"How Do We Define Perfection?”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – October 2, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14

    We all have our pet-peeves.  These are the little events that cause us rather impatiently to roll our eyes when we experience them.  For example, an English teacher friend of mine once told me how irritating it is when she hears people say, “each and every one of you.”  Statements using proper English should either be “each of you” or “every one of you.”  But, the redundancy of “each and every” is what we hear most of the time. 

    Another pet-peeve of a number of us is when we are standing in an express line of the grocery store where the sign clearly states “10 items or less.”  In front of us is a person that displays no shame even though her shopping cart has more then ten.  In fact, a number of us find ourselves actually counting the number of items she has.  She did not have the patience to wait in the longer lines so God used this person to test the depth of our patience. 

    We all wish that people had our values and our same sense of fairness, but our life-experiences tell us that there are not as many perfect matches to our value system as we would prefer.  We are faced with a choice either to remain at peace by allowing people to be exactly who they are, or to decide verbally to correct them by putting them in touch with our greater truth replete with a host of adjectives that reflect our judgments. 

    What is increasingly becoming more difficult to master is the virtue of patience.  We are so used to having and getting what we want that many of us have forgotten how to experience a delay in the immediate gratification of our desires.  Along with that, many of us have forgotten what our parents used to teach us years ago – a little courtesy toward others goes a long way in keeping our blood pressure under control.

    A pet-peeve of mine is when pastors use Christian code words as though everyone has the same definition of what they mean.  While there are scores of these words, the one I like the least is the use of the word perfect.

    It would be interesting for me to go around the sanctuary this morning with my roving microphone and ask each of you how you would define perfection.  What is perfection?   Was Jesus really perfect?  For that matter, is God perfect?  Before you question my sanity for asking such questions – think about it. What are we talking about?

    We may conclude that perfection is a label we use to describe something that provides us with a peak experience.  However, what has meaning to us may not evoke the same response in other people.  Could it be that perfection is different for everyone and is a product of our minds?  

    For example, the time was early spring and I was standing on the top of my neighbor’s fence when one of them drove into their driveway.  She said, “Dick, what on earth are you doing?” I explained that I was pruning their crape myrtle that was vastly overgrown.  She said, “Why don’t you cut it down for us?  I hate flowers.”  I finished pruning it hoping that the bush’s magnificence would change her mind.  Much later I learned that her aversion to flowers came from the bees they attract.  She has such a strong allergic reaction that a single bee sting has the power to kill her.  Perfection can be an opinion we have or a matter of personal taste.

    Suppose you were seated with a small group of people listening to Jesus preach.  You heard him say, “All of you are hypocrites!  You sail the seas and cross entire countries to win one convert; and when you succeed, you make him twice as deserving of going to hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15) 

    Those would be challenging words even for the most forgiving person among us.  We might lean over to a friend and whisper, “Isn’t this the guy who teaches “love your neighbor?”  Isn’t he the one who said, “Judge not, lest you be judged?”  Was Jesus a perfect communicator?  Apparently, there were a number of very religious people that did not think so.

    When it comes to God, many of us have listened to people that have held God responsible for the death of loved ones, for not rewarding their years of faithfulness and for abandoning them during one of the most difficult chapters of their life.  A number of people have given up on their childhood beliefs.  For them, God appears to be far from perfect and no one will ever convince them otherwise.

    When we listened to our lesson from Exodus this morning, we learned that it contained the Ten Commandments.  There was a time when these commandments defined perfection for human life.  It was this drive toward total obedience to the Law that motivated the Pharisees to exhibit the quality of life they believed was pleasing to God. 

    Once Jesus said to them, “You give one tenth to God for everything, including your seasoning herbs like mint, dill and cumin, but you do not express the larger values of justice, mercy and honesty.  You are blind and should not be trying to guide others.  You spend so much time straining the fly out of your drink while you swallow a camel.”  (Matthew 23:23f)  

    The truth is that we do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. Perfection is always defined by the observer.  For example, my understanding of a perfect world is different from the way most people imagine and want.  Our world is a perfect training ground for what we came here to experience, particularly when our task is to create heaven where chaos rules, to create peace while living in the midst of hatred and fear and to bring clarity to loving attitudes while experiencing countless cross-currents of negative and destructive values that are subscribed to by others.

    What better place could we be to find hundreds of opportunities to stretch beyond where we are in our capacities to express compassion?  What better place could we be to create products, to improve the way we educate each other and to push beyond the numerous known boundaries that will broaden our knowledge in every field? 

    So many people remain faithful to their religious beliefs because they want to graduate from this life and enter heaven.  How easy it is to hope and believe that another environment will provide us with values, attitudes and loving spirits even though we never took the time to develop and refine those qualities while we lived in the physical world. 

    Perfection will never be found in a fixed place, a fixed personality, a fixed commodity or a fixed level of consciousness.  Perfection is fluid, constantly changing, and will carry us well beyond anything we can possibly imagine.   It will drive us whether we have faith in the process or not.  How can this be so?  This is how God wired us at birth.  We are free to say “No” to our true nature.  Many people do.  Such a decision on our part, however, will not exhaust God’s patience with us.

    In a letter to the gathered followers of Jesus living in Philippi, Paul’s words reflect how he once defined his own perfection.  He wrote, “I was circumcised (the mark of being a Jew) when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin – a pure blooded Hebrew.  I was a Pharisee that persecuted the church.  I was perfect.  Right now, I consider all of it worthless to me.”  (Philippians 3:5f)

    Paul went on to write more, “I want to be completely united with the consciousness of Christ Jesus.  I am no longer seeking perfection by my own efforts, the kind that is gained by obeying the Law.  I now continue living the quality of life that has been given to me by God through my faith and trust in him.” (Philippians 3:5-9)

     A more accurate definition of perfection is when people continue to learn how best to respond with love in all the circumstances that come up for them.  What a simple and easy way to live and yet how distant such simplicity is for so many people!  All we have to do is show up, leave our opinions somewhere else and be of service. 

    Three years ago when I was participating in a week of Disaster Response training, I met an older gentleman who had been an ordained pastor.  It was refreshing to listen to some of his life experiences, some that he labeled as A God Thing.  He told a group of us about an event that happened when hurricane Katrina struck the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

    A United Methodist pastor in northern Mississippi had a church that was located on 23 acres.  He had a powerful urge to help those in need in the southern part of his state.  He directed his laity to divide the land in smaller parcels and each section was to be labeled for paper products, canned goods, bottled water, generators and small tractors, building materials, tools and construction equipment. 

    Someone in his church learned on his shortwave radio that the National Guard had 28 eighteen-wheeler trucks loaded with critical supplies sitting on side of the road.  The Guard would not permit them to proceed into the stricken area because there would be no one at the other end to help unload them, no one to prevent flash mobs from storming the trucks and no way to get them refueled so that they could leave.

    A young man from the church took numerous pictures of the set-up of his church’s distribution depot and of the 40 pick-up trucks and vans ready to carry the supplies into the disaster zone.  He drove to the site where the 28 trucks were parked.  When the unit commander saw how the church had prepared, he lifted the blockade. 

    The young man led that convoy of trucks to the church where an eager congregation was waiting.  They unloaded the trucks by hand in four and a half hours.  The distribution began immediately.  When a group of people comes together in order to serve those who are helpless – the spirit of love has been put in motion.  When love creates an environment that did not exist, that is what perfection looks like. 

    Last week my sister sent a short video to me that captured another God Thing.  This footage featured an event that never received any coverage by the media when the two aircraft brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  The piece was narrated by actor Tom Hanks and it showed what happened when all forms of transportation in and out of Manhattan were abruptly brought to a halt.  Suddenly everyone became aware that they were on an island with no way to escape.

    Spontaneously, a number of captains brought their boats to Manhattan’s docking area. When the Coast Guard realized they were helpless to assist with the hundreds of thousands of people that had lined up along the docking area, the commander used his ship-to-shore radio and requested help from anyone who had a boat. In no time, an armada of hundreds of boats began to appear on the horizon. 

    Tom Hanks concluded with these words, “The world has just witnessed the greatest sea evacuation in history.  During World War II, 339,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk in nine days.  Thanks to the number of volunteers involved, 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan Island in just nine hours.”  The footage of this event is truly remarkable:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=MDOrzF7B2Kg

    The world is never going to be the way we want it.  What hastens the arrival of the perfection many of us seek is when we decide to display our version of it everyday.  When a group of us does this, we have the followers of Jesus Christ prepared for ministry. One of the bittersweet realities about our human nature is that the potential to put love into motion is within each of us.  However, we also have the capacity to say, “Let someone else do it.  I’m too busy.”

    Our version of perfection cannot be rooted in a desire that everyone should become like us.  Our role in life is to lead others by example.  Even during his crucifixion, Jesus was still leading by showing witnesses and later all humanity that there is no barrier that prevents our love from showing up when that is our will.  This is how Jesus overcame the world.  He invited us to do the same.