The Iterative Process of Faith

Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2018 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52

*Before today’s service, I said a word about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. You can find that here.

Today’s sermon is the sequel to the one I gave on this Gospel passage three years ago. You all remember that one perfectly, right? No? Here’s a recap: I did a first-person sermon in which I played the part of Bartimaeus. But the last bit of that sermon I was more Adam than Bartimaeus. It went like this.

He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane. And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again. Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”

I’d like to pick up right here today with the concept of “again.”

“Again” is a powerful word in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. “Again” allows us to keep trying, to keep striving, to keep walking the way with Jesus even though we know we will never reach the status of perfect follower. And that’s good because based on his selection of disciples in the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t want perfect followers. He wants us, you and me. Jesus meets us where we are, and through the power of “again,” he mercifully keeps us from staying there.

This is the iterative process of faith. The iterative process is an important tool across many facets of ours lives. When you rearrange the furniture in your living room, you probably don’t get the layout exactly right the first time. You put the couch where you want it, but the chair and the TV stand need to switch, and when you do that, you realize the coffee table could scoot over a few inches. But then the lamp needs a new location. With each slight variation of the layout, you are iterating on that original idea.

Iteration is my ally when I’m doing graphic design work. Last spring, I designed all the materials for Always Home’s annual gala. And one poster was particularly problematic. I saved each draft with a letter of the alphabet, and I got to letter “P” before we went to print. That’s the iterative process, tweaking the design again and again and again. Also last spring, I was finishing up work on the draft of my most recent fantasy novel, and I just couldn’t figure out the ending. I wound up writing it about five times before I was satisfied. Iteration. Again and again and again.

Notice in both these cases, the poster and the novel, I didn’t say “until I got it right” or “until it was perfect.” There’s just no such thing. The iterative process gets us closer to right, closer to perfect, even though we know we will never fully get there. And that’s why the iterative process of faith is so vital to our lives as followers of Jesus’ Way. We each start somewhere along that Way, and everyday Jesus invites us to take another step. The Holy Spirit nudges us to try something new. When we fail to live up to our own expectations, God’s forgiveness is available to us. Again and again and again. Whenever we worship, whenever we pray, whenever we serve, whenever we love, we are iterating on all our previous attempts, all the while trusting that God’s grace will forever allow us another “again.”

The old song* says it best: “Day by day, O dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.” That’s the iterative process of faith.

And yet, I hear time and again from people who are hungry for spiritual meaning in their lives:

“I’m not good enough for church.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do or say.”
“I’m a total mess, I couldn’t possibly darken the doors.”

These comments always make me sad because somehow the church has put it in the heads of those hungry people that to start following Jesus you already have to be perfect. That God doesn’t love you until you have reached a certain threshold of put-togetherness. That this couldn’t possibly be for me because I look at you long-time faithful person and don’t see all the iterations of you that came before.

The truth of the matter is that church is the perfect place for people who aren’t perfect. Following Jesus is not about seeking perfection; it’s simply about taking the next step. And the one after that, secure in the faith that our God is a God of second chances. And third and fourth and fifth chances.

When my kids get upset because they try something and fail, they’ll often say, “I can’t do it.” And I try to remember to amend that statement to “I can’t do it…yet.” I gave up the guitar after three lessons in seventh grade because I wasn’t immediately a virtuoso. But neither was Jimi Hendrix after his third guitar lesson. He kept playing. He kept iterating. When I finally picked up the guitar again senior year of high school, I had missed five golden years of practicing that could have been if I had had a different attitude.

That different attitude is one that sees failure as a step in a process and not as the end to the process. In the iterative process of faith, there’s no such thing as failure because there’s no such thing as ending. Even when we turn away from the path of Jesus, the Way remains right there, right behind us, and God continually invites us to turn around. No matter how far we walk in any direction, the wrong road immediately becomes the right one when we turn around. Again and again and again, God calls us and all Creation back to God. Again and again and again, we have the opportunity to respond by following the Way of Jesus, the way of love, the way of justice, the way of peace; not perfectly, but following just the same.

Day by day.
Day by day.
Day by day.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash.

* My father took issue with me calling this an old song because it’s from the musical Godspell. But I stand by my adjective because Godspell premiered almost 50 years ago. Maybe not old in terms of most church music, but…

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