God doesn't expect us to be perfect
Years ago, my husband Frank and I chartered a big, box-like motorboat in Florida. The boat, called a Grand Banks Trawler, had a large inboard motor, and, all in all, was more boat than we needed. Frank thought it would be great to cruise the Inland Waterway for several days, just the two of us. He is a great sailor, but had never captained a motorboat. I had been in some motorboats, but knew absolutely nothing about them. It was risky, but, being over-achievers and wanting to try something new, we decided to go.
We stocked up on provisions and were already sitting in the boat when an instructor joined us for the mandatory lesson that was supposed to last several hours. It was a beautiful day, so we were impatient to be off, and we did not listen as well as we should have.
We shoved off eagerly, only to find ourselves aground five minutes later. Gently, but firmly, we had run right onto a sand bar, and though we pretty quickly extricated ourselves, it was sobering. We should have listened more carefully. The instructor had warned us about sand bars; what else had he said that we’d forgotten?
The Inland Waterway, as most of you know, is wider than the Mississippi River, or at least it is where we were. I had pictured something more like a canal, so the vast expanse of water was a surprise, not to mention the strong wind that soon whipped up. In fact, the whole day was a surprise: the hard rain, the way that big boxy boat bounced around, and the fact that everything not nailed down could blow away. I can still see an entire roll of paper towels flying out the back window.
By day’s end, we were exhausted. About five o’clock, Frank called the nearest marina, which was on Captiva Island, and got permission to tie up there for the night. The minute we turned into that harbor, I relaxed. But Frank didn’t. He had to dock the boat, and we soon realized that we were by far the smallest boat there. We looked like Little Toot in New York Harbor.
Frank steered through the looming yachts, straight toward the place assigned to us. He drew alongside and yelled to me to jump off and tie us up, which I started to do.
I was on the dock with the rope in my hands when suddenly the boat lunged forward, into the wooden dock, and there was a sickening sound of splintering wood, a terrible sound of a motor grinding, and then silence.
“I forgot what that guy said about docking,” Frank said, looking pale. Standing there, with a small white rope in my hand, feeling helpless and humiliated, I saw a man walk slowly down the dock toward us, obviously from one of the enormous yachts. He wore khaki shorts and a clean white shirt and sandals, and he had a drink of some kind in one hand.
He quietly took the rope from me and tied it expertly to the dock, and then he looked at Frank and said gently, “Captain, I watched the whole thing. You made a perfect landing but then it looked like you weren’t satisfied. That’s when you messed up. Don’t you know ‘the enemy of good is better?
The enemy of good is better. How right he was, and is. Most of us push for perfection in everything.
Jesus said, “Knowing the correct password – saying, ‘Master, Master’ for instance – isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience – doing what my Father wills. I can see it now – at the Final Judgment, thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message; we bashed the demons; our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit.’”
—Matthew 7:21-29, The Message Bible
These gospel verses are the conclusion of a great body of teaching called The Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount takes up almost three whole chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and contains the foundation of Christian living, then and now.
Jesus taught his disciples how to live more than what to believe. “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven,” he says.
The will of the Father is pretty much spelled out in The Sermon on the Mount: strive for justice among all people, treat others as you want to be treated, and when you pray say, ‘thy will be done.’ That, as we know, is a huge order in itself. And it is enough.
When I read the gospel reading in a Bible study class this week, there was an audible sigh. “What brought that on?” I asked. “We just never hear anything like that,” one person said. “Like what?” I pressed. “Well, that we don’t have to accomplish so much,” a woman said. “I try to accomplish so much, at church and at home and at work that I am almost sick.” Of course, the gospel doesn’t exactly say that, but it’s what she heard.
I thought it was a fascinating reaction. Here is a gospel that strikes down what many of us hold dear—being well-thought-of for our good works—and a group of devoted church members felt like they’d been given a gift.
The more we talked, the more I began to understand: they want to be good people; they want to do God’s will as much as possible. They just want to hear that they don’t have to be the ‘best’ Vestry member, the ‘best’ stewardship captain, or the most popular Godly play teacher. They want to be good parents (and grandparents, daughters, and friends), not necessarily the best ones.
One of the women pointed to Psalm 46:11. Be still and know that I am God. “Look at that,” she said. “I don’t even know what that means.” I thought she was going to cry.
It means just what it says. STOP. Stop doing, stop talking. Take time to be still, to breathe, to grieve. In stillness and quiet, we are much more likely to draw near to God, to know God, and in turn ourselves. Everywhere I go, people say they are exhausted. We have forgotten that rest is one of the 10 Commandments.
This does not mean we are to deny our gifts and talents. Jesus never condemned a person’s abilities. It is good to preach and teach well; healings are great blessings, to the healed and to the healer; and there are ministries that really do bring the kingdom of God closer to people. We are to use our talent, not use it up!
The point is to do these things quietly and well, not to be noticed and praised. The best advice I ever heard about preaching was from Francis of Assisi who told a young monk, “Preach always; use words, if necessary.”
When Jesus used words, they were carefully chosen. Often when asked a direct question he didn’t give a direct answer. Instead, he told a story, a parable. He used children, widows, Samaritans, and wayward sons as examples of much deeper truths.
Build your house on a rock, Jesus said, not on sand. And he’s not talking about building in Colorado instead of in Destin. He’s talking about building our lives on solid materials, solid principles like those in the Sermon on the Mount. He is not talking about building the biggest house, or the safest house, just a good house, based on the truth of his teaching. We can’t do better than that; we shouldn’t try. The enemy of good is better!
Two years ago, Frank bought a motorboat in Maine, a small one like the lobstermen use. It has a modest-sized outboard motor. Even though he can drive it all over the bay by himself, Frank likes for me to come along. But he has learned his lesson.
Before taking me on what he said was a “day cruise,” he called a man named Harold, an old salt who has lived his life in a boat and now teaches people about them.
I liked him immediately. “The captain here,” he said, nodding toward Frank, “wants you to learn how to dock this boat, or at least help him dock it.” I rolled my eyes up to the blue sky. “But what I am going to teach you is more important. Take your time. Don’t try to impress anyone, and don’t do anything until you are comfortable. There’s no such thing as a perfect landing. Just do as well as you can. That will be good enough.”
“Oh, yes, Harold,” I said. “I understand. I learned years ago that the enemy of good is better.” He looked surprised, then winked at me and said, “Then get on out to sea; you’ll be fine.”
Copyright ©2005 The Rev. Margaret Jones.
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, May 29, 2005.