Have you ever known anyone, and please don’t speak out loud if you have, who couldn’t enjoy anything unless everything about something was perfect in every way? I’m talking about people who can only enjoy an event or an art piece or a concert or a book or an anthem or a sermon or a play or a relationship or a job IF everything about whatever it is, is flawless. I asked you not to speak out loud in answer to my rhetorical question, and I’ll have to ask you not to point either.
Well, I have known some people like that--not in this church or this city--but in other churches I’ve served and in other cities in which I’ve lived. Some of them are young idealists; some of them are disillusioned older skeptics. Usually, the younger ones aren’t unhappy yet because they still believe they will be able to find their utopias; the older ones, though, having been so often disappointed, are generally rather unhappy if not bitter, and when the younger ones are older, they will join the ranks of the sadly dissatisfied.
It’s unrealistic to expect that any human being or human institution will be or can be perfect since, as far as I know, human beings are by nature imperfect. I didn’t say “by nature immoral”; that is absolutely untrue. I said “imperfect.” Nearly all of us make mistakes, and I do use the plural here intentionally. I don’t know of any mistakes I’ve made so far today, but chances are, by the end of the day, I will have made some kind of mistake. Hopefully, it will not be the kind of mistake that offends someone or, worse, actually hurts someone. Before the day is out, though, I could make a wrong turn. I could remember incorrectly and, thus, state as fact what isn’t fact at all. I could make the wrong food choice at a meal. I could mis-trim my beard causing it or my whole face to look a little lopsided or to look to a beard-trimming perfectionist like I’m careless and unkempt.
I would hope that those who love me will still love me at the end of the day, even if I’ve made several mistakes before I crawl into bed. I know, though, that there are some people out there who would not find me suitable company if I made any or all of these mistakes before nightfall.
When I announced my impending divorce to my congregation in Baltimore, I was, for the most part, supported and encouraged. The deacons met and voted unanimously that they wanted me to stay, that I was still of value as a person and had not lost the competencies necessary to perform pastoral duties. I was asked to attend the meeting but directed to leave the room by the Deacon Chair, Doris Heaver, when the vote was taken. Then she called me back into the parlor where we met, and she said, “I want you to see this.” It was a much larger congregation, and we had twelve or fifteen active deacons at any given time. She said to them, “For David’s benefit, I want him to see how many of you believe that his divorce will not impair his ministry and, thus, that we want him to remain as our pastor.” Every hand in the room went up, and I couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down my cheeks.
I did not know until much later that Doris, who had been an Army MASH nurse during World War II and was the toughest cookie to be found anywhere, had told the Deacons after I’d left the room that they could get home in an hour, at midnight, or just in time for breakfast the next morning. It was their choice, she said, but she would not adjourn the meeting until every deacon was willing to vote in the affirmative.
Actually, I don’t know if that story is true or not; I heard it after Doris died, after I was already here at Silverside. What I suspect happened was that her comment to the deacons before the vote was not as direct as in the legendary version of the story that evolved over some years. I suspect that Doris said whatever she said laughingly as if joking a bit, but all the deacons knew that she wasn’t playing at all. I think had any one of them actually been disinclined to endorse me, she or he would certainly not have been pressured to vote against conscience, and they were wonderfully supportive. It was a highly affirming moment.
In contrast, an attorney in the church, a little younger than I, whom I thought was my best friend in the congregation wrote me I believe the nastiest note I’ve ever received from a church member. He said I now repulsed him, and because I was unfit to serve a role model for his children he was leaving the church. I won’t tell you what I knew about his personal or professional antics, but I will say that he had much more reason to be concerned about the life he was living before his children than with where I should be listed on the role model for children scale. At the moment, I can’t recall any act by a congregant that hurt me more than that letter, and--sad to say--it’s a pretty long list.
I am not a perfect person, and I am not a perfect pastor. I did not portray myself as perfect personally or professionally to the pastor search committee of University Baptist Church or the pastor search committee of Silverside Church. If you’re looking for perfection every day and in every way, then I’m not your guy. If you think of me as imperfect, and I know some of you do because I’ve kept your emails, but functional and maybe even lovable despite my imperfections then I’m your guy. That’s how I think of you. Imperfect, but still of great value as human beings and as members or friends of Silverside Church. I hope those of you who think you’re perfect aren’t put off that I see you as imperfect, and I certainly hope I’m not the first ever to break that news to you. I still love you and am proud to claim you as one of my congregants.
Here’s the way it has to work in this world. Imperfection does not signal the absence of worth all together. I made many mistakes as a parent; if you don’t believe me, just ask my sons, which, of course, will have to be somewhere other than church for obvious reasons. They remember some of my mistakes with greater clarity and in greater detail than I remember them. I believe they would also tell you that, overall, I was a good dad; I hope so because nothing in my life has been more important to me than that. Imperfect, but still loving and available and encouraging. The mistakes that I made as a father did not invalidate me as a good dad.
The line that the actor stumbled over did not ruin the whole play or mean that the actor is worthless and should be banned from show business.
Bill Clinton’s affair did not make him an ineffective president.
The one ride at the theme park lacking the thrills the ads promised doesn’t make the whole theme park a worthless recreational site.
The one bad meal at a restaurant doesn’t mean all food served there is garbage.
The one irritating habit, however nerve-wracking or irritating, does not make him a bad husband or her a bad wife. If he never learns to lift up the seat, he can still be an excellent partner and husband. If she never learns to make meatloaf like your mother or balance the books like your father did, she can still be the best partner and wife for you in this world. Snoring should not be grounds for divorce; neither should telling you where to turn even after you’ve made the trip fifty times. The inability to make a decent cup of coffee should not be grounds for divorce; neither should obsessive-compulsive cleaning.
One editorial oversight doesn’t make an otherwise outstanding novel a bad read; not does it mean the editor at fault has seen her or his better days and should be put out to pasture.
The person who doesn’t agree with your politics isn’t thereby proven to be an idiot when it comes to politics or to life in general.
I don’t believe any kind of singular isolated error on an academic paper automatically throws that paper out of “A” range, but I had a high school English teacher--my senior year I think--who said that one misspelled word on a paper--and this was long, long before word processing software, friends--instantly got a grade of “F,” no questions asked.
One picture slightly mis-hung doesn’t mean that the homeowner who did her own decorating is inept at interior decorating.
And one bad apple does NOT spoil the whole barrel if the person who bought a whole barrel at one time takes the bad one out of the barrel before it affects the other apples. If a whole barrel of apples goes bad, my dear friends, that is not the fault of the apples.
One of the huge debates in the history of the Christian Church has been over the nature of humanity--specifically, is humanity naturally depraved or is humanity naturally inclined to do good? I hate to have to be the one to tell you this if you don’t know, but depravity won out; and I sense that more Christians today still believe that human beings are fundamentally flawed morally speaking than that human beings are born with an inclination toward good or at least are born neutral in that area. There are many hymns in our current hymnal that we don’t sing precisely because the hymn writer has a clear bias toward human depravity, and most of us at Silverside, as far as I know, don’t share that view. At least Melissa and I don’t share it so we skip those hymns.
We rightly think of the Moravian Church as a loving group identified with and defined by their beautiful and moving “Love Feast.” Their founder, however, was preoccupied with the notion of human depravity, and this obsession comes out in many of the 2000 hymns he wrote. Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf was a good guy, but he just couldn’t get the human tendency to do evil out of his consciousness. The most famous of his hymns translated into English is “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness.”
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Bold shall I stand in Thy great day;
For who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.
Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
Which, at the mercy seat of God,
Forever doth for sinners plead,
For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.
Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.
Oh, but he wasn’t the only one by any means.
Here’s another one. This one was written by Julia Johnston.
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt
Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
Threaten the soul with infinite loss;
Grace that is greater, yes, grace untold,
Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.
Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can we do to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.
John Calvin, who picked up Martin Luther’s Reformation energy and spread it through the French-speaking part of Switzerland and into France itself, loved the doctrine of human depravity. Luther and Calvin certainly didn’t agree on all points of theology, and Calvin probably had the lowest view of humanity of any of the most renowned historic theologians of the Church. Influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo, Calvin believed the humans are so immersed in sin that the only explanation for it has to be that they are born with sin in them; this perspective came to be called the doctrine of original sin. Here is one of Calvin’s comments on his favorite doctrine: “Original sin, therefore, appears to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all the parts of the soul, rendering us obnoxious to the divine wrath and producing in us those works which the scripture calls ‘works of.’” It seems as if the quote is incomplete, but he undoubtedly has in mind scriptural references to works of darkness such as what Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus: “Have nothing to do with works of darkness. Instead, expose them for what they are” (Eph 5:11, paraphrase).
Here is a scathing criticism of the Church by E. Haldeman-Julius. You need to brace yourself to hear him through:
As a moral influence, the church has been notoriously lacking and indeed marred with definite viciousness and error. It has supported all the social evils (monarchy, slavery, intolerance, the oppression of women, and the like) that shame the record of man--and some of these evils the church has not merely supported but has inaugurated: the appalling slaughter and vileness of bigotry and the punishment of heretics must, as a red-splashed feature, be laid at the door of the church. The moral notions of the church have been at once brash and puerile. Ethics, in the view and preachment of the church, have been subordinated to theology. No institution has done less good and more harm in the moral sphere than has the church. The student of history cannot avoid the conclusion that, had it not been for the distorting influence of the church, mankind would today be immeasurably farther advanced along the Path of a progressive, humane, intelligent code of behavior. The church's pronouncements on morality have always been corrupted (that is to say, weakened and broken and rendered futile) by its refusal to understand that morality is solely a consideration of human, social adjustments and is, from first to last, a worldly concern. The church's preoccupation with "sin" has disabled it from approaching moral questions sensibly.
Jesus was much more critical of those who stood back in judgment of others whom they called sinners than he was of those whom the critics criticized. The “religious right” of Jesus’ day, the scribes and the Pharisees, believed that they kept all the religious laws that Judaism had established. There were a few hundred of these laws, and the scribes and Pharisees probably bragged truthfully; from all indications, they did keep all the rules. In their minds, that meant they were sinless. Jesus criticized them for holding those views and trying to palm them off on others; essentially, for the scribes and Pharisees, anyone who failed to keep all the laws they kept were thereby proven to be sinners, excluded by their own actions from God’s love and care. Jesus made them irate when he told them that they could keep all the rules and more and still be sinners. As I usually say when summarizing the teachings of Jesus, Jesus didn’t believe in religion as rules; he believed in religion as relationship with God. A connection to God will lead us to do acts of love, but not as rules.
A scribe or a Pharisee would say, “Eww, I stay away from and have nothing to do with sinners and other unclean types.”
Jesus would say, “If you have a connection with God, you don’t need a book of rules; it will make sense to you, you will naturally find yourself, being kind to and doing what you can do for the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned.”
The scribes and Pharisees would come back at Jesus with, “Eww, those kinds of people are immoral or unclean or both. We’re going no where near them, but we will keep the rules. We don’t work on the sabbath. We honor our parents, and we give exactly a tenth of our money and/or our livestock and/or our crops as offerings to God. We stay away from sinners too.”
Jesus would say again exactly what he’d already said, “If you have a connection with God, you don’t need a book of rules; it will make sense to you, you will naturally find yourself, being kind to and doing what you can do for the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned. You won’t be able to keep yourself away from strugglers, as a matter of fact.”
The Church corporately became consumed with criticizing what it called individual sin and lost sight altogether of its own institutional sin. Even so, the Church hammered and hammered into people’s heads the idea that they were horrid sinners deserving of death and hellfire until many of them, most of them believed it.
A mistake is not a sin. Sin is an intentional act, a conscious act of rebellion against God. Even though that is not something to be proud of, it doesn’t make someone who commits a sin a low down, worthless, dirty dog. The consequences of committing a sin are not God’s judgments or punishments; they are the inherent results of doing a bad deed. If you make a monogamous commitment to your spouse and then break that bond, you may lose your marriage and access to your children. God didn’t plan that for you; the legal system did.
What I’m trying to get around to saying is much of the Church’s preoccupation with sin came from the Pharisees and their descendants who said and who are still saying, “One little flaw, and you become suddenly a worthless pile of humanity. Good for nothing and deserving of God’s wrath and eternal punishment.”
Fortunately, God doesn’t have or share human emotions like hatred and anger and the desire to see people who offend us punished. More fortunately, God doesn’t take note of our single flaw or our several flaws and use those to try to diminish our worth as human beings. God lovingly says, instead, “There’s a flaw; let’s get that repaired before it gets worse.”
One of the fascinating aspects of Koine or “common” Greek is that most key words at their roots have a picture to project. The word for “baptize,” for example, pictures something submerged in water--not permanently. The word we translate as “parable,” pictures throwing one object along side another, which is exactly what Jesus did with his parables; he threw one alongside a slice of life to help people, through comparison, get a perspective or a new perspective on some spiritual truth.
The Greek word that’s important for us today is an archery term, amartia, or in earlier times when a rough breathing mark was worked into the pronunciation, hamartia. We read and spoke about it in the Response of the People a few minutes ago so you know that even though it is translated as “sin,” a word which now has more baggage than the lost luggage area at the New Orleans airport, the picture behind the word is of an archer who misses the mark. She or he might miss the bullseye, or as some linguists have thought the picture might be of an archer who misses the target completely. The arrow goes over or under or to one side of the target. In either case, the arrow is aimed, and the bow sends it speeding toward the target. The arrow ends up somewhere the archer hadn’t intended--either to the left or the right of the bullseye or over in a field somewhere because it missed the target all together.
Now, in its earliest usage, in pre-Christian times, there was no horrible humanity associated with the word “sin”; it was the Greek world to describe an act that fell short of what it was intended or should have been intended to accomplish. I meant to give alms to the poor, but in my haste to get home to my family I didn’t do that. I’m not a reprobate, but I missed the mark. I can try again tomorrow to make the matter right, but today I missed the mark; I sinned. I had a little money to share that might have made the difference in whether or not someone got to eat, but I didn’t share it.
I heard some people at work criticizing another coworker who happens to be a pal of mine--a little nerdy, a little goofy, but a really good guy; somebody who’d come to my aid in a flash if I needed help. I heard the office gossips giving him down the road, making fun of him behind his back, and having a big laugh at his expense even though he didn’t know it. I didn’t join in, but neither did I say, “You don’t have any right to be making fun of Joe. He gets his job done on time. He’s steady and dependable, and besides, he’s my friend so if you’re lame enough to think putting people down to make yourselves feel better about you, have your gossip fests where I can’t see you or hear you. Stay off Joe’s back.” I could have said that. I should have said that. I envisioned myself saying it, but I didn’t say it. I sinned; I missed the mark. I’m not an ax murderer or a politician; I’m not a discredit to humanity, but I had it in me today to do better; and I didn’t. I wasn’t a friend to Joe today.
Instead of being a word used to confirm over and over again that I’m filled with and attached to evil like all other human beings, it’s a word that means I’m a regular guy with the natural capacity to do good even though I don’t always make the right choices. I miss the mark, and keep on missing the mark. Sometimes I do better than at other times, but I keep choosing not to do the best thing. It’s not insignificant, but it’s a far cry from evil.
Lord Chesterfield said: “Aim at perfection in everything, though in most things it is unattainable. However, they who aim at it, and persevere, will come much nearer to it than those whose laziness and despondency make them give it up as unattainable.”
The target is before me. I see it clearly. I have a good strong bow, and some nicely shaped and sharpened arrows. I aim for the target, kinda sorta, but I lose my focus or my lack of practice catches up with me. I’m caught. The arrow skims the top of the target and is lost in the woods. I missed the mark. A little more practice, a little more focus, I could have hit that target. I know I could have! I’m a human being, though, and I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. I don’t have to, but I do. Joseph Addison made this observation: “It is only imperfection that complains of what is imperfect. The more perfect we are the more gentle and quiet we become towards the defects of others.”
The world would be a better place if I didn’t miss the mark, and I want to keep trying not to. I can’t give up on me, and I can’t give up on the world. Knowing all that, there are still likely to be times when I’m going to miss the mark. Perfection isn’t going to overtake me, and my flaws aren’t going to make me a worthless human being. I’m going to hit the target sometimes, and sometimes I’m going to miss the mark. I’m not proud of that or OK with it; I want to improve both my skill and my motivation. If it takes longer than I’d planned; I have some friends willing to help me. While seeking to improve, though, nothing is accomplished by putting myself down and being talked into thinking of myself as so imperfect that I’m evil.
If you have come up in a religious environment where directly or indirectly you’ve been told that regardless of what you do, at your core as a human you are morally depraved--alienated from God and in need of deliverance from your depravity, I want you to know that if well-intentioned people told you that, hoping you’d “get saved” from the evil that motivates you from your core, they were wrong about you. God the Creator didn’t create you as an evil entity so that every act you do is naturally evil; instead, God created you with the capacity to do good. You don’t always use that gift to do the good thing or the right thing; sometimes you half try, and you miss the mark. You could have done better, but missing the mark doesn’t make you evil; and that is baggage that has to be dropped and left behind for good.
In a seeker’s community we encourage good deeds of ourselves and others. We take the needs of others, especially strugglers, very seriously, but if we miss the mark we do not think we have fallen out of favor with God; and we do not think we, thereby, have joined forces with evil. We will do better next try.