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March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent
When I served as a missionary in Costa Rica, people I met that weren’t affiliated with the church would ask why I was in the country. And when I said that I worked for the Lutheran church, they would typically ask, “What’s a Lutheran?”
And part of my explanation included the emphasis that we place on the gift of God’s grace in our lives, and that it is what saves us and not our good works. And there’s no question that God’s grace is foundational for us. It’s the basis from which we live our lives.
If we aren’t careful, though, that gift can become cheapened and even devalued altogether. Its value lies in the way we receive it and whether we receive it for the gift that it is, or as something that can be tossed to the side when it isn’t convenient. Because the way we receive it determines our response to it.
It starts with recognizing that it’s a gift born out of God’s love for humanity. And within that is God’s desire for us to know the fullness of God’s grace – the freedom that it brings to us. Not freedom to live life recklessly, but freedom to do the good things God created us to do without worrying about whether they’re good enough.
When we read this promise in Ephesians, we often only read verses 8-9: it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you have done, so nobody can claim the credit.
When we read only those verses, a lot gets lost. It does make it seem like we can live recklessly and only for ourselves. But the value of the gift becomes complete when we include verse 10: We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.
Throughout the Bible, there are countless verses that tell us of the good things God created us to do: love our enemies, pray for people we don’t get along with, make sure people have shelter and enough to eat, advocate on behalf of people who have been cast aside, and on.
Those are all very simple actions. But somewhere along the way, humans made it complicated. And we got it into our heads that those things have to be done perfectly every time. And as that way of thinking spilled over into the rest of life, it created an entire culture that’s governed by the idea that everything always has to be perfect – with a definition of “perfect” that was decided on by humans.
And when people don’t live up to that human expectation, they’re sometimes ridiculed or made to feel less than. That cycle has been perpetuated for centuries. In that process, God’s grace has gotten lost. Despite what we’ve been promised, on a certain level we’ve internalized the thinking that grace is something to be earned rather than a gift that God has freely given to us.
And because it’s a gift, we are able to do the good things God created us to do. Not perfect things. Good things.
Ms. Regina Heater states it a little more directly and simply reminds us that grace undoes perfectionism. It undoes the need for us be perfect. It assures us that, in Jesus – because of Jesus – we are already enough. Each one of us. God’s grace assures us that we don’t have to do everything exactly right all the time. That we don’t need to put other people down when they make mistakes in order to receive grace.
That we don’t need to live in fear that someone else might get our share of grace, or that God will take away the grace we’ve already been given because we’ve messed up. Because God has freely given that grace to each one of us, and God will never take it back.
None of this is to say, “Don’t strive to do your best” or to diminish the fact that there are jobs that require minimal mistakes to be made. We all know what they are.
What this is getting at is that when the drive for perfection runs our lives – when it takes over everything we do, it ruins other people’s lives as well as our own. It robs them and us of the experience of God’s grace and the freedom it brings.
Before I began serving the church, I worked for Boeing for almost seven years. We all know that when you start out at a new job, you usually make a fair amount of mistakes as you learn how to do the work. But when you’ve worked in a place at a similar job for that amount of time, you get to know what you’re doing and the mistakes become fewer and further between.
After I’d been in my job for about five years, I knew it really well. But one morning, I learned that I’d made a rookie mistake. I had forgotten to give a drawing back to an engineer after I reviewed it. Nothing catastrophic.
But the morning after I should have given it back to him, he came over to my desk and asked if I’d finished with it, and I said, “Yeah. I finished it yesterday.” And he said, “So…where is it?” And I said, “I am SO sorry! I can’t believe I forgot to get it back to you. Here it is, I’m really, really sorry.”
And he said, “It’s okay. You did the job. I have the drawing. I’ll talk to you later.” And he went back to his desk. But for most of the rest of the morning, I fixated on my mistake. A few hours later, I said out loud, “I still can’t believe I did that!”
And one of my co-workers asked, “What are you going on about?” And when I told him what I’d done, he said, “Oh, so you are human.” And I said, “Shutup.”
Perfectionism traps us. It confines us to thinking we have to do everything right all the time and, in the process, it robs us of the freedom of grace. It isolates us and prevents us from experiencing grace in the first place.
But when we receive grace for the gift that it is and we internalize that, it changes everything. It frees us to live the life God created us to live and to do the good things God created us to do. It frees us to simply do those things faithfully.
But more than that, receiving God’s grace for the gift that it is allows us to offer it to others. It empowers us to support one another when we make mistakes, and to give encouragement to people who advocate on behalf of others, and to inspire someone to try doing something new.
Living into the promise of God’s grace assures us that we don’t have to do any of these things, or anything, perfectly all the time. We can’t, and there’s no reason to fear that.
God already knows we aren’t perfect. But Jesus is. That’s why he came and why God gives us grace. Nothing we say or do, or don’t say or do, can ever take that away from us.
The gift of God’s grace assures us that in Jesus, because of Jesus, we are already enough. Thanks be to God! Amen.