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A Different Kind of Perfect
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those words from this morning’s gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, they sound, at first, unreasonable and impossible.
But, then, when we read the entire paragraph to which that impossible sounding verse belongs, what we see is that when Jesus says, in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus isn’t calling us to live flawlessly; which is something none of us can do. Rather, Jesus is calling us to love completely; which is something all of us can do.
The paragraph which ends with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” begins with Jesus saying, You have heard that it was said, “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, who sends rain and sun on good and bad. It is at the close of those words about the indiscriminate love of God, who gives, to all people, sun and rain, without regard for whether they happen to be good or bad, that Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect; a call for us, not to live flawlessly, which none of us can do, but, rather, for us to love completely, which all of us can do.
In fact, though it may sound hard and heroic, to love as God loves is neither; heroic or hard. In my experience, to love all people as God loves all people really just requires us to see all people as God sees all people. And, the way to see all people as God sees all people is to pray, every day, all through the day, for God to help us to walk in the Holy Spirit. Live that fully open to the Spirit of God long enough, and, eventually, to love all people as God loves all people, which once seemed impossible to do, will become impossible not to do. Stay open to the Spirit of God long enough, and what once sounded like Jesus’ most unreasonable demand will become our most instinctive response, because the daily prayer and practice of walking in the Holy Spirit will cause us to come to see all people as God sees all people, which will cause us to love all people as God loves all people.
(Of course, here, we must be careful to be clear about what we mean when we say “love.” To love all people as God loves all people does not mean to approve of, or tolerate, anything and everything. There is real evil in the world, which requires us to make real judgements, and to stand up for those who are most marginalized and vulnerable by standing up against injustice and oppression. This is love, not as the warm and fuzzy noun of Valentine’s Day, but, rather, love, as the clear and courageous verb of Good Friday.)
As I was sitting with all of this earlier this week, my mind wandered back to my hometown. Like Jackson, and most other cities in the American South, Macon, Georgia was, and still is, home to many churches and, per capita, as many Christians as any city in the country. And yet, despite all those churches and Christians, or, perhaps, sadly, because of all those churches and Christians, if someone in our town had an adult child whose life left them outside the comfortable majority, they would often be heard to say, “We hated to see them go, but, honestly, we encouraged them to move to New York or San Francisco, where it might not be as hard for them to be who they truly are as it is down here, in the Bible Belt;” a sad commentary on the Christianity which filled the air and the water in my hometown, because, the truth is, if the Christianity which filled the air and the water in my hometown, and, which remains so dominate in our part of the world, had embodied the spirit of the Jesus of today’s gospel lesson, the opposite would have been true. Families in New York would have been saying to their loved ones who were different from the comfortable majority, “You should probably move down to Macon or Birmingham, Tupelo or Jackson; any of those cities in the Bible Belt where there are all those churches and Christians because, since those folk follow Jesus, they see all people as God sees all people, which means they love and welcome all people as perfectly as God loves and welcomes all people.”
That is the kind of life to which Jesus calls us when Jesus says, in Matthew 5:48, for us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect; a life which loves all people as God loves all people because it sees all people as God sees all people.
I heard that life captured in a single, simple sentence a couple of months ago, here at Northminster, at sunset on December the twenty-fourth. I was out in the narthex, waiting for the Christmas Eve service to begin, when a young man who grew up here at Northminster and was home for Christmas came up to me, and said, “A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with some friends one night, and, somehow, the subject of church came up. I started telling them about Northminster, and how going to church here all my life had made such an impact on my life; like, it really changed my life.” So, somebody in the group said, “What do you mean, it changed your life?” To which, the young man replied, “Being at Northminster changed my life because that is where I learned that, if God loves everyone, then so should we.”
That is the life to which the Jesus of today’s gospel lesson is calling us when he tells us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” That isn’t Jesus calling us to live flawlessly; something none of us can do. It is, rather, Jesus calling us to love completely; something all of us can do.