Text: 2 Corinthians 13:11
As a hopeless golfer always in search of a better game, I have read more than my share of golf instruction books and watched way too many golf instruction videos. Even if you’re not a golfer, you can appreciate someone with an obsession to be better at something who laps up everything he or she can get their hands on. That would be me. And now that I’m moving into retirement, I guess I won’t have a church to blame my weak golf game on. I’ll have to find some other excuse.
This thought came to mind as I was going through my library the other day, trying to decide which books I wanted to keep and which I wanted to throw away. So, when it came to the few golf instruction books I have turned to over the decades of my fixation with getting better at golf, the one book I made sure I could get to without having to hunt it down was the famed golf instructor Harvey Penick’s classic, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf. As most of you golfers in the congregation will attest, Penick’s little book is filled with gems of golf wisdom, perhaps none more valuable than his simple, but essential maxim, “Take Dead Aim.” By that, of course, Penick meant that without an aim that is clearly focused on the target you’re swinging toward, you will never strike an acceptable shot, unless of course you happen to hit one out of pure luck. And so Penick instructed all his students, “Take Dead Aim.”
Come to think of it, that’s not bad instruction for anything you hope to accomplish in life, wouldn’t you agree? What’s the old saying, “Aim at nothing and that’s precisely what you’ll hit.” In other words, without a goal in mind or a direction to point to or an outcome to accomplish, not even luck will bail you out.
Perhaps that was something of what the Apostle Paul was getting at in this passage I’ve read for you from his second letter to the church at Corinth. As you know from time spent in Sunday School, the church at Corinth was about as unfocused and distracted and dysfunctional a church as you might find. I often say any problem that could conceivably exist in a church today existed in the church at Corinth. Paul’s first letter addresses each of them.
But despite Paul’s Holy Spirit inspired instruction, the church at Corinth evidently didn’t get better; if anything, it got worse. So much so that they turned on Paul and began accusing him of all kinds of uncharitable things. “Paul’s full of himself, you know. Have you noticed how he’s always boasting about his credentials. And when you think about it, when did Jesus ever call Paul to be an apostle? I’m not so sure that he’s not going around trying to advance himself with false credentials. And what bothers me most of all is that he’s always talking about money. I’ll bet if you follow the money you’ll find Paul somehow materially benefitting from his ministry.” I promise you that I’m not making this up. Read the letter and check me out.
And yet, to Paul’s credit, he doesn’t give up on the Corinthians. Paul saw in them too much promise and too much possibility so that instead of bawling out the Corinthians or even worse bailing on them, Paul patiently addresses each of their concerns, and then ends his second letter with what I think is the most hopeful and uplifting exhortation any minister could offer any congregation. He tells them not just to take “dead aim” as they focus on their future, but to take “living aim,” which is even clearer and more lofty. “Aim for perfection,” Paul tells this remarkably imperfect church. “Encourage one another. Agree with one another. Grow with one another. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
On this my last Sunday as your Senior Minister, I can’t think of a better word to leave with this congregation – not because you are a flawed and dysfunction people, but because you are anything but. So much so, that your ceiling as a church is literally as high as heaven itself! But in order to make such promise and possibility a reality, I urge you to consider Paul’s detailed instructions to a sputtering, conflicted fellowship so that you can become ever more all the church that Jesus is calling you to be. Very quickly, consider with me the blueprint toward perfection Paul lays out.
First, encourage one another. Do what you can to urge one another on to be a more faithful follower of our Lord Jesus Christ. After all, church is the one place in society where people aren’t in competition with one another but in cooperation with one another, or better I should say in coordination with one another so that as the body of Christ, when one part of the body functions effectively, there is every reason for other parts of the body to follow suit. In a day when people seem to be concerned more with bringing other people down, thinking that in the process that they will bring themselves up, instead of discouraging one another, encourage one another. Discouragement is a dead aim; encouragement is a living one.
But secondly, Paul tells the church to agree with one another. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that in a Baptist church that seems an abject impossibility. After 43 years of serving Baptist churches, I have too often been made aware of how if you get ten Baptists in a room, you’ll likely have twenty opinions. We Baptists are famous for not being able to agree on much of anything, except for our conviction regarding our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only reason for any church to be together and Jesus is the only reason by which a church will stay together. The problem today is that too many churches are looking to locate their unity in everything but Jesus – their musical tastes, their political views, their economic interests and their civic affiliations. None of those things is inherently evil, and yet none of them is able to sustain a church’s missional effectiveness. The only way a church can become all that Jesus needs it to be is by focusing their energies and attention around advancing the cause of Christ and agreeing with one another as to how following his lead is the best way to become more faithful in the process. Agreeing with one another around Jesus is also what we might call “a living aim.” Trying to come together around anything else or anyone else is not only a “dead aim,” it’s also a “dead end.”
Encourage one another. Agree with one another. And finally, Paul urges the church to grow with one another. You see, when you peel back the layers of the Corinthian church and analyze where they went wrong, it wasn’t that they never sought to encourage one another and to come together around Jesus, it was because they stopped growing in his grace and knowledge. They became complacent. They became satisfied. They came to a place where they thought they had arrived, only to be made blind to their flaws and imperfections until Paul came along to expose them to the light. Now, I would in now way ever suggest that this church, Mountain Brook Baptist Church, is not a mature church; it is. This church has a 77 year history of life-changing ministry not just in this community but also around the world. And because this church is without question a mature church, the greatest temptation this church will always be faced with is the temptation to put ministry in neutral and to think we have arrived and to grow complacent and to settle with being ordinary. And as we all know, if there’s anything that this community in which our church is located disrespects and disregards more it is the satisfaction with being ordinary. And truth be told, there is no peace or life that comes from being an ordinary church, because that’s precisely what Satan wants for every church – that they be ordinary – and that’s especially what Satan wants for this church. But when we strive together always to be growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus, Satan is frustrated, Jesus is magnified, and we in turn grow to become more of the church he calls us to be.
As I look back on our journey together over these last ten years, it has been such a joy for me to walk with you, and Judy and I will continue to do so in the days ahead, albeit from a distance. We will do all that we can to encourage you, and to agree with you, and to grow with you because that’s what it means to be a perfect people, not so much in terms of our being sinless and unblemished, but being whole and complete and everything that Jesus needs us to be.
So, let us focus our aim on that level of life and everything we will be about will stay “in bounds” and within the confines of the straight and narrow path Jesus himself has blazed for us. We want be spraying anything out along the broad and wide one that leads to destruction, but instead we will stay on the path that quite frankly is less traveled, the cross-shaped path down which Jesus has promised will lead us to life – life now, life tomorrow, and life forevermore.