Sermon Archives

Sunday, February 19, 2017
The Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany (Year A)
The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Be Perfect

Lord, take our minds & think through them,
take our lips & speak through them,
take our hands & work through them
and take our hearts & set them on fire for You.

Growing up in an environment with alcoholism gave me ample preparation to become a perfectionist.  I carried this perfectionism into my adulthood: “I must be perfect and responsible for everyone.” Eventually, I became convinced that being a perfectionist was not a positive trait and I needed to change something.

After working mindfully on this, I took a personality test and found that I was an INFJSP[1] or something. But this did not address my inner perfectionism. About eight years ago, I took the Enneagram test. This spiritual-based test revealed I was a three on a nine-point scale: ambitious, energetic, achievement-oriented.  Aha! my identity felt confirmed – that’s who I was wired to be.

Through that framework with ongoing reflection, I am learning, day by day, to accept how God created “all of me,” my energetic orientation with my perfectionist tendencies[2], and with a spiritual understanding to keep my perfectionism at bay.

When I read today’s Gospel message that ends, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” well, I took a deep breath and realized *this* is my work – our work – to explore today.  So, “starting with the end in mind,”[3]  I confess at least two temptations[4].

The first temptation: not to take “be perfect” too seriously.  Really, Jesus, do you mean that, for us? Do you really expect us to be evildoer resisting, cheek offering, cloak giving, extra-mile going people?  Talk about setting a high bar! If we cannot satisfy all God’s commands, why don’t we just flee to Jesus’ forgiveness.  Receive grace and call it good.  Of course, that would mean the whole Sermon on the Mount was just an unachievable arrangement of commands, climaxing in today’s outrageous phrase, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The second temptation is to take these commands too seriously. That would imply that we can actually do all those commands ourselves, under our own power and strength. And that would be something called the Pelagian heresy.  Pelagius was a 5th century monk whose theology proposed that we humans can overcome sin in ourselves and in the world, we alone.  That we can do all that is necessary for salvation through our own power without divine assistance or guidance. This over self-confidence haunts our society today, and us, personally.  We are so tempted to think that we ourselves are sufficiently strong and not in need of grace; that we need only God’s instructions and encouragement.  Then we can be perfect.

As usual, there is more at stake here. For starters, the word we translate as “perfect” comes from the Greek “telos.” Telos means less “moral perfection” and more “direction of intended outcome.” For example, the telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach the target. The telos of a fig tree is to yield figs. The telos of a choir is to bring glory to God.

So “be perfect” can mean: Be the person God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.  (I particularly like the contemporary translation from The Message[5], “…Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”) One friend pointed out, telos can also mean completion, determination, and persistence toward the goal.

So how can we be that person and persistently live out our God-created identity? Oh, there are so many ways: prayer, counseling, self-discovery tests…

In a few weeks, March 10 & 11, the parish will host spiritual guide, Su Hansen, for our Lenten Retreat. Ms. Hansen will teach us the ancient self-discovery tool, the Enneagram, to enlighten how we are loving others, what makes us tick, and who God has created us to be. The CCGP Spirituality Center offers this retreat and invites anyone with a desire to know your God-created identity better to attend this retreat. (see Currents).

Who has God created you to be?  How are you becoming that person today?

With the words “be perfect,” we can hear from Jesus less a command and more of a promise: God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you – to achieve something magnificent. That something magnificent is precisely to be who you were created to be so that you can help create a different kind of world – a kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, violence does not create more violence and hate does not incite more hate. In that kingdom, as MLK said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 

But can we do this? Can we turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us? Well, not perfectly. Not at all, sometimes.  It’s not our job to bring in the Kingdom – that is for Jesus to do. We are to persist in living like disciples and citizens of that new Kingdom.  Think for a moment about someone with whom you struggle.  Try praying for that person this week, and the week after, and the week after. Persist in being who God created you to be: the child of grace, forgiveness and love. (Perhaps you might join the Intercessory Prayer Team during communion at 9am to share your prayer requests.)

This is how we persist in living like disciples. This is how we are called by Jesus to become more than we thought we could be. This is how we claim our identity as God’s beloved people. The message today, returning hate with love, turning the other cheek, praying for those who are against us – is counter-cultural. This approach is not popular; it is not a marketing message that will attract thousands.  This is hard work.  And, this approach will help change the world for the better.

Change, I said, not save. Save the world is Jesus’ job.  We are free to take care of this part of the world and to persist in living like disciples, week by week, and return here on Sunday to hear again of Jesus’ grace and forgiveness.  Being a disciple does not, thankfully, require perfection, but persistence. Look at the women in the NT who persisted[6]: the widow and the judge[7]. The Syrophoenician woman[8]. The woman looking for her lost coins.[9] In these and several other biblical stories, Jesus suggests that being a disciple means to persist in working toward the goal that the Beatitudes propose.

I think of my friend Stefanie, who persisted in eeking out two more years of life before chemo took her. And of course, Helen Keller (who became deaf and blind at 18 months) persisted through incredible obstacles. At the age of 24, Keller wrote her first book and an inspiration to all who are deaf or blind. Who are those in your life who have persisted?  That persistent drive in our belly reveals our God-created identity.

It is said that St. Augustine, while celebrating Holy Communion, would announce at the breaking of the bread, “Receive who you are, become what you have received.”  In this way, he reminded the congregation about Jesus, present in the Eucharistic Feast which we share week by week.

May we receive with open palms the identity that God gives us. May we become the person that God created us to be.  And may we know the grace and strength of Jesus – through whom, we are already perfect. Amen.

[1] Referring to the Meyers-Briggs personality test, which can be found here.

[2] Portions of this reflection inspired by Karoline Lewis in her post “Be Perfect.”

[3] Wisdom from personal conversation with parishioner, December 2016,

[4] Only two temptations, you say? These temptations articulated well in the blog post by Pastor David Lose.

[5] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible In Contemporary Language, (NavPress; Numbered edition, 2005)

[6] Inspired by Karoline Lewis in her aforementioned Feb 12 sermon commentary cited here

[7] Luke 18:1-8

[8] Matthew 15: 21-28

[9] Luke 15:8-10