Persisting Perfectly

Sunday, February 19, 2017 – The Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48

Persisting Perfectly

This morning we hear the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. It’s been quite the sermon, and while this isn’t the longest section, two of the hardest pieces for us to hear and take in are tucked in here at the end. The first – love your enemies. We know this one – we just don’t like it. Because we like having enemies. They simplify things for us; with enemies to hate, life is defined clearly into good or bad and we can be on the good side of it. But according to Jesus, that’s not going to work anymore. This Good News he brings calls us to be part of reconciling the world to God, and that begins with our own stuff, with reconsidering our own hearts and finding a way to love our enemies, not just our friends. And that’s never easy.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, writes:
We like having those whom we hate, we like the comforts of defining and distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’ in order to bolster our own position. Miroslav Volf … speaks of Christ as having died for the victim and the perpetrator. It is the last bit that something deep within us rejects. Siding with victims is fine, it’s heroic, you get good marks, the press say you’re a nice person. But reconcilers must get alongside the perpetrators. The gospel of peace is reclaimed by loving those who love violence and hatred.

[Justin Welby, “The Prophetic Response to Violence,” 10 April 2014.]

Welby’s comments are from an address he gave at a conference held in Oklahoma in April of 2014, the conference – Reclaiming the Gospel of Peace. He began with the story of Coventry Cathedral, which bears remembering at this moment in our history when the world would want us to make similar distinctions of ‘them vs. us,’ of ‘homeland security vs. enemy invaders,’ and we as disciples of Jesus are trying to find our way through all of this.

Paraphrasing this story from Welby’s address: On November 14th 1940, the German Air Force bombed Coventry, a city of around 200,000 people. At its heart was the 13th century cathedral of St Michael. The bombing lasted eight hours, and both the city and cathedral were heavily hit. The following morning as he walked through the ruins of the cathedral that had burned to the ground, the cathedral’s Provost, Richard Howard, picked up a piece of burnt wood and wrote behind the High Altar the words: ‘Father forgive’. Someone said to him: ‘You mean Father forgive them?’ to which he replied, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (3:23): ‘No, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Pointing out that violence is not something that is only the sin of the other.

Less than a month later, on Christmas Day 1940, Dick Howard preached the sermon at the main Christmas Day service on the BBC. In it he called for post-war reconciliation. It was not a popular call. … The ruins were fresh when he spoke at Christmastime, the bodies scarcely buried in mass graves, the sense of shock of the effect of mass-bombing on the city was still new. (And to this day there are still people angry about that sermon.)

But that’s not all Dick Howard did, he and others gathered up the medieval nails that had fallen from the burning beams of the cathedral, and made them into crosses (of different sizes depending on the nails.) And, in 1945 soon after the end of the war, Howard sent a group of people from Coventry to Kiel in Germany; and his successor Bill Williams made contact with Dresden, and formed a strong link between Coventry and Dresden. Many years later, when the Frauenkirche, the great church of Dresden, was rebuilt after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the top part was a cross from Coventry.

In the years following the war Dick Howard and then Bill Williams set up what became known as Communities of the Cross of Nails (CCN); it was a major step towards post-war reconciliation. There are now nearly 200 CCN communities across the world; these are communities committed to peace and reconciliation and to working out what that means both in their local community and internationally. The CCN remains vigorous and growing, tackling many different aspects of reconciliation in all its different forms. The CCN globally is found in such places as Burundi, in Rwanda, in the Middle East and in the Far East.

Welby writes,
It is not popular to speak of forgiveness during a war as one city lies burning, like Dick Howard. But the deep tragedy of World War II, and of the cumulative ten years of war between the United Kingdom and Germany in the first half of the last century, in which those two countries alone killed several million of each other’s citizens, that tragedy began to be redeemed on the day that Dick Howard wrote ‘Father forgive’ on the ruined wall of Coventry Cathedral. We prefer to win wars, we prefer to win wars against violence, and to defeat our dehumanised enemy than to find the reconciliation that is the true victory of the gospel of peace. “[Yet,] a church committed to the reclaiming of the gospel of peace [… will] join their enemies on their knees.”

[Justin Welby, “The Prophetic Response to Violence,” 10 April 2014.]

From our Gospel text: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;” The response of the Rev. Dick Howard and The Rev. Bill Williams following him took courage, the courage to stand for God’s peace in a time of war; and to see past the reactions of the immediate to the long-term goal of the Gospel. Which brings us to the second difficult thing tucked in here at the end of Jesus’ sermon.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Be Perfect… also not something we necessarily want to hear. But here at the end of the sermon on the mount Jesus says it. Be perfect. Meaning what exactly? (Take a deep breath, it’s going to be okay.) This is one of those moments when some Greek is going to help us. The root of the word used here is telos, which can be translated as perfect, but is better translated here as “completion, intended goal, determined end.”

Which means Jesus is not asking us to be perfect so much as encouraging us to persist in the goal that Jesus intends for us. To live into the vision of the Kingdom described by the Beatitudes, to see that as the goal, and not to be distracted or discouraged by the stuff that happens on the way, but rather to be Kingdom of God focused. The reconciling work at Coventry is an example of that, of persisting even when it’s unpopular, and of the kind of fruit that can eventually yield. Be perfect means to be persistent in doing the work of being a disciple, witnessing to the Kingdom of God.

Another story, which is equally inspiring and heroic in my opinion, and this one is also contemporary and local. Ekhlas Ahmed and her family escaped the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, when she was 12 years old, arriving in Portland Maine as refugees in 2005. Ekhlas spoke so little English, that on her first day of school she got off at the wrong bus stop and it took her 8 hours to find her way home. The experience was enough to convince her to learn English immediately, and she started studying English at every opportunity – including watching The Ellen Show on TV, writing down what was being said and studying it. Ekhlas, now a grad student, teaches English to about 120 English Language Learner students at Casco Bay High School, and she is the coordinator of an after-school program called “Make It Happen” that helps prepare multilingual students for college. With her help, her students have created a calendar celebrating their homelands, and their persistence in becoming full contributing members of their adopted communities here in Portland as well. She told this story in a letter she wrote to The Ellen Show, thanking the show for their contribution to her education, teaching her all those afternoons after school. This past week they had her on the show, featuring her story and supporting the efforts of her students to sell that calendar, called Celebrating Africa. (All of the proceeds from the calendar will help build a school in Sudan.)

How we welcome the stranger matters, how we uphold these Kingdom values matters. Regardless of our politics, we are the people of God, the disciples of Jesus.

This young woman could easily belong to one of the families we have been privileged to know through our compassionate housing initiative, whose lives have enriched our own because they have helped us remember ourselves as disciples. They put faces and dreams and real people in the place of the labels ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ at a time when politics would prefer we forget the real people involved. They help us stay on the path of the Jesus Movement – be persistent toward the goals of God’s kingdom, rather than be misled by other arguments. And that’s before we consider the friendships made, the joys shared, the ways we have learned more about the world and ourselves through being in relationship with them (and will hopefully continue to do so).

It’s not uncommon for women and other minorities to have to be more persistent to be heard, as we were all reminded last week by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s experience. Warren attempted to read another woman’s testimony, that of Corretta Scott King, on the floor of the Senate, and she was silenced with the now famous comment by Mitch O’Connell, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

While Elizabeth Warren has to be persistent simply to be heard in a male-dominated profession and culture, both she and Corretta King are Christian disciples in their own right. And they follow in the footsteps of the many women in the Bible who have persistence as a common virtue. To name a few: the widow and the judge, the Syrophoenician woman, Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his wisdom, the woman with the flow of blood who dared to touch him, the woman at the well, the woman who washed his feet with her tears and her hair, his mother who asks him to help out with wine at the wedding in Cana, Mary confronting Jesus at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, and the women who go to the tomb, undaunted by the stone. [Thank you to Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher.]

These women persist because they believe that God persists; that God will meet them there; that persistence is an act of faith. Jesus is explaining here in this sermon that being a disciple requires us to persist toward the goal of the Kingdom, toward the end game that these Beatitudes describe. Anything less would put the Kingdom in jeopardy.

Friends, it’s time for all of us disciples, women and men, to persist toward the goal of the Kingdom that the Beatitudes articulate. To reconcile the world to God’s self. No matter what resistance we might encounter, to persist in bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven, the full blessings that God envisions, that God dreams of, for all of God’s children.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”