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Matthew 18:1-7

The Rev. Helen Havlik     +     12th Sunday in Ordinary Time     +     June 23, 2019

We talk about people being physically fit or mentally fit, in other words, in good condition or health. So what does it mean to be spiritually fit? Proper, as in always doing the right thing? Conforming as in fitting into the group? Competent, as in always having the right answers? This summer we’re looking at what it means to be Fit for Life—the life God is calling us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. If we want to be spiritually fit we have to clear some hurdles that can hold us back. One of those hurdles is pride—and the perfectionism that goes with it. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 18, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.

It was the first day of 5th grade. I was feeling more than a little anxious because I was in Mrs. Hedstrom’s class, the last place most of us students wanted to be because she was TOUGH and SCARY! She wore cat eye glasses and the sweater around her shoulders was held in place by a silver chain. She ruled with an iron hand. No one got away with anything in her class. At least that’s what all the 6th graders ahead of us said! And it seemed they were right when one of the first things Mrs. Hedstrom told us that morning was “if you have to ask if something is good enough, it isn’t.” And she held us to it. When was that—(mumble) years ago? I still remember it as if it were yesterday! And honestly, it probably motivated all of us, myself included, to accomplish more that year—and do it better.

We hear all the time about striving for excellence—no one wants the doctor who was last in his class, right? Excellence is almost an industry of its own as we compete to be the so-called best and brightest. Maybe life would be easier if we could just achieve perfection? So casual conversation often turns to speculating who’s the greatest this or that—coaches, presidents, sports figures, scientists, writers, humanitarians, artists, you name it, we compare. Given our reading today, we know the question of who’s the greatest isn’t new. We play the game to entertain and reassure ourselves—I can hear the disciples doing the same thing: who was greater, King David or King Solomon? Isaiah or Jeremiah? Abraham or Moses? And then who was the greatest among them: Peter, the outspoken one, or Thomas, the doubtful one, or Andrew the enthusiastic one—or Judas, the zealous one. In an age of foot travel, it passed the time as they walked along. No harm done—right? It’s the context of their question that makes us wonder what’s going on—earlier Jesus had told them that he was going to die in Jerusalem, at which point he and Peter got into a heated argument. Jesus had ended it by calling Peter a stumbling block who had his mind set on the wrong things. Now Jesus has just said for the second time that he will suffer and die. This time Peter wisely keeps quiet but then comes the question, “who’s the greatest?”

Look carefully at how Jesus responds to them. Not once does he say their question is wrong or pointless or shallow. He doesn’t tell us that aspiring to excellence or greatness is wrong—in fact, such an impulse pushes us to better ourselves, to improve our skills, to work harder at what we do. How many Olympic athletes have been motivated in the pursuit of excellence because of the heroes of their sport? How many of us look to heroes of all kinds who inspire us to be better people? And how often do we settle for “okay” when something better is within our reach? Jesus wants them to aspire to greatness—but it’s greatness that he defines. Greatness isn’t about long and accurate golf shots. It isn’t about winning battles or winning medals. It isn’t about skills or money or knowledge. We don’t have to be exceptionally intelligent or exceptionally attractive or exceptionally wealthy to be great. And in the church, greatness isn’t defined by our tithing or the hours we spend in worship or service—or even our preaching and teaching ability—and certainly not by our faith. And, especially, we don’t have to try to be perfect. In fact, perfectionism actually is one big stumbling block for ourselves and others. Sometimes, all due respect to Mrs. Hedstrom, good enough is good enough.

For Jesus, greatness is based on only one thing: how willing we are to stop striving to be great. How willing we are to show grace and mercy by cutting ourselves and others a break. How much we are willing to humble ourselves to identify with the poor and the powerless of the world. Because when we welcome these “children” into our lives in whatever way, we are welcoming God to be with us. For God’s greatness isn’t based on God’s power over others, but on God’s willingness to serve creation, especially the fragile and vulnerable parts of creation. That’s the greatness Jesus wants for us, the greatness of living as he teaches and serving the world on his behalf. Anything else is a stumbling block and misses the point of why he came into the world, why he calls us to follow him.

When I volunteered at the Voigt House, I often pointed out a beautiful hand-appliqued Amish quilt that was displayed in a downstairs bedroom. Especially if I was talking to kids I’d ask them to find the flaw in the quilt. Sometimes they’d see it, but usually they missed that one of the appliqued flower stems had two leaves instead of three. It was the only mistake on what was a perfect work of art. But it wasn’t a mistake—the quilter had done it on purpose. She was capable of creating something flawless—the rest of the quilt testified to that. But she intentionally made the mistake, which probably only she would know was there, to remind herself and anyone who noticed that only God is perfect. She knew this—and we need to be reminded of that fact, lest our own perfectionism begin to convince us that we are equal to God.

Sometimes good enough is good enough. Now that I’m a grown up, I know that my perfectionism is rooted in pride. The kind of pride that’s a stumbling block to me and to the people around me. For me—and maybe you, too—this is one hurdle in the quest for spiritual fitness that’s really hard to get over. Wanting to be right, wanting to get it right, have the right answers, know more than anyone else, do whatever better than anyone else not only impedes my spiritual growth, but puts a burden on others as we try and keep failing to make the perfect grade. It’s hard to give up perfectionism, but this hurdle is possible to get over—it’s possible to be teachable—like the child Jesus referred to as he spoke to the disciples. It’s possible to admit we don’t have superpowers, and in fact, we don’t even have some of the answers. “It turns out that to be great,” Alice McKenzie says, “is to be focused on something quite other than oneself. It turns out that greatness lies in welcoming one who is not viewed as great by the culture, the child, the one who is beyond the circle, who needs a welcome.” (Working Preacher, 9/20/09)

Turns out Mrs. Hedstrom was tough and scary and a great teacher. She pushed us to be great—and we knew she cared about us. But sometimes good enough is good enough. Someone has said that “being a Christian isn’t about being a perfect person. It’s about being a person who practices living the way Jesus told us to live.” (Still Practicing, Michelle Slater, These Days, 9/25/16). So how’s the practice going? And how are we doing at welcoming the ones who need a welcome?

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