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Sermon for February 23, 2014

What is Perfection?

“Be perfect, as God in Heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

Many 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 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 to declare 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 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 brightest and our relationships ideal. We want others to think that we’re on top of our game; 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 means having no flaws or shortcomings; complete excellence. A perfectionist sees life as if it were one of those little pictures at the back of Saturday’s Washington Post Magazine that says “What’s wrong with this picture?” If you look at the picture carefully you will see that the table only had three legs or the front door has no door knob. Perfection is like taking delight in finding what’s wrong – only looking for what is missing, or broken instead of what is working.

Why would we want to find such satisfaction in only seeing what is missing, in what is wrong, or in what is broken?

Perfection is one of the most important characteristics of our culture. Some have said the pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time. 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 trips us up.

Even so, many of us keep at it. We strive for a flawless life. I think we do it because we’re searching for something. We want approval and love.  We start to believe that the only way we can earn love is by never ever making a mistake or falling short. In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen 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?’” 
Remen goes on to say,
“I adored my Dad and my whole childhood was focused on the pursuit of the other two points. By the time I was in my twenties, I had become as much a perfectionist as he. It was no longer necessary for him to ask me about those two points. I had taken that over for myself. It was many years before I found out that those points don’t matter. That they are not the secret to living a life worth remembering. That they don’t make you loveable. Or whole.”

I read a story about the National Spelling Bee contest where the best school-aged spellers compete for lexocutionary glory (yes, I think I made that word up). The article said that the organizers of the event set up a “comfort room” for contestants after they misspell a word. There the children can go to cry in private and vent their frustration on a punching bag. It’s supposed to help them cope with the feelings of shame and the sense of failure that come with having gotten one word wrong,  even though they’ve already spelled hundreds of words correctly.

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.

The way in which we interpret God’s Word doesn’t help our situation, either. What do we do with a passage where Jesus tells us to be perfect as our God in heaven is perfect? When God gives the divine mandate for us to be perfect, isn’t that just supporting our neurotic quest to reach the unattainable grail of flawlessness? Are we called to be perfect, like God, but simultaneously fated to always fall short of the goal? Or, is it possible that we have a skewed reading of this text?

In Matthew 5:48 the word translated “perfect” 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. “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 this sense, is to make room for growth, to allow for the changes that help us fulfill the purpose of our lives.

And what is that purpose?

I can tell you what’s it’s not. We were not created for superiority over others.  Our purpose in life is not flawlessness. It’s not a moral self-righteousness that cares little for those around us. No, perfection is found in love. Perfection is found in relationship with those who seek to help us or seek to hurt us. Jesus calls us to resist manipulation and guilt and substitute it with radical love.

Perfection, as our culture defines it, is simply not intended to be part of the human condition. Being human, by its very nature, means that we are imperfect flawed creatures.

The Apostle Paul also has something to say about this. In 2 Corinthians, the author talks about having a God-given thorn in the flesh that keeps him from becoming too proud. He writes,
“Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” 
Paul says,
“That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 
Paul does not boast about being flawless. Quite the opposite. He embraces weakness so that the perfection of Jesus Christ might be known.

An understanding of radical love begins with the knowledge that we are all flawed. We all have times of weakness. We all have moments we make mistakes and miss the mark. We unite in our shortcomings, our woundedness, our brokenness and our greatest needs.

Shel Silverstein, wrote a story entitled The Missing Piece. It’s about a circle that has a large triangular wedge cut out of it. The circle wants to be whole, with no lost parts, so it starts looking for its missing piece. Because it is incomplete, however, it can only roll very slowly as it moves through the world. Kerthump. Kerthump.  As it rolls slowly along, it has a chance to admire the flowers (kerthump) and butterflies (kerthump) and sunshine (kerthump)and other miracles of nature. Along the way, the circle finds lots of pieces, but none of them fit. Then one day it finds a triangular wedge that fits perfectly. The circle is very happy. It is finally whole! It is a perfect circle. It can roll very fast. In fact, it now rolls so fast it no longer has time to talk to the butterflies or notice the flowers. When it realizes how different the world is when it rolls through it so quickly, the circle stops, drops the triangular missing piece by the side of the road, and rolls slowly away. Kerthump. Kerthump

In some strange way, we are more whole when we are incomplete. We roll toward perfection only when we kerthump along and connect with our limitations.

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 hear God saying the very same thing God would say to us. No masks, no pretenses needed. To be ourselves, to be human—that is enough.

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).
“How to be Perfect, “
“Beyond Perfection,”


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