We all have places that are special for us. Where something special has happened, or where someone important is. I’ve never been one of those people who has held strong feeling for a home of the past. For me, ‘Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home,’ rings true. My home is special to me, but ‘home’ is where I live today. I love it and long for it when I’m away, but don’t yearn for any former place I’ve lived. However, that is not true for all, and in years gone by, when people’s families had a strong home base, going “home” meant a lot.
In the days when everyone worshipped in their nearest parish or “daughter church”, it was considered important for them to return to their home or “mother” church at least once a year. So each year in the middle of Lent, everyone would visit their “mother” church – the main church or Cathedral in the area.
As everyone made this return it became an occasion for family reunions when children who were working away from home returned. (It was quite common in those days for children to leave home to work in service from ten years of age.) So homecoming became important. And a joyous occasion. Coming home, seeing family you hadn’t seen for the past year, and celebrating. You can imagine the conversations that would have gone on. When seventeen of us met up for my mum’s 70th birthday there was a lot of catching up – new baby to see, new girl/boyfriends to meet, news of jobs and universities…
I wonder how the younger son in today’s gospel reading felt about his homecoming?? I would imagine at the very least apprehensive – not for him the joyful return home, but more a shamefaced realisation, that that is where he should be.
There are two stories I’ve come across, with very different responses to the homecoming of their children:
One is of a soldier returning from war, phoning his parents to ‘test the water’. Mum and Dad, I’m coming home, but I’ve a favour to ask. I have a friend I’d like to bring home with me.”
“Of course,” they replied. “We’d love to meet him.”
“There’s something you should know,” the son continued. “He was hurt pretty badly in the fighting. He stepped on a land mine and lost an arm and a leg. He has nowhere else to go, and I want him to come live with us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, son. Maybe we can help him find somewhere to live.”
“No, Mum and Dad, I want him to live with us.”
“Son,” said the father, “you don’t know what you’re asking. Someone with such a handicap would be a terrible burden to us. We have our own lives to live, and we can’t let something like this interfere with our lives. I think you should just come on home and forget about this guy. He’ll find a way to live on his own.”
That soldier was their son. They let him down. When he needed to come home to a safe and protective haven, they couldn’t accept what he brought with him. He didn’t come home.
Thankfully, God doesn’t treat us that way. God welcomes us just as we are, however bruised and battered, however sad and dejected. God loves us with an unconditional love that welcomes us into his forever family, regardless of where we’ve been and what we’ve done.
He’s rather more like our second parent:
Maria’s husband had died when Christina was young. She got a job and set out to raise her young daughter. And now, fifteen years later, the worst years were over. Though Maria’s salary as a maid afforded few luxuries, it was reliable and it did provide food and clothes. And now, Christina was old enough to get a job to help out.
Some said Christina got her independence from her mother. She recoiled at the traditional idea of marrying young and raising a family. She spoke often of going to the city. She dreamed of trading her dusty neighbourhood for exciting city life. Just the thought of this horrified her mother. Maria was always quick to remind Christina of the harshness of the city. “People don’t know you there. Jobs are scarce and the life is cruel.”
Her heart broke when she awoke one morning to find her daughter’s bed empty. Maria knew immediately where her daughter had gone. She also knew immediately what she must do to find her. She quickly threw some clothes in a bag, gathered up all her money and ran out of the house.
On her way to the bus stopped for one last thing. Pictures. She sat in the photo booth, closed the curtain, and spent all she could on pictures of herself. With her purse full of small black and white photos, she boarded the next bus to the city.
Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money. She also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to give up – and that when pride meets hunger, a human will do things that were before unthinkable. Knowing this, Maria began her search. Bars, hotels, nightclubs, any place she could think of. She went to them all. And at each place she left her picture—taped to a hotel notice board, fastened in a phone box…. And on the back of each photo, she wrote a note.
It wasn’t too long before both the money and the pictures ran out, and Maria had to go home. She wept as the bus began its long journey back to her small village.
It was a few weeks later that young Christina came down the hotel stairs. Her face was tired. Her brown eyes no longer danced with youth but spoke of pain and fear. Her laughter was broken. Her dream had become a nightmare. Yet the little village was, in many ways, too far away.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her eyes noticed a familiar face. She looked again, and there on the lobby mirror was a small picture of her mother. Christina’s eyes burned and her throat tightened as she walked across the room and removed the small photo. Written on the back was this compelling invitation: “Whatever you have done, whatever you have become, it doesn’t matter. Please come home.”
The forgiving Father, the ever-loving mother, welcome their children, as wandering and troublesome as they have been, home, back to their safety. Whatever they have done, they are still loved, accepted and welcome. How we all need those places. Places we can return to and know we are safe and welcome.
God forever offers that to us. A place of security, a place of peace, a place of healing ad restoring. Whatever our personal life experiences have been – and for some of us they will have been wonderful and for others of us very difficult – the one we can always return to is God. In his eyes we are good enough, we are forgiven our misdemeanours, they are not constantly thrown back at us to keep us reigned in, we are free to be what and who we are – that is what Jesus won for us on the cross, and gives to us each day.
Homecoming may or may not have a powerful pull for us, but however nostalgic we feel about special places, we can make where we are today special – and we can make it special for other people, who may have no-one else to do it for them. God is in this place. You and I are here. Let’s celebrate that together. Rejoice with one another that we are here, that God loves us and accepts us and share that love and acceptance in our life together.
For Ruth – going “home” was to a place that wasn’t her home, but became home because of the special relationship she had with the woman whose home it was. People too make places special. For me that is what makes “home” – where the people special to me are.
And so Ruth goes, not to the place of her ancestors, but to the place of her dead husbands family.
She pledges herself to her mother-in-law – and the God of her mother-in-law – the Lord. Whatever her past was, her future is now with this woman, and with God – forever. Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is total, she makes that her home – where the special person in her life is now.
Today is celebrated as Mothering Sunday. As far as the 1600s children, mainly daughters, in domestic service, were given a day off to go home and visit their mother and family. We all have people who are special to us, who have shared our life in many ways. It is good to celebrate them, to remember those who are no longer with us, to thank those who are. Special people – who has been special to you – nurtured you, stood by you, waited for you? And to thank God for those special people in our lives today.
An opportunity to give thanks for those who do work for us and support us – who today can we say ‘thank you’ to? Who has rescued you, or welcomed you at just the right moment. Who has given you a place in their heart, and let you know how special you are? …And lets not just leave it for today, lets think everyday who we can thank.
And as we do so let’s remember that YOU ARE SPECIAL. As we think again of the prodigal son and his forgiving Father, lets celebrate that to God we are all special – his welcome awaits us. The joy of homecoming, the unconditional love of God is available to us all.
Whether we have been a perfect family member or not. Whether we are all alone in this world or surrounded by people who care for us. Whether today is a day of acute sadness and longing, or joy and celebration. We are all special to the God who rejoices at our coming to him. Who stands, peering over the horizon for us. Who sweeps us off our feet and rejoices at our presence with him. Who throws a feast in our honour.
Lets celebrate that God, allow him to love us. Celebrate his presence with us day by day, and give our thanks and praise for all we have to enjoy.