Being Perfect: Sermon for February 19, 2017

When I was in graduate school I had a position as a teaching assistant for a class of seminarians. My job was to lead a discussion section of the class, and to help the students to understand their papers and tests. And one semester I was assigned to a new professor who, in retrospect, was probably trying to prove herself as a serious teacher.

Every professor assigned a lot of reading, but this professor assigned an impossible amount. Hundreds of pages each week. It was too much for even the TAs to read, and we knew the material and the concepts already. The new students had at least three other classes and usually an internship too, and it didn’t take long until they were all falling behind and coming to the teaching assistants for help. These were high-level students used to thriving in school, and they were drowning

With the professor’s blessing we decided that we would teach a workshop on how to get through a lot of reading quickly. So, one afternoon we taught them how to scan, how to find central themes and how to outline. Most students walked from the room feeling relieved and like they could keep up.

Afterwards the professor asked how it had gone. She wondered if the students now felt a little more confident about keeping up. I told her that I thought they’d be fine, and that they just needed some skills. And then I said something else. I said, “You know, I think they thought you expected them to read every single word of those hundreds of pages.”

She looked at me affronted. “But I DO expect them to read every single word.”

When I read about Jesus’ words to the crowds this week, I’m reminded a little of that class. This is the last week we are looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ big speech to the crowds. And Jesus is not setting the bar low. He tells the crowd that these are the things they need to do:
If someone strikes your right cheek, offer them your left.
If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak too
If asked to go one mile, go a second mile
If someone wants anything from you, give it to them
Love your family, your friends, but more than that love your enemies and pray for them
And then Jesus delivers this bottom line: be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.

Be perfect. When I think about being perfect, I think a little about that class that I TAed, and I think about unrealistic expectations, and harsh graders. And when I think about being perfect in the spiritual sense, I picture God as a divine professor, checking through my work and saying “it is very clear to me that you did not read every single word of the assigned reading.”

I think a lot of us might wrestle with an image of God that’s a lot like that. God as the ever-demanding, ever-critical, authority figure. The parent you can never please. The teacher who is always disappointed. The client who always complains, no matter how hard you work.

Maybe, at its worst, God as our own critical inner voice, bent on reminding ourselves how much we are messing everything up.

It would be easy for me right now to say “but God’s not like that. That’s human beings. God is love.”

But then we have Jesus here, telling us to be perfect. And somewhere deep down that’s unsettling, because we all know that we don’t measure up to perfect, and we never will.

And so that’s when it’s important to remember that God is a little different from our critical fourth grade teacher, or the coach who always yelled at you when you missed the free throw. God is’t a divine task master at best, and bully at worst. God is different.

I think about that grad school professor from the beginning, and about how she demanded perfection. And, truth be told, grad school is a little about hazing. There’s a lot of “I had to do this, so you will too.” And, honestly, she was trying to get tenure, which is another kind of hazing in and of itself. She was trying to prove that she was perfect too, and being a tough teacher was a part of that.

But the life of faith is not about jumping through hoops, or looking good on paper. It’s not about reading every page. Instead, it’s about this: it’s about progress.

In recovery communities like AA there is a slogan: “progress not perfection”. The idea is that you shouldn’t focus on getting every single thing right. If you do that things are bound to go wrong, and it’s too tempting to just give up. Instead, just focus on doing a little better, one day at a time.

I think that makes sense for the spiritual life too. No one, this side of heaven, is ever going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we get to just throw up our hands and give up. Instead, it means that a little at a time, we get better. We become more generous, more patient, more compassionate, and more loving.

And, if we are doing it right, we also extend all of those things to ourselves. Because in a world that too often seems to demand the unrealistic, we could all stand to treat ourselves with a little more generosity, patience, compassion, and love.

We cannot batter ourselves into perfection. And there’s nothing in destroying our selves that will glorify God.

This week I was remembering something from when I was a kid, and thinking about what it means to be perfect, and to fail. I grew up about 40 minutes from Cape Canaveral where NASA launched all of it’s rockets. We were close enough whenever a shuttle launched we’d all know it was happening and go outside to see it.

There were other launches too, though, that didn’t rate the same sort of hype. Regularly satellites would be sent up on unmanned rockets from the Cape. And one afternoon late in elementary school I was riding my bike down the street when I saw the familiar arc of a rocket coming up over the trees.

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Delta GOES-G satellite launch, 1986.

I stopped and watched. It kept climbing higher and higher. And then, all of a sudden, far up in the air, it started to go to the side. And then it spun on itself. And this didn’t look quite right. A minute later there was a flash of light and the rocket was no more. Mission control had pressed whatever button they press to cause the rocket to self-destruct.
Later, talking to my dad, I realized how many tens of millions of dollars, if not more, had gone into building that rocket and that satellite, how many hopes had been attached to it, and how now it was just a bunch metal sitting off the coast at the bottom of the ocean.

“So what will they do?”, I asked my dad.

“Well,” he said, “they’ll try again.”

All of us mess up sometimes. But my guess is that you’ve never been the one who caused a spaceflight worth tens of millions of dollars to self-implode.

The irony is that even if you have been, NASA would forgive you and try again.

Why? Because you keep trying. You keep learning from your mistakes and building on what you learned, and you dare to try again.

If NASA can forgive a broken satellite, perhaps God can forgive our brokenness too. And perhaps we can head back to the drawing board, figure out what went wrong, and try again.

Here’s the good news: while spaceflight might require absolute perfection, life does not. We get to get it wrong sometimes. And we get to know we are forgiven. The only thing that we can’t do is stop trying. Amen?

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.

Jesus, America, and the Bullies on the Bus – A sermon for July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

 

Like many of you I’ve been following the story of the New York state bus monitor who was bullied recently. Karen Klein was riding on a bus when a group of 7th graders, 12 and 13 years old, taunted her, grabbed at her, and made fun of the fact she’s a widow and had lost a child. Another student then posted it on youtube. Apparently this had happened before. As anyone who watched the video can tell you, these seventh grade kids are already breathtakingly cruel.

And today we read this story from the Gospel, about Jesus and a woman who was looking for healing. Jesus has been called to go to a house where a young girl is dying. He’s hurrying along and seemingly oblivious to this woman who approaches him. She has been suffering for a long time. Twelve years. And she has seen all the doctors and spent all her money trying to get well. But she’s heard about Jesus, and she says, “If I can just touch his clothes, maybe I’ll be healed…”

She does, and she is immediately made well. And Jesus knows something has happened and turns around and says, “Who touched me?” She admits, timidly, it was her. Jesus tells her, “your faith has made you well…go in peace and be healed.”

What do these two stories have to do with each other? And why am I putting the two together on the Sunday that we celebrate the 4th of July, and ask God’s blessing upon our country?

It’s because of this. As much as we might want to write those school bus bullies off as “kids today” or as much as we might want to talk about what the parents could have done differently, the fact is those kids on the bus were not born in a vacuum, nor were they raised in one. They didn’t wake up one morning after years of exposure to a society of civility and compassion and decide to bully the widow who road their bus. The same is true of the kids who are bullied around this country every day, for whatever reason. It’s not an issue of “kids will be kids”. They don’t come up with this on their own.

Instead, they get it from somewhere. And more often than not, they get it from us. Not us here specifically, but us as in the adults in their life. Not just the ones in their homes, but the ones in their neighborhoods and on their televisions and even in the places of power in this country.

Pundits bemoan the lack of civility in this country. They say we have lost basic manners and human compassion. And to a great extent, they’re right. We reward radio personalities who degrade women, we engage in name-calling when someone has a different political belief than ours, we curse out the umpire when he calls our kid out at home plate. Is it any surprise those kids on the bus may have thought what they were doing was acceptable?

In fact, in the aftermath of the video, some of the boys involved began to receive death threats from adults. And while nothing those boys did on the bus that day was okay, adults threatening 13 year olds with death isn’t either. The ones who made the threats are probably oblivious to the fact that they were replicating the very kind of un-compassionate behavior those kids were engaging in.

Now, it would be wonderful to be able to say that we who follow the way of Christ, who taught us compassion and who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t like that. But the truth is Christians are sometimes the worst offenders. The things that are said in the public arena by Christians of all stripes, sometimes even as they defend their views as being truly Christian, are sometimes staggeringly lacking in compassion, kindness, and respect. It’s little wonder that many under the age of forty in our country think that Christians is a religion where believers claim to believe one thing but act in a totally different way. For many Americans in my generation the hypocritical Christian is what they think of when they argue religion is useless.

So how do we change that? How do we change not so much so that we will be perceived differently, but so that our society will be different? How do we become a people who embodies Christ’s teaching in such a way that our culture changes?

I think about the woman on the road that day. Broken down. Losing her lifeblood. Looking for healing. Being willing to try anything. I think of her seeking out this man who was promising a different way. A way of compassion. A way of moving forward. And I think of her, unsure, tentative, reaching out and just touching his clothing. Reaching out to the one that she thought would heal her.

I think she has something to teach those of us who would follow Christ. In a time where the culture we live, the body made up of all of us in this country, sometimes feels like it is bleeding out, and losing its life, how do we reach out for that which would heal us? How do we reach out for the cloak of Jesus and dare to ask for healing?

We Americans often sing God bless America. It’s a prayer we are singing. But when we finish singing, do we think about our part in that? Or do we ask for that blessing from God without considering the things that God wants us to do? Do we finish singing and forget about it? Or do we finish singing and get to work on working with that blessing? Do we get to work trying to follow the path of love, and compassion, and kindness set out by Christ?

Now, I want to be clear here for a minute that I am not saying this should become a country of Christians. We live in a religiously diverse country and every citizen of every faith should be valued and respected. And every faith, in its best interpretation, encourages its members to lead lives of compassion and care for ones neighbor. But what I’m saying is that for those of us who are Christian, our faith adds an extra layer to our citizenship. It adds a mandate that we help to transform our culture from one where 13 year old kids think bullying an elderly woman is acceptable to one where they have grown up with the privileging of compassion and kindness and civility. One where the whole idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is not something that we just give lip service to on Sundays.

I believe that’s possible. I believe it’s possible to create a country where we may disagree widely on the issues, but we still act like Christians. I’ll give you an example. I know this congregation pretty well, and I know that last Thursday when the Supreme Court decision on health care came down, many of you had strong reactions. A segment of this congregation thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But I know another group of you thought it was the best thing ever.

And yet here you are, on Sunday morning. Sitting across the aisle from one another. Maybe even sharing the same pew. You’re not calling each other names. You’re not saying the other is unAmerican. You’re not yelling at each other with red faces. You may disagree, but you pray for each other’s families and bring casseroles over when one gets sick. And after the final hymn you’ll go into the back room and drink coffee and actually fellowship.

I’m not naive. I know that this country will never resemble a church fellowship hour. But I do know that if we who would follow Christ were to reach out to him, reach out and just try to touch him, try to be healed, we could help to spread that healing to the places we live and work and learn. If we did that, things might look a whole lot better than they did when we saw that video taken on the bus for the same time. They might look a whole lot more like the country we want to be, the country that we hope God will bless.

It’s not always an easy path, though. Deciding how you will live into your Christian calling as a citizen is different for each person, and deciding how you will ask for God’s blessing, and healing, for us all is a personal decision.

A seminarian I know, a good friend of Heidi’s, had to ask herself that question recently. She felt called by God to a different type of ministry, one in which she could share Christ’s compassion and love with those who needed it most. And so this summer, while her classmates have been safely ensconced in air conditioned offices, she’s been waking up at 4am and running, drilling, and otherwise getting through another day of training to be an Air Force chaplain.

She’s not someone who relishes the idea of war. Her political ideas are different from many she serves with. But she is someone who feels called by God to serve in that way, and to spread Christ’s love and light to those who don’t get to see a whole lot of it. She has decided that is the way to embody her faith in her citizenship.

That’s the path she took. But you don’t have to join the military to do that. You can do it right here at home in your own neighborhoods. In this election year, where the commercials bombard us every night on our TV screens, where the debates grow louder each round, where even jokes about candidates being killed are not considered out of bounds, how will you choose to let your faith inform your citizenship? How will you reach out for Christ asking that his healing be on us all? How will you ask God to bless America, and bless the whole world?

Will you let yourself be transformed by the meanest kids on the bus? Or will you become the one who steps in, and reaches out for Christ’s healing? The one who hears Christ say, “your faith has healed you…go in peace”?

May God bless us all that we would not be the one who sits ideally by when our country, and our world, need us the most. Amen.