This is my sermon from the Eleventh Sunday after the Pentecost, preached on August 13, 2023. We use Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. The lectionary was 1 Samuel 17:1-7, 12-16, 24-27; Psalm 108:1-6, 11-13; Ephesians 6:10-17; and Matthew 5:43-48.
Perfection is a funny thing. It seems like something we should strive for if we are to be all that we can be. Yet one who does, a perfectionist, often is treated with suspicion, perhaps even with disdain. We seem to know that setting the bar that high is not always all it is meant to be. So much of what makes us human – a diversity of gifts and perspectives, a need for sabbath (or at least less pressure all the time) – gets lost when we are held accountable to standards that are unachievable for most of us, regardless of our gifts or resources or education. It sets up a kind of competition between us as we continually grade ourselves and others against some standard that may or may not be completely subjective and is certainly unattainable. And in the quest to be something other than we truly are, we set each other apart, which is contrary to who we were created to be. In the process, we give each other and ourselves false ideas of who we are and who we are not.
Being perfect is hard work. Being perfect can be lonely. Being perfect distracts us from enjoying so much of life. And the kicker? Being perfect isn’t possible.
Today’s Gospel – at least as translated in the English – doesn’t do a whole lot to help us understand how to be our best selves when it comes to perfection. It also equates who we are and what we can do with God and who God is and what God can do.
I’d venture a guess that the directive to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Sovereign is perfect” has contributed to lots of doubts about God’s unconditional love for all of God’s people and set so many of us up to feel like we have failed. If it says it in Scripture – our holy text – then it must be the bar we are to reach, right? But what if I were to tell you that in the original Greek it does not mean “perfect” as we have come to understand the word?
The word in the original Greek is telos, which means, essentially, to be or become who it is God created you to be, whether you are a puppy, a piece of fruit (remember the parable about the fig tree?), or a person. Puppies are perfect in that they become dogs. A fig tree is perfect when it bears fruit. People are perfect when they are who they are with authenticity and integrity, nurturing the gifts God has given them in ways that are honest, true, and build up the beloved community. It’s interesting because I think so many of us know that, even as we sometimes struggle to live it.
How many times have you heard – or maybe you’ve even said – something along the lines of “My parents wanted me to be [fill in the blank]. And I tried but it just wasn’t for me. I am a good [fill in this blank]. I know this is the path I was meant to take.” And if you’re really lucky, you also can say, “I know the work I do makes a difference in my community [or to someone else].”
We put so much pressure on ourselves and each other when we seek a perfection that is defined by some human standard of success or worth. It is hard, sometimes devastatingly hard, to live that way. We doubt ourselves or we punish ourselves, when we can’t achieve what it is we think we are supposed to achieve. We worry that we can’t keep up with our neighbors or colleagues, even as we try harder and harder to do so. We look down on or distance ourselves from other people when they don’t meet similar standards.
And, worst of all, we start to doubt God – “If God wants me to be perfect, why isn’t God helping me more? If it’s really true that we are created in the image of God and God is perfection, how do I reconcile that with the reality that I am far from perfect, no matter how hard I try? And what does that say about God’s love? Surely God must love those people more than me because look how blessed they are.”
The unconditional love of God should never be a question for anyone. It’s the kind of love we strive to give our children, that love that says, “no matter what, I love you and believe in you.” It’s the kind of love I know I hoped to convey when I would tell the each of the kids, “You are the perfect one for me.” Admittedly, that became something of a joke as they figured out I was saying it to each of them, so I tweaked it a bit. “You are the perfect 9-year-old (or middle child or…)” We even got Christmas ornaments that said, “Favorite first born,” “Favorite middle child,” and “Favorite youngest child.” The point is that this was one way of letting the kids know that they are loved unconditionally, no matter what.
The perfection in today’s Gospel is about living into the fullness of who God created us to be, trusting in God’s truly perfect love – and I mean that in both the sense of “perfection” as we have come to understand it and in the telos way, in that God cannot be or do anything other than love us unconditionally because that is precisely what it means for God to be God. God’s love for us is an invitation into more than we could ever ask or imagine on our own. It is a love that challenges us in only the best, most inspiring ways, to live to grow into our best selves, that image of God in us.
I will leave you with a quote, something I read this week, which helps to understand the importance of some of the things Jesus tells us to do, like loving our neighbor and praying for those who persecute us because they, too, were created in the image of God:
“Jesus’ words are less command than promise. God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be and, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God – where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the logic of Jesus’ kingdom well when he stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-7-a-telos)
And when we see God’s perfect love as being all that we need or ever will need, and we trust that God will help us to be who it is that God intended us to be, perfect in that telos kind of way, we get to be a part of making the kingdom what God intended it to be in its perfection.