The Olympic competitions in Sochi, with which we’ve been recently preoccupied these past two weeks, have made me think of this whole idea of the athletes striving to “be the best”, this yearning for “perfection”, this training so hard, and making so many personal and family sacrifices, all for achieving perfection in their sport, for “being the best”, and “winning the gold.”
But not only is this striving for perfection a reality in the realm of competitive sports, but also in all of life.
It is embedded in our very human nature – this deep, ingrained impulse or instinct toward striving and yearning for that which is good, right, and, you might say: “perfect.”
When we walk into a room, and we see a picture hanging on a wall that’s just slightly crooked, off balance, what do we do?
We immediately, instinctively reach out to straighten it up, so it’s just “right.”
We have this inner yearning for things to be in symmetry, to be balanced, to be good, to be right.
This often translates to…
…our parents wanting us to do the “best” in school.
…We want “the best” for our children.
…We want to have “the best” jobs, “the best” conditions at work, “the best” opportunities.
…We want “the best” family life at home, the “best” homes, the “best” vacations.
And we’re restless and unsatisfied, as we constantly aim for, and yearn for this ideal or high standard we’ve set for ourselves.
Now, at base, there’s nothing wrong with this instinct, this yearning.
In fact, it’s reflective of our basic good nature; that we’ve been created in the image of God; that we share in the divine nature of God. And so there’s deep within us that innate yearning for what is good and right.
…how at creation, God breathed God’s Spirit into Adam;
…how Jesus breathed the Spirit upon his disciples;
…how the Holy Spirit at Pentecost blew in like a wind, filling, animating, and enlivening the disciples to go out, and live and love.
We remember that the world God created – including we human beings – is fundamentally good.
“It is good” God said after creating the earth.
And so having this instinct toward “perfection” is understandable.
Today’s scripture readings refer to this.
In the Leviticus reading, God tells Moses to say to the people: “You shall be holy, For I the Lord your God am holy”, and again, in the Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But before we start feeling a little uneasy… as though achieving perfection may be a bit impossible for us… that we may never be “good enough” for God, or that any imperfection within us is reason for God to reject us, or to disapprove of us, … then we need to stop, and think again.
Because we know we’ll never “achieve perfection” in the ordinary sense of the word.
No one can.
“All have fallen short” as the Psalmist and the Apostle Paul declare.
Martin Luther said we’re both “saint and sinner” all at the same time.
We exist in this earthly life, in a strange in-between place, this paradox…
…of being imperfect, yet yearning for perfection,
…of being incomplete, yet yearning for completion;
…of being uncertain, yet yearning for certainty,
…of being broken, yet yearning for wholeness.
We live in that uncomfortable place…
…of “already but not yet,”
…in that tension between imperfection and perfection.
So, what then does Jesus really mean, then, when he says “Be perfect”?
The word “perfect” in the Aramaic text literally means “to be complete.”
So we are to be “complete” as God as “complete.”
God is perfect or complete in love.
God is boundless in love.
God has no favourites, but loves all God’s children uniquely, and completely.
Like the sun that shines on all people no matter who they are, so God’s love shines on all of God’s creation.
And so, we’re talking about the fullness, the wholeness, the total inclusiveness of God’s love.
We are to be “perfect” as God is “perfect” in the sense of reflecting in our own lives something of the fullness, the completeness, of God’s love.
And so, being perfect is not “perfectionism.”
There’s a big difference between, on one hand, growing into the completion and fullness of God’s love, and on the other hand, “perfectionism” – that sense of “getting it all right”, “being ethically, morally superior”, “keeping all the rules”, or “feeling self-righteous, or superior over others.”
Perfectionism is not good.
Perfectionism has no place in Christian spirituality, because there’s no way anyone, this side of eternity, will ever achieve “perfection” in getting it all right, keeping all the rules, being ethically and morally “perfect.”
But, we’re always able to grow into, to become more of the kind of loving person that God in Christ is.
Over the years, becoming more alive, more caring and compassionate, more generous, more real and authentic with ourselves, and with each other.
Over the years, learning how to hold each other in our own brokenness, yearnings and losses – just as God holds us.
This is what becoming “perfect” is all about: becoming “perfect” in loving.
During a worship service at a church in St. Paul, Minnesota, there was a glimpse of this “perfection”, this wholeness and fullness of God’s love made real.
It was the custom of this particular congregation, that during the Prayers, the Pastor would receive prayer requests from the people in the congregation.
As usual, that particular Sunday, many of the requests seemed typical, standard.
But then, a woman named Kathryn raised her hand, and said, “This Tuesday, I go in for my tests,” and then paused as fear spread across her face.
Then she continued, “I don’t know what will happen… I don’t know what is wrong with me… and I’m so scared.”
In the silence that followed, you could feel how everyone was drawn together around Kathryn, as they prayed with and for her…
…being drawn together in caring community,
…connecting with Kathryn through her brokenness and fear,
…and connecting through a mutual brokenness, fear and yearning – everyone sharing, together at the foot of the cross of Jesus.
Kathryn was not alone.
It is in these moments that we are the church.
The church united, not in some shared sense of elite moral superiority, but rather, quite the opposite – a shared sense of mutually and honestly acknowledged suffering, brokenness, and fear.
And it is there, in our brokenness, that God meets us… and from there, God leads us forward in hope, along the pathway toward greater love.