Do you ever say to yourself “If only X would happen life would be perfect” – "X" being a raise, or your child getting into the college of their choice, or your spouse giving up annoying habits that you fight about, or that car or vacation you’ve had your eye on for quite some time? If you had that thing or that circumstance, if you could arrange that to happen, life would be perfect…or so you tell yourself.
On the other hand, maybe you subscribe to the philosophy that life is not perfect and never can be, so don’t hold your breath, lower your expectations, prepare to be disappointed, and just deal with life. In many ways our culture sets a trap of perfectionism and catches us in it coming and going.
There are so many messages out there telling us that if we just try a little harder, stretch ourselves to be more, then we can achieve perfection – and when we can’t do that (because we never can) we end up feeling like we will never be enough.
But if we go through life expecting always to be disappointed, as a way of shielding ourselves from the inevitable sorrows and pain of life, than we will always be disappointed and will miss the blessings of joy. That is the trap of perfectionism.
With that in mind, how are we to understand what Jesus says by way of summary at the end of this morning’s Gospel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”? What kind of impossibly high standard is Jesus setting here? And what happens if I can’t comply with that, can’t come up to scratch? I’m not God and never can be, even though there are times I try to arrange the world around me according to my wishes and my liking. And besides, isn’t humility a Christian virtue? What do humility and perfection have to do with each other? Hold that thought.
Last week we reflected a bit on what we as a parish have learned from this past year’s Bible Challenge, and thinking about what catches our attention when we hear or read Scripture (aka the Holy Spirit speaking to us through the Bible), and what we might want to ask a Biblical scholar about, as we wrestle with what God might be saying to us through a particular text. Today it might be helpful to remember why it is that in our Sunday worship we normally have four passages of Scripture: Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel.
The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible reading brings to our attention the record of God’s relationship with ancient Israel, the covenant with God’s People as revealed through pre-history, family saga, royal chronicles, ritual and moral law, poetry, wisdom literature, lament, political intrigue and prophetic calling to account, and apocalyptic or vision writings. We read the Old Testament because of the truth it tells us about God and human nature.
We say or sing the Psalms because they are the hymnal of the synagogue, they are the music of worship that holds back no human emotion – love, guilt, joy, fear, hatred, hope, jealousy, grief, peace, shame, sadness, acceptance, anger, abandonment, trust. If you have felt it, it’s in the Psalms, and when we worship we bring our whole selves to God – we don’t leave anything behind.
In the New Testament reading we hear from the experience of the first Christians – the letters of Paul and other early Church leaders, the growth and development of the Christian movement in the Book of Acts, and the hope for this world and the whole cosmos in John’s wild-eyed apocalyptic vision we call Revelation. These people who were so close to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry – a generation or two (at the most) away from those who were eyewitnesses to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, to Pentecost and the way faith in Jesus spread like wildfire throughout the eastern end of the Roman Empire – have much to tell us about the immediacy of faith and salvation, and what it is to follow Jesus.
And of course, in the Gospels we come as close as we can to hearing Jesus speak in his own voice, as remembered through the communities of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – each one capturing particular nuances and emphases of Jesus’ teaching and actions.
And we listen across these readings every Sunday so that we might hear from the breadth of God’s record with humankind, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a life of faith is something that we have just discovered by our own cleverness.
Hearing from the full scope of the Bible every week reminds us that we are rooted in a relationship and a tradition of faith that goes back millennia, and we have just stepped into the stream of prayer and worship and living; that is both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.
So…back to being perfect.
For these last four weeks we have been hearing from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as he goes through a detailed investigation of the major points of the Jewish Law/Torah. The passage in front of us is all about not responding to violence with violence, about undercutting oppression with self-respect, about loving our enemies; and it ends with Jesus telling us to be perfect, as God is perfect. But the word that gets translated as “perfect” is telos; it’s Greek, and primarily means something that has grown up or matured to reach its perfect end, its desired goal or outcome; that which it was designed to be – like a pear tree growing up and producing pears rather than oranges or figs. So Jesus is telling us to mature in faith and in the Holy Spirit to be what God created us to be.
So far, so good.
And then we have the passage from Leviticus: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Here we go again! Me, be holy? Isn’t that an impossible standard, like being perfect? In ancient Israel “holiness” was much more about God’s “otherness,” being separate from all that was not divine, than it was about moral perfection. In drawing close to God, the people were to grow increasingly like God because they were, as Genesis tells us, made in God’s image. And the way to grow and develop to be more like God was to participate in God’s commandments – and Leviticus lays some of them out here in the way to act towards others in the community: the poor, the stranger, your fellow citizen, towards laborers, those who are deaf or blind, the rich and the great, your kinsfolk – all of these with whom we are in relationship.
And what are we to do? Leave some of the produce of our labor for those who do not have enough; do not lie, steal, deal falsely or defraud; don’t hold someone hostage for their pay; treat the handicapped with respect; honor and respect God; exercise justice for all people; do not hate, slander or look to profit from the death of others; do not take revenge or carry a grudge; love those around you, in your community. By doing these things, Leviticus is saying, we will participate in God’s nature and will become, ourselves, more of who God created us to be; that what holiness is.
So in talking about loving our enemies and being perfect, Jesus is stepping more deeply into this stream of being holy as God is holy, of being what God made us to be, of growing up into our true and God-given selves. Jesus does not want us to engage in perfectionism as the world doles it out, but instead, Jesus is calling us to wholeness, completeness, fullness of purpose in life.
And that is something that we can do every day. We can practice living God’s holiness in the way we treat one another –friend, family and enemy alike; we can hold ourselves to God’s standards of respect and justice, humility and love…so different from what the clamoring voices of the world around us say. And we can do this - not separate and apart from God, striving for divine approval – but we can do this with God’s help, we can be holy because the Holy Spirit lives within us, because Jesus walks with us and shows us the way.
As the Bible translation The Message puts that last verse of the Gospel: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 23, 2014