A few of years ago, Kathleen Norris wrote a marvelous book called Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith. The book makes a conscious and interesting attempt at unpacking the scary words and theological vocabularies that intimidate people and distance them from their historical and personal faith. It's amazing to me how many scary words there are in our faith heritage. Words like atonement, repentance, and even "faith" and "Christ", can bring out the beast in some of us, while causing others of us to simply let go and walk away, shaking our heads at their seeming irrelevance for the lives we live today.
One of the scariest words I know is perfection. It’s a marked characteristic of American culture, and a word straight out of our religious heritage. As Jesus said in Matthew, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect." The pressure to be perfect and have the perfect life is part of the American Dream and for better or worse, part of how some Christians struggle in their relationship to God. It is too bad, I think, that most of us never seem to quite measure up to that dream, either in our personal lives or our spiritual perfection.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, contributes to our rush to gain the goal of perfection. He rehearses his religious pedigree and highlights his Jewish heritage. Circumcision the eighth day suggests conformity to the Torah and aligns the observance of his parents with that of the proper Jewish family. He has done it all perfectly and so have his parents.
But Paul realizes that with his conversion to Christ, he is still in process. He has experienced the power and the presence of Christ; he has knowledge which contains the sufferings of Christ and he suffers for Christ, but Paul also knows that God is not finished with him–or anyone else–just yet.
Paul knew that God is a God of the "not yet." His experience of the Christ was still partial and incomplete, even though Christ's hold on him was complete and final. The upward call comes from without, from the beyond. Just as the sprinter strains "forward to what lies ahead," our movement can only go forward toward the future realization, not rolling backwards toward past perfection.
In this text, we might use the word "mature" instead of "perfect." Hear how things change when we move from being self-possessed and perfect and use the word "mature." To be perfect is to have arrived, to be there already. To be moving toward "maturity" is to know that we have not arrived, it is to live in that wonderful, but sometimes uncomfortable land of the "not yet" or the "not now." To "mature" in faith, as Kathleen Norris suggests, is to lose that adolescent self-consciousness which strives to be perfect and move toward making a gift of one's self and one's life, in process. Maturity is ripeness, rather than static perfection.
A few months ago, I chose to worship in the Woodbury church. I didn’t know that the pastor would be on vacation, but in his stead, the supply preacher was my good friend and mentor, Hank Yordon, then retired pastor of the Norwalk Church after 42 years. Hank preached at my installation service when I was called as regional minister in the CT Conference. He was a good colleague and mentor to me and a generation of preachers and ministers in CT…I say was, because Hank died in August 29 of this year.
At 79, and having achieved an enormous amount in his life and ministry, Hank could have rested and slide gently into that good day; but not yet for him. I remember with fondness an Essay he wrote called, A Vision of a New Jerusalem: He wrote:
“I believe church politics is more than settling a dispute between the youth group and the ladies’ aid. Our worship commission doesn’t need the pastor to help decide which choir will sing on the third Sunday. The deacons don’t need me to help plan for visiting the sick, developing the confirmation curriculum, or working out the communion schedule. I am needed at the Board of Realtors banquet to inform them of their ministry in this community. You should have seen the heads snap up from the fruit cup when I told them they were ministers. Most think they are in it for the profit. I told them God has a different plan. They are called to welcome Christ in the stranger and to make room for the homeless poor. Perhaps few of the realtors are Christians. But this invitation to serve may prove to be the seed sown in fertile ground.”
I sensed in him, in his last days, a gentleness and an acceptance of life and an openness to death which is stunningly moving to me. There was a spirit in Hank, which was still seeking to smooth out his rough edges with God, a feeling that God was still moving in him, still desiring him, longing for him to move in process, not in perfect achievement. Even in his last years of life, Hank recognized the incomplete nature of his existence and his quest for ripeness in faith. He said on that Sunday morning in Woodbury, “Oh yes, I know that I am going home and I can’t wait to get there; but, God still challenges me to preach and minister. I want to put my illness and the cancer that is ravaging my body aside and go on home; but, Not Yet. I still have work to do…and so do you.” He was not at perfection, but still hungering for a God who was not yet finished with him.
Anne LaMott talks about the movement from the quest for perfection to her acceptance of the "not now," "not yet" in her marvelous book, "Travelling Mercies." She tells us about her friend Nora who once said, "I've been thinking about killing myself, but I want to lose five pounds first." She then goes on to describe the anxiety and despair she feels about a body that is sliding south in her mid-forties. She names her thighs, "The Aunties" and describes them as made of feta cheese. With humor and grace, Anne LaMott reminds us the American dream of perfection–perfect body, perfect age, perfect presentation–is an unrealistic dream of perfection without grace, repression at the expense of passionate living, self-conscious living at the cost of accepting reality.
Today is World Communion Sunday. We are reminded through this table that we are a not yet people and God is a not yet God. The tables that we gather around all over the world today, are "Not Yet" tables. The Kingdom will come…just not yet. This table is not a table of holy perfection, a Martha Stewart table, with everything perfectly set and in its proper place. This is a table that gets rearranged frequently and is never completely, fully, finally set.
Because this is a table of hope; at this table we remember that we have not achieved perfection, we have not arrived yet. We are in process, moving toward the fullness of God's future, not our own.
At this table, we pray for peace and an end to violence, because it hasn't happened yet.
We pray for justice to roll down like waters on all nations and all peoples, but it has not come just yet.
We pray for wholeness and ripeness in our love and understanding of the faith, knowing that we are a work in progress. There is still more light and truth to break forth from our lives and in the world.
The bread, once whole, breaks into pieces, reminding us that our wholeness does not lie behind us, but ahead of us, in the company of God who made us and clothes us. We live now, on this side of Eden, until the maturity of time and eternity comes and we are brought into our perfection, home at last.