a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday September 14th, 2008
INVOCATION: Matthew 5: 43-48
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? 47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? 48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
[Extemporaneous Introduction] -- I just want to reassure everyone that that didn’t hurt nearly as much as it probably looked, but it still hurt a whole more than I would have liked. And I’ve been telling myself all this past week that once people had seen me climb those stairs, it wouldn’t really matter much what I had to say -- I would have made my point, and all that will be left would be to share a few folksy illustrations. Which is probably a good thing, since I think I left my manuscript down there on the table! (no, no -- I’m just kidding! )
But now that I’m up here and getting settled in, I thought I’d also draw your attention for a moment to the patch here in the ceiling to your left. Awhile back, we had leak in the slate roof which covers the Meetinghouse, which resulted in water getting down into the plaster and causing it to collapse. It’s one of those unexpected things that no one really thinks will ever happen to them, until it does happen -- and last spring the Trustees generously offered to juggle some funds around in order to have it repaired before my formal installation....
So I thought about it for awhile, and I asked them to wait. I thought it might be a good idea instead to leave the patch in place for awhile, as a visible, tangible sign, a little like the intentional flaw that is woven into every Navajo rug -- something that we might look at every week, that would remind us that despite our proud heritage and all of the history and traditions that are associated with this congregation, and the important role we have played for centuries here on the Peninsula and in the larger Portland community; and notwithstanding all of our many strengths and resources (not the least of which is all of you), we’re still not “there” yet, and we’re probably not going to be “there” any time soon.
We ARE going to repair the roof, by the way, so that it doesn’t leak again. But at the same time, I think it’s important for us to remind ourselves from time to time that in spite of all the wonderful things that DO happen here, First Parish still isn’t Perfect, not by a long ways. We also have our flaws and our shortcomings; we have many, MANY things we aspire to that are still beyond our grasp. And this will doubtlessly still be true no matter how much progress we may make toward achieving the ambitious goals we set for ourselves each year.
I also want to say just a word specifically about the title of today’s sermon. This motto, “Progress, not Perfection” was something one of my oncology nurses wrote on the white board in my room on my first day as a patient at the Gibson Center, so I basically looked out at it and reflected on it several times a day, every day, for more than a month. And in that time, I came to appreciate the wisdom of this motto in ways that are often difficult to articulate. In a very real sense, I’ve ended up trying to live this motto for the past six months, and whatever progress I’ve been able to make in that time has been grounded in the understanding that it’s NOT going to be perfect again right away...but that those little baby steps add up over time, provided one keeps on moving in the right direction.
This certainly wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to this concept, although it is probably the most intense. And there’s even a French proverb from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique that expresses almost the exact same sentiment: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." A literal translation would be "The best is the enemy of good," but we might also take advantage of the vast lexicon of twenty-five cent words available to us in the English language and translate it a little more loosely as "Perfection is the Antagonist of Excellence." Or “opponent” or “adversary” or even “enemy” if your prefer... the meaning is still clear, and sometimes it cuts both ways.
Before my illness, the last time I really had to wrestle with this idea, at least in a serious way, was when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, and coming to grips with the realization that I was never going to write the PERFECT dissertation I had imagined myself writing when I had first started out, but that the BEST dissertation I could write under the circumstances (as my faculty advisor kept reminding me) was the one that could be approved if only I would turn it in.
But this was also one of those situations where the proverb was also working in the opposite direction: where “good enough” becomes the enemy of one’s own best work. Why should any of us be willing to settle for anything LESS than perfection, or at the very least the very best of which we are capable in the moment? Isn’t that kind of what the Scripture is calling us to do, when it tells us “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect?”
I’m pretty certain that just about everyone here today has struggled with these same issues in your own lives, on some level or another. When does our desire for perfection get in the way of our doing the best work we are capable of doing RIGHT NOW? When does Pride become a sin rather than an incentive to improve? How do the virtues of humility and forgiveness help us to accept not only the flaws and shortcomings of others, but our own as well?
I think it’s in this context that we need to take a little closer look at that word, “perfection,” just so that we might have a little better grasp on what it does and does not mean. One of the most common connotations of the word, for example, is “flawless.” Something is “perfect” when there is absolutely nothing wrong about it, and absolutely nothing that can be improved about it either. It’s complete; it’s “perfect.”
And yet in many ways this narrow view of perfection actually limits our understanding and can be improved upon a great deal. Short of our imaginations, where do we find ANYTHING in this world that is truly “flawless?” Or at least that cannot somehow be improved? In fact, the Greek word teleios (which we translate as “perfect”) has exactly this opposite connotation: it refers to something which is mature and therefore fulfilled, because it has reached fruition (and thus its “perfection”) only at the end of a long process of growth and maturity.
In much this same vein, the philosopher Socrates knew that he knew nothing, and that this knowledge alone made him the wisest man in Athens. Awareness of one’s own ignorance is a very precious knowledge indeed, which is no doubt why Socrates himself was also so committed to the principle “Know thyself.” And in the passage I read a moment ago from the writings of James Freeman Clarke, this notion of “perfection” becomes transmuted into an idea of Progress, or “the Continuity of Human Development” onward and upward forever.
Clarke went on to write:
The divine word, revealed in creation, embodied in Christ, immanent in the human soul, is a fuller fountain than has been believed. No creed can exhaust its meaning, no metaphysics can measure its possibility. The teaching of Jesus is not something to be outgrown; for it is not a definite system, but an ever unfolding principle. It is a germ of growth, and therefore has no finality in any of its past forms. "Of its fulness," says John, " we have all received, and grace added to grace." The Apostle Paul regarded his own knowledge of Christianity as imperfect and partial. "We know in part," said he, "and we teach in part." Christianity in the past has always had a childlike faith, which was beautiful and true. But its knowledge has also been that of a child. It has spoken as a child, it has understood as a child, it has thought as a child. This was all well while it was a child. The prattle of an infant is sweet, but in a youth or [an adult] it is an anachronism. Let us have a childlike faith, but a [mature] intelligence.... Let us endeavor to see God and nature face to face, confident that whoever is honestly seeking the truth, though [they] may err for a time, can never go wholly wrong.
Perhaps the hardest lesson I have EVER had to learn is very closely related to this insight...and it was something that I had to do wrong dozens, if not hundreds of times, before I finally figured out that “Success” is generally something that one discovers atop a heaping MOUNTAIN of Failure, and that you simply HAVE to do it wrong a few times before you are finally going to get it right.
How does the saying go? -- “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Because unless you are willing to take the risk of failure -- of doing something less than perfectly in order to make progress to toward your goal -- you are never going to move forward at all. Perfection is merely the target on the horizon. Excellence is the Objective, and the real Goal is simply Progress -- to do it a little bit better today than you did the day before.
I can still remember how it felt a year ago now to climb into this high pulpit for the FIRST time as your regularly called and settled minister, and all of the emotions of hope and expectation that were here in this room that day as we began together a new ministry here at First Parish: a ministry both to one another, and to the larger community in which we dwell. Of course, things were a little different that day too. (I recall, for instance, that there was a huge gaping hole in the ceiling over here where the plaster had gotten wet and fallen in...) and also how impressed I was with the banners that are still hanging here along the gallery: “Open the Windows + the Doors” “And Receive Whosoever is Sent.”
This still is the mission of this church, you know. It’s a place where we come to make our own lives better, and to help out others it times of crisis or challenge, to greet both neighbors and strangers alike, and to slowly improve the world where we live, often one human soul at a time. And at the time I observed that: “This Meeting House is indeed a sacred place, a safe and welcoming ‘sanctuary’ in the heart of this city, which we make Holy through our presence here, and by filling it with our warmth, and our love for one another, our hospitality to strangers, and our devotion and commitment to the values and principles of our shared Unitarian and Universalist faith traditions. We come from many different places, we travel many different paths. But in this place, we mingle our lives together like the waters of many rivers flowing to the ocean, perhaps in time rising as fog, falling as rain, even freezing as ice, but always, always flowing back once more into the sea from whence we all have come.”
So was it then; and so may it be again today....
READING: “The Five points of Calvinism and the Five Points of the New Theology” from Vexed Questions in Theology by James Freeman Clarke (Boston: 1886) [LINK to complete text of Clarke's essay]
The fifth point of doctrine in the new theology will, as I believe, be the Continuity of Human Development in all worlds, or the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.
Progress is the outward heaven, corresponding to the inward heaven of character. The hope of progress is one of the chief motives to action. Men [and women] are contented, not matter how poor their lot, so long as they can hope for something better. And...[they] are discontented, no matter how fortunate their condition, when they have nothing more to look forward to. The greatest sufferer who hopes may have nothing, but ...possesses all things; the most prosperous soul who is deprived of hope may have all things, but...possesses nothing....
If hope abides, there is always something to look forward to, -- some higher attainment, some larger usefulness, some nearer communion with God. And this accords with all we see and know: with the long processes of geologic development by which the earth became fitted to be the home of [human beings]; with the slow ascent of organized beings from humbler to fuller life; with the progress of society from age to age; with the gradual diffusion of knowledge, advancement of civilization, growth of free institutions, and ever higher conceptions of God and of religious truth. The one fact which is written on nature and human life is the fact of progress, and this must be accepted as the purpose of the Creator....