Live Your Life
Reverend Debra McGuire
August 11, 2019
Yesterday I spent several hours teaching flute to several beginning students between the ages of 7-10. One of them, was assigned the following last week, to play for me yesterday:
Not complicated as songs go, but a lot going on, if you're just learning how to blow into a metal pipe with keys on it. First you have to just make a sound, and you only get the first piece of the pipe for that. Then when you put it all together, you have to learn where and when to put your fingers down, and you can't even see them because they're way over here! Getting a sound comes first, then getting the right notes, and then playing them at the right time, and for the right length of time, and you have to be able to play a low version or high version of the same note. We had been working on several lines from her book, but this one line covered all of the things we were working on in general. Counting. Correct pitch – getting a high note or a low note, on command, not by accident. Correct fingerings. Recognizing patterns. Dizzying, really.
Last week I told the student that I was only assign this one line, because I knew that they would be sure it was PERFECT for their next lesson. I wrote down “perfect” on a post-it note, and underlined it with a big squiggly flourish!
So yesterday, the student played it for me, and she played, well, something like that. But it wasn't awful. It was clear lots of work had been done. The student's own self evaluation was that it wasn't “perfect with a squiggly underline. But maybe just Perf….or Per….or Pe.”
The lectionary that I am using, the Narrative Lectionary has chosen the book of Hebrews for these last five weeks. In verses 12:1-2 we read that we are to “look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” which is a restatement of a line read a few weeks ago where we read Hebrews 2:10, 10 It was appropriate for God, for whom and through whom everything exists, to use experiences of suffering to make perfect the pioneer of salvation.
Jesus was made perfect through suffering. Jesus was the pioneer and perfection of our faith, not us. We are all “perf.” Or Per. Or Pe. As a matter of fact, the first 16 lines we read today are all stories of “perf” people. The author of this letter throws out all the big names -- Abel, Cain, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even reference to a woman, Sarah. Don't worry about being perfect, the author says. Jesus did that already. Even these great people you've heard about as great religious heroes, were not perfect. Just have faith – these heroes you might want to compare yourselves to, that's what they did. You just live your life – by faith. The phrase that is used 13 times, in just 16 lines.
Do what you do, by faith. Make decisions, by faith. Enjoy life, with faith. Respond to life, by faith. It sounds so simple. Just live your life.
I received a Christmas card from a friend many years ago, that was a picture of a tiny mouse reading a huge book by candlelight, and on the inside the card said something like, this year, read the Christmas story as if you were reading it for the very first time.
The significance of the card for her, was that, as a 29 year old, she had been baptized, and came to believe that there really was a God, and maybe, just maybe God was for her too. Not just those other, religious people. She was able to experience the Christmas story really for the first time.
She told me that her baptism was simply astounding to her. She called in sick to work that Monday, and just went and sat in the church sanctuary. She called in sick on Tuesday too, and did the same thing! This was back in the days when the pastor might really be in the building on any given day, and someone must have told the pastor that she was out there. So the pastor came out, and said hi, and how are you doing, etc.
She told the pastor that she skipped work these past two days because she was so overwhelmed by her thoughts about baptism. She wanted to live as if that baptism mattered. She wanted to live “in faith.” What do I do now, she asked the pastor. You live your life, the pastor answered.
The audience for this letter to the Hebrews was a second generation Christian audience. They were tired. They were distant from the original events. The author wanted to refresh their minds about what this new faith meant for them once; offer them the chance to see the Jesus story as if they were seeing it for the first time; to remind them that their access to the same God they knew of through stories of Cain and Abel, and Noah, and Abraham and Sarah, was possible because Jesus has been made perfect, through suffering, for all people. Just like them.
Just like my friend. Just like you. And you. And you. And you. And me.
We are tired. We are 2019 years removed from the original events. But really, those original events, are happening right now. We can see and perhaps suffer ourselves from persecution, betrayal, lost hope, failure, astounding horror perpetrated by seemingly regular people, fear, anger, isolation; we all are constantly dying on one cross or another.
All of our suffering, that's part of living our lives. Jesus was perfected through suffering, the author tells us.
Why would God use experiences of suffering to lead to perfection?
Because suffering is one of the unique things that makes us human. Not just suffering, but the way we suffer. Humans have language, and we use language to make meaning. As soon as we make meaning, events of our lives get assigned a value, according to a system we didn't make up. It turns out that negative events in our memories get stored deeper and faster than other memories. Negative events become like the ruts of a road that has been travelled over and over where the vehicles have created deep crevices in the land. Living in those ruts is painful, and getting out of those ruts takes deliberate turning – of the wheel, if you will. The natural force of gravity wants to keep the wheel in the rut. It takes strength.
Suffering happens. For some, it isolates us. We say things to ourselves like, No one wants to hear about my story. Everyone has a story. It's not as bad as…. I don't want to burden my friends. I don't want to act like a victim. I'll handle it on my own because that's what strong people do. We'd like to look for someone to share our suffering with because sharing lifts some of the cloud. It doesn't solve a problem necessarily, but it lessens the sheer aloneness than we feel. I was talking to a therapist once, about why people are more likely to heal when they are able to tell their story to someone. They already lived through it once, why re-hash it? Having lived it, why would the person go there again by choice, trying to find some reason or make some sense of it all. It's in the past. She said “Because there's treasure down there. “
Maybe the author of Hebrews believed this. Maybe God made Jesus perfect through experiences of suffering, because there really isn't anything else certain to meet us where we most need God, than one who has also suffered and knows something of that treasure.
Before Jesus, it was easier to believe you were close to God because all you had to do was follow some rules. A bunch of rules. Now, feeling close to God isn't all that black and white. It's deeper. Feeling close to God, feeling the joy of God's presence, comes in unexpected ways. We find ourselves riddled with doubt, unsure of what we feel called to do, far from perfect. But it wasn't raining when Noah built the ark. Noah believed what he could not see. Abraham and Sarah were far from child bearing age, and Sarah even laughed, but from them came all the generations of our faith. They couldn't see. Moses never reached the promise land that he couldn't see but went anyway.
Living by faith, isn't easy. But it's what we do everyday that we get up, do our day, listen to the news, hold our heads in our hands in disbelief, rise up in anger and protest, refuse to participate in the fear. We live by faith when we raise our children, build a memory wall, build a healing garden, go to baseball games, work at our jobs, we eat right, we indulge a little, we love our friends, love strangers. When we believe that although we don't see it, the world is lovelier than the media deluge might have us believe.
We don't have to worry about getting it right all the time, being absolutely sure of ourselves, being perfect. We are all just “perf.” And that's the point.