Note: I preached a version of this sermon on October 27, 2013, at Wicker Park Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. For many decades, this parish celebrated “Homecoming” for former and distant members on that Sunday.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I bring you greetings today from God’s people at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois, where I serve with senior pastor Dawn Mass. I am very grateful to Pastor Kopka for the gracious invitation to preach here today, in this community and in this building that has meant so much to me since I arrived here as a divinity school student looking for a field education parish in 2005. My son Soren and I have kept this church in our nightly prayers, and we will continue to do so.
One of the things I love about being a pastor is that people feel free to share their reading with you. And almost since I arrived at Messiah over two years ago, I have been hearing people urge me to read and teach an adult forum series on a book called The Spirituality of Imperfection. Is anyone familiar with this book? It’s very popular in the recovery community. Yet I have resisted doing what these good people have asked of me. Nothing against the book–I’m sure it’s very good! But I just can’t get past the title. And since I’m not in my own church, I can admit this now: I would really be much more comfortable teaching on a book called “The Spirituality of Being a Complete Disaster.” Or “The Spirituality of Utter Failure.” Or “The Spirituality of Just Totally Sucking.”
But we like to think about imperfection, and we like working on our imperfections. Cutting these empty calories out of our diet; adjusting our exercise routine for a slightly better outcome; embracing the time-saving or sleep-fixing or sex-enhancing tips available by lists of twelve or fifteen at the bottom of every internet article. And behind all of this, I think, is the expectation that our imperfections can be removed, sanded down, and fixed up, little by little, until we become the people we are supposed to be. Does anyone else feel this way–like you’re responsible for making a little bit of progress every day on your issues?
Well, what I love and hate about being a Christian, and especially about Reformation Sunday, is that it reminds us that imperfection is not what our lives are about. Our faith, as hard as it can be to say and to hear, is a faith not for fixing our imperfections. It’s a faith for being a complete disaster. For utter failure. For just totally sucking.
By now I imagine we have all heard the story of Martin Luther and how oppressed he was by his own sense of unworthiness, by the threat of an angry God who was always eager to punish him for the slightest deviation from the law of the Gospel. He specifically recalled hating the phrase we read in today’s lesson from Romans, “the righteousness of God.” He’d been taught that this righteousness was something to be feared and something to aspire to. Conform yourself to God’s nature. Draw closer, little by little, to the God who judges right and wrong with perfect, demanding, unyielding justice. And Luther had to read this passage with new eyes in order to see what was really happening here. God, he suddenly saw, did not send his Son to die for us in order to multiply the terrors of the law. God did not forgive our old sins in order to make us even more afraid of the sins that still lay ahead of us. God did not reveal his righteousness to the faithful in order to torment those faithful with a still higher standard of perfection than what they knew before. God’s righteousness is not the demand that we wring every last little imperfection from our crooked souls. Instead, it’s almost the opposite: God’s righteousness is the gift that makes us righteous, even though we are sinners, even though we are not just a little imperfect but are instead complete disasters, even though we know and want to know nothing at all about God and his love for us and for our neighbor. God overlooks all of this not because we made daily progress on our sinful thoughts and deeds, but because God invites us to trust in his good will for us.
That was the realization that made heaven’s door swing open for Martin Luther. And while times have changed, and our ideas about perfection have changed, it’s surprising how that same problem seems to endure. Martin Luther thought that farting was a sin that separated him from God. Carrie Bradshaw thought it would ruin her relationship with Mr. Big. Either way, life has these little loose threads that threaten to unravel altogether. These little things, little imperfections that open into the deep insecurity of our souls–into our fear that we are not good enough, that we do not deserve the love that the world seems to offer, that our imperfections hide a disaster, an unfixable wreck. And the Gospel is the same answer, then and now: God, the source of life and of all that is good, is not judging us each minute, waiting to abandon us like a picky lover. God instead is reaching down below the nicks and scratches to the ruined soul that he wishes to restore with his grace. This is not a story of fixing our blotchy skin; it’s the story of being given a fresh heart. It’s not about making ourselves better little by little; it’s about being made new, every day, by God. It’s not about being good in any usual sense, but it’s about dying and being raised from the dead. It’s not about making ourselves a little less imperfect. It’s about being made free, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
And today, it’s startling for me at least to imagine that we gather in a living, breathing witness to that deep faith. Four years ago, when I was a brand-new pastor, I had the idea of preparing a 130th anniversary booklet on the history of the parish. Books like these had been made at intervals–60th, 100th, and so on–so I had great sources to work with and learn from. And it was astonishing. Now that year–2009–was not a prosperous time for our or any church. But it was strangely heartening to read these stories of death and resurrection, about a community always growing old and yet always being made new through massive turnover in the community, through riots, through the sudden loss of dear friends and beloved pastors, through wars and depressions. Glinting stones recycled from a brothel demolished in 1906; towers taken apart and rebuilt; archery ranges and homework mobiles and Sunday school carriages and Night Ministry outings, baptisms by the hundreds and the weekly gathering of word and sacrament: all of these things have been the grace of God to us and to this community. There has been work, a great deal of it, both seen and unseen. Much of it is now forgotten by all except for God. But all of it in the end, down to this unique and beautiful new sanctuary, has been a gift. Today, once again, we receive it all as a pure and free and great gift: the gift of a new heart, the gift of resurrection from the dead, the gift of being made free by the one who calls all of us to freedom, day by day, despite everything.