After the harsh, blistering heat of August, September temperatures have begun gently dropping like a painted maple leaf riding down the spiral staircase of gravity to a thickening shag carpet of fall color. This summer’s August swelter tilted our household’s attention toward the demands of our air conditioner. No sacrifice was too great to assist our little Freon-fueled Engine That Could. In the process of providing support and encouragement to our cooling system, the forlorn voice of our oven was summarily ignored. Not even seductive invitations to create blackberry or apricot pie could persuade me to feed the hungry, cooled chamber of our lonely, unemployed oven.
With the drop in temperatures this week, came a shift in the balance of power between the appliances of our house. This Saturday I made my weekly trip to the local fruit and vegetable stand. Sitting in the discount box was a bag of eight, large, but blemished, Granny Smith Apples. In memory of my poor, sulking, cobwebbed oven, I haggled the vendor down to just ten cents for the whole bag. When I got home, I laid the gift out on the counter for my oven to see. At first, she pretended not to notice, paying me back for a summer’s worth of neglect. But gradually, a smile spread across her glass and chrome face. Soon the bubbling smell of apples, sugar, and cinnamon will puff through slits of pastry and infuse our house with the aromas of autumn in America.
While the apple pie rests, I plan on walking over to the oven, still basking in the 425 degree afterglow, to slide in two handmade loaves of risen dough. I am imagining the intertwined aromas of bread and pie dancing and harmonizing throughout the rooms and hallways of our house. Garden-fresh red and yellow tomatoes will be sliced and dusted with salt and pepper.
Knowing our love for food, from time-to-time a friend will treat us with a gift certificate to an upscale restaurant. On such occasions, we feel compelled to leave the solid shores of gastronomic familiarity and launch a culinary adventure. “Pine nut encrusted trout?” “Why not?” “Butterscotch Budino with Crème Fraiche?” “Don’t know what it is, but we’ve got a gift certificate! We’ll take two!” We love to go out to eat. The combination of exotic flavors, the change in scenery, and (most important of all) the disappearing dishes make it a rare, but favorite activity.
It must have been my taste for something exotic that led to my initial reaction to this Sunday’s Gospel selection (Luke 15: 1-32). Like a child in front of a plate full of vegetables, I found myself thinking, “The Prodigal Son Story? Not this same old thing again! Didn’t we just have this reading?” And then I pulled my chair up to it and discovered that this reading and a piece of September apple pie have a lot in common.
It seems to me that the spring and the summer are seasons for adventure and sometimes misadventure. In the springtime, chemicals surge through the nervous systems of animals (including humans) that can cause them to propagate their species, but can also cause them to tragically cross the highway. Spring and summer are the seasons when distant shores beckon. Families plan vacations. Students visit youth hostels. Middle-aged summer athletes attempt to roll the clock back in summer leagues. Anything seems possible in May or June. September has a way of tethering us back home to what grounds and nourishes us.
The characteristics found in this Sunday’s Gospel have a way of tethering us to what matters. The elements of this story are as familiar to a Christian as a piece of apple pie in the fall. Here in September, we return again, like the son in this reading to where our bread is buttered. The realities described in this passage represent signature characteristics of a Christian. The need for frequently practiced non-defensive humility, like the son in this story, is as essential to the Christian life as cinnamon is for an apple pie. We Christians recognize the unconditional, steadfast, crazy love of the father in this story as the source and summit of all that we are and hope to be. With a knowing smile, we also recognize a kinship with the envious older son. He is the mirror image of the self-important, possessive ego within each of us. He is the ever-present part of the self that we have to acknowledge, but keep out of the driver’s seat of our soul.
This Sunday, I will savor a warm piece of apple pie. In anticipation of this yearly event, it occurs to me that no five-star restaurant has ever created anything more delicious and satisfying than a good honest piece of homemade apple pie. No Iron Chef could successfully compete with the deep satisfaction of a crusty piece of homemade bread and butter. In her whole life, Julia Childs never created anything so succulent as a tomato plucked fresh from a waning, Midwestern, September garden.
It seems to me that the repetitious “Prodigal Son” Gospel reminds us this week that September is a good month to return home to those familiar essentials that really satisfy the soul.