SCRIPTURE – 2 Cor. 12:1-10
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Plastic Jesus sermon series
7 – Imperfection: The Curse of the Unmowed Lawn
Sept. 25, 2011
We finish our “Plastic Jesus” sermon series today, and I hope God has spoken to you at some point through it. As we have sought to go deeper than our suburban spirituality defined by comfort, convenience and security, I know God has held a mirror up to my life. After one of the sermons, a congregation member going through the line after church looked at me and simply said, “Ouch.” I would echo that sentiment. Whenever God shines a light into the dark places in our lives, we often respond with an “ouch.”
That really gets at the heart of today’s sermon, as well, because I think so few of us are willing to say “ouch” in our lives, at least out loud. What I mean by that is there is something at work in our suburban spirituality and our lives that tells us it’s bad to let on that you are hurt or vulnerable or less than perfect. As the commercial says, “Don’t ever let ‘em see you sweat.”
Here’s an example. Our former house sat on a corner lot, and we found that we tended to get a lot of dandelions in our yard, many more than the neighbor’s. It’s like we were running dandelion interference for the rest of the neighborhood. And I noticed that a neighbor across the street who also has a corner lot never had as many dandelions as us. I saw him outside one time and was tempted to go over and ask him what he did to his yard to keep the weeds out, but I didn’t, because doing so would reveal that I didn’t know how to take care of it myself. And I didn’t want him or anyone else in my neighborhood to know that I didn’t know something, even though they could figure that out just by looking at all the convention in my front yard.
Now, I know I don’t know everything. And I’m sure my neighbor knew I don’t know everything. And I know that you all know I don’t know everything. Even my daughters are finding that out. But there’s something in us that is hesitant to admit the undeniable fact that we are all human. So we mow our lawns and wash our cars and put on nice clothes to cover up the imperfection and hurt and pain of what’s on the inside.
This becomes especially true when our humanity shows through in less acceptable ways. I talked a few weeks ago about image management, how we work hard to maintain a certain image, and will go out of our way to keep up that appearance. We hate the idea of dandelions in our lawn and what it says about us, so we water it and fertilize it and manicure it and spray chemicals on it to keep up its appearance. And we do the same thing with our lives; we hide what hurts or what we consider socially unacceptable in order to keep up the perfectly pristine exterior we present to others.
Therefore, perfection, as defined by the world, means a life where nothing is broken, out of place, or damaged. The marriage is fine, the kids are fine, the finances are fine, our health is fine. Eric Sandras says, “Life in spiritual suburbia encourages us to hide the ugly or uncomfortable or painful parts of our lives from others and from God. After all, no one else seems broken.”
Sandras says this destructive mindset carries over into our faith. We don’t want anyone to think that we aren’t secure in what we believe, so we pretend to have a great relationship with Christ, even when we are wracked with doubt or discouragement. Sandras says, “It is easy for us to drift toward simply acting as if we are intimate with Christ, when the truth is that we are simply functioning out of a sense of duty, just as we might with a business partner.” It’s Cotton Candy spirituality, taking a little substance and puffing it up in order to make it look like there’s more there to impress others.
This whole demand on our lives that we be perfect is enough to drive you crazy. We easily fall into the trap of envy, like I did with my neighbor’s dandelion-free lawn. Now, I don’t know this guy; he might secretly chew with his mouth open or forward chain letter emails. I’m sure if I went digging through is garbage I’d find at least one or two recyclables that he had thrown in the trash. But all I saw, when looking at his lawn, was the stark reminder than I’m not perfect enough. Winston Churchill said, “They say nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they would make up their minds.” I want to say that same thing to Paul in today’s reading. He says that, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Pick a lane, Paul!
That makes no sense. Nobody wants to be thought of us weak. Frail. Feeble. Flawed. Imperfect. And yet Paul lifts it up as a desirable goal in life, to be weak.
I think we need to redefine perfection. I think we need to get off the hamster wheel that is the pursuit of the perfect life, to admit that we have places in our lives that are broken. Our culture finds no value in broken things, but God finds redemptive value in them. As Paul says, God’s grace is sufficient for us because God’s power is made, not good, not better, but perfect in our weakness.
Maybe perfection isn’t a goal to be pursued but a state of being, a state of being defined not by lack of weakness, but by the joy we exude in the midst of our weakness. In his book “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Mitch Albom recounts a series of conversations he has with a former professor whose body is slowly deteriorating from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. One day Albom asked Morrie, “What would you do if you had one day where you were perfectly (Albom’s word) healthy?”
Morrie replied, “Let’s see. I’d get up in the morning, do my exercises, have a lovely breakfast of sweet rolls and tea, go for a swim, then have my friends come over for a nice lunch. I’d have them come one or two at a time so we could talk about their families, their issues, talk about how much we mean to each other. Then I’d go for a walk, in a garden with some trees, take in the nature I haven’t seen in so long now. In the evening, we’d all go together to a restaurant with some great pasta, maybe some duck and then we’d dance the rest of the night. And then I’d go home and have a deep, wonderful sleep.”
Albom says, “That’s it? It was so simple. So average. I was actually a little disappointed. After all these months, lying there unable to move a leg or a foot – how could he find perfection in such an average day? Then I realized this was the whole point.”
Maybe the perfection we seek in our suburban spirituality isn’t to be found in trying to be more and better than we are, but in being authentic in who we really are with God and with others. Maybe being perfect means being willing to invite others – including God – into our lives, past the shiny façade and into the dusty crawlspaces. What we’ll likely find is that not only does everyone have baggage, but some of it may even match ours. C.S. Lewis says the mark of true friendship is when one person says to another, “What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.” Being perfect means opening yourself up to relationships with others at a deep, human level, and being willing to discuss doubt, discouragement, and dandelions.
Not only will we grow in our relationships with each other, but also in our relationship with God. The pursuit of perfection in this world contaminates our spirituality, because we seem to believe we have to achieve certain prerequisites – be clean enough or respectable enough or religious enough – before we can come to God. Some people believe it is possible to sin too much, wander too far, or mess up too big to come to God, that our lives have to be dust bunny-free before we can invite God over. But I believe the opposite is true. God loves us not in spite of who we are, but because of it. Jesus, God’s only son, wasn’t born in a sterile hospital room or a lavish palace, but in the brokenness of poverty, in a manger. God is drawn to people who invite him into their brokenness.
Here’s the truth, as I see it and have experienced it. Perfect lawns don’t mean perfect people. Clean houses don’t mean clean lives. Big homes don’t mean close family relationships. Cross necklaces and Christian bumper stickers don’t mean a faithful, Christ-like life. But somehow perpetuating a socially acceptable image has become more important than being authentic. So we busy ourselves pursuing perfection on the outside so as not to have to face what’s inside, the damaged relationships or failing health or nagging doubts.
But God loves you because of those things. God created you, so God knows you better than anyone else, even better than yourself. He’s knows where your dandelions are. And God wants us to drop any pretense that we’re anything other than who we are, and then to simply ask, “God, here is my weakness. Make me perfect.”
What does that mean for us? We may think it means removing the dandelions, but it doesn’t. We pray for God to take away the things that keep us from being perfect, and instead God gives us the strength to endure those things, or the grace to live with them. I pray for God to take away my life as a control connoisseur, and instead God constantly puts me in situations I can’t control. I pray for God to take away my impatience, and instead God puts me in situations where I have to practice being patient. I pray for God to take away the dandelions, and instead God gives me a new appreciation for having a lawn to call my own. I may not be perfect, but I’m on my way.
As I understand Jesus, in his teachings and his life, being perfect simply means being faithful. Sometimes that means living against the grain of our culture, which has a numbing effect on our spirituality. It takes work not to lose your soul amidst the traps of spiritual suburbia. But with Christ’s help, we can strive each day to be a little more faithful than we were yesterday, loving each other and caring for each other and serving each other because of who we were created to be. Perfection is not a destination; it is in the journey itself. If we are faithful in our love and service, no matter how imperfectly, then we can trust that, in our weakness, God will make us perfect.