A sermon based on Luke-15:1-3;11b-32-3
March 27, 2022
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ from God our Father.
Let us pray.
God of embrace, you free us from ourselves. You open a path to celebration. Turn us always to you and from you to our neighbor in service and in love. Amen. (Dirk Lange – Luther Seminary)
I’m a counter. I like to count things. I’ve been counting things from the time I understood the concept of numbers. Presents under the tree, the number of French fries and – woe is me – the number of Brussel sprouts on my plate; marks on the chalkboard; the straight A’s my parents paid me for; the number of books I have read, miles run, peaks climbed, jobs done, calories consumed, Scrabble games won… For some reason I have this innate need to measure myself against the world.
I grew up in an old-school Scandinavian family – before the Hygge lifestyle was the way to happiness. Love was never questioned in my family, but esteem and approval were hard to come by. Praise was rare and hard won. I did well in most things – even great sometimes – but I could always do better. At least that is how I interpreted my parents’ absent expression of pride. Mom and Dad were afraid that praise might go to our heads and my brother and I might think too highly of ourselves. Thankfully, both of my parents softened in their stern parental roles as we grew into adulthood and they shared their true feelings of love and pride in my brother and I, but the seeds of unworthiness and hunger for approval were planted. I am a perfectionist and still long for their approval after all these years.
Somewhere along the way, it became hard for me to trust that I am loved without having to first earn that love. That to deserve love I must be accomplished first. Therefore, in order to measure myself against the world, I count things and hope that if I just do more, do better, work harder, sacrifice more – that will count for something! Maybe I will be noticed and loved.
When I moved to the valley from the plains of Eastern MT almost 9 years ago, I immediately came down with the mountain bug. I went from traversing the flat prairies to climbing 10,000 ft peaks every weekend. I joined the Glacier Mountaineering Society and soon got wrapped up in the counting bug too – religiously recording miles logged on each hike with my GPS system because, as we all know, if it isn’t recorded the hike didn’t really happen. Soon we were comparing peaks bagged in a day and tallies of trails for the year. It became a competition to see who came out on top – and less of an adventure for the sheer joy of being in God’s creation. At some point I realized I was burned out – it stopped being fun. No matter how great my day on the mountain was – someone else always had a better one.
Now there is nothing wrong with competition. Competition is fun – and it drives us to better ourselves on many levels. We seek higher education, we practice more and refine our talents, we are rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment and sometimes even celebrated – with success and acclaim. For certain, we are a culture that glorifies winners- from sports to summits, poker to politics. But what about when it stops being fun – the counting, comparing, achieving and winning? When the divisions between winners and losers, the ones on top and the ones who are not, become walls – barriers to joy – barriers to trust- barriers to life – barriers to relationships and love? Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy.
There is a way of being in the world where everything becomes a competition. We measure everything we do against what others do so we can compare. We simply want to be – need to be – on top – be right. And it isn’t necessarily because we are spiteful or conniving – it’s not because we want to gloat over our accomplishments or make others feel less than – well most of us don’t anyway. It’s just that many of us believe that we simply are not enough. Not enough in the eyes of others and not enough in our own eyes. We want to be able to look in the mirror like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley and not just say but know that gosh darn it – my life matters and I am doing the right things – and people like me – and here’s the proof just in case.
In a world where identity is confirmed by likes and followers, proclamation and protest – so many people long for approval – a good word that affirms our place in the world – that we are doing good – that on any given day the work we do is appreciated – that we are seen and not taken for granted.
When we aren’t – when we feel unseen, unheard, taken for granted, we build walls of defense and division and search for something that shows “I did that” and they didn’t; or “I am right” and they are wrong. Meanwhile inside those walls – all we see is what we didn’t do, where we went wrong, how badly we failed, and how left out we are.
Today’s Gospel lesson continues our Lenten journey of repentance and what that really entails. As I ventured into this well-known parable of the prodigal at first glance, I found it to be a simple story of repentance and forgiveness, what was lost is found; as the fiery preachers of old would exhort – it’s never too late to get up and repent and return to God. God will welcome you – as long as you follow the rules.
We find Jesus responding to his critics, namely the bishops and priests, pastors and deacons of the day – someone like me for instance – who are striving to follow the rules and follow God’s law – and as such they have a problem with Jesus coloring outside their carefully established boundary lines of righteousness – by liberally welcoming and eating with tax collectors, rule-breakers, and the like.
Jesus tells the religious leaders a story about a man who had two sons. His youngest son turns out to be dishonorable, selfish, and impudent. He has disgraced his father first by asking for and then receiving his inheritance before his father has died, then gambles it all away, brings shame to the family name, and loses every ounce of respect and everything he relied on to be somebody. He finds himself hungry – very hungry. Hungry for the good life he once had in his father’s house. He turns to his best form of defense. He devises a plan to win himself back into his father’s good graces and sets off for home. He knows what he wants but he doesn’t expect what awaits him – an exuberant father over the moon happy to see him! After all the wrong the young man has done the father thinks nothing of it! The father runs out to greet his wayward son – before he even has a chance to execute his plan. Not only is he welcomed home, but he is also celebrated with the party of the year!
This made my perfectionist-rule following ears perk up. Like the young son, despite and maybe because of all my efforts to do and be right, I have been and at times still am demanding, selfish and self-centered. I have made mistakes that hang over me like a black cloud. I have found myself in a pigsty of my own making – ashamed and afraid and hungry for anything but my current life. I’ve been raised to and want to believe that I can pull myself up by the bootstraps and make things right and so I like the idea that I have some say in how God feels about me. If I can finally win approval and love by simply repenting – I can choose to do that – right? And look at the celebration I’ll receive!
BUT the story doesn’t end there! We have the older son to contend with – the one who stayed. He has built a life of stability and honor through hard work and living right. And yet he does not seem very happy. Nor does he seem secure. He seems to be very alone in the world – as if he has intentionally separated himself from the others. In my mind, he has every “right” to be resentful even before his younger brother’s celebratory return. I recognize that sneaking resentment that creeps in when we find ourselves left out of the party and unnoticed by the world despite all we have done to make our lives matter. I want to shout right along with him – what about me? But like him I instead suffer in silence and keep being right all the while seething at the unfairness of the world, feeling completely unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. He is just as hungry and desperate as his brother – it’s just that his younger brother’s hunger is easier to see.
Look at everything we have done! Doesn’t any of that count?
It depends on whose game you want to win. If you are clamoring for a place in this world, if you are hungering for the kind of love derived from status – well maybe – maybe not. This world’s proclivity for belonging is fickle.
If a father’s love is like an inheritance – something that can be divided, invested, gained or lost. If a relationship is like that of a landowner to a hired hand where everything has to be earned – then those things should matter, should count in the grand scheme of things. The older brother should get credit for being good and the younger brother left to wallow in his own mess.
That is how the world works, right? Sadly, there are many families, relationships, and systems that operate this way. I am sure most of us have felt at some point in our lives like we had to earn someone’s love and approval and have worried that we could lose it all at any time by being a disappointment. I am also sure we have sat on the judgment side as well.
And that’s the problem we face when we forget, or worse, don’t even know whose child we really are. Whose child we have always been and always will be.
Jesus makes it clear – keeping count is fine for competition but has no place in love; no place in relationships of trust; and certainly, no place when it comes to God.
Jesus shows us a Prodigal Father who runs out to meet the wayward us the minute He spies us coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him. He dashes down the road in a way no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself and meets us where we are in the middle of our broken road Not only that, He doesn’t even give us a chance to sputter or explain or deny or repent but instead embraces and restores us immediately. This is disgraceful behavior but our Prodigal Father doesn’t care because He’s a parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs we have done but only celebrates extravagantly when we come into His arms.
And if that’s not enough, Our Prodigal Father goes on and does something any self-respecting individual would never do a second time when he leaves the celebration He is hosting to seek us out – even in our seething spite and raging resentment. He pleads with us to come into the party, to soften our hearts and change direction. Because before Our Prodigal Father is a Landowner, King, and Creator, He’s a Parent who loves His children more than anyone can measure.
Your value as a person and your place in the family cannot be measured by the sum total of your good graces, your wins and losses, your acclaim and defeat, your rightness and your sin. It cannot be measured, period!
We are not loved because we are always loveable, right, or “on top” of the leaderboard. We are loved because God is love. That is the only thing worth counting on.
We are so used to making things count, so used to keeping score and measuring up in this world, we feel we must hold something before God – something that we have done or not done – to tip the scales in our favor, to earn God’s grace, to earn God’s love. But God’s grace and God’s love don’t come with prerequisites. There are no scales, there is no contest, no reward for best disciple in this life.
Only the same extravagant party of abundant life and everlasting love our Prodigal father has been throwing for us from day one. The one where everyone is invited and everyone has a seat at the table. There is no need for counting because there will always be enough and you are always enough.
Ultimately, it is not about us and everything we do to define or prove ourselves, to matter. It is about a God who forgives us — and our neighbors — even before we repent. It’s about God’s generous grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from the ways of death and toward the Way of life1. A life that is both humble and grateful, with our hearts turned not inward but outward toward our neighbors, the community, and all of creation.
It is about God and God’s loving heart and you being God’s beloved child. It is about turning away from the old system of scorekeeping, counting, and judging and embracing our father’s unconditional, undeserved, unbelievable welcome into His immeasurable love. That’s a love you can count on.
Thanks be to God.