Tag Archive: Imperfections

Last Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 21:23-32, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

I love movies. My brothers and I used to have contests to see who could “name that movie quote.” We’d do accents and imitations, too.   So it was to my great delight when I found out that Pastor Joe knows a great deal of movie quotes. And on Thursday, when everyone in the church was quoting the Wizard of Oz, I was thrilled! That was my favorite movie growing up, but when I hit my teenage years, another movie took its place. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Some of you may think this an odd choice, but come on! Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in one movie with action, history, foreign countries, manuscripts, adventure, and faith – it’s right up my alley! And if you put that movie on when I’m nearby, I will begin to quote it – I can’t help myself.

Well, as I was meditating on the texts for this morning, one of the scenes from Indiana Jones came to mind. Indy is on the search for the Holy Grail and now it’s the climax of the movie. Time is running out because the evil art collector, Walter Donovan, who is in cahoots with the Nazis, has shot Indy’s father, Henry Jones, Sr. He’s done this to make Indy go in and find the Grail so that he can save his dad. The suspense!

Indy knows because of his dad’s research that there are three booby traps before you can even get to the Grail. And the clue to the first one was what popped into my mind: “Only the penitent man will pass.” I remember asking my Dad what “penitent” meant and hearing that it meant the person who is sorry for the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve done.

As Indy moves slowly forward, he keeps repeating, “The penitent man will pass.” Creeping through the dark tunnel, he talks to himself, “The penitent man is humble before God. The penitent man… The penitent man is humble. Penitent man is humble… kneels before God. Kneel!” And right as he says it, two razor sharp blades whirl from the stone walls, Indy narrowly kneeling and rolling to safety. It’s a fantastic scene and it’s stuck with me.

But the idea of the penitent passing or entering is exactly what Jesus speaks about in his encounter with the chief priests and elders we hear about in the Gospel.

Previously, Jesus entered Jerusalem humbly riding on a donkey while the crowds shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then he cleansed the Temple, causing chaos and turning the religious establishment on its head. There, the children in the Temple continued to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” which really got under the religious leaders’ skin. And now Jesus is face to face with the chief priests and the elders of the people. These aren’t every day Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, or lawyers. No, these are the religious elite – the head honchos of the Temple. And they’ve witnessed the uproar caused by his entrance into Jerusalem and the events at the Temple. They’re already majorly irritated and now Jesus is teaching in the Temple – on their turf. Oh snap!

So they come after him, questioning his authority. Basically, “Who died and made you Elvis?!” They want to know who said he could teach because clearly he’s not one of them. And rather than just answering them, Jesus throws the ball back into their court with a tricky question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

It may sound odd to our ears, but this is the theological equivalent of tossing a grenade in the mix because the chief priests and elders know it’s a trap and they can’t possibly answer. If they say it was from heaven, why haven’t they recognized John the Baptist as one of God’s prophets or been upset because Herod killed him. If they say that John’s baptism was of human origin, then the crowds who do believe and follow John’s call to repentance will be outraged. So they respond with, “we don’t know.”

And Jesus refuses to speak about where his authority comes from, because as he points out in the parable, the ones who need to know where he gets his power already know. Jesus’ parable is about two sons – one who says he won’t do something for his father but does, and one who says he will do something and doesn’t.   Remember the penitent man will pass – this is where the repentant ones come back into the picture.

The son who says he will work in the vineyard, but doesn’t follow through is like the religious leaders. They are people of God, teachers of the Scriptures, and powerful leaders in the Temple. They should know that Jesus is of God, but they don’t. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. The son who says he won’t work, but does it anyway, represents the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners who have heard the word of God preached by John and now Jesus and who have repented to follow God. Contrary to all outward appearances and their roles in society where they are labeled as outcasts, they get it. And they’re entering the kingdom of heaven before the religious elite.

I see two major themes at work here: pride or arrogance, and humility or willingness to grow.   The religious elites are at the top of their game and they think they know exactly what the will of God is – exactly what God is up to. But the sinners are those on the edges of society, those struggling and looked down upon. These are people who know their own hurts and brokenness. They are people who know they have a need. They get the message because it touches them and means something in their lives.

Maybe it is easy for us to fall into the trap of talking the talk, but not walking the walk. Maybe we are relying on ourselves instead of God. Maybe we find ourselves thinking, “well, I may make mistakes, but at least I’m not like so and so!” We might think we’ve got everything neatly figured out. Or maybe we’re feeling tired and in need of grace. Maybe we are remembering those things we did that we’re still struggling with and holding on to, days, weeks, or even years later. No matter which son we are, God calls out and says, “Turn, then, and live.” Don’t live in the tiny confines of thinking you’re above everyone else! Don’t live trapped behind the walls of you’ve constructed of who God is or whether or not certain people deserve God’s grace! Don’t live wrestling with your old demons of sin, guilt and shame! Don’t let your past define you or determine your future! No, turn and live!

We have an incredible gift in the church. We have the gift of times of confession and forgiveness. It is a time to think about our sins and the ways we’ve fallen short and to bring them humbly before God. It is a time to be vulnerable and admit our wrongdoing and our desire to change – to be free of the things that have bound us. It comes at the beginning of the service so that as we come in, weary from the world, from acting like we have it all together and keeping up appearances, we can let go. We can ask for help and know that God has heard our plea and does not delay in forgiving. Christ has freed us from all our sins. It is done. And we confess as a community, acknowledging that we all struggle and that we all need help.

A while ago I was speaking with some people who didn’t go to church and they asked about how we had confession. I explained how corporate confession happened and they said “Wow. That must be incredibly freeing.” I was amazed that even people not part of the church would be moved by the chance to admit their wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness and help. And in that conversation I think maybe a little pride as one of the clergy was put in check by those who also know their need for confession and forgiveness, but who aren’t in a church every Sunday.

Paul writes the following in Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” For our sake, Christ humbled himself and became obedient to God even to the point of death on a cross. Can we develop that same humble and obedient mindset as followers of Christ? Who are we giving authority in our lives? Can we turn from our pride and our arrogance and listen to how God is calling us to turn, live and serve?

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy finally makes it past the booby traps, he encounters the Grail Knight, the guardian of the Holy Grail. But much to his surprise, there are many chalices in the room. The Grail Knight counsels him, saying, “… choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.” We, too, have to choose each day if we are going to walk in the way that brings the fullness of life. Are we going to start each day remembering our need of God and believing that God is at work in us, imperfect as we are? Or are we going to go throughout our day relying on ourselves?

The Grail in the movie is not a lavish, attention-grabbing bejeweled chalice that looks perfect, but rather a simple, common cup. The humility of the cup and of the tax collectors and prostitutes, remind us that to follow God is to admit our need of help, forgiveness, and transformation. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

The Holy Grail from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (From: http://img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110317234056/indianajones/images/f/f1/Holy_Grail.jpg)

The Holy Grail from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (From: http://img4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20110317234056/indianajones/images/f/f1/Holy_Grail.jpg)

Since April 10, I have been learning how to write icons in the Orthodox style.  Icons are both a form of artwork and a way of praying.  I was nervous to begin painting my icon of Christ the Good Shepherd because I was unsure of my painting abilities.  I only knew that I really wanted to try my hand at this since I had heard it was a deeply prayerful and spiritual practice.  So off I went! 

Along the way, I learned quite a bit, and not just about icons.  I learned a lot about myself and my relationship with God.  I warned my teacher that I was a perfectionist going in and after a sigh, she told me that it’s not about the icon being perfect, but I do need to be happy with it because I’ll be praying with it.  If there are things that bother me enough to distract my prayer time, I better make them as I like them!  More on this later…

My icon writing sessions begin with a beautiful prayer that my teacher uses.  It’s a prayer asking God to help me focus on only this and for God to speak to me through what I’m doing.  It’s a prayer that asks God to help me to use my God-given gifts in painting for prayer and worship.  It’s a prayer asking for help not comparing my work to others, for God alone can judge the prayer.  It’s a prayer asking opening my heart to pray for others as I work. 

I’ve found that between this prayer and the practice itself, I settle into icon writing and that it becomes the thing I can focus on at that moment.  I can’t think about my future or the call process (where I’ll be serving as a pastor), or trying to solve anything else going on.  I am solely devoted to spending time working slowly and deliberately on the icon.  Focusing on individual garment folds, on wood grain in Jesus’ staff, the curls of the lamb’s wool, or on the gentle eyes of Christ.  I have to move slow and appreciate the details.  I can get overwhelmed by the overall picture, but at some point I just have to begin, one stroke at a time. 

And that’s another thing about icon writing.  Icons are painted going from dark colors to light, symbolizing our transformation from sin and death to forgiven and alive in the light of Christ.  But while I was painting this first icon, I found it awful difficult to believe that my finished icon would look as it was supposed to.  While you’re in the middle of it, you can’t possibly see that this is the right thing to do or that mistakes will somehow work out and that the icon will be beautiful – something through which you’ll be moved.  Even knowing that this is a tradition thousands of years old and with the experienced guidance and hand of my teacher, I found I was doubting that my icon painted with the same techniques and theory would even remotely resemble any icon!

Regarding my perfectionism, while I was painting, I found that I definitely had things I wanted to keep tweaking and fixing (futzing is the word that best describes this 😉 ).  Others would say it looked good, but I wasn’t completely satisfied.  Or it was really fine and I kept trying to “fix” it, each time really risking making it worse.  It was hard to let go and to trust that it would be fine.  It was hard to let go and accept the little imperfections, knowing that only God can create something perfect.  I know that I do this all the time in everyday life, seeking to control and to make things as perfect as I can, without really trusting God.  For those who haven’t tried it, it’s exhausting!  To keep messing with something rather than letting go and allowing God to work, trusting that God is acting and with our best interests in mind. 

It was also interesting to watch how the members of the class praised one another’s work, but pointed out all of the imperfections in our own icons, whether or not anyone else could see them!  What a life lesson!  Staring at the icon up close means you often miss the larger, overall effect.  It’s helpful to have others hold it up from afar so you can take it all in.  How often do we get blinded in our own little world that we miss the larger picture of what God’s doing? 

It’s also amazing the way people may use the same techniques and the same icon pattern, but that each icon turns out unique in some way, reflecting the person who made it and their prayer to God.  For example, one day I found that I was spending a ridiculous amount of time working on the lamb in my icon and I wondered how others had been able to finish so quickly.  As I meditated on this, I realized that I felt really connected to that little lamb, safe and secure around Christ’s neck.  I realized that I am that little lamb, the one for whom Christ laid down his life – the one safe in his hands.  I needed to spend time painting and reflecting about that relationship, hearing again that miraculous good news. 

I have just finished putting varnish on my icon and I have asked God that it might be a blessing to myself and others and that we may encounter God through it.  It is not perfect, and there are still things that jump out at me as “errors,” but when I look at it, it speaks to me of Christ’s love and mercy.  It invites me, beckons me, to pray and to spend time in quiet reflection with God.

I still have so much to learn about icons and painting, but I give thanks that this first one has been a great experience and I look forward to continuing!  

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Yesterday was Reformation Day, which I started by humming “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  As a side note, I personally believe that every day should begin with this song! Anyway, after a musical beginning, I headed out early as I do every morning to Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) München so that I would make it to my Hebrew class in time.  As I walked into the building from the subway I was thinking about spending time with my husband and one of my best friends later that afternoon.  Half daydreaming, I looked up at the door and there was a sign on it that said the building would be closed on Thursday, November 1 for Allerheiligen (All Saints’ Day).  I grinned, knowing that this day off gave me more time to spend with my hubby and friend, but then I looked pass the paper sign and through the glass door.

Through that door and on the left side of the grand old university hallway was a homeless man, sitting on one of the metal chairs that folds down from out of the wall.  He was wearing a black winter hat and had his hands tucked into his jacket pockets.  His head was leaned forward, bowed down in sleep.  I had seen him there before, wandering the university’s halls or sitting on the chairs on colder days, so I wasn’t really surprised to see him in the building.  However, seeing the note about Allerheiligen – about All Saints’ Day – and looking at this man jarred my senses.  The question that came to mind was: “who are the saints of God?”

On Tuesday, October 30, I had visited the Alte Pinakothek, a gorgeous art gallery featuring medieval and Renaissance art from all over Europe.  A lot of this art is religious in nature, and many of the paintings featured saints with their golden halos and the symbols of their sufferings, deeds, and miracles.  Having minored in Medieval Studies in college, this was all familiar (and wonderful!) to me.  I know a lot of the saints stories and so looking at these paintings featuring these people is kind of like visiting old friends.  But thinking about these depictions in contrast to the man I saw sleeping in the hall of the university… what a world of difference.

“Who are the saints of God?”  “Who are the holy ones of God?”

Are they just those who have lived exemplary lives?
Are the saints limited to those who have been martyred in the name of Christ?
Are they only those who can work miracles?

Martin Luther spoke of Christians at “simul justus et peccator” (simultaneously justified through Christ and sinners).  This means that while we are forgiven and washed clean of all our sins in baptism, we still continue to sin – we are always, at the same time, saints saved through Christ and his righteousness, and sinners.  Crazy!  Through Christ’s loving acts – his death and resurrection – we are all glorious saints, just like in those in the paintings.  At the same time, we are also imperfect people who continue to mess up, hurt ourselves and others, and fall short.  And as sinner/saints, we are dependent on God’s grace and not on what we have done or haven’t done.

And what of the homeless man?  I don’t know his situation or circumstances.  I don’t know his story.  I have no idea whether or not he believes in Christ.  I have no idea if he’s been baptized.  But what if I were to act as if he were one of the holy saints of God?  What if I looked a bit closer and saw Christ in him?  How would this change things?

I still love medieval and Renaissance art.  The vibrant colors and masterful depictions of Biblical stories, classical myths, and saints continue to enchant me.  But looking around, I think that there are other beautiful works of art.  They’re not depictions done in the medium of gold leaf, rich paints or delicate carvings, but depictions artfully crafted by the fingers of God in flesh and blood.  They’re images with flaws and imperfections, shocks and surprises, but maybe if we look a bit harder, we might see a halo poking through.

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

“Homeless Man Sleeping with His Bible”

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