February 20, 2010: Be Perfect! You are Kidding, Right?

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany

One of the blessings of preaching the church’s lectionary is every three years I preach on the same texts. After all these years I’ve come very familiar with them.

One of the curses of preaching the church’s lectionary is every three years I preach on the same texts. You get to hear them along with a sermon I hope won’t bore us all. Actually, I forget what I said three years earlier, though I hope what you hear each Sunday is something new. And I wonder, “Who remembers anyway?”

One of the mysteries of preaching the church’s lectionary is thinking I might run out of new things to say, only to find that strangely, I don’t. Confirms for me, God’s spirit does show up at least once a week for me – and my eyes open a little more.

Three years ago, if we remember back, we heard Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Nothing’s changed; nothing new has been revealed to change his command. And being perfect is as impossible to do three years later. We’re still human. Perfection may be in Jesus’ DNA but not ours. But I still get to tell you to be perfect today, in Jesus’ name. I do strive to be decent on most days. I’m a low achiever, though. The bar Jesus sets still stays far beyond my reach.

Ancient people must have played together about as well as our current politicians. A person back then could murder someone in a fit of jealousy, or because the victim slapped them, and walk away scott-free. Early justice was no justice. So we evolved to embrace an approach to justice: you can exact an “eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth,” the law of retaliation, or lex talionis; whatever you get, you give back; no more. BUT – That’s not good enough for Jesus. He says, “You’ve heard it said,” and quote a law like we’ve heard from Leviticus. Then Jesus adds, “But I say to you…” and the bar goes higher. Someone slaps you on the cheek. Don’t retaliate, defend yourself or get out of the way. Offer your other cheek. That doesn’t sound real smart, especially if the smackee is bigger than you. Someone sues you and takes your coat; give them your sweater as well. Someone forces you to carry his bags for one mile, offer to carry them another mile. Someone begs from you, give them what they want. Someone wants to borrow from you, become Lending Tree. Jesus: “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” Love even the guy who annoys you, because anyone can love a nice person. And by the way, “Be perfect, as God is perfect.”

Follow Jesus and you’ll find you are swimming against the tide. You know the first, automatic reaction when someone criticizes you. We go defensive or want to get even, usually. Get sued, we find the meanest, smartest lawyer we can hire. We know that loving enemies can get us killed; and if someone threatens you, are you going to say, “You’re in my prayers?” Jesus says, “But I say to you – don’t get even. Don’t seek revenge. Go the extra mile.” If we do this, won’t we be Christian doormats? It’s hard to follow Jesus. After all he didn’t exactly win the Nobel Peace Prize for all these good things he said and did.

But what if we are starting at the wrong place?  What if we begin with Jesus the one who speaks these words and gives these words their meaning? First look at Jesus before saying, “This is impossible.” Roman soldiers slap Jesus’ cheek; whip him and nail him to a cross. He retaliates by asking God to forgive them. Jesus resists evil by loving and forgiving sinners and welcoming outcasts. He generously gives God’s love to all who ask, and even those who don’t. He pours out his life for the good, the bad and the ugly. He goes well beyond the second mile and never stops loving us no matter how off track we get. Jesus has earned the right to say, “Stop the endless cycle of violence.”

Retaliation and revenge feed violence and will grow it like a cancer. Look to God. Love and forgive, as God does. Jesus calls us beyond the cessation of being mean and violent. Do something. Jesus calls us to active duty – to wage love, forgiveness, kindness, create places of trust and safety where others can find Jesus is present within us, between us and among us.

We don’t do this alone. Jesus didn’t learn this from a self-help book or in Sunday School. He learned it from God. And when they ask where he gets this and he reveals his source, he finds himself in a mess of trouble with the religious elite.

If we can, before we react and speak, first think, “God loves us all, even that person I don’t like”; if we ask God for strength to face evil and temptation; if we can dare love our enemies, we still won’t be perfect, but we will be closer to God’s will. And when we try and fail, remember the One who has already forgiven you, and then spread forgiveness to one who’s offended you. And if you’re not a little scared to try this, and if you don’t have second thoughts about following him, you may not be paying attention. Following Jesus is more than getting baptized and sitting on a pew.

Do you ever wonder if we follow Jesus seriously – I mean be what he calls us to be? Asking that question may be a crisis moment – a moment God’s spirit prompts the question. We’ll either move away from him or toward him. Remember who comes to us and who calls us to die, too – die to ourselves so people can read God’s love story in our lives – see what it looks like to be raised from death – and it’s as simple and as dangerous as loving enemies, praying for those who wish us harm, being generous and kind to others, forgiving those who won’t forgive us, and loving those who are never going to change.

That IS the story unfolding in our lives now. Really? – yeah, and – I assume because we are here, we want to live more fully in the reign of God. And because we love Jesus and follow him, we want to change this world – not just live in it. In striving to love as God does, I think we’ll come much closer to being perfect, at least more decent, more often. If we can do that, we’ll be living for a moment in the world that is yet to come.


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