Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon: "Good, Not Perfect" (Matthew 9:35-10:8)

A few weeks ago, I came up with a great idea for a Father’s Day sermon. I was so pleased with myself! I went to make a note of it on my calendar so I wouldn’t forget it… and then realized, I’m not going to be here on Father’s Day.
I’m going to be taking some youth from our region on a mission trip.
So, you get your Father’s Day sermon on Mother’s Day. However, in my family at least, traditional roles of father and mother blur. I do a good portion of the laundry and the cooking at home, and I even cut hair - not Ginger’s, though. Ginger cooks and does laundry, too. Usually, whoever has the time does the chore.
I know you get that. You understand. This is the 21st century!
At the rural church in northern California - where I was pastor before I came to Long Beach - not everyone got it. If Ginger went out of town for a few days, the ladies in that church - and a few of the men - wondered how I’d survive, since Ginger wasn’t there to cook for me and the boys. And I’d look at them and think, “Are you for real?”
Anyway, I won’t call this a “Father’s Day sermon,” and I can’t really call it a “Mother’s Day sermon.” It is, though, about parenthood, and the idea for this sermon came to me while I was reading the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The book is in the form of an extended letter from the author to his son. So in the passage I’m going to read to you, when the author says “you,” he’s referring to his son; and when he says “your grandparents,” the author is talking about his own parents. Got it?
The passage goes like this:
“When I was six, Ma and Dad took me to a local park. I slipped from their gaze and found a playground. Your grandparents spent anxious minutes looking for me. When they found me, Dad did what every parent I knew would have done - he reached for his belt. I remember watching him in a kind of daze, awed at the distance between punishment and offense. Later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice - “Either I can beat him, or the police.” Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t. All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit.” [Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me]
I read this passage without casting judgment on the Father’s use of the belt. I certainly don’t condone this type of discipline.
However, this father, like all parents, is doing his best to figure things out as he goes. He doesn’t have all the answers. He makes mistakes. He’s figuring it out as he goes.
Even the author, years later, cannot blame his father. “Maybe that saved me,” he writes; “Maybe it didn’t. I cannot say.”
Later in the book, Coates describes an episode in which he himself made a parenting mistake - not a huge mistake, but one that could have had huge consequences for him and his son. It didn’t, and life went on, and Coates learned and grew from it.
Reading this I realized: even though there is a world of difference between the author’s childhood and my own, and the world he lives in and the world I live in; and even though his mistakes as a parent can cost him more than my mistakes can cost me since he does not benefit from the white privilege that I have… on at least one level, we are the same.
By that I mean that, for me and all parents, it happens like this: You prepare to be a parent. You imagine what it will be like. You rehearse over and over in your mind how you will parent, how you will raise your child, what kind of parent you will be…
Then the child comes along. And the child is unique. Many of the ideas you had about how to raise a typical child do not apply, because your child is not typical. There is no such thing as a typical child. There is only “this” child. This unique individual that is like no other.
That doesn’t mean the advice you received and the books you read are wasted. They are very helpful as long as you don’t apply them too directly. There is no “one-size-fits-all” parenting. You need to take all the advice and all the books and all your observations, and keep all those ideas in the back of your mind, because there are things there that will be helpful, things that will be useful, things you can pick from.
But no parenting style that has ever existed will fit you perfectly, because no child like your child has ever existed.
Which means that, to a large degree, you’ll be figuring this out as you go.
But that doesn’t stop you. Still, you venture forward, learning as you go, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, becoming better and better as a parent each day, hopefully being a GOOD parent, but never, ever being a PERFECT parent.

And anyway, the more I learn, and the older I get, the more I realize that PERFECT, isn’t. PERFECTION is not something to strive for.
Kubo and the Two Strings is one of my favorite movies. The main character - Kubo - is told stories about his grandfather. His grandfather wanted to be perfect; but perfection is impossible for mere mortals.
Being human means being exposed to “hate and heartache and suffering and death.” These things are less than perfect. So, in order to be perfect, one must become blind to all human emotion. One must become blind to love. One must become non-human.
That was the grandfather’s goal for himself and his family: to rise above imperfection, and become immortal… and perfect.
His daughter - Kubo’s mother - was ready to join him, but then she fell in love. She fell in love with a human, a mortal, a person who was good, but not perfect. This made her realize that human goodness is better than inhuman perfection. So she raised Kubo to value what is good, rather than what is perfect.
In the movie, the grandfather - now an immortal moon god - wants to make Kubo just like him: “blind to humanity: cold, hard… and perfect.”
But when the grandfather tries to get Kubo to join him, to be immortal, to live with him in heaven and leave human life behind, Kubo responds:
“For every horrible thing down here, there’s something far more beautiful. My mother saw it. So did my father. I see it… I can look into the eyes of another, and see their soul, their love.”
The Grandfather saw human pain and weakness. Imperfection.
Kubo was taught to see love in the midst of all that. Not perfection, but goodness.

Jesus called twelve disciples to follow him. He called many more, men and women, but these twelve were given special leadership roles. They were the ones who learned from him, who assisted him, and who would carry on his message and his movement after he was gone.
Yet they were far from perfect.
Their failings are almost comical at times. Peter, trying to walk on water with Jesus, then sinking into the waves and having to be rescued by Jesus.
Oh, ye of little faith.
Jesus gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. “Proclaim the good news,” he said.  “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
But the disciples struggled to do what Jesus said. Once, when confronted by a massive crowd of hungry people, Jesus told them to feed the people, but the disciples didn’t see how it could be done.
Oh, ye of little faith.
When Jesus spent the night in prayer, knowing that he was going to be arrested, he told his disciples to stay awake with him. They all fell asleep. Then they all denied and deserted him.
When Jesus was crucified, they thought the movement was dead. They lost all hope. It was a group of women who had to tell them: “No; Jesus is alive. Hope is alive. The movement is alive!” But the disciples were confused, and still afraid.
Oh, ye of little faith.
Needless to say, the disciples were not perfect.
Even in the book of Acts, when the Christian movement really gets going, the disciples haven’t got everything all figured out. They’re still figuring it out as they go.
Which makes me think: maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
“Perfection” isn’t really something that was valued in the Jewish world of Jesus. Perfection was more of a Greek idea that did creep into early Christianity, but it wasn’t valued all that much in the ancient Judaism of Jesus. More important to Judaism was goodness.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does command his followers to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But a more accurate translation would be, “be complete in love, as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone.” That’s how the Common English Bible translates it.
And if humans are imperfect, showing love to them means loving that which is imperfect.
Goodness, not perfection.
It was good for Jesus to choose imperfect people to be his disciples. I think that’s the whole point. Those who started the Christian movement were not perfect.
But they were good.
That’s an important thing for parents to remember.
That’s an important thing for everyone to remember.
It’s an important thing for the church today to remember.
We’re not perfect.
And there’s no such thing as a perfect church.
There’s also no such thing as “having it all figured out.”
Keep that in mind the next time you make a mess of things… or the next time someone you know makes a mess of things.
As long as you are human, you will never have it all figured out.
As long as the church is made up of humans, we will never have it all figured out.
Churches that think they have it all figured out… they’re a little too perfect for me.
There’s no such thing as a perfect church, just like there is no such thing as a perfect nation, a perfect tribe, a perfect culture, a perfect anything. We get into a lot of trouble anytime we claim that we are perfect.
And people who are perfect… well, don’t they just drive you a little bit crazy?
Instead of focusing on being perfect, let’s focus on being good. Let’s focus on doing the best we can, knowing that it’s not perfect, and that’s ok.
Because like the disciples, we’re just figuring it out as we go.
That doesn’t mean we’re on our own: the Spirit guides us, scripture guides us, and we have each other. We also have forgiveness and grace in abundance.
Because, yeah: we’re still figuring things out as we go.

It’s not perfect. But it’s good.

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