Don’t Be Perfect, Be a Saint

Photo Credit: zilverbat. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: zilverbat. via Compfight cc

As a kid I learned a Bible verse from Matthew, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) It appears not too far after the verses we heard this morning as part of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

Perfectionism runs deep in my bones, that desire to do the best I can, to be focused and determined and try to be flawless. In my early years I thought I could be perfect, and, given this language from Jesus, God desired this for me too. So I was fine until I couldn’t be perfect all the time and had moments of failure. Like the time I bombed the final exam in Trigonometry for no apparent reason whatsoever even though I carried all As in the class. Or when I didn’t tell the truth to my mom about a bike excursion into the fields behind our house because I didn’t want to get punished. Failure happened—more regularly than I’d care to admit—and I felt much less than perfect ideal and then I added some shame and guilt on top because I thought Jesus wanted me to be perfect just as the Father was perfect.

I’ve got a great book called Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts written by Sam Portaro, an Episcopal priest. Sam tackles the stories of each of the saints that appear in our Episcopal calendar and writes about their lives. He does it to tell of their achievements, but he’s also very honest about these saints as well. He writes of Basil the Great, “He was pushy, he was slick, and he was the consummate politician; in short, Basil was the kind of churchman few of us admire today.”[1] And this about John Donne, “It seems an odd irony that one should enter the priesthood and rise to prominence within it on the heels of public scandal. This is not a customary career trajectory, though we can be grateful for the exception of John Donne who, despite a secret marriage that ruined a political career, became a poet and preacher of great imagination.”[2] Portaro holds up real people, seemingly not quite so perfect, even though we recognize them as part of that great cloud of witnesses.

All Saints’ Day reminds us that we are all of us saints, not just the hallowed few we remember on specific days like Mary Magdalene and Basil and John Donne and Brigid and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We remember as well those we know and love who have gone before us, and we hold out this life of faith before our children and especially those who will be baptized today too. Saints. All of us.

But none of us is perfect. And, I finally learned along the way that Jesus doesn’t expect us to be either; he wants something else. The Message Bible gets at the heart of Jesus’ declaration. “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” The Greek word for perfect—teleios—connotes maturity, a moving towards completion. Or, putting in the vernacular, a call to grow up. To live generously and graciously toward others.

We should do this because we have received God’s extravagant and plentiful love in order to become God’s children, as John reminds us in his first epistle. Deep unbelievable love showered on us. Not because we’re perfect or because we’ve earned it. Just because. God loves us, and because of this we can be called God’s children. Now we must go love others too. Love so that the world might come to know who God is.

On All Saints’ Sunday, as we remember the loved ones who have gone before, I doubt any of us believe those people to be without fault. They were human and had their own issues and baggage and woundedness. I have been thinking of my parents these last few days. Their shadow sides were not hidden from me throughout my life and yet I can assure you that they are saints, beloved of God, who did the best they could to share in kingdom work, to live and love generously. They grew and matured and expressed their faith in countless ways to others.

We too have our own issues and baggage and woundedness, our own shadow sides. And we too are beloved of God. Blessed are the merciful and the hungry and the peacemakers and the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are you pure in heart, for you will see God. Blessed. Not perfect, but blessed. Not without fault, but growing deeper in the faith. Beloved of God. All of us. Saints. Each gathered in this place, recognizing our need of God’s gift of love and forgiveness and renewal. May we find it in the loving gaze of the Almighty. Amen.

 

[1] Sam Portaro. Brightest and Best: A Companion to Lesser Feasts & Fasts. Cambridge: Cowley. 2001. Pg 104.

[2] Portaro. Pg 69.