"Perfection Welcomes Failure"#87-46
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 12, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matt 6:19-34
Author Daniel Paavola in his book, Patience and Perfection, tells the story of a nurse, Katarina Reichert. Nurse Reichert is the second-shift supervising nurse for the labor and delivery unit at Memorial Hospital downtown, anywhere USA. Daniel writes, "Nurse Reichert is a full six feet of fearsome. She stares the world down over the rims of her half-lensed eyeglasses. Her uniform, even after a full shift is starched stiff. She doesn't just know the policy and procedure manual. She wrote the thing herself, on two stone tablets. The doctors need her permission before they can go home. When Nurse Reichert steps on the hospital floor, everyone either snaps to attention, or runs for cover. Nurse Reichert is a paragon of perfection. Perfection is the only standard that she accepts.
"And so, it was for good reason that Sarah, after her first shift on her first day of her first job as a nurse, was terrified to face her. Sarah had just started her job as a nurse. And she'd mostly just been trying to fly under the radar and not make any big mistakes. And for her first shift, she had carefully checked on each mother in the unit. 'Is everything okay? Do you have any questions? Are there any problems?' She talked to every one of them, and everything was fine. So at the end of the night, she goes to the nurses station to fill out the change of shift report. Then it hits her. She never checked on the babies. She was sure that someone else was in charge of the babies, and she only had the mothers. But no, she had them both except she didn't check on the babies. And so there, on the change of shift report under the column 'assessments for the babies,' she's got nothing. And you can imagine how she felt when she sees Nurse Reichert, standing there behind the desk."
What could she do? What would you do? Run and hide, never come back, make an excuse, pass the blame on someone else or some extenuating circumstance? You've been there. Maybe not in that exact situation, but you know what it feels like to be trapped in failure and standing before perfection.
In my experience, a lot of people feel this way when they start to get to know Jesus of Nazareth, and they try to follow Him. And it's especially the case when they encounter the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is probably Jesus' most famous sermon. It's recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5, 5, and 7. And a lot of people, when they hear the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, they feel like they don't measure up, and maybe won't ever measure up.
I was talking with a friend about this the other day. She said that when she was younger and she was trying to be more serious about following Jesus and be a Christian in practice, and not just in name only, she studied the Sermon on the Mount. And I asked her, "How did that go for you?" And she said, "It was overwhelming. Jesus tells me, "Let your light shine before other people so that they can see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." He tells me, "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no." He tells me, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"—all while not being a hypocrite and giving to the needy and praying and fasting, all in secret, without ever expecting any kind of earthly reward. In short, be perfect. "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." And my friend, she was just getting started practicing the Christian faith. And she felt like a failure before her Supervisor Jesus: the paragon of perfection.
And in my experience, a lot of people feel this way when they encounter the words of the Sermon on the Mount. They feel like Sarah, holding that empty report next to perfection incarnate, and they got nothing. Author Daniel Paavola, in his book, Patience & Perfection, he continues the story of Nurse Reichert and Sarah in his chapter titled, "Perfection Welcomes Failure."
Daniel writes, "The empty space on the form is nothing compared to the chasm of dread Sarah feels inside. And at that very moment, Nurse Reichert appears at her elbow. And she looks and she sees the empty space in the chart. And Sarah's waiting. She's waiting for Nurse Reichert to ask the question that she knows she's going to ask. And you've been there before where you're imagining how the other person's going to ask the question, and then you're playing it out in your mind. And Sarah is waiting for Nurse Reichert's words to stab her in the heart, like a knife twisted in her chest. 'Did you forget the babies?' And she's expecting Nurse Reichert to spray the words at her like bullets and to spit them like venom in her face. 'How could you forget the babies?' So, Sarah braces herself for this question: this question that she knows will be the death sentence on her once-promising nursing career.
"Sarah does not yet realize that perfection welcomes failure. Nurse Reichert quiets her voice so that only Sarah can hear. And she leans in and asks, 'Did you forget to assess the babies?' And before Sarah can answer, Nurse Reichert starts in on a story. 'You know, when I first got here, I once did a whole shift without ever checking on the mothers. All I looked at was babies. And only at the end did it hit me that I was supposed to worry about the moms, too. Sister, it's hard when you're new. So maybe you want to stop in and see those babies one more time before you go. In fact, let's divide them up—you and me. You take half, and I'll take the rest. That way it doesn't take you so long and you can get home.'"
Maybe you want to do better at following Jesus. And you made it this far into the Sermon on the Mount, and you're feeling like you don't measure up. You don't measure up to perfection. Look, devoted Christians for centuries, people who've been following the Lord for decades, when they hear the Sermon on the Mount, they come up short, like first-time forgetful nurses. And you know what they've learned—that perfection welcomes failure.
Jesus welcomes failures. He welcomes you. Listen to how He says it here in Matthew chapter 6 beginning at verse 19, Jesus says, "Don't store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal. But treasure up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
"The lamp of the body is the eye. Now, if your eye is generous, then your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is greedy, then your whole body will be full of darkness. And if the light inside you is darkness, how great the darkness?
"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and wealth.
"For this reason. I say to you, do not worry about your life. What you will eat, what you will drink, do not worry about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, right? And the body is more than clothing, isn't it? Look at the birds of the sky. They neither sow seeds or harvest crops or gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. You are worth much more than they are, aren't you? And which one of you by worrying can add a single step to the span of his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Learn well, how the lilies of the field grow. They neither labor nor spin thread, yet I tell you not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.
"Now, if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is present today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith. Therefore, do not worry, and do not say, 'What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?' For the pagan nation seek after all these things, for your Heavenly Father knows you need them all. Let's seek first His kingdom, His rule and reign and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
"Therefore, I say, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough wickedness of its own." The Words of Jesus, Matthew chapter 6, the second half.
There were at least two ways that Nurse Reichert could deal with Sarah's failure. There was the way that Sarah thought she was going to do it. And then there was the way that she actually did it. So also, there are at least two ways that Jesus could meet you and your failures, in your many failures—your divided loyalty, your false security, your needless worry.
There are at least two ways that He could deal with you. Now, on the one hand, He could accuse you. He could remind you that you are a poor, miserable sinner, and that you need to confess your sins and plead for His mercy, and say, "It's my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault." And He would be entirely justified to do that for you, to meet you in that way. Because you and I, we are poor, miserable sinners, and He knows how dangerous unconfessed sin is to our eternal wellbeing. He knows how serious the penalty is for sin. He personally suffered that penalty in His body, on the cross. So yes, Jesus would be justified to deal with you in that way. However, notice that, that's not the way He deals with His followers here. This is not how He is dealing with you, as He speaks to you through this Scripture. The words that He is speaking over you, they are not an accusation. They are not the death sentence on your life of faith.
They are a gentle invitation to do life with Him, under the Father's care. Jesus doesn't speak accusations here. He asked questions, rhetorical questions, almost playful questions. You can just imagine Him saying this and inviting you to nod and say, "Yes." He says, "Wait, life is more than food, and the body's more than clothing, isn't it?" And I say, "Yeah." And "Wait, you've never seen a little bird driving a little combine and harvesting its little bird crops and gathering them into little bird barns, have you?" And I say "No." And then He says, "And yet your Father feeds them, doesn't He?" I say, "Well, yeah, I guess."
And He says to me, "Wait, you are more valuable than birds, aren't you?" And I say, "Lord, if you say so, I guess I am." And He says, "Yes, you are." Your Father graciously gave up His one and only Son to ransom you from sin and death. And His son, He willingly, ungrudgingly, voluntarily, generously, gave up His life in exchange for yours. That's how valuable you are to Him. And now Jesus has risen from the dead, and by His Spirit He's gently reminding you that you live with Him now, under His Father's care, under your Father's care.
Author, Daniel Paavola, and this book that I've been mentioning, the title is Patience & Perfection: Finding Peace in God's Plan for You. He talks about this in that chapter titled, "Perfection Welcomes Failure." Daniel writes that perfection not only welcomes failure, it also starts a conversation. And so, it was with Nurse Reichert and Sarah. Now months later, after Sarah's first day, Nurse Reichert still requests that Sarah be on her shift. And Sarah wants to stay with Nurse Reichert. Although she calls her Katarina now. Sarah seeks out Katarina whenever she has a question. She chats with her on breaks, and the two of them talk together as they walk to their cars at the end of the night. Because perfection not only welcomes failure, it also starts a conversation.
Now Jesus' expectations in the Sermon on the Mount are challenging, uncompromising, and if left to ourselves, they would be unattainable. But Jesus has not left us to ourselves. His perfect standards are exceeded only by His perfect patience in relationship, which means He welcomes you. And He welcomes me, failures and all, and He starts a conversation. Now maybe you've been walking with Jesus for a long time, many years, and still your chart comes up short in this department. You still get anxious. You worry even though you know that tomorrow will worry for itself. You worry even though you know that each day has enough trouble of its own already. You worry even though you know God has promised to provide for you. You worry, and it drains you. You say perfection welcomes failure, but I'm not like that Sarah lady, this isn't my first day. I've been doing this a long time. I've settled into my habits and my routines. I'm too old to change.
Now you might have more years on this earth than I, but even if you have 80 or 90, what is that in comparison to eternity? What is this mortal life that we are living right now compared to true life, to resurrection life, to the life that Jesus will reveal when He returns to bring God's kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven? What is this life compared to that? It is less than your first shift on your first day of your first job, isn't it?
Would you pray with me? Lord Jesus. I forgot. I forgot that I live with You under the Father's care. I lost my way. I've become someone who is small of faith. Increase my faith in the midst of scarcity. Increase my view of the abundance of Your creation. Increase my generosity so that with all the faith of a child, I may seek first Your coming kingdom, because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for July 12, 2020
Title: Perfection Welcomes Failure
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, now heard each week over more than 1,800 great radio stations in North America, worldwide through our mobile app, and online at lutheranhour.org. Once again, here is Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Once again, I'm visiting with Dr. Jeff Gibbs, long-time Bible teacher, specializing in Matthew's Gospel. So, Jeff, in the sermon today, I talked about how there are at least two ways that Jesus could address our failures. And I got the idea from you and your commentary. So, let's talk about that. How did you come to that idea?
Jeff Gibbs: Well, it just came to me, Mike, when I was, imagine this, reading the Bible. Because again, Jesus is calling us here, in this part of Matthew 6, to not do something that we've probably been doing.
Mike Zeigler: For sure.
Jeff Gibbs: To change our attitude about money. Especially, most of it is about to stop worrying in ways that add evil to tomorrow when tomorrow has enough evil of its own.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Jeff Gibbs: Why should I add more evil? And of course, on one level, those things are simply and should be called sins. So, what's one of the ways that the Lord Jesus Christ with all of His divine authority confronts our sin? Answers. He confronts it, calls it what it is and says, "Repent. You keep walking down that road, you're going to die."
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Jeff Gibbs: Right. So that's all true. That's completely true. And in other parts of the Scripture, right, Jesus does that. But what struck me was all of these rhetorical questions, where He asks a question and just as in English, so in Greek, you can ask a question in a way that you signal to the other person what the answer is. When Jesus says, "You're worth more than that, aren't you?" See, I mean, that's a very accurate English translation of the Greek. And so, He's inviting us to listen to Him, and then He's actually inviting a response for me to say, "Yeah."
Mike Zeigler: You're nodding along with Him.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And so, I guess I can say this on the air, I call this way of dialoguing that Jesus invites us to, I call this the "Divine duh." So, it's like, "Oh, yeah. Birds don't store up into barns, do they?"
Mike Zeigler: No.
Jeff Gibbs: And so, I just experience it as a very much more gentle way for Him to, you could still call it confronting, but inviting us—inviting us to think about, believe in a way that we already know is true, but maybe I forgot.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. Helping us lower our defenses a little bit.
Jeff Gibbs: Yes, very much so. And the way He does it means that He's not out to reject us. Because once again, I've been worrying. Don't you think the Lord of heaven and earth knows that I'm going to continually be plagued by these things until He comes again in glory?
Mike Zeigler: So why do you think that is important for us as His followers to hear His tone in that way—not as accusing in this instance, but as inviting? Why is that important for us in our faith?
Jeff Gibbs: Well, I think it opens up not only this section of the Sermon on the Mount, but I think it's being faithful to this whole sermon and to the way the Sermon on the Mount begins. Because this teaching is hard, right? Jesus brooks no rivals. Jesus takes no prisoners. Jesus says, "Be reconciled to your brother." He says, "Don't want the attention of anyone when you pray or fast or give alms." So He's very serious teaching, but He begins by saying, "Oh, you're poor in Spirit? You've got nothing to offer God? Well, I say that people like you are blessed because God's reign belongs to you, which is complete good news."
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Jeff Gibbs: And so that seems, to me, to be consistent with how the sermon begins that Jesus would be inviting, of course, confronting, of course, but inviting His disciples who have already been reassured and blessed, and they have been belonged, if I can say it that way.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. Adopted.
Jeff Gibbs: Exactly. They've been adopted. And now, here is more truth for them to receive.
Mike Zeigler: As you listen to Jesus speak to you, specifically in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 6, verse 19 to the end, what do you hear from Him? How's He speaking to you?
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. Well, He's speaking to me, again, not surprisingly on the issue of worry.
Mike Zeigler: There's a lot to worry about.
Jeff Gibbs: Well, there is. I mean, if you need any help with that, let me know. I can help you.
Mike Zeigler: Let me know what I'm overlooking.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. I know. Yeah. So, when I'm doing that again, where can I take my attention and refocus it? And the answer is on a Father who is made known to me because of Jesus, His Son. And it's like, "Oh, I forgot." So that's how it's speaking to me.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. What do you want to say to other people who might be struggling like that?
Jeff Gibbs: Come with me and let's look at Jesus. Let's fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. I think you say that in the commentary, that the move is not "Try harder not to worry," but rest in Jesus' promise.
Jeff Gibbs: Correct. And then hear His invitation not to worry.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah.
Jeff Gibbs: Oh, well, now I have a reason not to, instead of trying hard not to. That tends not to work all that well for me.
Mike Zeigler: Good.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. Fix our eyes on Jesus and on the Father and His care that is revealed in Jesus and what He has done for us.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you for spending this time with us.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. Very happy to.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Almighty God, Your Word Is Cast" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)