Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sermon: “Imperfect Perfection”, Matthew 5:43-48 (February 19, 2017)



For those of you who don’t know, our Wednesday night Logos program for elementary-aged kids includes a learning portion, a sort of Wednesday night church school. While the younger class is learning about major Bible stories this year, the older class is learning about worship—what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and how it reflects God’s Word. Really important stuff to know, and they’re doing a really great job digging into it. A few weeks ago, the class was focusing on the part of worship where we hear the Word of God—the scripture readings and the sermon—and they asked me how pastors choose what passages to preach about. I explained that there are two main ways that pastors (at least in our tradition) choose scripture. The first is situationally—if there’s a special event or set of circumstances (like a funeral or a major world crisis that needs to be addressed from the pulpit or even just a sermon series on a particular theme) we’ll choose a passage that speaks to that particular context. The students were, of course, in awe of the fact that we have to know the WHOLE BIBLE in order to pick one part, and I reassured them that between a Seminary education and Google, it wasn’t as bad as they imagined.

The second and far more frequently used method of choosing scripture, I continued, is to use the Revised Common Lectionary. As I explained to the class, the Revised Common Lectionary is basically a list of passages assigned to each week on a three-year rotation. It’s a tool that pastors use to make sure we’re preaching from the whole Bible, more or less, instead of just sticking to our favorite parts. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as it makes sure that we ALWAYS have somewhere to start with our sermons, even if we don’t have any ideas, but it can force us to struggle with some parts of scripture that we’d…rather not. The class agreed that this was a good idea, and promptly got distracted by the fact that some churches have four scripture readings each week. They seemed to think it was overkill, but I guess that’s why they’re not Episcopalian.

The section of Matthew that we’ve been working through in worship over the last couple of weeks is one of those ones that seems to show up in the lectionary just to make pastors squirm. Upon first glance, the Sermon on the Mount seems innocuous enough: “Things are gonna work out for the poor and the meek; let it shine, let it shine, let it shine; don’t be mean to each other, blah blah blah.” Mostly stuff that seems old-hat to us and not particularly controversial. But if you pay attention to the specific things that Jesus is saying instead of just making broad summary statements—things that we hope all pastors do as they prepare their sermons—you find some uncomfortable stuff in there. These include, but are not limited to: Jesus’ condemnation of divorce, his instruction not to resist evildoers, and his declaration that calling someone a fool carries with it the risk of Hell. Fortunately for me, Andrew got stuck with some of these, so I get to brush past those ones this week. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Scripture, I’m stuck wrestling with a rather difficult demand from Jesus, anyway:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Thanks, Jesus; that should be a piece of cake.

Perfection is not something that we consider an achievable goal in the Presbyterian Church. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of everything we stand for. According to our tradition, sin has touched every part of our lives and who we are as human beings. It’s not something that we can overcome on our own; it’s a corruption that we’re helpless against. Perfection isn’t even on our radar. On a less dismal note, the Reformed movement was founded on the idea of…well, reformation. We believe that we should ALWAYS be reexamining ourselves to better conform to God’s will, and—importantly—that this reexamination is a task that’s never completed. So while we can certainly get behind the idea of TRYING to be better, this perfection theology of Jesus’ is troublesome to our Reformed sensibilities.

But, of course, we can’t just throw out something Jesus said because it makes us uncomfortable. If we could, the Bible would be reduced to light bedtime reading and the Christians would have far less to argue about—how boring. Jesus himself didn’t throw away the parts of scripture that were uncomfortable; he doubled down on them. That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. When he said he hadn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he wasn’t kidding. Our Lord and Savior was building on the same standards that God had been holding God’s people to for centuries—millennia, even. Following the pattern that he had built up so effectively in the previous verses, the antithesis form that Andrew spoke of last week (“You have heard it said…but I say…”), Jesus closes Matthew 5 by essentially making the ultimate (albeit, implied) antithesis statement: “You have heard it said in Leviticus that you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy, but I say to you that you shall be PERFECT, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holy is one thing. One doesn’t need to be at the level of God to be holy. We have holy buildings, holy scriptures, holy practices; we’re even used to the idea of being God’s holy people, set apart to share the Good News with the world. It’s a high bar, but it’s attainable. Holy we can do. But perfect?

And yet perfect is what Jesus calls us to be. So, we need to figure this out. Now, when we use the word “perfect,” I think most of us assume that the definition is “being without error or flaw”. It’s what I think, anyway. This emphasis on flawless behavior is the same attitude that the Pharisees had, one that they frequently used to try and “trap” Jesus, and one that he soundly rejected throughout his life. This is legalism: an obsession with the letter of the law rather than a recognition of what the law is meant to accomplish. Not only is this idolatry—worshiping the Law instead of the one who gave the Law—but it’s an unsustainable and nearly impossible way to live life. Certainly, this isn’t what Jesus meant.

But, of course, Greek words often contain more meaning than our English translations are able to convey. In verse 48, Matthew uses the Greek word “teleios,” which pretty much every English version of the Bible translates as “perfect,” because, well, it’s the only English equivalent that makes any sense in context. But there’s another sense to “teleios” that we lose in translation here. It also has the meaning of “complete, mature, finished.” In fact, Jesus’ last word in John’s gospel was a related term: “tetélestai,” which is consistently translated into English as “it is finished”. So while it doesn’t make much sense to us for Jesus to say, “Be complete, just as your Father in heaven is complete,” there may be more to this command than is immediately apparent to us.

When Jesus calls us to be perfect, he may not necessarily be expecting flawless perfection, but perhaps some sense of perfection in completeness, in wholeness. I don’t want to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but I imagine that this command is related to the thirty-some-odd verses that precede it, the ones where he talks about fulfilling the law and the prophets (you know, fulfilling, as in bringing to completion or wholeness). Maybe it’s not so much about being without error, but about being complete in our devotion to God. Not just doing the things that are expected of us, but whole-heartedly embracing God’s desire for humanity. The things that Jesus talks about: Reconciliation. Turning the other cheek. Loving our enemies. Even when we miss the mark, trying again. Imperfect holiness. Imperfect perfection.

Now, as we reflect on this “new” way of being perfect, it’s important for us to remember that God doesn’t give the law and the prophets and the new covenant for God’s own benefit. God’s not an egomaniac, capriciously giving us new rules just to see us fail and be reassured of God’s own might. Like a loving parent, God gives us rules and commandments because God knows exactly what it is we need in order to be who God created us to be. Jesus doesn’t call us to wholeness just for God’s sake, but for our own sake.

Don’t believe me? How many of us have ever experienced a sense of “emptiness” or “incompleteness” in our lives? How many have felt like “something is missing”? I’m not talking about feeling like something’s horribly wrong, I mean more like something’s “off”. Like your life isn’t quite what you feel like it should be. Our instincts tell us that the solution is to build yourself up: to get more things, to be better than everyone else, to look out for “number one”. But this doesn’t usually get rid of that feeling, does it? It doesn’t fill the void, doesn’t give your life purpose. Instead, it isolates us. It keeps us from finding and experiencing true wholeness, which can only come from the one thing that Jesus continuously calls us to: connection.

Why do you think that so much of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is about how we interact with others? More specifically, about how we should act when circumstances threaten to destroy our relationships with one another? What does he say we should do when we’re angry with our brother or sister? Reconcile, even before worshiping God! What should we do when someone wrongs us? Resist retaliation, even to the point of turning the other cheek! What should we do when we encounter our enemies? Love them, even as much as we love our neighbors! This, brothers and sisters, THIS is how we become complete, as our God is complete. We NEED one another desperately in order to be whole. Even those we’re angry with. Even those who hurt us. Even those who take what’s ours. Even those who are our enemies. It feels like it’s contrary our best interests, but Jesus assures us that it’s not. When we turn away from these relationships, tenuous as they may be, we’re turning away from our own chance at perfection. We’re rejecting God’s hope for us. We’re choosing fragmentation instead of wholeness. And even if we don’t realize it intellectually, we feel it in our very souls.

Lucky for us, we’re not alone on this journey towards perfect wholeness. We’re going to act in self-interest—or what feels like self-interest, anyway—but Jesus will remind us of God’s calling to completeness in one another. We’re going to turn away from others out of fear and self-preservation, but the Holy Spirit will draw us back. We’re going to make mistakes—it’s in our nature—but we will hold one another accountable. The key is that we need to be open to perfection that’s not without error, but is without dividing walls. It’s scary, it’s risky, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s the task set before us by Christ himself. If God can make a holy people out of sinful, imperfect human beings, then the least we can do is ensure that that which God wills to be whole shall not be torn apart. To live into our imperfect perfection together. Amen.

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