Reflecting on the Journey
The church is called to love not some, but all.
It’s hard to believe it’s been forty-three years! Forty-three years – today – since the last big flood hit my hometown! A foot of rain in ten hours! Eighty-four people killed! Two hundred thirteen million dollars in property damage! And when it was over, it was – pretty much – the beginning of the end for the town. The steel mills were shut down. The coal mines shut up. The town never had much of a chance. To catch its breath. To regain its footing. Johnstown, today, is one of the poorest places in PA. Forty-three years ago, tomorrow, my brother and I jumped into my van and we headed back to lend a hand. To help out any way we could. Although, looking back, I’m not sure how much help we really, truly were. We got there about three days into the cleanup. Buckets and shovels in hand. Irrigation boots on foot. For me, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
You see, for a while, I’d been trying to figure out if I wanted to become a pastor. Not that anyone CHOOSES to become a pastor. The way it works for most is that you simply run out of reasons NOT to! It was on that trip, in the middle of the mud and the muck, that I ran out of excuses. And today, is the anniversary of that flood. And sometime in the next few days, is the anniversary of my decision, of my surrender. I’d, still, have two more years of undergraduate work to complete. But after that … well … like they say, the rest would be history.
But thinking back, there was one thing that kept getting in the way. One thing with which I had to make my peace. That was Matthew, chapter five, verse forty-eight. It’s a handful of words from “The Sermon on the Mount.” Just a few paragraphs after all the blessed-ares. We would have read them, a few months back, if Easter were just one week later. But it wasn’t. So, we didn’t. “Be perfect,” Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I figured – if I was any judge … if I was, at all, honest with myself … those words were the deal breaker! I knew what I thought, what I’d say, when things didn’t go as I’d planned. As I’d expected. And it was anything but pastoral! I knew the kind of jokes I’d tell, the kind of jokes I’d laugh at. There were times I was angry when I should have been patient. Rude when I should have been polite. Surely, god wouldn’t use someone like me. Wouldn’t need someone like me.
And, of course, that’s not mentioning the religious, the spiritual things. Like saying your prayers. And knowing the bible by heart. Chapter. Verse. And working just about every, single Sunday and holidays! It kept gnawing on me. It all eats at me. That being perfect! Being perfect as god! And if it was up to me, it wasn’t gonna happen! Ever! “The gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, O Christ!” But I’d keep thinking about it and thinking about it. Over and over. Round and round. No matter how I looked at it, I had no doubt that it was impossible. I just couldn’t shake those eight words. Their meaning was clear.
My brother was behind the wheel. I was stretched out on the floor, in back. Reading. Not that I was obsessed … but it was Matthew, chapter five. This time, I backed up a few verses and started reading. Maybe I could use a running start. And it made all the difference …
You’ve heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
It’s then that he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus isn’t talking about being a “DoBee”. Always doing what’s right! Never doing anything wrong! He’s not talking about being “goody two-shoes.” Socially, religiously, dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. Simply put, “being perfect” – in the biblical sense – is loving everyone one alike! Loving enemies as if they were friends! Loving the evil as if they were good! Loving the ungodly, as if they were godly! Just! Like! God! Which is all kind of ironic, coming from Matthew. Matthew’s all about judgement. Matthew’s all about separation. From beginning to end, from start to finish, grain is separated from the chaff, wheat is separated from the weeds, the sheep are separated from the goats. Matthew – more than all the others – draws a line in the sand. Straight. Deep. Us on one side; them on the other. And being perfect – to the contrary – means loving both the same!
In fact, that’s what makes our god our god. Our god has no enemies! God loves everyone! Righteous and unrighteous. Good and evil. And there is no wrath. There is no retribution. Condemnation, just, isn’t a part of the story. When god’s betrayed … When god’s abandoned … Denied … God loves! When god’s crucified … When god dies … Is buried … Our god does what only our god can do … God loves! God loves god’s enemies, just like god loves god’s friends! And god wants us – wills us – to love in the same way! And in that, all my hesitancy, all my resistance, melted away.
You have hear it said, “Love your neighbor; hate your enemy.” But I say, “Love both your friends and your enemies alike!” After all, that’s the way god – your heavenly Father – does it! The sun doesn’t shine and the rain doesn’t fall on some, but not on others. It shines and it falls on everyone! On everyone or on no one! And you … you are to do the same! Be perfect! Be whole! Be complete! We are saved by grace! We are saved by charity! We are saved by love. And, my friends, we live the same way! By grace! By charity! By love! Be perfect! Be love!