Perfect Attendance

Tuesday, February 21. 2012 — Week of Last Epiphany, Year Two

Shrove Tuesday / Mardi Gras

John Henry Newman, Priest and Theologian, 1890

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 951)

Psalms 26, 28 (morning) 36, 39 (evening)

Proverbs 30:1-4, 24-33

Philippians 3:1-11

John 18:28-38

Reminder: Our Shrove Tuesday event starts tonight at 5:30. Cajun fare and/or pancakes. Great entertainment from our youth. A fund-raiser for our diocesan camp for mentally-physically challenged. $15/adults; $10/youth; $50/family max. We’ll burn last year’s palm branches at the end of the evening (around 7:30).

I have a former teacher who served for awhile as the priest-visitor for a convent of nuns. Part of his work was to offer the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) from time to time. After one visit, he complained tongue-in-cheek, “Listening to the confessions of a convent of nuns is like being stoned with marshmallows.”

It is usually true that those who have made great progress along the spiritual path, who have disciplined themselves so that they rarely commit such sins as trouble the rest of us, are also more fully aware of their own darkness and of their own inner shadows.

Paul reveals something crucial about himself in today’s passage from Philippians. He got to that place of outward, observable moral perfection. His zealousness for the law was such that he mastered his behavior. He was able to follow all of the laws that defined righteousness in the Biblical tradition of Judaism. “As to righteousness under the law,” he asserts that he was “blameless.” I wish I could say the same for myself.

But Paul found that his upstanding morality did not bring him peace, but rather anxiety. Elsewhere he describes it like death. He was perpetually anxious. He lived with chronic performance anxiety. Am I doing right? I dare not fail.

When I was growning up, they took careful attendance at Sunday School. Anyone who had perfect attendance got a perfect attendance pin, presented with appropriate fanfare in church at the end of the school term. Such pins could accumulate with consecutive bars that attached to the first year’s pin. Several of my friends had rows of perfect attendance bars hanging from their first year’s pin. One particularly disciplined and compliant classmate began to enter junior high school with eight years of perfect attendance pins. It was a terrible pressure, a deadly weight to bear. The obnoxious and motivating pride of accomplishment had long left her. Now she lived in simple dread — the burden of living up to the perfect chain or the burden of inevitable failure. The one way out would be to make it to high school with the string attached. Then she could successfully graduate from Sunday School, very possibly never to return, finally freed of such a burden.

Paul found liberation as a gift when he discovered that he did not have to perform to be accepted by God. In Christ he discovered that his acceptance, his complete righteousness, was a gift. No strings of accomplishment attached. In Christ he discovered freedom. Christ is God’s message of acceptance. Love before and behind. Forgiveness freely given. Blessing always.

When Paul realized that, he threw away the perfect attendance pin like it was rubbish. He died to his compulsive legalism. He experienced resurrection.

Now he could simply be. His being was accepted. Filled with gratefulness for such liberating love, he found new motivation for his behavior. Because he had been so completely loved, he was free to love others. He was able graciously to accept the uncircumcised outsiders and to be lenient about their scruples and superstitious over meat sacrificed to idols. He could welcome slaves and women as equals. He could insist on the preeminence of grace over legalism.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” he exclaims. That’s Sunday School come alive.

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