February 23, 2011

Perfection redefined

You can listen to this sermon here. Or, if you'd rather read it, here you go.

Jesus looked at the crowd that was gathered before him and said, without an ounce of irony or sarcasm, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Boy do I wish he had never said those impossibly simple words. Be perfect. That's all we're called to do. It couldn't be more simple, just. be. perfect. And yet it couldn't be more impossible. Have you tried to be perfect? Most days, I can't make it to breakfast without a slip up of some sort: complaining that I didn't get enough sleep, remembering that thing I was mad about three weeks ago and getting angry all over again, feeling envious that Cassie gets to sleep in, worrying about how to pay for the new tires the car needs. Seriously, being perfect is impossible.
I wish Jesus had never uttered those words. In telling the crowd to “be perfect,” he handed the naysayers their ammunition. In calling us to be perfect he opened the door for the classic argument of the non-church goer. “They're just a bunch of hypocrties.” And, on some level, we are. We expect perfection and though we never achieve it, we continue to expect it, especially from so-and-so who really needed to hear that sermon. As Jesus will say later in his Sermon, “we worry about the speck of sawdust in our brother's eye while ignoring the log in our own.” I really wish Jesus had never said these words. “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Why? Why did he say it? I have to assume that most of the time, Jesus didn't just haphazardly shoot from the hip. Certainly not in this central teaching episode on the side of the mountain. His words were carefully chosen, calculated, and spoken with purpose. So why? Why would Jesus go from setting the bar absurdly high, to making it impossible to even see? Why tell his disciples to be perfect when he knew it was impossible to do?
I really struggled with the question of why this week. This call to “be perfect” seemed like the work of an angry and impulsive god who rather enjoyed watching us human's squirm. It just didn't seem like something that my God would do. Then came Wednesday. On Wednesday morning, I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to take a half-day fishing expedition with none other than the great Bob Potts. Wednesday was to be the day for this first, exploratory trip for the spring crappie season of 2011. I had a borrowed crappie pole, and two other rods setup for bass fishing ready to go when my alarm went off at 4:30am. I awoke, hit the “go” button on my coffee pot and prepared for the long day ahead. I dressed in layers upon layers. I put on sunscreen. I found my hat. I brushed my teeth (for which I'm sure Mr. Potts was extremely grateful). I poured my coffee, and arrived in Bob's driveway promptly at the appointed hour of 5:15am. When we pulled out of Bob and Mary's driveway at about 5:30 with the truck thermometer reading 50 degrees, and we were all set for a great morning of fishing. Perhaps the thick-as-pea-soup fog should have been our first warning to the contrary. We made our way slowly up to the Baldwin County Park System's Cliff's Landing public boat launch on the Tenesaw River. We stopped to buy shiners where the wise old lady tending the bait shop assured us that the crappie were hitting. As we arrived at the launch, the thermometer that had read 50 in Foley, now said 43. The fog that had long since burned off to the south was still thick-as-pea-soup on the delta. And the sun was already on the rise. We launched Bod's self-described “medium-go-fast boat” and began to head up river toward Miflin Lake, but the fog demoted the boat from “medium-go-fast” to “not-go-fast” in a hurry. Bob decided we should wait out the fog by doing a little practice along the east bank of the river. Our practice finished and the fog lifted we began to move toward the western bank to look for the entrance to Miflin Lake when as strange noise came from the motor. Wolom.
Being a novice boater, I knew that sound, we had hit shallow water and bogged down the prop in some mud. I've done that before, I know that sound. And that was Bob's conjecture too, until he noticed the depth finder reading 10 feet. Hmmmm. Then the motor didn't want to turn over too well. Then once it did it didn't want to wind up too fast. Even when the throttle was laid flat out, it ran slow and smoked and chattered. Not good.
Not wanting to waste the trip, Bob suggested we slowly work back down river, crappie and bass fishing along the way. We worked both sides of the river bank all the way back to the launch and managed to catch zero fish with zero bites in our 3 hours on the water. Bob and I ate our lunches in the driveway behind the Bass Pro Shop while the service techs prepared the bad news on the repairs.
All in all, it was a terrible day of fishing, and an awful exploratory mission, and yet as I reflected back on the morning, I would still describe it as perfect. Bob might use other words, but I would borrow from Jesus and describe the day as perfect.
When Jesus looked at the crowd and called on them to be perfect as their Heavenly Father is perfect, Matthew translates Jesus' Aramaic as teleios, the Greek word for goal, end, or purpose. In Eugene Peterson's translation, Jesus says, “Live out your God-created identity.” Jesus isn't calling us to be morally flawless (though that is a good idea). He isn't demanding that we immediately remove all sin from our lives (though that too wouldn't be a bad thing). As the only sinless human being, Jesus isn't asking us to do the impossible; instead he is calling the crowd and us to be who we were created to be, to live out God's dream for our lives, to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
My day on the water with Bob was perfect because my goals for the day were to enjoy Bob's company, learn some lessons on fishing, and to enjoy a part of God's creation that I had never experienced before. I never thought I'd catch any fish; as I've said before, I'm not a very good fisherman. And so for me, Wednesday morning was perfect because all of my goals for the morning were fulfilled.
If we can let go of the the guilt ridden need to be perfect in that abstract, philosophical, metaphysical way most of us were taught to be perfect, then maybe we can live into the freedom that comes from being perfect, teleios, as our heavenly Father is perfect. Free to the person who God created us to be. Free to love our enemies. Free to give away our cloak. Free to go the extra mile. Free to be perfect. William Barclay calls this perfection “unconquerable benevolence and invincible goodwill: the very image of God in which we were created.” Who doesn't want that? Unconquerable benevolence and invincible goodwill? Yes please! A double portion for me!
But that perfection doesn't end with us as individuals. Jesus didn't look at the crowd and say “you [Tom, Mary, Joe] be perfect.” He looked at the crowd, the thousands who were following and listening and said “all y'all, the whole lot of ya, be a perfect community. Be the people, the community, the nation that God created you to be. Live out the law radically, especially as it relates to how you treat those who are different from you and your enemies.” To borrow language from one of the disciples who was there with Jesus on the mountain, in his first letter, Peter writes, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness. Share mercy because you have been shown mercy. Care for the poor and the aliens. Don't be unjust. Be a temple for God. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Go above and beyond for your God and for your neighbor because your God has gone above and beyond for you. Be perfect.
Jesus has made an impossibly simple request of us. Don't get bogged down in the details. Don't fret when things don't work out like you intended. Don't get weighed down by your self-inflicted guilt. Just be perfect. Be the person and the people that God created you to be. It is just that simple. Amen.

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