Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC December 29, 1985
I have told you before, I believe, that I am an inveterate list-maker. I believe I have mentioned that my way of working and of setting daily work priorities is to build lists, long, elaborate, detailed lists of things to de today, things to do tomorrow, things to do yesterday, things to do at home, things to do for the Convention, things to do for the church, things to do for the sake of doing them, things not to do, and so on and so on. I make lists.
And at this time of the year one of the things that appears on my lists is the job of revising the lists! It's time to review what has been accomplished and set out some goals and priorities for the coming year. That task I have already begun, and woe is me, I find that this coming year's list looks longer than last year's list. How could that be? How in the world could that happen? How could it be that in twelve months I seem to have been losing ground instead of gaining it? How is it possible that in the struggle to get it all done, not only is it not all done but there seems to be more of it to do?
Well, I suspect you know the answer to that. Every one of you who has any sense of direction and of industry and of movement knows what I am talking about. The more you do, the more you see that needs to be done. The harder you work the more there is that really ought to grab hold of your attention. And so it is true, as the saying has it, that if you want a big job done, ask a busy person to do it. Some of us are just so constructed that we keep taking things on and adding to our lists, and there is always more to do.
That's not the problem, really. The problem is not the jobs that keep raising their heads and crying out to be done. The problem is the ones I started but never finished. What plagues me more than anything else is the project I started on in a burst of energy and creativity, but which bogged down somewhere along the way and which remains unfinished. Are you with me? Anybody else out there who lives this way?
Well, come over to my house and I can show you a whole museum of unfinished tasks, items which I began, began in dead earnest and carried forward well, but which now lie incomplete. Maybe it's money, maybe it's lack of materials, maybe it's uncertainty about the next step, but there they are -- unfinished, silently accusing me every day of being lazy and fickle and well, unfinished.
Would you believe, for example, kitchen cabinets which I built but they still have no doors and no stain? Or how about a set of cabinets and a counter without a countertop? Or a range installation during which I had to remove some paneling and some molding; the range is in, the panel and the molding are not. Or again, I'd be ashamed to tell you haw many months it has been since I undertook to finish a basement room, got everything done but the ceiling, and came to an abrupt halt when I found out how tough it is to work with drywall ceilings as the rank amateur that I am. Time fails to tell you of my library, partly catalogued; of my files, partly sorted; of my periodicals, partly read; of my stamp collection, partly mounted. In fact, it would not surprise you much at all, would it, if I were to stop right here and tell you that I didn't have time to finish this sermon!
Perhaps my own case is extreme – and I am confident you do not want or need to hear more about my shortcomings – but I suspect that many of us feel plagued by unfinished tasks. There are so many things we are meaning to get around to, so many tasks we have every intention of finishing. I believe this is true of many of us; my evidence is that you can find circulating here and there an object that looks like a coin, it's about the size of a silver dollar, and it has inscribed on it the letters T U I T. What is it? Why, it's a round tuit – and it's circulating because everybody, just about everybody, is saying, I'll do that job whenever I can get a round tuit. Unfinished tasks; they plague us all.
But I'm wondering this morning whether you’ve ever thought of the incompleteness of your life as an opportunity more than as a burden? Have you ever supposed that sometimes what you do is greater and finer in its incompleteness than if it were all wrapped up and polished off? That may sound peculiar, but I believe it's true. There are times when there is more virtue, more power, more beauty in the task unfinished than in the task completed, packaged, wrapped up and put away.
Listen to the Apostle Paul again telling the Philippian church about his own life. He tells them of the days when he thought he had it made, done, finished, wrapped up, complete, of days when he believed there was no place to go, that his life was perfect, just as it was:
“If anyone thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh (that is, in material or outward circumstances) – if anyone thinks he has reason for confidence, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” In other words, finished. Completed, bolted down, zipped up, canned, tied up in ribbons, finished. Beautiful, wasn’t it? Everything neat and in order, like those overly neat and scrupulous folks whose desks are laden with sharp pencils and just the right style of letter paper and stamps of the proper denomination: neat, too neat.
But, says Paul, but something happened in my life to change all that. Something happened, and I don't value all that accomplishment any more. Something happened, and that something was Christ, that something is Christ. Christ happened in my life, and suddenly, says Paul, it's not finished any more. It's not finished at all. In fact, he says, whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Whatever I once supposed I had accomplished, well, I now see that it was not accomplished at all, it was nothing, in fact it was garbage, so much garbage, because now I have a new goal, I have a new direction for my life to follow. And the new direction is Christ, it has to do with knowing Christ.
Now here is where Paul is saying to us, it is better to be incomplete than complete, better and finer to be unfinished than to be finished. It is better to be incomplete by the standards of Christ than to be complete by the world's standards. It is finer and greater by far to be unfinished but pointing toward the kind of wholeness that the knowledge of Christ offers than it is to polished and perfected and honed to a sharp point, but outside of Christ. Listen to Paul again, and listen carefully, listen for yourself:
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain – what – wealth? Knowledge? Power? Well-being? No, none of these things. In order that I may gain Christ and be found in him –that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.
You see, it's all right to be unfinished if you have set your sights on a goal like that. It's all right, it's marvelous to be incomplete if what you want when you are complete is to be like Christ. The problem with most of us is that we have settled for so much less, we have stopped growing. We have said, well, that's it, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Here comes another year, but I expect it to be much like last year, ho hum. We've settled for too little, far too little, and we have imagined ourselves to be complete; but we would do better if we were not complete. We would do better to see ourselves as persons still growing, still changing, still becoming.
In other words, we've made all the wrong assumptions about what it is to be incomplete, we've not seen deeply enough the beauty of being unfinished. We think that if somebody is unfinished, that he's quit, that he's just quit working; but here is Paul saying, No, I have not attained and I am not perfect, but I press on, I press on, I am going to work at this growth thing. Come with me into the nursing home room which is home for our church's oldest member, Verna Royle, 104 years old, and listen to her say, “I don't know why the Lord has kept me here so long, but He must have something more for me to do.” Here is one who knows that she's not finished, not yet, not after more than a century of living and witnessing and sharing and growing, and in that bed and that chair that bounds her space she reads her Bible and she presses on.
Or again, we assume that being incomplete means being trapped, being caught by all the mistakes we've made and being pulled back by all the things we cannot change. We say, Oh, if I could only go back and live this year over, if only I could go back to school or if only I could wipe out that argument or if only I could have seen how this job would turn out – if only, if only. We assume, don't we, that today's incompleteness is the result of yesterday's false starts, and there's no changing that. And yet, and yet, I hear the apostle crying out, “This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” Forgetting what lies behind! What a powerful lesson that is, and how that speaks to us of the grace of God. God who is infinite in knowledge, who surely can know all that we are and all that we have been, but who in his grace and mercy forgives and forgets our sins and then calls us to forgive ourselves and to forget what lies behind. Ah, there's a whole sermon in this thing of forgiving ourselves, and one of these days I'll work on that with you. But think of it: we are not the captives of the past alone, but we are called by our Christ to forget what lies behind, to press forward toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Yes, it is a more beautiful thing to be unfinished than to be finished, a finer and nobler thing to be incomplete than to live the buttoned down life. You see, it was Franz Schubert whose great 7th symphony achieved such popularity, though he never completed it, and it survives today known as the unfinished symphony. Its greatness in some measure lies in its incompleteness, in the hints of what might be that it holds out. And there is Mozart, at the end of his life, struggling to compose a Requiem, a funeral mass, never finishing it but leaving a testament of faith and devotion from which thousands have drawn inspiration, and always summoning other composers to dream and to imagine how it might have been completed, more hauntingly lovely in its incompleteness than other compositions in their entirety.
Or again, I have seen, as you have, sculptures in which the figure seems to be emerging from the stone or the wood, struggling to climb out, struggling to become; and in their unfinishedness, more lovely than if the sculptor had carved every detail. More lovely because they speak to us of the authentic human condition; we are those whom God calls to become, to press on, to leave behind the past and to come on up higher.
Go some day to the great west front of the National Cathedral across town and see the sculptures installed above the center doors. You will see there the sculptor's view of the creation of humanity, and what you will see is Adam and Eve partly sculpted, but partly hidden in the rough, uncut stone. More beautiful, more authentic than if the chisels had cut for us two full human figures, for we are not finished. We are never finished. We are God's unfinished symphonies, beautiful in our incompleteness, most beautiful when we know that the task is not yet completed, but that it must never stop, that we are those who in this coming new year are called to press on, because Christ Jesus has made us his own. This one thing we will do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we will press on toward the goal, toward the prize – toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
And we will count everything else we might do or might have attempted as so much garbage when we compare it with the infinite worth of knowing Christ and knowing the power of his risen life. For unfinished though we be, unfinished symphonies though we be, this year to come offers us the prospect that we might be symphonies of praise to him who is our author and our maker, even Christ Jesus.