Thursday, September 6, 2018

Sermon: "Sunday Saints"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 2, 2018 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 1:17-27

“Sunday Saints”

10,000 hours.
Supposedly, that’s how many hours of practice it takes to master any activity or skill.
If you want to be a concert violinist, paint like Picasso, or unleash a 120 mph tennis serve like Serena Williams, 10,000 hours of practice is the minimum commitment needed to rise to the top of the heap.

Author Malcolm Gladwell, popularized the 10,000 hours of practice theory in his 2008 book, Outliers.
Building on studies done by University psychologists in the 1990’s, Gladwell proposed that the Beatles would not have achieved the success they did, had they not spent their formative years playing in German bars and clubs for 5-8 hours a night, seven nights a week.
The Beatles played an astonishing 1200 live shows before they ever set foot on the stage of the Ed Sullivan show - which is more than most professional bands play in a lifetime.

Likewise, Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, might not have helped launch the age of the personal computer, had he not spent hours and hours in a computer lab, from 8th grade onward, teaching himself to write code.
In addition to class time, Gates spent nearly every night and weekend pouring over printouts and typing strings of numbers into terminals that looked more like oversized typewriters than computers.
By the time, he dropped out of Harvard at the age of 20 to start his own software company, Gates had been programming non-stop for seven consecutive years.

In 2010, a 30-year-old commercial photographer named Dan McLaughlin, was so inspired by Gladwell’s book, and the 10,000 hour mastery theory, he quit his job and set out to become a professional golfer with the goal of making the PGA Tour, having never swung a golf club in his life.

McLaughlin built his game from the ground up.
For months, all he did was practice his putting.
Gradually, he added wedges and irons and worked on his swing on the driving range.
It was 18 months before he played his first full round of golf.
At his peak, he was playing 18 holes a day, with an additional 4 hours a day spent on the putting green and driving range.

After five years, and 5,000 hours of practice, McLaughlin had pared his handicap down to 2.6—a mark achieved by fewer than 6% of golfers.
But when he could no longer afford the membership fees at an elite club, where he played with pros who gave him tips on how to improve his game, McLaughlin switched to a public course and found playing amongst the weekend warriors to be far less motivating.
The quality of his practice time went down, and after 6,000 hours his body fatigued and his back went out.
He couldn’t swing a club for six months, and now, eight years later, with his body no longer able to withstand the rigors of playing golf every day,
he has given up on his quest.

The 10,000-hours of practice theory has since been challenged,
as subsequent studies have shown that it’s the quality of practice hours, not the quantity, that leads to the mastery of a skill.
And even Gladwell has clarified his previous claim with the caveat that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice won’t get you very far if you lack the talent, mental acuity, and physical capability to master a chosen task.  

Gladwell writes, “I could play chess for 100 years and I'll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”

So what hope do we have as practicing Christians as we attempt to master this thing we call “following in the footsteps of Jesus?”
Knowing that the only way to become proficient at feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and forgiving seventy times seventy is to practice it, over and over again.
There are no shortage of scripture passages, like the one we just heard from the Epistle of James, that lay out a path for the practicing Christian to follow.

The early Christian communities were eager to receive such instructions on how they might differentiate themselves or build upon what they’ve learned from the faith traditions in which they were raised.
Especially those communities that were isolated, like the dispersed Jewish-Christian community that James was writing to.
With their fellow Christians so far away, they turned to the gospels and the letters of the apostles to teach them what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
Some of it was familiar, as the teachings of Jesus came straight out of the Torah, but much of it challenged them in a new way.

Be slow to anger.
Practice kindness.
Refrain from speaking ill of others and holding grudges.
Return no evil for evil.
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves into thinking they are righteous and religious.

These are not easy tasks to master.
Between the Ten Commandments, and the Greatest Commandment, which directs us to Love God and our NEIGHBOR as we love ourselves,
it’s no wonder that so many of us fail miserably at this thing we call religion.
Even though many of us have been doing it for most of our lives

If we embrace the 10,000-hours of practice theory, and think about how many hours a week we devote to practicing our faith, we can see how we might be coming up short.
At the bare minimum, the hour we spend in worship every Sunday only gives us 52 hours of formal practice a year, if we attend every week.
Even if we were carried into a church at birth and are carried out at the age of 100, this amounts to only 5,200 hours, or less than 1% of our lives, where our focus is fully on practicing our faith and communing with God.

This is of course, ridiculous.
Faith and religious conviction can’t be quantified in this way.
Few of us limit our faith practice time to Sunday mornings, yet conversely, even when we’re here in the presence of God, singing the hymns and saying the prayers, our minds are not always focused on quality over quantity.
Even pastors are guilty of having their minds wander during worship, thinking about what comes next in the service, and how close to 11:00 we can get this all done…especially on Communion Sundays.

What does it even mean to be a practicing Christian?
Do we have to attend worship a certain number of times a month?
Does coming 2 or 3 times a year count?
Do we have to be an official member of a church, with our name appearing on the membership rolls? Or is supporting a church financially and volunteering our time in service enough evidence of our commitment?

Do we have to be baptized to be considered a true follower of Christ?
Or does Jesus welcome us all to his table, regardless of whether we’ve gone through the ritual or spoken the words aloud which invite Christ into our hearts?

Some would say we’ve made it too easy to be a follower of Christ – that it’s too easy to claim the name of Christian, or claim a church as our own – with no baptism, membership, attendance, or financial support needed or required.

How can we say we’re committed to Christ if we won’t commit ourselves to the community formed in his name?

Perhaps because too often the community formed in his name is not very committed to Christ.

When I tell people in passing that I’m a pastor of a church, it is amazing how many of them feel the need to confess that they no longer make time in their lives for organized religion.
Guilt plays a huge part in this.
Whether I’m at the dentist, or sitting on an airplane, or talking to the workers fixing the roof on our house, telling people that I’m a pastor is like holding up a sign that says, “God knows that you haven’t been to church in a while and he wants to know why.”  

And they always tell me why.
Too much hypocrisy, they say.
Too much judgment about rules being broken being dished out by those who break the rules themselves.
Too much fear and rejection, and not enough love and compassion.

Too many people who are Saints on Sundays but conveniently forget how to practice their faith on Mondays.

If this is the perception that people have of the Christian church, then we Christians as a whole must not be very good at putting our faith into practice.
And just as likely, those who have walked away may have unrealistic expectations of what it means to be part of an imperfect community.
They may not know that there are Christian communities that openly admit that we doesn’t always get it right – that none of us is an expert at walking in the Way of Jesus.
But as a community we’re willing to try…and willing to be forgiving when we fail over and over again.
Because that’s how we learn how to be Christians…
by practicing our faith on one another.

Let’s go back to the epistle of James.
Where we find these words:
“In fulfillment of his own purpose, God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of creation.”

This speaks to the natural ability that God has given each one of us, the natural capacity for love and compassion, that comes to life through us, and serves as evidence that God is moving in our world.
But we often allow this natural ability to be hindered by fear and distrust.
And it takes a lifetime of practice for us to overcome that.

As Malcom Gladwell wrote, our “natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”

Finally, let’s go back to Dan McLaughlin, who fell short in his quest to become a professional golfer, even though he showed that he likely had the natural ability to back it up.

What success stories like those of Bill Gates and the Beatles tell us is that it takes more than time and talent to master a skill.
It takes passion.
It takes a love and devotion to ones craft that makes the hours spent performing on stage or buried in code at a computer terminal seemingly fly by.
It takes a willingness to push oneself beyond discomfort and failures because both make the journey more meaningful and the results so much more rewarding.
Dan McLaughlin admitted that he grew to love golf, but passion was never the animating principle that motivated him to play.
He said, “At the end of the day, I could walk away and say, “What’s next?”

So beyond the hours we spend in church, and beyond the quality time we devote to practicing our faith in the world in service to others,
if we’re not doing it because we’re passionate about manifesting this presence of God in the world – about living into our God-given ability to become the first fruits of creation –
If we’re not passionate about that –
Then we should seek to understand what our passion is.

What motivates us to want to be part of a practicing Christian community?
What is pushing or pulling us to want to be here on a Sunday morning?

And once we can name what that passion is,
all it takes is practice, practice, practice,
and the willingness to be transformed by the gospel of Christ –
as we to become a master of our journey.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.