Less than Perfect

Presidents’ Day/Mt. 5

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

While you have to admire those who make it into the White House, you also have to feel a bit sorry for them, too. For anyone in charge of our nation now must follow in the footsteps of giants.

Washington led the revolutionary troops and won our freedom; later, he was elected to lead our nation in its first formative years. “Father of our Country” is a hard act to follow.

A little more than a half a century later, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves and somehow managed to keep our nation together during the war that followed. Looking back, he, too, seems truly larger than life–as the giant statue by Daniel Chester French in the Lincoln Memorial reminds us.

Of course, these presidents made mistakes, personal and political. But the average American isn’t aware of them.

The first mistake I could think of, off-hand, would be Washington’s boyhood misuse of his hatchet. But even in this story, Washington comes out as a shining example of virtue. He confesses that he cannot tell a lie: he did indeed chop down the cherry tree! Even Washington’s ecological vandalism makes him look good!

It must indeed be a heavy task to walk in the shoes of Washington and Lincoln. Their successors must feel something like the followers of Jesus felt when they heard Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This command concludes a list of very challenging examples of perfect behavior. The followers of Jesus are supposed to turn the other cheek to those who attack them; they should give to everyone who begs from them; and, in general, they should treat our enemies just as nicely as they treat their loved ones.

By “perfect,” then, Jesus really does mean perfect! He isn’t asking us just to follow the mundane standards of behavior that we already observe without much trouble.

On a day-to-day basis, most of us keep the commandment not to kill our neighbors. We may feel like it, on occasion, but we still live out our whole lives without ever murdering someone.

On the other hand, we regularly break the commandments in today’s Gospel: we walk by beggars, we don’t lend money to acquaintances whom we know will never give it back, and we think lots of unloving thoughts about people whom we consider enemies.

Thus while we might be “perfect” in not having a criminal record, we fail in many ways to obey the tenets of Christ’s religion of love.

But should we be beating ourselves up about these failures? Isn’t, in fact, the command preposterous? Surely we could never be as perfect as God is.

For God by definition is perfect. And we by definition are sinners. So it sometimes happens that a literal interpretation of Christ’s words actually has a harmful effect.

Christians could get so carried away with trying to follow Christ’s words that they would fall into the sin of perfectionism. They scrupulously weigh every thought and action, looking for imperfection, and they see each tiny fault in their behavior–until they are paralyzed by guilt.

The famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards was pastor of the Congregational church in the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts where I spend my summer vacations. In the 1700’s, Western Massachusetts was part of the religious movement known as the Great Awakening.

Edwards attempted to convince his congregation that their commitment to their religion was only lukewarm. They weren’t really Christian because they didn’t realize the depths of their sinfulness.

No doubt, as a result of these revivals, many Christians were blessed with deeper faith as a result of self-examination.

But at the same time, many other Christians were overwhelmed with guilt. They believed that their faith was weak; their actions were far from ideals that God demanded from them. Called to be perfect, they felt very far from their calling.

As a result, for some Christians, religion became like an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was like washing their hands again and again—however much attention they paid to the state of their souls, they could never wash out the sin in their hearts. They were always falling short of perfection.

Indeed, for a long time, psychotherapists held that religion was harmful to a person’s psychological health. Because faith seemed to encourage unnatural standards of behavior, the patient was better off getting rid of religion altogether. Only in recent years, have therapists realized that the right sort of faith brings healing and forgiveness.

We might point to other modern forms of the sin of perfectionism. For instance, Christians may strive for impossible standards of political perfection. They may endorse every movement to build a just and prosperous world—spreading their resources out until they have little real impact – and meanwhile criticizing anyone who suggests that their projects are unrealistic. It is worth remembering that even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln weren’t able to solve all of America’s problems.

So how are we to follow this teaching of Jesus? How can we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect?

In my view, Christ speaks in vivid and sharp language so that there is no way we can miss his point. And his point is to remind us how perfect we aren’t!

We will still find it impossible to follow Christ’s religion of love. We may still walk by beggars because we know that many of them are addicts looking for money to support their habits. (When I was in London last month, I visited a very socially active parish which prohibited any of its staff from giving cash to street people. Staff could take them out and buy food for them—though such offers are usually refused.)

But even knowing the limits of what we can do, we can still support programs for the homeless and the hungry, such as the H.O.N.E.Y. program for the elderly in our neighborhood.

On a larger plane, we Christians will realize that we aren’t going to solve all the problems of the world. Yet, still, we can continue to look for social projects that combat disease and poverty—like the Carpenter’s Kids program to AIDS orphans in Tanzania that many of us support.

So, too, we can faithfully pray for our political leaders on all sides of the political spectrum. After all, they are no more perfect than we are. Our criticisms of politicians we disagree with should be tempered by self-knowledge. After

Finally, we can ask God to grant that even as our leaders struggle with their faults and their limitations, they may still strive to follow in the footsteps of Washington and Lincoln, serving our nation, under God.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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