Ephesians 2:4-10, John 3:14-21
For by grace you have been saved. Grace which is a gift. And we are created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives .
Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it.
How many of you are trying to save yourselves? How many are trying to BE good enough to win God’s approval? How many of you believe in a God who condemns?
Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a parent who was very critical, had a temper, and also was an alcoholic.
To escape the worst she learned to be quiet, maybe she was quiet by nature but learned the value of quiet and holding her emotions back. She learned be good, how to perceive the expectations of the moment and fit into them. She had some success in keeping the parent happy and from yelling so much, criticizing so much, with those strategies.
To win favor, smiles from her parent she learned the ways to get approval – also meeting expectations at school and bringing home good report cards. She usually got notes for being a “pleasure to have in class.” Conforming to other peoples expectations helped her have some self assurance.
So in faith, she also learned she was supposed to be good, say prayers, go to church, and not do things to make God upset like that parent would get upset. Meeting outside expectations seemed to be the way to go, too.
Until somehow, little by little this understanding would be chipped away. Somehow little by little someone or many someones kept saying things like “saved by grace.” Like, “God loves you no matter what.” And those voices matched a sense she had inside that those things were the real truth. She started to notice how she had been holding herself back and make other people pleased, and began to try another way. That she could be herself, her full self, that was not always perfectly aligned to what other people wanted.
Do you recognize the little girl in this story? Maybe you guessed, it was me. Maybe, you saw a little bit of yourself. Because I know that I am not the only one who has used perfectionism as a crutch and has sought to please other people as a way to feel good about myself. To greater and lesser extents quite a few of us have these same stories, even if the details are different.
Perfectionism, and believing there is only one right way to do life, are two characteristics of White Supremacy Culture that we are repenting of in this season of Lent. And I’ll just remind you that we are not just going through this to be more PC or fit in to someone’s understanding of looking the part; this is about our Christian discipleship. Because it is right there in black and white. We do not save ourselves. God is rich in mercy, and saves us by grace, out of great love.
AND – not but- AND God created us to do good! I’ll say it again- out of love, and mercy, God saves by grace AND creates us to do good. It’s not the other way around like so, so many people seem to think- it’s not that you do good so God will like you, accept, or save you. God already did. And then you are freed, empowered, to live out God’s plan- which isn’t about restricting you from doing things but so that you can do the good things that are in you to do. You don’t have to live up to someone else’s standard of what those good works or good things are.
Which helps bring me to the part about only one right way. To me these two characteristics are very closely aligned. The criticism that comes with a culture of perfectionism is tied to believing there is one right way to do things. There are certainly wrong, hurtful and evil things people do to one another. But that doesn’t mean that the one way you were taught is the only way.
Let’s give the example of tying shoes. I was taught the wrap the lace around the other loop method, and taught it was the way. The only way. Other kids did 2 loops and made a knot. It also works! It took me a long time to truly accept this was just another way and not the wrong way! Maybe because of this perfectionist tendency! This is true of so much more in life. And in church. Sometimes someone will bring up something another church is doing and suggest we should copy them. But, I often resist that. Because there is not just one right way to do things. We can try new things for sure! But not just because it works for another church means it will work for ours. There isn’t only one right way to do ministry.
This has to do with white supremacy which sees whiteness as the right way. I heard something this week about unlearning that American equals white. For some generations, painfully, we know this had been assumed by the broader society: the right way to be American is to be a white person. This had been built up by those who invented hierarchies of ethnicities in order to justify slavery. But of course, There are many ways to be American and none of them have to do with skin color. The same is true for belonging to the church of Christ, if anything even more so, because the first Christians would not fit our narrow category of white- they were Israelites and Palestinians, Greeks and Africans. Not very many blue eyes in those populations.
And with every culture there are things that are taken for gratned about what the right way is. That may be a gift of this time of Pandemic, when we have had to leave behind so much about what was THE right way to worship, for example. Through this tragedy- that I will continue to insist God did not cause, but through it God has been able to help us see we can do facebook live worship, zoom worship, outdoor worship- if we worship God, we worship God. And in our discipleship this is also true. Some may faithfully rise at 6 am and read their Bible and say specific prayers and that may be a meaningful time of devotion. Some may close their eyes as their head hits the pillow at night and breathe a prayer of thanks for making it through another day, it’s still prayer. Some may give thousands of dollars each year to church and other charities and some may give small amounts as it is possible, and also help their neighbors directly with giving rides and sharing food, it’s still giving. And in between, there are many ways to live out our faith.
So we trust that we are saved by grace, just as we are, and that others also depend on God’s grace, so that we don’t condemn, either. To let go of perfectionism and let go of one right way is to learn to trust in God’s grace so that we don’t condemn ourselves or others. The gospel says it plainly: God sent Jesus not to condemn but to save.
As we repent from the characteristics of white supremacy culture, we continue to repent of the racism it upholds. This too can be daunting, and if we name our desire to repent of racism we might fear more scrutiny from others who tell us we are not doing enough, or not doing the right things. This repentance like every other, includes letting go of a fear of perfectionism so that we can open ourselves to God and let God work in us, one step at a time. It is not a destination to arrive at but a journey that we are all on together.
Because again, we are saved by grace. Grace that frees us from comparing ourselves to others. Grace that frees us from condemning others because they do things differently. Grace that frees us from limits of perfectionism. For goodness’ sake, we can also make mistakes! I think that is what Martin Luther meant, at least part of it, when he said, sin boldly. Don’t hold a punishment over your own head for maybe getting it wrong! That’s what perfectionism does. It keeps us from trying new things. It keeps us locked up in a safe expectation. But the grace of God is wild and freeing. Know that God has made you and so try your best, whatever that may be, boldly.
The apostle Paul said it so well I’ll just say his words, one more time. Maybe hearing this over and over will help you, too, be freed from the lies of only one right way and perfectionism and free you in God’s grace:
“You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way we live our lives.”
May it be so beloved, Amen.