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.

Sermon–February 23, 2014–Epiphany 7A

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

Leviticus 19:1-8
Psalm 119:33-46
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Last summer, I worked for six weeks as a counselor for Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Summer Seminary Sampler, a program that invites high school youth from across the country to live on campus, engage in daily service projects, learn from seminary professors, and engage in self-reflection.

Since they were living together for the weeks they were on campus, each group had to come up with a covenant, or a list of rules, that helped guide their communal living. The rules they came up with included showing each other respect during discussions, lifting each other up, rather than tearing each other down, and my favorites, “Thou shalt flush” and “Use thine own toothbrush”.

Both groups of kids were great kids, but they did not always live up to their covenantal expectations. At times, they would get upset with each other and speak hurtfully to one another, tear each other down, or not show each other the respect expected of them. I don’t recall flushing or toothbrush use ever being an issue, but there were other times when the community stood on shaky legs. They were only together for three weeks each, and they left the program with a stronger sense of identity and community, but it was not without its challenges.

It turns out that living in a community is not always easy.

We human beings are amazing creatures. No other creature on the planet lives in communities quite like we do. Our social webs and interactions are highly complex and integrated. We gather in groups as small as families and as large as cities of millions. We freely associate with others in different ways, in person and through electronic communication, and build enormous networks that connect people all over the world.

We have established every kind of community under the sun. We have built strong, lasting communities.

And yet, at the same time, our communities are also broken. The unrest that has plagued Ukraine, for example, or the “Arab Spring” of recent years, or the many wars I mentioned a few weeks ago are all evidence that our communities don’t always last and can come to bad ends.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he was writing to a church that was beginning to fracture. I hate to break it to you, but there was never a golden age of the church when everybody got along all the time. Church conflict is as old as the church itself.

One of the many issues in the church in Corinth (and there were many) was the formation of factions. The Corinthians had begun to align themselves based on who their favorite teacher was: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others. Each honestly thought that their way, their teaching was best.

They were a community trying to do the right thing, and they placed their trust in their leaders to guide them. They were faithful, and they cared about their community. They wouldn’t have invested so much in their leaders if they did not honestly believe in them. Their devotion is admirable. Unfortunately, that devotion was also tearing them down.

The Corinthian community had forgotten upon whom they were built. Instead of being united together, they were separating themselves into camps rallying around individual people. They had forgotten that their foundation was Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and that they, the church, could and should stand on that alone. Paul describes them as a temple built on that foundation, but built by many different people. The resulting temple was now breaking apart because of the conflicts between the builders.

Is this not our story, too?

Tell me if this sounds familiar. When I was a kid, my church called a new pastor. She served the congregation for a good number of years. But near the end of her tenure, there was a growing unrest in the congregation. Some were not happy with her leadership, while others strongly defended her.

It got to the point where someone sent anonymous letters to each member of the congregation accusing the pastor of being—and I kid you not—a terrorist. This was a senior citizen from Denmark we’re talking about. But that’s how polarized some people had become.

Eventually, the congregation decided that her time as their pastor had run its course. The decision was met with praise from some and anger from others. While it didn’t split the congregation, it caused enough turmoil that some left the community, and the wound was fresh enough that when they called their next pastor, two years later, they asked her to leave as well.

Does that sound familiar?

It is a story that repeats itself over and over. Last week, I attended a leadership formation and theological conference at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp. I had the honor and pleasure of hearing our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, speak about these first few months of her term, speak about her greatest joys and her greatest challenges.

One of her greatest challenges has been dealing with the fallout from the 2009 social statement on Human Sexuality. It was and continues to be a source of conflict that is deeply, deeply emotional on all sides. What Paul feared for the Corinthians happened to us—we split. There is a gaping wound across the ELCA. We are wounded congregations in wounded synods that make up a wounded church. At times, it seems like there is not much hope to go around.

Bishop Eaton asked a poignant question: can the center hold? Furthermore, what is our center? When everything else starts to fall apart, will the church lose itself?

Paul reminds us that as long as the foundation stands, the church goes on. As long as it is built on Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, the church will not collapse. As long as Christ lives, so too does the community of faith.

Paul knows what’s going on in the Corinthian community. It’s not the first time a church has fallen into conflict and threatened to pull itself apart. But he also knows, without hesitation and without doubt, that they are the church. They are a dysfunctional and messed up church, but that doesn’t change who they are and who they are called to be. At the very beginning of the letter he greets the church as “holy ones”. Holy ones. They don’ t sound too holy in some parts of this letter. Yet, even in their broken state, they are still set apart by God.

You see, Paul, Apollos, Cephas—they are not the foundations of the church. The fate of the church and the faith don’t rest on their shoulders—it is not their burden to bear, but Christ’s.

The shared life of the community is still holy and sacred, even though they don’t have it all together, because it doesn’t depend on them. If the church in Corinth didn’t have Christ as their foundation, but actually had Paul or Apollos or Cephas or anyone else as their root, then they would be a lost cause. A church whose identity is wrapped up in a particular leader, or pastor, or even an issue, can only fail. But a church whose identity is the crucified and risen Lord is built on a foundation that can never break, can never fall.

Where does that leave us, then? This is Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. This is a congregation that knows division, that knows pain, that knows loss. I see it in your eyes when I visit you and hear it in your voices when I talk with you. This is a congregation that looks into the future and isn’t yet certain what it sees, and that’s frightening. This is a congregation ready to embark on God’s mission, but doesn’t yet know how to take those first steps.

If this congregation stood alone, by itself, I would not give it much chance if any.

But this community of faith, first of all, is not alone. It is a congregation of the Northern Great Lakes Synod, united in mission with all the churches of the North Woods and Upper Peninsula. It is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, connected to every church across the country. It is descended from the centuries-old Lutheran tradition, itself descended from the millenia-old Roman Catholic tradition and its ancestors, the original Eastern churches founded by Paul.

Most importantly, its foundation, its identity, is Jesus Christ. In the end, those associations, those traditions, could all fall apart. The ELCA could split again or collapse, the Lutheran tradition could disappear, but Christ remains, and upon Christ this community is built. That is its center, and to answer Bishop Eaton’s question, yes: center can and will hold.

I do not know what the future holds for Faith Lutheran. What I do know is that, even in your woundedness, your brokenness, your uncertainty, you are holy ones, called out and set aside for the work of Jesus Christ. That is your identity. That is why you come to this table, to be fed with living bread, straight from the source. That is who you are, sent out into the world, bearing the promise of the good news on your lips and in your hands.

You will be the ones through whom the reign of God is brought near, not me. I belong to you, not the other way around. And you belong to Christ, and to God. Christ as the foundation and center of your work and your identity will hold. Of that, you can be certain.