THE CURSE OF PERFECTION
A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Text: Matthew 5:38-48
“A Hymn to Imperfection”
Hey! Let’s celebrate weakness!
Yes! You know!
Weakness as in failure!
Let’s celebrate the slips and slops,
the drops and falls and oh-ohs
that teach us wisdom
of what it means to be
not a human being
but a human becoming.
Let us celebrate
all those opportunities for growth
that were ours yesterday and today.
Let’s celebrate for ourselves.
Let’s celebrate for each other.
And while we’re at it,
let us give thanks
for the mistakes
we will make tomorrow.
If we find them painful
or a bit embarrassing
we can remember that perfection
means having no room
no need for anything else,
and who wants that?
Let us be grateful,
oh so deeply grateful,
that God is still shaping us.
Perfection is a curse word. Not because it is inherently so but because it has been used too often and for too long to terrorize children and adults alike. It is a bad word because it calls forth behavior and even thoughts and feelings of a utopian nature that none of us will ever achieve, I’m sure Joy Cowley must have written her “Hymn to Imperfection” as an antidote to her own experiences of being poisoned by perfection. Perfect – “conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type; entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings: accurate, exact, or correct in every detail; pure or unmixed; unqualified; absolute.” It’s enough to give a girl a headache or a boy an anxiety attack.
I don’t know if any of you lived with the dragon of perfection under your bed while growing up, but I know I did. It seemed as if the pressure was always on to do everything exactly right – color within the lines, spell every word correctly, get all “A’s” on your report card, keep clean, don’t forget, control your temper, clean up your plate. These were standards of behavior, thought and even feeling that were to be ascribed to assiduously, without ever a slip. And if you did happen to slip, well then you tried to cover it up, perfectly, of course. It simply was not safe for anyone to know you weren’t really the best little boy in the world.
This push for perfection is all compounded when, in Sunday School, you read the last line of today’s text - “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I mean you sing, with all sincerity, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in-a my heart” and then this is your instruction. It’s a little overwhelming. How can you live up to such expectations? And, by the way, it does not help at all to be the preacher’s kid. In fact, it makes it worse. There he is, living with you daily, checking up on you constantly - heavenly Father, earthly father, who is the heavenly Father’s right-hand man on earth. There is literally no place to hide. Now, please understand, my father was good and kind and strong, the best man I knew, the best man on earth as far as I could tell and – well, he was also the voice of God. The curse of perfection, I knew it from all sides.
I don’t usually start my sermons with the end of the text and work backwards. (See just one more thing I got wrong!) But the power of this last verse often undercuts the power of the verses that come before. If we tend to be terrorized by perfection and flee from it, we then tend to say of the teachings into today’s texts that they are unrealistic, utopian ideas which we will never manage to realize. “Turn the other cheek;” “Walk the extra mile;” “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” - intriguing ideas, but not likely to be lived out this side of heaven.
In fact, this may even create a quandary for the boy with the dragon of perfection under his bed. Will he ever even get to heaven with the dragon barring his way? If I have to live up to these expectations, I might as well give up now. I wonder how many have turned their backs on Christianity and walked away angry or sorrowful at this point in their lives?
So what is it that Jesus is saying here, sitting on the hillside, his followers at his feet and the crowd gathered round, listening in? “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This sentence is used to place an exclamation point on a whole series of teachings that are framed with the words, “You have heard it said….but I say to you…” He is trying to tell them how it is that he has come to fulfill the ancient law. He is trying to teach them what things are like in the reign of God. And, like that eavesdropping crowd, we, too, are privileged to listen in.
“You’ve heard the ancient lex talionis, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. You know what a civilizing law that is, reining in unchecked violence and bloodshed as vengeance escalated from one act of anger and enmity to another. You know it is meant to be enacted fairly and justly, the punishment fitting the crime. But I am telling you that, though this may be a step forward for humankind, it’s not the way it is in God’s realm. In God’s realm, you don’t resist the evildoer. I am not saying you don’t resist evil, but you do not respond to the one who has done you wrong with violence. Do not return evil for evil. In God’s realm evil is overcome with good.”
Yesterday I attended a conference, sponsored by the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County, on “Violence in Word and Deed.” We heard over and over again about how we have come to create and sustain a culture of violence in this world and in our own country. This culture of violence ranges from the unchecked sale and use of firearms, including rapid firing semi-automatic guns, to opening the Super Bowl with a celebration of the military. We tolerate racism, sexism and homo-hating bullies in our schools, send those same children off to fight on foreign soil for ill-defined purposes and wonder why they end up half-crazed or suicidal.
The realm of God is not like that, Jesus says. Yes, we need to stand up to injustice, to bullies and terrorists, to hate-mongers and all the forces of evil, but we need to do it in love. Not sentimental love, mind you, but that sort of indiscriminate, agape love that cares for all creation and causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on us all, just and unjust unlike. (And, by the way, I wonder how clearly any of us fits into those categories at any given time?)
In each of the brief illustrations Jesus gives, we see the power of love to change the way things work. In the example of turning the other cheek, Walter Wink argues that Jesus isn’t just telling his listeners and us to let ourselves get slapped around. Wink says a blow with the back of the hand was not intended to injure; rather its purpose was to humiliate. He says this blow is always given “from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period.” So when Jesus suggests turning the other cheek, it is an act of nonviolent resistance. In the process of turning your head, your cheek is no longer available, your nose is in the way. The whole effect is spoiled. Wink says, “…you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, ‘I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.’” Now, he says, “This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”
In a similar way the example of giving your tunic as well as your cloak is a way of shaming the one who is pressing for repayment of a debt on a poor debtor who has nothing to wear but these two simple garments. In a heavily shame and honor culture, the debtor, standing naked in the court room and then proceeding home in such a state through the streets of the village would be as humiliating for the one who caused such a scene to unfold as it was for the debtor who enacted it. Wink says of the naked stroll, “Everyone is talking about it and chattering and falling in behind him, fifty-hundred people marching down in this little demonstration toward his house. You can imagine it is going to be some time in that village before any creditor takes anybody else to court.”
As for the Roman soldier, who is well within his legal rights to require anyone to carry his pack for a mile, the suggestion of going beyond that mile creates a difficult situation. He expects the disgruntled conscript to complain all the way and then drop the pack precisely at the one mile marker. Wink says of the soldier, “Suddenly, this person is carrying the pack on. The soldier doesn't know why, but he also knows that he is in infraction of military law and if his centurion finds out about this, he is in deep trouble. Jesus is teaching these people how to take the initiative away from their oppressors and within the situation of that old order, find a new way of being” (Walter Wink, “The Third Way,” csec.org, November 14, 1993.)
Now whether or not Wink is right in his interpretation, Jesus seems serious about teaching us not to fight with those who persecute us. In God’s realm we don’t fight evil with its own violent methods, non-violent, loving action is God’s way. There is no doubt that this is a risky way in a world hell-bent on spreading and sustaining violence as a way of life, with a sacred right to bear arms and defend oneself at all costs. The other night I heard a broadcast tribute to the great Bayard Rustin on NPR. Rustin a black, gay, pacifist was one of the principal architects of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid twentieth century. It was he who was organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
As a young minister, not long out of school, King was called on to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Rustin, a seasoned organizer of the earliest bus rides and lunch counter sit-ins in the South, was called in to help orient King to what lay ahead. He found King and his home surrounded by armed guards. It was Rustin who persuaded King to lay own the guns because violence would only beget violence. He schooled King in the nonviolent teaching and practice of Jesus and Ghandi and King became one of a greatest prophet of nonviolent direct action, action born of the most powerful kind of love. Like Jesus, King paid with his life, but before he died he showed that nonviolence works and that love can turn the world right side up. In the end King came to realize that “Returning violence for violence only multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said, “only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Oops, what became of the curse of perfection? Jesus and those who have walked in his footsteps are bearing witness to something other than ideal types ideally realized, something other than flawless, faultless, purity. In fact, their witness is to fulfillment, completeness, wholeness. We are encouraged, as followers, to be perfect in the sense of being whole, of being complete, of living into our god likeness. We are made in the image of God and God is like this – above all filled with love. We can be similarly filled.
Bruce Epperly writes that “To be perfect like God means to embrace otherness, to promote reconciliation, and seek the well-being of all. This is truly ‘holy’ or ‘set apart’ from the values of a competitive, win-lose, individualistic culture. Our perfection is grounded in our stature and relatedness, our oneness with all creation” (Bruce Epperly, processandfaith.org, Lectionary, Year A - 2010-2011/2011-Epiphany 7.) This is perfection to which we can actually aspire and realistically fulfill.
Marcus Borg translates this verse as, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Well, isn’t that the very fulfillment that Jesus is trying to bring about here? Yes, resist evil, stand against injustice, challenge wrong-doing, but love your sisters and brothers. Be compassionate. Love your enemies, you’ll end up not having any. We are all children of God together – just and unjust alike – and God desires that we all be reconciled to one another and to God. Hard work? Yes. Can we do it flawlessly? No. Can we do it in the loving power of God through Jesus Christ? Yes, we can. We really can. The curse of perfection is broken, the dragon under the bed becomes the one who loves us into being all that we can in the joy of becoming.
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.