“Perfect”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 23, 2014 – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Scripture:  Matthew 5:38-48

 

If you’ve been following the Olympics these last couple of weeks, perhaps you’ve been as impressed as I have been with the remarkable things those athletes can do.

There are the speed skaters, who go whizzing around a track at nearly 40 mph, with one-millimeter-thick, eighteen-inch-long blades strapped to their feet, looking calm and relaxed, like they’re just out for a Sunday stroll.

There’s the halfpipe, where snowboarders and skiers flip and spin their way down the ice and snow, going head over heels over head over heels and somehow never losing track of which way is up.

There’s the downhill, and the slalom, and the giant slalom, where the skiers go hurtling at highway speeds down slopes steeper and slipperier than even Matt and my legendary driveway, carving precise turns around the gates and charting just the right course down the mountain.

There’s nordic skiing, where they cover distances up to 50 kilometers—that’s almost from here to Providence—going up and down hills, over the river and through the woods, and still have enough gas in the tank to sprint to the finish at the end.

There’s the bobsled, the luge, and the skeleton—sledding for grown-ups—where they zoom down a narrow, icy chute, whizzing around the corners and enduring forces of up to 5 G, steering precisely to avoid crashing into the walls.

There’s figure skating, where they move with such grace through triple axels, and quadruple toe loops, and those amazing spins, where they stand on one foot with the rest of their bodies twisted into a pretzel-like position that we mere mortals could never get into, let alone get out of.

And that’s not to mention ski jumping, and moguls, and hockey, and biathlon, and slopestyle, and curling, and all the other events that have been so fun and so very impressive to watch.

These Olympians are the best athletes in the world.  Their bodies are strong and fit, coordinated and precise, graceful and tough.  Their training is committed and strenuous; they have rehearsed every detail over and over again in order to perform at the top of their game.  They are focused and driven.  They have spent years, decades, lifetimes preparing for this moment.  They are looking for perfection.

 

Of course, it’s not easy to be perfect.  The smallest mistake can disrupt an otherwise flawless effort.  A lapse in concentration at just the wrong time, and the skater tumbles to the ice, or the skier misses a gate, or the shot misses the mark.  A foot that slips, or a knee that gives way, or a hand that trembles… a jump pushed off a little too hard, or not quite hard enough… a stumble, a loss of balance, a miscalculation… and the hope of perfection evaporates as quickly as snow in a warm spring breeze.

It’s not easy to be perfect.  You can be hampered by an old injury, weakened or stiffened by a scar that won’t fully heal.  Your focus can be clouded by the memory of past mistakes.  Your confidence can be shaken by an unexpected slip-up.  Any number of distractions, whether physical or psychological, can interfere along the way.

Even for these Olympians, even for the best athletes in the world, it’s not easy to be perfect.  But when they achieve it—when they land their jumps just right, when they spin with ease and grace, when they glide aerodynamically through the air, when they slide effortlessly across the ice and snow—when they achieve perfection, it is a very beautiful and very impressive thing indeed.  (Am I right?)

 

Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

So is Olympic performance what he meant?  A perfect 10, a winning time, a gold medal (or its first-century equivalent)—is that what he was referring to?

Did Jesus really mean we are supposed to be flawless and mistake-free in all that we do?

If he did, if we understand the command to “Be perfect” as an instruction to be free of any and all imperfections, then I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time seeing myself in this text.

As I’m sure is obvious, I am not an Olympic athlete.  And much as I might have wished it in my younger years, I will never be one.  I will never be as strong or as precise or as coordinated as those remarkable competitors are.

And not only that, but I will never be perfect-ten-worthy, even in my ordinary, everyday life.  Like, well, most of you, I have my flaws and failings; I make mistakes; I screw things up from time to time.  If there were a panel of judges scoring me on my performance—which I thank God that there is not—I would surely lose points for one reason or another, each and every day.

If Jesus meant a perfect 10, a winning time, an Olympic gold (or its first-century equivalent)… if he meant we are supposed to be flawless and mistake-free in all we do… then it is difficult to the point of impossibility to see ourselves in his command to “Be perfect.”

Lucky for us, that’s not what he meant.

 

When Jesus said, “Be perfect,” he used a Greek word that is a little bit hard to translate.  The word is teleiosTeleios is often translated the way it is here, as “perfect.”  But there’s more to it than that.  Teleios describes something that has been brought to its full purpose, something mature, entire, fulfilled… something “perfect,” not in the sense of being flawless, but in the sense of being whole and complete.

When Jesus said, “Be perfect,” he used the Greek word teleios, because he didn’t mean, “Be flawless, mistake-free, without imperfections.”  He meant, “Be who you are meant to be.  Be children of God, forgiven and forgiving, blessed and blessing, loved and loving.  For only by living fully into that identity will you be complete, fulfilled, whole, perfect.”

When Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he was not only commanding us—he was also commending us.  He was reminding us of who we truly are, of the essential identity that is rooted way down deep in the heart of the heart of our souls.  He was pointing us toward an example of perfection—not toward some idealized, perfectly-proportioned Vitruvian Man, but toward the God who gives us life and breath, who made us who we are, who loves us, wholly and entirely.

When we know this to be true—when we really, truly know it, not only in our brains but also in our guts—then we will find ourselves able to do those other very challenging things that Jesus describes.

We will find ourselves able to overcome cycles of violence, even the ones that have been festering for generations, for so long that no one knows any more who started it or why—because we know that we are followers of the One who did not meet force with force, but overcame evil with good, hatred with love, death with life.

We will find ourselves able to respond with generosity even to those who are greedy and demanding—because we know that we are made in the image of the One who gives life and nurture and sustenance to the righteous and the unrighteous, the kind and the stingy, the evil and the good.

We will find ourselves able to give to everyone who asks of us, without limit or reservation—because we know that we are sustained and upheld by the overflowing water of life, the well of living water that never runs dry.

We will find ourselves able to offer love even to those who cannot or will not love us in return—because we know that even those whom we call enemy, and even those who call us enemy, are also children of God.

 

When Jesus said, “Be perfect,” he didn’t mean, “Score a perfect 10.”  He didn’t mean, “Win a gold medal.”  He didn’t mean, “Be flawless, mistake-free, without imperfections.”  He meant, “Be who you are meant to be.  Be children of God, forgiven and forgiving, blessed and blessing, loved and loving.  For when you live as the person you are meant to be, the person you already are, deep inside, you will be complete, fulfilled, whole, perfect.”

It’s not easy to be perfect.  It’s not easy for Olympians, and it’s not easy for us.  Sometimes we need a little reminder.

teleios            In just a moment, our ushers are going to bring around these baskets, which they will pass through the pews.  In the baskets are little cards with just such a reminder on them.  Take one, and tuck it into your wallet, where you’ll have it with you wherever you go.  Or stick it on your bathroom mirror, where you’ll see it as you wash your face and brush your teeth each morning and evening.  Or clip it on your fridge, where you’ll catch a glimpse of it as you come and go.

When you see it, remember that to be perfect in God’s eyes means to live as the person you are meant to be, the person you already are, the person you were born to be—forgiven and forgiving, blessed and blessing, loved and loving, complete, fulfilled, whole, perfect.