Friday, May 11, 2007

Sermon for April 6, 2007

What is Perfection?
Matthew 5:48; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

A few years ago, there was a full-page ad in USA Today sponsored by the sportswear company FILA. It featured NBA All-star, Grant Hill. There was a picture of Hill, and then it was surrounded by copy that stated: “This year Grant Hill led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals, led his team back into the playoffs, and led the league in triple doubles.” The ad continued by saying that Hill, “didn’t punch an official; didn’t demand a contract extension; didn’t dump his high school friends; listened to his mother; made his bed daily.” Moreover, he “promised to take shorter showers in an effort to conserve water; didn’t hurt a fly; chose paper over plastic; rewound tapes before returning them; put coins into other people’s parking meters.” In addition, Hill “kept his thermostat at 68; practiced what he preached; actually paid attention to the flight attendant’s instructions; donated a kidney; and vowed to do better next year.” According to this ad, Grant Hill was perfect

I suspect that, if we were totally honest, most of us would have to admit that we have a desire to look that good to others. We want people to think we’ve got our lives together—that we’re successful, that our kids are the best and our relationships ideal. We want others to think that we’re on top of our game, and that we would never make an error in judgment. If we were totally honest, many of us would have to admit that we have a driving desire to be perfect.

Perfection is defined in the dictionary as having no flaws or shortcomings; complete excellence. Kind of scary, isn’t it? Perfection is one of the most important characteristics of our culture. While we strive to make our lives look flawless, we also fall short of some sort of imaginary and unattainable standard. At one time, Martha Stewart might have been seen as the high priestess of perfection: one dare not let the mask slip, even in one’s home, where all is perfect, right down the last hand-stenciled napkin ring. Of course, now we know that even Martha Stewart can make mistakes. As hard as we might try to convince other people that we have the perfect life, something usually happens that trips us up.

Even so, many of us keep at it, and I think we do that because we’re searching for something. We want approval and love, and we get to the point of believing that the only way we can earn that love is by being perfect and never, ever, making a mistake or falling short. Rachel Remen, in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, talks about this very thing. In fact, she goes so far as to admit that she is a recovering perfectionist. Remen is a physician who was trained by her father in the art of being perfect long before she entered medical school. She wrote, “As a child, when I brought home a 98 on an exam, he invariably responded, ‘What happened to the other two points?” ’

I read a story about the National Spelling Bee contest where the best school-aged spellers come to compete. The article said that the organizers of the event have had to set up a “comfort room” for contestants after they misspell a word. There they can go to cry in private and vent their frustration on a punching bag, and it helps them cope with the feelings of shame and the sense of failure that come with having gotten one word wrong after having spelled hundreds of words correctly.

The truth is that expecting ourselves or others to be flawless can lead to a miserable existence. Sometimes we create incredible stress in our lives when we try so hard to prove that we’re perfect people. We live in constant fear of messing up or being humiliated or embarrassed when we fail or make a mistake. Striving to present the perfect picture can lead to deadly results. I read a story about Countess Marie of Coventry who reportedly died of lead poisoning from all the make-up she wore in an attempt to portray the perfect look.

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer appeared on the cover of a magazine with the caption “What Michele Pfeiffer Needs Is -- Absolutely Nothing!” It was later discovered by a reporter, however, that Michelle Pfeiffer did need something after all. She needed more than $1,500 worth of touch-up work on that cover photo. From the touch-up artist’s bill, here is a partial list of things that were done to make Michelle Pfeiffer look beautiful: Clean up complexion, soften eye lines, soften smile line, add color to lips, trim chin, remove neck lines, soften line under earlobe, add highlights to earrings, add blush to cheek, clean up neckline, remove stray hair, remove hair strands on dress, adjust color and add hair on top of head, add dress on side to create better line, add forehead, add dress on shoulder, soften neck muscle a bit, clean up and smooth dress folds under arm, and create one seam on image on right side. Total price: $1,525.00

Perfection is costly–even disastrous sometimes.

The way in which we interpret God’s Word doesn’t help our situation, either. What do we do with a passage when Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? When God gives the divine mandate for us to be perfect, isn’t that just adding to our neurotic quest to reach the unattainable grail of flawlessness? Are we called to be perfect, like God, but simultaneously damned to always fall short of the goal? Does God really expect us to never fall short of perfection? Or, is it possible that we have a skewed reading of this text?

In Matthew 5:48 the word translated “perfection” is the Greek word telios. It actually means “whole or complete.” That which is telios fully realizes the purpose for which it is designed. A person is perfect when he or she realizes the purpose for which we are created and sent into the world.

So, in fact, it is not as much a scary word as it is a scary translation. “Perfection” does not mean to set forth an impossible goal, or that which must be attained at any cost. We get our English word “perfection” from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. To be perfect, in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, to allow for the changes that bring us into maturity.

Perfection, as our culture defines it, is simply not a part of the human condition, and it’s not intended to be. Being human by its very nature means that we are imperfect flawed creatures. But that’s not a bad thing. I believe this is where The Apostle Paul can help us. Paul says that he does not boast about being perfect. He doesn’t brag about how great and wonderful and faultless he is. He brags about his weakness. In fact God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul embraces weakness so that the perfection of Jesus Christ might be known. Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul found the secret of real perfection–doing that for which we are created. Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to share our weakness with others. Christian perfection demands that we become fully ourselves as God would have us. We are far from Martha Stewart land. I think that Jesus and Paul are urging us to live as whole people—people of integrity.

Shel Silverstein, wrote a story entitled The Missing Piece. This is the story of a circle that was missing a piece—a large triangular wedge that was cut out of it. The circle wanted to be whole, with nothing missing, so it went around looking for its missing piece. Because it was incomplete, however, it could only roll very slowly as it moved through the world. As it rolled slowly along, it had a chance to admire the flowers and butterflies and sunshine and other miracles of nature. The circle found lots of pieces, but none of them fit. Then one day it found a piece that fit perfectly, and the circle was very happy. Now it was whole with nothing missing! It was a perfect circle, and it could roll very fast, too fast to talk to the butterflies or notice the flowers. When it realized how different the world was when it rolled through it so quickly, the circle stopped, left the missing piece by the side of the road, and rolled slowly away.

In some strange way, we are more whole when we are incomplete. We are strong when we are weak. We roll toward perfection only when we are imperfect. Wholeness comes about when we connect with our limitations -- realizing that we are not perfect, can’t be perfect, and don’t have to be perfect. I believe that’s what God is asking of us—to be whole, not perfect. Wholeness is a matter of accepting and integrating all of whom we are—our strengths as well as our limitations, our good side as well as our shadow side. It’s allowing ourselves to admit and acknowledge that is who we are. To be whole means coming before God with all our faults as well as our virtues, and knowing that we’re accepted and loved.

I really like a story about the master psychologist Carl Rogers put it this way: “I let myself know that I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be enough. But that I am human, that is enough.” I think that’s the very same thing God would say to us. No masks, no pretenses needed. To be ourselves, to be human—that is enough. Wholeness begins when we can make our peace with the fact that we are imperfect people, and God loves us anyway.

· William Barclay, Matthew vol. 1 (176-178).
· Linda McCoy, “Mask of Perfection,” http://www.the 26 01.htm
· Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith (55-57).

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