Question for the audience:
How do you define perfection?
If you are a student, think back to a time when you prepared that bit of homework so carefully. You worked very hard, you spent lots of time on it—you felt good about it. When you turned in your work to the teacher, you felt a surge of confidence because…
It was perfect.
Surely you would be rewarded for what you did.
But when the teacher returned your homework, shock fell over you. Apparently, the teacher thought that what you did what anything but perfect! You just couldn’t understand why your teacher didn’t see the perfection in all the time, creativity, and effort you put into that project. But the lower-than-perfect grade, marked clearly in red on your paper, left a permanent, bad taste in your mouth and in your experience.
Just like poor Ralphie from a Christmas Story.
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect…
Right. This word perfect rubs me the wrong way.
But the word in the original language of this New Testament passage is telos [Greek], and perhaps perfect is not an adequate English translation. Because telos is not about being morally perfect but more about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity.
That is, telos is like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit.
Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in the growth.
In fact, let’s take this notion of perfection further. Let’s say that be perfect is like saying be like nature in its perfection.
Have you ever stopped to notice nature’s perfection recently? It’s amazing. There is harmony there. Nature is balanced. Just when you think nature is unbalanced, it recuperates and reminds you of its…perfection.
You see, it’s not about doing things the “right” way all the time [whatever that means]; or following a bunch of rules; or even trying to make New Year’s resolutions or religious promises that you obviously won’t be able to keep.
What if, instead, we thought about our identity differently. Like nature–like that tree–God purposes for all of us to grow up , to mature, in our love, compassion, our joy, our peacefulness, and our wholeness.
What if we thought about the whole journey of life as walking towards that tall tree that eventually bears delicious fruit?
It’s not checking things off on a list or striving for the kind of perfection that garners applause or scores of 10 by judges.
If I were to ask you:
How can you love perfectly?
What would you say?
Well, Jesus would say:
Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways and with different actions according to where they are in life.
Love isn’t abstract in this sense.
Love is a concrete act of compassion, understanding, and empathy with no borders, limits, rules, or formulas. Love just is.
Sometimes love will hurt, and that’s the point.
Love that is easy and comfortable and always wonderful is not really love.
Love requires us to grow up when we don’t want to—leaving resentment behind.
Love asks us to bear fruit for others—no matter who they are or where they are from.
Love is perfect as nature is.
Love has seasons and rainy and snowy times, and sunny and blue-sky times.
But here’s the challenge—many times a sermon on a mount or a sermon in a church means very little once it’s over. I can talk and talk, but what will we all DO?
So I have to ask myself and you have to ask yourself:
What gets in the way of you being a tree that keeps growing?
What keeps you from identifying as someone who is loved by God?
What keeps you from loving people as they need to be loved?
Because these words:
Don’t take revenge on another.
Be generous without expecting a pat on the back.
Love your enemies.
Love those who don’t love you.
Love those outside of your tribe and social circles.
Just love people.
The words ought to inspire us to be telos: complete.
Imperfectly perfect in every way.
Accept how you are made. You are not perfect and you never will be.
But you can love someone as they need to be loved.
You can be compassionate with someone who has been left on the curb.
You can choose to reject the evil idea that some people count and some people don’t.
And you can choose to let your life grow and move and fill up with opportunities to love.
That can be a decision you make.
And look—nobody is saying that this is easy. Jesus himself never painted this whole love your neighbor and your enemy thing as easy. It is hard, hard work. And you will encounter disappointments and times when your tree will lose its leaves and need more water and feel that its branches cannot support any more.
But it’s like Jose Luis Sampedro, humanist, writer, and economist from Spain once said:
We should live as much as possible like trees
That after passing through a bad year
Grow new leaves and
So may you begin again to discover how you are loved and can love.
May the sermon be nothing other than a memory.
May your day to day actions of love and compassion be the road you travel on.
Stop focusing on being perfect; focus on being whole.
Grow up, spread your branches, provide shelter for other living beings.
Mature, walk towards wholeness, embrace the life that is in you.