Seventh Sunday of Epiphany Season Sermon
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Preached at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights
A few days ago, as happens multiple times daily, the dog reminded me that I needed to take a walk. So out we went, she leading the way, me following. I rarely do so, but I had left the television on while we were out and about. As we arrived home and I stood in front of the screen, I saw another of many ice-dancing couples at the Sochi Olympics take to the ice. I increased the volume and took a seat. Within a minute I was leaning out of the chair, then standing again, then found tears streaming down my face before they were done.
They were Meryl Davis and Charlie White. They have been skating together since 1997, when she was 9 and he was 8 years old. To watch them move across that surface was seemingly miraculous. In every motion, they moved as one, as if all the way to the cellular level. It was fantastic. It was amazing. It was captivating.
It was . . . perfect.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
These are words that made me squirm since I was a little kid hearing them read in church. What? Jesus is saying that we are to be perfect as his Father is perfect? What? I had this urge, taking the words seriously, to run in the other direction as far and fast as I could, until I realized that I can’t run fast or far enough to outrun God.
So I needed to look more closely. What does ‘perfect’ mean?
Davis and White’s dance brought that word right out of me. “Perfect!” I exclaimed as their dance came to an end, even before the judges had spoken. But what did I mean by that word at that moment? There was a sense of beauty, of everything being in proportion, of all parts being aligned as they are deeply meant to be. There was a sense of completeness, of wholeness, as if every moment they had skated together over the past seventeen years, as if every turn, every movement, every hour of training came together in one bright searing excellent instant that summed up and perfectly expressed all that had been, and brought it all at the same time to a new level.
It was, in a phrase, all that it was meant to be. And that was perfect.
Now a few days later, after controversy over the judging, after noting again how subjective judging on ice dancing apparently is, I can step back and realize that – as wonderful as that moment was – a couple in a future competition, maybe someone else, maybe Davis and White themselves, will do more, will do better. In that sense, there is always a ‘more’ in this world.
So perfection among us humans does not mean absolutely without error, nor does it mean never-to-be-bettered.
Perfection isn’t that. And that truth is reflected in our first lesson this day from the book of Leviticus. There the voice of God the giver of the Law says to us: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy.” Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Be holy as the Lord is holy. These are echoes, one of the other.
But listen to what happens as Leviticus begins to open up what it means to be holy in the way that God is holy:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
So perfection is not neatness. Perfection is not the rug without a hint of dirt. It’s not the car windshield shining without a streak. It’s not the paper without a single grammatical error. It’s not even the human heart that has never known pain, or loss, or sin.
Perfection amazingly leaves room for all these apparent imperfections. Perfection has space for the rough edges, the edges cluttered by the part of the harvest that was left behind. Perfection has time for the vineyard that is left a bit messy, with forlorn grapes scattered on the earth. Perfection has space and time for the poor, for the laborer, for the deaf and the blind friend, for the ones who find life burdensome, and don’t know where to turn.
According to Jesus in the middle of his big talk on the hill, perfection has bad eyes and poor teeth. Perfection has bruises and no shirt or an old threadbare coat. Perfection brings enemies home to dinner; it’s praying for the people who are cursing it. Perfection stands in the rain holding hands with crooks, and evildoers, and people of violence. Perfection is hanging out in the strangest places. Perfection is found where we may never be looking.
But in all these odd places and times, in all these unexpected circumstances, perfection is completeness. Perfection is wholeness. Perfection, in other words, is found in being who and what we are meant to be.
And what does that mean? Who are we meant to be? Well, it may be that we are called to be loving parents, or energetic kids. We may be called to be people who feel a renewed call to work for racial justice, for a nation whose safety is found in common understanding and growing trust, rather than in gunfire and increasing alienation. We may be called to be people of influence who use that influence to nudge our culture toward a love of justice and the embrace of peace. We may be called to be people who suffer physical and emotional or spiritual pain, and still trust in divine love that is not simply generic, but that is focused on us for good.
We may be called to be the people Paul wrote to at Corinth: living in an imperfect church, often misunderstanding what God is asking of us, or underestimating what we can be for each other, but yet called ‘saints’ right now by the Apostle. As broken as we sometimes know ourselves to be, like the believers at Corinth we “are God’s temple” together, and “God’s Spirit dwells” among us.
Our perfection and (dare we say) our holiness lie both within us and beyond us. Saint Paul says that one foundation has been laid and that foundation is Jesus Christ. Jesus, he goes on to say, is the foundation of the temple, the building, that we (you and I) actually are. And if a building is going to stand, it must be built up in agreement, in accord, with its foundation.
What must this foundation of Christ look like, this foundation on which we stand? His life of self-giving, self-offering, generous love and bountiful understanding, finally took the definitive shape of a cross. His perfection is there in the cross, in the giving up of life that leads in the resurrection to new and lasting life. That shape, so familiar to us, looks more than all else like the prelude to an embrace; a huge, eternal, perfect bearhug.
We are built in the shape of Jesus Christ, cruciform, cross-shaped, willing to suffer in order to embrace the world. Willing to suffer evil and loss and hatred and messiness and misunderstanding and subjective judging in order to offer freely and with abandon the gift of a lasting and perfect embrace. And in that to know perfect joy.