Living the Perfect Life

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What happened to the Hallmark card, really nice Jesus, who opens the Sermon on the Mount with the series of blessings for the poor in spirit?  He blesses the meek, those who seek righteousness, blessings we know of as the Beatitudes?

Right after lavishing these blessings, Jesus moves to teaching us to do what sounds like the impossible.  He creates a rhythm “you have heard it said” to introduce a teaching from the Torah, the community to whom Jesus was preaching would have known.  He then follows it with “but I say to you,” in which he does not contradict the teaching, but expands the ethical behavior in ways that are always more demanding.

For example, the Torah also teaches if someone strikes you, you were to not retaliate with greater force or inflict more pain than the original injury.  Rather, righteous living allows you some restitution to preserve yourself, but don’t go overboard.

Now Jesus expands that teaching by calling us to eliminate future conflict by turning our cheek, stopping the violence then and there.   It is a tough command to accept, going against the grain of human nature.

Consider though, in the command to turn a cheek, we may be giving someone, for the first time, the compassion and love he or she may never have experienced.  If violence or abuse formed one’s life experience, for us to turn a cheek may be the potent antidote to stop a cycle, move above conflict, and into a space where conversation may occur.   This takes courage and humility and may be the one time an opponent receives such love.

The iconic leader for nonviolent change, Mahatma Ghandi, wrote extensively from the Sermon on the Mount and was particularly inspired by these teachings.  He was known to have said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Our first lesson, from Leviticus, contains a sampling of these teachings of how to live in a right relationship with one another so you reflect God’s holy image and honor God.  Whether you want to or not, whether you like the other people or not, Leviticus calls you to care for them since God, who is lord of all cares for them. To be faithful to God requires you to think beyond your own world and create harmony in the community.

Jesus continues to teach us to give not only our coat, but if asked, our cloak as well.  He goes on, to love our neighbor is just not enough, anyone can do that, we need to pray for our enemies.

Jesus is creating the first signs of a new community in the midst of the old one. The old order communities were fractured between insiders, those who possessed the power controlled the boundaries, and outsiders.  Theologian Ronald J. Allen writes, “The realm of God seeks to create a community of peoples who have been separated and alienated.  Love of the enemy prefigures this restored community in the midst of the fractious communities of the old order” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

This portion of the Sermon on the Mount also includes teachings of adultery and honoring women, ritual sacrifice and reconciling relationship and extending mercy; they define a new way to live in relationship with one another in ways very particular to the time and place – first century Palestine.

We can get caught up in negotiating and explaining into antiquity these tough cases so they no longer hold sway over us. The culture and behaviors Jesus addressed no longer dominate in our time, but if we minimize or ignore these teachings, assuming they are not really for us, we avoid the theology animating each of them and the imperative to see how they are applicable to our lives today.

Jesus teaches. The beginnings of a new order are sown, a new order that does not ask the strong to be weak or make the weak strong, but remakes the community by new ways of being with and loving one another and with the example he sets.

We have the advantage, or burden, of hearing these teachings as we also know the complete story of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, with all his healing and feeding, lives out his teachings with examples so compelling, we know he was more than a person who spoke well, he was a person who committed his life to what he preached.

The Sermon on the Mount is the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, turns the cheek, loves the humanity and sees divine images in enemies – because this is how God loves.

You may find it odd coming from a minister, but I don’t think God, or Jesus is really interested in our religion. Instead, I believe the purpose of religion, and all our rules, is to deepen our faith by calling us into and forming relationship with one another, through practicing forgiveness, and serving those in need.  Religion’s teachings help us only when they direct us to participate in God’s love for all people, not shut out those who are different, discriminate against them or condemn them, and in doing so, opens us to allow God’s love in.

Christian Wyman is a writer and the editor of Poetry magazine.  Recently he published a reflection of how his faith was challenged and reborn while he was undergoing treatment for a rare and incurable cancer.  Through his pain, he examines his faith: how it held him, when it felt false and what emerged as essential. In this book, My Bright Abyss, Wyman writes:  faith is defined by relationships and “to be in relationship often means forgoing the self and its crucible of “truth,” learning to live with  — and love – the very things that compromise our notions of what we need, what we think, what we are.  I feel a strong need – an imperative, really  — to believe in something in common; indeed, I feel that any belief I have that is not in some way shared is probably just the working of my own ego, a common form of idolatry.”

The portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we read also held one more passage I found particularly challenging –Jesus calls us to be perfect.   I’ve thought of this for the several weeks I’ve mulled over this sermon, coloring many things I’ve read and seen.

Part of the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics includes an entire section entitled Arena, capturing images of athleticism and the competitions. Reading this section, or watching the events, tends to prioritize a trip to the Olympics on my very long bucket list of things to do.

The Journal articles will deconstruct team and individual competitions to reveal just how winning or losing occurs, equipment and training, and often, taking more and more risks, allow athletes to push even further, showing how strong or agile or fast or graceful they can be.

The Olympics are where we find the best from around the world so it is the prime venue to press the superlative further. The lead story on Friday asked the question:  which of the winter sports demanded or created the best overall athlete?  I venture to say, excellence was not enough. Who could be the perfect athlete, what does it take to attain perfect conditioning and how fragile is it to maintain?

Remember, I love the Olympics and am in awe of the dedication and talent of these athletes, but for many of us, to continue this quest is yet one more indication of the insatiable need (or greed) we have for narrowing the definition of what is perfect by highlighting flaws and then stratifying populations in which so many fall short.

If you read this article, you may not have reacted this way or even now as I describe it.  Perhaps I am sensitive to this type of critique since I have been pondering the meaning of perfection for weeks and am sensitized to the pervasive ways we try to define and achieve perfect and the damaging impact it can have on individuals and communities.

Not just people, we saw it in the Westminster Dog Show held last week or the dog show underway in Chicago as another venue in which we seek to measure perfection, define the best in breed and best in show, in human standard, which are all subject to debate – but serve to exclude, belittle and reject those who fall short.

Honestly, we probably all wish I would not pursue this line of thinking since we are aware of what it feels like to live in a culture that celebrates finding or building the perfect house, garden, or job.  The perfect test scores. The perfectly grilled steak. Or, you can fill in the blank…the perfect…

It is uncomfortable to talk about being judged for perfection, since we can quickly slide into lamenting how much effort we expend in its pursuit, how often we fall short or, how fleeting the sense of accomplishment may be the times we do ring the bell.

We live messy lives.  We all know that. Even when others seem to have it all together.   We come to church, with the humility to approach God as a human and acknowledge we can never be perfect.

Then, how are we to hear a command from Jesus to be perfect as God is perfect?

That verse within Matthew always makes me pause, sometimes I skip over it entirely, as a way of avoiding the need to hold up a mirror and recognize how I fall short in being perfect.  It is as off-putting as the command in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy.

Did Jesus call us to this ideal, an impossible ideal, to shame us?

Theologian and preacher, Fred Craddock observes, the Greek word translated as “‘perfect’ can also be translated ‘complete’ or ‘mature.’ It is not here referring to moral flawlessness but to love that is not partial or immature” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

The newest, scholarly, translation of scripture, The Common English Bible, translates Matthew 5:48, the verse I find so troublesome, as “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

To be perfect is to love in the way God loves, to practice the way of compassion and give of yourself as God has demonstrated in Jesus.  This perfection is geared toward the way you encounter and remain connected with others and has nothing to do with the concepts of perfection of the individual as celebrated in the media or our culture.

The perfect life might just be seen as the life of love for God and for others (which of course, are the two gospel commandments) that removes any of the self-assessing and scorekeeping, instead propels us into relationships.  Ronald J. Allen writes “the root meaning of the word ‘perfect’ is undivided, whole, complete,”, and “it means perfection in the sense of treating people in the same way that God treats people in the divine realm” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Stephen Ministry is a gift to support us in creating a complete life.  When we allow ourselves to name what is broken or difficult, seek care and be in relationship with another person, we open ourselves to becoming whole.  A Stephen Minister is one who has probably faced challenges and has his or her own scars but is willing to walk with another as he or she heals from grief, profound disappointments, or risks stepping into a new path in life.  The ministry relationship is about giving and receiving, for both parties.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the very heart of God.  It begins with the Beatitudes, blessing those who appear without earthly rewards, then calling us to give more than just the bare minimum but rather the most we can offer.  Just after Jesus calls us to strive for the perfect – complete – life, he then instructs how to pray with God with “Our Father, who art in heaven….thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus knows the behavior he calls us to embrace is uncomfortable and beyond human requirements and so encourages us to pray, each day, for God’s help to not shy away from the broken, to change the way we respond to the abusive, and reframe  how we seek to live a complete life.  When we do so, we are becoming complete with God, bringing God’s will, God’s love to earth, creating a heaven on earth.  Amen.