Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2014 || Epiphany 7A || Matthew 5:38-48
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Sounds like naïve idealism at worst and hopeless hyperbole at best. Sounds like one more command of Jesus that we could never live up to. I mean, it’s hard enough turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile and loving our enemies, but now he wants us to be perfect on top of all of that? Doesn’t he understand that to be perfect there could never have been a time when one wasn’t already perfect? Doesn’t he understand that one cannot become perfect? Either you are or you’re not…and we’re…not.
I don’t mean to be sound discouraging right off the bat, but I bet that many of you were thinking something along those lines after I finished reading the Gospel. Like dutiful Episcopalians, you still said, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” in response to my, “The Gospel of the Lord.” But I’m sure some of you were thinking instead: “What in the world do you mean, Lord Christ?”
Let’s face it. Sometimes Jesus says things that we don’t understand. Sometimes he says things that make us uncomfortable. And sometimes he says exactly the thing we need to hear, the words our hearts have been longing for. Every so often, he scores a hat trick – he’ll say something we don’t understand that makes us feel uncomfortable, and yet those same words end up being precisely what we need to hear.
Such is the case, I think, with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s stick with these words for the rest of this sermon, despite our possible discomfort, and perhaps in the end we will hear them with new ears.
English translations of the Bible going back to the King James Version in the early 1600s have used the word “perfect” to render the original Greek. The trouble is the Greek word is better translated, not as “perfection,” but as “maturation” or “culmination” or “completeness” or “fulfillment.”
Try this translation on for size: “Be complete, find wholeness, therefore, as your heavenly Father is the source of all wholeness.” Sounds a little more doable, doesn’t it?
Or how about this one: “Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes.”
When we render Jesus words like this, we hear not a command, but a desire, a deep yearning of our Lord for us. Jesus isn’t commanding us to “be perfect” like you might command a dog to roll over. No. Jesus is offering us a vision of the life he invites us to take part in.
“Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes.”
This vision – this invitation, really – is Jesus’ dream of bringing humanity back into full communion with God. Somewhere along the path, humanity forgot its true purpose. Humanity forgot what God designed it to do and be. Humanity forgot, and we are the legacy of this forgetting. All that is wrong with civilization – from the global (environmental degradation, war, poverty, hunger) to the personal (domestic strife, substance abuse, body images issues) – all that is wrong with civilization can trace its roots back to people deliberately or unintentionally failing to fulfill the purpose God gave us.
This purpose is simple: love God and love each other. The other includes the person in the next booth at the restaurant, the person on the street with the cardboard sign, the person across the ocean in the refugee camp, not to mention the earth we walk on and everything else that calls this earth home. And the love I’m talking about here is not simply emotional fondness. Here love is multifaceted: love is the catalyst for service, love is the connection between the server and the served, and love is the affection generated in the act of serving, which perpetuates a virtuous cycle. When we look on the other as a subject to be loved, and not as an object to be possessed, we take a step toward the true purpose that God instilled in us along with God’s image and likeness.
When we participate in Jesus’ vision “to be perfect,” we rediscover this true purpose and we find fulfillment in the love we share and the actions such love spurs. And I promise you God delights in this fulfillment in the same way God delights in the dolphin that soars out of the water or the tree that grows straight and tall and bears radiant, delicious fruit. God delights in us always, but we reflect that delight when we live into the true purpose for which God created us.
Here’s what I mean. Have you ever had a moment when you realized you were exactly where you were supposed to be? You took a step outside your body and a thought struck you like a bolt of lightning that your whole life was preparing you for this one, singular moment.
Perhaps you were in the delivery room breathing along with your wife. Her hand squeezed yours so hard that you thought every bone in your fingers was crushed. Finally, at long last, the baby arrived and you gathered the tiny life into your arms and he opened his eyes. They were brown flecked with gold just like yours. And in that moment, you realized your whole life was hurtling forward to that day, to that room, to that new heart beating next to yours. The love you felt in that moment was the fulfillment of your true purpose. It was your perfection.
Perhaps you were deployed to Afghanistan, to one of the forward posts, just you and a dozen other troops in a small fort on a hill in the middle of nowhere. One day you were out on patrol and without warning the wind was full of enemy fire. The staff sergeant next to you took a bullet to the leg in the first wave. It sliced through his artery and the blood flowed too fast. You were pinned down behind a crumbling wall, but still you fashioned a tourniquet from your backpack strap. You flung him over your shoulder, and disregarding the rounds whizzing by, you hiked back to base. He lost the leg but kept his life. And during that hike, you realized your whole life was hurtling forward to that day, to that service, to that comrade-in-arms who needed your help. The service you gave in that moment was the fulfillment of your true purpose. It was your perfection.
Perhaps you can think of a moment like that in your own life. Perhaps you can remember a moment when you realized your whole life was hurtling to that day, to that place, to that person, to that love and service bursting to be fulfilled.
Now wouldn’t it be extraordinary if those moments were the norm and not the exception? When we recognize and step into Jesus’ vision for us, we discover more and more how God is charting the trajectory of our lives, how God is creating opportunities for us to fulfill our true purpose – to love God and love each other.
So be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes. Love God. Love each other. And start to notice how God is preparing you for each moment of your life – each moment in which we have the opportunity to love, to serve, to be true to the purpose for which we were designed.