Practice Makes… Perfect?

Text: Matthew 5:38-48
Audio Available at http://www.crossandcrown.org

The gospel passage today provides several examples of Jesus encouraging his disciples to strive in their behavior to be more like God. Turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, giving more than is asked of you.
These rules or guidelines are not easy to be sure. In fact, they are quite difficult. One in particular stuck out at me this week—
and that’s the call to love your enemies.

For the Seaford family this week, the enemy took the form of these tiny creatures known as HEAD LICE. Nasty. Even the thought of it makes my head itch. Jesus might have implored us to love our enemies, but surely he didn’t mean lice.
Folks there wasn’t one ounce of love for these disgusting microscopic bugs who basically turned our lives upside down.

In fact, I dare say my heart was full of hate (Lord, forgive me). It was one of those situations where my poor wife was nervously collecting the children in a room saying, “Kids, daddy might have lost it this time. But everything is going to be ok”.
As much as I tried to reframe the situation and look at it through a lens of gratitude— going that “extra mile’ as Jesus noted— I fell short.
I was as far from being God-like as possible.

We eventually succeeding in “delousing” the house- what seemed like hundreds of loads of laundry and scores of black plastic trash bags filled with every stuffed animal and pillow in sight- which is a lot when you have 5 kids I might add. Thankfully these nasty critters spared everyone except little Jeannie, which was indeed a blessing but whew! let me tell you-

I now know how to defeat ISIS. You tell them all detainees will have to pick the knits out of a screaming 4 year old, we’ll have terrorism knocked out in no time!
Alas we are all clean and bug-free in our house.
But I think I might have aged a good bit in the process.

Yes, trying to practice being like God is difficult indeed.

And how are we really supposed to be able to do some of these things?
Jesus notes that if people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left check to them as well. Now in those days, most were right-handed. So for a right-handed person to slap you on the right cheek, it would be a back-slap. A disrespectful move that compromised the person’s dignity as well. It was an insult.
Now to be clear this is a metaphor.
I’m not saying that anyone should endure physical violence from another
And Jesus is not saying this either.
But what Jesus is saying is not to respond to insults with insults.
To try to rise above the fray and offer grace and love.

And then he encourages us to walk an extra mile. In this time, Roman soldiers would conscript Jewish civilians to carry their heavy packs for up to a mile. Jesus commanded them to voluntarily duplicate the legal limit. Could you imagine how hard that would be?

And then, Jesus says to not just love your neighbor, but to love your ENEMY. He explains that loving those who already love you is not that challenging of a task— which is true, I suppose— but to go as far as loving an enemy and praying for those who persecute and harass you? Not easy.

Those are tall orders, Jesus!

Why on Earth would Jesus levy such difficult requests?
Is it a set up for failure?

Maybe what Jesus is trying to show us here is both the generous and merciful character of God and
ways to partner with God is ushering in God’s kingdom.

The passage tells us that “He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good, and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (CEB). This tells us a lot about God, doesn’t it? God extends God’s love for us all and never keeps a tally of our shortcomings.
Like a good parent, God loves us regardless of whether we come up short or whether we make mistakes or show our true selves from time to time, warts and all.
God’s love is all-encompassing.
So Jesus wants us to adopt the same radical love God shows to us.

But how in the world do we do this?
I guess its just like with any new thing we are trying to learn.

It takes practice.
And persistence.

We constantly strive to imitate God in our choices and our behavior.
Over and over and over again.
And if we keep at it; if we keep practicing; if we continue to imitate God in our behavior; ultimately God will use this to transform us.

If we practice turning the other cheek, then ultimately we will learn to answer conflict with non-violence
If we we practice going the “extra mile” we will learn the ways of generosity
If we learn to not just tolerate our enemies but to love them, we will learn to treat people as God treats us.

It’s a lot like muscle memory.
Any athlete will tell you that practicing the same movement or act over and over again will ultimately train your body so that the moves become instinctive.
I’m on the church bowling league and on Friday night there was a man on the lane beside us who was consistently throwing strikes. It was unbelievable.
So I looked to Coach Downey and asked him how it was possible.
He told me that this man has practiced the same motion over and again and has been doing it for 30 years.
It was as smooth as silk.
And obviously worked.
Or the tennis player who doesn’t really have to think about the movement of her serve because she has practiced it thousands of times to the point that it is also second-nature.

It’s Repetition
It’s Persistence

When Kristan was first learning to walk with her new leg, she had to relearn the basic movements of walking. The second-nature of this marathon runner was no longer in place, so she had to start from the beginning.
But as an athlete she understood the benefit of repetition and muscle memory to regain her strength and ability.

So she started walking.
First from the porch to the mailbox
and back again.
And then, she added a little more; going from the mailbox to the middle of our cul-de-sac
and back again.
Then a little more- going half-way around the cul-de-sac
and back again
until she eventually could walk around our neighborhood.
Before long, her muscles, although significantly changed since the last time she used them, regained the natural movement they had done for so many times for so many years.
It took practice
and repetition.
she had to imitate what a natural gait would look like.
But eventually, she got it.

That’s a lot like what we are talking about here, with God.
Most of us aren’t instinctively able to turn the other cheek when someone hits us.
or walk an extra mile when we are asked to go one
Most of us aren’t able to love our enemies naturally
But with God’s help
and a little practice
hopefully it will get a little easier.

One might think this was enough of a challenge for one day, but then Jesus seems to throw down the gauntlet.
He says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
WHAT?
Wait a minute..
Perfect?
Now this is really a push, Jesus.
I can practice and imitate all day long, but becoming perfect seems like an insurmountable goal.

Well, fortunately, this is where we get some help with the original language.
The root word that Jesus uses for “perfect” is “telos”
And while one translation is certainly “perfect”, other meanings, and ones which might best capture what’s going on here are “completion, intended goal, or determined end.”
The perfection for which we aim is a goal, an end, not necessarily a state of being. We are not there yet, but with each movement we get closer.

In other words, Jesus is not asking us to be perfect as we understand it, but to persist in the goal Jesus has for us.
He’s telling us that being a disciple does not require perfection but a persistence toward bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to bear.
If we are persistent.
If we practice these things over and over again.
And just like with muscle memory
We’ll start doing them naturally.

It might seem overwhelming to think about trying to do all these things.
It seems like a lot of weight on our shoulders, doesn’t it?
Especially if you’ve been doing the practicing-
imitating God’s love to others
again and again and again and it seems like to no avail

Maybe its a teenager who you’ve shown love and compassion repeatedly but she still seems to shut you out.
Or maybe there is a loved one who seems adrift, who needs to get back on the right track, and no matter what you do, it seems impossible to help them make headway.
We love and love and love and oftentimes we get nothing in return.

Well take heart, friends because the good new is that it’s not just on us.
God is actively at work in all of us; our neighbors, our enemies, as well as ourselves.
Working to transform them as well.
So we don’t need to burden ourselves, thinking that bringing the kingdom of God to bear relies on our actions alone.
As Christians, we trust that God is at work in the other as well.

And the payoff for us as Christians is that when we look for this transformation in others-
when we open our hearts and our eyes to see the redemptive work God is doing in our neighbors, our friends, even our enemies..
we catch a glimpse of God.

You never know when the transformation that is going on in you, will align with the transformation going on in the other.
So keep practicing.
Stay persistent.
Imitate God in all the ways you can.
To be perfect?
Well, maybe one day.

Amen.

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