March 22, 2014

Great Expectations


The texts for the day are at this link.

Text: Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

One of my favorite scenes in all of English literature appears in a detective novel written by Dorothy Sayers. Sayers was also a theologian, but she is best known for writing a series of early twentieth-century mysteries centering on her character Lord Peter Wimsey.

In the early chapters of one of the later books, we see Wimsey getting dressed for a date. He’s nervous, because he really wants to impress the lady he’s meeting for dinner. That by itself is a little odd, because everything we’ve learned about the character so far makes us regard him as practically perfect in every way; he’s rich, he’s brilliant, he’s dashing, he drives a fast car, and he has a valet.

But here he is, reduced to jitters by the prospect of a date. And there he stands, in front of the dressing mirror, putting on his evening clothes. Of course, as a man with a valet he has a little help with this, and once he’s all turned out he asks his gentleman’s gentleman for an evaluation.

Lord Peter Wimsey: This bowtie is a mess.

Bunter: Yes, too perfect. Quite like a made-up affair.

[Wimsey pulls off the tie and begins to re-tie it]

Bunter: Ah.

Wimsey: Bunter, what does “ah” mean?

Bunter: I have observed, my lord, that on the few occasions when our sangfroid slips, it means we have a rendezvous with Miss Vane.

Wimsey: Bunter, you have a wonderful gift for impudence.

Bunter: Thank you, my lord.

[Wimsey finishes re-tying]

Wimsey: Bunter, how’s that?

Bunter: Perfect. That is to say, slightly flawed. The mark of a true gentleman.

{To see this scene acted out by Edward Petherbridge and Richard Morant, see this link at 7:02 ff.)

Something about that little scene has stayed with me a long time. I think there’s some deeper wisdom in it, something about the difference between the truth of science and the beauty of art. It is just possible to be too perfect; I think we’ve all known that person. There is something about abosolute perfection, about perfect symmetry or absolute order that is slightly unreal. It is an ideal, perhaps, but exactly because it’s an ideal it’s meant to be unrealized.

The lessons this morning present us with some pretty high expectations for what it means to be part of the faithful community. If you read these texts in one way it makes the standards seem so outrageously high that there would simply be no point in even trying to make a faith community work. Jesus says to his community that it’s not even enough to love the folks around you that you’d prefer to have nothing to do with—oh, no; we have to be perfect, because the God who made us and who calls us is perfect.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, way back in Leviticus the expectation of the covenant code is made as plain as day: it’s not even enough for us to be perfect, we have to be holy as well.

How on earth are we going to live up to those standards?

One of the oldest knocks on the church from the people outside it is that the folks who go to church often act as though they are in some way “holier than thou.” We would defend ourselves against that; we may be have our faults, but we are certainly not a community that goes around boasting about its righteousness. Yet here it seems we’re being told that’s exactly the standard we should be attaining.

The thing is, expectations matter—they really matter. We stretch for new possibilities when we know people are looking to us in expectation. The simple fact of knowing that gives us a sense of the possibility in ourselves, and of our capacity for reaching that possibility.

That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, and it doesn’t mean we lead lives free of regrets. But it also means that whether or not we believe in God, God absolutely believes in us—and sees in us the capacity to attain much greater things than we think possible.

That little story from Dorothy Sayers gives me a helpful angle on just what Jesus might have in mind by holding over us the idea that we can rise up and wear the mantle of an idea called “perfection.” Somewhere in the beautiful composition of this life I am supposed to be creating with the materials God has given me there will be something that is not quite right, something that isn’t quite a flaw but that makes the symmetry just a little off, makes the balance just a little askew.

But that will be the thing that in the same moment makes it plain that I am human. That little bit of imbalance, that little out-of-place spot of color or the small scar that keeps a record of an old wound, all that is makes me real, makes me not something manufactured, but created—and in that fact lies our possibility of perfection, because it is proof that we are the Maker’s handiwork. Amen.