February 20, 2011
"Perfect, Just Perfect"
David A. Davis
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ … But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Dorothea’s teacher was walking around the class room handing out the spelling notebooks. Everyone knew the routine by this point in the school year. The class worked on the list of words all week: copying them from the board into their books, using a word in a sentence when called on by the teacher, writing more sentences for homework, trying to learn how the various sounds are spelled. Friday morning the teacher erased the board during recess and later, as she said the word, everyone wrote them on a fresh page in their notebook. The teacher always said it wasn’t a test but she checked them, every one of them, and she always wrote a comment on the page in the student’s book. Monday the teacher returned the books, and this particular Monday Dorothea read something in her book she had never seen before. The teacher wrote “perfect, just perfect.”
Jesus said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you….Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Kevin has been having one of those days. Everything was going wrong. From the alarm not going off, to having no clean clothes to wear, to sitting in traffic, to arriving late for work, to the computer freezing as he is trying to finish the report, to the office printer having no paper, to the boss calling to move the meeting up 15 minutes, to sitting down at the table with the other members of the team, and completely missing his mouth with the coffee cup and pouring it all down his shirt. Kevin said it loud enough for everyone to hear; “perfect, just perfect.”
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Grandma was visiting from out of town for a week or so. One afternoon, the grandchildren were unusually quiet for what seemed like a long period of time. They were coloring over at the little table and the little chairs. Grandma was reading her book and wondering why Thomas the Tank Engine was still playing on the television while no one watched. All of the sudden, Jeremy, the youngest launched his head down to his arms and burst into tears. When Grandma was able to calm him down, she asked to see what he was making. “I was making you a picture” he said, still sniffling, “see?” He showed her the grass, and the sun, and the flower. “I messed up on the tree! It looks stupid!” “No, no” Grandma said, as she immediately smoothed it out to suitably prepare it for framing, or at least for posting on her fridge at home. “Here, put your name on it for me. It’s perfect, just perfect”
Jesus said, “For if you love those who love, what reward do you have?...If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?....Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
It was a Sunday just a few weeks back. The Nassau Church instrumental ensemble was assisting in worship by playing on all the hymns. All sorts of instruments. All young people. They spent Saturday morning here at the church for their only rehearsal. The sermon that Sunday was titled “The Beauty of God”. One of the hymns was “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”. During the first service, the congregational choir and Janet at the organ, we were not keeping up with the orchestra. The trumpets were leading the way. Some of us tried to sing louder. But those who knew better, they knew to watch Jeff who was conducting the youth in the orchestra. We had to let them lead all of us; with their gifts, their notes, their rhythm, their pace, leading us…all of us singing in praise of God’s beauty. And somewhere in the congregation, somewhere, someone must have put the beauty of God together with the singing and playing of that hymn and said, “perfect, just perfect.”
Jesus said “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”. Perfect; as in absolutely correct? The absence of anything wrong? Or perfect; a term dripping with sarcasm and often used to refer to the common, everyday, always relatable experience of being human. Or maybe perfect understood as the simplest, unadulterated attempt at an act of love. Or perfect; a descriptor used when an action or expression so accurately matches the content being communicated. 100% on a spelling test. The kind of morning almost everyone can understand. A child’s artwork. An grace-filled experience of praise and worship. Perfect, just perfect.
You remember when Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury at the temple. Jesus also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. Jesus said to the disciples gathered around him, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them, for they contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty, has put in all the living that she had.” What the bible doesn’t tell us and what Jesus could have just as easily have said was “perfect, just perfect.”
When Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman broke open a very expensive jar of oil and began to anoint his head. It created quite a stir and everyone else in the room became angry and started to scold the woman. That’s when Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why yell at her. She is offering me a service and anointing my body beforehand for burial. Jesus spoke those puzzling words about the poor always being with you. “Truly I tell you, whenever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” That’s how he finished. Or in other words, “perfect, just perfect.”
When Jesus and the disciples were up around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus looked up and saw a huge crowd coming toward him. Jesus turned to Philip and asked how they were going to feed all these people. Andrew said, “There’s a little boy here who has five loaves and two fish.” Jesus told them to invite everyone to sit down. What Jesus must have been thinking was “perfect, just perfect.” After Jesus told the one about the Good Samaritan, he said to that rich lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” He could have easily said, “perfect, just perfect.” The father who embraced his lost son crying out “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found.” Those hugging words could have been “perfect, just perfect.” The wise maidens who brought enough oil to keep their lamps burning, the sheep who did all that was described unto the least of these, Martha who chose the better portion and sat at the feet of Jesus, the tax collector who beat his own chest in prayer and cried out “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” The one leper who came back to throw himself at the feet of Jesus and offered him thanks. All of them. All of them. Perfect, just perfect.
“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus could have said it in so many other places in the gospels. But when he says it here smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, when he says it surrounded by turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies, and if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off, and do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, and let your light shine before others, and when you pray, pray like this….when Jesus talks perfection in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, it sounds so much like a test, perfect as the absence of anything wrong. Grading ones’ moral fortitude. Forgiveness. Check. Generosity. Check. Purity. Check. Love check. The kind of perfect that would send every last one of us to the bottom of the curve, the back of the class, the end of the line. The kind of perfect that leaves you with a congregation of none whose only appeal would be the lack of disagreement.
John Calvin pointed out that the perfection here in Jesus teaching, the perfection is never ours. It is God’s. Perfect does not imply equality to God. It refers to a mere likeness, a slice, just a snapshot of something greater. Perfect as a window. Perfect as a taste. Perfect as a little bitty step that moves toward the goal, toward the end, toward God. As Calvin himself tries to explain this part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “there is no comparison between God and ourselves, but it is called God’s perfection when we show sheer and free generosity…However far we are from God, yet we are said to be perfect as God is, as long as we aim for the same goal.” The goal is what God presents us with in God’s very being, in God’s gracious love, what God presents us with in Christ himself. Perfect, just perfect.
It is such a pain-staking slow slog of a journey; our life in Christ, our push toward the goal. Our yearning to live as God calls and expects and empowers us to live. Yes, the Apostle Paul writes about the race. But there isn’t anything fast about you and I making progress when it comes to perfect; perfect understood as our life in God, our life in the kingdom, your life, my life in the way of Christ Jesus. Yet, we press on because God is perfect. You can’t despair at any slightness of success, Calvin argues, “for though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost…..Let each of us proceed according to our puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun”….looking toward our mark….aspiring to our goal…..striving toward the end…yearning to make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord….each day, taking one step, one baby step in the Holy Spirit, reflecting just a bit more of God’s light, one more slice of the kingdom, just a bit more of the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, each day, a bit more love, another dose of forgiveness, something more Christlike, each day, just a bit God, a tiny bit….until our baptism is complete, is made whole, is perfect. Perfect just perfect. In the life that is yet to come.
Baptismal parents are often worried about those few minutes around the fount. I have often tried to convince them not to worry about fussiness, or unhappiness of the child when we’re up here. The truth is that the better everything goes here, the smoother it all goes up here, the more distracting it is. Yes, that’s true, the more precious the moment, the more easily it is for all of us to be distracted from the truth and the power and the grace revealed in the mark of baptism. That for Caleb Carter, he will live each day, each moment of each day, walking step by step, in the grace of God. From his first step to his last step, he shall walk now and forever in the neverending love of God…and in his every act of kindness, his unadulterated acts of love, his receiving and offering forgiveness, his daring acts of generosity and hospitality and selflessness….the world will see again and again something of that mark, that goal, that kingdom, that gospel, something of the very face of Jesus.
Caleb Carter, we baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Perfect, just perfect
© 2011, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
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