OK, let’s take a vote. I regularly ask my Confirmation class to vote on questions of faith, and sometimes even my Wednesday Morning Bible Study class. No now it is your turn. Answer me this … do you think it is more difficult to be perfect … or be holy. All those in favor of perfection as the harder task raise your hand….. All those in favor of holiness as the harder task raise your hand…..
Thank you … so perfection seems a bit harder to you who are gathered here. But now allow me to ask you this …. What if I told you that the word perfection in our lesson may not be the best English translation available to us. That what it really means is “to be complete” … “to reach your intended goal” … “to be the person God intended you to be.” Would that change your thinking, I wonder?
Let’s vote again … All those in favor of being the person God intended you to be as the harder task raise your hand….. All those in favor of holiness as the harder task raise your hand….. Ah … a bit of a different result this time. To be holy seems to be a bit more daunting now, when compared to simply being the person God wants you to be. But what if I told you this … that holiness is a gift of God, given to us freely. These words from our first lesson of Leviticus, say it this way: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. If holiness is not dependent upon our power, but is a gift from God bestowed upon us, might that change your vote?
Let’s vote again … All those in favor of being the person God intended you to be as the harder task raise your hand….. All those in favor of the holiness with which God blesses you as the harder task raise your hand….. Interesting … now our vote is a little closer again, isn’t it?
The challenge, of course is that these words “perfection” and “holiness” are not words that we often use to describe ourselves. They feel a bit pompous and self-aggrandizing. But do we really believe that Jesus would ever challenge us with words that would lead to arrogance and pride. Even in our worst moments, you and I know that cannot be true. So what is going on here?
Last week I was at a worship service with colleagues in which the preacher addressed today’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel … and he suggested that maybe Jesus’ words area simply trying to encourage us to try a little harder. It was proposed that the goal of the Sermon on the Mount is offered so as to stretch us a bit … for us to strive to embrace these impossible commands … and to attempt to be the people God wants us to be … knowing that we will never perfectly achieve that goal. I loved the sermon … it helped me pull my spirit away from the negativity that often invades my mind when I read these impossible demands — a negativity that causes me to reflect far more on my failure than on my potential. It was food for my theological thought in the early part of last week.
And then I went out to the Gettysburg campus of our new United Lutheran Seminary, so as to be interviewed by prospective interns for the 2017-18 year. And as happens every year when our interview team travels out to meet these seminarians, I was struck by the remarkable diversity of call stories that lead each intern to open up himself or herself to this strange process of discernment for ministry in the Lutheran Church. This year’s interview team of Neil Snyder, Geoff Groff and myself, again, met some wonderful individuals whose journeys into preparation for ordained ministry were both interesting compelling. But one couple in particular ignited our enthusiasm far more deeply than the others. At first glance, they seemed to have everything going against them in this journey into ordained ministry. They were an interracial couple, and the seminary intern to be was a woman who was raised in a tradition where women could not be pastors. Neither of them knew that Lutheranism even existed as one came from a non-denominational fundamentalist tradition, and the other from the Christian Missionary Alliance tradition. They found themselves reconnecting to the Christian faith through an emerging church experience of table fellowship meals and first century church ritual and practice. But when they started hearing about extravagant grace, and the rhythm of law and Gospel in faith and life, they found themselves drawn into a Lutheran piety before they even knew that the name Lutheran applied to what they were doing.
And as we experienced their enthusiasm for life, and their deep convictions about the faith they wanted to share, and the way in which they deeply trusted that they would overcome whatever obstacles arose before them … as I just sat and listened to them share their experience, I found myself thinking about my sermon for today, and wondering if “trying harder” and “being stretched a bit” by the sermon on the Mount, was enough … I wondered if it went far enough.
And I found myself drawn to these words of Kayla McClurg, who is part of the Church of Our Savior co-operative ministry in Washington DC.
From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus seeks to bring together what has been divided. Not to balance the opposites. Not to teach us to see one another as separate but equal and to encourage us to practice greater tolerance and acceptance. More than tolerance, he wants to reveal to us the potential we have to be a new entity altogether, stronger and more beautiful for our differences—a new creation revealing to the world the true nature of God. However the opposites might be identified—Jews and Gentiles, religious and secular, righteous and unrighteous, rich and poor, healthy and chronically ill, incarcerated and free, the judged and the judgmental, children and adults—Jesus knew the truth about us. We are one. Jesus does not hope that we will eventually learn to accept our differences and put up with those who annoy us or undermine us. No, he seeks something much deeper, something that will reveal more truly who God is: that we will become a new body entirely. He wants us to stop trying to find the perfect balance among all persons, perceptions, and opinions. Rather, he wants us to live together, messily, clumsily, toward the perfecting of love. He longs for us to heal the divides and be a sign to the world that it’s possible.
As a person who has striven throughout my ministry to do exactly what McClurg warns me against, namely “balancing the opposites”, I found her words to be a bit overwhelming and jarring. But I did not see myself so much as judged, as invited to consider a new reality. And I did not see myself so much as needing to try harder, as being invited to try something different. And I found myself thinking about this couple we sat with for an hour, who had so many things in life that could have alienated them from each other and from the communities in which they lived, but who found ways to not just overcome those potential divisions, but to forge them into something new and vibrant … and godly.
I don’t know yet what that kind of a process might look like in my life at the moment … or in yours. But I am convinced that in a world that is so deeply divided … and which has pockets of people who are so profoundly alienated from each other as to be separated in every way possible … and which appears to thrive on anger and judgment and division … that there must be a place for a God who asks us to believe that we might find the courage and faith to …
… turn the other cheek, and do so gladly and without resentment.
…and willingly walk a second mile with the one who dragged us along for the first mile.
… and to pray with sincerity and love for those who can only think to oppose and harm us.
These are the kinds of things we do for the ones we love. And we love God, right? So if we can do this for God, we can try to do it for each other.