Sermon: Epiphany 7 RCL A – “Be Perfect”

As the high point of its annual picnic, a company rented two racing shells – racing rowing boats – and challenged a rival company to a rowing contest. The rival company accepted. On the day of the race and picnic, everyone entered into the spirit of the event, by dressing the part, and with the bands playing and banners waving, it was quite a festive occasion. Towards the end of the day, the two teams readied their boats and the race began. It was not much of a competition. The rival company immediately pulled ahead and never lost the lead, winning the race by 11 lengths. The management of the host company was embarrassed by its showing and promptly appointed a committee to place responsibility for the failure and make recommendations on how to improve their chances in a rematch the following year. The committee appointed several task forces to study various aspects of the race. They met for three months and issued a preliminary report. In essence, the report said that the rival crew had been unfair.

In such a boat you have those who row and the coxswain, that is the one who is in charge of steering and coaching. In reporting that the other crew had been unfair, the committee said, ”They had eight people rowing and one coxswain steering and shouting out the beat. We had one person rowing and eight coxswains.” The chairman of the board thanked the committee and sent it away to study the matter further and make recommendations for the rematch. Four months later the committee came back with a recommendation: “Our guy has to row faster.”

It was a few weeks ago that we were discussing the Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and so on; and you may recall that I told you about a soldier who quit the church because, as he told his mother, he would never be those things. Well, I have to say, if the Beatitudes caused this young man problems, then the ending of today’s Gospel reading should lead us all to throw in the towel: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

There is no shortage of people who will tell us that this perfection business is overrated. Little quotes like, “You were born to be real, not perfect.” “Remind yourself that it is OK not to be perfect.” “Perfect is a seven letter word that can cause people so much harm and so much insecurity. Love yourself first for who you are.” In the words of Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, “Codswallop!”

Even so, these individuals will tell us that perfection is unattainable, and since most agree, we are told we should strive for excellence instead. Vince Lombardi summed up this camp when he said, “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.” Well, he may not be remotely interested in just being good, but God is not remotely interested in us just being excellent, because in our Christian walk, excellence is a severely watered down version of perfection. A bit like getting a weak tea when you ordered a double espresso. God calls us to be perfect. And just as there are no caveats to our salvation – “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved” – Period – there are also no caveats to us being perfect – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – Period.

Yet, we believe this brings us right back into the realm of impossibilities. Why? Remember the committee that came back and said, “Our guy needs to row faster”? We are under the impression that this is God’s position towards us. “In order to reach perfection, all you have to do is row faster! All you have to do is work harder! Pray longer! Evangelize all the time! Never… and I mean never! make a mistake!” God says, “Do all these things and you will be perfect like me. How hard could it be?” Seeking to be made perfect like that is impossible. It will never happen, but God has provided another way, and it is his Son, who declares, “I am the Way.” (cf. John 14:6)

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul speaks of the sacrifices that the Temple priest made and says, quoting Psalm 40, “In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.” (Hebrews 10:6) Then he writes, yet “every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’ and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11-15)

For by a single offering he – he has perfected. He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. Jesus has perfected for all times you who are being made holy. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9) “Not the result of works…”, not the result of you rowing faster, but it is through the sacrifice of Jesus and our faith in him, that we are made perfect.

By thinking that we are responsible for our own perfection is a bit like the mouse that crossed the bridge with the elephant, who then turned to the elephant and said, “Boy we really shook that bridge didn’t we?” Yeah, no. We are justified – made perfect – by faith and have peace with God through Jesus (cf. Romans 5:1-2), for we are in him and he is in us. (cf. 1 John 4:12-16)

Are we being made perfect so that we will be a trophy on his shelf? So that God can laugh at the devil and declare he has more points? No. Paul answers this question, also in his letter to the Ephesians, “For we are what he has made us [perfect], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10) We are made perfect so that we might be with him where he is (cf. John 17:24), but also so that we might fulfill those purposes for which we were created. “That we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luke 1:74-75)

There are many things we believe to be impossible. Being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is one of them. We believe that he has set before us an unattainable command. In your own strength and through your own means, it is. You will never make it. That is why so many have agreed that to seek perfection is frustrating, neurotic, a terrible waste of time, and not worth trying. But we know something that they do not — as the Prophet Jeremiah declared, “Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” (Jeremiah 32:17) We are perfect, because Christ Jesus is perfect. To the charge that seeking perfection is a waste of time, my friend St. Josemaría Escrivá would respond, “Don’t let it bother you. The ‘prudent’ have always called the works of God madness. Onward! Be daring!” Dare to be perfect. Dare to be a Saint. And dare to serve Our God courageously and without limits.

Let us pray: Holy Spirit, make us faithful followers of Jesus, obedient children of the Church, and a help to our neighbors. Give us the grace to keep the commandments and to receive the sacraments worthily. Raise us to holiness in the state of life to which You have called us, and lead us to everlasting life. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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