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mistake-pano_13891Mistakes are natural. Not only are they natural, they are faithful.

We live in a world in which perfection is seen as a noble goal. We strive to achieve the perfect body, the perfect look. We hold our relationships and families and marriages up to models of perfection. We look for the perfect job. We putter away at the perfect house. We want our lives to be perfect.

And yet, it is mistakes, not perfection, that are natural. I would even go so far to say that they are downright faithful.

In many ways, this seems like it might be counter to the very idea of God. After all, God is perfection. If we are God’s beloved, shouldn’t we try to live perfect lives to give that same glory back to God? Each Sunday at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, our worship service begins with us confessing the wrongs we have done, the omissions we have made. Doesn’t that point to the idea of “getting it right” the next time, of moving away from imperfection toward perfection?

To a point, yes…and yet, here’s the irony: if we set perfection as the goal, we have already failed.

Perfection is, simply put, just not possible. We are, by nature, imperfect beings. And even if we achieve the highest of heights, we are dissatisfied with where we are, looking to those who stand on even higher ground, coveting their levels of success. What we don’t realize is that those models of perfection are doing the exact same thing to those who tower over them!

Those whom we perceive as perfect are often deeply aware how elusive that perfection actually is. And because of that, they are prone to self-loathing, the sense that they are frauds, fakes, on the verge of being “outed” for who and what they really are.

When perfection becomes everything we pursue, we have given ourselves over to false idols. And that’s not just problematic; it’s downright dangerous. It’s dangerous because it causes us to judge the imperfections of ourselves and of others, and thus to judge us and them as well. And that, simply put, is not our place.

Mistakes are not only natural. They are faithful.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians in our lesson today, he is well aware of their imperfection. He has done battle both in person and from afar trying to heal and mend the conflicts that seem to mark the community. But rather than this driving Paul to give up on Corinth, he instead finds a way to take it and point everything back to God.

Writing of some setbacks he and Timothy have recently faced, Paul writes that they are afflicted, but not crushed. They are persecuted, but not alone. It is though he knows that some might point to his suffering, his failings, in order to suggest that he is simply faithless. And that’s when Paul pulls it all together: “We always carry the death of Jesus within us so that the life of Jesus is seen within us.”

In other words, Jesus’ suffering gives redemptive purposes to Paul’s suffering. And it is Jesus’ resurrection that emerged from crucifixion that gives hope to mortal beings. If we are to call ourselves Christians, disciples, followers of Christ, then what we do make of the fact that Jesus’ body was tortured unto death? If we are looking for models of perfection, Jesus suddenly does not fit the bill.

Not that we are supposed to be Jesus. That’s Jesus’ job, not ours. Our job is to find purpose in his suffering so that our imperfection, our mistakes, rather than pointing away from God might actually point toward holiness.

Mistakes are not only natural. They are faithful.

Thomas Edison once said of the early attempts to make a lightbulb, “I haven’t failed; I just found a thousand ways it won’t work.”

It is critical that we give ourselves space to make mistakes. Mistakes are how we learn what doesn’t work so that we can focus on what does. If we close ourselves off to the risk of mistakes, we also close ourselves off to the possibility of growth. And whatever the case, growth must always be a part of our faith, lest we think we have it all figured out already.

One of the things that struck me almost immediately at Oglethorpe Presbyterian was our willingness to try new things – not simply because they were “new”, but because we knew that it’s where we can discover the surprises of faith.

I remember my first weekend at Oglethorpe in 2005. The day before the first Sunday of Advent, I found the Minnichs and Kellys were decorating the sanctuary.

The pulpit, at the time, was right in the middle of the chancel. That’s not at all unusual in churches. And yet, to me, a new pastor in a new position, it struck me as sending the wrong message: that the preacher is central to worship. The table of fellowship belongs at the center; the cross absolutely has centrality. The preacher? The preacher, at best, speaks into that space. I asked them if they thought it would be OK to move the pulpit to one side of the chancel or the other. They agreed, and helped me move it.

Now, I have to admit, that when I came in Sunday morning, someone had moved the pulpit back to the center. I never did find out how that happened, but in the end, the pulpit ended up staying on the piano side of the chancel for a few years. We then looked more carefully at the space and realized how imbalanced the space was, with everything crowded on one side and the other virtually empty. So the pulpit moved over here. And that’s where it has been for a few years now.

Those of you with keen eyesight may notice that I don’t spend a lot of time in that pulpit. And that, too, was a change for me – it was not one that came naturally. Rather, it grew out of conversations with members of the community. I’ll be the first to admit that there is comfort in the pulpit. It gives you something solid to hold onto. It gives you something to hide behind, too, which is part of the problem, because it becomes a barrier.

I’m not sure how long I have been preaching from the floor of the sanctuary – probably just over two years. In the context of my years in ministry, it is a new innovation, and one that I likely would not have sought out on my own. In stepping out, in trying something new, I discovered my own surprise of faith.

These kinds of changes may not seem all that significant, but they matter! And they can only come in the context of a community where it’s OK to make mistakes. I remember my first Christmas Eve service where we decided to try a new hymn. It’s a really good piece, one with an easy melody and a call and response rhythm. It tanked. And everyone knew it, too! So rather than pretend like it went well, as everyone was sitting back down, I said something like, “Well, that happened.” I could only do that in a church where it is OK to try new stuff; because trying risks failure. And where it is OK to fail, grace abounds!

That is why mistakes are the stuff of faith! That is why we start each worship service with confession and forgiveness, not to beat ourselves up, but to remind ourselves that God wants us to try, knowing that we are not going to get it right all the time! It’s as though grace is tightrope walker’s safety net. Because it’s there, we can step out boldly. God’s got this, and God’s got us!

Paul writes about it this way: “We hold this treasure in clay jars to make it clear that this is God’s extraordinary power, not ours.” In other words, we are vessels of God’s glory – not because we are perfect; in fact, not even in spite of our imperfection, but because of it! The fact that we are flawed, mistake-prone creatures is one of the most powerful witnesses we make to the world: this glory, this grace, this mercy that we share, it was never ours to begin with! It is simply something we have received that we pass along. It’s why watering cans have holes. They don’t hoard the water, but pour it out in order to share its life-giving power!

Leonard Cohen, the songwriter, puts it this way “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And, I would add, that is also how the light gets out.

Friends, you have a precious gift here! It is a treasure of God’s glory, held within the fragility of a clay jar. May your mistakes, your cracks, your imperfections, become holy places where God’s grace can shine into our lives. May they also be the paths for light to shine upon a world that so desperately needs to find its way.

Amen.

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So…are you ready for Christmas yet?

I know it’s only November, but, I gotta say, it feels like we’re behind the curve already. Black Friday has come and gone, so Christmas season is in full swing.

So I propose that we, as a church, jump on this Christmas bandwagon. It’s worked out well as a shopping season, what’s to say the church can’t benefit as well? I want to pitch some ideas to you, where we might be able to take advantage of this holiday in some way. And as a result, we could easily boost the crowds, increase the traffic, and get our own numbers in the black. Here are a couple of quick suggestions, just off the top of my head:

  1. We could offer a 2 for 1 communion special. Instead of having to choose juice or wine, why not have both?
  2. How about a 10% discount on tithes through the end of the year?
  3. What if we opened up the church on Christmas Eve? There are always those last minute folks; maybe if we’re open, we might get some of that traffic here!

What do you think?

When we hear the question, “Are you ready for Christmas,” what pops to mind? Is it braving the madness of the holiday shopping season? Is it that search for the perfect tree, or getting the decorations down from the attic or up from the basement and then weeding through and seeing which ones are still usable? Is it making sure that we know what everyone on our list wants and where we can get it? Or is it making the list first? How about the annual Christmas cards: are we going to do another letter this year, or just the picture?

Is your blood pressure beginning to rise? Is your pulse quickening? Are you taking out a pen, not to take notes on the sermon, but to write down the stuff you’ve already forgotten?

The point, of course, is that the insanity of the season means that we sometimes lose track of our focus this time of year. The question for us, as a people of faith, isn’t about readiness for the trappings of the holiday. The question this time of year is simply this: Are we ready to welcome the Christ child into our home again?

As we begin Advent today, we start a series of conversations, imagining this season to be steps on a journey. The title of the series is inspired by a song by Ingrid Michaelson. The lyrics to the first verse seem so fitting: “They say that home is where the heart is. I guess I haven’t found my home. And we keep driving round in circles afraid to call this place our own. Are we there yet?”

There are so many different ways to describe this feeling that she elicits. It’s a restlessness, a sense that something just isn’t right with the world the way it is. Paul talks about it as being a “stranger or an alien”. For me, it’s when we get those glimpses of the way God wants the world to be, but so many more moments that seem absolutely contrary to God’s desires. We’re clearly not “there yet”, wherever “there” is. So maybe this time of year is a perfect one to take that first step on this Advent journey together.

Advent really has two points to it: the first is the waiting for eight pound six ounce baby Jesus, for Christmas, a memory of the world’s waiting for Jesus the Messiah. That’s the part we usually prefer. The second is the waiting for Jesus’ return. We sophisticated Presbyterians often ignore this one. But today’s lesson from Matthew doesn’t give us much room for denial. Jesus speaks of a future day that will arrive like a thief, when we least expect it. Here’s the simple truth of the lesson: as much as the world needed Jesus 2000-plus years ago, very little has changed. It’s not about getting ready because we know the day and the hour, because we think we can interpret the signs and the prophecies. Jesus warns against such frivolous reading of the tealeaves. No one, no one knows, the day or the hour. But there’s nothing to prevent us from hearing this as a call to get ready anyway.

So as we start off on our Advent journey this year, we begin with the question of whether or not we’re even ready to go.

It’s the most important part of the journey in many ways, the getting ready. And it can also be the most stressful part: making sure that everything that needs to be turned off is, and that everything that needs to be set up is, too. Is the Tivo programmed? The mail and the newspaper on hold? What about the neighbors, do they know we’ll be gone? Have we packed absolutely everything that we need?

And then there are the false starts. Everybody’s in the car, and somebody needs to use the bathroom. And someone else forgot their phone. Or the charger. Or the destination.

I remember one time in high school when I took a road trip to Durham with my friends Eric and Chris to see Georgia Tech play Duke in football. This was 1987, when Duke went 5-6 and Tech won two games. Even so, we were excited. We left Chris’ house early Saturday morning, taking turns driving. About two hours out of Atlanta, Eric joked and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we forgot the tickets?”

We made it there for the half time show.

Is that what it feels like to welcome Jesus? Is it like the stress of getting ready, wanting to be sure that everything is in place, that we haven’t forgotten anything? Or is it more like those false starts, when we say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and then quickly add, “But not quite yet?”

Maybe the journey metaphor isn’t the best. Maybe it’s more like getting ready for a house guest. You spend days getting the place ready, doing the shopping, fixing all those little pesky things, making sure the guest bath has plenty of toilet paper. And once they arrive, you are on your absolute best behavior as a family. The petty disputes can wait until they leave, because it doesn’t really matter whose job it was to get rid of those cobwebs, does it? At least, not right now. We can sort that out when they’re gone…

The truth is, any metaphor we use will fall short. We know that we’re not supposed to welcome Jesus for a few days at a time. The life of faith is one in which we walk with Jesus every step of the way. And that crack in the ceiling, or in our relationships? We could always paint it over, but that’s not really living up to the honesty that Jesus deserves, is it?

That all being said, there is something to this idea of getting ready. Our faith life has its fits and starts. There are times when it doesn’t feel like God is present at all; and, if we’re honest, there are times when we simply don’t want God around.

And so, my invitation to you this first Sunday of Advent is simply this: what will you do to welcome the Christ child into your life this year? Perhaps you have a familiar practice that has become a sacred family tradition. Or maybe it’s time to get one started.

It could be using a daily Advent devotional at home, a moment as simple as lighting a candle or saying a prayer. Perhaps it’s being sure that someone else knows that they are welcome, too: inviting them to one of our events at church, signing up for one of our AMIS hosting opportunities, sharing a family tradition with someone whom you know will be alone…Whatever way that you think you can get ready to go, to start your own Advent journey toward Christmas this year.

And when you know what it is, when you’re sure what your Advent discipline will be this year, I encourage you to put it first. Before the shopping and the lists and the parties and the cards, let’s be sure that we know what it is we will do to put Jesus at the heart of the Christmas season. After all, before Black Friday, before Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and yes, even before candlelight Christmas Eve services, if you can believe it, there was just a baby named Jesus. The world certainly wasn’t ready for him then. Are we ready for him now?

Amen.

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There are times when I have to get up in the middle of the night. And when I do, I’m not always steady on my feet. I often stumble my way across the bedroom, bumping into the wall that is on my side of the bed.

It doesn’t happen often (I think maybe twice since we moved to Chamblee), but every now and then, as I fumble my way across the floor, I bounce off the wall right at the spot where the light switch is. A light shines in the darkness. It’s a horrible thing, at 2:00 in the morning, to go from what feels like moving from the center of a black hole to standing on the sun.

When the angel of the Lord appears before the shepherds, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” In my mind’s eye, I picture something like that 2:00 am trip from the bed; shepherds used to being surrounded by the darkness of the night sky are suddenly bathed in blinding light. And, we are told (and, I am not surprised), “they were terrified.”

Tonight, as we have re-told the story of our salvation, from the prophets and the psalms to the gospels, the light has crept closer and closer, turning the darkness away as it comes. Light is, on balance, is what we desire. It is a god thing, as we have heard in our Scriptures and hymns and reflections this evening. But it can be downright terrifying. After all, as the light moves forward, it comes closer not to the pulpit, but to the cross.

But terror and crucifixion do not have the last word for us tonight. The waiting of ancient peoples gives way to the birth of a Savior. The cross is transformed from an instrument of condemnation into the means of salvation. The fear of the shepherds leads to rejoicing and praise.

Friends, let us be held by those words of the angel, saying, “Do not be afraid.” Hope carries the day; God gives the final word; light and life surround us.

The light has not stopped moving. It cannot; light is movement by its very essence. Tonight, as we light our candles and sing our praises, we are the ones who carry that light into the world. We are called to be God’s messengers carrying that word of divine confidence to a world that can be so gripped in fear. And as the world, and we with it, blinks against the blinding light of God’s grace, let us remember that God goes before us, calling to us as we find our way, catching us as we stumble, lifting us when we fall.

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