That’s why it’s so powerful and enduring a parable.

But today, on this Mothering Sunday and a day we’re baptizing a new child into the faith, I see this as a story about home; having a place to come home to; having a place that will always take us in no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done. In our faith, that place is here, God’s house, the church. That’s why, after Henry is baptized, we will all together as a congregation say these words: “We receive you into the household of God.”When we baptize our children, we’re giving them something more than even the best parents can provide. For one, a physical space that doesn’t change. We move, we change homes. Physical spaces and all the memories they contain may come and go from our lives. But the churches we grow up in don’t. They stay in the family. Their doors are always open to us.

When we baptize our children into the church, we’re giving them a place that will always take them back, wherever they’ve been, whatever they’ve done. We say that about our own homes, but families aren’t perfect; familial love not without limits. When our children wander off, there may be (much as we don’t like to admit this) limits to what we can take back. Things we can’t accept. Times we may even have to close the door, or delay forgiveness. But not here, in God’s house.

The father in this parable, welcoming home the son with open arms unconditionally sometimes exceeds the abilities of human love. But even if we can’t always give it ourselves, we promise our children this love when we introduce them into God’s house, the church. God can be what we can’t be. God’s household is our true and lasting home. And the one to which we can always, all of us, no matter what, return. Amen.