Big Enough For Love – Br. Sean Glenn
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
As you hear these words—this commandment—on the lips of Matthew’s Jesus, how do you feel? What comes up within the chambers of your heart? Are you borne up in inspiration and joy?
Or are you, like me, sometimes rather terrified? Terrified of this commandment; terrified of all the gaps in your character through which the word “perfect” shines an unbearable light; despondent at the thought that one might never achieve such divine perfection.
Or, even more, go beyond the confines of a single self: human history is formed (or, rather deformed) by human ambitions to perfection. No matter how lofty or admirable a goal, the perfectibility of the human being has so frequently ravaged the human experience; whether through the carnage of racial, ideological, and national “purity;” or the mutilation of certain bodies that do not conform to a preconception of human perfection; the project of selectively eliminating certain genes within the human genome in order to prevent various congenital illness and come, at last, to a kind of designer perfection of one’s own children.
As a music student, I was quite alive to this ambition of humankind. I don’t think there was a single day in the four years of undergrad when I was ever told “this is good enough.” And it fractured my relationship with music as a result. I would never be “perfect.”
This all-too-human conception of “perfection,” in its more common usage, is defined by its notable reliance on discrimination. We understand it commonly as a way of describing something that is whole and without blemish. Yet, as Sam Bortaro notes, this is a late usage. Perfection via the path of discrimination is a relatively recent development.
Lent is so often conceived of in this discriminatory mode: we cut away what we find superfluous or weak. We strive to fortify our wills by a sustained act of bodily self-denial. And while there is much to be gained by such a discipline, I think it is also worthwhile to get acquainted with a less familiar notion of perfection—one with which Matthew’s gospel seems distinctly at home.
For in this morning’s gospel, we do not hear Jesus cutting away portions of the law. Rather, he tries to get his disciples to have a more greatly expanded sense of the spirit of the law—something characterized not by its proclivity to discriminate, but defined instead by its thoroughness, consistency, and comprehensiveness.
He begins with the received tradition: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
And then, he blows the walls clear and opens up what has been received: 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.
In so doing, he invites his followers into the same prodigality of heart that our heavenly Father displays at all times: for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
The divine perfection commanded by Jesus can be said to invite us all into this kind of thorough, consistent, comprehensive prodigality of heart. For we must never forget, Jesus washes and feeds his betrayer. Even knowing what Judas will do, Jesus nonetheless holds him in the perfect love of the Father, washing his feet and feeding him at the last supper.
So, perhaps this Lent and beyond, we might consider taking on a new kind of discipline: a discipline in forbearing, prodigal love, moving ever closer to that perfection, more prodigal than discriminating, ever scandalous and expansive. It is a discipline that might not leave us any “fixed” or “improved;” but it may yet leave us bigger—big enough for Love.
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Dear Br. Shaun, May I say that your music ministry at SSJE is for me perfect. It is transporting. You lead your brothers to outdo themselves and your own clear crystal notes are simply amazing.
I took great comfort from Br. Curtis’s sermon on ‘perfection’ when he said it is not expected immediately but something we are being brought to eventually. We are being changed from one likeness to another, sometimes not in a linear way but rather convoluted streams that eventually flow together to something good. Looking back over nearly 80 years I can say: “It is happening however slowly.” Margo
Please place me on your list for “Brother Give us a Word”. I have heard they are so helpful.
The above message gave much to ponder.