Current Sermon: How to Be Perfect
By the Reverend Dr. Thomas F. Rice
February 23, 2014 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
There it is. Right in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says it and it might send you back to see if there’s somehow a typo. “Did he really say that?!” you may find yourself wondering. But there it is, in black and white. Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
It’s strange, isn’t it? LOTS of verses from the Sermon on the Mount are quoted left and right. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “You are the salt of the earth” “You are the light of the world.” People memorize them, make banners of them and posters of them. But you don’t find banners of this verse. You don’t see it made into posters, or bulletin covers. You don’t find people memorizing it in Church School and quoting it: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” You don’t find it on a lot of quilts or mugs or t-shirts, do you?
My wife, Betsy, and I were watching the Olympic figure skating the other night. Did you see any of it? Our boys were just falling asleep and we didn’t want to wake them, so we hit the mute button and watched the women’s figure skating without any sound.
And you know what? It was extraordinary! The downside, of course, was that we couldn’t hear the music. But there was a huge upside. We couldn’t hear any commentary. We couldn’t hear the criticism. We watched those young athletes performing so beautifully, and we didn’t hear that voice in the background pointing out all of the flaws—flaws that often were not noticeable to us anyway.
What do you think? Is God like that expert commentator in the background? You’re doing the best you can. You’re trying to be a good Christian out there. But is God continually watching over your shoulder, pointing out all of your mistakes, all of your flaws? Judging you, because you’re not perfect?
Do you think that’s why we try to ignore this verse? It could make you hate God rather than love God, don’t you think? “Be perfect,” Jesus says. But we’re not perfect! We’re not God—we’re human! Our Lord knows that! How can Jesus tell us to “be perfect”?!
Pew Research published a report recently. It identified the most stressed out group of people in our society today. Guess who? Teenagers! Trying to get perfect grades, perfect ACT or SAT scores, perfect extracurricular activities, trying to please their parents and their teachers and the colleges they’re applying to—it’s a tremendous amount of pressure.
It starts early. I heard a young child and a parent talking the other day. The 9 year-old boy was listing to me his activities: He’s on a basketball team, a hockey team, he’s in two choirs, he’s taking karate—the list went on and on. His father was listening to the list. The boy actually said, “Dad, I need to drop something. It’s too much!” The Dad looked at me and said, “It almost sounds like he’s overscheduled, doesn’t it? But no, Son, basketball is about to end for the season…”
It’s not just our children or youth, though, is it? We try to have the perfect body type, the perfect performance review at work, the perfect home, the perfect yard, the perfect family. Christmas letters have become publicity tools for our perfection. With social media we share with the world how perfect our holiday is, or our vacation, or our life.
Even coming to church we can fall into this trap. We can feel like we have to look perfect, seem perfect. Whatever happened to grace?! Why does Jesus say, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”?
Now let’s be honest. There’s a whole other side to this. There are a lot of people who ignore this verse altogether. There are a whole lot of people who give the impression that Christianity is easy, that it doesn’t demand very much of you. Just be nice. Don’t worry too much about things you do or don’t do, these people say. “After all, you’ll be forgiven,” I heard someone say, “it’s God’s job to forgive.”
Our young people especially look at this “easy” version of Christianity and ask the hard questions: What difference does it make? What does it accomplish? If all it’s about is “being nice”—how does that change the world? Why would that be worth my heart, and mind and soul?
That’s why I was so intrigued when two high school youth decided to try and figure this out. What exactly does Jesus mean when he says, “Be perfect”?
I can still see them, taking it verse by verse, word by word. They started earlier in the passage. They were trying to act it out for the rest of the youth group as best they could.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” Jesus says, “turn the other also.” So we all watched as Chuck and Chris tried to figure this out. Chuck got in position to strike Chris, but suddenly stopped. To strike him on his RIGHT cheek he would need to use either his left hand, or the back of his right hand. Chris pointed out that this was more than hitting. This was an insult. As Chris turned his other cheek, there in the middle of the room, it seemed heroic. Chris wasn’t going to lower himself to that level. He wasn’t going to strike back, and he wasn’t going to give an insult back.
They kept going. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,” Jesus says, “give your cloak as well.” Chris had studied up for this and he was prepared. As Chuck took Chris’ coat, Chris gave his “cloak,” too. That left him with nothing on—except his swimsuit! The youth group around him talked about this. Chris pointed out that your coat doubled as your blanket. To take it away was truly greedy, and cruel. By giving his cloak, too, Chris was being very generous, but he was also pointing out that Chuck should be ashamed for what he was doing.
They reenacted one more verse. “If anyone forces you to go one mile,” Jesus says, “go also the second mile.” Chuck had a backpack filled with books. They looked like dictionaries. He put it on Chris’s back and gave him a push forwards. Chris started walking—but with a surprising smile on his face. Chris explained that the Roman soldiers were the hated army of occupation. A Roman soldier could grab a Jew and make that Jew carry his backpack for him for a mile. That was the law.
Chuck then explained that here Chris was—going the extra mile—not for a friend, but for a hated enemy. And now the Roman soldier would think differently about this Jew—and perhaps other Jews too. Instead of reluctantly helping, here was someone going above and beyond—with a smile on his face!
Are you still with me? What do you think the youth talked about after that? Jesus says, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Chuck said he had heard the commandment, “Love your neighbor.” He didn’t find that to be so difficult. He and his family had great neighbors. But here Jesus is saying, “Love your enemies.” How can that be possible? How can Jesus command us to feel something like love, anyway? It’s not something we have any control over, is it?!
And then the conversation really took off! The youth started making all kinds of important connections, just as I hope you are now, too. You see, this “Christianity stuff” is really tough. But for those youth, this made Christianity incredibly enticing! They like a challenge! They recognize how counter-cultural all of this is. It’s certainly not what “most people” would do. It doesn’t just come naturally. It takes a lot of courage, and a whole lot of spiritual strength to love your enemies.
Finally Chuck and Chris came to that last verse: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Now somehow, with everything that comes before it, that verse seemed different.
It’s not about having the perfect figure, the perfect grades, the perfect performance review, the perfect home and yard, the perfect family, the perfect life. It’s about being perfectly loving, perfectly merciful. It’s about being like God in the way you treat others.
And it’s not about feelings. It’s not talking about warm and loving feelings for your enemy. Jesus is talking about actions. Choosing loving actions towards your enemy.
And the amazing thing, to tell you the truth, is that Jesus thinks this is possible. The Lord loves you so much, and believes in you so much, that Jesus believes you can do this, with the help and power of the Holy Spirit.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that the only logical result of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a world full of blind, toothless people!
But God in Jesus Christ believes you can change things. You can’t do it on your own strength. But in Christ, through Christ, with Christ, you can change the world. You can overcome evil with good. You can bring life where there was only hatred and death.
It’s like the Olympics. Did you see Jeremy Abbott in the men’s figure skating? He is a 3-time world champion. But there in the Sochi short program he fell hard. He lay there on the ice. After all that training, all of that work, he fell. But then something happened. The crowd started cheering. And he slowly got up, and finished his program. In fact, he finished it flawlessly.
“Turn the other cheek,” Jesus says. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus sets the bar awfully high. There’s a lot expected of you. And the reality is, there will be times when you fall—hard. Times when you just can’t—even with all of the prayers you can muster.
But this community is here for you. And God is in this place. To help you get back up. To help you brush yourself off and try again. Because there will also be times when you will do something perfectly beautiful, perfectly impossible, perfectly extraordinary. Because of the grace and mercy of God at work in you.
How will you experience this in the week ahead? Only God knows. But as you pray, as you trust, as you allow God to challenge you and work in you, soon you will know too.
Thanks be to God! Amen!