Be Perfect

But there’s a question that hasn’t really been asked yet, and I think it’s important to ask it if we hope to be able to take Jesus at his word and live by it. And that’s this: what does it mean to be perfect?

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Leviticus 19:1-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, The only way to pay someone back for a crime against you is to attack them so much, hit them so hard, that they can never be a threat to you again.

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, kick them in the gut and knock the wind out of them; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, you counter-sue them so hard that you walk away with their coat, their car, their house, and their savings; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, break their legs, so they can never walk again.

Don’t give anything to someone begging on the street—you’re only enabling them, they’re just going to buy drugs or booze, and there’s already plenty of help available to them in the next town over. And if someone wants to borrow from you, tell them, “Tough, I’m not a bank.”

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, That’s not enough. Don’t just hate your enemy. Vilify them. Demonize them. Drop bombs on their schools and hospitals and then claim moral superiority, because you’re not the murderers, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, but loves you more; and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, but who cares, because other people don’t matter.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Their approval, of course, which is all that’s important. Your tribe is better than those Muslims or blacks or gays. And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? You’re affirming your identity and superiority, shutting yourself off from the rest of the world, as you should.

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

It would be a lot easier to be perfect if Jesus just asked us mainline Protestant American Christians to do what we’re already doing. Perfection is easy when we don’t have to change our world view, our mindset, our assumptions, or challenge ourselves in any way. Perfection is easy when society and culture can consider us “nice” little additions to the predominant civil religion.

I assure you, Jesus’s words are no more or less challenging than they were when he said them. I have said over and over that in the 10,000-years of recorded human history, we haven’t really changed at all.

Jesus’s disciples would have followed the same sort of “eye for an eye” system of retributive justice that is the basis of our criminal law, too. They would have strongly resisted an evildoer, especially the Roman military occupation force that ruled over their homeland. They would have loved their neighbors and hated their enemies—again, those pesky Romans—and done so gladly. One of Jesus’s disciples, after all, was Simon the Zealot, a terrorist who fought against the Romans. Peter had to be chastised for cutting off someone’s ear when the police came to arrest Jesus.

So for Jesus to tell his disciples to not resist an evildoer, to turn the other cheek, to give up their coat off their back, to walk the extra mile, to give to anyone who begged from their, and to love their enemies; well, you can imagine the confusion that would cause.

This morning’s Gospel reading is not an isolated teaching of Jesus, but a part of his Sermon on the Mount. This is the same sermon that says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

You are the salt of the earth.
You are the light of the world.
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder’; but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.

And then we get to today’s reading, and the sermon continues on after this. But today, we end with this command: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

That is no small command, “be perfect”. And we generally look to two different ways of interpreting this command from Jesus.

The first is to just come out and say that Jesus didn’t actually mean what he said. Jesus didn’t really mean that we had to be perfect. You can’t take the words that Jesus says seriously,  you have to understand what he means in his heart. I strongly hesitate to take this position because it makes us question everything else Jesus has said and makes us doubt our perceptions, which is the very definition of gaslighting–and I very highly doubt Jesus is gaslighting us.

A second typical way of looking at this command of Jesus is to say that, yes, Jesus was serious when he said “Be perfect”. But Jesus also knew that we can never be perfect, so the purpose of telling us to be perfect is to show us how far short we fall and compel us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and ask for forgiveness. Which is not a bad thing—we should be asking God for forgiveness far more often than once a week on Sunday morning.

But the main reason both of these interpretations fall short is that they allow us to hear the words of Jesus, work around them, and change nothing. We’re pretty darn good at twisting Jesus’s words and commands to mean we don’t have to do anything. We may not distort them as severely as I did at the beginning of this sermon (and I hope you realized early on that I was distorting Jesus’s words), but the effect is the same: we conform Jesus to our ideas of who we already are, make him validate our own beliefs, and then go home quite content that we’ve already achieved perfection.

But there’s a question that hasn’t really been asked yet, and I think it’s important to ask it if we hope to be able to take Jesus at his word and live by it. And that’s this: what does it mean to be perfect?

You already heard this morning that perfect is not always we assume it means. Samantha’s gift* to me wasn’t perfect because it was the best constructed, or the best color palette, or the best handwriting. It was perfect because it was for me, from her, to show me how much she appreciated my time in her congregation. Perfect doesn’t always mean flawless.

Indeed, the language of our reading this morning supports this. The Greek word used, telos can mean perfect, like moral perfection, but actually better means, “reaching the intended target” or “being what one is supposed to be”. So an arrow fired from a bow that hits the bullseye is telos, perfect. An apple tree that produces fruit in its season is telos, perfect. A gift given from the heart in love to someone is telos, perfect.

So what if we took Jesus seriously in this way? What if instead of saying “Be morally flawless, therefore, as your Father in heaven is morally flawless,” Jesus is saying, “Be who you were intended to be, therefore, as your Father in heaven is intended to be.” Or, “Produce the good fruit that it’s your entire being to produce, therefore, as your Father in heaven produces the good fruit that it’s God’s entire being produce?”

And how does God show us what God’s telos looks like? In the person of Jesus Christ. For when the world thought that God’s perfection was in God’s “fairness” (there’s no such thing as God’s fairness, by the way), or in God’s perfect accounting of sins and passing out of judgment, God showed what it meant to be perfect through acts of love. On the cross, God demonstrated what it meant to be telos through self-sacrifice, dying for those God loves (including God’s enemies, the ones who betrayed Jesus, put him on trial, and killed him). In this way, God proved what it meant to be perfect.

Now that’s a different way of looking at it. Yes, we are still told who is blessed, and it’s still not the people we would expect. Yes, we are still commanded not to commit murder, and even hating someone or being angry with them is murder. Yes, we are still commanded not to commit adultery, and that even looking at another person with lust is committing adultery. Yes, we are still commanded not to resist and evildoer, to turn the other cheek, to give up our coat, to walk the extra mile, to give to everyone who begs, to love our enemies. But no longer is this an extra burden placed on us. Instead, it’s an invitation, a plea, to be who God knows we are: beloved children of God, those who produce good fruit because that’s who we are.

It doesn’t mean it’s easy. The call this morning especially to love our enemies is particularly difficult. When everyone from “the media”, to immigrants, to refugees, to non-whites, to Muslims, to non-heterosexual and transgender people, to political opponents, to our own neighbors are called our enemies, it makes us increasingly scared. And that doesn’t include people everyone would agree are our enemies, such as terrorists, foreign spies, traitors. I imagine that finding ways to love the very people who want to kill us is one of the most difficult paths a Christian can walk.

But walk it we should, and walk it we must, not because we are commanded, but because it’s who we are. It’s our telos. It’s who God is, and we as God’s children have it in our blood, in our being, to be the same.

Featured Image: “Smack in the Middle” by Eran Sandler is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What’s in a Name?

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things.

Baptism of Our Lord A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Before I was born, my parents, as most parents do, needed to figure out what my name was to be. If I was a girl, they were going to name me Dana, I think. If I was a boy? Well, they had different ideas.

My father proposed that name would be—and I kid you not—Virgil Wyatt Ranos. Anyone have a guess about where those names came from?

That’s right, these guys.

According to popular legend, when he suggested this to my mother, she laughed in his face.

Instead, I was named Kenneth George. It follows naming conventions that are still popular in our culture. Kenneth is a name I share with my mother’s twin brother, Kenneth Pearson (it also happens to mean “handsome”, so I consider myself to have been very appropriately named). And George is the name of my father and my great-grandfather.

My sister was born without a name while my father thought of the perfect name (since my mother got to name me). And though she is named Sheri, after no one in particular, she bears my mother’s name, Lynn, as her middle name.

Picking a name is hard. We experienced this difficulty in a heart-wrenching way when we decided to choose a name for the baby we lost in August. Because we didn’t know our baby’s biological sex or gender, we decided on a gender-neutral name, Taylor, so that whoever our baby was going to be—male, female, man, woman, transgender, cisgender, intersex, their name would fit.

In some cultures, it’s important that names fit their bearers. In many Native American cultures, a person’s name changes over the years; they adopt new names as they grow, becoming new people, either replacing their old names or adding the new ones. Some cultures are keenly aware of the meanings of the names they give to their children; parents who name their daughter “Joy” after waiting so long to meet her, for example. Old Hawaiians deliberated carefully about a new child’s name, because the meaning of the name had power.

Even Jesus’s name was important, powerful. His name, coming down to us through multiple translations and transliterations, “Yeshua”, is the same name from which we get Joshua, and means “he saves”, or “God delivers”. When Mary was visited by the archangel Gabriel, she was told specifically to name her child “Yeshua” because “he will save his people from their sins.” Even before he was born, Jesus was named to describe who he is, and to remind people of why God came to earth in the first place.

When he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is given a new “name”, a new title: “Beloved.” He is called “Messiah” or “Christ”, the same word just in different languages, which means “anointed”, chosen by God for a specific mission. All his life, Jesus lived into his name and titles, even to going to a cross to die, God’s love given form and then sacrificed in the court of public opinion.

We live in an age when, more than ever, we bear a multitude of names and titles. You’ve already heard about how I received my three names. But I could also describe myself with any number of labels and titles. I am an ordained minister, a minister of Word and Sacrament, a pastor, a white, cisgender man, a Chicago-native, Wisconsonite, GNU/Linux user, dog-lover, Blackhawks fan, Trekkie, Browncoat, Potterhead, activist, loyalist, INFJ, husband, son, brother, cousin, uncle, nephew, grandson, and others I can’t even remember.

All of these, in some way, describe who I am. They identify parts of my personality and my life and together, paint a broad picture of my identify.

But there’s one name/title that stands above all others, and that is: baptized.

There was a recent discussion among clergy my age asking the question: how would you respond to the question, “Why is baptism necessary?” The church has spent hundreds of years explaining, in great detail, using a variety of theological sources, why baptism is so important. Martin Luther devoted sections of his Small and Large Catechism to the subject. He asks, “What gifts or benefits does baptism bring?” and answers: “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes Matthew, Mark, and John to make his case, explaining that the power of baptism has nothing to do with the water itself and everything to do with the faith and trust in God that brings even us to the font.

But there’s something missing in all of this talk about baptism, and it’s the climax of our Gospel story this morning. Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened up, and the spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove landing on a branch. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we were baptized, we were often given a white garment, a mark of our new identity. A candle is given, a light to signify the new light of Christ in our lives that shines out for others. And we were anointed with oil, in the shape of the cross on our foreheads, and told, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Many of us still, to this day, mark ourselves with some sign of the cross or other to remind us of this occasion.

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things. Baptism is when we are given a new name, a new title, a new identity: child of God, Beloved.

Names are important. They tell people who we are. They mark our identities. We carry them with us our entire lives. Some names even change; but not our name as Beloved. Not our identities as children of God.

You are baptized children of God. You are Beloved. Nothing, no one, can take that away from you. Ever.

Featured Image: “Bautizo” by Hector Melo A. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Christmas in Aleppo

Contrary to what everyone else expects and says should happen, something about this message, this story, this promise of God made manifest in the Christmas story and in the story of Jesus Christ speaks to people who live in places like Aleppo, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Berlin, Yemen.

Nativity of Our Lord I
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

On July 19, 2012, the Battle of Aleppo began. A part of the Syrian Civil War that has raged since 2011, it was a four year long battle between government and rebel forces.

While punctuated by long periods of stalemate, the four year battle is one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the fighting and the battle as one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria estimates that over the course of the four year seige, 31,114 people died, accounting for almost a tenth of the total deaths in the Syrian Civil War. Of those 31,114 people, 23,604 of them were civilians—76%–caught in the crossfire, the indiscriminate bombings and shellings, and chemical warfare.

Aleppo has been in the news more often as of late, though not nearly enough. Though the battle has been fought for four years, even a few months ago, presidential candidates could barely talk about what was going on with any sense of certainty or knowledge. The fighting intensified over the last few months, and just a few weeks ago, the government forces began their final deadly push to retake the city, or what remained of it. That final offense was enough to make the news and remind the international community that Aleppo still existed.

One voice out of Aleppo that gained a following was the voice of 7-year old Bana Alabed. Bana’s mother, Fatemah, opened a Twitter account for her and her daughter. Fatemah posts the tweets, but many are videos of Bana herself talking about what’s happening around her. Some of her tweets include:

“Please save us now.”

“My dad is injured now. I am crying.”

“I escaped from east Aleppo.”

Fatemah’s tweets include more information, such as:

“Share this message to whole world. Aleppo ceasefire broke, civilians are in danger. I beg world u do something now to get us out.”

“Under attack. Nowhere to go, every minute feels like death.”

“Our new house is hit with a rocket. This is the worst bombing I have ever seen. We are already convinced we will die.”

“Constantly checking if all those who wanted to leave left East Aleppo. Heard last convoy is about to leave, let’s welcome them.”

Bana and her family did escape the city, and have tried to make sure that the message of refugees fleeing for their lives gets heard.

There are many more voices coming out of Aleppo, voices like Bana’s, giving expression to the pain and terror the people of Aleppo have lived under for four years; but there are other voices, too.

A Jesuit priest, Father Ziad Hilal, representing Aid to the Church in Need in Syria, spoke of the upcoming celebration of Christmas in the city.

Of the 120,000 Christians who lived in the city before the war, only about 30,000 now remain. The rest were either killed or fled with the Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters to escape the war—bombs and air strikes don’t care what religion one is, they hit everybody. Many of the churches in the city have long since been destroyed.

But, Father Hilal says, “Christmas brings the hope for peace that we have missed for the last five years… Christians are preparing themselves for Christmas in their churches and associations, along with our compatriots in Syria, so that the sound of violence [is overcome by] the deep sound of faith that each believer enjoys—God is with us. EMANUELE.”

It may seem strange that Christians in Aleppo will be celebrating Christmas. I can’t imagine trying to celebrate anything, even the coming of Christ into the world, when my home has been bombed to rubble, a city crumbling to dust around me, bombs falling day and night, friends and neighbors dying every day. Here in America, Christmas on the whole will be celebrated as a happy, joyous time, full of laughter, big meals, get-togethers, presents, the works. How can such a celebration be translated into the context of Aleppo, where for four years, there’s been nothing but pain and death?

It’s a funny thing, this Christmas, though. It’s a funny thing, this faith we have, actually. Contrary to what everyone else expects and says should happen, something about this message, this story, this promise of God made manifest in the Christmas story and in the story of Jesus Christ speaks to people who live in places like Aleppo, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Berlin, Yemen.

There’s something about the promises of God that spoke to Isaiah’s audience, the exiles of the kingdom of Judah now living in Babylon, displaced refugees wondering if they’d ever be able to return to their war-torn homes and rebuild. There’s something about it that has spoken to 2000 years of Christians, our ancestors in the faith, and has kept them going.

Indeed, whatever this thing is, it must be remarkable, for it’s survived violent persecution by the Romans in the early centuries of the church, the massacre of Christians by the Persian empire, by the people of Yemen, the 7th century Islamic conquests, the French Revolution, banning by the Chinese and India, the Nazis, the Soviet Union.

It’s spoken some sort of truth to those living in fear of retaliation for their heritage, nationality, race and ethnicity. It’s provided hope for those cast out of their homes and forced to live on the streets because of their gender or sexuality. It’s filled the lungs of those living well below the poverty line with songs of praise. It’s prompted people huddled in their houses as bombs rained down around them to proclaim, “I know that my redeemer lives.” And yes, it’s given enough hope to the people of Aleppo that they can dare defy the horrific circumstances of their lives to celebrate Christmas.

And all I can think is this: the story of Christmas, the story of God’s interaction with the world God created, the message of hope that speaks to people living in circumstances most of us can only imagine, is this:

God has not abandoned you. And even more! Even when everything else is taken away—home, possessions, family, friends, health, even life itself—even when it’s all gone, reduced to rubble, God has not abandoned you.

On the contrary, not only has God not abandoned you, but quite the opposite: God is fully and authentically present with you. Nowhere was this more true than in the birth and life of Jesus Christ. For in the celebration of the Incarnation, God-with-us, we recognize and proclaim that God was physically with us in Jesus Christ. We could touch him. We could hear his voice with our ears. We could see his body with our own eyes. His coming into the world wasn’t just a message to the people of his own time and place. It was a message to all of us who, throughout our lives, are faced with a world that at times feels like it’s throwing us aside and abandoning us, a message that says, “But I, the LORD your God, have not abandoned you.”

It was a message I needed to hear on Tuesday, as I sat at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church’s Blue Christmas prayer service with others who have experienced loss and for whom Christmas might be painful; and a message I needed to hear later that night, when Debbie and I gathered with Pastor Andrea and Father Geoff to formally name the baby we had lost, and to remember Taylor Ranos.

It’s a message that speaks as much to us today as it did to two scared, unwed parents 2000 years ago looking for shelter for the night in Bethlehem, and to the community of Judeans in exile wondering if they would ever go home.

The true miracle of Christmas was really no miracle at all, as we’d usually  use the term, but rather, was the culmination of God’s message that we still matter, and always have. It could be no other way! It was the ultimate sign of God’s promise that this world, with all of its deep, deep flaws, has not been abandoned; that not only is God interested in what happens here, but God is actively engaged with it, especially with those who need God’s hope the most, those who have a tough time imagining that God could ever notice their pain.

And you know what? That’s okay. It is in these moments, on this night most of all, that we remember that God is with us in solidarity with and on behalf of those who can’t feel God’s presence with them. We loudly proclaim that God doesn’t abandon any of us. That hard times are not signs of God’s disfavor or displeasure—rather, they are the perfect times for God to be present more than ever.

The child in the manger, which we celebrate tonight, grows up. Lives through oppression. Is subjected to a broken justice system, torture, and execution.

And in doing so, breaks the hold of darkness through the resurrection. Christmas inevitably leads to the cross, and to the empty tomb. It is a dark night, but a night from which springs hope—even in places like Aleppo.

Tonight, we will light candles, tiny lights in the darkness, as symbols of that eternal Christian hope. In the quiet, silent night, we affirm our faith in God, who does not abandon, who does not lose, us. Tonight is the night before Christ’s birth. Even as we mourn, even as we worry; let us, through God, be glad in it.

Featured Image: “Christmas Eve, Greek Orthodox Church, Al Jdeideh, Aleppo, Syria” by manastir2014 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.