Make Room for Perfect (Fatherly Commitment)
Matthew 5: 43-48
When reflecting on this scripture, Anglican Bishop NT Wright has told this story: There was once a father who had to go away from his young family for three or four days on business. Anxious that his wife should be properly looked after in his absence, he had a word with the oldest son, who was nine at the time. “When I’m away,” he said, “I want you to think what I would normally do around the house, and you do it for me.” He had in mind, of course, cleaning up in the kitchen, washing up dishes, putting out the garbage, and similar tasks. On his return, he asked his wife what the son had done. “Well,” she said, “it was very strange. Right after breakfast he poured himself a cup of coffee, went into the living room, put on some loud music, and read the newspaper for half an hour.” The father was left wondering whether his son had obeyed him a bit too accurately.
Jesus referred to God as his “heavenly Father.” To be more accurate, Jesus referred to God as “Abba.” Jesus spoke Aramaic, and “Abba” is the Aramaic word which we translate as “Father.” It’s important to keep in mind that this word does not have a direct English translation, Father is just the best we can do. But in English, Father has a very formal tone to it, and Abba is the opposite of formal…it contains a sense of warmth and familiarity. It’s a word that conveys a great sense of devotion, commitment, and loyalty. The image of God as our Heavenly Father comes directly from Jesus himself, this is how he chose to speak about who God was for him. And from what little we know about Jesus’ earthly life, we can see what a powerful image this would be, right? Jesus was raised knowing that Joseph was not his biological father. He lived in a world in which the family you were born into defined who you were…and he was born under mysterious, scandalous circumstances. We can’t begin to imagine the joy he felt on the day he was baptized…the day he heard a voice speak from heaven above and proclaim, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Maybe it was the first day that he felt like he was something other than a nuisance or a scandal. It was possibly the first day of his life that he felt like he really belonged…and since his Father was ruler of Heaven, Creator of all things…he didn’t just have a feeling of belonging to his family, or his town, or his nation…he belonged to all of Creation.
This is why the image, the metaphor, of God as our Father remains such a powerful one to this day. God is the Holy, Mighty Parent who can love us, who can accept us, who can embrace us in all the ways that our human parents couldn’t. Humans are imperfect and limited, and so is the love that we give and receive. But God offers perfect love. And this is the double-edged sword of using this metaphor for God. If we see God as our Divine Father, our heavenly parent, then we must hear Jesus’ teachings about what this requires of us. If God is the Father, then this entire Earth is God’s household. And when you're living in God’s house, you live by God’s rules. And time after time, from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to Matthew and Mark, what is the one major rule in God’s house? You will love God with all you are, and you will love your neighbor as yourself. Even when you are hated and refused, even when you are scorned and shortchanged, even when there are rumors spread about you, even when you are turned away for simply being who you are…even under the worst circumstances…you will love others as if they are part of your very self…just like God does.
Jesus encourages his disciples to be “perfect…as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” This is not an easy task, because as we all know, there is no such thing as perfection in human form. No matter how much we may wish to be…none of us will ever be perfect…it is impossible for any of us to be perfect. We have all tried to love perfectly…and we have all failed. We have all tried to give our best to those we love most, to those most important to us… and we have all come up short. And it’s entirely possible that we are still hurting and suffering to this very day…simply because we did something that 100% of all humans have done…we failed to be perfect. How are we supposed to live with ourselves if we are expected to constantly do something impossible? Again, from NT Wright, “Impossible? Well, yes, at one level. But…Jesus’ teaching isn’t just good advice, it’s good news. When they mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told quizzical, sometimes humorous, stories that force them to think differently. When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the worst bit of Roman equipment on his back—the heavy cross-piece on which he would be killed—he carried it out of the city to the place of his own execution. When they nailed him to the cross, he prayed for them…He asks nothing of his followers that he hasn’t faced himself. [He] opened up the new way of being human so that all who follow him can discover it.” Jesus offers us a new way of being human. It’s a way in which we don't have to try to be perfect…we just have to commit ourselves to offering love to others…in all situations. We don’t have a choice in what happens to us…we have no control over how other people treat us…but Jesus has demonstrated that humans are capable of offering love to all people in all situations… even in the midst of hate and violence and doubt and death.
God loves us enough to set us free, to let us make choices…and the biggest choice God offers us is whether to model ourselves after the hateful limitations of the world…or to model ourselves after our Heavenly Father’s Perfect Love. We can live in a world of our own making—keeping track of all the things we’ve messed up, and all the mistakes others have made, and all the ways in which life has not turned out as we wish it had—OR…we can choose to live in God’s house…by God’s rules. The choice to see God as our Father, to consider ourselves God’s Beloved Children, is simply the choice to belong to the rest of Creation. Choosing to belong to God and Creation doesn't magically make us perfect…it doesn’t mean we will always do the right thing. It is nothing more than committing ourselves to practicing love and forgiveness. It is the choice to be faithfully present with others on this journey through life. We can commit ourselves to being being present with one another, as God our Father is present with us. We can model ourselves after Jesus by promising that whatever you encounter in this human life, you will not encounter it alone. Rather than being defined by life’s disappointments…our lives can be defined by our Covenant Commitment...to respond to hate with love, to respond to indifference with compassion, to respond to doubt and despair with hope and with faith. This is the choice God freely gives to God’s free people. Thanks be to God for such a blessing…a foretaste of eternal glory…simply by committing our time and our energy to a community of lovable, imperfect misfits.