Practice makes perfect

Epiphany 7 – 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who demands perfection, but who overlooks all our faults. Amen.

One of the things about this congregation is that it keeps me on my toes! I learned very quickly that more than a few of you really paid attention to my sermons. That means, that while I have always put a lot of time and effort into my preparation, I have moved it up a notch since coming here. It can be terrifying at times to realise that what I say will be listened to intently. At the same time, it is incredibly encouraging and rewarding to be part of a group of people who takes their faith and their worship so seriously.

Last week was one such example. I made the rather broad generalization that while huge droves have not left the church as a result of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, many had left the church well before that because they felt that the church and its members failed to practice what it preached. As he left the church Brian Wilson made a comment on the sermon and then added his own observations. Brian has a few years on me, so his experience of the church (its successes and failures) extends further back than mine. It was his opinion that many people left the church after the war because they had failed to really understand (and the church had failed to adequately explain) the principles of faith, love and hope. Others he said, had an experience of emptiness, but didn’t know how to fill the hole or how to explain the emptiness. He and I agree that many of us have come to a true understanding of those principles either because we were fortunate to have a good example, a good teacher or simply because we knew that there was something more and we persisted until we found it.

A problem that I identified last week was that there has been, at least at times, a tendency to confuse faith with law, salvation with being good. This has led to an emphasis on adherence to a set of rules and a belief that if only one can manage to keep the rules, that one will be saved. There are two problems with this approach. One is that is simply does not work and the other is that it is exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught. Rules alone cannot make us love our enemy and love that is forced is not love at all.

A conviction that faith is about obedience to rules is a sure-fire way to ensure that believers live with a constant sense of failure and guilt– especially when the standard is so high. It is one thing to know that we should not be angry but there are times when we are so hurt that, try as we might, we cannot rid ourselves of the anger we feel. We all know that Jesus expects us to forgive, but there are some things are really unforgivable. If our focus is primarily on keeping rules we are bound to fail and because we don’t like to fail, we are tempted to gloss over our imperfections and put on a good front. We bury our hurt, our fury and our resentment so that it cannot be seen. It is possible to bury our negative feelings so deep that we forget that they are even there. Then one day something will touch the wound and the anger and the hurt come spilling out all over again – often in ways that hurtful, damaging and unconstructive to ourselves or others. We might be successful at pushing the negativity out of sight, but that doesn’t mean that it has disappeared. It can simmer away, waiting to explode when we least expect it and the last situation is often worse than the first.

Here I believe that we can learn something from the practice of Buddhism, something I’ve been exposed to more thanks to Julie and Maria. My observation is that the teaching of Christianity tends to emphasise what a person should do while Buddhism teaches how a person can do it. For example Buddhism teaches specific practices that enable a person to redirect their thoughts around such things as anger, judgement and forgiveness. They recognise that forgiveness doesn’t just happen, that anger doesn’t always magically disappear just because we tell it do and that it can take hard work, discipline and practice to change or even reverse the way we think about a person or a situation. The practice is applied every time a negative thought or emotion comes up until it is no has a hold. In this way it is possible over time to become less angry and less judgmental and more tolerant, compassionate and forgiving.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we need to become Buddhists to adopt such practices. A Christian spiritual director would be able to teach us similar skills and would give us spiritual exercises that would assist us to look at ourselves more honestly and to work on those parts of our inner life that might be less than perfect. The difference is really one of emphasis. It is difficult in our weekly one hour as a gathered community, to teach and to practice spiritual disciplines. These are left for us to discover through our reading and through retreats. For Buddhists, the emphasis it seems is much more on the practice that enables them to work on their inner life.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Loving our enemy – someone who has wronged or hurt us – does not come naturally, worse, it is the antithesis of how most of us would react. Loving our enemies requires first of all that we are honest about our own shortcomings and our own propensity to cause hurt to others; it demands that we consider what we can learn from the situation and from the other person and it expects that we will be able to find ways to be compassionate and tolerant of those who differ markedly from ourselves. None of these will come easily. Loving our enemy will require us to explore and to put into practice such things that, over time will turn hatred into love, fear into acceptance and anger into peace. Nothing less will do.

Practice makes perfect.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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