Inspiration motivates us toward perfection, says Rev. Randall K. Bush

“Most intervals are flexible. A 1-3 interval can be a major or minor chord. There are a handful of intervals that are not flexible. There is only one option to resolve the interval,”  said the Rev. Randall K. Bush. “They are the 4th, 5th and 8th intervals. They are perfect.”

Bush preached at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater on July 6. His sermon title was “Perfection, Really?,” and the Scripture reading was Matthew 5:43-48. 

“It may sound presumptuous, but these intervals are special. The 4th is particularly well-loved, and it is used in some very familiar music,” Bush said. 

He played “O Tannenbaum”  from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” arranged by Vince Guaraldi, and the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ, played the “Bridal Chorus,” from Wagner’s Lohengrin, on the Massey Memorial Organ.

In these three songs there is a reminder of all the memories of Christmas and a hymn of comfort in times of trouble

“ ‘Here Comes the Bride’ has been sung on playgrounds under the slide as children pretend to get married,” Bush said. “It was played in a classic ‘Looney Tunes’ cartoon when Bugs Bunny married Elmer Fudd. It’s a melody associated with weddings and marriages even to this day and it opens with a perfect 4th.”

Perfect can be used as a verb or adjective. As a verb it means to improve, that something can be perfected. As an adjective, perfect it can be used to describe a perfect day in Chautauqua or a perfect pass by a quarterback.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, told his listeners, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

“As an adjective, I find it troubling to apply perfect to us,” Bush said. “Only a narcissist says ‘I am utterly perfect.’ The Apostle Paul said, ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ To which we all reply, ‘Yes, Paul, I am well aware of that fact when I step on the scale at my annual physical.’ ”

Bush said that many married couples are described as perfect. 

“Every couple knows that there are good days and bad days, and they learn to navigate the ebbs and flows,” he said. “That is what makes a marriage successful, but most would not say perfect.”

Other times people worry that their faith is not perfect. An Orthodox priest wrote to St. Dimitri of Rostov, who was his bishop. The priest was not confident in his prayers. St. Dimitri told the priest not to repeat prayers that were done poorly, but try to do better next time. 

“This method reduces the possibility of thinking that God hears our prayers according to the perfection of our performance and not according to the greatness of God’s mercy,” St. Dimitri said. “(This) gives humility and hope and keeps us always moving forward.”

Bush added to St. Dimitri’s sentiment. 

“Prayer is not about you,” Bush said. “The one who is listening is perfect and listens with love, grace and mercy.”

Having played the piano since he was 7 years old and majoring in piano performance in college, Bush has practiced the piano for many hours. 

“I have never played perfectly,” he said. “Sometimes I get the notes right, but not the dynamics. Have I despaired? No, my joy comes from interacting with the music. There is more than just the self when we join the spirit of the music. And remember, to get to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice.”

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is filled with imperatives like “love your enemies” and “be perfect.” He set a challenge that, on the face of it, humans could never live up to.

Because Chautauqua has Methodist roots, Bush described John Wesley’s idea of perfection. Wesley, he said, used holiness as another word for perfection. 

“Wesley said the image of God is all around us and tempers our words and actions. We are guided by the love of God and love of those around us,” Bush said. “Perfection is in the relationship (with God) and is made possible by God’s grace.”

Bush cited three texts from the letters of the Apostle Paul to show how the Spirit works in humans to lead toward perfection: Galatians 2:20 — “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me;” I Corinthians 3:16 — “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?;” and Philippians 3:12 — “Not that I have already obtained this or reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

“Christ has made us his own; Christ lives in us; God’s Spirit dwells in us. This is holiness,” Bush said.

In her book, A Natural History of Love, author Diane Ackerman wrote, “Among the bad jokes evolution has played on us (is) … we have brains that can conceive of states of perfection they can’t achieve.”

“I know that many famous authors come to Chautauqua, and I hope that she is not in the congregation today, because I disagree,” Bush said. “I believe that because we can imagine perfection, we have inspiration. That is what motivates us to move toward perfection.”

Inspiration calls people to vote, to make good trouble, to strive for a more perfect union. 

“When we see how we have marred nature and the lives of others, inspiration gives us a glimpse of what can be,” Bush said. “The ideal of perfection is part of who we are and we can only go forward. We have to pray for the enemy and bring about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Beloved Community.’ ”

Author Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” 

Bush told the congregation: “We have to live our faith as if it is a perfect 4th. We have to exhibit the righteousness given to us by God in Christ, made real in us in love. To achieve loving perfection, we have to practice, practice, practice every day.”

The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot presided. Melissa Spas, vice president for religion at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ, played an improvisation with perfect 4ths for the prelude. The Motet Choir, singing a cappella under the direction of Stafford, performed “Ubi Caritas,” music by Zachary Wadsworth. Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, played the postlude, “The People Respond Amen.”

The Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy provides support for this week’s services. Unless otherwise noted, the morning liturgies are written by the Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor. Music is selected and the Sacred Song Service created by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ. For PDF copies of the services, email

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.