Texts: Luke 3:3-14 and Malachi 3:1-4
One of Barrett’s and my favorite movies is called “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s an odd movie, and it is not one for the kids—it is rated R for language, and some substance abuse–but it is a movie that offers some wonderful images of grace.
It’s the story of a family on a journey. They are on a literal journey, bringing their young daughter to a regional beauty pageant, but they are also on a journey of self-discovery.
I think the most interesting character is the father, Richard. He is an author of a self-help book with 9 steps to success. The trouble is that he’s having a really hard time promoting his book. He’s not really very successful at all, but he is sold out on this philosophy that you have to be a winner.
His insistence on keeping focused on winning and not thinking like a loser causes a lot of problems for Richard. He puts pressure on his daughter, who is in love with the idea of beauty pageants even though she does not look or act like a typical child pageant-queen. He has contempt for his father, who is living with them after getting kicked out of his retirement home for drug-use. He cannot understand his step-son, who has taken a vow of silence until he achieves his dream of becoming an airforce pilot. He looks down on his brother-in-law, who is on suicide watch. And all of this negativity toward his family means that his wife has very little patience with him. She is working full time and not quite paying all the bills, and trying desperately to hold the family in some semblance of togetherness while Richard tries to sell his self-help book.
Richard is not a particularly likeable character, but I think part of the reason he is so unlikeable is that he is an exaggerated version of many of us, at our worst. Many of us feel the need to succeed—to be winners. Maybe we focus that energy on our jobs, putting in extra hours to ensure that we are valued and invaluable employees. Maybe we focus that energy on our homes or families, trying to be the perfect spouse, or the perfect mother or father, or the perfect son or daughter. But, there is at least one big problem with this drive to succeed: it grows out of a need to hide or fix our flaws, but it doesn’t help—it only feeds the insecurities and makes them bigger—makes it feel more important to keep our flaws and our failures hidden.
I think that all of us have times in our lives, maybe times every day, when we know we just don’t measure up—we are not all we could be—we fall short. But Richard’s solution to this lack in himself just doesn’t work. It’s not enough. Like so many of our attempts to fill that gap between who we are and who we want to be, Richard’s drive to be a winner only turns him into more of a loser.
Here’s where our scripture passages for today come in. Both the passage from Malachi and the image of John the Baptist from the book of Luke offer us an alternative to the success game. In the face of our flaws, these prophets offer an image of hope—when we bring our whole selves to God, flaws and all, God will cleanse us—purify us—separate the good, wholesome grain from the useless, insubstantial chaff.
This is why the gospels consistently tell us that a call to repentance is “good news.” Repentance is not about dwelling on our flaws and beating ourselves up and vowing to be better from now on. That’s actually what we see Richard doing to himself and his family in his attempt to be a winner, and to succeed. I think that, in a less caricatured way, that is what a lot of us do to ourselves in our attempts to better ourselves.
But repentance is something different. Repentance is the process of letting go of the success—letting go of the illusion that we are winners—letting go of the mask that hides our flaws and our insecurities—and standing before God just the way we are. It is not easy. It’s work every single day, but it is worth it, because when we stand there, in all of our messy, messed up glory, God starts working on us.
And it is not, ultimately, a process of changing who we are—when God works on us, it is a process of purification—burning away all the insecurities and lies and hurts and delusions until what is left is pure. Purely you. Purely me. Our truest, most beautiful, most precious selves. That beautiful part of you that your mother could see in your eyes when you were an infant, and that she knew was still there, even in your rebellious teenage years. That lovely, loveable part of yourself that can never be tarnished beyond repair.
It’s there. That’s the first part of the good news. We don’t need to strive to succeed, because that beautiful, perfectly loveable part of ourselves is there, inside of us no matter what. It is who God made us to be, and we can never lose it. The second part of the good news that when we feel lost, when we feel like losers, when we can’t see the beauty in ourselves and we know we need help, we are not alone. God is our help. God never loses sight of that true, deep, beautiful part of us. God is always ready to help us unearth it.
That is what repentance is about. Allowing God to help us become truly ourselves, our deepest, truest, most beautiful selves.
Richard’s journey through the film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is a journey of failure, and heartache and disappointment. First he finds out that his agent has dropped him, and all his dreams of success have fallen through. Then his father dies mid-road-trip, and he realizes that despite his father’s obvious flaws, he still loved him. When Richard pushes the family on—insisting that they get their daughter, Olive to her pageant in spite of her grandfather’s death, they set a frantic pace, break all kinds of traffic laws, and sweet-talk their way into a late registration, only to discover, as Olive marches out on stage with the other contestants, that this is not at all an event they want their daughter involved with.
Richard sits in the audience, watching the young girls march out with way too much eye-makeup, and sparkly gowns and done-up hair, and his discomfort is visible. He doesn’t want his little girl to look or act like that. And she doesn’t. At all. She comes out with just a touch of makeup, and with her hair tied back in her usual ponytail, a dress and boa that just make her look like a little girl playing dress-up. And she sticks out like a sore thumb—a sore, but perfectly wonderful, just-the-way-she is, thumb.
All through the film, Olive was practicing her dance number with her grandfather, but when the talent portion of the pageant happens, Richard and the rest of the family are horrified to discover that the recently deceased grandfather taught Olive a dance that was entirely inappropriate—something more suited to burlesque shows than a children’s competition. At the same time, her dance exposes how entirely inappropriate the whole event is. It seems comical that judges who have been scoring 7 and 8 year-old girls wearing panty-hose and heels with their two-piece swim-suits are offended by this slightly pot-bellied girl ripping her track-suit off, only to reveal a modest leotard and shorts underneath.
As the judges try to usher Olive off-stage, something amazing happens. Richard jumps up to his daughter’s defense. He and his step-son and his brother-in-law all run up to the stage to keep the judges from being able to physically drag Olive out of sight. And then, Richard watches his daughter, dancing her heart out, completely innocent and oblivious to the fact that the dance-moves her grandfather taught her were risqué. With one more glace at the judges, Richard starts dancing, too. For the first time in the whole movie, Richard doesn’t worry about winning or losing—he just enjoys himself, and enjoys his daughter, and before long the rest of the family is up there on the stage, dancing their hearts out, making a mockery of the pageant that takes itself too seriously.
That’s the grace-moment—that two-minute scene of a family being silly and goofy together. Richard lets go of his need to succeed, and he lets go of his failure to sell his self-help book, he lets go of his self-loathing and his contempt for others, and it is beautiful. He is beautiful, and loving and loveable.
So, that’s the image of repentance I want to leave you with this morning—Richard, on-stage with his disqualified pageant-disgrace daughter and his suicidal brother-in-law and his loser of a step-son and his not-quite-holding-it-all-together wife, embracing the truth of who he is, dancing his heart out. Learning to love himself and his family. Learning to let go of all the rest—all the untruth about being losers or winners, succeeding or failing. Learning to just be, together, in joy. Repent and believe the good news.