Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sermon: "Holy Imperfection", Luke 19:1-10/Philippians 3:12-16 (November 3, 2019)


As I'm sure all of you with doorbells at your house are well aware, last Thursday was Halloween. That doesn't mean a lot with regards to the Church, but what it does mean is that Friday was All Saints' Day. Since most Protestants don't do much with mid-week celebrations, today is the day that Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and many other denominations all over the world observe this liturgical event. Traditionally, it's the day when we remember people of faith who have died, particularly in the past year, and celebrate the fact that we're still connected to them through Jesus Christ as eternal members of God's Kingdom.

Now, before we go any further, I need to clarify something. Usually when most of us talk about saints, we think of paragons of virtue and kindness, religious figures, or miracle-workers. Sometimes all three. But that understanding of saints comes from our colloquial use of the word, combined with the cultural prevalence of the Roman Catholic understanding. OUR theological understanding of saints includes you, and me, and most of our parents and siblings, as well as many of our politicians in Washington.

Sketch of a saint I made during the Children's Sermon with input from the congregation.
Note the halo, cross necklace, robe, crown, and glow-y background.
This, of course, begs the question: how can THESE people be saints? (I’ll let you decide for yourselves whether I’m referring to family or legislators there.) Well, in most Protestant theological circles, we consider everyone who follows Christ to be a saint—living, dead, exceptionally virtuous, or really unlikable. Contrary to popular opinion, saints aren’t those select few among us who are as close to perfect as humans can get. All of us are saints—and therefore, saints are, by definition, imperfect. 

This can be a really difficult idea for us to accept. Not necessarily because we struggle to readily think of ourselves as saints (although that’s certainly true, since each of us is painfully aware of our own shortcomings and faults). No, I think the bigger barrier to this understanding of sainthood is the general acceptance, even embrace, of saintly imperfections. Imperfection has NO place in our modern society, and we have little interest in being imperfect ourselves. Even when we do acknowledge the reality of our flaws, we view them as an obstacle, something to be overcome, something to be disparaged and rejected in our pursuit of perfection.

But imperfection has an important role to play in the life of saints like you and me. Imperfection keeps us humble, reminding us that we’re not God and assuring us that that’s a good thing. Imperfection teaches us about ourselves, showing us the next step in our growth and helping us to appreciate what makes each of us unique. Imperfection prepares us to do God’s work in the real world, grounding us in the reality of humanity and showing us how to transform it for the better.

I’ve learned a lot about imperfection during my recent foray into the world of painting. As some of you know, I love being creative and I enjoy all sorts of arts and crafts. But I recently realized that, while I’m perfectly content trying cross-stitch for the first time or experimenting with origami, I avoid painting like the plague. And I think, if I’m being honest, that the reason for this is that I’m subconsciously afraid to make a mistake or create something less-than-perfect. With cross-stitch and origami, there’s a pattern to follow, but with painting, you’re on your own in the acrylic wilderness.

But I knew that I’d NEVER get any better at painting if I didn’t give it a try. So, in an act of self-defiance, I decided a few weeks ago that I was going to set out to paint not one, but FOUR portraits, one of each of my pets. I got lucky on my first effort: my painting of Murray turned out pretty well, so I felt encouraged. Maybe I wasn’t imperfect, after all! But next I tried to paint Maya. And let me tell you—while the result certainly looked like a dog, it did NOT look very much like Maya. Penn’s portrait was even worse: his eyeballs were too close together, and he looked more like a fuzzy zebra than a cat. I haven’t gotten to Teller’s yet, but I’m sure it’ll be an…interesting experience, too.

The original paintings of Murray and Maya.
Maya's has since been edited, and Penn's is still in progress...
I was tempted to give up and go back to making friendship bracelets. But you know what I did instead? I learned from my imperfection. I looked a little bit closer; I figured out what was off in my painting, and I tried to fix it. With Maya, this involved making her snout a little bit wider and her eyes shaped a little bit differently. Sometimes, learning from our imperfections means seeing something in a new way. With Penn, I had to completely paint over one of his eyes and start over again (I’m still working on it; he looks a bit like a pirate at the moment). Sometimes, learning from our imperfections means starting over from the beginning. It can be a frustrating process that at times feels really embarrassing and discouraging. But I keep reminding myself that I didn’t take on this project to produce a perfect product; I did it to become a better artist. And every time I make a mistake, I learn something new. New techniques for blending, new approaches to shading, new methods of texturing: all learned from trial and error (emphasis on the error). I'm still imperfect, but my imperfection is helping me to grow. 

So in some ways, I can relate to Zacchaeus, although the stakes were somewhat higher in his case. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, just doing his job—but he was deeply entrenched in an unjust system. The status quo was morally imperfect: taxes were necessary for the strength of Roman society, but the way the system was set up exploited the poor and enriched the wealthy. He could have just stuck to what he knew and what was comfortable, flawed as it was. He could have denied the imperfection inherent in his actions.

But he didn’t. In response to Jesus’ attention and the crowd’s grumbling, he was able to recognize the biggest flaws in his life, and he immediately took action to correct them. Zacchaeus learned, and became better. He didn’t suddenly become perfect, by any means: he was still a tax collector, still feeding into the oppressive system. There was still much work to be done. But he didn’t do what he did to become perfect; he did it to become a better human being. He was taking steps in the right direction, and that’s what saints are supposed to do.

It’s also not lost on me that Zacchaeus’ actions were in response to Jesus’ love. Jesus saw Zacchaeus, imperfections and all, and insisted on visiting with him. He didn’t ignore him. He didn’t offer conditions for the privilege of his company. He didn’t dictate an agenda for their time together. Jesus merely said, “Zacchaeus, I need to be with you.”

Jesus doesn’t wait for us to be perfect to be a part of our lives. Jesus calls us down from wherever we are and insists on relationship, right here, right now. And in response to this unconditional love, it suddenly doesn’t feel quite so embarrassing to be imperfect. It doesn’t feel so hard to take an honest look at our flaws and to say, “Oh…I guess I could be doing this differently.”

Paul expresses this beautifully in his letter to the Philippians: “It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose.” We don’t need to be perfect: Christ is perfect on our behalf, and that’s enough. Ours is to honor our imperfection by learning from it, and to strive to become more fully the people that Christ calls us to be. After all, God makes great things happen all the time through human flaws. God isn’t the one holding us back because of our imperfection—we are.

Paul isn’t just talking about his own imperfection here, either. He’s writing to the Philippians to remind them that this is the way it is for ALL saints. ALL of us, past, present, and future, are still working and learning from our imperfections. We celebrate the saints who have died before us, because they no longer see “in a mirror dimly”, but have a clearer understanding of God’s plans for us and our imperfections. They’re one step closer to the only kind of perfection that matters: complete unity with Christ. And because of this great cloud of witness, we know that one day, we will be too.

We will stumble. We will backtrack. We will forget. That’s inevitable. That’s the very nature of imperfection. But as Proverbs 24:16 reminds us, “The righteous may fall seven times but still get up.” Imperfection isn’t the enemy. It’s our natural state. The enemy is our choice to deny or ignore our imperfection, because that—not our selfishness, not our doubt, not our inability to perform miracles–is the greatest obstacle to fully living into our sainthood.

St. Augustine says, “This is the very perfection of a [person], to find out [their] own imperfections.” So don’t hide from your imperfections; embrace them. Examine them. Learn from them. Let them inform your life so that you might pursue, as Paul puts it, “the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” Be perfectly imperfect, as all the saints of every time and place have been since the beginning of time. We’re in good company. Amen.

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