Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538 - photo credit: wikipedia

Engraving of the Prodigal Son as a swineherd by Hans Sebald Beham, 1538 (photo credit: wikipedia.org)

If the parable of the younger son is a portrait of the beauty of a repentant heart and changed life, then the backstory (which turns out to be the main story) is the beauty of the father’s steadfast mercy and kindness…a father who is willing to shame himself by hiking up his robe to run outside the boundaries of his house and farm to go get his lost son. He’ll pursue the son to keep anyone from shaming the younger son or keeping the bread from him. Townspeople and older brothers (or the “bouncers of God’s grace” as I call them) would say, “Don’t you even dare come back here…you’ve disgraced your father’s name enough. No more of that!” The father doesn’t let that shaming happen but goes outside to beat the bouncers to his returning, repentant son. This son who while he was in the distant country remembered that at home, there is “bread and enough to spare,” even for those who see themselves as lowest on the totem pole.

"...bread and enough to spare..." (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

“…bread and enough to spare…” (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)

Behold the kindness that is meant to bring us home. Or, as St. Paul says: “God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life.” (Romans 2:4 CEB)

Last year saw perhaps the most poetic placement of Palm Sunday: it fell on April Fools’ Day. Remember? I remember it because it was the one opportunity I was given to preach on a Sunday morning at Nicholasville UMC in Kentucky. But even more so, I remember because of the irony of celebrating the fool in all of us on a day when the people in Jerusalem fell for the right person but had the wrong expectations of him. Or, as my friend Phil Tallon said it, “Today we celebrate Jesus saying April Fools to Israel’s militaristic messianic conceptions.”

Those are the thoughts that dwelt on my mind this morning as I stepped outside to burn the palm fronds used in last year’s Palm Sunday festivities at Liberty & Post Oak that were graciously handed down to me from my predecessor, Joey Reed.

Last year's palms = this year's ashes

Last year’s palms = this year’s ashes

Until last year, I wasn’t aware of the longstanding tradition of burning the previous year’s palm leaves to be imposed during the Ash Wednesday service of the following year. But when I discovered it, and found out I was being sent to Liberty & Post Oak, asking for these was one of the first things I did in my correspondence with Joey prior to moving here. Nicholasville had a practice where they had burnt sheets of paper from the previous year in a ceremony where the congregation was invited to write down their struggles, pains, sins, and so on, and nail them to the cross on Good Friday. There are a few good ways that can convey significant meaning for the community that practices these ceremonies and services.

I wanted this one, at least for this year, because of Palm Sunday’s alignment with April Fools’ Day last year. Each year on that day we cry aloud, “Hosanna in the highest!” But as the rest of that week unfolds, we discover anew that Jesus saves us in the highest only because he descended to the lowest…and that went even deeper than riding a donkey, which the crowds thought was humbling enough for a conquering deliverer. But like us, Jesus too went to the dust and tasted death with us. “…and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” as St. Paul would later write.

Many of my friends are aware that I am a fan of the musical band Mumford & Sons. They released an album in 2012 called ‘Babel,’ which won the Album of the Year on the Grammy Awards. Upon my first couple of times listening through the album, I was drawn toward the song ‘Lovers’ Eyes,’ unsure of what story or concepts were behind his writing of the lyrics. But after listening and reading through the lyrics a few times, he is telling a powerful story reflecting on the past and even expresses a repentant spirit when he writes, “Should you shake my ash to the wind, Lord forget all of my sins; well, let me die where I lie.” Those lyrics have played over and over in my mind as I’ve prepared for this Ash Wednesday, dwelling upon the themes of forgiveness, repentance, self-denial, and death, which will continue to play all throughout this Lenten season.

Lord, forget and forgive all of my sins, including those of false presumptions thinking I knew better than you how you should save the world (and me). I will “Remember that [I am] dust and to dust [I] shall return.”