Scripture Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
“But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'
"Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’"
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Thoughts about an Imperfect Life and Faith
I am my own harshest critic. Tell me I’ve done a good job on something, I’ll come back with five ways I could have done it better.
This was exacerbated back in the days when I performed music more regularly - either with the concert band or in recitals and smaller ensembles -- even in choral groups.
When I work on a piece of music for performance - particularly when it’s a solo flute piece - I know it inside and out. I know the spots that I don’t have to think twice about, I know the places that trip me up, the spots where my pitch tends to slide, the runs that my fingers move by muscle memory, the phrases that need some extra breath support (and even the places where I can sneak an extra breath or two in case I run out of air early). I know how it’s supposed to sound and I know how hard I’ve worked on it - and it’s rare that I’m completely happy with how I’ve performed it in front of an audience -- even if no one else can tell where I tripped up or where it wasn’t up to my standard.
I quickly learned to say “thank you” and move on, while keeping my criticisms to myself - but it’s taken even longer for me to say “thank you” and not beat myself up over what didn’t go right or according to my plan or expectations.
The story we heard from scripture is a familiar one to most of us - and I love how in some other cultures, this story is known as “The Lost Son” as opposed to “the Prodigal Son” because it invites us to consider which one of the two was really “lost” -- perhaps both were.
In any case, the lens we’re going to use this morning might be a different take than the one most of us are familiar with. We’re more used to looking at the characters and finding yourself - are you the father who declares his son worthy, or the resentful brother, or the wandering son, or the absent mother, or the onlookers who watch this man spiral out from afar - or maybe even one of the people at the party, witnessing this joyful reunion.
This week, as we think about our “Good Enough” theme - we’re going to march right in to some places we as humans like to avoid as much as possible: fear and judgment.
So fun, right?
In the discussion group for sermon-writers with this series, there were some thoughts that laid the groundwork for this view - first the idea that the fear here is the fear of doing anything that might damage our ability to live fully, thus paralyzing ourselves from doing anything.
And judgment is about the judgment against ourselves that we are the cause for all of the problems. In other words, beating ourselves up when it doesn’t go to plan, thinking that we are the sole determining force behind our circumstances, especially when things go awry.
Now, this isn’t about not facing the consequences of our actions - or believing that we should go through life thinking that everything that happens to us isn’t our fault….because we do mess up and make mistakes and have to live with the ripple effect of our actions.
The difference here, though, is around judging ourselves as being unlovable and unworthy because we make mistakes or make unwise choices.
First of all, we usually consider fear to be a negative thing, right? We don’t want to go there - fear tells us that something is dangerous and unsafe (either physically or emotionally) and that we must eliminate the threat by running away or fighting it. I was listening this week to Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens podcast, where she talks with Hillary McBride, who is a therapist and researcher specializing in spirituality and trauma. She talks about fear and how we as humans live with it. She shares that the brain developed as a body survival organ - not the other way around. And that it’s important for us to change the narrative about fear so that we can give ourselves permission to go toward it so that we can have a different relationship with it. Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, like swallowing or digestion. We can’t get rid of it. But when we can make friends with it, we can get curious and do things differently in a way that is not controlling us (as people desperate to get away from it, because let’s face it, most of us try to distance ourselves from uncomfortable emotions).
In the story here, it’s the Prodigal Son going towards his fear - dealing with the consequences of his actions he thought he might receive from his father - that turns out to be a blessing. He works through it and comes to a place where he’s reconciled himself to however things turn out. He doesn’t fight it…he doesn’t run away from it…but engages it and makes the choice to come home to dad. So often our fear can prevent us from fully engaging in the things that we need to address within our families, our friendships, our schools, our workplaces, the organizations we are a part of - even our churches! If there’s something that is causing us fear - we have to sit with what that is, be curious about it, engage it reflectively - and proceed. Because we’re never going to be healthier and more whole human beings if we don’t move toward our fears in a productive way -- and the same is true for any group of people.
But there’s also a lot of judgment in this story -- and not from the father…not even really from the older brother, though he’s clearly resentful. The judgment here comes from the Prodigal Son himself. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
I am no longer worthy.
Now, certainly the younger son here made some bad money decisions, and some morally questionable ones as well. There was nothing to fall back on when the famine hit. But he was also willing to work, and hired himself out to make ends meet…in the midst of a society where he could work for a whole day and still not have enough to live on. So there were clearly forces beyond his control that contributed to him looking enviously at the scraps the pigs were eating.
What these confluence of events leads to, however, is him confronting his own sense of identity - his own worthiness and belovedness. The situation he finds himself in - which is partly his fault and partly that of his circumstances - leads himself to believe that he is unworthy of a relationship with his father - to be a person not deserving of his place in the family. He doesn’t measure up to the standard anymore because he’s hungry and alone and things didn’t go as he had planned. He believes himself to be a bad person…rather than a person who may have made some bad choices.
The father, of course, proclaims him loved, wanted, valued, and worthy.
Exploring the story through the lenses of fear and judgment made me think a bit about a quote from Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, she writes:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” (p 56)
Perfectionism is really about fear - fear that we aren’t worthy unless we try to measure up to impossible standards. When we fail to meet those standards, as we inevitably do, it serves as proof that we’re really not worthy or loveable or valued. We wrap our identities up in what we produce or what we do - thinking that if others love the gift we gave, or admire the job we did, or compliment our actions -- then they are affirming our worth. All the while, we judge ourselves internally for not doing enough, not being enough, not living up to whatever image of a perfect life we dream of.
What I see in this story is that God cuts through all of that. The father doesn’t care about the stuff his younger son lost - or even the stuff his older son resented never really enjoying. The father wants - and restores - relationship. Love. God sees through the words we hurl at ourselves for not being enough. God holds the fear that paralyzes us from going forward. God steps in and says it’s not about what we do or don’t do that impacts God’s stance towards us - it is always love and God always deems us worthy. It is only through that grace that those wounds we carry are able to heal - the judgment silenced, the fear acknowledged, the sin forgiven.
The voices of fear and judgment run through our lives so strongly. But the truth of it is that we are worthy of God’s love just as we are, no matter what we’ve done - or not done. Fear can hold us back from embracing this because we believe we have to measure up to some impossible standard - and judgment keeps us there because we end up believing we’re somehow the problem when we can’t attain those unreachable goals. But the invitation here is that everyone is invited to the party. Everyone is good enough just as they are. There is no standard to reach - just a willingness to return home to that source of great love. It’s not about perfection - but about resting in a relationship that surrounds us in grace and mercy each and every day….and about God meeting us in that place.
So this week, think about going toward your fear, wherever that may be….letting go of that inner critic…trusting that God surrounds you in love no matter what happens. Find the space to rely on that grace that proclaims you worthy and good enough - and that draws you deeper into that source of God’s great love - because God rushes to meet us no matter where we are. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.