Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Matthew 5:38-48: “ Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
On my way to an out-of-the way island, I was landing in the Eleuthera airport. One could not help but be impressed as our small plane was setting down that the runway was littered on either side with the rusted out planes that evidently had not made it, making one thankful that this one had. Upon passing through the custom house onto the street beyond, looking for a taxi to take me to my next connection, I spied a liquor store across the street with their advertising mantra painted on the side of the building: Love your enemies, it will drive them crazy, and Cold Beer!
Which is at the heart of what both Jesus is saying in this little portion of his sermon on the mount, and what the priestly document Leviticus proclaimed at least 500 or so years before Jesus arrived on the scene. Leviticus appears to be based on two premises: that the world is created “very good,” and can retain its goodness despite our mistreatment of it and each other, and the notion that our ritual actions and behaviors make God’s presence available, while ignoring said prescribed behaviors damages the harmony between God and God’s creation and creatures. This disharmony is often described as sin – anything that separates us from the Love of God.
This tiny portion of Leviticus lays out some basic ritual behaviors/habits that should keep the God/Creation harmony in balance: when harvesting your fields, do not cut the corners so as to leave food available for the poor and the alien passing through who have no resources; do not lie or steal or swear by God’s name; you shall not defraud your neighbor and shall pay fair wages to the laborer in your field; with justice you shall judge your neighbor, you shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
To which Jesus affirms in our tiny portion of Matthew: do not resist the evil doer, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give to everyone who begs from you, lend to those in need; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; be perfect as God is perfect.
Evidently this is what it means to be holy, and to be perfect. Any attempt to apply this to our personal and public lives takes an enormous amount of energy and maturity. No wonder our Bahamian friends recognize the need for a cold beer at the end of a day of loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, and leaving what may be a profitable share of our crops on the ground for just anyone to gather and eat. It is hard work – physically, mentally and emotionally.
Googling the internet for just what Jesus means by “being perfect” turns up any number comforting comments like, “he knows we cannot be perfect but just wants us to head in the right direction,” usually followed by smug comments like, “he did not qualify it at all – he means be perfect or get shut out of heaven.” Ouch! So much for not judging our neighbor!
My late long time mentor and friend, the Reverend Robert Bonner, used to tell a story about his son, Bruce. Bruce played football. In Texas. Football is taken very seriously in Texas. The coach required that in the spring the football players were to also be on the school’s track team. As they were handing out assignments on the track team they still needed a high jumper, and Bruce volunteered. Then he asked, “What’s the high jump?” Seems Bruce was not designed long and lean like a high jumper, but more stout and low to the ground like an offensive lineman.
But Bruce took his assignment seriously, and after practice at school he set up a broom stick between two standards in the back yard and jumped before and after dinner. He was going to perfect the high jump. When Bob would ask, “How high can you jump?” Bruce would reply, holding his hand just below his chin, “This high, dad!” The big day came for the first track meet. Bob said, “Son, just do your best. That will always be good enough.” When Bruce came home Bob asked how it had gone. Bruce said, “Well, you remember I told you I could jump this high? At the meet they started with the bar this high,” pointing to between his mouth and his nose!
At this point Bob would pause the story and recall how Jesus wants us to love God, love our neighbors, love our enemies, and oh, in our spare time, be perfect. God sets the bar, we strive to jump as high as we can. Bob’s understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ is that as long as we strive to love God, love our neighbors, AND love our enemies, God will forgive us the difference. And if we continue to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being – including our enemies – we will make good headway in repairing the breaches we make between God, Creation and all its creatures therein.
It is a tall task. The damage we have done to the earth and one another is enormous. Why keep at what seems like such an impossible task as to be perfect as God is perfect, and holy as God is holy?
The answer came to me one afternoon. I was cleaning up after a wedding at church. I was ready to go home when the phone rang in my office. The temptation is to walk out the door and not hear the phone. But I stop and answer the phone. “Hi, Chief, this is Bob Bonner.” I was stunned, for I had known that Bob was in the end stages of his brain cancer and most days could not carry on a conversation.
“I have some good days when I can talk to people, so I call folks around the country to say ‘Hi!’ And I wanted to tell you the rest of the story about Bruce. You see Bruce has some learning issues and stayed in high school past the age of eligibility for football. But he kept going to football practice anyway. I asked him one day why that was. He said, ‘Dad, I do it for myself because I know if I didn’t have something like practice to do I would just be fooling around and getting in trouble. And I do it for the team. I am bigger and more experienced than most of them, so I can play hard against them and hopefully make them better players. So it’s simple – I do it for me and for the team.’
“That’s it,” said Bob. “I just though you would like to know that. Thanks for listening. Good bye.” What a gift. I just sat there in awe of what had just happened, and thought about what a loss it would have been not to have answered that phone.
So that’s why we do it – seek to be holy, seek to be perfect – because it is good for us and good for the team – the community, the country, the world, and the earth itself. The past few months we have reflected on what the love of enemies really looks like – Ghandhi, Martin King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandala. And for me it includes people like Wendell Berry, Pete Seeger, David Mallett and others who seriously examine the ways in which we treat and mistreat the earth itself. Oh, and by the way, Bruce is now married with two adult daughters, the lead pastor at Christ Church, Cedar Park, TX, and a Life Coach Counselor. He continues to do it for himself and for the team!
It all ll te Seeger, David Mallet try. Oh yeah, and cold beer! Amen.or yourself and do it for the team. ch we treat and mistreat the ebegins with recognizing that I am made in the image of God, that I can reflect God’s awesome creative Spirit of Love and Compassion for others and for the world which he creates. But it must continue by recognizing that others too are made in God’s image – and that I am called to seek and serve God’s Spirit in others – all others. No doubt the survival of civilization depends on this. The survival of the earth depends on this. Be Holy as God is Holy. Be perfect as God is perfect. Do it for yourself and do it for the team. God forgives us the difference, if only we would give it a try. Oh yeah, and cold beer! Amen.