Seventh Sunday after Epiphany 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 20, 2011 (7 Epiphany, Year A)

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Well, that’s rich coming from the Son of God; the one who lived among us yet without sin. Of course he’s perfect. But you and me? Not so much. And thus what already begins as a difficult passage morphs into what sounds like an unreasonable demand: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Just as we’re wrestling with the whole notion of turning the other cheek in the face of ill-treatment and then loving our enemies, or at the very least those who annoy us – and don’t tell me no one comes to mind here; just as we’re trying to wrap our heads around these difficult commands – we’re suddenly asked to be perfect. We’re asked to be perfect in light of our many failures at loving our enemies or those who are different from us or those who have hurt us. 

And perhaps this especially grates because we live in a society that so demands and encourages perfection. Think about the messages that hit us day after day after day: use this diet and you’ll have the perfect body; use this product and you’ll have perfect skin; read this book and you’ll become the perfect parent. Perfection is dangled out in front of us as both a worthy and attainable goal. If only we try harder or pay more or act like someone other than whom we are. 

Our public personas also feed into this. They become mere masks that seek to hide our imperfections. “How are you doing?” we’re asked. “Everything’s great!” we enthusiastically reply even when we’re feeling lonely or despondent or worried about our job security or in debt or grieving. We try our best to keep up with the Joneses because the Joneses always appear, at least on the surface, to be perfect.

But when perfection is the ideal, we’re all bound to fall short. And we’re left with disappointment, depression, and guilt when we can’t live up to the ideal.

And then Jesus comes along and tells us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s not only a tall order; it also seems to contradict so much of what we’ve been taught over the years. “To err is human;” “God loves you just the way you are.” And, remember, this section is part of the Sermon on the Mount – which we’ve been working our way through for the past month. So Jesus says this to the folks to whom he has just proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit and the meek and those who mourn and those who are persecuted” – none of which sound like qualities that make up the height of perfection. At least not by the world’s standards. Which would sound more like “Blessed are the beautiful, and the strong, and the wealthy.”

This is where we need to examine what Jesus is really saying here. He’s not actually setting us up to fail. Greek scholars tell us that the word translated as “perfect” comes from the root meaning “end” or “goal” or “purpose.” So in this context the meaning of “perfection” is less about getting everything right and more about becoming the person God intends us to be; about living into our God-given purpose in this life. This in itself is no small order – it takes much listening and discernment and trial and error and prayer. But it is not about perfection in the moral sense. You can’t go down a checklist of moral commands and get your ticket punched as the model of perfection. Life is not so black and white and our spiritual lives certainly are not. There must be room for the Holy Spirit to breathe new life and new understandings into our midst. 

Which is why Jesus uses that rhythmic formula, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” As followers of Jesus we are held to a higher standard but it is a standard based upon love not judgment.

And so, in one sense, you already are perfect. You are a beloved child of God. Despite our insecurities, our lack of faith, our self-destructive behavior – in other words our humanity – we are perfect. Not because we have strived for perfection and attained the impossible but because we are made in God’s image. You are perfect simply because you were created by and are loved by God.

From this perspective we can be both human and perfect. Which on the surface sounds like the ultimate oxymoron. Because humanity is, by its very definition, imperfect. We make mistakes, we sin, we leave things undone we ought to have done and we do things we ought not to have done. We have, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, “grieved the Holy Spirit.” And yet we are drawn ever deeper into the perfect love epitomized by God’s sending his only Son into the world.

It is Jesus’ own humanity – and the trials he endured – that allows him to meet us in our own humanity. He knows how much easier it is for us to seek revenge rather than forgiveness, to hurt rather than heal, to tear down rather than build up, to hate rather than love. Yet even on the cross, Jesus models for us the perfect love into which we are drawn. By loving us unconditionally Jesus allows us to love others; by forgiving us unconditionally Jesus allows us to forgive others. In other words, love sows love. And it is this perfect love that is the perfection into which we are invited.

Thus there is a major difference between worldly perfection and divine perfection. One strives for the impossible; the other is full of abundant possibility. And with this in mind, Jesus bids us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007

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