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Budapest, Hungary

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Sermon of the Week

February 23, 2020

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

“Be perfect…”

 

A pretty tall order, if you ask me. An unreasonable demand, to be sure. But then there it is in Scripture. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." What on earth – or in heaven – could our Lord be getting at…? How could we, after all, ever hope to be as perfect as God -- as our “heavenly Father?” We seem to have a hard enough time just being ourselves, just being human. Trying to be as perfect as God sounds, on the face of it, not only vain or arrogant but almost like a recipe for disaster. 

 

Surely Jesus must be joking.

 

Now, those of you who were with us last Sunday at worship will find today’s Gospel text at least vaguely familiar. It is after all a continuation of the same text from the Sermon on the Mount which we read last week; the section called among scholars, Matthew’s Antitheses, or opposites. Our Lord contrasts what “you have heard said,” as he puts it, with what he himself has to say. And far from disavowing the Law and its expression, as we saw, our Lord takes its meaning to a new and higher level. He demands more. And then more still. Until, as we have just seen in today’s text, he challenges us to be perfect.

 

Scholars have pondered the meaning of this text for centuries. Most of them of course have quite reasonably tried to explain it away and tame it. Make it somehow a saying of Jesus we can live with – without having to materially change anything in our lives. Without in other words having to become perfect. I suppose my humble sermon this morning can be counted as my small contribution to this effort.

 

Be perfect. What would a perfect human being look like anyway…? Tall, dark, and handsome, if a man…? Glamorous and alluring, if a woman…? Would that be perfect…? Or on the other hand, how about Mother Theresa…? Surely, she must have been perfect. Or, Saint Francis… Or, maybe our very own Saint Margaret. Any or all of them must have been far closer to perfection than you or I. As Christians, I suppose we could cite Jesus -- for he was indeed perfect. But then he also had the unfair advantage of being God – one not granted to any of us -- in case you had not noticed.

 

This dilemma of perfection does not arise, as far as I know, with any other creature. We would not normally ask if a cat is perfect, as much as we might like Kitty. Or a dog, or a tree, for instance; no matter how fond we may be of any of them. They simply are what they are. Good dog, bad dog. It is still a dog. But of ourselves we always seem to demand more, as if being ourselves is just not quite good enough. Be better, we tell ourselves. Or if we do not, our parents do. Or our boss does, surely. “Strive for excellence” seems to be the demand of most titles in the business section of any bookstore. It is all enough to drive you crazy. But then alas you would be even further from perfection.

 

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” Jesus recommends in this selfsame Gospel passage from Matthew. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” One commentator writes that, when forced to choose, Jesus’ true disciples should readily become victims. I am not so sure I agree with this interpretation. No one wants to be victimized, used, or cheated, after all. Still, if we open ourselves and our hearts to others it is quite possible that we may be hurt as well. But likewise in our fear of being hurt or made a victim, we may, if we are not careful, lose our ability to be vulnerable – to trust, to love.

 

As our Lord notes, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Whether we are perfect or not, God loves us just the same. And, we -- all of us -- are all in the same boat, as rickety and weather-beaten as it may be. So, what about perfection…?

 

Perhaps what Jesus is telling us is that we can determine our state of perfection – not by some unattainable measure of physical or even moral excellence – but by our willingness to be vulnerable and open to the needs of others. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." It has nothing to do with always getting everything right – because we will not.

 

But God himself has become in Christ and Christ’s Cross perfect in vulnerability. What else could we say of One willing to become one with us in all our messy imperfection and strings of failures too long to talk about. So, is it easy being perfect…? Alas, perfection in the usual sense is a cinch compared to perfection in vulnerability and openness and love. But the nice thing about being vulnerable – as opposed to being perfect – is that we can all do it . Just as soon, that is, as we stop trying to be perfect and allow God to perfect us.

 

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

 

Be love – as God is love.

 

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

February 16, 2020

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church

Budapest, Hungary

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37; Psalm 119:1-8

 

"You have heard that it was said …”

 

Our monthly Saint Margaret’s Menza Bible Study convened this past Wednesday evening at our usual location, the comfy front room of the Arnoldo Café, or kávézó, on Bártok Béla út in the heart of Buda. On this occasion, we took up the hefty topic of the Gospel According to Matthew and bravely made our way across its twenty-eight chapters in barely an hour-and-a-half. It must be some sort of speed record for bible study.

 

There are of course all sorts of things that can be said about the Gospel of Matthew: Among other things, that it quotes Hebrew Scripture more than any of the other Gospels; that it emphasises the Messiahship of Jesus; and that, unlike any of the other Gospels, it presents five great Discourses of our Lord, the longest extended speeches or sermons of our Lord found anywhere in the New Testament. Our Gospel account this morning is taken from the first and most famous of these five Matthean Discourses, called the Sermon on the Mount.

 

This passage itself is called, among Scripture scholars at least, Matthew’s Antitheses; although I do not think I have ever heard a parishioner refer to them as such. They only appear in Matthew. And, by the way, we only read four of the six full antitheses of Matthew this morning. Do not ask me why. We shall have to save the last two for another occasion, I suppose. Three of our four antitheses under consideration refer back to the Ten Commandments.

 

An antithesis is of course a kind of opposite. We might, for instance, say that love is the antithesis, or opposite, of hate; or perhaps of selfishness or even indifference. And, in Hegelian philosophy, the basis of much modern thought, an antithesis is a kind of negation of some thesis or opening statement. Again, an opposite. But an opposite which leads in turn to a resolution and perhaps a new thesis.

 

Not surprisingly, it is such negation or opposition – antithesis -- which we seem to have before us in today’s Gospel reading. We find Jesus beginning each of his points or theses with the words, “You have heard that it was said,” followed by his own antithesis or interpretation: “But I say to you.” Scholars tell us that this approach or method was common among rabbis of Jesus’ time – perhaps a kind of rhetorical device. It is however a bit more difficult to say just exactly what it is that constitutes the thesis or antithesis of Jesus’ examples.

 

Is our Lord suggesting a change in the Law…? Is he offering a new Law? A new set of Commandments…? Unlikely, I should think. In the verse just before these, he specifically says just the, well, antithesis: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law.” In fact, Jesus’ words are hardly antitheses to the Law at all. One scholar calls them not antitheses but culminations. Jesus himself after all tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law.

 

So, it is safe to say that our Lord objects, not to the Law, but to its faulty interpretation. He takes each Law or Commandment in question not to its limit or boundary but to what we might call its logical extreme. The Law, for our Lord, is not a set of limits at all, demanding that we act within certain restraints. The Law is rather a challenge to live beyond those constraints. “You shall not murder” becomes rather in a sense, “Be reconciled.” “Do not commit adultery” becomes – essentially -- value the very integrity and sacredness of the other. “You shall not swear falsely” is transformed into radical truth-telling – and truth-living.

 

Jesus’ ethic, as expressed in Matthew’s Antitheses, is profoundly relational. Respect the sacredness of the other, Jesus seems to be saying, and you respect not only yourself and the other but God as well. And, it is for this purpose that the Law is there in the first place. This goes well beyond the simple demand that we should do no harm. Jesus after all does not seriously expect his disciples to pluck out their eyeballs or lop off their hands. And, he surely understands that marriages sometimes fail. But he is making a deeper point: His disciples must in all things strive to be at one with one another. 

 

And, with God.

 

The rules or commandments of moral behavior and the Law may vary in what they allow and in what they forbid. In this, they serve a purpose: They give us a bare-bones minimum of acceptable human behaviour and a benchmark against which we can judge our own and the other’s actions. But to borrow a bit of American slang, Jesus kicks it up a notch. He is not interested in what little we can do; how little we can get away with. He challenges us to live out the ethic behind the law. He challenges us to cherish the other as we cherish ourselves.

 

As Deuteronomy reminds us, the genuine commandments of the Lord give life. “Choose life,” then, “So that you…may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” When Jesus says, “But I say to you,” that is what he is saying to you.

 

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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