We heard in the news recently that Dylan Roof, the gunman who killed nine people inside a church in Charleston, in the midst of a Bible study, received the death penalty. Melvin Graham told reporters, "Today we had justice for my sister. "This is a very hollow victory, because my sister is still gone. I wish that this verdict could have brought her back.
“When the charges against Mr. Roof were first announced, representatives of the victims' families came forward to deliver a powerful message of forgiveness. “You took something very precious away from me," a family representative for Ethel Lance, the 70-year-old grandmother who died in the massacre, told Mr. Roof on behalf of Lance's loved ones. "I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you - and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you. “A daughter of one of the victims said, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive.” The sister of another victim said to Mr. Roof, “I pray God on your soul.”
Our readings today echo God’s call for us to be “holy” – to be humble - and to be “perfect.” Let’s look at our first reading from the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Jewish Bible, the Torah. God says to Moses, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” What does this mean – to be holy? In the Old Testament, this term holiness is applied to God in the sense that God is set apart; set above all which is created. So, God is telling Moses to set himself apart - from something – from what? Set apart from sin - set apart from all others - in faith and trust in God. This is evidenced by obedience to His commands “even when they do not seem to make sense.”
St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise.” Don’t think so much of yourself – empty yourself of your pride and arrogance. In essence, be full of humility– as our Lord was full of humility. CS Lewis, the great Christian writer, once said, “As long as you are proud - you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things - and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down - you cannot see something that is above you.”
Saint Por-phy-rios, who was an eastern monk known for his gifts of spiritual discernment, says of humility, it is a “complete trust in God –complete obedience to God, without protest, without reaction, even when some things seem difficult and unreasonable - abandonment to the hands of God. Holy humility is what transfigures a person - and makes him a ‘God-man - makes him “like Christ.” It makes man participate in God’s Divine nature.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes from the difficult – teaching us about love of enemies - and non-retaliation, and then to “what we think is” impossible, concluding with the line, “so be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Maybe I can try to love my enemies – but Jesus, how can I be perfect? This is a good question, but maybe the wrong question. Maybe our question should be - "how is it possible?" Perhaps our problem with both understanding - and responding - is that we confuse the meaning of the word, "perfect". I think we come up with a false translation and, as a result, do not even attempt to respond.
In Greek, the word “perfect” is translated “telios”. It refers to something being completed, brought to its full purpose, potential and vocation. We tend to limit this word "perfect" and thereby fail to grasp its promise and potential. We fail to understand it is a work in progress. God - who is Love – has made us in His Image. So, we are made to love as He loves. In Jesus Christ, we are being “capacitated.” This is a term used by Church Father Saint Irenaeus – meaning “made capable” - by the grace of Christ’s Redemption – loving with God's love. Again – a work in progress – we need to let God work in us. Our Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “As our union with the Lord grows- and our prayer becomes more intense, - we too come to focus on the essential- and to understand that it is not the power of our own means that creates the Kingdom of God, but God who works miracles through our very weakness.”
St. Catherine of Sienna said, “God will provide the way and the means, such as you could never have imagined. Leave it all to Him, let go of yourself, lose yourself on the Cross, and you will find yourself entirely.”
So, by prayer, by living a sacramental life, we embrace our vocation to holiness – to humility – but is that perfection like the Father possible for us?
God is certainly perfect. However, if we consider Him in that way, it becomes impossible for us to strive to that absolute perfection. Instead, having Him before our eyes as merciful - enables us to understand better in what His perfection consists - and it spurs us to be like Him, full of love, full of understanding and full of mercy.
The relatives of the victims of those killed in the Charleston massacre - forgave Dylan Roof – even when it seemed to not make sense. Even when it seemed difficult and unreasonable –they abandoned their human imperfection – and became like God, full of love, full of understanding, full of mercy.
Create in me a clean heart oh God; let me be like you in all my ways. Amen.