When I first began to get involved in an Episcopal Church, I thought the best way to learn the in’s and out’s of the worship might be to volunteer. And so I did. I was a reader, and then an acolyte, and eventually a thurifer (the one who carries the thurible with incense), and so on. With each new volunteer position, I would practice. I would go through the routine again and again, read everything I could find about the particular position, watch for cues, and aim for perfection. This went on for a while. One of my first Ash Wednesdays as an acolyte—on this occasion, a torchbearer, I thought for sure I would faith, since I had been fasting all day—a hot day, with no food, no caffeine, and me gritting my teeth, seething with rage as I tried to live out what I thought would be a “perfect” Ash Wednesday.
That first year of volunteering, an older volunteer said one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. He evidently saw me practicing, or read the worry on my face as I lived in terror of messing anything up. And so, he took me aside and said casually, “You know, John. The first time you do any new thing, you’ll probably get do it perfectly. But I assure you that just about every time you do it thereafter, you’ll make some kind of mistake.”
Words of grace, and words of truth. But no matter what field or area of life, we still aim for perfection. And it almost sounds like the Bible, and God, supports this perfectionism.
We know what “perfect” means. And yet, the word used in today’s Gospel doesn’t mean exactly what we might think. The word used is the Greek word “teleios.” And while I usually hate to sprinkle sermons with fancy-sounding words, this is one that finds it way into other fields, as in Philosophy, teleology has to do with the end or the final result of something.
A teleological argument for creation would say that all of nature is aiming and building toward an end, and this supports the argument for a creator who is behind that design.
More than “perfect,” the word has to do with reaching maturity, with being whole or complete. One writer (David A. Duke) uses the image of an acorn to explain this word. A “perfect” acorn, in this biblical sense, would not be the biggest acorn on the tree, nor the prettiest, nor the meatiest (except, perhaps to a squirrel). Instead, the “perfect” acorn in the sense Jesus is using the word, would be a full-grown, leafy, majestic oak tree. The “perfect” acorn would be the acorn that has grown to full adulthood, has grown beyond its “acorn-mind,” has grown into something that is beautiful, and helpful, and useful.
Eugene Peterson’s version of the scriptures, “The Message” makes this especially clear. He translates and paraphrases Matthew 48 not as “Be perfect;” but rather, Peterson hears Jesus say:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
The kind of perfection Jesus encourages us towards is related to God and the generosity of God. “Be whole as God is whole, be complete as God is complete.” At the end of it all, there’s the culmination in Jesus’ saying, “Be like God. Be generous like God. Surprise other people with that generosity and amazing things will happen.”
This famous saying “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” has nothing to do with accepting abuse or acting like a doormat for others. As many commentators have observed, to be hit on the right cheek in the Roman world would have normally meant that someone used the back of their hand to smack you, so it would not only be a violent act, but also—if not more so—an insult.
It meant that the person striking regarded you as lower than himself or herself, as though you were inferior—in that world, a slave, a child, a woman. Hitting back would just continue the cycle of violence. Offering the other cheek, however, is a statement: “Ok, hit me again, but this time, you have to view me as an equal.” It would change the power dynamic.
And in the other example, a rich person takes a poor person to court. If they sue for your outer garment, give them your undershirt as well, so you’re standing there naked. It won’t shame you, it shames the other person. It’s that person who has gone to such lengths to get money from a poor person.
A similar thing is meant with the Roman soldier asking someone to carry his equipment. There were cultural rules and expectations for this sort of thing. So by carrying the equipment further, you would not only startle the soldier, but break the cultural code and risk his embarrassment. You would make him look foolish.
N.T. Wright suggests that these stories are snippets, almost cartoons. Jesus is saying through these images, “imitate God.” “Be like God.” God is generous beyond what anyone would expect, so be generous with each other, be larger than your usual self.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries, holy men and woman went into the Egyptian desert looking for God and looking for themselves. Some probably went looking for what they thought might be perfection, but when confronted with their own internal demons, when confronted with the teachings and sayings of older, wiser hermits, they soon came to understand that the way to perfection is through imperfection. The way to wholeness is by admitting one’s brokenness.
There’s a great story about a desert father called Abba Moses. It seems that a brother living in community in another part of the desert had committed a fault and a kind of council was called. The brothers all wanted Abba Moses to go, but he refused. Finally, someone sent a messenger to him and said, “Abba Moses, please come. Everyone is waiting for you and for your opinion on the matter.” So Abba Moses got up and went, but he took a leaking jug filled with water, and carried it with him. The other monks came out to meet him. They saw the leaking jug and asked, “What is this, Father!” Abba Moses looked at them and said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the faults of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.
“Perfection” is illusive. Mr. Putin’s Russia has tried to create an atmosphere of perfection in Sochi, but they have created a fantasyland against a backdrop of starving people, poverty, and persecution of anyone who points out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. The state of Arizona has caved to religious fundamentalists who dream of a perfect society, defined by everyone following their rules. When we aim for perfection in our homes, our jobs, or our spiritual lives, we quickly become tyrants at worst, tiresome at best.
The fact is that those who have tried to live a Christian life before us were not perfect. We are not perfect, but the really good news today is that we’re not called to be perfect. If anything, we’re encouraged to admit our imperfection and to be generous in allowing for the imperfections of others. This generosity leads to wholeness. It leads to maturity. Such generosity helps us to grow into something like giant, beautiful, long-lived well-loved trees.
In the final chapter of Revelation there is an image of the holy city, the New Jerusalem. There is a river of the water of life. The Lamb of God presides. And there is a tree of life, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
We are those leaves, imperfect, but growing, changing, developing in generosity, all under the watching care of God. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to be perfect.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.