The Sermon - Week Four: "Perfect"
I have to confess that I haven't really watched the Winter Olympics. I watch SportsCenter, which tells me everything I need to know about the Olympics without having to watch Bob Costas--or whoever is replacing Bob Costas since he got pink eye (probably from his hotel room--I hear the Russians really spared every expense this go round). I do check to see if the U.S.A. is winning in the medal count, though. THAT matters to me. I like to win. I may not like to watch ice dancing, but I am glad that we won that event. USA-USA-USA!
Speaking of ice dancing... ice skaters are pretty graceful, wouldn't you say? On the rare occasions when I have watched skating, I have always thought the skaters to be graceful people. I also get that it's extremely hard to do the things they do, balanced as they are on ice--held up by two little metal blades. I saw the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory, too. So I guess I'm kind of an expert on the gracefulness of ice skaters.
Which brings me to this series of photos, taken of ice skaters while they are skating. Be warned. This is pretty hideous:
It gets better, trust me.
You do trust me, right?
The young woman looks like she was just offered a steaming pile of cow poop as an appetizer. Or she was asked on a date by Charlie Sheen. Either response would be appropriate, to be honest.
This next one is my favorite...
I think this photo was taken during a moment when the routine called for a "triple axel-with a Three Stooges finish." "Hey Moe! I nailed the landing! Nyuk, Nyuk."
Seriously, if you watched their routines in full, each of these people would look beautiful, smooth, polished and lovely. They have spent hours, days, weeks, months--years of their lives to become perfect.
And these are the faces of perfection.
Because no matter how hard we try as human beings---there's always a flaw in us somewhere. Sometimes those flaws can be downright ugly.
We know this all too well. All of our efforts at the perfect life seem to fall short--mostly because we pursue perfection in the most superficial ways.
Don't like your looks? Get plastic surgery to fix them.
Don't have enough stuff? Use your credit cards to by more possessions.
Is your job not fulfilling enough for you? Is your work too demeaning? It doesn't matter, you can hold out until the perfect career comes along.
Is your family not living up to your standards? Well then, get your kids more lessons of something... Divorce your spouse and marry someone else.
Don't have enough money? Do whatever it takes to get more.
Not very pretty is it? We know that the pursuit of perfection in our culture is ugly. We don't even need high resolution, high speed cameras to capture the ugly moment....
So what keeps us coming back to this ugly stuff? This illusory lifestyle?
In a word: Fear.
We are afraid of failure... afraid of being alone... afraid of not measuring up... afraid of ridicule... afraid of the shame that comes from not being...
Today we are going to be studying a passage of Scripture from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount--a passage where he commanded his disciples to "be perfect." At this point you might be thinking, "Nice. Jesus wants me to be perfect. What chance do I have? Especially when you just got through telling me that all of my efforts toward perfection in this world are basically just ugly."
There's this unbelievable verse in the New Testament--in 1 John 4:18--that offers an antidote for the fear that drives our pursuit of perfection in all of the wrong ways:
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love."
Here's the thing. When you follow Jesus you end up living what we've referred to in this study as "an upside down life." Following Jesus means that you zig when you should zag sometimes. Up is down, black is white, and--as I have mentioned a few times--it's not about religion, it's about a relationship with God. So what I would love for you to remember today more than anything else is this:
An upside down, Jesus-centered life results in perfect love that isn't afraid.
Let's read Matthew 5:38-48:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Just for a moment you need to put yourself in the shoes of an ancient Jewish person who would have been hearing this for the first time. You would know the commandments, the Torah, by heart. You would also know that when the Torah was given by Moses it was the only covenant of its kind in the known world.
Every other culture in the ancient world would believe that an "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" was soft. If someone disrespected you, harmed you, hurt you, shamed you... You would go nuclear on them in revenge. You'd kill the perpetrator, his family, his goat, his Uncle Al... But God was teaching his people a lesson in how to be a light to the nations. Leviticus was a liberal set of laws in the ancient world.
If you just went to read Leviticus and found the rule where a man can't sit on a chair in his house if his wife who is menstruating sat on it first... you might beg to differ. But it's true.
So what Jesus is proposing here is downright... radical.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus is teaching his followers to take a risk.
Turn the other cheek if someone hits you. Risk the shame of being struck on the left cheek with the back of a hand, or a left hand, which would be an even worse insult.
But in so doing--you are equalizing the moment, and dictating that the person who hit you go even farther...
If someone sues you and takes your shirt, then give them the rest of your clothes. Risk the shame of being naked, which would be far worse than losing just your shirt.
Because when you do, you will demonstrate through your shame the greed of the other person to everyone who sees you.
The next one has to do with what Roman soldiers often did to humiliate conquered people. We know that Jesus is referring to Roman soldiers because he uses the Roman measurement for distance, "milon."
If a Roman soldier conscripts you into service and demands that you carry his pack a mile, go even further. Risk the shame of being called a collaborator.
Because it will confuse your enemy and disarm him.
If someone asks for something that you have, give it to them. Risk being in need.
But know that you are no longer a slave to "things."
Every single one of these things that Jesus is asking his followers to do runs contrary to their desires as an oppressed people. They long to be free from the power and might of Rome but they think the only way to freedom is to be more... more powerful, rich, mighty, connected... more religious...
And then Jesus hits them with the last commandments: "Love your enemies." and (he infers) in so doing you will "be perfect." Which opens up Jesus' hearers to the very distinct possibility that while they are pretty sure that God loves them, He might also actually love (gasp) the Romans, too...
Risk shame. Risk loss. Love your enemies. Be perfect.
Surely Jesus didn't really mean all of this... Or did he? What if he did? What would this mean for you and me?
It would mean that Love governs every response that we might make when life isn't perfect...
It would mean a deeper defiance against the endless cycles of enemy-making that are so inherent in our society...
It would mean that what we are doing, the way we live, move, act and speak reflects the way of life in God's realm--a realm that is already breaking through into this broken world.
But in order to live this way--to let the true Love of God govern our every response--we need to let go of the fear that has kept us in the pursuit of ugliness, masquerading as perfection.
Only when we let go of our fear can we truly learn to love as God loves. And this love is without reservation, with no strings attached, with the best interest of others--even our enemies at heart. Because when we know Jesus and his perfect love--the love of the Father--we can now show Jesus to the world.
Some time ago NPR ran the story of Julio Diaz a young social worker from the Bronx. Julio was walking from the train station one evening after work when he a young man walked up to him, showed him a knife and demanded his wallet. Julio handed over the wallet and as the robber turned to leave he asked him if he needed a jacket because the night was cold. Julio took off his jacket and handed it to the dumbfounded robber. "Why are you doing this?" the robber asked. Julio replied that he had been taught to always be kind to others, and he figured if a guy needed money then he also probably needed a warm coat. "I was going to go get something to eat," Julio said to the other young man. "Would you join me?" Strangely the robber said yes, and the two went to a diner nearby that Julio frequented. Everyone at the diner knew Julio and spoke to him--even the guy washing dishes in the back. The robber was astounded, and asked him how he was so popular. "I just believe that if you are kind to people and treat them as you would want to be treated, then the same will be returned to you." After they had eaten, Julio told the other young man, "If you want me to buy you dinner, then you need to give me my wallet back." The robber handed it over. Julio paid for dinner and handed his companion a $20 bill. As the young man started to leave Julio asked him to do one last thing. "Would you give me your knife?" he asked. The young man handed it over.
NPR didn't reveal a whole lot about where Julio learned these important lessons in life. But if I had to bet---I would say he learned them from this very passage of Scripture, maybe even in a Sunday school class at church.
He risked shame. He risked loss. He even risked his own life to be kind to someone who presented himself as an enemy. And because he did... he acted perfectly.
This is Jesus' vision of what it means for you and I to "be perfect." When the perfect love of God casts out all fear and we are free to be the people God has dreamed for us to be.
Because an upside down, Jesus-centered life results in perfect love that isn't afraid.