Grow Up! Part II: Being Perfectly Holy
A Sermon on Leviticus 19 and Matthew 5
"Everything you do makes me angry!"
That's not a quote from today's international scene. Yes, there is rage and revolution in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and all across the Middle East. And there are budget battle lines, now being drawn all over America. Anger seems to be everywhere - and sometimes, it's out of control.
But that quote - "Everything you do makes me angry!" - is a quarter-century old. I was having lunch with a parishioner from the first church I served as priest. My angry lunch partner, whom I will call "Greg," was a faithful parish leader. He and his wife were part of everything the church did. They had even crafted silk Eucharistic vestments for me, as their ordination present.
But now, less than a year after I arrived, I was hearing Greg say that I couldn't do anything right. I was also feeling manipulated, like he was holding me responsible as the only one who could make him happy. Even though I was a curate, a baby priest and knew little about priesthood, even though I knew that I had left undone some things I ought to have done, and that I had done some things I ought not to have done - even though I knew some of my actions or my inactions had made Greg angry, I also knew his use of the word EVERYTHING was, well . . . simply grandiose. All his anger could not possibly be all about me.
Now, a little context for this story may help. The current and previous rectors of this grand, old parish had both become permanently and totally disabled, while they served there. It seemed everyone was upset, including me. Watching someone suddenly decline in the final stages of a terminal illness is one thing. Watching two rectors in a row go through that kind of suffering is another. The good people of that parish had to pastor to their pastor - again. And the good people of that parish, including Greg, were sick and tired of it all.
Last week I told stories from this pulpit about two former All Saints' rectors who had conflicted relationships with the parish and did not leave All Saints' well. You might say, "I came here today to find a safe haven for an hour or so, not to hear stories of anger or fighting in my church!" Yet the Bible is filled with stories of angry, conflicted relationships, in families and faith communities. It's also filled with stories of God's love, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation.
Like other centuries before this one, the 21st century is a time of wars, revolution and anger. Anger is all too often the spark that ignites all kinds of conflict. Surely God calls us Christians, especially clergy, to be responsible for managing the fire of our anger. As 21st century Christians we need to learn non-violent practices, ways to make our inner fire friendly, to turn that fire into something positive, into a fire of passion. Fighting is normal and human, but fighting fire with fire - "an eye for an eye" is the Biblical image - is not of God. Fighting fair is the only truly mature, authentically adult Christian approach. And as I suggested last week, we Christians still need to learn how to grow up.
Last week I also mentioned there's another version of that troubling, two-word, Gospel imperative, found in today's final verse. "Be perfect," Jesus commands, in our translation of Matthew's account. But in a newer rendering of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts Jesus' command this way: "Grow up!" Why would "maturity," growing up, be a definition of perfection?
The answer is found in a bit of New Testament Greek. The root of the word "perfect," teleios, means a destination, the end of a long transformational process, not an instant, flip-the-switch kind of conversion, from hate to love. In my experience, that's the way God works: through a "slow and steady fire" (The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, Carly Simon). God slowly refines us, patiently purifies us, making us perfect - if we let God do it - one experience at a time. But is this some kind of divine "perfectionism" at work? Is God a perfectionist, or is that something only human beings try to become, when we "play" God?
In addition to "perfect," there's another word we've heard this morning in the other two lessons, another word that describes God and helps us understand what Jesus is talking about. "The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy . . . .'" (Leviticus 19:1). "For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple," St. Paul says to the church in Corinth (I, 3:17).
Being holy is not something reserved just for God or even just for the children of God in Bible times. My sisters and brothers, being holy is meant for us, too. Jesus is steeped in and shaped by Levitical practice, called the "holiness code." He took those Jewish codes for "living a holy life" and "perfected" them in today's teaching. It's a sermon on the mountain about anger and love. "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . ." Be holy, as God is holy. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Perfection and holiness are, for Jesus, for God, essentially the same thing. They are about a process in our lives, about becoming who God calls us to be, about being more like God, more like Jesus.
But how are we to be perfect or holy, let alone both - perfectly holy? Who am I kidding? Me, perfect? Me, holy? Me, like Jesus, like God? Yes, you heard me right. Have you ever heard the story of life in five short chapters? Chapter One: I walk down the street and fall into a hole. Chapter Two: I walk down the street, teeter on the brink and fall into the same hole. Chapter Three: I walk down the street, remember that the hole is dangerous, but trip and fall into the hole again, anyway. Chapter Four: I walk down the street, see the hole, resolve not to fall into it again, but I get distracted, trip and fall into the hole. Chapter Five: I walk down a different street.
The "story of life in five short chapters" is about our "hole-y-ness." We humans are made holy by falling into holes, then learning how to call on the help we need from God, climb out of those holes and try again. Chapter Six might be: I discover that different streets also have holes. All of life has holes. The question is not: how do I get rid of holes? The question is: How can I turn my holes into holiness? Folks, perfection and holiness are not just about God, not just about Jesus, not just about the people of Bible times, not just about the clergy. Perfection and holiness are for everyone. As one scholar puts it, "We are all on the hook for being holy" (Kimberly Clayton, Feasting on the Word, p. 365).
But we cannot know how to start down the road toward perfection unless and until we admit that we are not perfect. We cannot begin a journey toward holiness unless and until we are ready and willing to confess how un-holy we have been and can so often be. "The root of all evil," quipped the ancient abbas and ammas, those wise, spiritual mothers and fathers of the earliest centuries of Christianity, "is the lack of awareness." Are you ready to be aware today? How willing and able are we, actually, to listen, to see how our behavior impacts others? Everything I do may not make you angry, but some things I do might. When I am more aware of how something I do might make someone else angry, how will I, then, change or manage my behavior, so that I don't project my anger? How can I work it out, so I won't act it out? Which of my thoughts, words and deeds do I need to hold up to the light, to the perfect holiness of God?
Dear friends in Christ, how can we love our neighbors if we do not love ourselves enough to take a look at what we are doing? How can we love those people who feel like our enemies, whose every action seems to make us angry, if we do not first consider and face what feels like our own enemy, within? Please understand me: This is not easy work Jesus is inviting us to do. The work of holiness is hard. That's why we don't want to do it! It is neither easy nor painless to examine our lives. It is not easy to clean our own side of the street before we look at the dirt on someone else's side . . . or in someone else. It is not easy to be perfect or holy, as God is perfect and holy. Sometimes it's going to feel dang near-impossible. And being commanded by God or Jesus just might cause us to go to in the other direction - to a defiant, childish place, to try and run away, to avoid growing up spiritually, to stay immature, unhealed, not holy.
But isn't healing, wholeness, even holiness what we want? Don't we talk all the time about wanting to be healthy, well, whole? Years ago one of my spiritual directors, first a Bible scholar and later a priest, said that the way she had come to understand this passage was, "Be perfectly yourself." Be perfectly Liz, be perfectly Greg, be perfectly Tom. Be the person God made you to become, the person God wants you and calls you to be. Become perfect by acknowledging your IMperfection. Become holy by admitting that you fall into holes, that you're still learning about "hole-y-ness."
We are all on the hook for being holy. But we do not become more like God, more holy and perfect, by acting as if we ARE God. We do not become perfect by being a perfectionist. We become holy, perfect, even godly by first admitting just how unholy, imperfect and human we truly are.
I'll close this sermon with a story about another rector of All Saints', a man some of you still remember. The Rev. Maurice D. "Deac" Ashbury, who served All Saints' in the '50s and '60s, preached his first sermon here fifty-nine years ago this month. His emphasis in that sermon, according to the History of All Saints' Parish, was on personal relationships. He was known for visiting people in homes and workplaces, just as we will be doing during our Capital Campaign. He was, by the way, also concerned about finances. "Most years," the history says, "were 'cliff hangers' in meeting the goal for the 'Every Member Canvass.' However, when put to the test," the history continues, "funds always became available for major parish needs . . . ." In fact, "on (one) Sunday of (an) annual Canvass, parishioners were asked to stay at home; there was no 11 am service, and men of the parish (it was only men back then) made individual calls . . . ."
Many changes started happening in the Episcopal Church and at All Saints' a little more than half a century ago. But the change at All Saints' that strikes me as the most interesting and, for me, encouraging is about how "Deac" Ashbury helped others on their journeys toward perfection and holiness. "Deac" did it by trying to love his neighbors, even those people who would never join this church, as he loved himself, as he loved his God.
"Deac" and others here at that time were concerned that All Saints' had become a "cold, friendless church," words from a 1968 parish survey. "Over and over again, (he) urged the congregation to welcome visitors." And those visitors and guests, including those who became members, had real-life pastoral and spiritual needs, like All Saints' parishioners did, like anyone did. "("Deac") continued his practice of . . . calling on many . . . outside the fold (of membership) . . . .When he no longer had enough time to devote to (the) demands (of counseling non-members), he suggested the idea of forming an independent counseling service . . . ." Counseling Services, Inc., was organized in 1960. Fifty-one years later, it continues to serve our community as part of the Frederick County Mental Health Association.
Rev. Jessica reminded us recently of Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple's wisdom. He said that the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who will never be its members. Now, I don't want to romanticize his time here, but I suggest that, in some ways, fifty years ago, "Deac" Ashbury and All Saints' knew how to be the church of God, on a journey toward holiness. All Saints' knew how to be on the hook for being holy.
Last Tuesday evening representatives from another counseling center, Pastoral Counseling Services of Maryland (PCSM; www.pcsm.org) met with the Vestry and, at my invitation, other parish leaders. We heard how PCSM would like to place a new counselor, someone who specializes in working with children and adolescents, here, in offices at All Saints'. I am thrilled that we are being asked, once again, to carry on that tradition of healing, wholeness and holiness.
God knows our 21st century Frederick community needs more counselors, who can help our children, who can help our teenagers - who can help us all to grow up in Christ. All Saints' now has, once again, a golden opportunity to offer a safe place, a holy and sacred space for anyone - church member, friend, guest and those who may never become members here - a place to learn a bit more about how to grow up and to be perfectly themselves, with God's help.
I apologize for the length of this sermon today. May the history we write in 2011 be one that is worth telling to our children and grandchildren, a story of how we stepped out in faith once again and prayed, God, help us be perfect, as you are perfect. Help us to be holy, as you are holy. In Jesus' name. Amen.