Sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2017 – “Practice Not Perfection”

Sermon for Sunday, February 19, 2017 – “Practice Not Perfection”

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
February 19, 2017
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Decorah, Iowa
Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

Be perfect therefore? Really Jesus? How does that instruction help us to love? When we try to be perfect we can get fixated on ourselves and how we’re doing and end up ignoring the people around us. We can get curved in ourselves. What about grace that sets us free so that we can love and serve others? What about forgiveness?

As it turns out, the Greek word translated here as perfect implies something different than moral perfection. The root word is telos which means reaching one’s intended outcome. Scholar David Lose ex- plains, “The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean ‘Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.’”

We were created to be people of love, people who live with love. And God intends for us to live out love to help bring in God’s kingdom – a kingdom where hatred has no place, where love permeates and trans- forms everything. Jesus’ call here is not to moral perfection but to love. But how do we live out love in this world of violence and hatred?

Jesus says, “do not resist an evildoer.” That sounds like we’re supposed to just let people walk all over us and never stand up to injustice, like we’re supposed to be passive in the face of those who do harm.

Here again there is a translation problem. The word rendered here as resist actually implies something more like violent resistance, revolt, or armed insurrection. So, a better translation would be “don’t react violently against one who does evil.” Or, as three other books in the New Testament advise, “do not repay evil for evil.”

It seems Jesus is not advocating just being a doormat in the face of evil. Instead, he’s advocating that we resist continuing cycles of vengeance and retaliation. We’re called to oppose violence by choosing to not violently oppose others. As scholar Matthew Myer Boulton writes, “Jesus advises defiance – but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves… rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycles of enemy making.” Jesus tells us not to fight fire with fire but rather to refuse to add fuel to the fire. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that.”

In King and fellow civil rights leaders, in Mahatma Gandhi and others that teach non-violence, we have seen the kind of resistance and defiance that Jesus advocates. We see that it’s possible to resist and love.

Except King and Gandhi feel like examples of moral perfection; what they did seems so out of reach. Besides, their situations are much more extreme than what most of us face. In daily life, we usually struggle more with people who bother us than people who truly hate us. We deal more with annoyances and ideological differences than with persecution.

Yet all of us are called to practice love in all the mundane and difficult aspects of our lives. We can’t do this perfectly; some days we can’t even do it at all. But perfection isn’t the goal. Living into who God created us to be personally and as a community is the goal. This is a step-by-step, slow process.

It begins with prayer – praying for those who hurt us, those we fear, those in power over us. Prayer gives us the opportunity to take a deeper look at these people, to look at them with God. We will struggle to see them as God sees them, as beloved of God. But over time, if we practice looking at them with God in pray- er, our perspective will change. We will slowly begin to see that our struggle is not so much with particular people but with the brokenness that affects us all. Prayer can help us to look at ourselves differently – to see the hurt, anger and hatred we carry – and at the same time, to see that we are still and always beloved of God.

Prayer can also help us to discern what love looks like in a given situation. Does it look like forgiveness, or kindness or non-violent resistance to an unjust policy? There are no easy answers, but personal and communal prayer can guide us just as it guided Martin Luther King Jr.

The next step I think, is listening. This summer a video by a former undercover CIA agent, Amaryllis Fox, was widely shared. In the video, Ms. Fox advocates listening to our enemies. She says, “If I learned one lesson from my time with the CIA, it is this: everybody believes they are the good guy.” She continues, “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not you might’ve made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”                           

I think this lesson applies not just to our sworn enemies but also to that difficult family member or co- worker. When we approach people seeking to understand what matters to them and what keeps them up at night, it is much harder to hate them. It is easier to see that our futures are bound up together and that adding fuel to the fires of hatred will devour us all.

Most of all, I think we need to act loving even when we don’t feel like it. Jesus doesn’t tell us we should feel warm and fuzzy towards our enemies or think happy thoughts about them. Instead he calls us to practice love. The practices he describes can help us to live out love regardless of how we feel. When we chose to not respond to hurtful comments or to remain respectful when dealing with a politician we don’t respect; when we go the extra mile to resist injustice with love; when we choose to help a person in need rather than assuming the worst of them; when we share our food and clothing we are shaped into people who live out love. Again, perfection isn’t the goal; rather it is about being who we’re created to be – being people of love.

Martin Luther said that Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. In practicing the Christian life, we receive the love that makes us who we are and then we are sent out to be the love we have received.

Let us pray.

Hymn of the Day, #729, The Church of Christ, in Every Age