Therefore be perfect…

“I’m practically perfect, not slightly soiled,
running like an engine that’s just been
  freshly oiled,
I’m so practically perfect in every way…”

By Rev. K Karpen from the May 2014 SPSA Newsletter the Update(pdf)

Thus sang Mary Poppins, the practically-perfect nanny of stage and screen.  And of a slightly creepy children’s book series.

If it’s true, Ms. Poppins comes a lot closer to the ideal than most of us. The goal of perfection is not only intimidating, it’s downright discouraging.  And too difficult (and too boring?) to contemplate, as well.

Still, scripture tells us that  perfection is not only possible, it’s practical. Why?  Because it’s about what God can do with us, and not about what we can do on our own.  It’s not about how great we can be; it’s about how great God is.  And, most of all, it’s not about an end product, it’s about a process. A process of love.

John Wesley latched onto Christian perfection as a lynchpin of the theology that undergirded the 18th Century Methodist revival.  He took a lot of heat for it.  He himself speaks of perfection as potentially offensive:

The word perfect is what many cannot bear. The very sound of it is an abomination to them. And whosoever preaches perfection  (as the phrase is) that is, asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican.

It’s easy to see why!  Just the phrase, ‘Christian perfection’ conjures up images of self-righteous, annoyingly-arrogant,   religiously-correct believers who would make Jesus himself uncomfortable to be around.  And who would probably be uncomfortable to hang around with Jesus!

The students I teach in the Methodist History and Doctrine classes at Union Seminary find the concept of perfection equally challenging.  One of them remarked, “It’s weird, it’s confusing, it’s annoying.” What exactly does Wesley mean by it?

Wesley knew that people don’t come in ‘perfect.’  We will never be perfect in knowledge, we will never be free of mistakes, we will never be free of temptations.  But Wesley also knew that God can do amazing things with us, given half a chance.

To Wesley, the process of perfection means just one thing: to grow more perfect in the way we love. To get better at love is the goal of the Christian life.

Growing closer to God leaves us more steeped in love.  Love for God, and love for our neighbors, both the ones in the apartment next door, and the ones half a world away. It’s a practical kind of love,  that needs practice, practice, practice.  After all, practice makes perfect.

“Therefore be perfect, even as God in heaven is perfect.” ~Matthew 5:48

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Faith Like That

By K Karpen  Church of St Paul and St Andrew
New York CityJune 2, 2013

Audio – mp3. Download or listen!

   Luke 7:1-10 “After Jesus had finished all these sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.  A centurion there had a servant whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some of the Jewish elders to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his servant.

 When they came to Jesus they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.

 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.  But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For like you I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, Go, and he goes, and to another, Come, and he comes, and to my servant Do this, and the servant does it.”

 When Jesus heard him say this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith like that.”

When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.”     Luke 7:1-10

“Not even in Israel have I found faith like that.”

The other day a fifteen year old person who lives in my house asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I stopped for a few seconds before saying anything.

I hesitated for a lot of reasons, I think.  First, believing in God isn’t something I think about very much, it’s just something I do.  Second, I thought, this person who lives with me sees me every day; don’t I act like I believe in God?  Third, I’m a preacher.  I get paid to believe in God.  Fourth, given all of the above, I didn’t want to give an automatic or thoughtless answer to what I took to be a very serious question.

So after a moment I said, “Yes.”  a one word answer that was better in my mind than a lot of extra words that might offer more explanation but less clarity.

And then she responded with a one word follow-up question: “Why?”

A one word answer, was the first thing that came to my mind, “Experience,” I said.  So far we’re having a very short conversation! But before she could hit me with another query, I added, “I don’t know what I would think or believe, if I didn’t ever experience God.”

 

And that’s true.  I’ve read the Bible, I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve had a lot of conversations, but I without experiences, some strange, some probably typical, I doubt any of that would matter too much.

I don’t think any words about God would make me care about God in the absence of a relationship, without the give and take of prayer, without random moments of inspiration (which literally means feeling ‘filled with spirit’).  I doubt I would want to spend much time in worship if the experience of worship didn’t so often take me deeper into a feeling of relatedness and connectedness with God and God’s people.

But I have those experiences, not always all the time, but ‘here and there, now and then’, as Frederick Buechner puts it. I get glimpses of who God is for me.  And you have had those experiences too, I think, sometimes realized, sometimes maybe not.

So all that, I suppose, is the Why of my belief in God, but I think a more interesting question is How do we believe in God.  And that gets to the matter of faith.

Belief may be part of faith, but it’s only a small part, and it’s not the most interesting part.  I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, which I do, but it doesn’t change my life very much.

Some of you believe in stranger things than that.  Like the Mets; which ok, got a little easier this past week.  But believing in the Mets may not change your life very much.

Belief involves more than simply assenting to a set of suppositions.  But faith is much more than that, much more than merely belief.  It’s a way of living, in relationship with God and God’s people.

A belief may be something you think.  Faith is something you do.

John Wesley puts it like this, “Faith that does no work is an idle, barren, dead faith.  It is no faith at all.”  Faith is what you do.  Faith is how you live.  In trust and confidence in God, not just belief in some Godlike abstraction.  Faith is what you do in love.

Which brings us to today’s story.  Just before this, Jesus has come down from a high hill where he’s gone to pray, and in the level place below, he finds a big crowd waiting for him.  And he teaches them a lot of different things.

In today’s story, Jesus leaves that place and goes to the village of Capernaum, which is as much of a home base as he has.  And he is barely in the village when this centurion sends a group of Jewish elders to contact Jesus.

This is an unusual centurion.  A centurion in Roman military tradition is a commander of a group of 100 soldiers.  And, as symbols of the occupying Roman army, they were not well loved.  But this one was, and you can see it right away.

First, he has a servant, literally a slave, who he cares about a great deal.  Second, he cares about the people he’s living with, to the extent of building them a house of worship, though they worship a God he doesn’t.

You could maybe picture a Christian American marine captain in Afghanistan with enough sensitivity to agonize over the local person who cleans the barracks, or paying to build a mosque for the village the captain is stationed in.  But that might be a very unusual person.

But there are two more unusual things about this Roman centurion. The first is his humility, which combines with his sensitivity and leads him to send people to plead with Jesus to not come to him, saying “I am not worthy to have you come to my house.”  Roman centurions had many interesting characteristics, but I can’t imagine that humility was a very common one.

But the amazing thing to Jesus about this centurion is his faith.  His message to Jesus is this, “Like you, I am a person under authority, and I have people serving under me.  And I say Go and they go, and I say Come and they come.  And I tell a servant Do this, and it’s done.  Just say the word and my servant will be well.”

And when he hears that, Jesus is amazed.

Not that many things amaze Jesus.  But faith like that amazes Jesus.  To rely utterly.  To trust completely.  And to act accordingly.

This man, who was of some other religion or no religion, has more faith than anyone Jesus has ever met.  Somehow, some way, somewhere, he had learned to rely on God, and that reliance leads him to know he can rely on Jesus.

How it would be to have faith like that!

To rely utterly.  To trust completely.  And to act accordingly.

Our faith is a journey.  It more a verb than a noun.  It is not something we can possess; it is a way we can live.

Faith does not cause religious practice, although religious practice can lead to faith.  It is an openness to the reality of God.  Not believing in some fantasy but being open to something fantastic.  Faith is the willingness to experience the reality of God through our relationship with God and people who love God.  To trust that God completely, utterly, and unceasingly. And to act accordingly.

How it would be to have faith like that.

Pray with me.  “Come, spirit come.  Fill our souls with a faithful yearning for you.  Let who you are stir our whole being and lead us to a life of love.  Give us a faith that has nothing to prove.  Bring us the confidence that can say to a mountain, move, and it will move.  Come, spirit, come. Amen.”

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Out of Service? April 28th podcast and text

By K Karpen  Church of St Paul and St Andrew  New York City

Download or listent to the podcast of K’s Sermon 4-28-13

    John 113

“When Judas had left the table and gone out, Jesus said… “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me, but where I am going you cannot come. So I am giving you a new commandment, and here it is:  Love each other!  The way I have been loving you, that’s the way you should now love each other.  And by this, everyone will know that you are my followers, if you have love for each other.”  John 13:31-35

Charlene and I were coming home from South Street Seaport the other day, so we caught the #3 express train at Fulton Street and figured we’d make it home in plenty of time before our son Harry got home from school.  Everything was fine until we pulled into Penn Station/34th Street.  We sat there a minute, and then we heard those seven last words of the MTA, “This train is going out of service.” Continue reading

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Married to the Builder

January 20, 2013   St Paul and St Andrew UMC, NYC

K Karpen   Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2: 1-12

Download K Karpen Sermon 1-20-2013 podcast or click to listen.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest… The nations shall see your vindication, and all the rulers your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give you.”  Isaiah 62

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name. Continue reading