A Sermon for Sunday June 24, 2012, Exodus 34:4-7a, 8-10 and Matthew 5:43-48
What is perfection?
Can my imperfections be faithful?
What did Jesus mean when he said “be perfect?”
Can imperfect people make a more perfect world?
Can an imperfect Church still tell a perfect truth?
What does perfection look like in God’s eyes?
These are the questions posed in the video promo “Perfectly Imperfect,” the focus of this summer’s Montreat Youth Conferences for High School youth.
These are the questions that 37 young people and 7 adults from Pleasant Hill (along with more than 600 others nation-wide who attended the conference) wrestled with for a week at the Montreat Conference Center in the black mountain hills of North Carolina.
These are the questions that most, if not all, of the people in our group continue to discern and brood over today. And it’s likely that several of you in this congregation are contemplating these same queries about perfection most of your life or quite possibly right now for the first time.
Considering these questions is difficult and challenging, precisely because
the world’s idea of perfection weighs people down with
insecurity, anxiety, stress, depression, self-doubt and fear.
The world’s idea of perfection separates
the powerless from the powerful
the wrongdoers from the do-rights
the sinners from the self-righteous.
The world’s idea of perfection punishes the so-called meek and week—
the losers, the failures, the nobodies, the not-so-good-looking,
the underachievers, the unsuccessful, and the unimportant.
The world’s idea of perfection demands that every person should be perfect in every aspect of life if they are to be successful—if they are to achieve great fame and fortune.
The world’s idea of perfection gives the illusion that life can be much more rewarding if we all have luxurious hair, flawless skin, pearly white teeth, the athletic skills of a pro-athlete, a figure like a Abercrombie & Fitch or Victoria’s Secret model and millions of dollars like Donald Trump.
The world’s idea of perfection fuels hate and prejudice in those who see their own group and belief system as superior to others.
And worse of all, the world’s idea of perfection threatens the lives of children and youth.
Many of us are all too familiar with the numerous scholarly studies, in-depth medical reports and award-winning documentaries that show that the mounting pressure to succeed academically is greatly affecting a teen’s mental and physical well-being. 
Other research indicates that the stress from family life, trouble in school and bullying are among the main reasons kids as young as 7 intentionally hurt themselves by cutting, burning or poking their skin with sharp objects, hitting themselves or other methods. Researchers believe children and youth resort to this type of behavior known as “cutting” or “branding” because the physical pain releases feel good hormones called endorphins that can be calming.
However, for some youth, “cutting” is not enough to make them feel better. As we have seen too often in the last 10 months, there have been numerous news reports of middle school, high school and college students committing suicide because of the horrendous taunting and bullying they suffered for not fitting into the world’s idea of perfection.
Now, nobody here would ever bully another human being, much less think about committing such a violent act. But for adults and Christians who live in this world, each and every one bears the responsibility for the world’s idea of perfection that permeates our culture and endangers children and youth. Sadly for centuries, Christendom and the Church (Universal) have been pushing the world’s idea of perfection as a steadfast religious principal that is crucial for salvation and acceptance by God. It usually goes something like this:
If you follow every biblical rule, every commandment, every moral and ethical principle…if you eat all your vegetables at every meal, exercise daily, never smoke, never drink, never cuss, never say a mean word, and always look both ways crossing the street…If you do all those things and more, you will have lead a perfectly sinless and blameless life and be welcome with open arms into the gates of HEAVEN!
But if you mess up a smidgeon or a whole heckuva lot (it don’t really matter), then get ready for the fiery furnace of HELL!
This holier-than-thou hypocritical and pious view, pushed by Protestants and Catholics alike, is of course, a bunch of crap—garbage that has caused suffering among the poor and outcasts and pushed a lot of people toward atheism.
And it’s a view that is completely out of touch with reality as well as the scriptures and God’s work throughout the existence of time. In a blog post earlier this month on overcoming perfectionism, Tamar Chansky, a noted psychologist and author, wrote:
The opposite of perfection isn’t imperfection or mediocrity; it’s reality. It’s possibility. It’s all the magnificent points that exist all around the bull’s eye. …When our expectations for everything being perfect don’t match up with reality…we blame ourselves and give up. Or get stuck. Or depressed. We can’t regroup from the hitches…Working with reality—the mistakes, flaws, hiccups and wrinkles—gives us the information we need not only to persevere but to start again more effectively.
Granted, it’s extremely important for us to reflect on our shortcomings, accept accountability for our mistakes, confess our sins and make amends for our wrongs. But to remain stuck in failure and self-punishing mode—convinced that we are unworthy screw-ups who are never capable or deserving of a second chance—is heart breaking. Mind depleting. Body and Soul wasting.
In his book and film Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering, author and pastor Rob Bell says there is another way to look at our failures and imperfections (1:53:56-1:57:06)…
At a commencement speech in May at the University of California at Berkeley, the popular religious author and columnist Anne Lamott told graduates that:
We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it’s a really busy person taking care… of a needy annoying person. Or even if it’s terribly- important you (who is) stopping to take care of pitiful-pathetic you. In fact, that’s often when we see spirit most brightly. …It’s magic to see spirit largely because it’s so rare. Mostly you see the masks and the holograms that the culture presents as real. You see how you’re doing in the world’s eyes, or your family’s or—worst of all—yours. Or in the eyes of people who are doing better than you—much better than you—or worse. But you are not your bank account, or your ambitiousness. You’re not the cold clay lump with a big belly you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are spirit, you are love, and, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely.
When Jesus says his followers should be perfect as God is perfect, he wasn’t referring to the Greek philosophy of moral perfection or referencing the legalistic codes of the time. The ancient Hebrew word Jesus uses and that is translated as “be perfect,” is tamim, which means wholeness. Jesus is telling his followers that to “be perfect” is to serve God wholeheartedly, despite all of our faults and imperfections, and despite the times we break a commandment or act like a stiff-necked people. It’s less about always getting things right and more about loving as God loves in Christ Jesus. “To be perfect,” says a biblical scholar, “is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us—fully, richly, abundantly and completely.”
Or as the keynoter at the Montreat Youth Conference put it, “being a perfect Christian is about outdoing others in love…busting your butt to love one another and build the kingdom of God.”
Our perfectly imperfect lives are filled with incredible examples of the good Creator’s abundant love and mercy, if we open our eyes to see them…at Montreat and beyond…
For all who are here in this place and for all who are outside of these walls, especially all of the high school youth and adults who attended the Montreat Youth Conference, remember the moments in which you saw God’s abundant love and be on the look out for more. Remember that to God, you are perfectly imperfect. Remember and know in your heart that God made you holy and that you are loved wholly. You are a blessing of love from God, a blessing of love from God to others.
Nothing more and nothing less.
Always and forever.
 “Students Face Mounting Pressure to Succeed” 9-8-06, PBS News Hour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/generation-next/demographic/academic-stress_9-08.html; Adolescent Suicide: Speaking Up For Our Children, 6-11-12http://www.psychalive.org/2012/06/adolescent-suicide-speaking-up-for-our-children/;
Study: Cutting isn’t just a teen thing by Associated Press, 6-11-12, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/study-cutting-isnt-just-a-teen-thing-_-even-some-7-year-olds-self-injure-to-cope-with-stress/2012/06/10/gJQAAkrvSV_story.html
 Barbara J. Essex, Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 5:38-48, Feasting On The Word Commentary Series, Westminster-John Knox Press, 2008-2011
 Lolimarta Ros Reiter, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Seffner, Florida and keynote speaker for Weeks I and II of the 2012 Montreat Youth Conferences.