Monday, December 7, 2015

Giving Up on Perfect

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture reading was Philippians 1:3-11:

Freedom from Want
by Norman Rockwell
This is one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings, and it has been seen to sort of represent the perfect holiday gathering. Grandma and grandpa serving the turkey with the entire family gathered around the table.  It, along with much else that Rockwell had to paint, has become a symbol of a sort of lost time in America, except for the fact that these times never really existed.  This image is a fantasy. It’s not even an event that ever took place.  The woman serving the turkey is Rockwell’s cook and housecleaner, and Rockwell took a picture of her with the family turkey.  While her husband is in the picture, it is not the man next to her playing the role of the grandfather, he is the older man at the front left of the painting.  And none of them were ever sitting at one table at the same time.  He posed them by themselves in his studio and then took pictures to later use to compose the image he wanted.  Rockwell himself said that he didn’t paint what was, but instead what he hoped to be.

We have sanitized, idealized and idolized this image, just as we have done with Rockwell’s other paintings, that this is what things are supposed to look like.  This is what we are to strive for.  And if we don’t make it look like this then we are missing something, because surely others are having these types of holidays aren’t they?  And so we strive to have that perfect Christmas, and we strive and we strive and we strive, and yet we never quite get there, it’s always that allusive thing that’s just beyond our grasp, and so we simply say, “well next year, this is what we will do differently in order to make it perfect.”  We try and live into this perfect picture, this perfect world, this perfect ideal, but not only can it never be, it never was either.  And we’ve done the same thing with our story of the nativity as well, in order to sentimentalize it, we have removed it from reality.

In Away in a Manger, we sing “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”  So let me get this straight, a newborn is woken up suddenly by cows mooing and he doesn’t cry?  That’s unlike any infant I’ve ever been around.  I understand that Jesus is special, but am I really supposed to believe he didn’t cry when a cow woke him up from his nap?  Growing up my favorite Christmas songs were two Bing Crosby classics, Do You Hear What I Hear and the The Little Drummer Boy, but what person, even a young first time mother, is going to let anyone play a drum around a baby, especially one that is not already crying?  And what about the ox and lamb who are keeping time, or the other barnyard animals, as we all know there is a certain odiferousness that comes along with them, and flies and everything else, but that is not what we think of when we picture the nativity.  We have created an image in our minds that we hold up every year of a perfection that cannot be achieved.

We hear in the annunciation that Mary, a girl maybe no older than 13 or 14, is told that she is to become pregnant outside of marriage, without having relations with her betrothed.  And then just at the time that Jesus is to be born, according to Luke, Mary and Joseph have to leave their home and travel back to Bethlehem. Just at the time that Mary needs the women in her life to support her during the birth of her child, she is left all alone.  And they reach Bethlehem, but there was no room in the inn, and so Mary gives birth.  We are actually not told where the birth takes place, we tend to think of it as being in a barn, or maybe a cave, but we are not told.  It’s just as likely that she gave birth in the street, all that we do know is that she laid the baby in a manger, which is a feeding trough. But in our nativity sets, Mary looks peaceful and serene, not at all tired after having just walked 80 plus miles and then given birth to a baby, and Joseph looks on adoringly, not seeming stressed or exhausted himself.  And they are surrounded by a bunch of shepherds, and let’s be honest, they’ve been out in the fields, and had probably been there for a long time, and so they has to be a certain odor that comes with them as well.  And so there are Mary and Joseph and the baby, surrounded by the mud and the muck of the street, and the stench and effluvia of the animals, and the shepherds, and maybe someone pounding on their drum.  This was about as imperfect of a birth as you can get.  Is that how you picture the birth of Jesus?  Is that the image you conjure in your mind of what that night?  It was definitely not like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it was far from perfect.

Some of you probably saw a story that made its rounds this week of a less than perfect cake.  Lisa Aldrich went to the grocery store to pick-up a cake for a party and saw what she thought was an employee of the bakery  and asked if she could write something on the cake, and was told that she could.  The girl took the cake into the back, “and after a long time,” Aldrich says, “she came back and presented me with this cake.  I looked her in the eye and said thank you before I even looked at the cake.  After looking (at it), I nervously laughed and headed to check out.  It didn’t really matter to me that it looked so bad, “ she said, “I thought people would think it was funny.”  Perhaps she was thinking about submitting it to  But when she got to the checkout stand, she said the cashiers didn’t think it was so funny and called the manager over, and other cashiers also came over to look at it and discuss it and ask her questions, and it was then that one of the cashiers came over and told her that the girl who had written on the cake, even though she had been told not to, had autism and she said “Thank you for smiling and thanking her- even though she's not supposed to write on cakes, you probably made her day."

Now I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think my reaction would have been to chuckle and then go and buy the cake hoping that others would think the cake was funny too.  Instead, my reaction would have been to say something about that not being acceptable, and depending on the day I was having would impact how much I impatience I showed to the girl.  And why? Because I do want a level of perfection.  I expect it of myself and I expect it of others.  Maybe that’s true for you too, but where does our perfectionist tendencies come from? We can say that it comes from a sense of wanting things to be right, or to be the best they can be, but it the flip side is that it comes from a sense of fear.  Fear of what will happen if it isn’t perfect, fear of what people will say, but even more importantly, fear of what people will say about us and what they will think of us.  But as Richard Carlson says in the title to his book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and It’s All Small Stuff.

But it’s the small stuff that catches us up all the time, but there is a powerful reminder about our lives in the passage we heard from Paul this morning.  Paul says “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  Now as I was thinking about this message and that passage, I had gotten the first part, which is that as we think about what we are doing is to remember that we are not doing the work alone, because we are working alongside God, or perhaps it’s better to say that God is working in us.  The good work in us is begun by God.  But it’s the second part I had originally missed and that is that Paul tells us that God will bring this all to completion by the day of Jesus Christ, which, for Paul, means when Christ comes again.  This will be done by the time Christ comes again.  Well the people of Philippi, to whom Paul is writing, are long gone, and so that means that some of the things they were striving for, the perfection they were seeking,  were not yet completed in their lifetimes.  They were striving, but they never achieved it, it too was just beyond their grasp.

Now all this is not to say we shouldn’t care about what we are doing, because we should, but to remember that as Methodists we say we are moving on to perfection.  We are not there yet, and to remember that even in imperfection is found God and love and even hope, just as Lisa Aldrich found it in her cake, and just as we find it in this table, because this table represents perfect love, given in imperfect situations as Jesus gathered for his last meal with the disciples knowing what the disciples would soon do and what would happen to him, and yet God’s love was present.  God is found and present most especially in the mess and the muck and the stuff of life. In fact I might even argue that God is not found in perfection, but instead in imperfection.

God does not come in spite of the mud and the muck and the imperfect stuff of our lives, God comes because of those things.  And when we seek only for the perfect and try and push away then imperfect, then we can we miss out on encountering God altogether.  When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, it is in the midst of all of this stuff of our lives, because the true miracle of Christmas is that in the midst of all of this stuff in our lives God shows up.  God shows up in the most unimaginable of places and is born to the most unimaginable of parents, and the good news is given to the most unimaginable of people, even us.&

In a poem written by someone only identified as Paula, she says:
I have spent my entire adult life searching for a Norman Rockwell Christmas.
And I have never found it
I want everything to be perfect.
I want a huge, real pine tree. Decorated with perfect lights.
Garland perfectly wrapped around and around.
Perfect Christmas ornaments hung perfectly spaced.
Perfectly wrapped presents with perfect ribbon and bows.
The smells of Christmas waft through the house.
Cinnamon, wassail, pine and cookies.
Perfectly dressed children sitting patiently under the tree waiting
to take turns unwrapping those perfectly wrapped gifts.
Then they scream and oh and ah that it is the perfect present.
"Just what I wanted"
Then the family gathers around the piano and sings Christmas Carols
while the snow falls outside. And the stars twinkle.
And the carolers sing.
And in the oven is baking the perfect turkey.
To be served with all the perfect side dishes.
And everyone is happy.
that has never, ever happened at my house.
In fact one year my son so aptly pointed out
"Mom, we don't even own a piano."
So I am not looking anymore.
Cause my artificial tree with a string of lights that don't work is perfect.
And the presents that are unevenly wrapped and have no ribbons and bow are perfect.
And the kids that will sit under our tree, while not perfect, are happy.
And they will oh and ah and be happy with what they get
And hopefully there won't be any snow.
And we are having ham and not turkey.
And I might try to make some wassail.
How hard can that be?

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