Practice Makes Perfection

A Sermon by Rev. Chris Jorgensen

Preached October 7, 2018

Matthew 5:43-48

Let me just start off with total transparency: you have not come to a fair fight. John Wesley is going to win this thing because 1) I am totally biased and 2) you are in a Methodist church after all – one of the many denominations that arose directly from the leadership of John Wesley.

image of whitefield and wesley with boxing glovesThat said…LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLE!

In the blue corner…weighing in at (I don’t know) 185?…THE most popular preacher during the “Great Awakening”…BELIEVER in predestination… CONVERTER of millions with his brilliant and fiery speech…GEORGE “THE SILVER-TONGUED CALVINIST” WHITEFIELD. (Boooooo!)

And in the red corner…weighing in at 128 pounds (historians actually know this.)…the founder of the GREATEST movement in Christian history, the man who put the METHOD in Methodism…

JOHN “THE DISCIPLINARIAN” WESLEY! (Hoooooray!!!)

Okay, well, this sermon is all downhill from there.

During the 18th century Great Awakening, Wesley and Whitefield were friendly rivals. Whitefield actually came out of Wesley’s Methodist movement, though they had some notable differences in theology. But what I want to talk about is their differences in leadership.

See, Whitefield was this amazing preacher. People would go to hear him, they would swoon and cry, they would be convinced of their sin, turn their hearts enthusiastically to God, and then go home. And as genuine as their conversion might have been, they often found themselves losing their resolve, going back to their old habits, forgetting that one moment of zeal.

Wesley saw this happening, and he didn’t like it. He did not like it one bit. Because for Wesley, the Christian life required discipline. Yes, Wesley believed in a heart-centered evangelical conversion. You bet he did. But he also knew, that those kind of enthusiastic conversions would blow right over if you didn’t do something to keep your heart and mind focused on God.

Wesley believed in not just conversion, but something called sanctification (where you grow more and more in the image and likeness of Christ every day). And he believed even in something called perfection.

That’s right. Perfection. Wesley believed that you could perfectly live in the image of God. You could in every moment act only out of love and compassion…and not sin ever…in this life. You looked shocked and intimidated. You should be. I mean, I’d like to tell you that perfection is not an expectation, but then I would have to ignore today’s gospel reading.

Matthew 5:48 says “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

John Wesley took this Se. Ri. Ous. Ly. He liked to talk about “moving on to perfection” as we grow in our faith. In fact, among the questions I was asked when I was ordained were 1) are you going on to perfection? and 2) Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? And I had to say, “yes.” Absurd, right?

Well, there’s some good news: the perfection we are talking about is not worldly perfection. The Gospel of Matthew says to be perfect as God is perfect. Those ordination questions said not, “are you going to be made perfect in this life,” but “are you going to be made perfect in love?” … as God is perfect.

As Christians, we look to Jesus to figure out what this means. We look at Jesus and what scripture tells us about his life: how he invited all people to the table, how he stood with the poor and the marginalized, how he broke down barriers and even broke the rules to show us what it means to love like God loves. And if we really believe Jesus to be God incarnate, to be God in human form, then we trust that Jesus gives us an example of what the perfect love of God looks like.

You know, Jesus? Jesus who healed people and fed people and gave himself so fully for others that he was willing to die on the cross? That’s the God whose way we are supposed to perfectly follow if we are Christians.

Dang. That is a tall order. How could we ever possibly grow in the image of God that much, follow Jesus that closely, achieve this absurd goal of perfection?

I mean. This is such a hard thing to do. Such an impossible task. It’s like we never will be able to achieve it. It is inconceivable. Ridiculous.

It is almost as unlikely…almost as unlikely…as this Nebraska Cornhuskers football team one day going on to win a national championship.

Friends, I watched more interviews and read more articles about football this week than I really wanted to. I mean, I like to watch the games, but I don’t usually follow the news.

But this week, I noticed the Husker football coach Scott Frost talks a lot about discipline and accountability. He is a man after John Wesley’s own heart. Because Frost knows that to succeed in reaching a quite impossible-seeming goal, you can’t just show up and wait for somebody to hand it to you. You have to work for it. You have to start with your heart really wanting it, and then you have to show up and practice, practice, practice. And you don’t just practice on the field. You practice in every part of your life. You have discipline in everything you do.

(Maybe Frost learned that from his coach at Nebraska, Tom Osborne. Did you know Tom Osborne is a United Methodist?)

Frost has got it so right, that I’m going to quote a Huskers football coach in my sermon. Frost said, “…it all comes down to caring enough to do it right. Not just on the field. It comes down to caring enough to do it right on Monday, on Tuesday, when you’re supposed to be in study hall, when you’re supposed to be at class, the way you treat the people that serve you food in the lunch line. People that do all those things the right way are winners, and they win. We have a bunch of them on this team… But we’re doing enough little things wrong that we can’t overcome [everything] right now.”

Scott Frost knows that it’s a process – that his team is moving on to perfection. He has players whose hearts are in the right place, who are starting to show their discipline not just on the practice field or the game field but in all parts of their life. That doesn’t translate into winning a national championship in week 5. But it’s where you start.

That’s where we as Christians start: committed to a discipline that becomes an entire way of life. We don’t just show up for the big show on Sunday expecting that nothing we have done throughout the week matters. It all matters. Every nook and cranny of your life matters. Every way you choose to spend your time matters. Because we have been chosen and also empowered by God for a challenging task: to move on to perfection in love. To live lives where God’s love shines in and through us all the time.

And if our goal is to be perfected in love in this life, then we better get disciplined and practice.

Small groups are one way we practice. Why small groups? Small groups give us a community that support us on our journey – but also hold us accountable. I am so grateful for the people I trust the most, the ones that I know love and support me so much, that when they tell me I am not living up to the ideals of my faith, I can hear them. Now you can’t do that with a stranger. If you try to tell somebody you just met (or someone with whom you are arguing on Facebook), “Hey, you’re not being a very good Christian right now,” that is not going to go well. But if you trust each other, if you are in true relationship with one another, you can talk about that hard stuff. And you can make each other better.

And it’s just about following your pastor. I’m not done with the Huskers analogy yet. I mean, maybe I am like the quarterback. And I think Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez has some wise words for us on this. He said this week when asked about leadership, “I think it’s a misconception there that it’s the quarterback has all of that responsibility, I think it’s a team thing. Obviously, I have a voice and with my position I need to speak up and be that leader. But, when we as a team can hold each other accountable, not just rely on one [person], not just rely on our captains, the [official] leaders. Everyone’s a leader, everyone holds each other accountable.”

Small groups, my friends. Small groups.

Everyone holds each other accountable. And you can only really hold someone else accountable when you are being a leader – someone who shows what self-discipline looks like. Adrian Martinez is not perfect all the time, but he sure better be showing his team what playing with heart and practicing hard looks like most of the time.

I sure try to do that as your pastor. I fail on the regular.

But I also practice so that the people around me can see that I am working to do better. I have not always been as disciplined as I should be. But these days I am doing okay. I read scripture and pray every day. I have started writing reflections on the scripture because that’s a tool I need to keep myself focused.

I meet with a covenant group of other clergy people monthly. And yes, we talk about our struggles – and we also answer the hard question of how we are doing showing our families and our congregation and the world what the love of Jesus looks like? Sometimes, when that question is asked, I reflect and I groan a little, and I have to admit that I have failed. But I don’t quit. I commit to practice that helps me do better.

And I go back to my prayer, back to my scripture, back to worship, back to listening to hymns that inspire me, back to the communion table. Because being perfected in love – it’s not easy. If I am being 100% honest, I am not quite sure I am going to make it in this life. But I am going to do everything I can to keep my life focused on Christ and moving in the right direction.

Even John Wesley wasn’t always perfect. (Shocker, I know.) In his rivalry with Whitefield, Wesley was the hothead, the first one to put on the boxing gloves. Wesley was the one whose words were more likely to reflect anger than long-suffering love. On the contrary, Whitefield’s arguments with and rebukes to Wesley were always full of extraordinary kindness. In that sense, Whitefield held Wesley accountable – holding up a mirror to Wesley’s impatience and teaching him love.

Whitefield died much earlier than Wesley. Despite all their theological arguments and practical differences (and their very public feud) Whitefield had requested that Wesley preach at his funeral. In that sermon, Wesley recounted all of Whitefield’s compassion and kindness and deep love for all people, including himself.

Wesley also noted this: that the perfection in love that Whitefield displayed is impossible for humans to achieve on their own – but only possible if empowered by God. So Wesley encouraged his hearers that day to rely on God and to wrestle with God…to show up, to practice, to work hard to grow in faith every day.

I will close with a quote from that funeral sermon. These are the words of John Wesley:

Wrestle with God for some degree of the same grateful, friendly, affectionate temper [as George Whitefield]; of the same openness, simplicity, and godly sincerity; “love without [pretense].” Wrestle on, till the power from on high works in you the same steady courage and patience.”

Wrestle on, my friends.

May it be so.

Amen.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION / DISCUSSION
1) On a scale of 1 to 10, how are you doing on the goal of achieving “perfection in love in this life”? Why did you choose that number on the scale?
2) What would “being perfected in love” look like in your life? Give specific examples.
3) What spiritual practice or discipline have you committed to in order to practice for perfection? Why did you choose that particular practice?

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