Last Sunday! Ugh. We faced a lot.
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Old First Reformed Church
February 19, 2023
Matthew 5: 38-48; 17: 1-16
Be Perfect as God Is Perfect
I have to confess that I am a little disappointed to be preaching today. It’s not that I am not happy to see all of you, my church family, and to be back in our beautiful new space. Just the opposite. It is a thrill to be back. But, you see, I was looking forward to hearing Michael’s sermon today. His sermon last week was extraordinary, focused on the law, a topic many preachers simply skirt. Michael showed us that the purpose of the law, whether in Deuteronomy or in Jesus’s sermon on the mount, is to form the people of God into a righteous and just nation. The law given through Moses at Sinai was given after a period in which the people of Israel roamed seemingly aimlessly in the desert, a herd of cats, murmuring against Moses their leader and God. God appeared on the mountain and promised to make them a holy nation. The mechanism for creating that holy nation and kingdom of priests was a just and holy law, a new constitution for a nation committed to just relationships between people and faithfulness to God. Jesus’s sermon on the mount was delivered also to form and define a new and holy nation, a nation Jesus proclaimed as the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’s instructions were not unreachable ideals designed to make everyone feel guilty for not obtaining them but a vision of what life would be like in this new kingdom God had promised. The meek would inherit. Peacemakers would be blessed. Not only would there be no murder, but hatred would be so constrained that no one would call another a fool. Imagine that. No, I mean it. Imagine that. Imagine the distance between that kingdom and the one we daily inhabit, where murder is the nightly news and peace not even a fond dream. The law is not our burden. It is our dream, our vision, our fondest desire. And Michael in his wonderful sermon took us there.
So is there more to say about the law? Michael must have thought so, since he chose the continuation of the sermon on the mount as today’s reading and then joined it with the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. I want to hear where Michael was going and maybe he can continue when he is back in the pulpit next week. But let me say where I saw this discussion of the law going: to the last sentence in the first Matthew reading: Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.
Read as a demand on our behavior, that sentence can cause a shudder rooted in despair. Which of us wants to claim that we are as perfect as God? Which of us can even imagine such a thing? So all that word ‘perfect’ makes us feel is the distance between what God expects of us and what we can conceivably perform, even given our best will. Perfect is not a word I regularly direct to myself. If that is God’s demand, then I am pretty well lost. And I know it.
But what if this perfection is not about us, exactly, about stirring up our inadequacies? What if it is about God, as, indeed, it seems to be? What if it is God, God in heaven, who is perfect, as it says. If we are to think of God’s perfection, then all the specific examples of behavior point not to our inadequacies, but to God’s nature and the way that God acts toward the world. What if it is God who does not resist the evildoer, much less take an eye for an eye? What if it is God who willingly gives up God’s cloak or walks the extra mile? What if it is God who gives generously to anyone who asks? Who loves enemies and receives prayers for them? Indeed, God is presented as the model for that empathy and compassion. Doesn’t God give the rain to all who need it, whether they deserve it or not? Shine the sun on sinner and saint alike? All these actions, so rare in human experience, show us who God is. Generous, compassionate, patient, oriented to the welfare of the other rather than one’s own interest, peace alive, patient of faults. All these virtues and actions are characteristics of a loving and gracious God. Is God perfect? Yes. God is perfect. God turns the other cheek, walks the extra mile, calls no one fool, lends to anyone who asks. Perfect.
Then we are called also to be perfect as God is. But that call is not to fearfully fulfill all the high ethical demands set before us. Or else. The call is rather to participate in God’s nature, to be drawn so deeply into the wonder of God that our own actions reflect God’s character, indeed, God’s most profound desires for us. Jesus is not laying out criteria for judgment: fail to give a dollar to one who asks at risk of divine judgment. When we orient our lives and our actions, our social interactions, on the profound nature of God, then, in Jesus’s terms, we enter the kingdom of heaven. We enter into the realm defined by God’s perfection. It is a better world than the one we too well know because it is grounded and growing within God’s own being.
Michael said last week that the law – and these instructions from Jesus – are not about individual salvation, you compel yourself to do these difficult things and then you earn your way into heaven. That is completely right. Jesus is talking about where we are going, not how we get there. But that does not mean that there are no implications for how we treat one another and interact with one another. We are called not to fulfill every instruction but to seek first the kingdom of God. If we can see the vision of God that Jesus so clearly gives us, not just see it but, in faith entered into it, then our actions toward one another can be transformed, can be more God-like. Do we give another our coat? Well, many have in our clothing closet. Do we forgive our enemies? Well, that is more difficult, but when we witness that forgiveness, we recognize the kingdom of God coming into existence. Here in Pennsylvania think of the Amish community that was able to forgive the man who murdered their children. Or our own struggles, so very fraught, to find common ground with those we disagree with politically. To be sure we stumble as we try to live within the realm of God’s goodness, but the vision can still transform our community here and now. We can act in ways that reflect God’s perfection. An eye for an eye is destructive and perpetuates violence, only generosity and forgiveness like God’s own generosity and forgiveness allow us to live in peace with one another and even delight in our life together. Jesus’s sermon is not to harness us to a challenging set of rule but to lead us to imagine life lived within God’s perfection. The details are our own. How will we get coats to the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria? Or share our cloaks, our overwhelming economic advantages, with those struggling to find shelter and food? Maybe our new building should be named God’s cloak.
Michael paired the last parts of Jesus sermon on the mount with the story of the transfiguration. That connection cost me a lot of sleep. But I finally think there is a deep connection. At the transfiguration Jesus is revealed as the triumphant Son of God, the king who is to come together with the perfect kingdom. He meets with Moses, the original architect of God’s holy nation, and with Elijah, the harbinger of the coming kingdom. His whole being glows, revealing the glory of the king of heaven. But when Jesus goes down the mountain he tells the disciples who were with him not to tell anyone what they have seen until after his death and resurrection. Why not? It is a wonderful vision, the triumphant Messiah come to rule God’s eternal kingdom. Shouldn’t they shout that news? But Jesus prohibits them from shouting. For now. There will be a time to celebrate the kingdom and its Messiah. That time is after Jesus’s death, his ignominious death. Here is the secret of the perfect kingdom. The kingdom is not inaugurated when everyone succeeds in becoming perfect as God is perfect. If we are waiting for that perfection, then the kingdom will never come. Must we then despair. No, the kingdom of God does come. The kingdom comes when Jesus embodies God’s perfection, forgiving those who demand his death, those who stand mocking as he dies. Jesus’s transfigured glory emerges from the shadow of death and is given to us though we cannot attain it for ourselves. Then a new people is formed, a new society, all those who drawn into the perfection of God’s love and God’s grace. We are invited to be that perfect people, not because we are in ourselves perfect but because God is.