This past Monday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first American skaters to win an Olympic gold medal in ice dancing. They skated just about a perfect program, executing acrobatic lifts and moving in sync so closely they looked like mirror images of each other. Their achievement is the result of almost 18 years of training and skating together, starting back when they were nine and ten years old. It was thrilling to watch them on the ice, and really what maybe made their victory even more perfect and satisfying is who these two young athletes are as people. I found them both to be enormously appealing, Davis with her Disney princess looks and White with his mop of curly blonde hair, both using every opportunity with the media to talk about how much they appreciate each other, how grateful they are to have had the opportunity to work with each other over the years, and how grateful they are for their training partners, the Canadian silver medal winners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. There’s a kind of perfection that they have mastered on the ice together, and another kind of perfection that they seem to have mastered off the ice as well.
I didn’t get to see the women’s figure skating, but I read several stories online about Russian skater Adelina Sotnikova’s upset victory over Kim Yu-na of South Korea. Many viewers, including experts in the skating world, thought that Kim Yu-na showed superior skill and artistry. In fact, the official judges agreed: Kim received a higher score in the skill and artistry category. However, it appears that Sotnikova’s victory came about because of the complicated and difficult to understand scoring system. Individual jumps and spins are rated on their level of difficulty, so more difficult moves have a higher base value and can result in more points. Additionally, a skater can earn bonus points by executing difficult jumps later in the program, when the assumption is she’s tired. In an interactive feature on the New York Times website, Adam Leib analyzes just how Sotnikova won, with well-executed moves with somewhat higher base values, placed later in her program, which racked up the points and pushed her ahead of Kim. She also completed one more jump than Kim. Clearly, the decision was not popular with everyone, with millions of people signing an online petition to the IOC urging them to review the judging. Several commentators pointed to the number of skaters who fell on the ice trying to execute the more difficult jumps, and many people have questioned whether this new judging system isn’t negatively impacting the overall artistry of the sport. Furthermore, several skaters who actually fell during their programs ended up ranked higher than skaters who didn’t fall. It all raises the question: What should a ‘perfect’ program look like, a series of tough moves, or an integrated performance combining a variety of different factors and skills?
Throughout the games, the difference between gold and silver, or winning a medal or not, comes down to a few hundredths of a second, a few millimeters, a decision made almost subconsciously. Years of training and sacrifice and hard work go into the effort to achieve perfection for a few minutes, perfection that can be undone in a blink of an eye, perfection that can prove elusive even to elite athletes. Perfection is hard to achieve in any field; maybe it’s even impossible. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a musical performance I thought was perfect, or enjoyed a perfect meal, or seen a work of art that I might not like to see tweaked ever so slightly. There’s even something perhaps a bit unappealing about perfection - it seems un-human, robotic. And so the last verse of our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel is a bit jarring. Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Frankly, it sounds impossible to achieve: how are we supposed to be as perfect as God? Is Jesus setting an impossibly high bar so that we aim high? Does he want to make us painfully aware of our human imperfection? Or is he saying something else entirely?
Our passage this morning is really the continuation of last week’s reading. You may remember that last week Jesus was trying to explain to his faithful Jewish disciples, folks who did their best to follow the Jewish commandments and laws in Torah, the first five books of the bibles, just what the kingdom of heaven is like. Some Jews wondered if the coming of the kingdom of heaven would mean that all those commandments and laws would be washed away and replaced with something else. But Jesus tells them, “No, I’m not here to get rid of the law; I’m here to fulfill it. In fact, the kingdom of heaven invites you to not only follow those laws, but to go above and beyond, to do more than adhere to the letter of the law, but to embrace the spirit of the law.” You may remember he says, “It’s not enough that you follow the commandment not to kill; you have to learn to let go of anger and resentment because they poison your relationships with others.” This morning’s reading picks up where we left off last week. Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jewish law had established this concept of “let the punishment fit the crime,” really as a means of trying to keep people from taking matters into their own hands and seeking retaliation. The rabbis who interpreted the law over the centuries had many problems with this concept of an eye for an eye, concerns that Mahatma Gandhi famously summed up by saying “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Jesus doesn’t put it quite that way, but he tells his disciples, “If someone hits you on the face, turn the other cheek. If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go a mile, go also a second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow form you.” I’m sure the disciples had the same questions and concerns about all of this that you and I do. Is Jesus really saying we should be doormats when we’re wrongfully attacked, that we should invite even more abuse?
Before the disciples can get a word in edgewise, Jesus goes on: “It’s not enough to love your neighbor. I’m asking you to love your enemies, I’m even asking you to pray for your enemies. Be like God, who makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Anybody can love those who love them in return. Even tax collectors and Gentiles do that. Be perfect, be perfect like God is perfect.” The Greek word translated as “perfect” in our bibles is telos. Telos can be translated “perfect,” but it doesn’t mean ‘without blemish’ or perfect in a moral sense. Rather, it describes a state of having grown up and matured, of having reached true wholeness, having reached our end, our purpose, our goal. A fruit tree achieves its telos when it grows mature and tall enough so that it can bear fruit. Similarly, we, human beings, you and I, achieve our telos, achieve our perfection, when we learn to imitate God. And how do we imitate God? By learning to respond to violence and hatred with love. Matthew Myer Boulton, a commentator I read this week, sums it up this way: “In the face of the most extreme opponents and acts of opposition, Jesus advises defiance--but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the relationship’s adversarial character, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making. Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather fight fire with water, and thereby refuse to take part in the incendiary, all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.” I want to be clear that this is not simply passive acceptance of abuse. We are not called to remain in abusive relationships, we are not called to accept suffering for the sake of suffering, we are not called to be doormats. Rather, we are called to creatively respond to violence and hatred and anger with love. The Message, a contemporary language translation of the bible puts it this way: “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
On April 3, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders began what was called the Birmingham Campaign in Alabama. They planned a series of non-violent marches and sit-ins to protest racism and racial segregation in Birmingham. Seven days later, on April 10th, Circuit Court Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” The leaders of the campaign announced that they would disobey the ruling, and on April 12th, Good Friday, King was arrested and put in jail for participating in a non-violent demonstration. That same day, the Birmingham News published a letter from eight white Alabama clergy, ministers and rabbis. This clergy supported the goals of the civil rights movement, which was a fairly radical stance in that day and place. However, they wrote in their letter that they felt the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” The letter acknowledged that hatred and violence are not to be tolerated by either Christian tradition or by the political tradition of the United States. However, the letter went on to say, “we also point out that such actions as incite hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.” King read this letter as saying essentially, “Yes, of course racism and segregation are wrong. But your non-violent protests are making things worse. Take a step back and give us all a little more time.” King sat down in his jail cell and began scribbling around the margins of the newspaper, the only paper he had available to him. He began, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try and answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” He then, in the course of a very long letter, written over the next several days on whatever scraps of paper he could get his hands on, laid out the case for non-violent resistance. Unjust laws have to be broken, and those who enforce unjust systems of oppression must be resisted. Turning the other cheek and loving your enemy doesn’t mean accepting injustice; it means being an extremist for love in the way that Jesus was an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, return evil with good, pray for those who persecute you.” And in response to the plea for “just a little more time,” King wrote, “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.””
Summoning the courage to stand up for justice and creatively use love to resist evil on the scale of Martin Luther King seems as impossible to me as one day winning an Olympic medal. So, I’d like to suggest a simpler exercise. This afternoon, take out a piece of paper. Write down the names of people you’re upset with. It’s probably easiest to start with those closest to you, because I know for myself it is those people who I’m closest to who I often seem to get angriest with. If you really can’t come up with a person, start with a resentment and see if that doesn’t lead you to a person, preferably a real, live person you actually know, not “those idiots in Washington” or “the totally unhelpful and rude customer service person at Time Warner,” but if that’s the best you can do, start there. Once you’ve made your list, sit quietly and do your best to pray for each person on it. If you can’t pray that they will be happy or healthy, see if you can at least pray that God will hold them in love, or if you must, pray that they will stop doing whatever it is that has upset you. Do this every day this week, pray for the people on that list. And then, see what happens. What happens to your resentment and anger? What happens in your relationship with those people? What happens in your relationship with God? If you’re like me, you won’t see a huge change over night. But over time, you may find that you feel better because you’re not holding on to resentment and anger. You may find that letting go of your resentment and anger frees you up to figure out new ways of responding, creative ways to respond with love. You may find that you begin to wonder about the people on your list, what they’re struggling with, what demons they may be fighting. You may even begin to have a sense of compassion for them. Over time, you may find that you’re feeling, well, maybe not perfect, but more like the child of God you’ve been created to be. Amen.