The new curate, and ideals of perfection
Mark 6:1-13 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
So… here he is… the new curate; he’s arrived – well sort of, but that’s another story for another time. Now, I’ve been sat in your position and quite recently actually; looking expectantly at the new curate and wondering ‘what will they be like?’, ‘what makes them tick?’ and ‘what sort of person are they?’. Well, seen as I’ve been there, I’m going to let you into a little secret, only one mind and only a little one; all being well I’ll be here for 3 years – so I’m going to give you your money’s worth. Actually, that sounds quite bad, it makes me sound like I’ve got a three-year supply of secrets, which isn’t the case! Anyway, back to today’s revelation, hold on to your seats; I wish to confess to you all that I’m somewhat of a perfectionist. Terrible, yes, yes, I know.
My innate perfectionism has almost driven me mad over the years. For out of perfectionism has flowed for me the following two consequences, a need for isolationism and the need to constantly project a perfect façade where I appear to be utterly in control of everything. And, because I am a perfectionist, I have been in the past somewhat of a control freak. At school I couldn’t bear the thought of collaborative group work, because I thought that my peers wouldn’t complete their part of the project in exactly the same way I would. It had to be just so. I would much rather work on my own. But striving for perfectionism is exhausting as you will never be satisfied with your efforts; you will either be lamenting what might have been “if only I’d…”. Or time will pass you by as you sink ever deeper into your own world in the pursuit of something fleeting that is always just beyond your reach.
My desire for perfectionism has also spilt over into my behaviour. When I was a young lad growing up, I would be a perfectly behaved young man at church, courteous, helpful; positively saint-like. And then I would go home and be a complete toe-rag. I couldn’t maintain the façade indefinitely, the real me would slip out at some point, more often than not it was at home. I remember my dad once shouting after me after some typical teenage misdemeanour; “that lot up there think the sun shines out of your… little do they know the real you”. I remember shuddering at the thought, ugh, I wouldn’t want the respectable Christian elders at my church knowing the real me. Not the real person lurking behind the façade, it was far more comfortable and easier to hide under the pleasant exterior of the perfect Sunday-school boy.
As I’ve got older and I’ve learnt that striving towards perfectionism is actually quite damaging (regardless of what secular culture would have us believe), I’ve had to unpick a lot of the bad habits learnt over many years. And lots of these relate to how I see and value myself and how I think others perceive me too. So, when the call towards ordination arrived, the first thought was absolutely not. There is no way whatsoever that the almighty and perfect God is calling this sinful and very imperfect person to be a vicar. I’m not good enough, I’m not vicar material, I can’t do it, no way. Well, who would have thought it, here I am several years later newly ordained and God certainly proved me wrong. But I’ve had to learn; (and I had this hammered into me time and again at theological college and throughout this long long process); that I don’t have to be Reverend perfect because God has called me Joe Cooper, the normal bloke from Handsworth with all my weaknesses and faults to be one of his servants. I don’t have to be someone I’m not, I just have to be me and I all I need to do is start to serve him to the best of my very human but very flawed ability.
If we reflect on this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples who as we know were normal, deeply flawed human beings. But he didn’t send them out independently acting under their own authority; verse 7 tells us that Jesus himself gave them his own authority to exorcise and to heal. So, the disciples were not being sent out on their own for their own glory, they were part of a larger team and they were in it together for His glory. They were deeply connected to God’s own mission; yes, they were in it with Him, but they were also in it as them. And as we know, once empowered by the Holy Spirit they went on to achieve some truly remarkable things.
When I was on a placement during my training, I attended a café style church. We were asked to discuss in groups how we could share the love of Christ with our neighbours. What practical things could we do to share Jesus with our neighbours to help build up God’s kingdom. I’ll always remember what one elderly lady said “oh I’ve stopped doing that years ago, they don’t listen to me, they think I’m potty”. Others in the group felt that they weren’t quite good enough to evangelize. Well lets go back to the Gospel reading for a moment, here we have Jesus, fully man and fully God. The only truly perfect human being who has ever lived. But when he returned to his home town of Nazareth where you would have thought that they would have paid perhaps more attention to him, even he in all his perfection, struggled to win hearts and minds. His ability to heal was restricted by their lack of faith. Did he give up? No, in the next scene, he is sending out the disciples to do the very same. But he tells them ‘if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them’. If we start to talk to people about Jesus and they tell us where to go or the metaphorical or physical door is slammed in our faces, we just need to shake off the dust and move on; but we mustn’t give up, for the harvest is plentiful! And we are good enough, because it is Christ Himself who dwells within us.
In the reading from 2 Corinthians we heard that Paul will not boast of anything except of his weaknesses. He was evidently suffering from some sort of trouble or temptation which he felt was weakening his ministry. Perhaps he felt that he couldn’t properly serve Jesus whilst afflicted by this particular issue. Whatever it was, whilst praying for deliverance from the issue, he was told “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. What a remarkable response to his prayer and Paul’s response is even more remarkable. “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”. Weakness it seems is not all that bad, it keeps us humble, it keeps us grounded and it enables Jesus to work through us.
This morning I’ve shared a little of my own testimony and hopefully some of it may have resonated with your own experience or the experience of others you know. And hopefully by boasting of my weaknesses Jesus has been able to speak through me and use my weaknesses as a means to communicate with you this morning. But can you imagine for a second how you would have reacted if my message had been something like “I have been called to ordained ministry because I am brilliant, I’m totally and utterly perfect in everything I do and if you want to serve Jesus, you should seek to emulate me Reverend Perfect”. I would imagine many of you would have switched off or perhaps even walked out and Tim would have got a right ear bashing (and rightly so!), who is this boastful curate you’ve foisted on us?! So if we want to serve Jesus and I’m not talking about ordained ministry here for all of us have a duty to serve Him in whatever way we can. If we truly want to serve Jesus, we need to do so out of a position of humility where we like Paul boast of our weaknesses in order to glorify the risen Jesus. We all love a good earthy story with twists and turns, highs and lows; it makes it interesting it sparks conversation and more importantly it keeps it real. How could we possibly relate to the rest of the world which is often described in church circles as broken if we ourselves have not been broken by our weaknesses and put back together through the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ.
I just want to round off by quoting from the gospel of Coldplay (for those of you who don’t know who Coldplay is, they’re a pop-rock band) and they have a song called ‘Something Just Like This’:
I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
And batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list
Stay with me… its going somewhere.
But she said, where’d you wanna go?
How much you wanna risk?
I’m not looking for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some fairytale bliss
Just something I can turn to
And the last line says
Somebody I can kiss, which is irrelevant to the point I’m trying to make, but given to complete the rhyme for us perfectionists who enjoy completeness and order. Sermon on greeting people with a Holy Kiss to follow next time.
But the point I’m trying to make is this, Jesus isn’t calling perfect superheroes to serve Him and his church, he wants you as you are. Of course we all recognise that there are things we need to set aside and start doing and we work on that day by day in our walk with Jesus. But if we wait until we consider ourselves to be good enough will we ever get going?
So how far do you want to go and how much do you want to risk?
For Paul, he was prepared to accept weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.
We don’t need to be perfect, for Jesus will equip us with everything we need along the way.
Let our weaknesses testify to the glory of the one who we serve, for when we are weak, then we are strong.