Sermon: Imperfect Saints

10.12.2014     Preaching Text: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” (Philippians 4:1)

 In some ways our two readings from scripture – Exodus 32 and Philippians 4 – seem light years apart.

In Exodus, the faithful are portrayed as fickle and cowardly, giving up altogether on Moses (and God) in order to serve the Golden Calf, an inanimate idol – which in turn requires the once again put-upon Moses to talk God out of punishing them.

In Philippians, in contradistinction, Paul’s words to the faithful are warm if not laudatory. He refers to the church as “my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for,” who are “my joy and crown.”

The Philippians text and its expression of love and affection can lead to a common misperception among many church-goers today. Specifically, we assume that the early church was a model of faith and decorum. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear people encouraging the church to return to its earliest biblical roots, presumably to recapture its now-lost purity and authenticity.

In his daily devotional, Beyond Words, Fred Buechner counters this perception, citing Paul’s challenge in finding the help he needed to spread Christ’s word:

“Where was it all going to get all of them, any of them, in the end? When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God’s sweet sake, sending them all out – prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch – to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?

“God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body anymore, so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he or she might just possible do.

“He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was someplace where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some, maybe not all that innocent, bystander, and got that person to go and be Christ in that place for lack of anybody better.”

In general, there are two ways we commonly demur in serving Christ. One way is to think of Jesus as wholly divine, as God, forgetting that he was as human as we are. As such, we are excused from doing the things he urges us to do because, after all, we’re only human, i.e. incapable.

The second approach is closely related. Here we assume the depths of our mere humanity, to the exclusion of all else. In other words, we are overly aware of our faults and foibles. And so even if we were to agree that Christ uses some people to do his bidding, we’re pretty sure he’s not going to use us!

The fact that I’m standing here this morning is a case in point. If you had told me in my early twenties that I would be doing what I’m doing now, I’d have thought you a bit misguided – at best. I still remember standing in the pulpit of my home church, only the second time I’d ever preached, shaking from head to toe!

Why would anybody want to listen to me? I thought. What possible insights could I offer regarding life and faith? I’d read a few books, it’s true, but I was pretty sure I lacked both the life experiences and the personal qualifications to tell anybody anything.

I was keenly aware of my faults, as most of us are. Speaking big words of truth, of right and wrong, of mysteries wondrous and deep seemed a bit premature, if not altogether preposterous. Surely Jesus had chosen wrongly in my case.

But Christ does not call disciples who are perfect, but those he can shape and mold into people of faith, in order to carry forth his message and work.

As I’ve mentioned before, when I stood years ago before the Fairfield West Association in Connecticut to be grilled as to my fitness for ordination, I was asked how I knew I had a calling from God.

My answer was that I had never chosen it myself. In fact, I’d backed through every door, in some instances kicking and screaming (figuratively speaking, that is!).

In retrospect, I’m not sure what else I would have done with my life, for ministry now seems the only logical thing for me to have done. In ways that were not at all clear to me at the time, God chose to use me in a fashion I never dreamed possible (not that I claim any special talents or skills, mind you).

What we find in Paul’s words to the Philippians, then, are aspirational words, not words spoken to an already pure and perfect group of Christians.

He urges them precisely because they need to be urged: to rejoice, to be gentle, to pray, to allow God’s peace, a peace that surpasses all understanding, to guard their hearts and minds in him.

“Whatever is true,” he goes on to encourage, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Of course, one of the great ironies of taking Paul’s aspirational words to heart is that in time we may find it’s not just we who feel foolish about ourselves (in our timid efforts to serve Christ) but others may come to agree, seeing us as genuine, bona fide, no-doubt-about-it fools!

In his complex and deeply personal book, The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky presents his principle character, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, as a man whose innocence and goodness, in a world otherwise obsessed with money, power, and sexual conquest, renders him a source of derision within high society. He’s seen as an idiot, in other words. But Dostoyevsky intends the Prince as a saint. He’s a Christ figure.

Being a “fool for Christ,” of course, follows a long tradition within Christianity. The holy transcendent nature of our calling makes us seem an oddity as we seek to follow the secret rhythms and cadences of Christ, in contradistinction to the world.

In our Study Group, as you know, we have been looking at ways First Church might clarify its mission based on the belief that we are Christ’s heart and hands in this time and place.

No, not too many of us would be deemed extraordinary by worldly standards. Nor would many of us claim special powers or gifts. In fact, we might be tempted to suggest the opposite.

But the church has always been filled with ordinary people called to extraordinary work – the work of Jesus Christ. No matter how we feel about ourselves, Christ has chosen us and placed a responsibility upon us, even the privilege of serving others in his name.

I believe every church has a role to play in God’s grand scheme of reconciling the world unto himself. Therefore, we cannot demur. For we have no excuse. We’re called not because of our inherent strengths, but because God loves us and wishes to bless us in His service.

For too long, at least as I see it, the church has lost its confidence, often looking back to halcyon days now past. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is ever-now, eternal, and filled with promise not just for today but forever. Amen.