Sermon – Being Perfect

GOSPEL MATTHEW 5:21-37

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Sermon: “On Being Perfect

Matthew 5:21-37

Robert Bell, The Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church

     In the children’s message today I mentioned the tongue in cheek song from the 1960‘s musical Bye Bye Birdie, “What’s the matter with kids today? Why can’t they be like we were perfect in every way”? There is a similar reference in the new movie “Saving Mr. Banks” about bringing the children’s book Mary Poppins to the screen. Mary Poppins the opening song goes: “was practically perfect in every way; her virtue knew no bounds; each trait was great and sound; practically perfect from head to toe”. Is that what Jesus is asking of us this morning? For us to be perfect? To be like him?  To be like God and not fallible human beings? It is certainly not the way that he  created us, is it?

     We understand not murdering people.  But not getting mad at people?  (I guess Jesus did not talk Washington politics; or go to presbytery meeting to discuss current issues; and for sure this rules out any rumors that he was ever married). We understand no adultery (although not that well). But not having a lustful thought?  (Not even a second glance at the Victoria Secret catalog or the NFL cheerleader. I consider myself fairly normal (an assertion that my wife calls my first mistake) but am I supposed not to have one fleeting sexual thought or innuendos? I understand not lying under oath, but not one little teeny fib; or a broad view of what counts on the luncheon business expenses report; or maybe to avoid a dispute or embarrassment say something is done when it is not really done but you will surely do it tonight when you get home?  What is Jesus doing here? The pressure is unbearable. The expectations beyond reason.  We want to hear forgiveness – acceptance from Jesus; that everything is OK. “I understand how difficult life is; take it easy; be not anxious; lower the bar a bit. Isn’t loving Jesus in our hearts enough? Tough love is for teenagers not for adults. We have been through the ringer of life. Christianity is about forgiveness and understanding.

     Mark that Jesus is not saying here: “Do the best you can. Be as good as you can be within your situation or by human standards. And it seems that he deadly serious about! He almost never talks about Hell. He just did not put much emphasis there. But in this passage he mentions it three times!  Along with cutting off body parts. It appears that Jesus means business with the “perfect thing”.

     In one sense it seems that Jesus is just piling on what we hear in our lives every day, what we grow up with:   “Be perfect”. With societal expectations and our own super egos. And it starts so early in life these days. Your Johnny talked at ten months? Well my Sarah walked at eight months. We signed her up for Mrs. Prichard’s preschool beginning when she is two instead of three because you can never get too much of a head start. Did you know 60% of graduates from Mrs. Pritchard’s Pre School enroll in Ivy League colleges?  You brought home a what?   A “B” from high school? Did you know how hard your grandmother worked to send me to school?  Mary is in math club, violin class, debating tournament, ballet; and she is the first girl to play middle line backer in Pop Warner football. And all this is what she does on Tuesdays after school.  Do you remember the book a couple of years ago Battle hymn of the tiger mother -Amy Chua -about Asian as oppose to western parenting and how to discipline our children into perfection and striving to do their best….”In teaching her child piano Ms Chua hauled her daughters dollhouse to the car and told her she would donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have a song perfect by the next day. Ms Chua threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. They then worked right through dinner without letting her daughter get up, not for water, not even for bathroom break’.

     And it doesn’t seem to stop when we reach adulthood does it? What’s the 9-5 song? Women are expected to cook, clean, work, be a mother during the week and a hot date Saturday night…do it all. We know a great deal about perfection or trying to be perfect in life, to have it all: the perfect looks, the perfect clothes; the perfect skin; the perfect shape; the perfect home; the perfect job; the perfect retirement account. If the world puts so many expectations on us to be perfect, wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus’ cuts us some slack? Is religion really supposed to be this difficult? Couldn’t he at least judge on a scale?

      Some have used the sheer impossibility of these commands to claim that Jesus ethics have little relevance in the real world or in politics. That Jesus was speaking of what happens in the future kingdom or in heaven, not what he expects on earth from individuals or society. And although it may be true that God’s Word is not limited to narrow morality, and that we need to have a healthy distance his teachings and  detailed political programs and positions ; and certainly no one should claim that God is exclusively on their side; it is difficult indeed, with the extent of Jesus teaching on justice and mercy and how we treat the poor; to not consider Jesus message and passion  relevant when we are deciding and designing policy and programs related to the good of society and the uplifting and care of all people. Still though, what Jesus asks of us seems impossible if not at least highly unreasonable.

     There is another interpretation of these commands that says that Jesus just puts this stuff out there to scare us; to take us down a peg; to show us that we will never be as good as god expects; that we are in Calvin’s words: “depraved fallen creatures”; and thus in our degradation we will turn to him with greater humility. And I guess if anything in life helps us to see the need for God’s grace more clearly it is a good thing. So I am not knocking contrition and humility. Jesus even said about himself that no one is good but God alone. But it seems odd to reason that these goals do not really matter. That Jesus did not want real change – real improvement; when transformation in life, new birth, and new life, a new and different direction was what he was all about?

     Of course there is a big difference in the direction that Jesus points us - between what the world and what Jesus want us to be perfect in, isn’t there?

     Jesus always distinguished his teachings from the common wisdom of his day and for that matter, the common wisdom of our day. What is most important? The letter of the law or its spirit? Its minutia or its fulfillment?  Daily adherence or its end goal?  The loopholes or the totality of its impact?  Jesus knew that so called norms or moral law could be written to favor the few and the powerful. Laws could be written that left out whole segments of society. Laws that blinded us and limited us instead of invited us further into the goodness and grace of God and the wholeness and health of people.  To Jesus, life was more than keeping a set of rules. He didn’t want us to stop at the basics! As long as you don’t murder someone, it’s OK. Just don’t bother each other, don’t step on one another’s toes; stay out of each other business. Jesus was no libertarian. Jesus was about connecting and relating to the other; knowing and caring for the other. In fact Jesus said it was more important than worship. More important than praying.  Stop that religious stuff if there is anger or recrimination or ill will in your life.  Get out of church! And do something about it first.

      Men, don’t just think you can treat women anyway you want because you hold the power and have met some minimum legality or were issued a legal order of some kind. If you think relationships like marriage have to do with legalities or winning or having the upper hand, you have missed the whole meaning and the purpose relationships. And telling the truth is not about just whether you swear or can get away with something or half truths as long as they buy what you’re selling. It is about honesty. It is about fairness. And again, it is about relationships –individually and societal.  I know that I make this point a lot about Jesus but he hated separating people. All the ways that we segment society and tear things and rate folks and cast off those that are different or not good enough or don’t make the perfect grade.  Jesus is trying to tell us: “Look we are all in the same boat”. That there is not as much difference between us as we think in his day and maybe too in our religion was about separating people. It made you better or different. And Jesus’ core message was that that wasn’t so. Sure there is a difference between murder and anger. And sure it’s a good idea to try to work to stay married. And to not swear falsely. But Jesus explains that there but by the grace of god go we too. That we have in us instincts of malice and uncaring and in all sorts of ways fall short…..and thus…..and thus…….you doesn’t throw out the rules. You don’t throw out the basics. But you don’t stop there. See the purpose behind them; and the wonder and goodness in their fulfillment. Which of course, in Jesus’ eyes was God’s love and forgiveness.

     Jesus did not have his head in the clouds. He had them firmly on the ground. Until they were nailed to the cross that is. He knew folks were going to get angry and get divorced and were going to have to swear testimony. But even in the mist of these things you can still see glimpses of God and show Gods love.  It’s not only possible, Jesus expects it! We all have a choice in tough situations. In the mist of pain and separation to put bitterness aside.  There is a way to go through life’s ups and downs; mistakes and troubles; by not beating others up and not beating yourself up. And yes it involves some sacrifice and stepping up to the plate and being honest about our sins and thinking about things and others in a radically different way. Jesus says within any given situation in your life you have a choice to draw closer to God’s love and grace and goodness by reflecting it; choosing mercy and humility and the highest possible good.

     Maybe perfection is not such a bad thing after all. I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr who called these teaching the “impossible possibility”. It shows us love’s goal. It shows us where we have fallen short and inspires us not to rest on our laurels. It drives us to self exploration and self understanding - to the heart or motivation of the matter. And perhaps most of all keeps us connected to God’s grace; both our need for it and the joy of digging down deep and choosing it, deeply and more fully, by the loving choices we make. It opens the door to reflection –which opens the door to growth – which opens the door to Grace. Why would Jesus not care enough to show us every possibility of love that is before you in life?

     It seems Jesus thought that if you do not ever stop forgiving, stop caring, stop loving; that eventually you find God …. and that’s pretty close to perfect. Amen