By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48
In the United Methodist Church, before a pastor can be ordained, they must stand before the Bishop to be asked a series of questions that date all the way back to Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. The first question is one you would most certainly expect to be asked of anyone entering Christian ministry: “Have you faith in Christ?” But questions 2, 3, & 4 are questions that reveal the theological particularities of our Methodist heritage. Questions 2, 3, & 4 are this:
Are you going on to perfection?
Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
Are you earnestly striving after it?[i]
“Well,” one might say to themselves, “no wonder some clergy have such big heads. After all, no one is perfect.”
But such was Wesley’s belief; a firm confidence that the culmination of God’s grace working within us results in perfection of love and, as this morning’s scripture from Matthew reveals, Wesley was neither foolish nor arrogant in his expectation that those who dedicate their lives to Christ ought to attain perfection.
Over the past few Sundays, we have spent much time journeying through this portion of Matthew’s gospel known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last Sunday, I spoke on this series of thesis and antithesis that Jesus proclaims to the crowd of followers who have gathered around him. Jesus assures his disciples that he has not come for the purpose of destroying or even disrespecting the laws and prophecy we read in the Old Testament. Rather, Jesus will take them to a whole new level. Jesus will, in fact, fulfill their intent in a complete, mature and perfect way.
In this morning’s gospel passage we encounter the last in this series of six antitheses: that love must extend beyond friends or even acquaintances to embrace ones enemies. Jesus wraps up this series of antitheses with this declaration: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[ii] And so we can see that Wesley’s call for perfection was hardly original. It is in harmony with the teaching of Jesus.
Now before I talk about what perfection is, it may be helpful to name what it is not. Jesus is very clear that is not simply a matter of obeying all the rules. It is something more. Later, in chapter 19 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is confronted by a wealthy young man. The young man inquires of Jesus what it is that he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response is simple: “Keep the commandments.” The young man is quick to confirm that he has kept all the commandments Jesus has named. And yet, it seems almost intuitively, he senses there is something more and so he asks Jesus: “what do I still lack?” And Jesus replies, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But this is more than the young man is prepared to offer and so, Matthew tells us, “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”[iii] And so, that story in particular reveals that “perfection,” by the standards of Jesus, is about something more than obeying the rules and not breaking the commandments.
John Wesley also made clear what perfection was not. He writes that it “does not imply… an exemption either from ignorance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations.”[iv] In other words, perfection is no guarantee that you won’t ever say nor do something stupid; nor does it mean that your life will be filled with rainbows and unicorns. Friends, we will never know or understand as much as Jesus knows and understands and, so long as we are living in this world, we can’t escape its pains and struggles.
But the perfection to which Jesus calls us is most of all about love. It is not about being nice to people who are nice to you or even about being courteous to strangers. It is about responding to the most annoying and nasty folks you’ve ever met in the same way that you respond to those for whom you already have great affection and commitment. It has nothing to do with tit for tat or quid pro quo. It is about grace; that we are called to reveal the same indiscriminate kindness God manifests toward all of us on a regular basis.
Jesus’ call to perfection in Matthew’s gospel is reminiscent of God’s call to holiness in the Old Testament. As God enters into covenant with the Israelites, he tells Moses: “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.’”[v] From the beginning God is clear that our character ought to reflect his character; that his nature ought to be revealed through his people. We are to be as God is. I know I’ve mentioned before that I am short because my entire family was short on my mother’s and father’s sides; short grandparents, short aunts, short uncles… everyone short. In fact, had I grown to be unusually tall, my father might have had some questions for my mother. So too, when we fail to be holy, fail to be perfect, it casts doubts on our identity and calls into question the character of the one we address as “Our Father.”
Friends, we find perfection defined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount by this call to respond with consistent love toward others; even the most unlovable. It’s easy to be nice to nice people. It’s easy to be patient with patient people. It’s easy to be generous with generous people. But it is much harder to be nice and patient and generous with those who are nothing but a pain in the donkey’s behind. But such love is not an option for us. If we wish to be children of God – if we appreciate the opportunity to prayer to “our father in heaven” – then we must reflect our heavenly Father’s character in our interactions with others.
Now, I wish I could tell you a sure fire formula for holiness; an exhaustive definition for perfection that would apply to any and all circumstances. But it is something we must work at and work out for ourselves each and every day. It is a matter of prayerful discernment.
You know, sometimes a story is worth a thousand words…
Walter Wangerin wrote of his experiences as an inner-city Lutheran pastor in Evansville, Indiana in his book Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace. Pastoring in a culture unlike his own, Wangerin struggled to find his footing. One woman in the congregation kept him particularly off balance. Lillian Lander, known simply as Miz Lil. Clasping her pastor’s hand in her own after services, she would sometimes say he’d preached and others that he’d taught. Frustrated by this subtle ambiguity, Wangerin mustered the courage to inquire as to the distinction. Miz Lil responded: “When you teach, I learn something for the day. I can take it home and, God willing, I can do it. But when you preach, God is here and sometimes he’s smiling and sometimes he’s frowning surely.”
The neighborhood in which Wangerin’s church sat was sketchy at best. Just across the street from the church was a dilapidated house. On its porch sat a skinny, unkempt woman, Marie, who simply rocked in her chair all day long and said nothing. Wangerin had attempted to be neighborly, to introduce himself; she did not even acknowledge his presence. But her stoic presence was contrasted by a young boy who ran the streets like a rabid dog; loud and aggressive, a terror to the neighborhood even at his young age. In time, Wangerin couldn’t help but notice that, when the sun went down, Marie put that young boy out of the house like a cat and a parade of men would come and go as the boy sat crying on the stoop.
One late night as Wangerin sat holed up in his pastor’s study in the basement of the church, he heard a strange whistling. Frightened at first, he eventually discovered its source. It was the sound of old plumbing and as he peered through the basement window, he could see Marie filling empty jugs with water – the church’s water – from the outside spigot. Initially irritated, Wangerin talked himself down by reminding himself that that boy must be living in a house with the utilities turned off. He needed to be able to drink and bathe. Wangerin sat down again at his desk. Some time passed and then that whistling erupted again. As Wangerin peered through the window, the scene made his blood boil. It was Marie’s john filling four more jugs with water. Wangerin couldn’t help but think of his parishioners; many of them poor and struggling. That water wasn’t free and he felt his precious church being taken advantage of. Walking into the boiler room, he followed the pipe with his hand, felt for the knob and turned it tight. The whistling stopped; the water was shut off and Wangerin felt rather smug and proud of himself. He did not speak of the experience at that time but some months later felt cause to use it as a sermon illustration of (no doubt) sinful, decadent behavior. And Wangerin was proud to display his newly acquired inner-city prowess. Church ended; parishioners passed through the door, shaking hands with the pastor and one another. Miz Lil took hold of his hand and this is where I will not do the disservice of my own abridgement…
“You preached today,” she said, and I thought of our past conversation. “God was in this place,” she said, keeping my hand in hers. I almost smiled for pride at the compliment. But Miz Lil said, “He was not smiling.” Neither was she. Nor would she let me go… She paused a while, searching my face…
“Her grandma’s name was Alice Jackson,” Miz Lil said staring steadily at me. “Come up from Kentucky and went to school with me, poor Alice did. She raised her babies, and then she had to raise grandbabies too. She did the best she could by them. But a body can only do so much. Pastor,” said Miz Lil, “when you talk about skinny Marie, you think of her grandma. You think of Alice Jackson by name. You think to yourself, she died of tiredness – and then you won’t be able to talk, except in pity.”
I stood gaping at the floor… This was embarrassing. My whole face stung with the humiliation. Miz Lil continued to press my hand with her large, work-hardened fingers… She would not let me go.
“God was in your preaching,” she whispered. “Did you hear him, Pastor? It was powerful. Powerful. You preach a mightier stroke than you know. Oh, God was bending his black brow down upon our little church today, and yesterday, and many a day before. Watching. ‘Cause brother Jesus – he was in that child Marie, begging a drink of water from my pastor.”[vi]
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[vii]
[i] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church; 2016; United Methodist Publishing House; p. 270; para. 336.
[ii] NRSV Matthew 5:48
[iii] This story of Jesus and the rich young man can be found in Matthew 19:16-22.
[iv] John Wesley’s Fifty-Three Sermons published by Abingdon, 1983. Edited by Edward Sugden. From the sermon “Christian Perfection” on page 512.
[v] NRSV Leviticus 19:2.
[vi] Taken from Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace by Walter Wangerin, Jr. Harper and Row; 1988; chapter 3.
[vii] NRSV Matthew 5:48.
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