First Presbyterian Church of Lafayette, Louisiana
February 20, 2011: Ordinary 7 - Year ALeviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
In just about every parental relationship there are some phrases that parents and children use to dig into one another's soft spots. It's part of "leaving and cleaving" or, to put it in more modern terms, differentiation. Sometimes I will bait my mother with the compliment, "That's perfect!" She always says, "Well, you know how I do love being perfect!" Then I, true to form, will say, "I don't think John Calvin would agree with that, given his feelings about inherent sinfulness." To which I receive the appropriate eye rolling and/or immediate change of subject.
My mother has no delusions of being perfect, of course. The idea of embracing perfection is, however, a great comfort in her life for there is much chaos in caring for an aging parent with Parkinson's while managing rental properties and trying to survive. The idea that there is something good we can cling to, be a part of, and even generate is a great comfort to anyone in this world of instability and constant change.
It seems odd to me that we even use the word 'perfect' to describe the events of our daily lives, but apparently we need it. In reflecting on these texts I have found that I use the word 'perfect' more than I realize. I like it. I like believing that the ideal can become real, and that I can participate in it and become a part of it.
Even so, I think we use the word 'perfect' more freely than we should. Or at least, I think we define perfect as individuals more often than we encounter the reality of something that is truly 'perfect.' Here is what I mean. If you go to dictionary.com you will find, 'perfect' typified as an adjective describing people, places, things, phenomena, and situations as:
1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type.
2. excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.
3. exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose.
4. entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.
As a verb (used with object), you get something like this:
1. to bring to completion; finish.
2. make flawless or faultless.
If we go to urbandictionary.com, where people post their own definitions, we get a slightly more contextual perspective:
1. a word that describes a thing that someone exactly desires (especially relating to people and to relationships).
2. something that has no flaws - a word that contradicts itself.
3. (sarcasm) describing the state completely opposite of perfection or idyllic. As in, "A pipe is busted and water is gushing everywhere? Perfect."
4. (sarcasm) not good, or more specifically something broken beyond hope of fixing. Such as, "My car is totaled and the other driver has no insurance? Perfect."
With all of this in mind, I want you to think about a time or place or event when you feel that you have experienced perfection. What made this moment or this activity or this thing something perfect? Was it perfectly good? Was it perfectly horrible? Was it perfect just because it was what it was, for good or for ill? Hold onto that moment and that experience of perfection as we see how far the rabbit hole goes in the scriptures we have received today.
We have a difficult task in understanding and delving into the fullness of truth revealed to us today by the scribes who sought to capture for all of time the truth proclaimed by Moses, Paul, and Jesus. The Levital text is part of what we call the Holiness Code. This was the aspect of Levitical law that had the express purpose of transmitting the holiness of God through the Priests and into the people. You see it did no good for only the priests to be set apart or different – that's what every religion did. The holiness, the separateness, the otherness of God was given to the people so that the craziness of the world would not define them.
So Leviticus offers us a moral code, an ethic to define the Israelites for the entire world to see. We do not normally think of rules like these as a place of grace and mercy – yet that is what these are! Rules that are simply there to create order often define us from the outside. There is some of that here. The Israelites are being told to play nice and not to take advantage of anyone, especially those who are weaker than they are.
Here is the big difference between a basic moral code and the dispensation of grace found in Leviticus. The actions of the priests and the rules of the law made the Israelites different from the world around them by pushing them into a deeper relationship with the world around them. Being both separated from and integrated with others is the paradox of faith that Paul has been talking about.
Why wouldn't someone harvest every square inch of her or his field? Why would anyone make himself or herself more vulnerable to someone else? Why on earth would we pray for our enemies, and how in the world could anyone love a terrorist?
Yet that is what we are called to do, and here is the key: "You shall not render an unjust judgment." The literal Hebrew translation is "let there be no iniquity in judgement." The NRSV goes on to say, "You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor." But the word translated as justice is actually "righteousness," and the word translated as neighbor is actually "companion."
What does all of this talk of judgment, justice, and righteousness mean? It means that we will go nowhere without understanding the humanity wrapped up in every situation. It means that we, the church – the Body of Christ, are called to be something different in the world. It means that we, as individuals, must consider the grace we have received in our own lives and find ways to interact with people we don't trust, don't love, and don't want to. Why? Because becoming vulnerable to the needs of others offers us a chance to respond to God's grace and a chance to understand our need for more of it.
I would guess that most of us know that we are not perfect. The easy way out of these texts is to say that they are overwhelming or impossible, or at best they are a good goal to shoot for. That may give me something good to confess and then feel good about later, but that is not what these texts are saying. The text is saying that if I turn on the tap I get water. If I have the love of God within my heart the actions flow in my relationships.
That is very confronting to me when I think about praying for and loving enemies, giving to others when I do not know if it is actually helping them, and truly seeing all people as equals, and therein lies the rub. At the end of the day, there are people I do not want to see as equals. At the end of the day, most of us don't really want to be perfect.
Fortunately for all of us, that is not exactly what the text means either. The NRSV says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," but the Greek is literally, "then you shall be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." So, there is a sense that we are being perfected. When we care for the needy, when we go the extra mile, when see the outcast as God's beloved child, and when we respond to the grace and forgiveness we have received then we shall be perfect. Our response does not makes us perfect, but the grace of God that we are participating in does.
Being perfected by participation in grace reminds me of a scene from the movie, Remember the Titans. The film was based on the true story of a black football coach and his team in one of the first racially integrated schools in Virginia. Coach Boone was a hard driving man who expected nothing less than perfection. Toward the end of the film he is questioning whether he has pushed his team too far. In the final locker room scene at half time, he is interrupted by one of the star players while trying to console the team.
Coach Boone: It's all right. We're in a fight. You boys are doing all that you can do. Anybody can see that. Win or lose... We gonna walk out of this stadium tonight with our heads held high. Do your best. That's all anybody can ask for.
Julius: No, it ain't Coach. With all due respect, uh, you demanded more of us. You demanded perfection. Now, I ain't saying that I'm perfect, 'cause I'm not. And I ain't gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect. We stepped out on that field that way tonight. And, uh, if it's all the same to you, Coach Boone, that's how we want to leave it.
You and I were created in the image of God – but we, most certainly, are not God. Yet God is not saying, "Just do your best." God is saying, "I double dog dare you to become inconvenienced on my behalf. Go with Myrna or Celia to the U.C.O. Go with Rose to the Wesley Center. Go with Leigh and Robert to CUPS. Pick up some stuff from Sue and fill some Easter Eggs, or better yet - be here and help when we distribute the baskets! Go write a card to someone who needs it. Do something; just don't stop at being nice. Don't stop at convenience. Don't stop until you reach perfection."
You know it occurs to me that after the locker room chat in Remember the Titans the team prayed the Lord's Prayer before taking the field. It also occurs to me that this is more like a locker room than we may want it to be. If we believe that coming to this place, listening to me, praying our prayers, singing our songs, and putting money in the plate is the end to which God is pushing us then we are surely missing the mark. What we do in here is simply a dress rehearsal and a pep talk. It is only through our common unity out in the field that we can truly approach perfection. May God continue to guide us in our lives as individuals and as the Body of Christ in the world, and may we continue to follow, however imperfectly, into the perfection that awaits us in this life and the life to come. Amen.