February 23, 2014 – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Epiphany 7 Feb 23, 2014 (Lev 19:1-2,9-18) Matthew 5:38-48    But I say… (Continued…)

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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, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”February 18, 2014

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Sometimes, I confess, when I hear the words we’ve just read, my first thought is oh dear Lord have mercy! More you’ve heard it said but I say to you Jesus sayings. We heard a batch of these last week. They were all very difficult. Now here’s Jesus telling us this week to do the virtually impossible… Saying you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye…a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you – turn the other cheekgo the second mile – if they take your coat give your sweatshirt also. Love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt or mistreat you.

And if this isn’t difficult enough yet – here’s Jesus telling us – ‘by the way, while you’re at it – Be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

I’m feeling a million miles from perfection, personally. Almost wondering if Jesus could be putting us on. He knows no one in all human history’s ever been perfect… except Jesus himself.

But these are the words of Jesus… and this theme of ‘going on to perfection’ has been a Methodist trade-mark from our early days – a favorite theme of our founder John Wesley. Everyone  ordained a Methodist pastor still has to be able to say ‘yes’ when our bishop asks at our ordination service, ‘are you are going on to perfection?’ And ‘do you expect to be made perfect in love in your lifetime?’

And I remember seeing my friend pastor Ralph Howe at Troy Annual Conference, the day I was to answer that question in public before ordination – telling him I didn’t think I could say I’m going on to perfection and mean it. Asking him how did he ever manage to say this with a straight face?

And I remember Ralph asking me – ‘Do you believe God is perfect?’ (Yes I do.) ‘Good. Then see if you can also believe that God, who is perfect, is able even to make you perfect by grace… in love.” And he persuaded me (in spite of some lingering questions and reservations) to go ahead and step out in faith and answer ‘yes’ to our bishop…

I’m actually still not so sure I’m going on to perfection in this lifetime. But I am persuaded Jesus is calling us all to try… And I am still believing… Jesus is able… to pull off any miracle…Even perfecting humans like us. Which brings us back to the question – what does Jesus really mean by perfect?

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My mother likes to remember how, when I was very young, I once told my parents, “I think you’re just about perfect. Please – don’t – get any worse.”

Thinking my parents were close to perfect worked fine when I was five years old. But as an adult … Even those I love and respect most in this world never quite seem perfect any longer… Though I guess this depends on what God means by perfect…

God made us all in the image of God in the beginning – and scripture tells us in Christ this image of God is being restored by grace. So maybe we who believe in Jesus already share in Christ’s perfection to some degree. Maybe we’re even traveling on with him into greater and greater perfection.

Maybe. I sure hope so. But meanwhile most of us who believe in Jesus still manage to act a lot less than perfect most of the time…

And much as I hope for maximum grace for all… And much as I admire John Wesley’s theology… Still I suspect getting even close to perfection in this lifetime, if it ever happens, is pretty rare and exceptional…

Yes, in some sense, Jesus has truly already done all the heavy lifting for us. Making atonement for all our sin and equipping us with his Spirit. Still I believe we’ve got a long ways to go… as we travel on in the direction of perfection. And I believe Jesus means for us to wrestle with his words, like Jacob wrestling the angel, till we receive the blessing.

Which reminds me of yet another of my mother’s favorite children’s sayings – this one being the time I said, “But I don’t want to do…what I want to do.” Which pretty much summarizes my feelings about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving my sweater to the one who takes my jacket, giving to all who beg from me, and not refusing anyone who wants to borrow.

On one level yes, I suppose, I really do want to do all these things – since Jesus says to, and I love Jesus, so I want to do what he says. At the same time, I confess – I really don’t want to do all this – at least not if I can get away without doing it… without wrecking my relationship with Jesus.

So what’s a far-from-perfect guy to do with these words from Jesus to – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect?

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I see a glimmer of good news in that Jesus isn’t talking Martha Stewart perfect – everything in the house perfectly color-coordinated, tastefully, expensively arranged (seasonally-adjusted of course)

Jesus isn’t talking Marine Drill Sargent perfection either. Half a dozen of my high school friends enlisted in the Marines together. Later we’d hear about shoes and boots having to be shined 20 times til perfect – even though they’d be marching in mud ten minutes later. The point was to do the perfect shine just because the officer said so.

Human perfectionism in all it’s many forms is fundamentally about making something or someone look artificially perfect, by zoning in on a small area of excellence while ignoring for the most part all the things Jesus is talking about today.

Human perfectionism is never to be confused with perfect-according-to-Jesus. When Jesus says Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect, this is his summary of all he’s been saying in the Sermon on the Mount up to here… And yes, everything he’s telling us to do here is difficult…

And everything he’s telling us to is also something Jesus does… and teaches us to do… anyway.

Being perfect means being like Jesus – who hates sin but loves sinners – who resists evil but doesn’t duke it out with evil-doers – who serves communion even to Judas Iscariot at the last supper – and doesn’t resist when beaten and whipped by servants of the high priest and governor Pilate… Jesus who never stoops to the behavioral level of those who attack him. Jesus who submits even to death on a cross, praying for his enemies… who have taken his coat, his shirt, all the clothes he has except a loincloth. Praying anyway – Father forgive they know not what they do…

Letting us know – Perfect according to Jesus means being perfect as God is perfect. God is love. (We’re told in First John.) Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect means be perfect most of all in love.

Be perfect…. as your heavenly Father is perfect... means don’t worry about what’s possible. All things are possible with God. When we aim too low, we hit the mark. When we aim higher than we think possible – our aim improves.

Be perfect – as your heavenly Father is perfect means imitate God… And don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Jesus says not one letter, not a dash of a letter of the law will pass away till all’s fulfilled. But Jesus also changes the plain meaning of many a commandment in his you have heard it said but I say sayings…

Christians still debate how we’re supposed to practice and teach all the law. But no one’s ever been able to obey all the law perfectly. (Even Moses.)

Daniel Harrell wrote a book, How To Be Perfect, chronicling the attempts of Harrell and twenty parishioners from the Park Street Church where he served as pastor, as they spent a month trying to obey all 250-plus commandments found just in the book of Leviticus. Commandments that run the gamut from you shall not wear clothes made of multiple fibers…and you shall not plant your field with more than one kind of plant in each row.. and you shall not have a tatoo anywhere on your body…on to variations on the ten commandments… and the Big One Jesus quotes today, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Everyone in Danny Harrell’s project had to decide how they would obey the commandments of Leviticus – literally, metaphorically, or as a parable. Just as we too each have to decide how to interpret the words of holy scripture. We do get to consult with each other, as Harrell’s group did.  The one rule they adopted together was however you interpret a commandment, obey it as perfectly as you can.

And trying to obey from multiple directions… the group’s answer to the question implied in the book’s title – How to be perfect – came together by consensus: Follow Jesus. The only way we can come close to keeping the law is to keep trying to be more and more like Jesus. It’s only in trying to follow Jesus, even with more failures than apparent successes – that we really get to know the love and grace of Jesus…Really begin to know… what perfect love looks like.

How can we tell when Jesus is talking in parables and when he’s telling us to do something literally? Bible study helps. Commentaries tell us the word translated ‘perfect’ (telos in Greek) doesn’t really mean perfection, nearly as much as goal or desired end result. More literal translations may say ‘you must be mature as your heavenly Father is mature – ’ or –  ‘set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.’ These are more literally what Jesus is saying, as he teaches us to keep growing in maturity of faith and love… to be better able to help others follow Jesus with us…

The way of love Jesus calls us to follow him in will make our lives richer in grace and much more deeply blessed – many times over – will bring us deep joy and abiding peace. But full disclosure – following Jesus (never mind what some say) won’t brings worldly success. People who faithfully follow Jesus are blessed beyond measure… But we expect the same sorrows, setbacks and situations Jesus experiences. Doing what Jesus says will, in fact, always make us more compassionately aware of the sorrows and sufferings of others. Sharing in the hurts of the world with Jesus isn’t always easy. There will be times when we won’t want to do all we want to do.

Never mind. Do it anyway, for the love of Jesus. Do our very best to do what Jesus says, in all seasons, remembering – Everything Jesus ever asks us to do – he always does with us. Making us ever more like him, in love.  Reminding us –

There’s no greater joy than his presence. No greater peace than his company. (So– once again – let’s say together – )

Thanks be to God. Amen.