Sermon For February 20, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Theme: The Search for Perfection
Date: February 20, 2011- Epiphany 7
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God our Father and
from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. This morning, we focus on our Lord’s words in verse 48, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Sally was beyond frustrated; at the end of her rope, really. Nothing that she ever did was good enough. Growing up, her parents never seemed to be pleased with anything that she did. She got straight A’s in High School and College. She was the star on the softball team and was the valedictorian. After college, she married a doctor. She had 2 kids, a boy and a girl. She worked out at the gym incessantly taking care of her body. She was involved in her children’s school and other community groups. But, deep down inside, something was missing. She was never content. Just when she felt that she was getting close, perfection seemed to be just beyond reach. She didn’t know how much longer she could go on.
As a child growing up, I wanted to achieve perfection on the basketball court. Someone should have told me that I would never get any taller than six feet tall. Nevertheless, I would practice for hours in my driveway, taking hundreds of shots from a variety of locations. I would practice three point shots. I would practice free throws. I would practice lay-ups. It didn’t matter what the temperature was outside, whether it was raining or the sun was shining. I think my parents worried about me a little bit. “Stop playing so much basketball,” they would say.
Many of us understand the search or quest for perfection and how it can consume a person. Is there any area of your life that you seek perfection? Some of us seek perfection in our appearance. How we look in the mirror is of utmost importance. We might spend countless hours in the gym or on the exercise bike or applying makeup. Others seek perfection in how we keep our homes or our yards. Everything must be in its place or we get nervous. We must have grass that is green and we must have a clear driveway no matter how much snow is out there. Others seek perfection at our work. We spend countless hours trying to climb the corporate ladder. Still others seek perfection when it comes to knowledge and education. There is always one more book that must be read. The search for perfection can be a good thing in that it drives us to use our gifts and abilities and do the best that we can.
However, here’s the deal: the search or quest for perfection is allusive. It always seems to be just out of reach. In basketball, I could make dozens of free-throws in a row, but eventually I would miss. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite get to where I wanted to be. Our houses always need to be vacuumed. The driveways always need to be cleared off. Our bodies are in constant need of exercise. There is always some project that needs to be done at work. We just don’t seem to have the time that we need to read the books that we want to read. As a result, we can become very frustrated.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. How do you feel when you hear that? Does it frighten you at all? Perfect: really? When we hear these words, there is usually one of two responses. The first one is to water-down what Jesus is saying. “Well, yeah, Jesus tells us to be perfect, but he knows that we can’t really achieve it. So, all he asks is for us to try our best. If we just give an effort that is good enough. If He looks down and sees that we are trying hard that is sufficient.”
But, that is not what Jesus says here is it? He says that we must be perfect. Giving it our best try is just not good enough. We can’t ever mess up. The word perfect is pretty clear. We have to do everything perfect all the time, no errors, no mistakes, not once. Jesus really puts on the pressure this morning. If someone slaps us on the face, let them do it again on the other, he says. If someone takes our coat, Jesus says give them our shirt. If someone asks us to go a mile to help them, offer to go two miles. If someone asks for something, we are to offer them more than they ask.
Is anyone else having a guttural reaction to Jesus’ words? “Jesus, if someone strikes me on the cheek, my reaction is not likely to give them the other, but rather to come out swinging. If someone tries to steal my coat, I’m going after my coat and I’m going to get something of theirs as payback. If someone asks me to go with them a mile, I might do it, but there are going to owe me a favor the next time. And, if someone begs something from me, again, I might give it to them, but I will want it back with interest. If we are honest with ourselves, Jesus’ ethical demands this morning are not our favorite words that He ever spoke.
And then, Jesus has the audacity to say, “Love your enemies.” I remember two specific enemies in my past. One was a classmate by the name of Nathan Crary, the only kid I remember who challenged me to a school hard fight. Also, I played for Lutheran High School in Portland, Oregon, and this other enemy played for Corbett. I don’t really remember what started the feud, but I couldn’t stand this guy. He made me angry and when we played, there was going to be bad blood. Over the years since then, there have been other people that I might place in the enemy category.
Do you remember any enemies in your past, someone that made you furious or got under your skin or when you saw them your blood began to boil and your face got read and you wanted revenge? We all have had enemies in our past or currently have people that we might categorize as our enemy. We don’t mind being told to love our neighbor, but when our neighbor is also our enemy, well that’s when it truly gets hard, when Jesus’ ethical demands go a little too far, when we have a tendency to water down these demands or tell ourselves that they don’t apply to us or we just ignore them. But, what Jesus is saying is that our lives must be totally and completely committed to loving God and loving our neighbor all the time, even showing love to our enemies.
“You must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.”
When we hear these words, we might have a second response: despair, utter despair and hopelessness. When Jesus tells us to be perfect, we throw our hands up and say, “You’ve got to be kidding. I just can’t do it, Jesus. It isn’t worth it. No matter how hard I try, it is never good enough. So, what’s the point? I should just give up and try anymore.” Satan the accuser is right there whispering in our ear, “You are worthless. Everyone else is a better Christian than you. You don’t really love him. You aren’t that committed. Perfect, yah right! You are far from perfect my friend.”
I think we all have had a time where we have failed miserably, where we gave it our best effort, we wanted to do well, but the sun got in our eyes, or we dropped the ball or we lose sight of the goal, or we didn’t get enough sleep or whatever excuse we might want to use, but we failed. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to and we crashed back down to reality. Please pardon this reference, but a scene from the first Toy Story movie comes to mind, “There I was one minute exploring the whole galaxy and then the next, I am sucking down Darjeeling with Mary Antoine and her sister.” We’ve all had moments of utter failure where all hope is lost, where we failed ourselves, where we disappointed others, where we wonder how we will find the strength to carry on.
But, Jesus says again to us this morning, “Be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” When confronted by the Law, either, we water down his words and try to convince ourselves that we’ve come as close to perfection as we could. But, we also wonder if we done enough. Or, secondarily, we despair and throw in the towel, admit defeat and stop trying. This morning, dear friends in Christ, there is a third way. There is a way that we can be perfect. In fact, we are already perfect. The quest or search for perfection has come to an end.
Anyone who has ever played a musical instrument knows the challenge of trying to play a piece of music perfectly. Children are encouraged, of course, to practice and practice. At one time or another, a parent, or teacher likely gives them the adage, “practice makes perfect.” And, so they practice and practice. Occasionally a piece might be learned so well that sometimes it is played perfectly. But, as soon as that song is mastered, then it’s on to another, more difficult piece. For those few performers who make it in the big leagues, the pressure for perfection can, at times, overwhelm even the best. No matter how much effort is expended, there always seems to be someone else who’s better, someone who’s gone just a little further in that quest for perfection. While that person may enjoy considerable satisfaction in the music-making endeavor, it may not also be the case that he or she enjoys any lasting peace and contentment. We will never find peace in our own efforts to be perfect before God- however hard we try and practice. But, Jesus was perfect for us- in His life and in his death- and as we are in Him through Baptism, God declares us to be the same.
The search for perfection begins and ends with Jesus Christ. He was, is and always will be our righteousness, innocence and perfection. For, in the waters of Holy Baptism, we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and because of that, when God looks at us, He doesn’t see our failures. He doesn’t see our sins. He doesn’t see where we have gone off track. No, because those sins have been washed away. All the Father sees when He looks at us now is what Jesus has done for us. And, therefore the pressure to be perfect is over. When our consciences accuse us or when Satan whispers in our ears and tells us how worthless we are, we tell them, “No, I am perfect. Christ has declared it so. His Word is my hope and redemption. Perfection has been achieved and that perfection is now my perfection. It has been transferred or declared to be mine.” The devil doesn’t want to hear that!
For those who have ever been overwhelmed by the Law or by our own failures, the pressure to be perfect is passed over to Jesus. He has achieved it and it is ours by virtue of our Baptism and faith in Jesus. Now, because the pressure is off, we are motivated rather by the Gospel to grow in love toward God and love toward neighbor. With our Lord’s words this morning, is there something He is trying to get across to us? Is there any area of our life that we can grow in? Is Jesus telling us that we need to spend less time on ourselves and more time on serving those around us? Do we need to pray for the patience and the courage to love our enemies, to give to others in self-sacrificial love, to extend ourselves to reach out to those around us? All of us can benefit from continuing to ponder our Lord’s words this morning. Dedication and devotion, commitment and compassion, perseverance and persistence are all qualities that we can grow in as we mature in our faith.
“You therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Our sinful human nature is terrified of these words. Anything less than perfection just won’t do. Either Satan convinces us that all that matters is that we try to achieve perfection, to do our best and that hopefully will be enough. Or, Satan convinces us that we haven’t done enough, that we will never do enough, that we are worthless and won’t ever amount to anything. Again, there is a third way, Perfection with a capital P is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Throughout his life and at the cross and at the empty tomb, He achieved perfection. And, by virtue of our Baptism, that perfection is ours. We have been declared perfect so that when the Father looks at us, He says, “that person is perfect.” Perfection has been achieved. Let us revel in that perfection. Let us soak in that perfection. Let us live out that perfection as we go out into the world and love even our enemies for the sake of Jesus. Amen.