Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
"Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect"
Perfection, to our modern ears, is a terrifying concept.
We imagine perfection as the impossible task of getting everything right.
Upon hearing that word we are often drawn back to the perfectionists in our lives;
You know, those who obsess over the *tiniest* detail, missing the irritation of those around them who firmly maintain that "good enough" really is sufficient.
For years I've considered myself a recovering perfectionist.
My obsession with doing things right dates back to my childhood. When I was young my mom taught me fractions using baking as we would double our family recipe for chocolate chip cookies.
As I grew older I was left in the kitchen to make the dough on my own. My mom knew the level of focus I'd bring to the project. I'd level each cup of sugar with painstaking intensity, ensuring not one grain was out of place.
So I treated it as a crises when after the cookies were baked they didn't taste right. I swore up and down that I hadn't forgotten anything, and was absolutely certain that I had to had done it right.
My mom, to her credit, stifled laughter, at least until my dad came home from work to find the melted butter still in the microwave.
And yet, in my "recovery" from perfectionism I've missed a key point. We as Christians are called to be perfect.
But the perfection that is spoken of in Matthew has nothing to do with us being right and everything to do with love.
In the book To Love as God Loves I learned that the ancient Christians would have seen the command to "be perfect" as a different way of saying the Great Commandment which is,
"you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "you shall love your neighbor as yourself".
At first glance the command to love God and our neighbor appears as out of reach as our initial assumptions of perfection. How does one even begin to love everyone, ourselves, our families and even those who hate us?
It was helpful for me to begin with the opposite. And the opposite of love is violence.
Recently I heard someone define violence as any act which degrades or exploits another person.
This definition provided me a way of understanding the long list of "you shall nots" from Leviticus.
Everything Leviticus states we shouldn't do,
from stealing and lying
to reviling those who are handicapped
are all actions that lesson the value of other human beings.
Each of them is an effort to exemplify the violence we should avoid,
a road map of places where love simply cannot coexist.
In contrast the things we are told to do,
to leave the edges of the field and the fallen grapes
for the poor and alien,
reaffirm the value of other people.
In that culture, as in our own, the poor and immigrants are often forgotten, or treated as less by the dominant groups.
From this we see that to a part of being perfect in love means not only abstaining from violence, but by challenging it directly.
In our baptismal covenant we promise to answer the call
to affirm the dignity of every human being,
from those we know
to the stranger sleeping in the cold.
To be perfect in love we are called to see those our society casts out, those who are homeless, addicted, queer, a different race,
and all others as equal to ourselves,
for we are all made in the image of God.
As a child I always hated it when my mom would say "because I told you so".
Likewise we are not called to be perfect in love on the whim of a capricious God, but because love is what we were made for.
Love is what flows forth when we are living most truly as ourselves.
When we fail to live in love, it is we who reap the consequences, as much as those who are hurt by our actions.
In our Corinthians reading we are told that "You are God's temple" and that "if anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person".
It is important to note that the "you" in this case is plural.
In writing to this community Paul is telling them that they together are God's holy place.
When we destroy each other, through denigration and erasure, we are injuring that temple and through that action ourselves.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has put out an excellent documentary called "Bullied", which traces the first case of a young man who sued his school district for not protecting him from homophobic bullying.
The victim the film focused on was hospitalized several times, ran away from a loving family to get away from school and had attempted suicide.
For all that young man suffered, what stuck out the most to me was a scene from the courtroom of the trial, when the bullies are called to the stand.
Each of the bullies entered in orange, wearing shackles and handcuffs. Every bully that had picked on the main character in the film had later committed a crime and was in prison.
Without knowing it, the bullies from the documentary had harmed themselves through their actions against the young man.
They used violence in an effort to build themselves up, and in so doing they had lost sight of the love that would make them whole.
Each time they called people names or pushed them aside they created a world where they lived in constant fear of having the same done to them.
Their reaction to that fear was to become more violent, more judgmental, until the day their violence crossed a legal line and the state confined their actions to a prison.
This example probably feels extreme, but similar cycles are at work all around us.
I have yet to meet a person, who has not been bullied,
used their power to denigrate another person
or who simply stood by silently as others suffered.
A friend of mine was recently discussing her challenges with self-image.
For years she was teased for being too fat, told by friends, family and the mass media that she needed to take drastic action to lose weight.
Now, a decade later, those same people constantly tell her she is too thin, she needs to eat more.
Her body moved between two extremes, and each brought the same message "you are not worthy".
"You are not worthy". We hear this message all the time, and repeat it far more than we should.
We joke among our friends about who's the "neat freak" versus the "slob", the "lazy couch potato" or the "overachiever".
We are singled out for our hair color, accents, hobbies, intellect, gender, wealth, the list goes on and on.
Many of us barely escaped the school years of being "four-eyes" or "metal mouth" only to find the same judgment as adults.
Each of these labels, every insult I've listed, and every one you can imagine are judgments.
Because they lesson the personhood of those who hear them, their effect is violent.
For in the moment they are spoken, someone has heard, perhaps for the first, and perhaps for the thousandth time that they are unworthy.
When we single others out for not meeting whatever standard we've created,
whether we intend to harm them or not,
we invite the same arbitrary criticism upon ourselves.
In the same instant we are blinded from seeing their numerous gifts.
As we do this we silently shout "I am only worthy as long as you are unworthy",
an act which cuts both us and our victim away from the God who created us all to be worthy.
The person who was targeted by our judgment
now must struggle to find a balance between being safe and being true to themselves.
They have a long hard road to follow
in which their very existence is questioned.
A careless word may cause them to lose sight of the value they hold in God's eyes.
"You are not worthy" echoes through their mind,
long after the words have been forgotten by the one who spoke them.
Those who stand by silently are afflicted by the same fear.
When violence goes unchecked
it is only a matter of time before we are targeted.
We who witness the denigration of others without action
know that we walk a dangerous line,
one that can be crossed in an instant.
As we see our common humanity with the other,
we too hear the echo, "you are unworthy".
Three roles, infinite reasons, and one erroneous message with disastrous implications.
This is the violence which pervades our world.
Love is the answer.
Through our baptism we've taken up the task of respecting the dignity of every human being, to shout to those hurting in a violent world,
"You, yes you, are worthy".
The love which called us to this task does not just flow from a desire to be saved from destruction.
When we set violence aside,
casting our judgments away,
and shouting with every action to every person we meet
"YOU ARE WORTHY",
we will find that love gushes from the very core of our being.
We are social creatures, made to rejoice in each other's presence, and in the presence of the one who made us.
While we do live in a violent world,
where who we are is constantly threatened by
racism and homophobia, by classism, sexism,
and all the other "isms" which reduce human beings to categories,
we have been given a way out.
Beyond the lists of instructions on how to love found in the old testament, God has shown us in the most remarkable way what being perfect in love looks like.
In this season of Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of Christ in the world.
We celebrate the God of love caring for each of us so deeply that he came to join us in human form.
Christ lived not only as an example of love, but as the fullness of love as Emmanuel, God with us.
In Christ we have been shown a new way, we have been set free from our assumptions and judgment.
In Matthew we are reminded that God sends the sun and the rain on both the evil and the good.
We have been freed from a need to decide who is evil and good amongst ourselves,
and fearing the day when who we are might be termed "evil".
Now we can live as we were meant to, loving each and every one of us as the precious person they are.
The psalmist writes "Make me go in the path of your commandments, for that is my desire".
For each moment I am aware that every person that I meet has a story of their own,
and is far, far more than a passing character in my narrative
is a moment that I am able to love a little deeper.
And in that love there is a sense of freedom, of joy and hope.
It is as comforting as standing on the beach, with the warm sun high overhead, and the sound of waves tickling the shore.
And this love is not bound to the whims of the weather. The warmth of togetherness, of trust, of love is available on even the coldest, iciest February day.
In a few moments we will share the peace. While we do so, I'd like to challenge you to see those you connect with as the miracle they are.
Trillions of cells, years of experiences, joy and grief, wonder and fear have shaped the person standing in front of you.
As you see them, with their gifts and flaws, pause for a moment and consider the whole person.
The person in front of you is a miracle of divine creation, who is so loved by God that he would gladly have died for them alone.
During the peace, I invite you to share, even if only for a moment, that perfect love which we have been created for.
Perfection as the world sees it is impossible.
Perfection as God sees it, in living a life of love for him and for each other
is not only possible, it is what we were made for.
"Be perfect therefore as I am perfect".
Let us be perfect, not just in this space, but everywhere we go. Let us live a life of love, affirming the humanity of everyone we meet.
Copyright © Ari Leigh 2019