Want to be Perfectionists?

This sermon was given at Queen Anne Baptist Church on Sunday, February 19th, 2017. While not mentioned in this sermon, the 75th anniversary of EO 9066 – the internment of Japanese American Citizens because of their ancestry was very much in my thoughts as I wrote this sermon last week. We must resist anything like that ever happening again.

I’m posting this sermon because it was well received by the congregation, and because it feels timely. Ideally all sermons should meet those criteria, but being honest – they do not. I am very interested in your feedback.

***

I never thought I was a perfectionist until I got my first A- in seminary. I’m not disputing the grade – the work I did and the constraints of the class lead to me earning an A- in that course. Far worse than the first one, though easier to take, was the second one. I don’t dispute that one either, but I have to admit that the fact that I no longer have a “perfect” GPA is something I struggle with. By the way, this is not a round-about form of humble-bragging – my 3.963 GPA really has kept me up at night before, and it really does bother me.

Some of you are probably thinking about doing what many of my close friends do when I complain about this – rolling your eyes and wondering if I have any real problems. This can be a real problem though. After I got my first A-, I went through about a week where I really struggled with self-doubt. After all – if I really was called by God, and I really wanted this – how could I do less than the best? Finally my best friend sat me down and asked me if I knew who Voltaire was.

“French Philosopher?” I guessed more than remembered.

“Close enough. Voltaire popularized a saying that you’ve probably heard before – but now you need to take it to heart. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’

As we talked, he pointed out that what I was doing was good. I was answering my call, I was striving to live faithfully, and my work was all in preparation for what would come after seminary. I was in danger of falling into what psychologists call the “Nirvana Fallacy,” – essentially, if it can’t be perfect, why should one even attempt it? “But perfection is something we strive asymptotically for,” he told me. Don’t worry – I had to look that one up too – an asymptote is a mathematical term for two lines which come ever closer together but never touch. We strive for, and get, ever closer to perfection, but we’ll never actually achieve that perfection.

At the beginning of the Hebrew Scripture today, God asserts that the people of Israel should be holy, because God is holy. The many laws that God lays out for them – not just the 10 major commandments, but the hundreds of smaller ones are also part of the covenant between God and Israel. It is a covenant based on love – that is shown most clearly by the commandment that comes at the end – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” Jesus himself identifies this along with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your being,” as the greatest commandments out of all the law. Indeed, he tells us that all the other commandments of God are contained in these two.

Why spare the edges of the field from the harvester’s scythe, and some grapes still on the vine? Love. Why should we not steal or lie to one another? Love. Why should we not short someone the things they have justly earned in their labor? Love. Why should we judge fairly? Why should we work to not hate? Why not profit by exploiting our neighbor? Why not cast out those who cannot see or hear? Why not exact frightful vengeance for every wrong? Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. All of these things are active – love is not a passive thing. One must intentionally act, or choose not to do a negative thing, which is an action, too. God wants his people to be holy – and I think it’s pretty clear the best way to even approach that is through actively loving one another.

Jesus calls us to perfection in the piece of the Sermon on the Mount we read today. He echoes some of the admonitions we have from Leviticus, making it even clearer that we are to turn from vengeance, and from loving only those in our own community. “Be perfect therefore, as God in Heaven is perfect.” Jesus admonition that we are to love even those who hate us is a challenge – a call to holiness.

God’s perfect love is the very essence of holiness. I am working on loving those who love me, as completely as I possibly can. And I don’t know about you, but I often fail to return love when hate is directed at me. Our country, in these politically tense and divided times, doesn’t make it much easier. Particularly when I feel hate being directed at me, I want to lash back in kind. I’d like to blame some permanent defect of personality, or to just claim it is impossible – but it isn’t. There are times where I have managed to not return hate for hate. But in all honesty, I found myself yelling when I was cut off in the parking lot the other day. The other person couldn’t even hear me – and I screamed anyway. They probably had no idea they cut me off in the first place – and I screamed anyway. Even if they had heard me, how would it have helped? And I screamed anyway.

And if I can’t master not screaming in a parking lot – perfect love is a long way off. Loving those who hate us is, to put it mildly, difficult. It’s so easy to let the Nirvana fallacy prevail: I can’t possibly love like God, so why even try? I find it difficult to take some of the outrages I see lying down. And responding in Love means never pushing back, right? “Turn the other cheek,” we are told. Except this was one of the most revolutionary things that Jesus advocated – non-violent resistance meant to reshape the entire world.

Rome ruled Israel, and Roman citizens had all the power in these times. A Roman citizen could force a person from Galilee or Israel to bear their burdens for a mile, or make them give over their coat, or even strike a non-citizen without penalty. And if the Palestinian did react with violence, it was an offense punishable by execution. It is easy to hate people who could do that to you – they could very reasonably be described as enemies. Jesus is now telling the people of Galilee and Israel that they cannot hate those who persecute them. Jesus is telling us, we are to respond with active love instead.

Kids, I hate to break it to you – but when your parents are disciplining you – they are doing it out of an active love. When one of my children does something wrong, I have to respond according to the age of that child. There are things you simply cannot explain to a three year old – you just have to “take my word for it,” or if the situation is urgent – slap their hand away from an open flame. But as children get older, you try to impress upon them how their actions affect them or those around them. You show them that their actions may have caused harm or inconvenience to themselves or another. You impress on them how wrong they were, either through consequences of punishment, or more indirectly by letting them face the guilt and shame of how their actions have affected those around them.

Letting the cognitive dissonance of how the actions of a Roman citizen affected a Galilean as a person – forcing them to see how their oppressive action actually harmed another human being – was a radical act. By turning the other cheek, one forces the person doing the hitting to understand the impact of that initial blow. By handing over one’s tunic and standing naked before the person stealing your coat, one forces them to see the wrong of taking your clothing. By carrying the load the second mile, one forces the person who made the demand to see how far out of the way they are taking you, the cost of the burden they have placed on your shoulders. This defiant love is active love – it is forcing someone doing harm to see the costs of the harm they are doing. It was, it is, a radical act of defiant love – and not at all the passive “let people walk all over you” that “turn the other cheek” is so often interpreted to be. Love in the action of non-oppositional resistance, it returns power to the person who was hurt, and changes the relationship from one of oppression to instruction from the bottom to the top of the power structure. It turns us into people who help others become who God created them to be, without putting us in a place of judgement or power over someone else.

Resisting, my friends, is what we are called to do. We are called to resist the patterns of a society that tells us we must take what we can, hate those who hate us, and let retaliation be our first thought when we are wronged. We are called to actively feed those who are hungry. We are called to be honest. We are called to help those who are differently abled. We are called to love our own people, and even our enemies. We are called to an active love.

The trap we face, the greatest temptation is to say “we can never achieve that, so why try?” It certainly gives us an excuse to stop being active. We can let our inability to love perfectly be the enemy of our ability to love with all we have. We can passively let the Heavenly Realm in the here and now – the realm Jesus calls us to build – slip through our fingers by NOT acting. We figure our version of the heavenly realm isn’t going to be perfect if it’s made by us. And that’s true. We cannot create it alone. We are called to actively love – as God actively loves us. God makes the difference, Christ shows the way, and the Holy Spirit gives us the will to try. Want to be perfectionists? Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. And God will make that perfect.