First Sunday in Lent
An Excuse to Be Better
“Are you going on to perfection?” the bishop asks.
Many of us laugh nervously. One brave soul says, “You bet!” (We should probably modify that to “You could place a wager on that if Methodists didn’t have a strict policy against gambling.”)
“Are you going on to perfection?” The person next to me leans over and whispers, “Obviously.”
“Are you going on to perfection?”
of question is that? Well, it’s one of
the historical questions asked of every candidate for ordination in the
“By the grace of God, I am.”
V V V
What does it mean to go on to perfection? Exactly what it says: to move in a positive direction, to make progress, with the goal of becoming perfect, as Christ commands in Matthew 5.48:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Does anybody else find that a little intimidating? Perfect? What is Jesus thinking? It seems outrageous, really, especially to a reformed perfectionist like myself. I’m much less obnoxious than I used to be, though I still have an eagle eye for typos and I do like my grammar just so. I was much worse about the perfectionism thing when I was younger. Looking back on it, I suspect I was a complete pain.
But since he’s not here today to claim his dinner—the rule is that I buy dinner for anyone whose story I use in a sermon, as long as they’re here to hear it—I’ll tell you a story about my husband’s former perfectionism. When he was a young man, still very excited about his beard, Serge was a fanatic about a perfect close shave. He had a beautifully groomed mustache—which he still had years later, when I met him—and a whole collection of different shaving implements for the rest of his face and neck: single blade and double blade razors, a couple of electric shavers, shaving gel in a can, shaving soap and brush. He had a routine by which he switched off between them. He had to use the electric shaver a couple of times a week, even though it gave a much less than perfect shave, because otherwise his face would have been hamburger.
One day when he was getting a haircut, the barber said, “What happened to your face?” (It was covered with nicks and scrapes, maybe a little scrap of toilet paper to stop the bleeding.) Serge said he was on a quest for the perfect shave, and asked if the barber had any tips. “Yeah,” the barber said. “Relax. It grows back no matter what you do. Don’t try so hard.”
But don’t we have to try hard if we want to be perfect? Jesus commands us to be perfect—not to be perfectionists. It’s easy to get confused. Isn’t a perfectionist someone who pursues perfection? Not exactly. Here’s the difference:
· Perfection: state of being without flaw or defect.
· Perfectionism: a disposition to feel that anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
God is perfect—without flaw or defect. Thank God, God is not a perfectionist. Otherwise, we’d be in big trouble. If God suddenly decided that anything less than perfect had to go, I think most of us would be gone. I certainly would be. God wants us to become perfect—not to be perfectionists. We’re supposed to direct our attention to our own flaws, work on our own set of improvements, not worry about other people’s. It’s not up to us to say who is acceptable or not. It’s not even up to us to say whether we are acceptable or not. That question has already been answered—by Jesus, who died for us. God loves us, and has declared us acceptable. Not perfect—but acceptable nonetheless.
Perfectionism gets in the way of grace, of forgiveness—of perfection. If you’ve ever spent much time around a perfectionist, you know it can be exhausting and frustrating and, in fact, de-motivating. Perfectionists tend to be better enough than most of the people around them to give them the moral high ground in the superiority department. They can say that they are only expecting—demanding—of others what they themselves do, and that might very well be true. However, it is my experience that there is no pleasing them—not for long, anyway—so why bother? I just don’t live up to their standards. When I get carried away, I don’t even live up to my own standards. I have not ever met a single perfectionist, including myself, however, who was perfect, “without flaw or defect.”
John Wesley fully believed it was possible, though. Back in Wesley’s time, Methodists used to meet at least twice a week—for worship, of course, and also for class meeting. Classes were small groups that met mid-week for Bible study, prayer, and what we would call “sharing.” The class leader would ask, “How goes it with your soul?” and “Are you going on to perfection?” People would reflect publicly on the progress they were making toward being like Jesus. That kind of accountability provides…focus. If I know I’m going to have to tell my group about how I yelled at my daughter not because she did much of anything wrong, but because I was stressed out, I might think twice before I lose my temper. With practice, and by the grace of God, Wesley thought it was possible that someone might reach perfection. He knew that he himself had not, but who was he to judge someone else’s report? (A habit of being overly critical interferes with perfection, you know.) He would listen patiently when people occasionally came to him to tell him how they had become perfect.
What, exactly, did Wesley mean by “perfect”? He did not mean a person who no longer makes mistakes—“It is as natural for a human being to mistake as to breathe,” Wesley explained. We will always make mistakes because we don’t know everything. Rather, he meant
…one in whom is 'the mind which was in Christ,' and who so 'walketh as Christ also walked;' [one] 'that hath clean hands and a pure heart'… and who, accordingly, 'does not commit sin.'
To be perfect is to be free of sin. The process of becoming perfect in the Christian sense, attaining clean hands and a pure heart, begins when we are made right with God. This happens when we accept Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake, and let him apply that gift to our life. At that very point, we are set free from guilt and sin—forever. The war is won—but we don’t always behave as if that is true. In us, the battle continues. The process of going on to perfection lasts a lifetime. The Holy Spirit works gradually on our soul, cleansing away all sin. For most people, as we understand it, perfection comes at death. Even so, Wesley emphasized that God can “cut short God’s work” to bring sanctification—total perfection—in a moment, rather than as the culmination of a lifetime of striving. Although he could not name anyone who attained this glory in life, he believed that it was possible.
In response to the critics of this doctrine—and there were some, as you might imagine—John Wesley explained that if, in fact, all things are possible for God, then how can anyone refuse to accept the possibility of being made perfect through Christ’s grace?
In other words, what have you got to lose by believing that perfection is possible?
V V V
This is the message of Lent. These forty days are a time set apart from our usual lives. During Lent we prepare ourselves for Easter by trying to be better, in some way, than we usually are.
I think that most of us know we could be better than we are. I suspect we could all name a tiny improvement or two, some progress we could make toward perfection. Don’t you want to be better? But change of any sort is hard, and many of the improvements we might want to make would cost us time or effort or discipline. And the thought of “forever” can be a bit intimidating. In our “Three Simple Rules” discussion yesterday morning we talked about what it might be like to “do no harm” (Rule #1)…ever. To do our very best never to cause any harm to anyone or anything. And we easily came up with a lot of reasons why we might not want to commit ourselves to that.
But Lent gives us an excuse to try. During this six-week period of preparation, we can experiment with different ways of getting closer to God. Fasting from sweets or chocolate or beer, as some people do, is a fine thing—but we can also try something different. We can try fasting from gossiping, or complaining, or procrastinating. We can let the Holy Spirit choose one improvement we can practice during Lent.
The key to this is found in our scripture reading today, from Psalm 25:
4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
God’s path leads to perfection. If we place our lives in the care of the Holy Spirit, we will know what to change, and will have the power to change it, a little bit at a time.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, when a group of people came to see him about a program they wanted him to implement as President: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." Lent is our time to do it, whatever it is. Lent gives us an excuse to do better than we normally do; to be better than we usually are.
Let’s let go of any lingering perfectionism—any part of us that judges the less-than-perfect to be unacceptable. That judgmentalism gets in the way of improving anything. Once we’re free of perfectionism, we are free to go ahead and pursue the perfect. What have you got to lose by believing that perfection is possible?
Are you going on to perfection? [Congregation replies:] By the grace of God, I am.