We’re hearing some texts that we don’t normally hear due to the long season after Epiphany. The passage today was a great one about how to live in the kingdom of God. And especially the need to have love. This call is challenging, to be sure, yet I know that it is only when we move toward the way of God by showing that love that we can truly grow in our faith.
Moving Towards Maturity—Matthew 5:38-48
Type A personality individuals are, according to our good friends at wikipedia, “ambitious, aggressive, business-like, controlling, highly competitive, impatient, preoccupied with their status, time-conscious and tightly wound. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving workaholics who multi-task push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.” Dictionary.com adds to this by stating: pertaining to a pattern of behavior characterized by competitiveness, a sense of urgency, perfectionism and assertiveness, and possibly associated with an increased risk of heart disease.”
For those of us for whom this sounds familiar—don’t worry I won’t ask for a show of hands simply because I don’t want to raise my own—we’re in luck. If ever there was a saying of Jesus seemingly directed toward those of us more tightly-wound in life, it’s this one. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We Type A’s relish in the desire to be perfect, heading toward that place when all will be handled and the inbox will be empty and the weight will be off and the house be utterly all we dreamed and the job, by God, the job will pay handsomely and be even more than what we imagined.
We’re off to Nirvana. Or la-la land. Or Oz. Take your pick.
Wherever it is, it isn’t real, of course. While we imagine the places of perfection in this life, we all know that they don’t exist. Those images are retouched and enhanced and made on some set in Southern California where they work for hours at creating the ideal image. If you don’t believe me, go to my blog and check out the ad created by Dove about showing the evolution a model goes through in a photo shoot.
Maybe Jesus’ words don’t make you relish them as much as say, “Holy Expectations, Batman, do I really need another thing to juggle?” Be perfect as God is perfect? You’re kidding, right? Maybe this is just one of those texts that remind us how much we need God and that we will never live up to some ridiculous expectations so why even bother.
And when we look back over the teaching Jesus is giving, why wouldn’t we say something like this? “Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. If anyone wants to sue you, give them more than they are asking for. Give to every panhandler you pass, and love those people that annoy you.” Is this even possible? Should we even bother trying to live in this seemingly unrealistic way?
In his book, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith, Robert Gelinas writes about this very idea. “If I told you you were going with me tonight to hear someone who has practiced the trumpet for thirty years, what would you expect? Your hopes would be high, and you would anticipate hearing someone whose skills were highly developed. Perfection wouldn’t be the standard, but surely it would be reasonable to look forward to an enjoyable performance. What if I told you that I have practiced Christianity for thirty years? What should you expect of me?”
He continues, “In a [jazz] ensemble community it is assumed that you know your instrument, have memorized the basic songs (called standards) and have practiced. Can you imagine how these three assumptions could change what you expected of others and what was expected of you at church? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could assume that fellow Christians were proficient and experienced when it comes to the essentials of the faith? Wouldn’t it be nice if other believers could assume that we know not only basic doctrine but live it as well? Shouldn’t other Christians be able to assume I love my enemies and turn the other cheek? Mastery is not necessarily expected, nor is flawlessness, but a basic understanding of the essential grooves and riffs is not only needed but expected.” “Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to assume of any Christian that they are ‘practicing’—that they have a basic understanding of the essential groove of God and that, while perfection isn’t expected, you can at least jam together?”
I think what Jesus is teaching us in this reading is that essential groove of God. God is at the very core love. And Jesus is inviting us to live the same way. We’re not going to reach perfection, but we can go in the direction that God is laying out in front of us, we can, with practice, enter the song and feel the rhythm and get in the groove.
What Jesus tells us to do in these verses is the complete opposite of what we might do on our own out in the world. If someone slaps us, we want to strike back. But Jesus says to do the opposite, much to the surprise of both his disciples and those who get this type of response (like the British who were met by Ghandi’s non-violent methods, and those who encountered Martin Luther King, Jr). We know empirically that Jesus’ method might be better in the long run, but we know as well that when we are hurt the easiest response is to make the other person pay for it. And it’s hard to believe when someone doesn’t want to do this.
But Jesus is giving us a clue to what life in the kingdom of God will look like. This “community is filled with people who think of others first. Every decision and action is carried out for the common good. Each person is sister or brother to the other and acts out of love,” as one minister put it. In this realm, if each person is our sister, our brother, going an extra mile wouldn’t be too difficult. Which of us wouldn’t do this for someone we loved, especially if we knew that it would help them immensely or change their life for the better? What Jesus does, essentially, is tells us that we need to recalibrate our instincts. Yes, we love those who love us, but who doesn’t? It’s much harder to love those who could care less about us. If we’re willing to go the mile for a loved one, what about the kid down the street, or the woman the next town over?
We hear those stories, sometimes, don’t we, about someone giving up a kidney for another person. Usually it’s because the donor knows someone who might need a transplant, so they offer to have the test done to see if they’re a match. When they aren’t, sometimes they come up as a match for a complete stranger. I know I stand in awe of the man who does this for an utter unknown.
Jesus tells us to love those who hate us so that we may be children of the Father in heaven. So that we too may be perfect.
The Greek word translated “perfect” in this verse is telios, and it connotes reaching maturity or completion. It is translated that way in the epistle written by James: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” That maturity is what we are striving for not the idea of perfection that implies no flaws. Rather we want to draw so close to God—to practice so much in the ways of God—that we can jam with God. That we can find our groove in God.
Maybe you’ve never considered what it might look like to practice in the ways of God. Or maybe you’re thinking that you’ve been a Christian for a long time but might not be able to hold your own in a conversation on faith if someone asked you. Perhaps you’re thinking there would no way that you would turn the other cheek or even consider loving those who might be your enemies.
I’m here to tell you that it is never too late. Whether you’re a young person still in high school or someone nearing the final chapters of your life. You may feel that you have squandered some of the opportunities, but God is full of grace and mercy, and the way of Jesus can always be followed. In the days and weeks ahead I’ll be posting some ways online for you to take up some of the ancient spiritual practices, beginning with regular prayer, or the daily office. These practices shouldn’t feel onerous or one more thing added to your check list, but rather should be an invitation in to a new type of life, a new way to understand the world.
May this life of yours be lived in seeking out the way of Christ, so that you may ultimately reach a time when God’s work in you is complete and you enter into the kingdom as a child of the living God, and you take part in that everlasting jam session. Amen.
 From wikipedia.org/wiki?search=Type+a+personality Accessed Feb 18, 2011.
 From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/type+a Accessed Feb 18, 2011.
 Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove: Compsing a Jazz-Shaped Faith. Zondervan, 2009. Pgs 103-5
 Barbara J. Essex, “Matthew 5:38-48: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1. Eds David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK: 2010. Pg 382.