Life is not a Straight Line
John 6:35, 41-51
This is a sermon on perfectionism. Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect? To have the perfect house, perfect yard, perfect children? To be the perfect mom or dad, give the perfect sermon? To be the perfect student, the student whose project is lifted up above the rest of the class for everybody else to emulate? To be the thinnest, wisest, sharpest, quickest, kindest, nicest—to be perfect? Have you ever felt that pressure?
Annie Lamott says perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your entire life. Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect?
Some of you remember Saturday Night Live’s skits featuring Church Lady. One of the reasons Church Lady is so beloved is because it gives us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, to laugh at that voice inside us that tells us we should be perfect. Church Lady, played by Dana Carvey, would appear on stage wearing a purple dress, a sweater, and visible knee-high stockings. She wore a pair of cat’s-eye horn-rimmed glasses. Her favorite line was, “Well, isn’t that special?” The line I love from Church Lady is when she would look say to her guest, “I’m just a wee bit superior,” as if wagging her finger at you and saying, “And you’re not!”
Have you ever felt the pressure to be perfect? The words Paul spoke to his flock at Ephesus remind us of the pressure we often feel, that inner voice inside us saying we must be perfect. Listen to Paul’s words: “Be angry, but do not sin…Be truthful in your word. Let no evil come out of your mouth…Be imitators of God.” How can we live up to that?
A UCC pastor was driving along the highway when somebody cut her off. She was really angry and wanted to lash out, but then she reminded herself that the bumper sticker on her car listed the name of the church she served, and it said, “God is Still Speaking.” You may be thinking that Annie Lamott may say perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people, and it will keep your cramped and insane your whole life, but you also remember that Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” So which is it? Annie Lamott or Jesus?
I will go back to Matthew 5:48 in a minute, but first let me tell you where I’m headed with the sermon this morning. The first thing I want to talk about is how the quest for perfectionism will drive us crazy, and God does not intend that. Second, what God does intend and invites us to is a life of becoming, a life of doing our best, a life that sets us on a path, on a journey. Third, we are called not to a life of perfection, but to open ourselves to a life of redemption where God’s love may be perfected through us, even through our flaws, our shortcomings, and our brokenness.
Matthew 5:48 says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace suggests that a better translation of the Greek in that text is not “perfect,” but “mature.” Be mature as your heavenly father is mature. That’s an important word, because “mature” suggests the possibility of growth. It suggests that we are all in a process of becoming and maturing, that we are all on this path. It doesn’t suggest that we have arrived; it suggests that we are in a process of becoming more loving and more forgiving, becoming more truthful and slower to anger, even when we recognize we fall short of that goal.
This does not mean we can goof off. It doesn’t mean that we should not attain, it just means we should recognize that in our relationships, our marriages, our raising our children and in our jobs we are never going to attain that golden ideal of perfection. It is so much better to relinquish the unattainable goal of perfection and begin the work of embracing ourselves as we really are, in all our humanness. That’s how we can embrace one another and their humanness as well.
Weddings are interesting times. If you are a pastor you know that weddings are times of joy and happiness, generally. But weddings are also times of tremendous stress, especially for the families involved. There is such an expectation that the wedding will be perfect and that everybody will get along. The bridesmaids and the dresses are all going to fit perfectly and it will be a beautiful day. The beginning of a marriage should be where there is expectation for perfection, but the fact is that if you have been in a long-term relationship you know that it is anything but perfectionism. Life and long-term relationships are filled with brokenness and flaws.
Recognizing the disparity between the expectations for a wedding and the reality of what marriage is, as beautiful as it is, I have begun using that wonderful nursery tale by Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit. I find there is a lot of wisdom in that story. It is told for children, but the truth really speaks to all of us. In the story, the little boy who loves the stuffed rabbit gets sick, so the rabbit is tossed away because it is thought to have germs. In the imaginary world of Margery Williams the stuffed rabbit ends up in the nursery next to the skin horse, the wisest individual in the nursery. The velveteen rabbit wants so much to become a real rabbit that he asks the skin horse, “How do you become real? Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and having a stick-out handle?” The horse replies, “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s something that happens to you over a long period of time when a boy really, really, really loves you. Real doesn’t happen all at once; you become. Generally by the time you are real all your hair falls off and your joints get loose and your eyes begin to drop out, but then you are real.”
That is a profound tale about what life is all about. Life is a journey of becoming, and yes, it may be at times in our lives when perfection is knocked out of us like the stuffing of a stuffed rabbit. We recognize that we are bruised and broken; we experience grief. We pull an arrow or two out of our backs. We taste loss. We know too well the ways we are broken and incomplete. This is why the story from the Old Testament this morning is the perfect counterpoint to the words from Paul about being imitators of God.
Talk about a broken, incomplete human being—look at King David. Nobody loved God more, nobody praised God more than King David. And yet look at how flawed and broken his life was. I won’t go into all the tangled relationships and power struggles that brought us to the story this morning; suffice it to say that his own son Absalom rebelled against his father and brought an army to defeat his father so that he could attain the throne.
Of course you know the story. Absalom is riding on a mule that goes under a tree. Absalom’s long hair catches in the branches of the tree and he is left hanging there. The mule has gone on. Joab and his army gather around. The instructions have been to deal gently with Absalom, but for the sake of Israel Absalom is killed as a spear is thrust through him many times. When David asked, “How did things go?” he was told, “You won a great victory. David then asked, “But what about my son Absalom?” David knew in that moment that his son Absalom was dead. He went to the tower of his castle and wept, crying out, “Oh Absalom, my son, my son! Would that I would have died instead of you.”
I am reminded of the grief we experienced this week at the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin. Grief knows no religion. A father by the name of Ranjit Singh, 49, came from India to the United States and to the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. He promised his wife and three young children that he would not be apart from them too long, but the months turned into sixteen years. Two of his children grew up and got married. His son whom he had only seen as an infant became a teenager. Every day he called them on the phone to talk to them as a dad—to scold them, to praise them, to stay connected to them. He sent money back to India from the United States. But this last Sunday Ranjit Singh spoke to his son for the last time. It was a short, mundane chat. Hours later, Mr. Singh was killed in the temple in suburban Milwaukee. His stunned family, so long separated from him, now prepared to come to Wisconsin to collect the body.
Nobody should have to endure that kind of grief and violence, whether it is in Aurora, Colorado, Oak Creek, Wisconsin or any place around the world. We are reminded again and again that life is not perfect, that life is not hard, that life has moments of profound grief and brokenness, and yes, even sin. It is also true that in the midst of all that brokenness, God’s story of redemption and new life is being woven in and through us. We are all part of a greater story of God’s love being perfected in us, even in our broken humanness.
Last Friday, the day before yesterday, thousands of people gathered in the Oak Creek gymnasium to mourn the six people who were killed in that terrible shooting at the Sikh Temple. People of all races and all faiths came together. Many put on orange head scarves to show their solidarity with the Sikh community. The outpouring of love from the community was phenomenal. Linda Hetzel lives a mile and a half from the temple. She knew little about the Sikh religion, but as a Christian she gathered people into her home for a time of prayer together. She said, “As a Christian I just need to be part of this.” Since that time she has learned much about the Sikh religion. She said, “Maybe there is some small reward from this terrible tragedy.”
That is the work of a redemptive God. God’s love is being perfected through us even in our brokenness and grief. In the difficult moments in our lives God’s resurrection work happens through us and continues to draw us into a much greater story. The vision comes to us from the book of Revelation that God longs for a new heaven and a new earth where there will be no more crying and no more suffering.
Friends, I invite you this morning to consider the possibility that it’s not about being perfect. Give it up. It’s about God’s love being perfected through us even in our weaknesses. Amen.