February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
Be perfect, therefore,
as your heavenly Father is perfect.
When I read this phrase, I get anxious; I get nervous; I get worried. It is bad enough when I think about what perfectionism does to people.
How many young girls and women face shame and eating disorders and self-harm because they do not and cannot match some image of perfection presented by air-brushed magazines and soft focus and professional makeup on television and in movies?
How many people never try to express the art, the song, the music, the dance, the creative expression within them, because how can we face the criticism of a world that degrades anything that isn’t perfect?
How many times have I not started something because I knew that the beginning stages of anything are mixed up, messed up, unready, and far from some perfect by which I feel judged?
The biblical word for such images made by humans, used in place of divine judgment is “idols.” Sometimes we are even honest about it: “American Idol.”
An idol is something set up to take the place of God. It is something to which people ascribe powers that are reserved for God.
But in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does not say, “be perfect, therefore, so that you can be judged so by others who are just as mixed up and messed up as you are.”
Be perfect, therefore,
as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In confirmation class, we looked at the first creation story in Genesis, and the backdrop of the Babylonian captivity against which it was most likely written. The Bible is always written against a backdrop, usually of the world and its brokenness. And the Bible does not simply say, “No!” to the world. It takes the brokenness and the violence and the pain and the shame of the world and says, “Not that! This!”
And the “This!” to which the Bible points is something dangerous and difficult and impossible for those who are stuck in the “That!” of the world. With mixed up and messed up people like me and like you and like us and like them, it is impossible. Like perfection, it cannot be done. Except that with God, all things are possible.
So what does this perfect way of God look like?
The perfection of God is not perfectly harvesting every last bit of grain, every last vegetable, every single grape from the vineyard. It is leaving some for the poor and for the foreigner. It does not tell us whether or not the foreigner is here with legal status or not. The Bible does not make such distinctions.
But for those of us who are not farmers, not gardeners, not vineyard keepers, what does this mean? Maybe it means not squeezing every last drop of good or profit or dividend or refund for our own uses and our own benefit, but deliberately and intentionally making sure there is some left for those in need, the poor and the foreigner.
And just in case we thought this was an afterthought or part of the lecture we could sleep through, it is punctuated with the exclamation point of exclamation points:
You shall leave them for the poor and the alien:
I am the LORD your God.
It goes on with a whole list of “Thou shalt nots.”
No dealing dishonestly, no defrauding others, no taking what is not ours.
No swearing by God’s name, as though God were standing behind us nodding in agreement with what you have said.
No shaming or putting barriers between those who are deaf or blind and the fullness of life.
No judging with favor, but judging with wisdom and justice.
No hating the neighbor, but help them to be better, or else their fault is also ours. These just keep getting harder and harder, don’t they? I guess this line helps answer the question about whether or not we are our brother’s or our sister’s keeper.
What kind of perfection is this?!
Well, first it is not the perfection that makes no room for those who are disabled or differently abled.
It is not the perfection of us being all done and not needing reminders of how to treat others with love and kindness.
It is not the perfection of the other great American idol, that we have all pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and we are self-made people, not needing or relying on others.
And maybe our Reformation forebears would chide me for focusing on the law of the Old Testament. So let us look to the Gospel reading this morning.
Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your shirt as well.
Everyone in those days was right handed. So when someone tries to backhand us (on the right cheek), which is an insult and a degradation, and we turn the other cheek, it forces them to decide whether they want to hit us with a left hand, or slap us with their right, either of which makes them look less than they want to look.
A roman legionary could force a peasant to carry their heavy gear for one mile and no more. So if you carry it the second mile, they are the one in trouble according to their own law.
And in a society that wore two garments and probably no underwear, when someone makes you give them your cloak as collateral on a debt, you have no pillow to sleep on, no blanket to sleep under. So if you give them your shirt as well, you have just demonstrated that how we treat those in debt in fact strips them naked of their dignity. But it gets better, or worse, depending upon who you are in the story. Being naked is not a sin. Looking upon another’s nakedness is.
Each of these is a “Not that!” to the ways that shame, or demean, or lord it over someone, and a “This!” to treating others with compassion and dignity, regardless of their state in life.
Is this not the perfection of God? Always a “No!” to that which demeans and denigrates and denies the humanity of those created in the image of God. And always a “Yes!” to that which builds up, that which feeds, that which shelters, that which loves the foreigner, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, the homeless, the veteran, the ones in hospital, the ones in prison, and you and me and everyone else.
For the girl struggling with body image: you are made in the image of God, and you are perfect at whatever shape and size you are.
For the artist, the musician, the hidden poet who has never put pen to paper, you are made in the image and likeness of the Great Creator, who sang the worlds into being, let those imperfect pictures and notes and verses fly, that beauty and truth could be known.
For each of us struggling to be who and what we think God calls us to be, let God’s perfect love cast out our fear, let God’s perfect care give us respite and rest, and let God’s perfect forgiveness do the heavy lifting, so that we can live.
Thanks be to God. Amen.