"Perfection" MCC Windsor, Epiphany 7 (February 23, 2014)
1 Corinthians 3:18-23
Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “God catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Holy One knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Creator in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Creator is perfect.”
Will you pray with and for me? Loving God, give us the courage to try to be like you. Remind us of your presence with us in our struggles as well as in our triumphs. Above all, grant us the grace to be willing to fall in our attempts to climb. In all your names, amen.
The Olympics. They have been the big news these last few weeks. Skiing, ice dance, snowboarding, biathalon, curling, luge, bobsled and what’s that other one? Oh, yes, hockey! I hear Canada did very well... These Olympics, like so many, have been filled with politics—from the virulent anti-LGBT laws of Russia to the violence in Kiev and several places in-between… But I want to put aside the politics and the controversies about doping and judging irregularities. I want to talk about the athletes, just the athletes. It takes a lot to get to the Olympics. I think we can all agree on that. No matter what the sport, it takes discipline and hard work—there are qualifying competitions before an athlete is even close to Olympic quality—and then they have to be chosen for the team. If any of you have read out Olympic diver Greg Louganis’ book, “Breaking the Surface,” you will know what I mean. He details his long road to the Olympics from learning to swim at his neighbourhood pool to the high school competitions and then university and then the competitive diving championships and so on—all the way to the Olympics. It is gruelling and hard and many people fall by the wayside. A single mistake can ruin an athlete’s score.
I had a friend who was a competitive swimmer. Tina was good—so good that her family moved from California to Illinois so that she could train with a certain coach. But at university, she left competitive swimming. Why? Because she saw the toll that competition at that level takes on the athletes. She had a good friend who was in the running for an Olympic berth—and lost it because her race time was one one-hundredth of a second off the next best competitor, and she lost points and was dropped from the pool of Olympic hopefuls. One one-hundredth of a second—that’s not even the blink of an eye! And yet it made all the difference to that one person—and her family and coach and teammates… All that she had been building towards was done, over, in that moment.
The Olympics seem to be about perfection—there can be no mistakes, no errors anywhere on the road upwards to the Olympic Games. Every competition must be won, every “I” dotted and every “t” crossed. No half-measures, no short-cuts, no easy way out. It is a challenge not every one can meet.
I could never, even in my most athletic moments (which were few, I assure you, even many pounds ago) have competed in any sport at even the high school level. I had some sports I enjoyed playing—baseball, volleyball, dressage, canoeing—but not competitively, even when I could still do all of them. The only one I could probably still do is canoeing, by the way… Athletes have gifts that the rest of us do not have—just as scientists do, and great chefs and amazing parents. But they don’t come to those peaks of excellence easily. Everyone who has achieved something great has done so through hard work, discipline, dedication—and failure.
Yes, I said failure. Because the only way to really learn how to do something right, with excellence, is to do it the wrong way hundreds of times. Any athlete, no matter their level of competition or achievement, will tell you they have made mistakes, they have failed. How many times do you think Bode Miller fell when he was learning to ski? How many games of hockey have the players on the Canadian team lost in their careers? Look at the skaters…when they fall in the middle of a routine, they have to get right up and back into their routine. You can’t do that if you don’t fall very often. They have fallen many times before and they know what to do—you get back up and keep going. When I was learning to ride, I fell off several times. You wouldn’t think it was hard to stay on a horse, but when the horse is moving and you are too…well, let’s just say it is very possible. In the classes I took, we probably had two falls a week among the group of us. What did we do? We got back on and tried again.
Here’s the thing. When you try for perfection—in skiing, in parenting, in cooking, in learning a language, in knitting—in anything—you are going to fail at some point. It is simply the way things are—there’s always going to be something that is more challenging that your skills can handle at that point. But if you don’t quit, if you don’t give up, if you get back up and keep skating, if you try that soufflé one more time, if you unravel your knitting and redo it—then you learn. You understand that you turned a little too sharply, or that you had the oven too hot, or you dropped a stitch—and next time you can do better.
Jesus says to his friends, “Try for perfection. God is your model—God is perfection. Do what seems counterintuitive—give more than you are asked for, be more gentle than you think you can be, go further than you are asked. That is the road to perfect.”
It does seem backwards to us—to do the opposite of what we want to do, which is strike back, give up on that stupid knitting, that impossible soufflé, do only what is absolutely required. But Paul tells the Corinthians that is what they must do to—in order to be wise, they must be willing to be foolish. They have to be willing to fall off the horse, make a flat soufflé, drop a few stitches.
So Jesus isn’t talking about being perfect people everyday all the time. That is impossible. But what he is talking about is making the attempt.
Yes, it’s a challenge. Yes, it is difficult. But we don’t try, we will never make it. The British author G.K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” It is hard to do those things—to leave ourselves open to further pain when we have been hurt, to go further than we are asked. But unless we try to do those things, we will never know if we could do them. We think they are hard—and they are. We think we can’t do them—but we don’t know. If we try and fail, what of it? We can always try again. We can learn from our mistakes, our failures—those fallen soufflés, those ruined ski runs and knitting projects. We learn from them, and we try again.
The thing is, that when we get up and try again, we learn two lessons—what we should have done or not done that led us to fail, and secondly that we can get up and try again. And again, and again and again. And when we have mastered that lesson—the right temperature for the oven, the right number of stitches, the exact bend of our knee to make the turn—another comes up. Did we beat the batter too much or use the wrong kind of yarn or the wrong sort of wax? We fall again, and get up and try again.
It isn’t easy, and we run the risk of looking foolish. While it is heartbreaking on many levels to crash out of an Olympic ski run, part of that pain is embarrassment; I was embarrassed to fall off my horse several times in one week when learning a new movement in dressage. But being willing to face that momentary embarrassment, being determined to try again, to reach for the perfection—that is what we are meant to be doing.
Are we up for that challenge? It is not a challenge to reach a goal—be able to bake a light soufflé, win a gold medal, make a sweater—but simply to be on that journey, to keep taking those steps, keep going even when you fall, or drop a stitch or the soufflé falls.
Can we take up that challenge? Living into the Christian ideal is difficult—but if we can only try, every day, reach for that perfection--then we are on that journey, we are working towards being more like God.
Don't be afraid to fall--for that is how we learn, and we are always learning, because we fall so often. Get back up and keep going--it is in that discipline, that faith, that determination, that we can reach for perfection. Take that challenge and strive for perfection. In all God's names, amen.