Mistakes 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.