I am a perfectionist. Anyone else here like that?
I like for things to be just right. I can spend hours hanging the picture frame just right. I can spend days and weeks on a simple project because it’s never quite there yet. It’s a good thing that Sunday sermons are a hard deadline, otherwise I’d never finish one. And in the end, when I’ve got the image in my head, if that image doesn’t line up with reality…well, I’m not going to be very easy to work with. You can just ask my wife.
Now some will say that perfectionism is really just a sharp attention to detail. And, you know, this drive for perfection can pay off—you can really tell when someone has gotten those details right. But perfection has its limitations. Sooner or later, you’re going to miss the mark, the thing isn’t going to come together like you want. And that Sunday deadline looms.
Ultimate perfection is unattainable. And as a perfectionist, that drives me crazy!
So what is Jesus talking about when he says “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect?” Doesn’t he know that this is an impossible standard? I mean, is he setting us up for failure here?
We’re still in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount here, which of course, we’ve been working our way through in the past three weeks.
All through this sermon, Jesus is teaching us about God’s intentions for our world, he’s laying out the visions and expectations for being one of his disciples. Let’s recap: Jesus wants us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. If our hand causes us to sin, cut it off. Don’t look at people with lust. Pluck out your eye while you’re at it. Divorce and oaths…ehh…. And now, we need to turn the other check, give out our coats, go the second mile…and oh yes, BE ABSOLUTELY PERFECT.
So if everything else wasn’t hard enough, we’ve got the invitation to turn the other check. Surely Jesus knows how difficult this can be. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Let’s try to wrap our heads around that one: Jesus is not just talking about the “enemies” that annoy us or gossip behind our back. And persecution? That word gets tossed around so much its lost its meaning. Imagine being arrested and tortured and murdered for something you believe.
Jesus’ audience knew what he was talking about. Rome. Caesar. The Empire. And in our time? All the people in this world who wish us real physical harm. Those people. Those enemies.
Now this is the kicker for me. I really wish that Jesus hadn’t said this. Because I will be the first to admit that I like my enemies on one side and my friends on another with a nice barrier between them. It’s a lot easier when things are black and white and not so…murky. To be quite frank with you, I don’t want to pray for those people.
And I’m guessing I’m not alone in thinking this. It’s easy to look at these words and think that it’s a prescription for being a wimpy pushover. Turn the other cheek? Yeah right. You call that perfection? I call that a recipe for disaster.
But I think Jesus is getting at something a lot more complicated. Jesus didn’t say: “When someone slaps you in the face, go run away screaming and whining.” There are times when fleeing is the best and perhaps only response and there are times when retaliation is a necessary evil to stop a larger evil. (Though I believe those times are less frequent than we think.) But Jesus reminds us that our calling as Christians—our ideal—is to confront violence with peace. To stand there, look hatred in the eye, call its bluff.
I thought about this passage recently during the trial of Dylan Roof, the young man who has been convicted of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston in 2015.
It was the point in time before the sentencing when the families of the victims get to stand up in court and speak directly to the accused.
I’ll read you a little bit from a news article from January:
“Those who lost loved ones to Roof’s hand did not condemn or assail him. They did not minimize their pain and suffering, but they told Roof that they could not be brought to hate him, despite what he did, despite his admission in a jailhouse journal that he had “not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
[Felecia Sanders] clutching the tattered Bible she carried to the church on the night of the shooting . . . said she can no longer shut her eyes to pray out of fear of another attack. But she said she can still find comfort in the torn and bloodied book she showed to the court.
“Yes, I forgive you,” Sanders said. “That’s the easiest thing I had to do.”
To the man who killed her son and eight others she sat with. To the man who remains unrepentant and unremorseful. To that person…to his face she says: “Yes, I forgive you. That’s the easiest thing I had to do.”
Can you imagine? It’s a tall order, indeed.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
This is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of great moral strength. It is a glimpse of God’s own perfection.
We see through the example of Jesus just how far this perfection goes. When Jesus was slapped in the face he turned the other cheek. When he was arrested and hung on a cross, he continued to love and forgive his executioners. But you see, just when the enemies of God thought they had put him down for good, God raised him up.
This should go against everything that we’ve experienced. But as Paul says today, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” God is constantly overturning our understanding of the world. God is constantly reversing this world’s values.
Through Jesus, God’s love triumphs over hate. Through Jesus, we imagine a reality where no one is slapped in the face, where no one is robbed of their coats, where all people walk that mile together. That perfect kingdom of God.
Now we are certainly not there yet. The perfectionist in me really can’t stand that. Wouldn’t it be great if the picture hung straight the first time or the computer never crashed? Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the world thought like me and all my enemies just gave up and we’d all go on being friends?
I think it’s safe to say that that day will not arrive in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime, or our children’s children. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope for it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t imagine it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for it.
As we get ready to close the Sermon on the Mount for now, let’s carry forward Jesus’ tough words and his tough love. As we go forward, remember all the ways in the last four weeks that Jesus has shaken you by the collar. Remember how he called you to live as a bright, shining light for the world.
And today, Let’s be strong enough, together, to walk that extra mile. Let’s remember the brave people who confront evil everyday. Let’s be generous enough, together, to give our coats away. Let’s be bold enough, together, to turn the other cheek. Let’s be brave enough, together, to do the hard work of loving those who do not love us back. Let’s strive for perfection, even if we fall short. Let’s imitate God’s perfect love because it is that love that saves us all.