Sunday, February 20, 2011

Retreat Homily for Matthew 5:38-48

God says, according to the author of Leviticus, "be holy, for I the Lord, your God, am holy." Then Jesus says, in the Gospel according to Matthew, "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." It makes me wonder what it means for us to be holy or perfect today. I wonder how to live according to these ideals that seem far too remote for me.

A good friend of mine recently quipped, "just use Luke's definition. He uses the words 'compassion' or 'merciful.'" But as I looked through various translation, Matthew stays with the word 'perfect' when he has other choices available. Some translations use the words 'blameless' or 'holy.' Luke stresses covenant fidelity and steadfast love, but it is good to wrestle with the word 'perfect' as none of us can be that. Perfection may mean conformity to a divine ideal or that the perfect person is the one who completely observes the whole law - a Matthean concept. 'Perfect' at least encompasses the other terms as well. It is full and rich.

At dinner the other night, I asked the directors how they interpret the word 'perfect.' I received no theological insights because we applied the term to desserts, but I received an answer that fit just right. "Perfect" means "it fits me just right." This definition is sensible to me. When Fr. Richard talked about the chocolate cake being 'perfect' for him, no other dessert could substitute for his desires. When Fr. Paul said, "the date-filled cookie is just right for me," he could not be swayed at all to take the pumpkin cupcake that was less than perfect for him. Fr. John was not satisfied when Sr. Gail offered him the other half of her dessert. He wanted a whole one. Complete. Perfection after all may not be this Platonic, classicist ideal that is unchanging and outside of our grasp. Perhaps, it is something that suits us just right and we know it in innately when we experience it.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us about the model behavior we are to strive for in settling disputes and reconciling with enemies. His strategy avoids litigation and shames his opponent into a change of heart thereby creating an atmosphere of kindness, patience, generosity, and an open attitude towards all people. I don't like the shame part, but his methodology has been effective in human history with people like Mahatma Gandhi, the civil rights disobedience marches, and the contemporary demonstrations in Egypt. Loving one's enemies creates a moral heroism while honoring the other person. It illustrates that another way, a loftier way, exists for solving daily problems. The long-term strategy of Jesus is set within the wisdom of love: If you love those who love you, your reward is an increase in their love. If you love those who hate you, your reward is an increase in God's love. God's love is the one that endures and will ultimately be the one that becomes most visible to all.

Most of us want to avoid conflict and we try subtle ways of dropping hints so we stay clear of direct confrontation. We despise the anticipated terror that comes with it. We predict that someone will act irrationally and will hurt us and others. We fear we might get hit with a lawsuit. We want peace at all costs.

Most of us have someone with whom we are not squared away with. Sometimes this person becomes our opponent, even if they are in our own family. It is part of our human condition. We will feel a plethora of negative emotions around the way this person treats us. We may respond with less than admirable statements and actions. We don't feel good when that happens and it eats away at our peace in our unconsciousness. We don't recognize the depths of the insidiousness. We try to rid ourselves of those negative feelings because a Christian is not to feel this way. Many times we wonder what it is that we did to cause this situation. Our boundaries have been transgressed by another. We lose confidence and a healthy image of ourselves erodes. This way is not perfect. This way does not fit us.

The way of Jesus often seems unattainable when we find ourselves mired in our mess of negative feelings. The last thing we want to do is to give our opponents a victory. How can we ever come to love them? We first have to do our interior work. We have to open our mind, heart, will, and memory to Christ so he can have something to say. We need to give Christ freedom - a little bit of room to wiggle around inside our chaos. We have to permit him to touch our memories, to touch our basic human needs so he can reassure us that we will be safe and secure in his abiding presence. We need to see the possibility that we have judged as best we could with the information given to us, made the most loving choices in freedom, and that we desire the best for ourselves and our adversaries. We need to be heard; as does our opponent. We also need to see where we failed and have done wrong. That's O.K. Our sins have been forgiven. Let's accept that fact. But we need to see that we have bothered to try to love the other person, and that we essentially want to be loved. When Christ helps us with our wrestling, he can help us love better and see our situation and circumstances through a whole different lens - through the wisdom of love.

Love begets love. We began this retreat on Valentine's day - the grand day of love. Look at the ways your love has grown throughout this week. Perhaps you love yourself better. Perhaps you allow God to care for you and cherish you more. Perhaps a tension you have been carrying has less weight. Bravo! This is perfect. It all fits is Christ's plan for the wisdom of love. You are doing well.

When we feel these things, we know the hope and possibility that one day we can love our opponents. We know that it is the healthier, life-giving course for us. We know that something inside of us clicks - even if we can never put our finger on what it is. Christ's finger has already been placed there. All we have to do is trust in his love for us. His love allows our love to grow. Our love allows others to grow. Loving someone else changes you - for the better. You know it fits. When we have come to the point when we love our opponents, to look upon them with honor, compassion, mercy, and understanding, we feel jubilant because God's plan truly is perfect. It fits us. This is the way life should be. This is what we dreamed about. This is how life is meant to be. Christ's love, along with our love, can bring this about. However, this perfection is not just the dessert, it is the whole healthy, life-sustaining meal given to us to make us perfect. Let's eat of this meal that he offers us at his table of love. It suits us just right.