My mother is learning to play the trombone. She picked it up for the first time earlier this year – it has something to do, I think, with her being really close to retiring, after a long career in nursing. She’s been 100% dedicated to other people for so long, this trombone thing I think is just a fun thing just for her. She just has always liked the trombone and wanted to try playing it. She can play Happy Birthday and Mary Had A Little Lamb – it’s a little blurry, but it’s great, she laughs about it and just loves it – she’s just so delighted to be playing that trombone … and her granddaughter thinks it’s the best thing in the world. Which it is.
Here is someone enjoying grace. God’s grace. Here’s someone taking some time to just go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills burst into song, and all the trees of the field clap their hands and the retiring nurse trumpets out her joy through simple blurry tunes on her trombone. God loves us as we are, by the grace of God, what can we do but sing our praise with the voices we’ve got.
When I was learning to play the violin as a kid, I didn’t give myself much grace. I would get so frustrated. I couldn’t get something right, I’d make a sour note or fall of the track of a run of notes and, just, “rroar!” Teeth-grinding frustration. I would take that out on my violin. Nothing sounds like frustration worse than a furious kid shredding on a violin. It’ worse than nails on a chalk board. That’s the sound of judgement sinking it’s teeth into you. That’s the sound of the gremlin god of judgment. No graceless abyss. I had some measure of perfection. And I didn’t match up to it. And the feeling of fall short of it was too much for me. And I quit playing, actually. For a good while. And that was around the time I quit God too. ‘Cause the world didn’t measure up to the ideal. Other people didn’t measure up. I didn’t measure up. God didn’t seem to measure up. So I quit playing music. And I quit praying too. Or at least I tried. It kept sneaking in there. The spirit can be crafty.
One night I had a dream. At the end of that dream I received a message: “Pick up your fiddle and play.” Now, it wasn’t “Pick up your violin.” It was “Pick up your fiddle.” What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? It’s the same instrument, the same wood and strings. But the question is, When you play, are people dancing? If so, Then it’s a fiddle. That’s the difference.
So I picked it up again. And I just played it. I simply enjoyed the sound I could make with it. I just enjoyed the feeling of the music, the feeling of play. And soon when I played people danced. It wasn’t about achieving perfection. The god of judgment was gone. And in its place was a God of grace.
In the Catholic tradition there is this whole scientific accounting of sins – different types of sins named and analyzed and organized into categories. They’ve got great names like “concupiscence” and “avarice.” (Lust and greed). One of the sins is called “scrupulosity.” This is when we get overly obsessed with being perfect, obsessed with how far short we fall from perfection. Being too scrupulous. This is a helpful thing to name – scrupulosity. Now, I don’t think it’s helpful to call this a sin because if you are suffering from scrupulosity than that just becomes one more sin to add to the list of strikes against you and you need to worry about. But, this can be helpful to talk about. Being really scrupulous, being too obsessed with perfection and depravity does keep us from accepting the grace of God. It can keep us from just surrendering to Christ’s embrace of us as we are, who we are – flawed and fabulous, with our mistakes and guilts and regrets and with all the ways we are lovely and loving and courageous.
I offer this message today because… In our culture these days there is not much grace flowing around. There is severe, vicious judgment getting spit across the room, left and right, top to bottom.
Just go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills burst into song, and all the trees of the field clap their hands and the retiring nurse trumpets out her joy through simple blurry tunes on her trombone. God loves us as we are, by the grace of God, what can we do but sing our praise with the voices we’ve got.
Isaiah 55:6-12 “Seek the Holy One Beyond Name while they may be found, call upon them while they are near; Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them return to the Lord, who will have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon. The Supreme One speak: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth. It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace. The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Romans 12:15-18 “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
(Delivered September 13, 2017 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)