Sermon manuscript for 8/12/2107 at
Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Text: Matthew 5-7
Occasion: Megan’s baptism.
If you go to Megan’s mother’s Facebook page and click on photos then click on the appropriate album, the first picture that comes up is an archer. String drawn, bow bent, arrow aimed at the target out of the picture to the right.
Studying the picture I can feel the tension in Megan’s right arm, the responsiveness in her left arm as it tracks with her eye which is drilled on the target. As I imagine the last few seconds before the release, I can almost feel in my own head her hunger for a bull’s-eye. She remembers hundreds of releases. She remembers the last time she stuck it, dead center. Again. She wants it again. Feels it in her arms. Looks for that perfect place, then lets it fly.
Let’s do it again. And again. And again.
When I was a kid, my mother read us a kids book featuring Native Americans. One of the stories featured people in the lake country of Minnesota. The boy featured in the story is invited to accompany his father and uncle on a night hunting trip. They make a small fire in a basket of sand attached to the front of their canoe. When a deer stops to stare at the fire, visible only as a pair of eyes, the father shoots it with his bow and arrow. The son is astonished. “How can you aim an arrow when you cannot even see it?” The boy asks.
The father responds, “Can you point your finger in the dark?”
The bow and arrow had lived so long in the father’s hands they were mere extensions of his body. He only had to see where he wanted the arrow to go. This mythical union of bow and arrow and body is the ambition of every archer. We dream of the place where our only quest is to see clearly the target with the full confidence our arrows will follow our eyes.
This is the point of practice. To train our arms and legs, indeed every muscle in our body, to unite with our eyes in seeking the target. Every archer dreams of burying an entire quiver-full of arrows inside that small red circle at the center of the target, a whole quiver-full of bull’s-eyes.
That would be heaven.
This is also our ambition as Christians. We dream of our bodies acting as flawless expressions of our spiritual vision. We dream of a day when every interaction with other people expresses the integrity and generosity of Christ. When every words we speak is true and courteous. When every thought is pure and noble.
That would be a glorious day. That would be even more exciting than a whole quiver-full of arrows.
In our New Testament reading today, we heard the words of Jesus that form the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, the constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven. Allow me a paraphrase: Line up your life with my teachings and you’ll be pleased with the long term results. Don’t line up your life with these teachings and you’ll wish you had.
What does it mean to line up our life with the teachings of Jesus? Jesus offered a number of specific instructions. Use your words to build and heal, never to destroy or deceive. Be faithful in your relationships. Recognize the moral significance of the cultivating desires. Tell the truth. Always. Simply.
Then Jesus offered this simple, comprehensive challenge: Be perfect. Just like God. What is the perfection of God? Jesus summarized it this way: God sends rain on the just and the unjust. God shines his sunshine on the deserving and the undeserving, on Republicans and Democrats, on Russians and Americans, and even on North Koreans. Be like God. See every human being as a human being. Even if you are a police officer and deal with the most broken and dangerous human beings, work to remember that even as you thwart their evil, even as you protect the public and yourself—remember these criminals are broken HUMAN BEINGS and deserve some measure of respect because they are the children of mothers like your mother. They are children of the same heavenly Father who gave you birth.
It is an incredibly high ideal. Be perfect, just like God.
Let me go back to the archer for a minute.
Imagine you are a beginner at Sunset Lake Camp. (That’s where Liz took the picture of Megan.) The instructor lays out the rules to keep everyone safe then shows you how to hold the bow and arrow. Then because unlike Megan, you are a bit clumsy, the instructor gives you some personal attention, adjusts your fingers, touches your elbow to move it into a better position. You shoot and your arrow gets lost in the trees off to the left. You shoot again and your arrow goes into the dirt. You shoot a whole quiver full of arrows and none of them even hits the hay bales holding the target. What does the instructor do? Gives you another quiver full of arrows and sets you back to shooting.
Over time you learn to control your bow. The arrows begin finding the hay bales and then the target and then you hit a bull’s-eye. You do a little dance. And then try to do it again.
By the end of camp you’ve hit the center of the target three times. What do you dream of all winter long? Returning to camp and signing up for archery again. You dream of putting an arrow in the cneter of the target and a second arrow smack against it. And another arrow smack against those two. A whole quiver full of arrows in a tiny circle at the center of the target.
Not all of us are archers but we are all Christians. As Christians we dream of landing every word, every act, even every thought smack in the center of perfection. It is the only goal worth our devotion.
Be perfect, Jesus says, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
When I was in college and seminary, this challenge by Jesus often formed the center of fierce arguments. The arguments were driven by fear. What would happen if you didn’t achieve perfection? Some people insisted it was possible to reach perfection with the help of the Holy Spirit. Others argued perfection wasn’t possible and it wasn’t really the goal anyway. Jesus talked about perfection just to highlight how screwed up people were so they would accept forgiveness.
I laugh those arguments now.
Of course, flawless perfection is not possible. But it is the only goal worth aiming at. Archers don’t dream of hitting the target sometimes. They dream of hitting the bull’s-eye every time. It’s why they sign up for archery at camp.
As Christians, as devotees of Jesus, we aim at moral and spiritual perfection. We aim to be like God. If our aim was only to be “pretty good” why call it Christian.?
Part of the emotional force lying behind my school days arguments about this saying of Jesus was our fear of failure. What would happen to us if we did not manage to put every arrow in the center of the target? In the world I grew up in, failure to put every arrow in the center of the target meant that at the end of the week the instructor was going to throw me into hell. With this threat hanging over our heads no wonder we tried to come up with a standard other than perfection.
But what does the instructor really do at the end of the week at camp? The instructor commends you for your improvement and hopes you’ll come back next year and make even more progress. The instructor knows that when you come back next year, you’ll devote more energy to your grand goal of sinking every arrow in the center of the target.
In the middle part of the Sermon on the Mount, chapter six, Jesus offers a series of pictures of God. Every one of them designed to give us reassurance. Don’t pray desperately because God is always watching and already knows your needs. Don’t worry about your future because God will take care of you. We do not have to struggle to win the affection and favor of God. Like every good mother and every good father, God regards us with abundant affection and warm regard from our first day to our last.
On the other hand, Jesus also taught that the best life comes from pushing ourselves to do the right thing. The best life comes from vigorous, persistent moral effort. Aiming at perfection.
It’s easier to eat ice cream than it is to go for a walk. But for most of us the walk will contribute more to our long term happiness, especially if we do it frequently.
It’s easier to spend money than to save money. But for most of us the savings will contribute more to our long term happiness, especially if we make it a habit.
When someone offends us or hurts us, sharp words are an easier response than peace making words. But usually the peace making words will do more for our future happiness.
Following impulsive desires is easier than cultivating our desire for goodness. But goodness will build a happier life.
Telling the truth is sometimes harder than making up stuff, but telling the truth yields better fruit.
Practicing seeing our enemies as children of God is difficult but it pays enormous dividends.
Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Because we are children of God.
And because life words better that way. For us. And for the world around us.
Sure, we will miss the target sometimes. We will lose some arrows in the woods.
But God gives us another day, another quiver full of life.
Tomorrow, we begin another week as children of God. Let’s take this gift of life and aim again at the very highest ideal. Let’s aim to be perfect just like God.