Be perfect?

A Sermon for Independence Day

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week, Matthew inserts us right in the middle of Jesus' Sermon on The Mount.

Jesus is teaching his newly called disciples the blessings which would come from living and dying as his followers. Jesus puts forward his teachings about what they were to do to bring in God's Kingdom. His words have stood the test of time and speak to us even this morning.

As you listened to them as the Gospel appointed for Independence Day, did you find them disturbing? Were they disquieting?

I certainly did! Three imperatives caused me pause:

Love your enemies

Pray for those who hurt you

Be perfect

Did these three cause you to discomfort, too?

Let's take a good look at each of the three, starting with Number Three first.

Be perfect! How often, as children, did we hear it! Be a perfect gentleman  . . be a perfect little lady  . . get a perfect score  . . sing in perfect pitch  . . pitch a perfect game  . . bring home a perfect report card?

I don't know about you  . . but I seldom was a perfect child! Be perfect! Those words cut to the quick because I was constantly challenged to be "more perfect."

I suspect that we all had those moments when we were challenged to be "more perfect" because we found it impossible to be perfect!

On this Independence Day weekend, I wonder, can we Americans trace this striving for perfection back to our Founding Fathers when they wrote, in our Constitution, "  . . in order to form a more perfect union  . . "

Today, in these United States of America, we are acutely aware of how far from perfect we are!

Nevertheless, Jesus urges us to be perfect.

I have long identified with a poster, picturing a kitten, hanging on for dear life to a handle of a basket far below. The caption: "Be patient with me  . . God isn't finished with me yet."

This takes me to the dictionary definition of perfection and then, to the theological definition of perfection: The dictionary defines perfection as an extreme degree of excellence according to a given standard, i.e. without defect  . . flawless.

I don't know about you, but to be perfect, in these terms, is something which I could never claim to be! Without defect, no way  . . flawless, again, no way!

I'm happy to share that there is an alternate definition—a theological one which comes from the Greek, the language in which Matthew's Gospel comes to us. The Greek for perfection is 'teleios.'

Teleios means that a thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, designed and made. Let me repeat that: to be perfect means that we realize the purpose for which we were planned, designed and made!

Implied in that theological definition is that we are on a lifetime journey to reach perfection  . . not to be perfect from start to finish.

Yes, I can take comfort in the thought that God is not finished with me yet! You can too?!!!

But Jesus didn't finish with just "be perfect"  . . he added "be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect."

It helps if we remember the words in Genesis, at the creation of humankind, where God says, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness  . . "

In other words, we were created to be like God.

And hidden within those ancient words is the thought that we were planned, designed and made for a purpose  . . to be Godlike.

I go immediately to our first day of Camp last week. Our curriculum declared "Created by God, Built for a purpose!"

On that first day, we were to discover that "God lovingly creates people," followed by, day by day, God is for each of us  . . God is always with each of us  . . God will always love each of us  . . God made each of us for a reason."

I truly believe that Jesus meant us to imitate God's perfection—to be universally kind and merciful  . . to have goodwill for everyone and to seek the highest good for all.

In other words, we are to love unconditionally, as God does.

Jesus tells us that God causes the sun to rise on everyone—not just on the perfect  . . and causes the rain to fall on everyone—not just on the good.

Jesus implies that this is the essence of being perfect  . . of being Godlike  . . it is to love unconditionally.

It was well—known in Jesus' time that the Greek language had different words for different kinds of love. The word Matthew says Jesus used was 'agape,' which means loving by intentionally willing goodwill to everyone—even to those we don't like and even to those who hurt us.

This brings us to today's first and second imperatives from Jesus: to love our enemies! AND to pray for them.

We are moving from what we are to be—perfect. We now go into the realm of what we are "to do."

If you're sitting there, thinking that being perfect is difficult, I will now tell you that "loving your enemy" and "praying for them" is just as difficult—perhaps, more difficult.

But Jesus gives us a pathway to loving our enemies—to pray for them! That pathway is not easy!  . . to pray for those who hurt or persecute us  . . even to pray for those with whom we disagree.

Recently, we saw the power of prayer bring Democrats and Republicans together on the floor of the Capitol and on a baseball diamond.

Yes, it's still a work in progress but, for at least a significant moment, our lawmakers were striving for perfection. They prayed and in that moment God brought them closer together, making them more kind and merciful to one another.

In the days after our 2016 presidential election, several of you shared that you had trouble praying for the president elect—particularly by name.

Now, most of us are able to do so, without hesitations.

Why did we feel compelled to do so? Because Jesus told us to do so!

Why are we now able to pray for our President? Because Jesus knew that we would have to ask for God's help in order to do so!

As we asked for God's Divine assistance and as we prayed, God helped us tamp down the intensity of our negative feelings and replace them with more loving ones.

I am reminded of an old American Indian story:

An old grandfather, whose grandson came to him with anger at a schoolmate, said, "Let me tell you a story. I, too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.

But hate only wears you down, and your hatred does not hurt your enemy. In the end, it only hurts you. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. The poison only slowly kills you! I have struggled with these feelings many times."

He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me: One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him. He will fight only when it is right to do so, and in the right way.

But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great.

It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."

The boy asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"

The grandfather said, "The one I feed."

To love as God loves means that we have to feed the good which God has planted inside us  . . we have to pray to be God—like  . . we must choose to have goodwill for everyone, even our enemies and ask God to help us do that.

Someone has wisely said, "You can't pray and hate!"

So let us feed our good wolves and pray for God's help:

We pray to you, O God, our Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer: help us always to remember that you created us for a purpose, to love You, to love one another, and even to love our enemies—to love unconditionally and with good intentions for everyone.

Be near us especially when we feel we are alone and unable to love perfectly.

Take away the poison of hatred and give us the grace to love others—even those who wish us ill and those with whom we disagree.

Give us strength to journey on, knowing that we are far from loving as You love but willing to be made more perfect as we follow your Son, until that time when our life on earth is finished and you take us home to Your Heavenly Kingdom where all is perfection and everyone is bathed in God's unconditional love forever. Amen.

—The Rev. Elaine Prince
July 2, 2017