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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
January 27, 2019 at 10:30 AM
Epiphany 3C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: January 27, 2019 – Epiphany 3C

1 Cor. 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21


God’s Shalom


              There was once a young Japanese Zen monk who found himself struggling with life in the monastery. He tried to relax and focus on the breath during meditation, as he had been taught, but found himself constantly carried away by his thoughts. He cleaned floors, chopped and carried wood, helped to prepare meals, but found these activities purposeless and empty. (“How many times can someone clean the same floor in a day?” he thought.) He felt disconnected and isolated from his brother monks. Finally, he resolved to leave the monastery. He worked up his courage and went to the abbot.


              The abbot listened to the young monk. He heard his disappointment; the frustrated expectations of enlightenment and harmonious community. He heard his frustration with the chores; the disconnection with the other monks; his spiritual floundering. After the young monk finished, the abbot told him that he was certainly welcome to leave, but he had one more task for him to complete. “Rake the rock garden,” the abbot said, “and make sure that it looks perfect.”


              (Have you ever seen a Japanese rock garden? They are often constructed from gravel or sand and feature coordinated arrangements of larger rocks or trees or moss or the like in them. The grooves that the rakes create mimic the ripples on the surface of water. That was what this young monk was ordered to get looking perfect.)


              The young monk dove into his task with gusto the first day. Excused from the usual daily schedule, he spent twelve hours picking up fallen branches, cleaning bird poop from the big rocks, and carefully, oh so carefully raking the garden. Proud of himself, he went to his room, packed his bags to leave the next day, and went to sleep.


              The next day, the monk presented his work to the abbot. The abbot took one look at the garden and said, “It’s not perfect yet.” He turned and went back into the monastery.


              The young monk redoubled his efforts. He picked up the tiniest sticks or bits of debris. He removed weeds that were growing in the gravel. He raked nearly perfect circles around the trees and rock formations, which flowed out like rivers from a lake. He spent another twelve hours on the rock garden, confident that this time, the abbot would approve of his work.


              The next day, the monk again showed the abbot his work. The abbot again took one look and said, “Still not perfect,” turned, and went back inside.


              Furious and frustrated, the monk spent the next sixteen hours looking in every nook and cranny for anything that might be out of place. His entire body ached. His legs were iron. His spine was a column of fire. His hands were ragged and blistered. Nevertheless, he kept raking, kept searching for anything, anything that was out of place. He fell asleep holding his rake, collapsing on the grass on the garden’s perimeter.


              The abbot went out and found the young monk the next day. After gently waking him, the abbot turned to the garden and said, “It’s still not perfect.” The monk was too stunned to move or say anything. Then the abbot reached up and shook some dead leaves out of a tree branch overhanging the garden. They rattled down to the gravel. Then the abbot said, “There. Now it’s perfect.”


              We’re in a different age for the church; that’s obvious to everyone. Many of you grew up in this congregation, have always worshiped in this congregation, and will always be part of this congregation until the day you die. But that’s not typical anymore. Many people come to the Christian faith later in life. Many grow up in the faith but move away from home for their careers or relationships, and have difficulty connecting with another congregation. And sometimes folks have a vision for what a congregation ought to look like; a vision that too often has little basis in reality. We often expect the church to be something that it is not. We want it to be perfect, according to our standards of perfection.


              And what are those standards? I know what they were for me when I was looking for congregations in Chicago and La Crosse, or when I first went to seminary. I wanted beautiful liturgy, dynamic preaching, glorious music, and people that were always friendly, always supportive, appreciative of differences, tolerant of weaknesses. I had a vision of a perfect church community.


              And of course, that vision had no basis in anything resembling reality. Every congregation I went to lacked something. Sometimes the liturgy wasn’t moving, the sermon went off track, or the choir sang off-key. There were people who weren’t understanding, who weren’t appreciative of differences, who weren’t always supportive. There were people in all these places who were as obnoxious and irritating as I am! More than once I thought, “God, if this is your church, if this is the body of Christ, then I want no part of it.”


              But as Paul reminds us today, all parts of the body of Christ have a function and a use, even if, as I said last week, some seem to function like poison ivy. The whole of the body of Christ is far more than the sum of its parts; far more than we can imagine. Perfection in the body of Christ looks nothing like the perfection we might envision. Perfection in the body of Christ looks far more like the Zen garden with its array of dead leaves scattered about than the immaculately raked masterpiece the young monk tried to create. It looks far more like an ordinary human body with its sores, its aches, its pains, its weaknesses than the Greek god-like physiques you see on the magazine rack.


              Because, you see, God sees us – the weak, sinful creatures that make up Christ’s body – as already complete. Already whole. And God will continue to work on us, through us, in every single one of us that makes up Christ’s body to continue to transform us into the renewed people that we already are. There’s a word in Hebrew, shalom, that we usually translate as “peace”. But it means far, far more than peace. It means completion. It means wholeness. It means perfection – NOT perfectionism. Making us, the body of Christ, into the image of God’s shalom might mean leaving those dead leaves lying around that we would rather rake up. It might mean leaving those aches and pains around that we’d rather get rid of. But it also means transforming those faults into something beautiful.


              In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, the Word of God, Jesus, reads the word of God, the Scripture. It’s an extraordinary scene. And in that reading, he gives an image of God’s shalom, an image that will far exceed the bounds of Nazareth (as we’ll learn next week). It means bringing good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind (and we’re talking about more than physical blindness here). It means honoring and lifting up those parts of our community that we consider weak or dishonorable and giving them a place of honor at the table. “Today”, Jesus told the congregation, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


              And today, in this congregation and in many other congregations like this one, this Scripture continues to be fulfilled. Despite our human sinfulness and desire to create social rankings and hierarchies; despite our desire to create our own vision of perfection at the expense of God’s shalom, the Holy Spirit still comes among us, reminding us that before God, we are all equally parts of Christ’s body. We are all equally valuable. And we all have our own purpose to fulfill – as individuals and as a community within the larger body of Christ.


              Let us pray.


              Lord Jesus, too often we want things to be perfect. We try to remove every twig, every dead leaf, everything that we think has no use within us or within our communities. But in doing so, we miss out on your vision for shalom. Help us to let go of our own vision of wholeness and embrace yours. Amen.


© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.