38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
So here we are. We’ve made it through the thick of the Olympic season. Tonight many of us will join together, separately, and in our own houses, in a worldwide event as we watch the closing ceremonies. Rarely do we share a collective experience, but more days than not in the past two weeks, social media, supermarket conversations, and water cooler discourse has reflected our communal experience of the Olympics. Even the most sport averse amongst us will take pleasure in being a part of the Olympic experience even if it is from the comfort of our own homes.
The other night, as I was parked squarely in front of the television, I noticed a commercial. If you’ve seen paying any attention the games you too may have noticed this commercial for P&G. In it there are a series of little kids, not bigger than seven years old, engaged in some pretty hefty athletic training. And all these little athletes, being pushed to and beyond their limits, end up in their mommy’s arms as they weep from exhaustion, frustration, or disappointment. And just as your heart is breaking for these little guys, P&G breaks in to thank moms for all they do to support these young athletes.
Now, it must be noted that this commercial raised a few eyebrows. For a while it was a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter. My own media feed lit up with moms pointing out that dads deserve to be thanked too. And quite a few people expressed empathy with this heart tugging ploy. But in all that hubbub, nobody raised the issue that seemed glaringly obvious at least to me. Why is it that we celebrate and encourage this cultural ideal to push and push and push? In a commercial that arguably pushes the limits of what could be considered abuse, why do so many people say that they could see themselves in it?
Why? Because most of us parents hold out hope that our child has what it takes to be that Olympic athlete that we’ve been watching the last two weeks, because sometimes the tie-breaking shots are made by a guy from Warroad Minnesota, because we parents already missed our shot to be that guy – but man do we want it for our kids. So we push for perfection.
My parents pushed me to perfection. Gymnastics practice every day from the age of 6. I remember performing through sprained wrists and ankles and even broken bones. And the message I received along with my fellow teammates was to be perfect. Get that perfect score. Reach for that prize that comes when you reach perfection. In this economy there are only so many places on that podium, there is only so much hardware to go around, and there are only so many Wheaties endorsements. So be perfect. Go and claim your spot.
Is it any wonder that when most of us hear this reading for today that we freeze at the last verse, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It sounds an awful lot like a coach I used to have. It sounds like this is a requirement for getting on that eternal medal stand. That perfection comes with a laundry list of tasks. Jesus commands his disciples here to do some of the most challenging things imaginable – turn the other cheek, don’t retaliate, love your enemies, pray for those who attack you. Right now is when we could all sit here and start making lists of all the ways that we have failed at this this week, and if we are honest, about all the ways we have failed at this today.
But would it come as any shock to you that there is a notion that we just might have a really messed up idea of what perfection might be? We equate perfection with the pursuit of an endeavor without mistakes. In our competitive zero sum economy, falling short of the mark is seen as a failure. And far too many of us believe that having fallen short, we are not worthy of God’s love. And the biblical translation that we read seems to reinforce that idea.
Without boring you with a lesson in Greek listen to these last lines from a different translation from Eugene Peterson,
“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.”
Be perfect, doesn’t even appear in this translation. Why? Because the way that we hearers of the word today look upon perfection is too limiting for what Christ was saying here.
Let’s flip our economy on its head and start this conversation from a different direction. You are loved. You are created in God’s image. You are subjects of the Kingdom of God. We can only do this because God first loves us. We are invited to become more and more each day the people that God has created us to be. And if you are wondering what the kingdom of God might look like, Jesus has just spent the last three chapters in the sermon on the mount trying to tell us about it. Perfection is living into the wholeness of the kingdom of God. This is a wholeness that really isn’t complete without you. In fact, it really isn’t complete without everyone.
We need to stop living as though we are playing some zero sum game. We are so hard-wired to believe that there is only so much room at the top. We are even more wired into the notion that “the top” is where true happiness and fulfillment happen. This is so much the case that its rarely even an afterthought when someone is stepped on or pushed aside as someone else climbs their way to the top. Its why too many of us have heard the phrase far too often, “its not personal, its business.” Really? Or is that just a way of saying that someone cares more about money than the people?
What is so interesting about the behaviors that Jesus suggests in this passage is that all of them put a wrench in that “strive to the top” mentality. All of them refuse to participate in a zero sum game. You want to shame him and put him in his place by striking him on his right cheek? How about he offers you his left and we will see what you can do with a right hook? Does suing the coat off his back make you feel important? How about he gives you his shirt too? He’s not afraid of his nakedness. Going the extra mile after being conscripted into someone’s service, means that you have finished that task on your own terms.
These actions deflate power. They refuse a false economy that pretends that any one person’s life has more value than another’s. And see, that’s Kingdom of God stuff right there. You are loved, and so are they; the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
And you know, I think we live this Kingdom stuff all the time. It happens when courageous souls learn to break cycles of violence and learn new patterns of behavior. Kingdom living happens when those who have been living under the cloud of addiction find hope and healing through recovery. It breaks into our mundane lives in random acts of kindness that are done for no personal gain.
St Augustine is credited as saying this sentiment about communion, “Receive what you have become, become what you have received.” We don’t just come to the table and simply remember this Christ. This Jesus who died in what was supposed to be a humiliating death next to thieves, was supposed to just go away. And yet we are here 2,000 odd years later celebrating a man who lived in peaceful defiance and says, “take my life as well.”
To you I say, “Receive what you have become, become what you have received.” You are Christ’s body. You are Kingdom dwellers. Now go out free to live like it!