Sermon preached by Fr. Nicholas Livingston on Sunday, February 28, 2021
There’s a saying in self-help programs that encourages people to evaluate their choices and set goals, and it goes like this: “We get what we think we deserve”. We get what we think we deserve. Many times we think we get what we deserve, that is to say there is a 1:1 relationship between receiving the reward for our deeds. But this phrase’s addition of “think” alters it a bit. It places the perception of what we deserve in our own hands. We are the masters of our own destiny.
The concept of getting what we think we deserve is fairly simple: aim big, get big; want good things and you'll have the motivation to get good things. But there’s a problem with this mindset: what if the things we think we deserve are less than what we actually deserve? What if we set our expectations so low that we never reach our full potential, or never realize how accessible goodness and fulfillment and belonging are? That we never realize how deeply God loves us, and knows us, even from our mother’s womb?
The truth is, we’ve been blocked from the simple, transformative message that we are worthy of goodness. Too many people have been told their whole lives that all they should expect and hope for is work and struggle and exhaustion and emotional scarcity, that they are inherently evil and need to work harder to overcome the badness inside them. Brothers and sisters, this is not the truth. God created you and saw that you were good. God created the world and saw that it was good. Goodness is baked into the fabric of our existence, but often we don’t lift up our eyes high enough to see it.
In today’s Gospel Reading we hear the story of the Prodigal Son. He, being the youngest of two sons, thought he deserved independence and separation from his father and family responsibility. He went to the father, asked for his inheritance, and received it. He got what he thought he deserved.
But as we know, this son went his merry way, partying, gambling, destroying his life and very soul, until one day, sitting in the middle of farm animals, he realized something. He said to himself, “I don’t deserve this”. He didn’t say that to mean that he was blaming anyone else for his actions, but that he finally realized (he came to himself) and realized that he was worthy of a better life, full of peace, patience, joy, kindness, goodness, and belonging. So he gathered the courage to return home and ask his father for forgiveness.
This story is so beautiful and comforting. One image I’ve found extremely helpful in understanding this parable is the 90’s Disney movie “The Lion King”. Simba is a young lion who has left his community after being lied to and lives into adulthood full of laziness, stuck in need, with no purpose, or goal, or direction. He comes to realize that he is missing something in his life, that he was destined and deserved something more, something better, but he struggles to accept the responsibility of going home and facing a difficult reconciliation. This comes to a climax when Simba has a vision of his deceased father Mufasa and has this beautiful exchange:
Mufasa says, “Remember who you are. You are more than what you have become.” He reminds Simba that he is not only important, but that he has a place at his home, and deserves a life of meaning and belonging. Simba does not have to live the way he has been, full of need, uncertainty, and unfulfillment. In addition to reassuring him, Mufasa also challenges Simba to remember that he’s destined for greatness and up until that point had not reached it. “You are more than what you have become” is less of a condemnation, and more of an inspiration for a goodness that he can share in. Simba replies, “how can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.” I’ve lived my life, I’ve changed, I’ve lost my way. I’ve lost my right to these blessings you’re talking about and I don’t deserve them. And Mufasa replies with this beautiful phrase, “Remember who you are. You are my son.” You are not identified by your choices, or your need, or your own self pity; your identity is in your relationship to me. You are my son and I love you. It doesn’t matter who you think you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve done; you are my son, my beloved child who deserves so much more than you’ve resigned yourself to. Simba then remembers and feels his inherent value and goodness, and returns to accomplish what he needs to do.
You can see the parallels. We are the Prodigal, we are Simba. We live our lives and make all kinds of choices. But no matter where those choices took us, or whatever way we’ve rejected the gift of sonship to God, we will always have a home and a place with God. You get what you think you deserve. What do we think we deserve? Do we deserve pain, struggle, hunger, emotional barrenness? Or do we realize that we are worthy of a seat at God’s table? We must come to ourselves, we have to realize our worthiness of love and belonging. Yes, part of the process requires us to acknowledge our choices, our actions, and our rejection, but then, immediately, let it go. We come to Christ and lay at his feet our fears, our sorrow, our regret, and He lifts our burden, clothes us with the garments of sonship, and welcomes us into the Heavenly Banquet.
You are more than what you have become. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done until now, but beginning today, we commit ourselves and our whole lives to Christ our God.