“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? This sounds impossible. Remember one of your favorite teachers, whether a family member or in school, perhaps a coach. Imagine a favorite teacher saying: “Keep growing into more. You can do it.” How does it feel to hear that?
Today’s Gospel is the last in a series from Jesus:[i] You have heard it was said … but I say to you … .” With each one, Jesus invites beyond what has been already learned. You have heard: Don’t murder. But I say beware of your anger and insulting each other. You have heard: Don’t commit adultery. But I say beware of lust. Keep the spirit of the law. You have heard: Hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies.
Like a parent, teacher, coach, or one whom we admire, Jesus says: There’s more than the basic rules you already know. This is the way of adulthood.[ii] Keep on growing into further maturity, into an expansive spirit with integrity and mercy toward everyone, all the time. Scholar Dale Bruner writes the word translated as perfect is not about the height of accomplishment to which we reach up but rather the width of mercy, reaching out to embrace, and Bruner translates it as “perfectly mature.” [iii]
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”[iv] The New English Bible puts Matthew’s line as “be all goodness, as your heavenly Father is all good.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. … Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Julian of Norwich
Amid the swirling death and anxiety of pandemic, amid the social and political upheaval of today, we remember Julian of Norwich, who as James recently told us Brothers, is a good companion because she lived in a similar time. The late fourteenth century had much anxiety, death, and change. The Great Famine killed many and about twenty years later when Julian was born, the Black Death began killing millions. Then there were social and political revolts and beginnings of church reform.
Amid of all this, Julian received a series of visions and committed herself to a life of prayer, lived in a church, listening to and praying for many who came to her, and wrote a significant book reflecting on her experiences.
Julian’s life and writings embody our text from the Letter to the Hebrews. She encourages us to persevere because of who we know God to be. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach … with faith … let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering … and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … .”
Julian lived that faith and hope confident in God’s abiding love for all of us. Robert Ellsberg wrote: “Her central insight was that the God who created us out of love and who redeemed us by suffering love, also sustains us and wills to be united with us in the end.”[i] May we join our prayers with Julian in response to God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining love, confident in her words that “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Bread is ordinary, daily, for most people necessary nourishment, and a key symbol of our salvation. Remember the unleavened bread of the Exodus. God delivered our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Pushed out, they had to leave quickly, without time for their bread to rise or make other provisions. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
Remember manna in the wilderness. God provided ancient Israel with bread from heaven in the wilderness for forty years. Our parents asked: “What is it?” God said take a measure of this bread from heaven every morning. More will come tomorrow. Don’t hoard it. I will give you enough.[ii]
Remember earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus turned a few loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. Followed by a crowd, Jesus raised the question of how to feed them. The disciples said: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread.” Jesus said: “Make the people sit down. … Jesus gave thanks and distributed the food, … as much as they wanted.”[iii]
Feast of the Annunciation
God’s invitation and Mary’s “yes,” which we celebrate today, began a journey. Pregnancy and birth both wondrous and shameful. Surprising shepherds and sages. Simeon said amazing things about Jesus and then to Mary: “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”[i]
Jesus was born into, lived, and died in community: family, neighbors, friends, and through it all, his mother Mary. She and Joseph anxiously searched three days for 12-year-old Jesus when he went missing. At the wedding in Cana, Mary prompted about the wine running out. Perhaps a push and pull, the mother encouraging her son to live into his vocation.
At the cross, Mary and the beloved disciple stood before Jesus. “Woman, behold your son. … Behold, your mother.”[ii] Perhaps Jesus is focused on giving her into the care of his friend. But what if Jesus speaks first of himself? “Woman, behold your son.” Look at me.
Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24
Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.
God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]
Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save.
Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.
Stuff sputters in our heads. Like corn kernels popping out, into, over, and beyond the bowl, words, thoughts, and information pop, pop, pop. Emotions roll back and forth, bumping into each other. Sadness sighs and sags. Anger flares up. Fear fidgets, fingering wounds, circling questions, pushing to fight or flee. All the more so now, stuff sputters from pandemic-related grief, trauma, and weariness. We are holding so much. Life is hard, and it can be hard to pray.
Often, we keep the stuff sputtering inside our heads as with a tight mental lid: separating it from the rest of the body. About five years ago, I began practicing InterPlay, a system of facilitated group improv movement and storytelling. It’s a bit like recovery for serious people, helping us relearn how to play and connect with our whole bodies. I have been learning about that tight metal lid and opening it to witness and release what comes out.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Sharp like a scalpel, scripture cuts through our pride, confusion, and the made-up stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. Scripture convicts us, reveals what we lack, what we’re grasping and need to let go. Scripture points to our deep need and to God’s great love.
Jesus, the very Word of God, sees us as we are. Jesus looks with love. Jesus’ words may be surprising, confusing, or confounding; they “reveal the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Revealing, for we find ourselves “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
Come gaze at the Word Made Flesh
Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.
Oh, come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him, born the King of angels;
Oh, come, let us adore him;
Oh, come, let us adore him;
Oh, come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!
Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem carved this olivewood set. Each year we invite guests to come look at it after services, to look from several angles, and to bend down to see it up close. We Brothers are pleased to share it with you.
“The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”
Amazing, wondrous flesh: a baby with bright eyes and smile, tiny fingers, a bundle of new living love. Fragile, frail flesh: reliant on others for food, warmth, provision. Whether child, youth, adult, or elder, even with great care, each will sicken and die. Connected, touching flesh: face-to-face baby and parents bond before and beyond words. Human bodies relate in families and communities both given and chosen. Looking at each other, faces light up and we know love. The Word became flesh—amazing, fragile, connected—and lived among us.
Disconnected this year, we long to be together in the flesh, to see and touch, hug and hold. Fragile and frail, we mourn the dead and dying, struggle to tend the sick, to care for each other, to make ends meet. We are weary from so much change and adaptation.
Being human is amazing. Remember the wonder of our breath, every movement we make, our capacity for imagination and discovery, for being playful and creative. Remember how skin and other organs work to protect from and then restore after injury. Remember the healing power of touch, listening, tears, and laughter.
God became human in Jesus, to live as one of us. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel.”[i] God was pleased to fully immerse into being human. The “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Mighty God, … Prince of Peace”[ii]came and still comes for, with, and as one of us. Jesus longs with us, mourns with us, and with a twinkling eye reminds us of amazing bodies and wondrous love.
Look at the Child of Bethlehem. We have hope. God still comes. Take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. With one hand on your heart, reach out to another. This is a way to show and feel affection on Zoom. Though distant, we are still connected. Look to the glory embodied, and share the love. Merry Christmas!
[i] Charles Wesley, 1739, alt. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” verse 2
[ii] Isaiah 9:6