Perfection

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Preached at Diocese of Georgia Clergy Conference
Honey Creek Camp & Retreat Center

Judith 8:9-17; 9:1,7-10

I was born here at Honey Creek.

Of course, that’s not what my birth certificate says.
On paper I was born at South Georgia Medical Center
in Valdosta, Georgia on a Monday morning in March.

But as far as I’m concerned,
I was born right here,
raised up from this hallowed soil
by faithful Christians, including many of you:
bishops, priests, and deacons,
lovers of the living God.

Like those mossy oaks out there,
this is the place
where God gave me roots.

This is the place
where I fell head over heels
for the Lover of my soul.

This is the place
where I came as close as one might
to a burning bush experience
and gave my life once and for all
to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a strange thing to be twelve years old
and to feel the grip of the Almighty.

It is a strange thing to be a child
and to know that your destiny in this world
is to be a priest of the Most High God.

It is a strange thing.

But when you know, you know.

*     *     *

Twenty years ago in college,
my roommate was also my best friend,
and some nights when the campus grew quiet
David and I would lie in our beds,
stare at the darkened ceiling,
and talk long into the night
about the life that lay before us.

One night I asked, “David . . .
we have our whole lives ahead of us.
What is the one thing
you want most in this life?”

Without hesitation, David said,
“I want to be a dad.
I want to have kids,
and I want to love them,
and more than anything else in this world,
I want to be a good dad.”

There had been a divorce when David was young,
and I sense he sometimes felt he and his dad
missed out on some important things together.
David wanted to do it differently when he grew up.

After a pause, he asked,
“What about you?”

Without hesitation, I said,
“I want to be a priest.
I want to serve God,
and I want to love people,
and more than anything in this world,
I want to be a good priest.”

Whereas David’s desire had been born
of what he had lacked and longed for,
I was fortunate in that mine was born
of what I had received abundantly
from folks like you.

I’m happy to report
that it worked out for David.
He married his college sweetheart,
and they have three beautiful children.
He is a terrific, adventurous, dedicated, loving father.

As for me,
it was shortly after that conversation that I was
off to have my first talk with the bishop,
off to the discernment committee meetings,
off to the Commission on Ministry,
off to seminary,
off to my first cure as an assistant and chaplain in Statesboro,
off to my first solo gig as the Rector of St. Anne’s Tifton.

What a wild ride it has been so far:
full of blessings and beauty,
full of heartbreak and trial,
full of laughter, sadness, grief, joy
and everything in between.

I’m the dog that caught the car.
I’m the guy who won the lottery.
I got my heart’s desire.
Like many of you, I became a priest
of the Most High God.

*     *     *

But . . .

. . . about three years ago,
something changed.

About three years ago,
something went wrong.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it,
but in the same way that
an alcoholic knows something is wrong
before he ever fully admits it,
I knew I had a problem.

By every outward appearance
I had everything any of us
would ever want.

I had a beautiful family.
I had a thriving congregation.
Heck, I had a string of parochial reports
that were the stuff of our dreams
with average Sunday attendance always on the rise
and faithful pledging units seemingly impervious to death.

We built buildings.
We went on mission trips.
We started new ministries.

Y’all, we were kickin’ ass and takin’ names.

By day, I was happy and proud
as I received accolades and ‘attaboys’
from my congregation, my bishop, and many of you.

But by night—
when the shadows lengthened,
and the busy world was hushed,
and the fever of life was over—
I would lie awake in my bed
and stare once again at the ceiling.

Where I had once felt such
anticipation, hope, and joy,
I now only felt
depletion, loneliness, and fear.

Somewhere along the way
I had become so accustomed
to seeing this holy vocation of ours
as nothing more
than a series of victories.

Sermons to be preached.
Tasks to be done.
Events to be planned.
Goals to be set.
Challenges to be conquered.
Battles to be won.
Results to be gotten.

It didn’t happen all at once,
but by the ripe old age of 35,
I had begun to lose sight of Jesus
and was already burning out.

I had forgotten what he did for me—
who he was for me—
here in this place
all those years ago.

In other words,
I had turned my back on Grace,
and I had enslaved myself to the Law.

We Episcopalians don’t talk much
about the difference between Grace and Law,
but this is exactly what the Law does.

The Law demands perfection.
The Law demands results.
The Law demands a pound of flesh every time.
 
And because none of us
are ever really up to the task,
the Law is never fully satisfied,
and neither are we.

*     *     *

It wasn’t until I went on sabbatical
that I began to understand what had happened.

There I sat at Ignatius House,
a Jesuit Retreat Center in Atlanta,
tired and bedraggled from
this super-priest syndrome.

And there, on the first day,
the spiritual director I had been assigned
(the most curmudgeonly Jesuit you’d ever want to meet)
gave me a paper and said,
“Here. Go pray with these scriptures,
and don’t come back to me
‘til you hear the voice of God.”

“Whatever,” I muttered.
But I played along.

That afternoon I sat by a babbling brook
on the retreat center property,
opened the paper, and saw Psalm 46:10:
“Be still and know that I am God.”

“Ugh! Come on!” I thought. “That ol’ chestnut?
I’ve heard this verse a million times!”

Full disclosure: whenever I read Psalm 46:10
I always think of that annoying thing
people do when leading retreats
where they repeat it over and over,
dropping one word at a time:

“Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I thought, rolling my eyes.
“Lord, we’re gonna need stronger medicine than this.”

But once I finally shut up,
once I finally dropped my anger,
something happened
that I can only describe
as a divine inbreaking.

In a voice as clear
as anything I’ve ever heard,
I heard what I can only understand
as a personalized translation
of that verse
by God
to me
for that time:

“Stop trying to make it all perfect.
Stop trying to make it all.
Stop trying to make it.
Stop trying.
Stop.”

In that singular moment,
I physically felt my countenance change,
and all the stress and false expectations
I had foisted upon myself for nearly a decade
were suddenly lifted away . . .
not given, but taken.

“I’ve got you, Lonnie,” he seemed to say.
“And I’ve got this. Strop trying so hard.”

*     *     *

In his Confessions Augustine says to God,
Interior intimo meo” . . .
“You are closer to me than I am to myself.” [1]

In that moment on the first day of sabbatical
I finally understood what he meant.

No matter how much good we try to do,
and no matter how many times
we royally screw it up,
there is One who loves us more intimately
than we can ever love ourselves.
Not because we deserve it,
but simply because he chooses it.
 
That, my friends, has a name.
It is called Grace,

and it is the only thing that matters.

Let me say it again.

Grace
is the only thing
that matters.

Grace . . . changes . . . everything.

Grace lets us off the hook,
or more accurately,
Grace lets us off the Cross,
not because we don’t deserve to be there
but because Someone Else
has already taken our place.

Grace gives us Good News to live,
and a Gospel to tell.

One of the greatest mistakes
we make in our preaching
is when we routinely set Grace aside
and make the Gospel all about us—
what we can do,
what we should do,
what we must do—
in order to bring about the Kingdom. [2]

How many times
have you preached
the salad sermon,
chock full of “lettuce?” [3]
“Let us do this, let us do that!”

Or if you’re not making salad in your pulpit,
maybe you’re speaking French:“mais oui!”
“May we do this, may we do that!”

That is not the Gospel!
That is not good news!

The woman at the well
didn’t come away saying,
“Y’all, I just met a man
who gave me a long list
of things to do!”

No, she said,
“Y’all, I just met a man
who knew everything about me.
Do you think he could be the Messiah?” [4]

You bet he is.

Or look at our reading from Judith today.
Admittedly, I had a choice as to
whether we’d read from Esther—
a biblical book that never mentions God once—
or from Judith—
an apocryphal book that mentions God repeatedly.
I chose Judith.

There she stands
when all the rest of her town
is shaking in their boots
because deep down they know
they don’t have it within themselves
to defeat the Assyrian army.

“You dummies!” she declares.
“Of course you can’t do this!
But do you really think
God has brought you this far
just to drop you now?!” [5]

Judith, like Grace,
points not to her people’s power
but to the power of God.

In a world gone mad with self-absorption
and the false claim that it’s all up to us
to make everything great again,
Grace stands up, stares us down,
and says,

“SHUT. UP.
THAT
IS NOT
YOUR JOB.”

When we continue to be convinced
that everything is up to our agency,
Grace points relentlessly
to the agency of God, and no other.

*     *     *

At every clergy conference,
your bishop is going to tell you
that you need to learn new skills;
that you need to go to CDI;
that you need to go to EQHR;
that you need to go to Conflict Management.

At every clergy conference,
there is always going to be some talk about
a rule of life,
the Daily Office,
and other Christian practices
we all should be doing.

All of that is good, and right, and true,
and I wholeheartedly endorse it all.

But none of it is the Good News.
 
The Good News is this, and this alone:
that while we were still weak,
Christ died for the ungodly;
while we were still sinners,
Christ died for you and me. [6]

In other words,
we’re not the superstars we hope we are,
and we’re never as good as we wish to be . . .
but God in Christ loves us anyway
and has chosen us—
at great expense—
to be the beneficiaries and bearers
of that Good News
to the very ends of the earth.

That is the Good News.
That is the Gospel.
That is Grace.

Everything else
is just the details.

*     *     *

As I think back to that 12-year-old boy
who used to run under these oak trees
all sweaty-faced and beet red . . .

and as I remember those late night conversations
in my college dorm room twenty years ago . . .

I realize that I am nearing
the half-way point of my ministry,
and that I’ve already passed
the half-way point of my life.

And my perspective
has begun to change.

Perhaps that change is best described in a story
I recently heard my Music Minister share
from the memoir of Nikos Kazantzakis.

When Kazantzakis was young
he spent time at a monastery
where he often spoke with an older monk.

One day he asked the monk,
“Father, do you still wrestle with the Devil?”

“No,” said the old monk,
“for I have grown old,
and the Devil has grown old with me.
He no longer has much strength.
Instead, now I wrestle with God.”

“With God?!” asked Kazantzakis.
“You wrestle with God?!
Do you hope to win?”

“Oh no, my son,” replied the old monk.
“No . . .
I hope to lose.”

Amen.

[1] Augustine. Confessions. 3.6.11
[2] This opinion has been formed in me from numerous sources, most notably through the written works of and personal conversations with the Rev. Fleming Rutledge.
[3] I first heard of “lettuce” sermons from the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend at a Diocese of Georgia clergy conference.
[4] John 4:29
[5] Judith 8-9
[6] Rom. 5:6,8. (If you want a rollicking exploration of this view of the Gospel, read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2015.)