Perfection is exhausting. Have you ever tried to be perfect or to do something perfectly? Imagine what happens to your nerves when you’re eight frames into rolling a 300-game in bowling. Something you’ve successfully done seven times in a row needs to be done five more times in a row or you’ve failed, so your heart rate picks up, your palms sweat, and you begin to doubt. A perfect game in baseball – 27 batters up, 27 down – is surrounded by all sorts of superstitions, including the team ignoring the pitcher the longer the game goes on. They don’t want to be the one who jinxes perfection. Or maybe you’ve just been playing the golf round of your life. Par after par. A birdie here or there. You’re finally going to score lower than the person who is better than you week after week, but as the round goes on you start thinking more and more about each shot. A putt rims out that you had lined up just right. The chase to excellence leaves you exhausted.
Sports are a great metaphor for what happens in life. Perfection is rare and difficult. None of us are perfect people, and when we get caught up in trying to be perfect – or at least in trying to be our best selves – we get more and more exhausted. Even if we pull off perfection for a few days in row, we know something is going make our house of cards collapse sooner or later. Trying to get it all right is impossible for us, and yet most of us spend a significant amount of time, money, and energy trying to be our best selves, to capture the perfect body, to snag the perfect deal, to be the perfect parent. I know I am guilty of those inclinations, and I suspect you are at times too.
So, I have some good news for us today. God knows we’re not perfect, and God does not expect perfection. This may fly in the face of some things you’ve heard in church before. Perhaps I’ve even said things that have made you think you really have to get working harder at perfection. But Christianity is not supposed to be about perfection and exhausting ourselves on the way there. It is the way to healing and wholeness. It is the way of abundant life.
Now, the psalm we heard a few minutes ago seems to challenge that very thought, doesn’t it? Who can get close to God? it asks. Who are those who get into the inner circle, who can claim the best pew in church? The psalm answers with quite a list. Who gets in? The blameless. The law-abiding. The truthful. Those who don’t speak badly about others, who only do good things for their friends and neighbors. Those who are so good that they can sit in judgment. Those who stay true to their word, who lend for free, or who cannot be bought. It’s quite a list.
Thinking through the stories of the Old Testament, can any of the major figures earn their way into God’s presence? Not Abraham, who lied multiple times to save his own skin. Not Moses, who killed Egyptians and buried the evidence. Not David, who stole his neighbor’s wife. No, no one in the stories surrounding this psalm can really make the grade to enter God’s presence. One psalm earlier the poet laments that “there is no one righteous, not even one” (14:3).
Yet, centuries after this psalm came to be, someone came along who did check all those boxes. His name is Jesus. What Abraham, Moses, and David, among many others were unable to do, Jesus was worthy of doing. God knew that no one could engage with God’s holy perfection without some sort of accommodation. Throughout history, God made ways for these connections. That’s the whole purpose of the sacrificial system, for example. Yet the constant cycle of unworthiness, repentance, sacrifice, restoration – wash, rinse, repeat – leads to the same exhaustion that perfectionism demands. So, God in Christ made a way where there was no way. This is grace – unmerited favor – that brings us into God’s wonderful presence without the need for us to labor at perfection. This is grace that allows us to rest in God’s great love for us and to find peace with God, with others, and with ourselves.
But there’s a double grace when it comes to Jesus. Yes, God in Christ has made a way for peace, but it comes with a second dose of grace that, by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, drives us towards being more fully those whom God created us to be. That is, God loves us as we are AND God loves us so much not to let us stay as we are. God is at work in our lives making us more and more like Christ.
This brings up this question for me: On whom are we dependent? Who is the source of our strength? I think for many of us we’d answer that with ourselves. We rely on ourselves – our ability to improve, to act, to change. But, I want to challenge that notion a bit today, not because I don’t think we have a role to play but because we jump right over the source itself.
Think about it this way. An electric car can drive a lot of miles apart from the source of its power. It’s designed that way. It can go and go and go, but if it never gets plugged back into the source of its energy, then it just becomes a useless mass of metal, plastic, rubber, and glass. We could say the same for anything that becomes detached from its source of life for too long. That includes us.
This past Wednesday I was part of our midweek service that uses liturgy from the Iona Community in Scotland. Together we shared an affirmation of faith from that community that spoke straight to our propensity to distance ourselves from Christ and to Jesus’ relentless welcome of us back. It uses “over and over again” as an anchor. Listen to these words.
We believe in a bright and amazing God,
who has been to the depths of despair on our behalf,
who has risen in splendor and majesty,
who decorates the universe with sparkling water,
clear white light, twinkling stars, and bright colors,
over and over again.
We believe that Jesus is the Light of the World;
that God believes in us,
forgives and trusts us
even though we make the same mistakes
over and over again.
We commit ourselves to Jesus,
and so to one another as sisters and brothers,
renewing our life as a human family
over and over again.
We commit ourselves to asking questions,
to being open to illumination,
to living in the light of the Spirit. Amen.
Over and over again. God decorates the universe over and over again. God believes in us even though we falter over and over again. Yet, we commit ourselves to Jesus, to be like him, over and over again.
We cannot do this alone or on our own strength. We need Jesus’ help, but if we do not connect with Jesus on the regular, then we will fail. Jesus is the source of what empowers us with grace to do and be better. I think that’s the reason behind a lot of the anger and burnout we’re seeing in our world today. We’re desperate to fix things. We are eager to get our own way, so we rush towards action. We are angry, sad, and hurting, which is understandable in such a time, but it also reflects that we are weary of doing life on our own strength, disconnected from Jesus, the source of life for us.
I see a connection between the gift of grace – both for eternal salvation and for living a life of wholeness now – and our reading from James. “Every perfect gift is from above,” James writes, and then the passage proceeds to speak about the gifts of obedience and what those look like. Eugene Peterson renders verse 19 like this: “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”
When I was a child in the ‘80s, my parents had one of those “woody” station wagons. Do you remember those? They had fake wood paneling on the sides and three rows of seats. In ours, the very back seat faced backwards, so I remember sitting back there and using my fingers to shoot at the cars behind me. When I read this passage this week, I thought of our old station wagon. James wants our listening to be in the front seat. I picture Jesus driving here – Jesus, take the wheel, right? But our ears need to be riding shotgun with Jesus, striving to listen to him, our source of life. In the second row, our speaking takes its place. When we try to speak from the second row, we need to really consider how important our words are. They certainly are less important than our ability to truly hear from Jesus and from each other. Our speech makes a terrible backseat driver. Relegated to the backwards-facing seat in the rear is our anger. It’s probably back there stewing over something and taking it out with its finger-guns in the rear, but it’s powerless when we put it in the right place. It can’t even get out of the car without someone going around and opening the tailgate.
Yet often we move our anger to the driver’s seat. Our tongues move up into the passenger seat so we can yell our displeasure to everyone around us. Our anger and our speaking have kicked Jesus and our listening into the very back of the car, where they are cannot keep us from wrecking everything we encounter.
Dear brothers and sisters, do you find yourself with your anger taking the wheel? There’s plenty out there that is unjust and in need of repair, but is anger solving it? What if we put Jesus in the driver’s seat? What if we valued truly listening to Jesus and to others, so much so that we prioritized listening over speaking or posting on social media? What if we put anger in its proper place – the powerless toddler in the backseat pretending it had the power to change the world.
Only Jesus has the power to change the world. When we stay connected to Jesus, our source of power, strength, and love, we receive the grace of becoming more like him. It is only in becoming like Christ that we can make a difference to the hurts of the world. Stay connected to Jesus. Stay connected. It will keep you from exhaustion and make a difference in you and the world.