My senior year in high school, my choir director chose a song that made many of us uncomfortable. We were a wealthy, white, suburban school, and for our state competition, he chose a slave spiritual that repeated the lyrics, “Sun up to sundown pickin that cotton, no more auction block for me.”
Yeah, we were uncomfortable. The two black students stopped coming to class. The other 92 of us, white, mostly avoided eye contact with anyone. Because the director was a family friend, I thought I would inform him of the murmurs that were happening outside class. My friend — who was one of those two black students — sat with me in his office after school as I explained that many students thought it was inappropriate for us to sing this piece — and he laid into us about the role of students, and how students shouldn’t criticize their teachers, students should respect their teachers. We ended up in the principal’s office. The choir director threatened to fail us. Eventually, we came to an agreement: anyone who was uncomfortable would still have to rehearse the song in class, but would be allowed leave the stage when it came time to perform the song at the state competition — though no promises on whether or not this would result in a failing grade.
Be perfect. There’s so much pressure built into those words, so much expectation.
Perfection, as we all know from very personal experience, is impossible. We all make mistakes. We all sin by what we have done and by what we have left undone. So in these words, perhaps Jesus is being hyperbolic. Perhaps perfection is not his actual expectation, but an ideal, a sentiment to strive towards knowing that we’ll stumble on the way.
So, we dismiss it. We favor other values that seem more attainable, or at least give us some direction.
I think one of our most cherished values is authenticity. Whatever your beliefs or opinions, we desire that those inner workings be congruent with our outward actions. Many of us work for this integrity for ourselves. We expect it of others. We work against self-deception and hypocrisy and the impulse to mimic whatever the cool kids are doing — because we value authenticity.
In a way, it seems authenticity is the very antithesis of perfection. Authenticity is about the inner priorities manifesting into outward actions; perfection is an external demand on our actions. Authenticity is about inner and outer working together; perfection is about an outer imposition.
The disappointing thing about authenticity, at least as a Christian who takes scripture pretty seriously, is that the word is never used in scripture. Which is perhaps unsurprising when we remember that the men and women who wrote scripture lived in a certain time and place and had their own set of values — and authenticity wasn’t even a possibility. To be authentic to yourself relies on a sense of individual self — and self was a concept that didn’t exist until centuries after our scriptures were written.
Which, for me, then raises the question: if self wasn’t a thing, what about perfection? What did that mean to Jesus’s first audience?
In biblical times, there were a limited number of ways to be a person in the world, and it was determined not by your story and your family dynamics and your experiences, but by your social position. Your birth into a social position gave you a role in society that you were expected to perform. The lepers perform their role by hiding themselves from society. The wealthy perform their role by becoming patrons to support the poor. The choir students perform their role in the state competition. And there was a real sense that it was possible to perform your role in society perfectly.
I wonder what Jesus would have thought about the way we live out authenticity.
In the life of Jesus, we see that there is a value higher than authenticity. In authenticity, our actions are centered on an internal source of righteousness and justice — Jesus’s actions are centered in God, centered in a transcendent source of righteousness and justice. Jesus acts in a way that is congruent not between inner self and outer action, but congruent between God’s character and his action.
The command is not simply to “be perfect” — to play our role in society perfectly — but to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Healing those in need; socializing with the outcasts; feeding the poor; caring for the marginalized — these are Jesus’s actions, authentic to God’s character. Jesus performed his role in society — in a way that perfected the possibilities and powers of that role — power that a low-income Jewish bastard should not have had in Roman-occupied land.
God said in Leviticus, “Be holy, as I am holy.” Jesus shows us what that means. In Jesus, God’s authenticity was manifest — and in Jesus, God opened up to us the possibility of true authenticity, an authenticity that centers not on our own values, but on God’s. But in order to become truly authentic, we must attend to God’s perfection.
Being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect isn’t about avoiding certain behaviors; it’s not about never spilling the milk. It’s not about living without sin, thanks be to God. It’s not even about playing your role in society.
Being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect is about living in such a way that centers your actions in God’s character — the character that was made manifest in Christ, the character that works to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to recognize the dignity of every person.
My choir’s state competition went perfectly — but it was not perfected. At the end of our first pieces, the director lowered his baton, bowed, then turned to us and raised his baton to start the contentious piece — and all at once my heart is in my throat, my breathing constricted, I’m lightheaded under the spotlights, realizing we haven’t talked about this, I have no plan, I don’t know if anyone will walk off stage with me, I don’t even know where to walk if I step down, and as I’m realizing all this — his baton drops for the first beats. We’re in the song, and I’m on the stage, and my black friend is next to me and I have failed her.
You see, she needed that credit to graduate — and I didn’t. I had all the privileges that come with being white in that community — and she had all the stigmas that come with being black. She was in a vulnerable position — and I wasn’t. She needed me to be the one to step down first — and I’d panicked. I performed the role of “student” perfectly, by the society’s expectations, by the director’s expectations. But I acted without authenticity to my own self. And I acted imperfectly in the true role — To be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect would have meant claiming more power than a student is given and doing the uncomfortable, anxiety-ridden thing by leading the march off stage so that others were freed from enacting an oppressive performance. And I failed.
[Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.]
If I could reach back across the chasm of time to my 18-year-old self and whisper in her ear while those stage lights illuminated her imperfection, while she was paralyzed by her own hypocrisy, petrified by anxieties about how she’d be perceived, I would tell her this:
You’re not doing this alone.
God gave you the Spirit to perfect you, and to make you holy, as God is holy.
Be perfect. The task is not to avoid certain behaviors or pretend you don’t sin. The task is to receive the Spirit of a God who is holy; to discern – with the Spirit and with one another – the character of God; to work and act and live in that Spirit as far as it is possible.
We are to let the Spirit and scripture be our guides. From only our first reading this morning, we are given a wealth of information about the character of the God who works to perfect us.
The text tells us that God cares about “the poor and the alien,” so much so that God implores God’s people to leave unharvested food in their fields just in case a poor family, an immigrant, or a refugee, walks by their land. What might it look like for us — who don’t have actual fields that we labor in — to leave food for the poor and the alien? On a local level, it might look something like Edible Hope; the character of God can be discerned there.
The text tells us that God cares about the proper location of vengeance; vengeance is not ours to enact — not on families of terrorists, not on death row inmates.
The text tells us that God care about honesty. That God cares about people getting paid for their work. That God cares about ease of access for the disabled. That God cares about justice and mercy, together.
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. We are not perfect, but we were created for perfection.
May you experience the presence of the Spirit that is Holy today. May your grounding in discernment and awareness of God draw you closer to a knowledge of yourself. May your understanding of the character of God perfect you to live authentically in service to the world.