12 March 2012

The Spirituality of Imperfection

Good morning all.  I hope you are enjoying your Monday.  Yesterday I had a wonderful experience preaching a sermon titled, The Spirituality of Imperfection, at Parker Memorial United Methodist Church in New Orleans.  I have been working on this sermon for a good while, more with my life than with my pen.  I almost didn't preach it. I was tempted not make myself vulnerable in the preaching moment, but I decided to any way.  I am glad I did.  Thanks to the wonderful people at PMUMC, it was great fun.

The audio link for the sermon is below, I'm working on the video.  I put my iphone in airplane mode and recorded it as a voice memo, thus you will hear my robe rubbing the lectern every now and then.

The Spirituality of Imperfection

After the sermon I received one of the nicest compliments I have ever received, "That was a good old fashioned sermon."  I may even make up new business cards that has my name underneath will read, Freelance Preacher then underneath that in italics lettering, "A Good Old Fashioned Preacher."  When I told the missus about the comment she smiled and said, "that was anything but a good old fashioned sermon."

The text follows.  If you listen to the audio version you will note how much I improvised.  I specifically left the sermon text "open."  I was not sure how much I would or wouldn't say - thus a representation of what I preached yesterday.

The Spirituality of Imperfection
The Third Sunday in Lent – 11.March.2012
Parker United Methodist Church
New Orleans, LA
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell
text: “And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.” Mark 1:12

Let us pray,
O God take our hands and work through them
                            our eyes and see through them
our minds and think through them
and take our hearts and set them on fire. 

Our story rushes us into the wilderness, for the Spirit did not allow Jesus one merry moment after his baptism, immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out to the wilderness for forty days of temptation. 
            Immediately.  In all fairness this is how Mark tells a story, he or the community we call Mark wrote quick & dirty.  Mark is an impatient author who did not have the time to make the rough smooth.  Mark is street Greek, rough, edgy, and raw.  There are no beautiful long flowing sentences followed by short sentences allowing you to catch your breath as the author moves from one scene to the next; they are all short and packed, rapidly moving from one scene to the next.  Mark is like one of those new roller coasters that hurls you forward instantly, there are no slow gradual uphill ascensions in the second gospel.   

Immediately.  I think there is in another immediacy at work: The Spirit of God wanted to make sure her investment in Jesus was a proper choice, wisdom wanted to make sure she made a wise choice. 

Immediately.  There was even another immediacy at work: time was not on Jesus’ side.  He knew full well that time was not on his side, the average life of a peasant in 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation was only 30 years.  He knew his death was nearer rather farther away.  Could it be that the fear of failure so engulfed him that it almost won the day! 

            Immediately.  I believe there is something else going on here as well.  I believe Jesus was scared.  We will never know for certain what Jesus feared but there is no question his fears seized him.  My hunch is that Jesus had the same fear you and I all have: the fear of failure.  Why did he wait until he was 30 before embarking on his mission?  It took a poet, the re-creative force of creation, the voice of Yahweh God and the flight of a dove to awaken him.  And the awakening scared him.  When Jesus immediately went into the wilderness he was running away (and to) his fears.  And Jesus ran…the Spirit drove him…

            Let us pause and slow the text down for a few moments.  Mark wrote on the run, but we don’t have to read on the run.  Let us dwell this morning in the white space between the text.  Something happened in the wilderness.

In the wilderness our Lord and Saviour learned what we all learn in these types of situations: we cannot run from our problems, from conflict, from our fears they follow us wherever we go.  If we were to take a rocket ship to the moon and live there by ourselves we would take all of our fears, problems, and conflicts with us.  Over the span, that enchanting span of 40 (days) Jesus confronted his fears. 

            Imagine Jesus in the wilderness letting the events of his life sink in.  His fears did not rise up at once upon his arrival in the wilderness, but after the rush of his baptism wore off, after the adrenaline in his blood cured, after he finally looked around and began to think what in the world Yahweh God’s declaration of him being the Beloved, the one whom God was well pleased with, meant, then, then he embarked on the inward pilgrimage.  Once the journey began fear began bubbling up from the depths of his conscience, soul, and heart; the fears made their presence known. 

For an unspecified amount of time Jesus had been naming and realizing his fears, until one day he was ready to face them.  We have traditionally received this moment as the temptations of Jesus – and yes they are temptations by none other than the tempter par excellence, literally The Tempter, Ha Sa-tan.  (For the record I am not talking about a literal red suited dude with a trident, pointed tail, and suave looks.  I am, instead, referring to the spirit, the force, the presence, the principalities and powers, the experience of evil, anything and all in that category that calls/tempts/seduces/allures/teases/taunts us to be anything other than our full/true/authentic self.  The Biblical authors in their creativity personified this thing as Satan, feel free to do likewise – but if that aint your thing, fine – just don’t fool yourself into thinking evil on a personal and institutional level doesn’t exist).  Now back to the temptations; they are more than just temptations to do one thing in exchange for another – they are Satan’s temptations to take care of Jesus’ fears, to allow an outsider take away and alleviate his fears rather than confront them himself.  Satan, in a clever fashion, should we expect otherwise? tempts Jesus to allow him to control/manage his fear(s) with a set of conditionals:

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down
If you will bow down and worship me

            To each opportunity Jesus said NO.  In each instance Jesus stated he would confront his fears himself. 
            When Jesus stated over and over and over No to the opportunities presented by Satan he was beginning the process of cleansing his heart.  Jesus was developing a perfected love free of fear.  From that moment on he resolved, I may fail, but I will not allow the fear of failure keeping me from the work of my life. 

Let us look at this from another angle, with a question, what is the opposite of love?  {A literal pause}  I would say most if not all would say hate, hate is the opposite of love.  But from a biblical perspective hate is not the opposite of love, fear is.  Nestled in the 4th chapter of the first book of John (near the end of the New Testament) we find a beautiful sentence that illuminates fear as the strange antonym of love.  In the 14th century John Wycliff translated the passage this way, Drede is not in charite, but perfit charite puttith out drede; for drede hath peyne. But he that dredith, is not perfit in charite.”  A century and a half later William Tyndale (which the King James Version is largely modeled after) translated the passage in this manner, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out all fear, for fear hath painfulness. He that feareth is not perfect in love.”  At all costs we avoid our fears, of failure, of our hearts being broken.  But during our forty days in the metaphorical wilderness we too are presented with the opportunity to confront our fears and to begin to practice a fearless love.  Or to use a nice Methodist term, during Lent we are to begin the  sanctification/cleansing of the way we love. 

I have titled this sermon The Spirituality of Imperfection, a fine title for Lent, don’t you think?  We are imperfect creatures striving towards perfection.  We are striving for biblical perfection, wholeness or a practice of our authentic self.  Whole, complete is a much more biblical translation than perfect.  In the bible I used to have, I lost it, she was my favorite bible of all time, I had even gone so far to cross our perfect in Matthew 5:48 Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect to, “be authentic, be the full flourishing person reflecting the image of the One who loved you into being.”   

Now I have not mentioned myself at all during this sermon but I confess it is one of the most autobiographical sermons I have ever written.  For most of my 37 years of existence I allowed the fear of failure to haunt my days.  At times I have been able to rise above and pass over this fear but not always.  And then a few months ago I realized I had failed at the one thing I never thought I would fail at.  And then one day I began to laugh at myself and at my fear.  You mean this is it, this is what I was so afraid of?  As I worked on this sermon I kept running into homelitcal road blocks, it just didn’t make a bit of sense.  And then I smiled and realized the fear was back again.  I found myself saying, “It’s good to see you again.” 
In the 4th and 5th centuries young people from the four corners of the Roman Empire began emulating Jesus’ wilderness example; they went to wrestle with their fears.  They were successful but disillusioned citizen who left their comfortable lives to find their authentic selves.  In the course of a few decades abandoned cities in the deserts of North Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia became repopulated by this generation.  They went seeking the silence, freedom and the courage to fail.  And fail they did; they failed at almost everything.  And it seemed that those who failed the most, learned the most, and were thus elevated as spiritual mothers (Ammas) and fathers (Abbas).  From the experience of their failures exists a corpus of wisdom that is some of the most practical and authentic expressions of Christian life.  They learned how to live with imperfection and in some ways welcomed it.
Poemen said about John the Short that he asked the Lord to take away his passions. So his heart was at rest, and he went to a hermit and said, "I find that I am at peace, with no war between flesh and spirit."

The hermit said to him, "Go and ask the Lord to stir up a new war in you. Fighting is good for the soul."

When the conflict revived in him, he no longer prayed for it to be taken away, but said, "Lord, grant me the strength to endure this fight."

            The Christian life is a constant revisiting and refining of the same things over and over and over again.  We will cast out one fear only to have another appear and down the road the original fear we casted aside will reappear in a new and different expression.  And when that happens, we can meet our fears with a smile, “it’s you again.” 
You can picture Jesus re-entering society after his wilderness experience energized and excited to live without fear.   Mark’s transitional sentence for this seminal moment, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.”  Fear didn’t take holiday. It’s you again. 

When Jesus proclaimed, “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ it did not mean from that moment on he did not make any mistakes along the way.  It only meant he resolved not to run from his fears anymore, to love without the fear of failure.  He was going to give his life to healing, forgiving, and gracing creation into a new existence.  Brothers and Sisters mistakes will come, imperfect we will be, but let us embrace our imperfection, not suppress it.  Let us welcome fear, not run from it.  We too are called to participate in the healing, forgiving and gracing creation into a new existence but we cannot let fear run amuck and keep us from our authentic selves.  During this season of Lent let us resolve to cast out fear and love anew.  Or if you need a New Orleans jazz reference, he laid his burdens down by the riverside.  May we lay down our burdens (our fears) and begin to work towards a fearless love, a love supreme. 

            Amen and Amen.  

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