March 27: Good Enough – We often believe we are the problem

Scripture Reading (CEB) Luke 15:11-32

11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

Good Enough – We often believe we are the problem

Last week’s recap:  Growth takes time, effort and patience.  And God is interested in our growth – not in our striving for perfection.  For Jesus never surrounded himself with perfect people.  (Luke 15)All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (So) Jesus told them this parable:

Feeling footloose and frisky, a feather-brained fellow forced his fond father to fork over the family finances. He flew far to foreign fields and frittered his fortune feasting fabulously with faithless friends. Finally facing famine and fleeced by his fellows in folly, he found himself a feed-flinger in a filthy farmyard. Fairly famished he fain would have filled his frame with the foraged foods of the fodder fragments left by the filthy farmyard creatures.  ‘Fooey’, he said, ‘My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,’ the frazzled fugitive found feverishly, frankly facing facts. Frustrated by failure and filled with foreboding he forthwith fled to his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. ‘Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited family favor.’

The last time I preached on this foundational story of our faith, I focussed on the Father (now I can’t stop with the Fs!) for even though this story “only”[1] appears in the Gospel of Luke, it is so engrained in who we are – because it encapsulates God’s unconditional mercy and grace in response to our flawed humanity. 

At different times in our lives, in different relationships and situations, we have likely played every part of this story.  We have been the one to take a great risk, or made a mistake, and have to return seeking forgiveness after a time of self-analysis.  We have been the indignant, the self-righteous, heard the party going on without us and felt excluded.  And I pray too that we’ve all had the opportunity to extend grace and forgiveness and love in a way that was shocking to others in a demonstration that made others question what’s fair.  There’s power in seeing how this story can mean different things to different people at different stages of their lives. 

Today, I want to focus on the son who takes a risk.  This passage is featured in Lent because of the “repentance” of the son – recognizing that he lost his way, and highlighting the grace of God to accept all those who tuck their tail and return.  It’s the perfect Lenten altar call – get right with God, because you never know when it’s too late!  But it’s more than that – it’s more about the growth we all take in growing past our mistakes.  For we never come to the truth by doing things right.  We never make our way by doing it perfect the first time, we don’t learn that way.  It’s only by doing things wrong that we transform our pain of failure into learning and growth.  That oft-maligned son took a risk, in order to explore himself and his world – not unlike the Rumspringa[2] that plays a part of some Amish communities, where the youth are encouraged to go off and explore the world, before choosing to return to their community and their faith.  This younger son is on that same path.

Timothy Keller (in his book The Prodigal God) points out that…the younger son pursues “self-discovery”—he’s on a quest to find and fulfill himself, even if a few people have to get hurt along the way.[3]

The son’s hurt is obvious after he finds himself no better than the workers at home, but we don’t hear of the father’s hurt until the end of the story.  Reading from the end: ‘this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ I imagine the anguish that this family endured, both as a parent now, and remembering those times as a teenager when I pushed away from my family.  Leaving the nest is never easy.  Some are never able.  Some do it in dramatic, destructive ways like this younger son.  But we all have to discover who we are created to be, apart from our family of origin.  In that time of pushing away is when we discover responsibility, for ourselves, and for our mistakes, it’s when we risk and grow. 

The younger son was not happy with the inheritance of identity that the elder son seemingly was.  The younger son might have been as dutiful as the elder, but awoke one day to realize that he didn’t want to be a farmer all his life, or he certainly didn’t want to be told whom he was supposed to be, and instead wanted to discern God’s call.  See, if we attach modern sensibilities to this story it doesn’t seem as reckless.  When we send kids off to university, or college, or even out into the world, they do so with their own inheritance, their own safety net of love, to explore what God has planned for them.  We encourage them to risk, knowing that the phone call is going to come for either more money, or mistakes made, or what have you.  Some risk and succeed.  Others risk and fail.  But when did failure become a bad word? 

I promised we’d talk about perfectionism today, because I think it’s one of the insidious parts of our human psyche that thrives in places like social media and the church.  This story of this family is not one of perfection.  None of this family are perfect.  The young son squanders what he has.  The elder son is jealous, wishing he thought of asking for his inheritance first.  And the father throws a party and sets the table and starts the music before realizing that the elder son is in the field toiling away.  AND WHERE IS THE MOTHER?!  You know that father got a talking to both when the younger was allowed to leave, and the favouritism shown to him upon his return.  Assuming the mother was present, she’d have to go around and behind the father to clean up that whole emotional mess.  As one commentator said this is a highly dysfunctional family…or…it kinda sounds like my family? And yours?  A family that struggles to do right by one another, that takes risks that lead to failure, extends grace when someone messes up.  Embraces forgiveness even before repentance.  That’s what it is to be family.  That’s what it means to be church.  So when did failure become a bad word?

Brené Brown, writer and research professor focussing on the intersection of shame and perfectionism says that

Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought:  If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.[4]

This sounds almost elder brother-ish…but she goes on:

Perfectionism is addictive because [when we fail] when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough.  So rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look, and do everything just right.

I remember a time that I was to attend an ecumenical service in a town in which I was ministering.  I was late (quelle surprise!) and as I hastily parked, I noticed a colleague of mine in the parking lot.  Wonderful, I thought, because if I’m late with them, then we’re no longer late.  Faulty logic, but it brought me comfort at the time.  As I ran closer to them, they quickly whipped around and turned their back, this even after our eyes had met and the moment of recognition set in.  It’s as if the younger son had come running to his father, only for the father to turn his back.  As I got closer, I noticed why: in their hand, down by their side was a lit cigarette.  We all know the dangers of smoking, the problems with addiction, the struggles of giving that up, and I for one am not going to pretend that there are no vices I struggle with.  But this person in that moment felt shame, judgment, and blame.  These feelings didn’t come from me – I didn’t give them a dirty look or a wagging finger – it was from themselves.  They became the younger son, and I the father, as they stuttered and stammered their way through an explanation that I didn’t need nor care to receive, because it didn’t matter.  I was just glad to see them.  I was glad to not be alone.  They stomped the ground putting the cigarette out and we went inside.  We heard the gospel story of forgiveness and love.  No one was excluded because of perceived sins. 

The power in this story is that no one is excluded.  The father is not kicked out of the house for letting the son run away, the younger son is not maligned because of risks and mistakes, the elder son is not chastised for self-righteous indignation at a perceived slight.  At the end of it all – all are welcome at the party. 

That’s the real story of the grace of God.  It’s not fair.  People don’t get what they deserve.  The younger son isn’t made to pay back his inheritance (at least in the part of the story we hear).  The elder son isn’t truly left alone because even over the music and the dancing of the party, the father comes to seek him too.  And the father, and the mother, and anyone else in that house is invited to share in this grace-filled divine experience of the lost being found.  For there’s no fairness in God.  No one gets what they deserve in this life – they get more.  More chances to risk.  More chances to grow.  More chances to experience God’s wide arms open to welcome us home, for we sing again and again of God’s Amazing Grace and not, Amazing Fairness…Thanks be to God. 

[1] One would argue it’s patterned off Old Testament stories, particularly that of Manasseh from 2 Chronicles 33:10-20



[4] Brown, Brené, The Gifts of Imperfection, p57


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