Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2017 || Epiphany 6A || Matthew 5:21-37
Over a month ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?
God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, and enlightened. Last week, we had a deviation from the series, but we still mentioned what I would have said if I had written the series’ sermon: We bring the light of love with us out into the world, especially in times of great fear and turmoil.
And every time we go out into world to participate in God’s mission by using our gifts, by being blessings, by shining God’s light, we inevitably realize that we are never going to fulfill our mission perfectly. We will never be perfect partners with God. We will never love or befriend or bless or shine to the fullest of our capacity. And that’s because we are unfinished.
So we return to God’s point of view and imagine God seeing, naming, and celebrating us as unfinished. Why would God celebrate that we aren’t functioning at our fullest capacity? Because it means there’s more room for training, learning, and growth. And I for one am so, so glad to know I’m not finished growing into the person I shall become. I bet you are too.
Perhaps an illustration from baseball is helpful at the start of this discussion about our unfinished nature. A baseball scout watches two speedy minor leaguers sprint to first base. One has perfect form: he runs with grace and power, every muscle working in sync. The other player’s form is less than ideal: he has a hitch in one leg, his arms don’t pump in the right rhythm, and his breathing is off. They both reach first base at the same time. Which player is the scout going to sign to his team?
At first glance, you’d say the one with perfect form because he runs so effortlessly. But that’s the wrong choice. You want the player whose running is so imperfect because once he trains up, he’ll be faster than the other guy.*
The second ballplayer is an unfinished product in need of coaching. And so are we. All of us, no matter how little or how much of the spiritual path we have trod. When we go out into the world to love and serve the Lord, we will feel deficient – even worthless sometimes, especially when the challenges we face are so great – and yet God invites us to go out anyway. While we might desire to wait until we judge we are somehow finished forming, God designed us never to be finished.
God designed us to grow through our experiences, especially our failures. I think this is the reason our failures stick with us so much longer than our successes. Stewing over failure is an uncomfortable exercise, and if you’re anything like me, you probably wallow a bit too long in it. But a positive reflection on failure can lead to intense (and often discomfiting) personal growth.
I remember reflecting at my spiritual director’s behest on my own complicity in a failed relationship. I was astounded to discover how much of the failure had to do with my own selfishness, something I was totally blind to while the relationship was happening. Such reflection prepared me for healthier relationships in the future. Would I rather have been spared that particular failure? Surely. But I was not, and so the best thing do was learn something from it.
Indeed, scientists will say there is no such thing as a failed experiment as long as something is learned from the results. And there’s a reason doctors and lawyers call what they do “practicing.” Even those professions, which are often caricatured by hubris, recognize that their practitioners are unfinished.
It is this hubris which Jesus takes head on in the Gospel lesson this morning. Over and over again, he says, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you.” In each instance, Jesus takes a piece of the Law of his people and makes it harder to accomplish. Why would he do this? Well, the religious elite of the day believed they were finished, that they had fully puzzled out the path to God. They had taken the Law, which God gave to Moses a thousand years earlier, and parsed it to such a degree that they were perfectly sure they were living by its precepts. The trouble was, they had forgotten what the Law was for. The Law was designed to help the people of Israel choose life-affirming paths, but it had been reduced to a mere checklist that assured the elite of their own righteousness.
So Jesus says, in effect, “You think you’re finished? You think you’ve gone down the path of life as far as it goes? I have news for you. You’re understanding of the law isn’t deep enough. It’s not just “do not murder,” but also, be reconciled to those you are estranged from. Not just “do not commit adultery,” but also, act with virtue and fidelity in all things. Remain in relationship rather than looking for easy outs. Speak truthfully always rather than trying to convince people through deceptive oaths.” **
Jesus shows the elites of the day the error of their thinking. They are not the first baseball player, who runs to first with perfect form. In fact, no one ever is. We are all the second player, running with ungainly steps, in desperate need of coaching.
I take great comfort in this reality that I’m unfinished. But such a reality is both comforting and catalyzing. As unfinished products, we have the opportunity to keep joining God in mission, pushing past our comfort zones into the places where growth can happen. Yes, we will fail sometimes. And sometimes we will not live up to our own expectations. But we will be out there in the world, partnering with the God who gives growth.
The alternative is stagnation. I’ve been there. Last year, one of the goals I set for myself coming out of the CREDO conference was to read more, to read everyday. I realized I wasn’t getting any new input and so my worldview was shrinking to the narrow band of thoughts I had already had. In part thanks to our church’s book group, I have been able to fulfill this goal to a modest degree of success.
Last week, I finished reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Douglas Abrams, their co-author speaks of a time when he watched Tutu “collect his consciousness, reflect on his options, and choose his response, one that was thoughtful and engaging rather than reactive and rejecting.” Abrams goes on to say, “It was one of the most profound examples of what a prayerful and meditative life can give us – that pause, the freedom to respond instead of react” (p. 181).
Reading that wonderful benefit of prayer, I felt like I had suddenly leveled up in life, like a character might do in a video game. This was new input for my unfinished self, and I am going to try as hard as I can to use prayer and meditation to cultivate that pause so I can respond instead of react.
This week, I invite you to reflect on your own unfinished nature. In what way is God urging you to continue growing? What new input can foster that growth? What changes are available to help you reach first base faster? And who can coach you along the way? Resources for growth abound as long as we recognize how unfinished we are and do not let failure keep us from pressing forward in our love and service of the Lord. Indeed, as a community of faith, we walk the unfinished path together.
* I got this analogy from The West Wing episode “Constituency of One” (Season 5, Episode 5).
** There’s some tough stuff in this Gospel lesson, which I tackled somewhat three years ago. I quoted some of this paragraph from that previous sermon. You can read the whole thing here.