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Wholeheartedly – Worthy of Love

Date: 25/06/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Wholeheartedly Worthy of Love
Luke 15:11-32
25 June 2023

Prayer

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver whose love for us is beyond compare. Amen.

Happy Pink Dot weekend! A big thank you to those who came and those who served at your various booths or in various capacities. Thank you for showing up!

For me, I am committed to showing up at Pink Dot because I remember the first time I attended Pink Dot many years ago, and it was amazing to see the entire Hong Lim Park filled with people like me, and families/loved ones/allies who stand with the lgbtq+ community. I choose to continue showing up because there are many who may not have a supportive family or community, and Pink Dot is the one time in the year they get to experience what it’s like to belong to a community that embraces them for who they are. Of course, there are many other reasons why Pink Dot is still needed. The repeal of 377A is just the first step in our long journey towards equality. Equality in the workplace, educational space, housing, healthcare and media representation are still areas that could be improved on in Singapore.   

As the only lgbtq+ affirming church in Singapore currently, I believe it’s important for us to show up. The question of whether to attend Pink Dot is no longer so much for our personal benefit, but for those who need to see representation of a faith community, of a God who loves and embraces them wholeheartedly.

We are in the midst of our sermon series, Wholeheartedly, and this week and next week will be a two-parter that is interconnected.

Two-Parter

Wholeheartedly Worthy of Love

Wholeheartedly Authentic and Free

Do you believe wholeheartedly that you’re worthy of love?

Question 1 (Word Cloud)

What do you think makes someone worthy of love?

Do you think love has to be earned? Well, the world teaches us that love must be earned.

But Love in its purest form, in its original form, could never be earned or lost.

Today, I want to read you a story from the Gospels. It is probably a familiar story so I want to do it slightly differently. Instead of projecting the passage onto the screen for you to follow along, I want to read this to you and invite you to listen carefully and pick out a word or phrase that stands out to you. If it helps you to listen better and visualize the story, please feel free to close your eyes.

Read Luke 15:11-32

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother

11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two children. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the wealth that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. 13 A few days later the younger child gathered all he had and traveled to a distant region, and there he squandered his wealth in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that region, and he began to be in need. 

15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that region, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled his stomach[b] with the pods that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your child; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 

20 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. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child.’[c] 22 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. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, 24 for this child of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder child was in the field, and as he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your sibling has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 

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. 30 But when this child of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 

31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this sibling of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”

Question 2 (Word Cloud)

What word or phrase stood out to you?

There were three phrases that stood out to me when I was reading this passage of Scripture.

“I am no longer worthy to be called your child.” Luke 15:19

Filled with Compassion –

“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.” Luke 15:20

“Child, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” Luke 15:31

“I am no longer worthy to be called your child.”

When the younger child realized what he did was wrong, and came back and said to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your child” what thoughts or feelings did you have? Did you feel his statement was strange or did you agree with him? For me, I agreed with the younger son when he said he was unworthy. At least he realizes he is unworthy after the callous way he acted towards his own parent. That’s how someone like him should feel, right? He doesn’t deserve his parent’s love or forgiveness, and he certainly doesn’t deserve the lavish celebration his father threw on his return.

So I can understand why the elder sibling reacted the way he did. It all seems so unfair! Why treat such an ingrate so kindly and lovingly?

That’s what we have been taught by the world. Love has to be earned somehow. And we can become worthy or unworthy of love because of the way we act. In the same way, our notion of God’s love is based on the idea of it being earned. Subconsciously, we think we can become worthy or unworthy of God’s love based on our behaviour, or worse, based on who we are.

But we are wrong. The younger sibling got it wrong, and the elder sibling got it wrong too. We all tend tend to get this wrong because we often connect our worthiness with how hard we strive, and how well we perform.

Jesus told this parable because he wanted to challenge our mistaken notions about worthiness and show us what it really means to be loved by God. That God’s love cannot be earned or lost, no matter what we do or don’t do. Period.

Shame

We know this intellectually but this is hard for many of us to accept wholeheartedly because we live in a world that tells us we need to strive for love, seek approval or act in a certain way in order to be accepted. And we live in a shame-based society where people often try to shame others into good behavior. Have you experienced that before?

We all have experienced shame in one way or other. Among her many other titles, Brene Brown calls herself a shame researcher and she says shame is universal. It is one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience, and as long as we have the capacity for connection and empathy, we all have shame because shame is the fear of disconnection.

Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”

Have you experienced “shame” before? Basically, it’s the painful feeling of believing we are somehow unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.

As someone who’s lgbtq+ I have experienced what it feels like to think I was unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. But even if you’re not lgbtq+, as long as you’re human, you would have experienced the pain of shame before.

And then there’s guilt. The difference between shame and guilt is very important for us to distinguish because it can end up either helping us greatly or harming us.

Shame is “I am a bad person ” while guilt is “I did something bad.”

Let’s try something.

Question 3 (Multiple Choice)

Imagine you failed a test. What do you tell yourself?

“I’m so stupid. I’m such a loser.”

“I should have studied a little harder and paid more attention.”

Does your self-talk focus more on your behavior or more on your personhood? That’s the distinction between guilt and shame. Why is this important?

Because if we are more shame-prone, research has shown that it is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, bullying, eating disorders. Shame-proneness and addiction are so enmeshed that we don’t even know which one came first.

So, it makes a big difference, because when one is guilt-prone, they have the ability to focus on behaviors, the ability to change behaviors without attacking yourself and your personhood. This means the more we can separate “I’m a good person, and I made a really bad choice,” the more we can make effective changes while avoiding things like addiction, depression, anxiety, violence.

Imagine if a child tells a lie, and you shame them by saying, “You’re a liar.” What happens is that in the child’s mind, they will think, “If I’m a liar, if that’s who I really am, how can I ever change? How do I ever make a different decision?” Versus, “You’re a good person, and you told a lie, and that behavior is not okay in this family.”

This is closely linked to our spiritual lives as Christians too. Everyone needs a platform of self-worth from which to experience change. You can’t shame people into becoming better. When we see people apologizing, making amends, changing their behavior, that is always around guilt.

Brown says, “Guilt is not easy, because it is cognitive dissonance. It creates psychological pain. “I have done something that is inconsistent or incongruent with my values or who I want to be.” So when we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, change a behavior, guilt is the driving force. We feel guilt when we hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values, and they don’t match up, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s helpful. It’s a positive, socially adaptive experience.”

Of course, we need to pause here and say that feeling guilt for things that we don’t have control over, or feeling guilty about things that we should not be owning, that is not helpful. But true guilt motivates meaningful change. It’s as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s influence is destructive.

Question 4 (Open)

What are some of your shame-based beliefs that keep you from drawing close to God?

My Story

As a teenager, when I first realized I was different from my friends, I felt a lot of shame.

I thought God could not accept someone like me.

It was hard not to feel shame because sexuality and gender identity are not just external behaviors; they are part of our innate humanity. They are part of who we are as human beings. And the voices around me were saying there is something wrong with me, and I believed it.

So I did the most natural thing one who is ashamed would do — run away from God.

But God didn’t abandon me. God reached out to me and made sure I understood there was nothing wrong with me. And I was loved…period. Regardless of what I’ve done or not done, and regardless of what I believed at that time regarding what God thought of lgbtq+ people, God loves me.

“I love you” was what I heard the Spirit of God speaking into my heart and that tore down all the walls that I had put up.

For the first time, I truly understood what grace meant, and that turned my life around.

It made me realize I didn’t have to strive for God’s love. God already loved me just as I was, and the decisions I make about my life would be the by-product of that love.

That’s how love changes us.

Compassion

“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.” Luke 15:20

When the parent sees the child, he was filled with compassion for him. One Greek word that describes Jesus’s emotions most often is compassion.

It literally means “to be moved from the very depths of your being in love for someone”. In telling this parable, Jesus uses this word to describe the father because he wants us to understand the depths of God’s love for us. By running to his son, by baring his legs, the parent made himself incredibly vulnerable – socially, culturally and emotionally. He was running towards someone who had wronged him, someone he really loved in the depths of his being.

Imagine if someone you really really loved rejected you, and walked away. That would hurt so deeply and you’d never want to make yourself vulnerable again. You’d never want to bare your soul to that person again, right? But guess what? The parent in this story runs without any hesitation to the child and holds him close in his embrace. He took the risk of loving because he saw the child through eyes of compassion.

Notice that at no point does the parent shame either child for their problematic attitudes or how they were behaving.

In fact, we can almost feel the parent’s compassion for each child – both the elder and younger child. God’s love for us is the same. God’s love is non-coercive and non-demanding, and God looks at us through eyes of compassion. God sees us and understands deeply who we are, and what we need.

As children of God, we can practise this same compassion with ourselves and one another.

“The antidote to shame is empathy. If we reach out and share our shame experience with someone who responds with empathy, shame dissipates. Shame needs you to believe that you’re alone. Empathy is a hostile environment for shame. Self-compassion also helps us move through shame, but we need empathy as well for an important reason: Shame is a social emotion.

Shame happens between people and it heals between people. Even if I feel it alone, shame is the way I see myself through someone else’s eyes. Self-compassion is often the first step to healing shame—we need to be kind to ourselves before we can share our stories with someone else.” – Brene Brown

So will you let God love you, and be compassionate on yourself and others as we share our stories with one another? That’s the first step towards healing and loving wholeheartedly.

You are with me always and all I have is yours.” Luke 15:31

We can be encouraged in this process because God is always the initiator. God is always the one who runs after us relentlessly because God knows our primordial shame.

People often seem to start with this premise: “If I behave correctly, I will one day see God clearly.” Yet the biblical tradition says the exact opposite: If we see God clearly, we will behave in a good way.

Our right behavior does not cumulatively lead to our true being; our true being leads to eventual right behavior. Many of us think that good morality will lead to mystical union, but in fact, mystical union produces correct morality—along with a lot of joy left over. The greatest surprise is that sometimes a bad moral response results in the very collapsing of the ego that leads to our falling into the hands of the living God (see Hebrews 10:31).  

-Richard Rohr

To the younger child: You are worthy of love. Regardless of what you’ve done, you were worthy of love since the beginning. Since I held you in my arms, you were worthy of love. No matter what you’ve done or not done, you are worthy of my love.

To the older child: You are worthy of love. Regardless of what you’ve done, you were worthy of love since the beginning. Since I held you in my arms, you were worthy of love. No matter what you’ve done or not done, you are worthy of my love.

Contrary to what we think, God is just and fair. God loves us all with an everlasting love. You are worthy of love because God looks at you through eyes of compassion. God is with you and all that God has is yours.

So to you, God our Parent is saying the same thing: You are worthy of love. Regardless of who you are or what you’ve done, you were worthy of love since the beginning of time. Since I held you in my arms, you were worthy of love.

Whether you have been striving for love or chose to walk away from love, God is telling us the same thing. You are worthy of love because I say so. You are worthy of love just because. I created you in love for love.

So it is from this place of love, compassion and worthiness that we begin our journey into wholehearted living.

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Remember you are God’s beloved child, wholeheartedly worthy of love. You cannot earn or lose God’s love, no matter what you do or don’t do. God loves you. Period. God is looking at you through eyes of compassion and is waiting to embrace you, to welcome you home. So cease striving, stop wondering. Just come home.

Amen.