[Read Psalm 145:8-17]
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.
What do you notice about the way God lives in relation to the world? God lives with compassion and patience toward everyone and everything. This seems to infer that we won’t always be perfect but God will still be gracious and loving. God satisfies every need and supports those who fall. God’s relationship with humanity is built on trust and love, which gives us freedom to live and grace when we fall short.
And now we hear from Paul’s letter to the Philippians which paints a picture of what it can look like when God’s people live in community and reflect God’s nature. This letter tells of a community already living with compassion and grace and who know the hard work it takes to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are up against the “enemies” of jealousy and competition which lead people to preach about Christ for selfish reasons. So let’s listen to Paul’s words of encouragement for the early church and may they be God’s encouraging words for the church still today…
[Read Philippians 1:27-30]
27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Who’s ever heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect”? Most of us have. Vince Lombardi, famous pro football player, coach and executive, amplified this phrase to: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” I can still hear my high school basketball coach yelling that at us while we dribbled two basketballs down the court in a zig-zag pattern.
Growing up, my dad would force me to watch Pistol Pete VHS tapes. Pistol Pete Maravich played basketball for LSU and still holds many NCAA records. He played for the Atlanta Hawks and several other NBA teams in the 70s and 80s. He was known for his incredible ball-handling skills. My dad would pop in one of his training tapes and I would begrudgingly go outside to practice with him. (Pick up basketball). Pistol Pete’s skills were magical……but as you can see I’m a bit out of practice now. We’ll blame it on my bulky uniform today!
I loved sports growing up but practicing felt forced. However, when the joy of sports became my own in middle and high school, I loved to practice my basketball and soccer dribbling or work on my volleyball serves. Ball handling drills became energizing. Scrimmages were just as fun as regular games.
Whether each of us has played on a sports team or not, we all belong to a community and a culture that is heavily influenced by sports. For those who are a part of sports teams, they can build confidence, encourage teamwork and a healthy lifestyle. Sports can entertain and wow us and they can unite fans from many different backgrounds.
I’m sure we’re all aware of the big game happening in Atlanta later tonight! Whether you care who wins or not, the Super Bowl has influenced our traffic patterns, our businesses, our hotel prices and much more. The hype of this big game each year is channeled by the Souper Bowl of Caring movement which empowers youth to lead congregations in relieving hunger. Our collection today will enable our church to pack over 10,000 meals. At the Rise Against Hunger event here at DPC in March, we’ll work together, each performing different jobs (from funneling rice and veggies to weighing, sealing and boxing), in order to accomplish our goal.
Consider, what message do the practices of teamwork and service preach?
On the flip side, the sports industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Youth sports alone has grown to be a $15.3 billion dollar industry. According to 2017 study families spend as much as 10% of their income on sports activities for their children. From fees, equipment, training, tournaments and travel, the sports industry demands its own tithe in a sense. We could spend days talking about the economics of youth, college and professional sports leagues and their positive and negative impacts. Consider, what do the practices of our sports leagues preach?
But practice makes perfect right? Perfection and success are achievable if we work hard. Right? Even from the couch, success is exhilarating. We love the feeling of watching someone win an Olympic gold medal or our team win the MLS cup. For me though, the underlying drive to succeed embedded in our culture has often effected my ability to just enjoy the game. At a young age, mistakes and missed shots would weigh me down with disappointment and cloud my ability to accept my human imperfections. Looking back I can see how this influenced the way I viewed my grades and relationships and much more.
Sports and the communities they create bring great benefits to our lives, but sometimes I wonder if they’ve skewed our expectations and our priorities. Of course sports are not the only influencer when it comes to our culture and drive for achievement. But, consider how mad we are when the referee makes one bad call against our team? Whether the ref was wrong or not, don’t we hold our human referees and players to the highest of standards? Often I can’t believe how high our hopes are for 19 year old college quarterbacks or how our desire to win sends players back onto the field after multiple concussions.
Somewhere along the way, the drive for perfect practice to turn into great achievements on the field has filtered off the field into many areas of our lives. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” but we can’t just take that statement out of context run the race. If we do, we will set our expectations for each other and ourselves too high, in too many places and we’ll be too tired to look up and see if we have reached our idea of perfection or not.
The Greek word “telos” translated as “perfect” in the NRSV more fully means “complete,” or “the end,” referring to our main aim as Christ’s followers. In The Godbearing Life, the end goal for Christians is described as pursuing a way of life that resembles how God lives toward us. I’m so glad the authors remind us that this goal is not an individual achievement, it’s a “faithful pursuit” of the community. For example, if part of our aim as Christ’s followers is for children, youth and their families to be welcomed and engaged in God’s practices with us here in the church, this cannot be an individual pursuit of a pastor or a few parent volunteers. It is a faithful pursuit of the entire community that is a part of our overarching goal as God’s people. As we work toward our goal, God knows we will make mistakes and get distracted. Yet, to live a life worthy of the gospel, as Paul says, we will need habits and practices that will help us. We need practices that lead us to prioritizing hospitality, compassion and sharing with all. AND, we need a united community who will strive side by side and offer grace when we fall short.
They say “practice what you preach,” but when is the last time we stopped to consider what our practices, our habits, our schedules are preaching?
When Pistol Pete practiced, his practices preached that there was always more fun, creativity, and a miracle-like pass around the corner. Of course these magical basketball feats didn’t just happen, you had to “practice, practice, practice,” Pete would say. Pete’s practices conveyed his love for the game.
What do our practices as the church preach?
What do our family schedules and habits preach to our children about what is important?
What do our spending habits preach?
What do our individual patterns of being in the world preach to others?
We long for the kind of community and family life that reflects the steadfast presence and compassion of God…and perhaps even God’s ability to keep the Sabbath. But the rapidly changing culture around us can make us feel unsure of how to do this. We may find our practices leading us toward the world’s version of perfection or remaining in the practices that no longer work for us. In a book called The Anatomy of Peace, the authors talk about how peace starts from within, not from the outside. So if there are things we hope for- more quality time with family, deeper connections with God, deeper belonging between the generations of our church, less ties to materialism or busy schedules, it starts with each of us and our practices.
Between each game and each season a sports team evaluates its performance and makes adjustments to their practices. Each season in the life of faith though calls the people of God to reflect on our practices and what they are preaching…as individuals, as families and as a church.
Do our schedules preach accomplishments or joy and grace?
Do our relationships on the field, in the home and between the pews preach kindness and acceptance or distance and resentment?
As a community of faith, if we value belonging between generations, quality time, sabbath or compassionate service do our regular practices preach this?
My observation is that in each of our lives and families and in each area of our church there are some practices that already preach the never-ending love of God and the gift it is to be a community together. But I also have a hunch, just from looking at my own life, that there are practices that could use some tweaking or replacement.
The score of the game will soon be forgotten, but how and who we played with will be remembered. As a community bound together by the grace and mercy of Christ, may we strive side by side toward our ultimate goal. Amen
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Associate Pastor for Youth and Families
 Matthew 5:48, NRSV
 Dean, K. C., & Foster, R. (2010). The Godbearing life: The art of soul tending for youth ministry. Nashville: Upper Room Books.
 Institute, A. (2015). Anatomy of peace: Resolving the heart of conflict. Oakland, CA: Barrett-Koehler.