Year A, Epiphany 7
When I was interviewing at my previous church, I knew it was a good fit when I saw that they had a Dr. Pepper soda machine…which had Diet Dr. Pepper. It seemed like a direct message from God. This time, it was a little more subtle. I was reading your profile and it mentioned that the brickwork is Flemish bond. I thought Flemish bond…that’s my favorite kind of brick work! Ok, that was not it. When I was very young, my father was stationed in Belgium. My brothers were older and went to an American school but my parents thought it would be a good experience for me to go to a Flemish school. I learned very little since the teachers didn’t know English and I did not know Flemish, but I still have a warm place in my heart for all things Flemish. When I was on my tour, I made sure to ask a question about the Flemish brick work, but the search committee was not overly impressed with my Flemish expertise. Yet I had a hunch that the Flemish brick work meant something about my place at St. John’s.
The Gospel reading today is our final installment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We have been listening to it for several weeks now. Last week I talked about Jesus’ use of hyperbole to make important points. He spoke at length about laws regarding how we are in relationship with one another, how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. He had some helpful advice, but definitely not easy advice. In fact, some of what he said was so challenging, we often just gloss over it.
Today he says some things that are very familiar to us, so familiar it’s easy to forget how incredibly radical they are as well. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” If we followed this advice literally, we would never worry about self defense classes or protecting ourselves. We would not lock our cars, homes or churches because we would let people steal what they want. Not only would we have to love our friends, family and acquaintances who are sometimes hard to love; we would have to love the people who are trying to ruin us, people like terrorists. How do you think it would go over if I added Al Qaeda to the prayers of the people?
Then, because all of that isn’t already hard enough, he concludes with, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That kind of ruins the whole thing, doesn’t it? Everyone knows that no one is perfect. In fact, being a perfectionist is considered a character defect, something we feel we should overcome.
As is often the case when reading scripture that has been translated by many different people over several thousand years, some things have been a little lost in translation. For instance, the Greek word for perfect is telios. The way the Greeks understood telios is not the same way we understand perfection. Now we think of perfection as someone or something without flaw or sin. The Greek understanding of perfection was more functional. A thing is perfect if it fully realizes the purpose for which it was planned, designed and made. Therefore humans are perfect if we achieve the purpose for which we are created and sent into the world. So you see, it is much easier than we thought, all we need to do is figure out our purpose in life!
I will admit that seems a little daunting, not as hard as perfection, but daunting nonetheless. However, Jesus was pretty clear about our purpose in his Sermon on the Mount. It has something to do with the Greek word for love. There are several Greek words for love, but the one that is used in these verses and in most of the Bible is agape, which is considered a divine love. It means universal benevolence, unquenchable goodwill, and seeking the highest good for every individual. That is different than brotherly/sisterly love, parental love, or romantic love. With agape love, it is less about the heart and more about the will. It is about caring for that person who makes you insane, or that person who has hurt you on the most profound level. It is about seeing people, even your enemy, as God would see them. That kind of love seems almost impossible….but just almost, not completely. In a way, it seems more reasonable than thinking that we have to love our enemy like we love our partner, parent, child, or dearest friend…because that is not the kind of love that Jesus is talking about.
How do we find a way to love people who have hurt us, maybe even scarred us? Jesus has some advice on that as well. He says, “Pray for those who persecute you.” That does not mean that you pray that they stop persecuting you, because that would be more of a prayer for yourself. Instead, you pray for them out of good will and benevolence. William Barclay, a commentator, wrote, “No one can pray for others and still hate them. We cannot go on hating others (when we are) in the presence of God.” Prayer puts us in the presence of God, with the person for whom we are praying.
I bet you are all wondering what this has to do with Flemish bond bricks. One of the appeals of the Flemish bond bricks is the appearance. They have glazed headers, which gives it a checkerboard look and that makes it unique. The bricks were individually made, so they are not all the same shape and size. I read an article about St. John’s that said the walls were constructed with roughly made, imprecisely shaped bricks that are “full of subtle variations and corrections-even clever adjustments- that the masons used as they persuaded those irregular bricks to take highly regular patterns.” When you look at it, you might call it imperfect. It is because each brick was individually made, just like each one of us is individually made by God. What makes these bricks so amazing is that it is the variations that help them fit together, and that makes for a very strong wall. It’s not just about beauty. It’s about strength as well.
Each one of us has something that makes us imperfect in the worldly sense of the word, but absolutely perfect in the Biblical sense of the word. Our variations and corrections are the things that give us a unique purpose, and when we put all those “imprecisely shaped” bricks together, we have a church, a community of Christians who fit together and create something strong and beautiful. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he talked about Jesus Christ being the foundation. I believe that Jesus is not only the foundation, he is also the mortar that holds us all together. As a church, as individuals, he gives us purpose. In our striving to live into that purpose, we are moving towards perfection. We will still have our flaws, but that is why we need one another. As individuals we are merely roughly shaped bricks. Together, with Jesus as our mortar, we are a great wall that no person, no one thing can ruin.