On my recent journey to the Holy Land, I did not travel alone. Someone else from this Diocese went with me: a very treasured friend of mine, the Reverend Lucy Price.
Lucy is an exceptional human being. I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t get on with her. She is warm and kind. She is incredibly creative – an accomplished visual artist whose preferred medium is spray paint and stencil. She helped Alex Wilson and me with an Lenten project one year at St. Paul’s in the West End, for which she created a series of exquisite figures at prayer using white paper and shades of black and grey, which we taped to the walls and furniture of the church.
Lucy has a wicked sense of humour. While on the trip, one morning, she suddenly turned to me and said, “Did the Executive Archdeacon ask you to write a report about me on this trip?” Alarmed, I said, “No.” “Oh,” she said. “Because he asked me to write one about you.” As I was just about to launch into a full scale panic attack, she suddenly went, “Haaa! You should have seen your face!” Born and raised in Newcastle, she sometimes lapses into a completely deadpan delivery before grinning to show me I’ve been had yet again.
She has always been there for me. We went to ACPO together to be assessed as candidates for the priesthood, barely three weeks after my father had died. When she heard me crying in my room that first night, she knocked on my door, and when I opened it she said nothing – just hugged me.
The one annoying thing about Lucy is what a devout and deeply committed Christian she is. Sometimes I’ve shared with her my misgivings or straight-up rage at someone who ticked me off.
Her 100% sincere response, every single time, is, “Tsk, Clare. You should pray for them.”
Who does that? Who prays for those who persecute them? Who loves their enemies?
We’re supposed to, but it seems impossible sometimes, I know.
There is so much to forgive. There is so much vitriol to tune out, so much garbage to clean up, so much blood and tears to wipe off of faces. How could any one person do it all? How could we possibly be perfect, as our Father is perfect?
David J. Lose, preacher and president of Lutheran Theological Seminary, cautions that there are two temptations in hearing today’s passage. One is to not take it seriously; to lament our inability to escape personal and corporate sin and bypass our own responsibility for trying to be better. The other is to take it too seriously, and believe that if we just struggle hard enough, we can bring about the salvation of the world by ourselves. This is a rehash of an ancient heresy called Pelagianism, the idea that we can overcome sin all on our own, without the aid of divine grace, that human beings have an innate ability to do so. Pelagius had good intentions – he wanted people not to wallow in the idea that their actions didn’t matter – but the logical extent of that conviction is that if we can’t conform to how we believe we should be, we’re just not trying hard enough. I think all of us know how dangerous that belief can be.
The possible antidote to these temptations, Lose proposes, is an exploration of the Greek word, telos, which in our passage is translated “perfect.” In English, this word implies conforming to an ideal type, an absence of all flaws or shortcomings. But there is an additional meaning which we don’t often take into account, a meaning which is also present in telos: the idea of completion, of reaching the intended outcome. Lose writes by way of description, “The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches.” He continues, “Read this way, Jesus’ words are less command than promise.”
This doesn’t let us off the hook…but neither does it subject us to a life of constant self-flagellation. We are not and never have been a people chained to chisels chipping endlessly away at our fallibility. We are a telos people, a people seeking light, seeking wholeness, seeking resurrection. We are called to be, in a sense, perichoretic, mimicking the eternal dance of the communal Triune God. We are called to change and to be changed. One cannot exist without the other. We are called to open doors and to let the doors of our souls be opened. We are called to let Lucy’s advice sink in, and to give her advice to each other.
And what better moment could there be in God’s time, God’s world, than this moment in our time, our world?
We know what it means to feel fractured. We know what it means to feel adrift. We know what it means to be pushed toward trust and healing. We know what it means to lean on each other, to lean on God. We know what it means to need open arms and wounded hands, and to offer those same things to each other and the world.
Right now, we hang in the space between the joyful season of incarnation and the introspective, penitential season of Lent, where we commit ourselves to re-examining our faults, our desires, and our true needs. We are preparing for the good work of Vestry next Sunday. We are praying for the hard work of our Canonical Committee, our Diocese, and our whole community in discerning a new rector for this parish church. We are praying for the world, which is full of posturing, paranoia, and pain. We are preparing for a brand new journey toward the Cross with Jesus, and a brand new celebration at the empty tomb with Mary Magdalene.
Everything is as it should be, even when the work is hard and tedious and unglamorous. When we can’t help but grumble, as wilderness-walkers always do, it is still as it should be. But we are called, as Lucy calls us, as Jesus calls us, to pray for the work, to pray for each other, to pray even for those who would sabotage the work of the Kingdom, to have faith that God’s will is being performed in this place, in this world.
We say we believe it, but do we?
Sometimes the words feel like ashes in our mouths…and yet even the disciples had their bad moments, and look what they accomplished. If you have never believed, if you have always had trouble believing in the eventual unfolding of cosmic grace, take comfort in the ultimate foolishness of our story: that one carpenter and his twelve friends changed the entire course of history with love, words, and wonder.
This is the true power of our God: That everyone from the devout to the atheists can find and do find hope in that story, as complicated as it gets when entangled with Empire.
In sure and steadfast hope in our call to be a telos people, seeking light, seeking wholeness, seeking resurrection, let us end with these words from civil rights veteran and Mennonite peacemaker Vincent Harding.
“All of us are being called
those comfortable places
where it’s easy
to be Christian.
That’s the key
for the 21st century.
To answer the voice
‘do something for somebody.’ …
We can learn
to play on locked pianos
and to dream of worlds
that do not yet exist.”
So may it be for us, telos people of a telos God.