‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
So, how’s that going then? Presumably this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this reading from Matthew’s Gospel. And I assume that you’ve been working on it. So how’s it going? Are you even almost there? You manage not to retaliate when someone is cruel. You manage to love your family and your neighbours, and maybe even your enemies – that person who took you to court over an incident with the car, an ex-partner perhaps, the burglar who broke into your house that time – you love them, right? You are perfect, yes? You would sell all you have and give it away to the poor. You would walk a second mile carrying an exhibition stand for that political party you despise. You’ve come to church on foot because last week you gave the car away to someone who needed it more. You greet everyone you pass on the street, and not just the people you know. You are the very milk of human kindness. You are perfect. Right?
Well I’ve been working on it too. And, if I’m honest, it’s not going great from where I am either. In fact, perfect seems a very long way indeed from how my life is. I’m a mess of contradictions and even if I aim at being perfect I miss right away, and even wonder whether I ought to be trying to be perfect if I’m going to take some kind of pride in it. What was Matthew, or was it Jesus, thinking? ‘Be perfect’ just seems like some kind of joke, and it’s not very funny.
These words have haunted me a bit, as I expect they have haunted you too sometimes. And maybe not just because they are in the Bible, but because the myth of perfection seems to haunt human life, so that some of us can never ever quite let go of the feeling that we’re not perfect and we ought to be. It’s bad enough thinking that you’ve got to have the perfect body, let alone perfect morals and a pure heart. It’s the kind of thing that gets people as ordinary and extraordinary as we are the kind of phsychological problem that we could spend all of our money getting a therapist to sort out. In my all-girls’ school there were those who developed anorexia in some sort of bid to be perfect. And there were many of us who spent days and nights in misery because we somehow knew that we were not the perfect daughters that we imagined our parents wanted. I knew that I was not pretty enough, probably too bookish, not sporty, too serious, not quite somehow what my parents really imagined their daughter would be like. I knew I wasn’t perfect then, and I know it now. So, don’t tell me on a Sunday morning that I’ve got to be perfect. Not if you want me to come again. Not if you want me to be saved from all that. Not if you want me to know that I’m beloved of God.
Because of course as the years of my life have accumulated I’ve learned that none of us is perfect. And none of is going to be. Not in the sense that we all feel pressure to be. Not in the way that we somehow hear that instruction to ‘be perfect’. And I’ve come to accept that imperfection is a part of who I am and who you are, and who everyone is.
When I was in El Salvador I was struck by the many people I saw in the streets whose bodies were not perfect. More than I seemed to notice at home. There were people with missing limbs. There were people with evident wounds of all kinds. There were people whose bodies were painfully thin. And there were those whose bodies were marked by the grime of poverty. All the posters on the walls and the hoardings were of perfect looking people with straight teeth and blow dryed hair and designer clothes. But the people I could actually see looked nothing like that. They were a bit battered and dishevelled, with crooked smiles and ragged shoes, with life’s realities etched on their bodies. No good telling anyone here to be perfect. And of course in better off parts of the world like ours we can hide the imperfections of our bodies if we try hard enough. And we can also try to hide the other kinds of imperfections that make us who we are, the wounds that you can’t see but that make all the difference to our lives; the childhood experiences that we somehow can’t shake off and that shape us in adulthood, the griefs and sorrows and the abuses we’ve suffered that give us scars deep within, the lessons we’ve most of us learned the hard way and that translate into grey hairs and inexplicable habits and the funny little ways that makes us different from everyone else. If these inner wounds were written on our bodies we would all see much clearly than we do how fragile and frail we all are, how marked we all are by the joys and the burdens of being human.
There are countless people out there in the world right now who will gladly tell us that we have to let go of the myth of perfection, that we have to let go of it not just because it’s impossible, but even because it’s actually damaging and dangerous.
There are those who would say that in fact it is simply part of what it means to be human, to be imperfect. We are not machines that could ever have some sort of technical perfection. We are mortal creatures, with individuality that changes and grows. We are not statues with ideal forms, but living breathing creatures. Like the famous Shirley Valentine,we have bodies and shapes and souls that reveal us to be living beings.
John Ruskin, protesting against the industrialisation and mechanisation of life, way back when, said this;
‘Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body…. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect… In all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiences which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry…. To banish imperfection is to paralyze vitality..’
I like this better of course than the instruction to be perfect.. especially when he says,
‘All things are .. better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which are divinely appointed.’
So, according to Ruskin, God even made the imperfections!
I could take you to countless places on the internet or on the ‘self-help’ shelves in all good book stores that will tell you about the dangers of perfectionism and the value of embracing our imperfection instead. From Oprah Winfrey to Sophie Kinsella and beyond, the world seems to say that we would do better to embrace our vulnerability if we want a fulfilling life. One writer says that we need to
‘..wake up in the morning morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’
And we should go to bed at night thinking,
‘Yes I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.’
And the most often quoted voice on perfection is the Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. He wrote about a world that looks pretty dismal. Our lives, our politics, our world – these things are cracked and broken. But he says that we should find some bells that can still ring, and ring them. Don’t worry about making everything perfect – everything is cracked. But the cracks are the very places where the light gets in.. the light that makes everything shine again, the light that brings resurrection. So his famous chorus says,
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
But however compelling that message is, I don’t want just to subvert and debunk and throw away this difficult verse from Matthew’s Gospel. I want to find the blessing that I believe is there within it, the thing that I might miss if I only listen to Oprah Winfrey or even to the wonderful Leonard Cohen. I want to unfold the truth that lies here, hidden under all the layers of misunderstanding and trouble.
You see, the Christian faith has always acknowledged that we are imperfect and fragile creatures, fallen, broken, full of cracks. But it has also always also said that we can become vessels filled with light – and be different. We are, as St Paul once said, earthen vessels, clay jars – but we receive the treasure of the light of God in these very same, broken, selves.. And in receiving such light we are transformed, reborn, made new. And could anyone, anything, remade and hallowed by God be less than, you might say, ‘perfect’. We are made and re-made in the image of God. The imperfections of our lives are cast in a brighter light and what we thought impossible by our own efforts becomes what God really is doing in us.
And – and here is the real key to this I think – we all know that when we love someone, even if we can see that they are flawed, we still think them perfect somehow and wouldn’t change them for the world. Is it possible that God looks on us like this and that God is making us and transforming us every day of our lives? Could it be that however dimly we think of ourselves, and however harsh our critics, however broken and cracked we have become, that God loves us with a perfect love and sees us as somehow ‘perfect’ after all?
There’s another song, this time by Lou Reed. A song called Perfect day. He says
Just a perfect day
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spent it with you
I think that perhaps our journey with God could be like that. We stop worrying about whether
we are perfect or not, but we live within the perfect love of God for us, a love so deep we are amazed by it, and we begin to discover that we can be someone else, someone good, someone being shaped by that gracious, redeeming, warm and encouraging love of God. We can’t simply try to be perfect (it doesn’t work.. trust me) but we can be better than we ever imagined we could be when the light of God’s love gets in and remakes us.
You see I believe that God loves us so deeply that if anyone points out our faults to God in that way that we sometimes like to do ourselves in our prayers, then God gently replies ”I know, but to me she (or he) is perfect’. God loves us that much, enough to take the broken pots of our lives, the imperfections of our bodies and our souls, and to remake us in love. You know what it is to love like that, a little, I think. And that’s how God loves you. A loving God loves you with a perfect love, and lights you with such a light. We are imperfect beings, but we are loved perfectly, fully and completely. And, in the full stretch of eternity, God is preparing us to love like that too.. So one day, you will be perfect.. as your heavenly Father is perfect. But don’t tell me when you’ve got there, because I am still on the way…. Amen.