Sermon: “Moving to Perfection”

Feb. 23, 2014
by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 5:38-48 and Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

What do you think of when you hear the word “perfect”?  I’ve been watching some of the Olympics, and marveling as the athletes strive for perfection in their sport.  The ice skaters amaze me.  How they simply stay upright on skates is mystifying enough, much less how they jump and spin and land gracefully without missing a beat, smiling the whole time.  The commentators are skaters themselves so they know what to look for, and while I am saying “wow!” about a triple jump, they are critiquing – “Oh, did you see that?  Her shoulders and hips aren’t exactly parallel!”  “Uh oh! He landed on the outside edge of his skate blade, there will be points taken off for that!”  And I’m thinking, “Good grief, give them a break!”

Well, with today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, I kind of want to say the same thing to Jesus.  He says “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect,” and I want to say, “Good grief, Jesus, give me a break!  I’m not God! I’m only human!  That’s overwhelming; it makes me feel helpless and hopeless!”

But certainly that wasn’t Jesus’ intent – to make us feel helpless or hopeless, to make us fret that because of our human nature we feel caught in the middle: less than we ought to be and unable to be more than we are.[i]   And yet, when we hear the word “perfect,” much less “perfect” in relationship to God, we’re not at all sure we’re up to the task.

So what’s Jesus getting at here with this statement about being perfect as God is perfect? Certainly it is not a recommendation for perfectionism, some kind of rigid concern for the rules, where the means become confused with the ends.  He’s already said that the righteousness of his followers must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, two groups that were so diligently focused on the means, they had lost sight of the ends.  And since we’re ARE human beings whose nature it is to change and to grow from infancy to adulthood, to old age, and finally to die, and whose nature God called “good” at creation, perfection certainly can’t mean stasis or that we can reach a place where there is no room for improvement, or can point to a time when we are totally “finished.”

Maybe it makes more sense to think of “perfection” a purpose, so that there is a sense of movement, of becoming what God intends, of accomplishing our God-given purpose in the same way that God reflects God’s own nature and purpose.[ii]  In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates this command to be perfect, this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is ‘Grow up.’ You’re made in the image of God, now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.”

It is God’s nature to love all that God has created.  Jesus says, God “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  God’s love is impartial and for all, even for our enemies, even for God’s enemies! And so our goal in living out our God-created identity is to love from that same place that God loves – not out of desire for personal gain, not out of desire for reward, or to be liked by those who like us, but because, having been created in God’s image, it is what we were made to do.

Because it is difficult to envision what this kind of Godly love looks like in action, especially in action in us, Jesus gives some concrete examples to think about.  In the reading from last week, Jesus taught that in personal relationships anger has the potential to be a deadly as murder, that time spent thinking about unworthy things carries with it the risk that we will diminish ourselves; that selfishness and impatience can undermine our fidelity to our most cherished relationships; and that truthfulness and integrity are not to be saved for special occasions, but values and behaviors that should consistently characterize every word we speak, every action we undertake.  The loving person controls his or her anger; spends time in pursuits that improve and perfect himself or herself and others, and is consistently faithful, loving, and honest in all relationships.

In today’s reading he moves from personal relationships to the larger community arena and offers several scenarios, that take us beyond the ancient law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” to show what God’s love looks like when we’re on the receiving end of less than perfect love – the victim and not the perpetrator.  Although a proportional response to a violent act is better than an overwhelming violent response, it is still violence, not love.  And so He commands, if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other; if someone sues you for your coat, give your cloak as well; if someone forces you to go one mile, go a second.  He isn’t recommending that we become victims or objects of abuse, but instead suggests that we have a opportunity for a free and conscious choice to act in ways that are generous, peaceful, and loving rather than violent.

He suggests as well that if we are to love as God loves, then we must extend our love, compassion, affection or concern to our enemies, and not keep it only for those who are just like us – family or friends who agree with us, who hold the same values or viewpoints  that we do, who speak the same language or share the same religion, ethnicity or nationality or come from the same economic class.  Our love must extend to those most unlike us – the stranger, the outsider, those with whom we disagree and have nothing in common, even to our enemies who truly hate us. We are to love them as God loves them – to hold positive, life-affirming thoughts about them – and we are to pray for them, not that God will smite them dead or convince them of how wrong they are and how right we are, but that God will bless them and care for them as God blesses and cares for us.  If we are children of God, the only way to realize the full potential of that identity, is to grow in love, to love as God loves.

Yesterday at our confirmation retreat, Sharon, Joel, and Meg led our group discussions about growing in love, growing in our God-given identity.  First we listed positive qualities that people in our lives – parents, teachers, friends — had shared with us and which had had influenced us.  Some of the qualities we named were: encouragement, affirmation, unconditional love, respect, encouragement, hope, joy, laughter, motivation, walking the walk, not just talking the talk.  Everyone was able to recall times when parents offered a needed push, or a friend said something that restored feelings of ability and worth. These qualities have meant all the difference in so many situations.  You might want to try this exercise too, and reflect on what persons in your life have contributed in a positive way to making you the person you are today.

We then reflected on the ways in which Jesus modeled these behaviors to his disciples in his own life.  He was all of those things we’d named – a loving, forgiving friend, an encourager, someone who respected those with whom he associated, someone who gave hope and joy, and modeled loving behavior, someone whose words and actions never contradicted each other.

And then we realized that those qualities that we see in Jesus, are also examples of things we know about God.  Jesus incarnated these qualities, so that we could see them operating under human conditions, which means, if he can do it, we can do it because being human was not a limitation for Jesus’ ability to love, and so it shouldn’t be for us either.

Finally we reflected on what it means to be confirmed in the faith.  It means in large part pledging our constant effort to be a model of God’s love now. So that we can pass on to others the love of God we saw in the role models in our own lives.  We did not read it, but I was reminded at the time of the poem written by Teresa of Avilla, a 16th century mystic – a poem that you might have heard before:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.

We are offered the challenge every day to grow into our God given identity through the choices and opportunities that present themselves.   We can choose to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love the unloveable, or we can choose to fight fire with fire, draw lines in the sand, hate and distrust those unlike ourselves whom we perceive to be our enemies.  And what do those actions say about us? Do they say that we, to use John Wesley’s words, are “moving on to perfection, or Paul’s words that “it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us?  Or do they say that we’ve given up the journey, unwilling to do the growing and stretching it takes to live out our God-identity?  The choice is ours – to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect – to love as God loves . . .  or not.

[i] Roberta Bondi, To Love as God Loves, 1987, 24.

[ii] David Lose, “Perfect,” Craft of Preaching,, February 13, 2011.

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