I’m not sure when it happened… but at some point in our modern lives, and I believe it was relatively recently, we became convinced that being perfect, without mistakes or flaws, was achievable and even necessary.
- Perhaps, the tyranny of perfection was begun when we created the digital technology to touch up the photographs shown in advertising and magazine articles.
- Perhaps it was when social media allowed us to curate the moments of our lives and share regularly the best and brightest tidbits for those we know.
- Perhaps it was when, in school, straight A report cards became something that students expected to achieve as the norm rather than a recognition of truly extraordinary effort.In Greek, “perfect” really means complete.
- Perhaps it’s linked to dozens of other factors that we cannot begin to examine in the next few minutes—or maybe this quest for perfection is something that has been going on longer than any of us can remember.
Our Epistle reading, which is taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, has a laundry list of ways that we should be: truthful, forgiving, upright, honest, hard working, generous, and kind. We are to speak in ways that make the world better, and to walk away from anger, slander, and malice—all in an effort to build the kingdom of God here on earth. We have to work hard and share what we have with those in need. We should strive to be imitators of God, Paul says. “Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
This is a big order, and it seems to stray pretty close to demanding perfection of us. I found that troubling… so I dug into the meaning of the word “perfect” as it is used in Scripture. The verse that immediately comes to mind for me is from the Gospel of Matthew: “Therefore you shall be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The Greek word for perfection, though, does not point toward an existence that is without blemish or defect. Instead, the word means “complete” or “finished.”
There’s a very big difference between those two ideas. It reminds me of something that I often say to my kids when they are feeling intimidated by those around them or like other people are more proficient, confident, or skilled than they are. I tell them, “Don’t ever compare your insides to other people’s outsides.”
Everyone has a social mask that we wear—a mask that sometimes hides insecurity, but also sometimes shields parts of ourselves that make us who we are, that reflect our true and God-given nature that is whole and complete. That mask is about the modern kind of perfect—the one that focuses on how things look and seem. Grace-filled perfection, on the other hand, is about an internal state of being. It is this perfection that allows us to have a sense that we are living into what God has called us to be. In that type of perfection, we know that we are growing in ways that are more than we could have imagined. When we are perfect in God, we are given a sense of wholeness that goes beyond any surface measure.
Which brings me to today’s Gospel reading—a passage that offers a lesson of how we can close that gap between who we are on the outside and who God has formed us to be on the inside. Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.” In our faith, Jesus promises, we will be complete.
So, the question remains, how do we get to that faith? For several weeks now, we’ve been talking about bread, broken and shared. About small loaves shared amongst vast crowds. About bread that comes from heaven. And now about the bread of life. The reason that bread comes up over and over again, of course, is that it is central to who we are as a community. Further, bread is a symbol of nourishment that goes across every culture, geography, and historic era. Bread becomes, too, the icon of faith embodied.
A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a Rabbi invited my family over to her house for a Passover Seder. As we went through the stories, songs and prayers of the ritual meal, I was amazed at how much of it was familiar to me. The stories from the Hebrew Scripture, of course, are part of our weekly worship in the Christian church. Then, she blessed the bread saying “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings bread from the earth.”
Instantly, I was reminded that our Eucharist is at its very heart a Passover meal. We say: Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.
Fruit of the earth and work of human hands: bread represents both the grace and miracle of God’s love for us—and the caring and work of our community in being part of that nourishing bread. These two things, a relationship with God and an opportunity to work and pray in community with others, come together to feed us in ways that are life-giving. I see that here at Epiphany again and again.
A couple of weeks ago, as we were leaving church, my youngest daughter Anna asked wistfully “Do you remember last summer? All that food was so good!” She was talking about the weeks after I had hip replacement surgery. For several weeks, while I was unable to get up and out of the house, people visited daily, bringing my family nourishing and delicious dinners, but also prayers and news of our church community, words of support, and their loving and caring presence.
At times, each of us focused on our own flaws in the situation. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t serve. I felt helpless and broken. Often, the people came apologized—they wished the food were fancier, they were sorry that they had come late, they wished they could do more. In those moments we were stuck in our ideals of perfection and lost sight of the truth.
The truth was that each day, I experienced fruit of the earth and the work of human hands brought by this Epiphany community. Again and again, I encountered Jesus as the bread of life. And it was absolutely perfect and life giving.
Preached by Rev. Hailey Lynne McKeefry at the Church of the Epiphany, San Carlos, CA on August 9, 2015