Behavioral scientists have written volumes on chasing perfectionism – a pursuit that makes us less willing to try new things, often paralyzing us with great fear and anxiety. It’s actually altering our perceptions and personalities.
And just this week there was a segment on NPR about how Photoshop have changed the way we see ourselves, because it literally can change the way we look. Perfect skin and hair are just a few clicks away. I think there’s a part of me who is a protectionist, but one with a procrastinator complex. Someday know I will be totally awesome. Actually, as long as everything is exactly how I want it I am totally flexible.
This Wednesday, the church kicks off Lent where many of us will fast from something we love for the following 40 days. This is a perfect spiritual discipline, unless you are a perfectionist, because the chance of failure is pretty much guaranteed. Lent is a time to fail. That’s the point. It’s a time to learn and grow from our mistakes. You might say it’s because of our imperfections we become perfect.
Jesus has something to say about this too. As we come to the end of Matthew 5, Jesus seems to raise the bar on what it means to be perfect.
Read Matthew 5:38-48
“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; and 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. “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Be perfect as God is perfect. Who’s in? Better yet, who’s terrified? Let’s face it, Jesus is good at scaring us – challenging us to do what seems impossible by human standards. He calls us into the kingdom of heaven where people love and pray for their enemies, give to those who beg, and turn the other cheek. His is a world where vulnerability is a strength.
On this mountain top, Jesus reorientates the way we see ourselves and others. To be perfect as God is perfect. So why does it feel like a set-up?
By definition, to be perfect is to have the required characteristics to be as good as it is possible to be. In his remarkable career Kobe Bryant never stopped perfecting his game. He drove himself to be the greatest athlete in the NBA. But truth be told, he was just trying to outdo what Michael Jordan had perfected. LeBron James is doing it with Kobe. And now the Greek Freak has his sights on besting LBJ. By definition, there can only be one at the top. And Jesus makes it very clear who the GOAT is.
Now think about all the hard work you put into pushing yourself to be the perfect parent, the perfect child, the perfect student, employee or spouse. This pursuit often ends in discontent for the simple fact that no one is perfect. “If you expect always to succeed, life will always disappoint you,” writes Andrea Brandt. We can strive to be perfect, but each time we come up short we’re at risk for a whole host of issues, from depression to eating disorders. No relationship will work if you demand perfection all the time.
But here’s the problem. We live in a culture where being perfect isn’t good enough anymore. And it’s causing all sorts of disorders in our communities. After years of buying into the hype my daughter Fiona admitted that “Outside Harry Stiles, perfection isn’t real.” But her sister Colleen sees it differently. Even though she couldn’t define it, Colleen said “I know it when I see it.”
So what does perfection look like to you? A perfect score? Being the greatest of all time? Maybe it’s material wealth or obtaining financial success?
Jesus boils it down to one word: love. And not just any kind of love – but God’s unconditional love for you and me.
We may not be very good at turning the other cheek, or giving our stuff away, or going the extra mile for someone we don’t like. But we can still be perfect as God is perfect by being a community shaped in the very heart of God who loves the unlovable, and gives extravagantly to anyone who asks.
This is the blueprint for the life of the church. A constitution for a new society made perfect in Christ despite our imperfections. We will struggle and failure is guaranteed. And that’s good. It’s in our faults and failures, we see our place in God’s love and grace. But more importantly we begin to really understand our relationship with our Creator, and with one another.
Jesus devoted his entire ministry to show us how to be a loving community where people put others first and where everyone strives for the common good. It was his life work to embody these values that some politicians today will criticize as being socialist or unAmerican. We are called first to be obedient to a higher authority. By looking at Jesus, and loving as he loved, we see that the kingdom of heaven has come. It’s here, today.
In Christ, we come to know and understand God’s will for us, which is to live in imitation of the One who loves and blesses us all the same.
In Christ, God became human so we will come to know what it truly means to be human. To be beloved children of God. But not everyone will live out their belovedness in accordance to God’s righteousness. Some will even try to take advantage, believing we are doormats and pushovers. Yet we are called to lead the way, following in the footsteps of Christ, as a community alive with the heartbeat of God. A community that embraces the gospel fully no matter what.
To be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect isn’t about being a perfectionist. It’s about discipleship. It’s less about getting things right and more about sharing God’s love in all our everyday messiness.
Last Tuesday, I went to the Union Rescue Mission, where a group of little Mother Theresa’s work tirelessly to feed and house and assist thousands of homeless people a day. For 127 years, URM has been sharing the gospel on Skid Row. And not just preaching it, but actually living it as if Jesus really meant what he said.
I believe this is how we become perfect as God is perfect. To use all the abundance God has given us to make heaven come alive on earth, right now. You don’t have to work in a homeless shelter to help a person on the streets. You don’t need a medical degree to make someone feel better. All you need is a heart. God’s heart in particular. And a willingness to share it.
At the end of his book, Growing Into God, John Mabry reminds us that, “God never called any perfect people because there aren’t any perfect people. God only ever calls flawed, wounded, limited, scared, and imperfect people because that’s the only kind there are. So, don’t be discouraged, you’re actually a pretty good company.”
Jesus calls you and me to be a visible community sharing God’s love in our every day. No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, or where you come from, the good news is this: you are loved, and you are love. A noun and a verb. You’ve been blessed by God to be God’s blessing to all.
And so, I encourage you to embrace God’s love and to be God’s love out into the world as Jesus did. Through him we are made perfect and flawless, united with God as one perfect heart and life, now and forever Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) pp. 38-385.
Brandt, Andrea. The Dangers of Perfectionism. April 1, 2019 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201904/the-dangers-perfectionism?amp). Accessed on February 21, 2020.
Mabry, John. Growing into God: a Beginners Guide to Mysticism. (Wheaton, IL: Quest 2012) p. 120.
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has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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