Sunday, February 23, 2014

Be Perfect?

Matthew 5:38-48 
February 23, 2014

            "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life ... I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die.  The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
            Those are the words of Anne Lamott, in her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life."  Lamott is my role model in writing, in humor, in faith and in living.   This quote comes from the chapter in the book appropriately entitled, "Perfectionism."  It follows a chapter about writing lousy* first drafts.  The most successful, profound, prolific writers all begin with a lousy first draft.  She counsels writers to just put everything out there, get a whole bunch of words on paper, even if you think most of them are junk.  Write a lousy first draft.  Then in the second draft, you can begin to unearth the treasure from all the trash. 
            The problem comes when you try to write a perfect first draft.  Lamott's contention is that perfectionism kills writing.  You can't write with any freedom if you're trying to make every word perfect from the get-go.  Perfectionism kills creativity.  I know this to be true.  How many times have I had what I think is a great idea for a story or a poem or an essay, but freeze up when I actually try to write it?  I edit each word as I go, trying to perfect every phrase the minute it reaches the paper.  But my need for my great idea to be perfect kills my ability to write it.  There have been far too many times when I've given up on an idea before I even write one word.  Why write it if it can't be perfect?
            "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people."  Perfectionism kills creativity.  It kills in other ways as well.  A minister friend of mine, who has become a mentor to me, is officially retired, but continues to serve churches and the denomination in a variety of ways. She is the most joyful person I've ever met.  I asked her several months ago, how she does it.  How does continue to find joy in ministry when ministry can be so incredibly hard?  My friend looked me straight in the eye and said she hasn't always felt this kind of joy in her work as a minister.  At one point, in her work with a congregation, her perfectionism caused her so much anguish and pain that she was suicidal.  
            "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people."  My struggle with perfectionism goes far beyond my writing.  How many times in my life have I said, "Oh I'll try this or I'll do that when I..."  When I what?  Lose 20 pounds, paint the house, remodel the kitchen, scrub the walls.  I am the master of not doing something because I think that my life or myself has to be perfect before I can.   But what has that done except make me put off living?  No one and nothing is perfect.  So perfectionism, and I know I'm not alone in my wrestling with this particular demon, takes away our ability to be joyful, to try new things, to live a full life. 
            "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people."  I could probably say "amen," right now and we could all go home, determined not to give into perfectionism and enjoy life.  Except for the fact that in the last verse of our gospel lesson, Jesus says two little words that seemingly undo everything I've just said. 
            Jesus says, "Be perfect."  And not just "Be perfect," but "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  So not only are we told by Jesus to seek perfection, but our model of perfection is God.  This one verse is tough enough, but what makes Jesus' words even more challenging, is that they follow on the heels of a list of commands that make perfection seemingly impossible. 
            "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."   Jesus goes on to say, if someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak.  If someone makes you walk one mile, go a second mile.  Give to every person who begs from you.  Don't refuse anyone.  What's more, love your enemies and pray for the people who persecute you. 
            These words are beautiful, lovely examples of prose, and they are ones that we've heard countless times. Think about how many common expressions are found in this passage.  Turn the other cheek.  Go the second mile.  Although it's not an exact quote, the phrase, "giving someone the shirt off your back," comes to mind when I read about giving someone not only your coat but your cloak. 
            Lovely, familiar words.  Here's the problem.  Jesus means them.  We are to turn the other cheek.  We are to go the second and the third and the fourth mile.  We are to give the clothes off our back.  We are to love our enemies, and we are to pray with all sincerity for the people who persecute us, the people who make our lives miserable.  And we are to be perfect, like our God is perfect.  Jesus means it.  I know that saying apparently flies in the face of my sermon from last week.  In light of Jesus' antithesis about anger, adultery, divorce and making exaggerated promises, I reminded all of us that God values us and our relationships, broken and imperfect as we all may be.  Now this week, in these verses that immediately follow last week's lesson, we hear Jesus say, "Be perfect." 
            What do we do with this?!  The hallmark of our humanity is that we are imperfect.  How are we supposed to be perfect?  If we follow Jesus' other commands, won't we just be passive doormats; taking whatever nastiness people throw at us without even a whimper of protest?  How do we follow these commands?  How do we actually do what Jesus says we should do?  How can we possibly be perfect?
            I think we have to look deeper at the word perfect.  Is Jesus calling us to be perfect as we understand it?  Is he calling us to perfectionism; meaning that how we look, what we do, what we produce, what we say is without flaw?  Or does perfect mean something else? 
            The word that is translated as perfect is the Greek word telos.  It's basic definition is end.  A philosophical term, teleology, has its root in telos.  Teleology is about looking at the end result of something.  For example, do the ends justify the means?  So when Jesus tells the disciples and us to be telos, is he saying be perfectionists?  Follow me and do everything exactly right, no mistakes?  Or is he saying that the result, the end of discipleship, of following him is being perfect as God is perfect. 
            How is God perfect?  God is perfect in love.  I don't believe Jesus was commanding anyone to live a flaw-free life.  But I do believe that he was instructing them and us to love as God loves; to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We are called to love, and at the risk of being redundant, this kind of love is active.  This kind of love is embodied.  Jesus telling the disciples to turn the other cheek was not a command to, "Be ye a doormat or a pushover."  It was a command to say, "You can strike me, but I'm not going to retaliate."  Jesus is calling them and us to refuse to cooperate in what the world tells us is normal.  We are not to cooperate with the norm that says violence for violence is acceptable.  We are not to participate in retaliation or revenge or even holding grudges, because our participation only perpetuates the cycle of retaliation and revenge and ongoing grudge matches.  The world is stuck in a deep groove of an eye for an eye, and retaliation and giving back what we're given only seems to be making that groove deeper.  Yet in these verses, Jesus says, "Enough."  If we are going to follow him, if we are going to walk this narrow path of discipleship, then we have to love as God loves.  Even if loving in this way goes against everything we've been told is right and just.   It seems to me that Jesus is saying there is no such thing as a proportional response to evil.  Evil in response to evil is still evil.  But if we truly claim to be disciples of Jesus, then our only response is love.  Loving in this way is not passive or weak.  Loving in this way is courageous.  Loving in this way is extravagant and abundant and over the top.  Hard to do?  Absolutely.  Yet isn't that how God loves us?  Extravagantly, abundantly and over the top?  Jesus is not demanding flawlessness, but he is demanding love.  His imperative is that we love as God loves; and as we do that, as we strive for that, as we put our whole being into loving neighbor as self, then maybe in the end we will be the people God created us to be.  You know, perfect. 
            Let all God's children say, "Alleluia!"  Amen.

*Lamott uses a different word to describe this first draft.  While this writer doesn’t have a problem with this word in general, she deemed it inappropriate for preaching purposes.  She hopes Ms. Lamott will understand.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In A Relationship

Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2015

            According to the website, Statistics Brain, as of January 1, 2014, there are 54,250,000 single people in the United States.  Of those people, 41,250,000 have tried online dating.  In a study that came out last summer, a study that was also funded by eHarmony – one of the largest of all the online dating sites – one third of all marriages today are couples who met on-line. 
People who want to give online dating a shot have plenty of different sites to choose from.  One article that I read stated that there are as many as 2400 online dating sites.  2400.  There is a dating site for every possible interest, character trait, or quirk you can think of.  There are sites with names most of us have heard of:  eHarmony,, Zoosk, and Christian Mingle.  There’s also OurTime, for singles over 50, FarmersOnly, for, you know, farmers, OkCupid, Plenty of Fish, Black Singles, JDate – a site for Jewish singles, Luv@FirstTweet, Manhunt, Great Expectations, FindSoulmateatMyLoveWebsite, MeetAnInmate, Geek 2 Geek, and, my favorite, Soulgeek. 
            The yentas and the matchmakers that brokered marriages in centuries past are now found online.  By the looks of it, they are thriving.  They’re thriving because people of all ages, creeds, ethnicities, shapes, sizes, city dwellers and rural residents want to be in a relationship.  Even people who are not looking for romantic love want to be in some sort of relationship – friendships, partnerships, companionships.  As philosophers have termed it, humans are “social animals.”  We need connection.  We need community.  We need relationships.  They’re not just for Valentine’s Day.
            Relationships are at the core of our passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning, a passage that is found in the larger context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Obviously Jesus is not referring to ways in which we can meet other people.  He is not referring to our relationship status updates on social media.  Instead Jesus is speaking, preaching about broken relationship. His words in this section of the sermon are known as the “antitheses” in biblical scholarship.  Each antithesis begins with Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said …”
            “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ’You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But 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.” 
            That’s just for anger.  I don’t believe I qualify for anger management classes, but I certainly can get angry.  If I am pushed hard enough, my temper flares.  I don’t like to think about how many times over I could be liable to the fires of hell for my anger alone.   
            Jesus makes the correlation between anger and murder.  It’s not just about the physical act of murder.  It is about what is in the very heart of a person.  It is about the anger we carry within us, even if we don’t act on it in a violent manner.  Who among us hasn’t, in a moment of anger, said, “I’m so mad at (fill in the blank) that I could kill (fill in the blank)?”  We know that it is horrendous to act upon that instinct.  Jesus says that it is equally horrendous to think it. 
            In each of these antitheses, there is also a given way to remedy or deal with the wrong that is done.  Jesus tells the disciples that if we are angry with someone, or if someone is angry with us, before we can bring our gifts to the altar, we must reconcile with that person.  We are to leave our gifts at the altar and go work it out with the person with whom we are in strife.  In our context that would mean putting off partaking of the Lord’s Supper and reconciling with the person or the people we have a broken relationship with. 
            Have we done this?  I know I haven’t.  We celebrated the Lord’s Supper last week, and I’m sure I came to the table with some anger at some person.  I’m sure I stood at this table with frustration, with unreconciled relationships.  What about you?
            Jesus doesn’t stop with anger.  He goes on to talk about lust and adultery, divorce and swearing falsely. 
            In the context of that culture and in the context of the Law itself, adultery was defined as something done only by the woman.  A married woman who had a relationship with another man was the adulterer.  This was not true for a married man.  A man could have several wives and concubines.  We have examples of this throughout scripture; starting with Abraham, the patriarch of our faith.  It was a patriarchal society, so the burden of adultery was on the woman’s shoulders, not the man’s.  That’s the way it was.  But as one commentator put it, Jesus reorients, reaffirms and radicalizes the Law of Moses  It is not just about the physical action of adultery, nor is the onus of adultery only on the woman.  If a man looks at a woman with lust, if he, in our more contemporary terms, objectifies her, then he is guilty of adultery.  It is about what is in the heart and what is in the intent, as much as it is about the physical action.
            Jesus says it is better to tear out your right eye, cut off your right hand, purposely lose bits and pieces of yourself than have your whole body thrown into hell.  Yes, Jesus was speaking in hyperbole – exaggerated, extreme speech – in order to get his point across.  But his hyperbolic language does not detract from the radical demands Jesus makes of anyone who follows him.
            Now we come to what is, for so many of us, the hardest part of this passage to hear – Jesus’ words about divorce.  At that time, divorce could only be initiated by the husband, and all he had to do to divorce his wife was write it down and hand it to her.  I’ve heard from some sources that the husband merely had to speak it three times:  I divorce you.  I divorce you.  I divorce you.  It was done.  Cause or reason for the divorce does not seem to have been a factor.  If a wife burned bread, the husband had just cause to divorce her.  That is certainly different from the causes of divorce in our context. 
            But in any context these are difficult words to hear.  For as much as people desperately want to be in relationships, those relationships often end.  Half of all marriages end in divorce, and it is no secret that I understand at a new level the pain of that statistic.  All of us have been directly or indirectly affected by divorce.  Even if we ourselves are not divorced, we know people who are.  We have family members who are divorced; friends, colleagues.  How do we hear Jesus’ words?  How do we reconcile ourselves to them? 
            In the last of the antithesis that we read today, Jesus speaks about swearing.  This is not about using bad language.  It’s not about cussin’, as we called it when I was a kid.  It is about oaths, swearing on or by something.  Growing up, a common phrase I heard was, “I swear on a stack of Bibles.”  In that sense it was to add emphasis to whatever was being promised.  Yet Jesus warns against that.  Do not swear on heaven.  Do not swear on earth.  Heaven and earth belong to God.  Do not swear on Jerusalem, that is the city of the great King.  Do not swear on something else as a way of guaranteeing you keep your promises and your oaths.  If you make a promise, keep it.  Do not swear to keep it.  Keep it.  Let your word be “yes, yes” or “no, no.”  Do not swear by something to do something, then break the promise you’ve made.  It is just one more way of breaking relationship. 
            As I said earlier, Jesus is speaking about broken relationships.  We harm one another, we break our relationships.  We break them not just in our actions, but in our thoughts.  We also must keep in mind, again, that these antitheses were not spoken by Jesus in some random conversation with his disciples.  They were spoken in the Sermon on the Mount; the sermon that began with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are …the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the meek, the persecuted, the reviled.  In this sermon, Jesus tells those who will follow him that they are salt and light.  We are called to be salt and light to a broken world.  Relationships are broken.  People are broken.  But we are called to live righteous lives.  This doesn’t mean that we are perfect. It does not give us justification to be self-righteous or smug or self-serving.  We, the broken, are called to serve, to minister to, and to love the broken.  But wounded as we are, in following Jesus, we have been given a glimpse of the kingdom in our midst.  Even in this broken, hurting world, we can see a bit of the kingdom reflected even in the places and in the people that seem most shattered.  Our calling is not about avoiding broken relationship.  We all have them, in one way or another.  No, our calling is to work for their healing. 
            To quote the late Paul Harvey, we who know the rest of the story know that Jesus came to heal what is broken.  His birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was about restoring relationship.  His coming restored our relationship with God.  His ministry sought to restore our relationships with one another.  Jesus came for the hurting and the sick.  Jesus came for the forgotten and the oppressed.  Jesus came to bind up the broken-hearted.  Jesus came to tell the least of these that they were valued by God.  Jesus came to show us in his very being what it means, what it truly means, to be in relationship.  The very trinity we proclaim – God, three in one – is a model of relationship.  This passage, as harsh and as painful as it is, is about relationship.  That is Good News.  It is good news because it reminds us that God values us.  God values our relationships.  Broken as they are, broken as we are, we are valued by God.  We are loved by God.  That’s why we are called to restore, to reconcile, to heal what is broken; in ourselves and in the world.  God loves us, broken as we are.  That is Good News, indeed.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia.”  Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Micah 6:1-8
February 9, 2014

            I met Celia in college.  Celia was the first person I knew who did what we now call a gap year.  Like most of her classmates, she started college right after high school, but soon realized she wasn't quite ready for the challenges that come with going off to school.  So she decided to take a break for a year or two, work and figure out what to do next.  One of the things she did during that interim was to participate in an Outward Bound course.  Outward Bound is wilderness training.  Participating in an Outward Bound expedition not only offers you the chance to learn about living and surviving in nature, it also helps you discover what you're made of.  There are expeditions all over the country.  You can sail the coast of Maine, ride the rapids in the Rockies, or go dog sledding and cross country skiing in the Boundary Waters.  Some of the courses are designed for a week or two.  Some are a month, and some are an intense semester or more.  Celia chose intense. 
            She spent a semester in an expedition out west, hiking, camping, and trying to survive.  One of the hiking practices in Celia's Outward Bound group was that the slower, less confident hikers took point.  That meant that the slowest hikers found themselves at the front of the line, leading the way for everyone else.  This forced everyone to adjust their pace to accommodate the slower hikers.  It wasn't easy for the slower folks.  It wasn't easy for the hikers who wanted to move fast.  For the first few weeks Celia was always placed at the head of the hiking line. One day the group was hiking a particularly steep trail and they came to a gap between one rock and the next.  Between that gap was a sheer drop to the ground below; far below.  Celia told me the gap really wasn't that wide, but it required a significant stretch of the legs if you were tall or a small jump if you were shorter to get across.  Celia looked at the gap.  She looked at the path on the other side.  She looked at the drop.  Then she started to cry.  Because she was hiking point, the whole line came to a screeching halt. 
            It didn't take long for the entire line of hikers to know that something was wrong, and to a hiker they tried to help Celia.  They encouraged her.  They gave her reassurance that she would be okay.  They helped her face her fears about crossing over the gap.  They told her to take her time and that they would wait until she was ready.  At the beginning of their intense semester together, the more experienced hikers would have become frustrated at being stopped like this.  They would have resented her tears and resented her for letting fear slow them all down.  But the point of Outward Bound isn't to offer an exotic vacation.  And although it does focus on leadership, it's not just about forming leaders either. It's about taking a group of strangers and helping them become a community; a community that is built on trust, support and respect.  This is a community that is created not only in the hiking and camping and surviving, but in the walking.  Celia's community gathered around her, and it wasn't so they could get the line moving again and the hike back on track.  They gathered around her because they had been walking together, literally and figuratively.  They had been walking together, and in their walking they had come to care for and love one another.  That's why they encouraged Celia, because they had been walking together. 
            Walking is at the heart of our passage from Micah.  That seems strange at first, because we don't hear about the walking until the end.  This particular pericope from the prophet is essentially a courtroom scene.  Israel is the defendant.  God is the plaintiff.  The Lord has a "controversy with his people."  The hills and the mountains will witness to the case the Lord makes against his people.  The Lord reminds his people of their story.  He brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt.  He lead them in the wilderness.  The Lord delivered them, and how do they respond to his care and salvation?  They fall away from God's teachings, time and time again.  They make the rich richer and the poor and the needy go hungry and empty handed.  They forget the least of these in their midst.  They seek after other gods.  They forget their own story. 
            Israel answers God's claims.  In verses 6 and 7, they ask what will finally make God happy?  A list of gradually greater offerings is suggested; burnt offerings, calves a year old, thousands of rams, ten thousands rivers of oil.  It finally culminates with the offering of their first born.  Would even the offering of their first born children finally satisfy The Lord? 
            Micah, the narrator of this drama, adds the final words.  None of this extravagance, none of this wild sacrifice is necessary.  The Lord has told them already what is required of them.  "He has told you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
            Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly. 
            At first glance it seems that doing justice comes first, followed closely by kindness, and then when you've mastered the first two, you have the time and resources to get walking.  Except it doesn't work like that.   What has to come first, what must come first, is the walking.  We walk humbly with our God, and from that walk flows the love of kindness, and out of our kindness comes our desire to do justice.  The walking humbly with God is the foundation for loving kindness and doing justice.  
            It seems to me that when we set out on this humble walk with God, we don't just haphazardly scatter acts of kindness and justice to people as we walk past them.  Walking with God means we also walk with God's children, whoever and wherever they are.  We walk with God and we walk with "the least of these."  I think that is the call implicit in this passage.  We're called to walk with God and to walk with others.  But it's far too easy to miss that point.  Instead we see walking with God as our personal journey alone.  This humble walk required of us isn't about singing a few verses of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," and thinking that we've got it all figured out.
            Jessica Krey Duckworth, one of the theologians at the conference I attended in the Twin Cities a week ago, said that, "faith is the journey toward the world."  Faith is the journey toward the world.  The walking that God calls us to do is about walking in the world.  It is a walk with the broken people, the angry people, those who are hurting and those who hurt.  Our loving kindness, our doing justice is about walking with God's children; not only beside them, but also, to borrow a cliche, in their shoes.  Loving kindness is about our willingness to try on those shoes no matter how uncomfortable they may be.  Doing justice is being willing to carry them when their walking becomes unbearable.  And we do this because in our own humble walking with God, others have tried on our shoes and others have carried us.  Our humble walking with God calls us to walk with others just as God walks with us. 
            In the town meetings we've had and will continue to have to discuss the vision and future for our congregation and our ministry, I've been quite open about changes I don't want to make.  I've seen the possible changes we've begun to propose about our building and our location as a threat to the call I felt to come here.  But time away is not only good for learning and rest, it's also good for finding new perspectives and new insights.  This humble walking we're called to do is not going to take us down the same unchanging path.  This humble walk with God will take us in different directions, across variegated terrain, and into new, strange and potentially frightening territories.  The changes that may be in our future seem uncertain if not downright scary.  But if not changing prevents me from humble walking, from loving kindness, from doing justice, then I have stopped doing what the Lord requires of me.  And like the Israelites, I have put my faith more in empty words and shallow rituals than I have in God.  I have trusted my own sense of knowledge more than I have trusted in God's wisdom.  If this is true, than I have forgotten why I'm walking at all.  Faith is a journey toward the world.  If bricks and mortar prevent rather than open the door to walking in God's world, then let me be the first to knock them down.  What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God ... into the world.  We are required to get walking.  So let's get walking.  And let all God's children say, "Alleluia!"  Amen.