Archives for June 2012

Independence Day (A,B,C) – July 4, 2012

Practice makes perfect

Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145 or Psalm 145:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s tough to imagine a more unsettling teaching for Americans to hear on Independence Day than this passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Resisting evil doers, turning the other cheek and praying for those who persecute us are not things we seem to do very well. And then there’s the little matter of being perfect.

How many times have you heard these maxims? “Never settle for second best.” “Don’t accept no for an answer.” “Never give up.” “Get it right the first time.”

Americans tend to obey these rules as though they were self-evident commandments. But while it is true that following them can lead to personal success, slavish observance of them can also promote perfectionism.

Perfectionism is the desire to be without defect in everything we do, and it can cause heartbreak for us and those we love. It can cause a person to focus on his job to the detriment of his family life. It can cause a person to procrastinate for fear of not doing a project flawlessly from the start. It can influence a young woman’s view of her body so that she starves herself to have the “perfect” figure.

But the problem with perfectionism is clear: it is unattainable. No person can be perfect at all times and in every area of her life.

The Bible itself records this in one of the overarching themes of scripture: human beings are imperfect. We make mistakes in judgment. We are prone to self-preservation and selfishness. We are capable of committing evil. In short, however much we strive to live God-centered lives, we are sinners and will always battle the temptations that keep us away from perfection.

Given these realities, Jesus’ imperative to be perfect as God is perfect sounds a bit preposterous.

This verse closes the first section of the Sermon on the Mount and follows a set of teachings that should, if we really pay attention to them, cause us deep discomfort. We know that we shouldn’t commit murder, but Jesus says that we shouldn’t even be angry with our sisters and brothers or insult them. We know that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but Jesus says that we must control lascivious thoughts because the thoughts are as sinful as the actions. He tells us that we must give to everyone and anyone who asks for money or material goods, even if we don’t think they will use them wisely. And he claims that loving only those who love us isn’t enough. We must also love our enemies. Not simply avoid harming them or just tolerate them, but love them. Then Jesus closes with that strange, daunting command, be perfect just as God is perfect.

Jesus knew about human sinfulness and the darkness of the human heart. So how could he expect us to do the impossible? Was he making a rhetorical flourish to highlight the seriousness of his ethical teachings? Or was it hyperbole, a verbal exclamation point closing his interpretation of Torah?

When we look at different biblical translations of the term “be perfect,” we see that Jesus was not being dramatic or asking for the impossible. His understanding of perfection was not exactly the same as ours. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “You must therefore set no bounds to your love, just as your heavenly Father sets none to his.” The New English Bible says, “There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds.” And Eugene Peterson’s popular translation, “The Message,” says, “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.”

Peterson translates teleioi – the Greek word often rendered as “perfect” – as “grow up.” In doing so, he highlights a definition of perfection that means to reach maturity, to become complete. In other words, Jesus wasn’t saying that perfection is a state of eternal flawlessness that can be magically wished into being. It is a process, one in which we make a practice of acting in ways that reflect God’s nature as we grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling.

Being generous as God is generous, being gracious as God is gracious, loving others as God loves us are surely some of the most difficult skills to learn. But as a child learns by imitating others, we too can help ourselves reach maturity by looking at the spiritual grown-ups around us.

In 2005 a Palestinian family demonstrated God’s generosity, graciousness and love with a beauty that surely bordered on perfection. The family’s 12-year old son, Ahmad Khateep, died after being shot in the head and chest by Israeli soldiers. Ahmed’s father made the decision to donate his son’s organs to children in an Israeli hospital and declared, “We want to send a message of peace to Israeli society, to the Defense Ministry and the Parliament.” Mustafa Makhamid, Ahmad’s uncle, told reporters that “Ahmed was a wonderful and smart little kid who just wanted to play. We want to donate his organs to all the children of Israel whom we consider our children. Enough blood spilling. We hope that we will start a new process that will exceed all others and end the spilling of blood.” With that decision three Israeli girls were given the gift of new life because they received the organs of a Palestinian child. With that decision the Khateep family loved their “enemies” and showed the entire world what it means to have God-like generosity and graciousness. In their practice of God’s qualities, they acted like true grown-ups.

It’s not difficult to imagine that some of their ancestors may have sat on a mountainside in Galilee more than 2,000 years ago and decided to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to enter the process of becoming perfect as God is perfect. If so, they had to have made many mistakes while living out his teachings because they were flawed people, just like us. But they kept handing them down, maintaining their practice so that the seeds of God’s loving kindness were planted in their spiritual DNA. And those seeds bore fruit generations later in the lives of people who are supposed to be at terrible odds with one another.

What hope is found in this story! As Americans, we can see that it is possible to act in ways that go against the norm of what our culture tells us. It is possible to be faithful to God’s teachings rather than fall prey to the fear and hatred that seem to dominate our political conversations.

As followers of Jesus, we can see that we are all invited into the process of growing up and into God’s kingdom of loving kindness. Even in the face of our sinful natures, we can choose to act with love, not only toward those who love us, but also toward those we might be inclined to despise. With God’s help and the example of mature sisters and brothers, we are able to act out Jesus’ teachings in our lives for the benefit of all God’s creation.

There is another maxim you may have heard: “Practice makes perfect.” Maybe we should rephrase that to say, practice may not make us flawless, but it can make us loving grown-ups in the Kingdom of God.

 

— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

St. John the Baptist (B) – June 25, 2012

John as spiritual massage therapist

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things. He was a first-century apocalyptic Jew. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the forerunner of Christ. But today, on his feast day, let’s think of John as a spiritual massage therapist.

An Episcopal priest tells a story about the first time he got a message. It was a gift from his wife, who thought it would be a nice thing to help him relax and get ready for the holiday season, which was just about to begin. He was a bit nervous. It was a new experience, and as he says, he grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where guys don’t get massages.

But he went and was met by a well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman who said she was going to be his “massage therapist.” He turned that phrase over in his mind: massage therapist, massage therapy. It had an interesting, almost clinical ring. It couldn’t be too bad, he told himself.

Then his massage therapist told him to go into the room, to take off all of his clothes, and to lie face down on the table. And he got really nervous. Taking off all your clothes and lying on a table, even when you are modestly covered by a sheet, causes a little anxiety. But he said to himself, I’m a priest, and this is nothing that a little faith can’t handle. We are made in the image and likeness of God! We praise God because we are fearfully and wonderfully made! Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost! Theology to the rescue! Right?

Wrong! It didn’t work. The fact of the matter was that he was lying face down on a table covered by a sheet. He felt uncomfortable and awkward and vulnerable.

The massage therapist came in and got to work. At first, she seemed to be doing some exploratory work. She seemed to know how to find those places where muscles were knotted and tense, places that he didn’t even know were knotted and tense. Not too bad. Kind of nice. Sort of relaxing. But then, after this initial exploratory phase, this nice, well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman somehow changed, and she began to hurt the priest. She dug her strong fingers into knotted and stressed-out muscles, and pain shot through his body. In a soothing voice she said things like, “It feels like you’re a little tight here,” and then she dug deeper into the knot. The pain was both excruciating and exquisite, and for the better part of an hour she subjected the priest’s stressed-out and tensed body to massage therapy.

He describes the experience this way. First of all, it really did hurt. When she dug her fingers into a knotted muscle, pain seared through his body. But mixed in with this experience of pain, there was the deeper experience of muscles loosening and becoming unknotted. As he was lying there, with his massage therapist boring into his muscles, he found his body relaxing and being released from the grip of tensed and stressed-out muscles. At the same time he was saying ouch from the pain, he was also experiencing sweet relief from tortured and twisted muscle fibers. By the end of the massage, he felt wonderful. It was a painful process to endure, but in the end, seized-up and knotted muscles were relaxed and unknotted, and the priest felt like a new person.

On her way out, the massage therapist told the priest to drink a lot of water during the next twenty-four hours in order to flush the toxins out of his system. “Yuck,” thought the priest. Decades of toxins being released into his system. Not the most pleasant of thoughts. He drank gallons of water that day!

John the Baptist is like that massage therapist.

Consider John’s message to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” To prepare the way of the Lord is a serious spiritual undertaking. How can we prepare the way of the Lord in our world and in our hearts today? If God is love, then what are those things that are keeping God’s love at bay? If God’s spirit is the spirit of truth and goodness and beauty, what are those things that get in the way of God’s spirit in the world? If God desires human beings to live in harmony and peace, then what are those things that keep frustrating these desires?

And when we ask these questions, there is John the Baptist waiting to greet us, saying, “Hello, I’m John, and I’ll be your spiritual massage therapist. Take off your clothes, wade into the water, and feel yourself naked before the very eye of God. I’ll be right in, and we’ll get to work. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

And there are his rough, prophet’s hands, ready to dig into the twisted and knotted fibers in our spiritual lives. Under the Baptist’s hands, we feel the pain of having the spiritual knots in our communal and individual lives identified and worked on.

Has anger over some past injury got your soul in knots? Has malicious gossip torn the spiritual tissue that connects us one to another? Are you still nursing an old grudge against someone that is causing you to cramp up? Has consumerism got you feeling spiritually stressed out? Have fear and prejudice caused knots of hatred and intolerance to form in the body politic?

The strong hands of the Baptist are ready to perform a deep-tissue massage on all the things that are blocking the coming of the Lord. It is a painful, but necessary process.

Yet, even in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the searing in our souls, there is the sense in which we are being relieved, released from the tensed and twisted fibers of our anger and our fear and our prejudice. As we undergo spiritual massage therapy, the toxins that were polluting our system are being flushed out in the waters of baptism.

There are many things that are still blocking the ways of peace and compassion in our hearts and in our world today. Things like anger and fear and injustice. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, we may all need to undergo a little spiritual massage therapy.

We are invited to lay down on John the Baptist’s spiritual message table, and to undergo his treatment. It is difficult to undergo, but in the midst of it, we may experience this process as sweet relief, and we may feel like we are being transformed into new men and women.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.