Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-48, Romans 12:9-21, 2 Timothy 3:16-17
On Sunday mornings I show up greedy for the sublime. I hope our circus tricks of dressing up, shaking hands, and passing the plate will conjure the ineffable glory of God—maybe we can lure Him to approve of us if the children’s faces are clean! We clip our fighting short as we walk into the sanctuary; we can’t bring our pettiness into a holy place.
If only my day-to-day shenanigans really could be glossed over by washing my hair and putting clean trousers on the children every Sunday. If only our knack for welcoming visitors and taking communion would do the trick and show God how truly worthy we are.
A few weeks ago, I stood in the sanctuary, hemmed in by my moderately clean children and propped up by my fashion-booties. We were singing hymns to the glory of God, and in the whirl of wrangling and worshiping I realized I was holding a child instead of the papers with the sheet music. Looking down, I saw that my papers lay under the delicately beautiful foot of an elderly woman on my left. You have to understand that I was in a hurry, wanting to keep on with the worshiping and the children and the swell of holiness.
I had seen in the past magicians who could grab hold of one corner of a white tablecloth and quickly sweep it off a beautifully set table without disturbing the china or the candles that lay upon it. I had the idea that I could apply this same principle to my situation.
Kneeling down and holding the paper tightly in my fingers, I wish I had paused to consider that the success of the service doesn’t depend on me—we are the imperfect participants in a holy circus. Our antics are always going to be a little ridiculous. We try to do what is right, but still end up failing ridiculously, even at the moments when we should be at our very best.
The problem is that no amount of hand-waving hallelujahs, or giving of holy kisses, will make us what we ought to be. My own doings do not number me with the merciful, the peacemakers, or the pure in heart. It is tempting to think that by substituting my own Sunday morning showmanship, I can actually abolish the real law. But, as He stated in His Sermon on the Mount, Christ came to establish the law, and also to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
And there is the answer: He fulfills it. Not me. He is the true peacemaker, the one who suffered for righteousness, the saltiness of the salt, the true light of the world. My antics, even at their highest and most “expert” level, are still filthy rags. Jesus laid it out for us, saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).
And hallelujah to that. Those Pharisees worked harder than anybody at getting the holy hoedown exactly right, and even those perfectionists couldn’t do it. Thanks be to God that my salvation doesn’t depend on me.
Even if I am careful, I can’t retrieve my worship folder without disturbing the ankle of a very elegant and elderly woman. But at the time, I didn’t think of all this, so I just gave it a sharp yank. We were both surprised and, I think, we were probably both a little disappointed in me. But then we sighed, raised our tambourine hands, and continued to worship. Our imperfection is written on our lips and our feet. But they are the tools we have, so we keep on worshiping.