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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sermon from February 20, 2011 + Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, A

“Holy and Perfect”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Text: Matthew 5:38-48; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Do you ever think of that? Do you consider what you might be like in a year from now? Or in five years, God willing that you still are here? What’s the long term hope you have for the kind of person you might become? Does it matter if you’re 80 years old? 40? Do you still hope to change, to become something different?

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Do you ever think of that? Who would you like to be like? Who are your role models, the people you admire and would like to emulate? Are they different today than a few years ago? Do you even think about this? Are you at such an age that you no longer look to others to imitate, to follow?

The funny thing about us humans is that we ask questions like that of children – preteens, teens, even college age adults. And then we stop asking. It’s as if we only have the imagination to consider that maturity is something attained or found at age 24, that hopes and dreams to become something, to become someone are only the province of the young.

That makes Jesus a bit of a quandary for any of us who have passed our mid-twenties, I would say. I’m 48, so does that mean for the last two decades I’ve had nothing to aim for, no growth to seek, no maturity to find? Of course not, we say – obviously one matures and grows as one ages. But I suggest that we often don’t subject ourselves to serious contemplation of our models and our goals the older we get. We live our lives, and try to be good folks, but we don’t often engage in conversation with each other about such things. Older adults seem far more prone to say “that’s just the way I am” instead of “I would like to be something more, something different.”
Yet we expect young people to be open to just such thoughts as the latter sentiment. And as I said, that makes Jesus problematic for we who have passed well beyond our second decade of life. Because Jesus seems to think there is no age at which we should stop seeking maturity, no time when we set aside role models and aspirations to become better people.

It’s what’s behind his audacious statement today: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And we recoil at such a statement – hiding behind such platitudes as “nobody’s perfect” or “well, he really didn’t mean perfect.” And on a Sunday when this statement of Jesus is the last word we hear from Scripture and the first one we hear is from God, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” we are bookended by two claims on our life to which we seemingly spend little time aspiring.

As people of God who claim this written Scripture as God’s Word for our lives, that seems unwise. Rather than ignoring such demands, or pretending they don’t mean what they clearly seem to say, it would be better for us, or at least more honest for us, to face them and to try to understand what they might mean for our lives.

And what we learn is interesting: we’ve misunderstood the whole idea of what holy and perfect mean, and Jesus intends to help us back to the truth.

We’ve come to consider these qualities as unattainable and somehow because of that, undesirable. So as I said last week, “holy” is used in derogatory phrases such as “holier than thou”: holiness as arrogance and self-righteous morality. And perfection is seen as impossible, so it becomes offensive when asked of us – and standards are lowered because they can’t be reached anyway. We see this in schools and in competition, but we also see it in our expectations of moral life together. So when someone finds a bag of money at a McDonalds, as happened a few years ago, we laud and praise them for returning it as if that were not simply a basic expectation of our human life together.

But “holy” and “perfect” are actually different things to the writers of Scripture than we often think. To be holy is, as Leviticus says, to be like God – but holiness has a deeper sense for God’s people. Again and again, to be holy is not to be better than others as such, it is to be imbued with the qualities of God, and to be set apart for God’s purposes. This is something Luther picks up on in his description of the work of the Holy Spirit in article 3 of both Catechisms: the Spirit sanctifies us, makes us holy, to be God’s people, to do God’s work. We are anointed in baptism, made God’s holy people, as 1 Peter reminds us, to proclaim the good news of God who has brought light into darkness. To be holy is to become people whom God sets in the world to bring people to God.

And likewise “perfect” isn’t what we’ve come to understand. The Greek word here is a word which is better understood as “complete, full, mature.” For those English majors in the congregation today, it’s “perfect” as grammarians use it in naming the perfect tense. What’s interesting is that of the nineteen times the term is used in the New Testament, seven of them are translated in the NRSV, our standard translation, as “mature,” and three others as “adult” or “full” or “complete.” Fewer than half are translated “perfect.”

Which doesn’t mean anything changes about the word, but it’s a reminder that translation is an imperfect game, and that the word in Matthew doesn’t necessarily carry all our English connotations for perfect, which tend to be things like “mistake free,” “highest quality,” “flawless.” It seems far more likely that what Jesus is saying here is this: Be mature, fully mature, fully what you were created to be, just as God is fully mature. Be like God, complete, full, and mature.

For me, that’s a significantly different feel and sense. And it makes Jesus far easier to understand. This whole sermon we’ve been hearing these past weeks is a manifesto for Jesus – it’s his statement of how he will live his life among us.

All of these claims to a new way of life, the way of God’s rule and reign, are Jesus’ statements about who and what he will be, what he has come to live among us. A life which is merciful, peacemaking, which treats anger as seriously as murder, which seeks reconciliation with sisters and brothers. And today, a life which takes that reconciliation deeper, to enemies, and brings love into the conversation for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel. A life which models the life God intended for us to live, and the only way God sees that will lead us out of the destructive patterns of retribution and selfishness which break apart and demolish our world and each other.

Jesus today calls us to God’s full maturity as one who shows us that even for humans this is possible. This is not God demanding something from on high. It is God-with-us showing us that it can be done. Showing us how it is done.

And so our call is to become this ourselves. And that shouldn’t surprise us, unless we’ve decided that we have no need to grow, no need to aspire to something better, no need to become something different.

If that’s the case, however, it makes no sense that we come here each week to hear from God’s Son about the life in the kingdom. Why do it if we don’t expect to be invited to live that new life? Surely Jesus’ original followers understood this better than we. Why else would people have followed Jesus? Not just for a ticket to heaven – he hardly talked about that. They got guidance, direction – they came because he spoke of a new thing, a new way, a new life that seemingly could change the clearly broken way of the world. And they wanted to learn to live that life, that way.

And it’s also the best way to understand a key reason for God’s incarnation among us. Why else would God have come in person? To begin the process of recreating us to be what we were meant to be. This is the new thing God keeps talking about: that we mature into people who understand the world and each other in radically different ways. God’s ways.

Where we do not offer violence for violence. Where we respond to enmity and hatred with love and prayer. Where we answer injustice by taking it on ourselves even further – going that extra mile with extravagant graciousness. Jesus understood and lived this. So did Dr. King. So did Gandhi. So did the leaders of the Egyptian revolution.

This is the maturity to which we are called – what God intended for us all along. Think of God’s pain – seen in the flood story – as this world is filled with people who cheat and hate and kill, who are selfish and ignore God while treating others with contempt. A world where it’s dog-eat-dog, everyone for themselves – a world as we see today. God’s answer? To start individually and communally reshaping people from within, with new hearts, and to help them grow to God’s maturity, a maturity which transforms the world.

Because all this is for the sake of the world – that we become signs of God’s manifest grace for all. Salt, and light.

That’s why we’re set apart – made holy. Such living will have a massive impact – think of all the nonviolent protests that have transformed whole nations. Such transformation can happen in our local places, our lives, our work, our world.

Far from being unrealistic, Jesus’ plan, Jesus’ call to us is the only way that can truly change the rules of the world’s game. Sometimes we may seem alone in this – but that’s OK. “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” Paul says in Romans. What others do we can’t control. Jesus never promises that our enemies will love us back or not harm us. He certainly experienced that. But think of the impact his teaching and life have had for the world in 2,000 years. What Jesus is saying is, “Multiply that by all my disciples and think what could happen.”

And make no mistake, this is the work of God in us – the Holy Spirit sanctifies, makes us holy, sets us apart not to be apart but to be a sign for the sake of the world. We are brought to maturity by God’s Spirit that we might transform the very fabric of our culture and our world. This holiness, this maturity is something we acquire, we are given.

It happens in our baptism as we are set apart, as Charles will be this morning. And it happens as we worship, as we gather in prayer, as we live with each other.

On February 2nd, I took out the white chasuble to vest for the Eucharist on the Presentation of Our Lord. I hadn’t worn that chasuble since January 9th, the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord. But when I took it out of the closet more than three weeks later, I could still smell the incense – it wafted up from the folds of the fabric, and having clung to those fibers for nearly a month, it now came into my nose and lungs and I remembered our worship, and our prayer to God.

In a way, that’s what happens to us as we worship every time – something of God clings to us and carries out into the world. Not that we might seem holier than others – but that we are being shaped by God into God’s image, our original design and intent. Something about us is different. And with the grace of the Holy Spirit, others will notice that. And experience God’s grace through us.

So what do you want to be when you grow up? Who do you want to be?

Jesus invites us today to say, “like you, Jesus.” Jesus invites us to aspire to grow up, to mature, to become more and more like the God who saves and loves us. No matter how old we are, there is more that the Spirit can perfect in us, complete in us, and there is more grace that we can be to change the world.

This is the gift God gives us as we gather to worship God – we are given grace and forgiveness and blessing, yes. But we are also continually remade, covered in God’s holiness, which clings to us and shapes us and matures us as we leave here, that God’s grace and blessing might continue to transform this broken world.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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