Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Be “Perfect”

7 Epiphany, February 20, 2011
Lev 19:1-2, 9-18, I Cor: 3:10-11, 16-23, Mat: 5:38-48

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:2b, 19b)

The Hebrew word for holiness, "kedushah," has spiritual as well as physical connotations. It literally means ‘separate,’ or ‘set-apart’. That which is ‘holy’ is completely or wholly ‘other’ and is suffused with the numinous shimmer of God’s true nature. Holiness is considered to be the very essence of God.

In Jerusalem there were concentric borders surrounding first the Holy of Holies in the inner sanctuary, then the temple itself, and finally the walled city of Jerusalem. People knew when they stepped inside the boundaries of the city of Jerusalem that they were in a place set-apart from the ordinary. They were literally approaching the borderlands between our world and God’s world.

This holiness, or "kedushah," had an inner quality also. When Moses came down from the mountain after speaking with God his face glowed with the residue of holiness. The encounter with God changed his inner nature and set him apart from the Hebrew people. The holiness emanating from Moses was considered fearful and awesome, yet was desired as something everyone could aspire to.

The ancient Hebrew people structured their lives to emulate God’s holiness. By saving the outer portions of their fields for the poor to reap they were not only creating a healthier community but affirmed that in doing these acts they became holy as the Lord their God was holy.

The commandments for moral and ethical behavior were put before the people as a way to become closer to God. God acted ethically and compassionately with them therefore, out of their love for God, they aspired to act likewise.

Jesus asks us to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48) Our culture has so much baggage attached to the word ‘perfect’ that it’s become difficult to see this jewel of Hebrew wisdom. Being perfect, in this case, has nothing to do with perfectionism – that neurotic self-imposed voice that tells us we never do anything right and must try harder and harder to overcome our own mediocrity.

The word used exclusively in Matthew’s gospel stems from ‘telos,’ the Greek word for ‘goal’, ‘end’ or ‘purpose.’ We are to meditate on God’s whole and undivided nature in order to become more whole and undivided ourselves. Instead of telling us to be perfect in human terms, Jesus is telling us that we were created whole and complete in order to remember our origins: the same complete holiness that created us and gave us life.

It is in this sense of ‘being’ as our maker intended us to ‘be’ that we are asked to endure harsh treatment, love our enemies, and pray for those who attack us. Jesus does not mean for us to endure an abusive relationship at the risk of our own and our children’s safety.

These teaching of Jesus use the plural form of the word ‘you’ and are intended to teach a community how to live as a community of God, belonging to God, and desiring to live in holiness with God.

Matthew’s gospel was written at a time when the Christian community was being attacked and persecuted. Jesus’ words of wisdom became the template for passive community resistance against tyranny and evil.

Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square, Jesus teaches the beauty of setting ourselves apart from the self-involved cruelty of political systems.

Jesus was raised in a communal culture and spoke to communities of disciples, religious authorities, and common people. It is as a community that we are asked to turn the other cheek, to give away our coat of security and warmth, and to feed the hungry. When Jesus tells us to be perfect it is as a community.

Another way of saying this is, ‘Be whole and undivided among yourselves as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is whole and undivided.’

Paul is asking the Corinthian community to aspire to this same principle. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you… For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple.” (I Cor 16, 17b) Once baptized as a member of the Christian community we become an integral part of the Body of Christ that dwells in, and yet is separate from, the world and its chaos.

Paul is speaking to a fractious and competitive community that has lost sight of the big picture. He reminds them that it is not human leaders who will teach them how to live a Christian life, but Christ himself.

The community is called to be the Body of Christ in a literal way, with each person living into the gifts God gave them. As Christ belongs to God, they belong to Christ. Their communal responsibility is to become one whole and holy container for the Spirit of God that dwells in their midst.

Each of us must find the role that God is asking us to fill in this community. We are not very good at identifying and promoting our own strengths. This is why our culture of individuality clashes headlong into God’s Kingdom community. We can recognize the holy in each other only when we’re not threatened by or jealous of one another.

The early Hassidic sage Rabbi Zusya once said, "When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead, he will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?”

This ancient wisdom bumps up against our American do-it-yourself individualism. The idea that God may have a design for our lives sounds suspiciously like God wants to rob us of our freedom to choose what is best for us. The author of the book titled ‘Bobos in Paradise’, David Brooks, writes that the prime directive of the baby boomer generation is "Thou shalt construct thine own identity."

It is easy to assume that our deepest desires must be obeyed, or we wouldn’t feel them so powerfully. The answer to this dilemma is multi-faceted. Our deepest desires are related to God’s desires for us, but they are in a language we are not accustomed to hearing.

God speaks to us in conundrums, labyrinths, dreams, and metaphors. I still remember clearly my childhood desire to be an actress. From the age of five until I was in high school it was all I thought about. I knew without a doubt that God wanted me to act. When I bumped into my first real road block I concluded that I must have gotten the message wrong.

At the age of fourteen I landed the role of Wendy in Peter Pan. But when an accident put me on crutches the director (wisely) had to choose another, more nimble, Wendy. I interpreted my broken heart as God trying to tell me to choose something a little easier to accomplish in life. I was sure that God didn’t want me to feel as badly as I did.

I grew up with the adage, “You can be anything you want to be. You just have to want it badly enough.” I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be the star. And I wanted it to be easy. I wasn’t prepared to suffer. The ironic thing that I couldn’t have known at the time, is that suffering is what we human beings do best.

Until we embrace the truth that no matter what we think we want in life, all choices involve suffering, we will be wandering around in the spiritual desert. It is how we deal with our own and others’ suffering that separates the truly wise from the ordinary whiner and complainer. The Corinthians were whiners. We are encourage to do better than that.

God did not create us to suffer but, with God at our side, to transform suffering into new life. No one teaches this better than Jesus. The verses we heard from our Gospel today come after the Beatitudes and are meant to be an extension of them.

These pithy wisdom sayings of Jesus are the essence of the road less traveled. They are the exact opposite of normal human desires as they are the epitome of ancient Semitic wisdom.

The desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century interpreted being perfect as, “Being perfectly humble in your recognition of who made you.” The ancients knew that we can’t even come close to behaving and thinking as God would have us behave and think. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

It is in trying to act as God would have us act that we bless other’s lives with holiness. This was one of the many reasons I felt called to join a religious order. I thought that if I were living with a group of people who committed themselves to daily prayer and service I might finally be acting as God wanted me to act. Maybe I was, but I was also trying to escape the voice inside my head which told me that I was never good enough.

I confused perfectionism with Christ’s call to be perfect. There is nothing wrong with joining a religious order as a valid way to live a life closer to God. But my own sticky wicket was the discovery that life lived within a closed community of women is just as ordinary and flawed as any other life, only much more intense.

I constantly bumped up against my interior ‘behavior police’ who constantly nagged, “These sisters aren’t doing it right! Why does one get away with being grouchy all the time and another with dominating the conversation? Why do the sisters always talk about each other behind their backs, blah de blah de blah.”

I was thrown right smack up against the same issues that plagued me before I entered. My desire to be perfect was deflected onto everyone else in my vicinity because of a neurotic wish that they should behave perfectly – like nuns should! As long as I stayed focused on them I avoided the hard work that God was calling me to do.

I eventually realized that my only escape was to shine that piercingly neurotic spotlight on my own behavior and begin to accept that I didn’t have a clue how to behave with humble tenderness toward my sisters or myself.
I turned toward scripture and spiritual writings, and I found a wise spiritual director. I began to grow up spiritually.

I still struggle with my interior behavior police directing my attention toward others’ mistakes rather than my own pride, but I have developed a healthy sense of humor about my own foibles and missteps.

Just as the ancient Hebrew people set apart what was holy from the mundane sludge of everyday life, we can set apart our spiritual life in Christ. We can set aside a times to pray and mediate on God’s whole and healthy desire for us.

We can consider ourselves part of a holy enterprise and therefore cherished by God. As Christ’s own beloved people we can allow ourselves to have an inner shift – an awakening to the joy of belonging to God.

We make things much too difficult for ourselves. We belong to Christ as Christ belongs to God. We can stop and think before allowing ourselves to be directed by our habits and compulsions. And we can learn to be spiritual people living a spiritual life – focused and aiming constantly toward our holy and undivided Christ.