A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 31, 2014
University Baptist Church
This final sermon in the summer grab bag series comes from a suggestion from one of you. Howard Johnson pulled this out of the grab bag at the end of last week’s service: “I would like to hear a sermon on being judgmental; how to forgive and accept.” That’s at least three sermons. Are we forgiving and accepting the judgmental person or do we want the judger to accept us? What if the judgment holds some truth? What do we forgive? Our actions? Another’s actions? The judger? Ourselves?
Judgmentalism is often bad, especially when it is laced with self-righteousness. Self-righteous judgmentalists are some of the most annoying people to be around. And when they cloak it in religious garb it can be downright soul-sucking. I heard someone say they stay away from church because they don’t want to be around so many judgmental hypocrites. Nothing judgmental about that.
We dabble in judgment all the time. We are taught right from wrong. We are told to make good choices. I even joked with my daughter as we dropped her off at college last week, “play nice with the other kids.” Do the right thing, we tell people. Don’t step out of line without expecting consequences. And know what is of God and what is not of God. Know what is good and bad.
The Hebrew word for judgment is Mishpat. But it is also translated as justice. Mishpat is balance and the ideal way we ought to live in the world. It is following the law of God and being fair to all people.
The Greek word for judgment is Krisis. There’s not irony there (he says ironically). Injustice can bring about a crisis. A disconnect, a need for judgment a need to re-establish balance. The crisis in the Holy Lands has people judging all over the place. Who is to blame when there are so many victims? The crisis in Syria and Iraq has us judging. If only we had taken this step, then we could have averted this crisis. It’s Bush’s fault. It’s Obama’s fault. It’s Congress’ fault. It’s a sleepy public’s fault. The crisis in Ferguson is just a symptom of a long smoldering crisis of conscience throughout our world, and the white illusion that we have evolved beyond the racism that was a founding principle of this country. Talk about a plank in the eye.
Eight years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, flooding the city and sending survivors to all corners of the US. Some even landed here for a while. Then came the judgments.
Pat Robertson said God let Katrina hit New Orleans because Ellen Degeneres hosted the Emmy’s and we all know that New Orleans is a place of lewd behavior. He even asked God to take out a Supreme Court justice or two. Such Christian humility. In the aftermath of 9/11 he and Jerry Falwell said that God withdrew his hand of protection because of the permissiveness of society, the ACLU, feminists, and the presence of GLBT people. Finding someone to blame makes us feel better about ourselves. But it is seldom as easy as that.
The scripture from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount reminds us that judgment ultimately belongs to God. We are good at recognizing the speck in someone else’s eye and ignoring the log in our own. Is it saying that we should not judge the log in our own eye? No, I think it is saying that we ought to measure our judgments knowing that what bugs us about someone else is often what bugs us about ourselves the most.
Luke’s version of the sermon on the plain has Jesus say in 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” Would that this was always the case. If you don’t judge, you won’t be judged. In what world? Forgive and you will be forgiven. We know plenty of forgiven people who are not forgiving. Non-condemning people who are condemned. Is Jesus, or better Luke, being Pollyanna? Or is he trying to get us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas when asked how to live righteous and pious lives, Jesus answered: “Don’t tell lies, and don’t do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven” (verse 6).
Jesus tells us that we are to look at the log in our own eyes before we look at the specks in someone else’s. This means that before we dare judge someone else, we had darn well better look in the mirror. Too often what bugs us the most about someone else is actually a part of us. When we see that the log in our own eyes has blinded us to see the object of our judgment as a brother or a sister, then we have lost a great deal. We are no better than anyone else. We are not a new creation. Judge not, lest you be judged by someone else. Judgment, like violence is a vicious cycle which increases and makes us all crazy.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus said don’t get angry with your brother or sister, but seek to reconcile with them. Jesus said don’t be a hypocrite. Jesus said don’t spend all of your time worrying. Jesus said, enter through the narrow gate—another way of saying choose the road less traveled.
Again, Jesus bucks the system and says don’t do what we always do, sit in judgment of each other. Judge not, lest you be judged. Instead, do something better. Be something better. Practice a subversive spirituality that eschews judgment and punishment for its own sake.
Now does Jesus mean that we are not to notice anything around us that is going wrong? Of course not. We are to pay attention to all of that. But we are to be careful about how we do that judging. We judge all the time. But we are cautioned not to judge too much. Don’t let judgment be our religion. Rather, practice religion that seeks reconciliation more than retribution, love more than blood-lust.
Nonviolence is based largely upon the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. One of the central tenets of nonviolence is to not judge someone. Our judgment is our log. We need to make a distinction between the person and the person’s actions. A person’s action may be good or bad, but the person underneath is a child of God. And a child of God is a gift, each and every one of us. If we write someone off or judge them as a person, then we have committed an act of violence to them. And we can only rise above our propensity to unfairly judge if we continually look at ourselves and judge our actions based upon God’s priorities. When we do that, then we can start to see a new way to live in the world. We can see a new way to get ourselves unstuck from the cycle of judgment, which is a part of the cycle of violence.
It’s easy to judge, especially if we have limited information. The more information, the harder it is to judge. There is an old saying from the Nicaragua solidarity movement of the 80’s. Go there for two weeks, and you’ll write a book. Go there for a month and you’ll write an article. Go there for a year and you won’t write anything.
I am watching an HBO TV series called “The Leftovers”. It’s an enigmatic show about what happens after people mysteriously disappear. There are hints of the rapture, that fringe theology where the holy and innocent and righteous will be brought up to heaven before the great tribulation. But the people who have left were not saints. There appears to be no pattern and the leftovers are left to figure out not only what it means, but how to survive amidst great grief. And as they try to pin blame on each other they get further sucked into the abyss of hate, violence and retribution. It would be so much easier if I knew whom to judge. I’m still waiting for the redemption to show up. I may have to wait for seven years.
Clarence Jordan reflected on today’s scripture passage by pointing out that it doesn’t just say don’t judge. It says “Don’t act as a judge in order to escape being judged.” We do that a lot, don’t we? When we judge someone else, we feel better, or at least better than them. And we deflect the judgment that we deserve.
But we are to have eyes to see and ears to hear. We are to avoid lying, cheating, stealing, being a hypocrite, and all of that. Jesus was ruthless in his judgment of unjust systems. He railed against religious-based violence. He called people hypocrites. He said, don’t be like the Pharisees who walk around with their fancy prayers and love to get the choice seats in the synagogue. He hated it when people tithed their spices but overlooked the weightier matters of justice.
In Ferguson, some people were judgmental of the clergy who were brought in to keep things calm. The natural reaction to a crisis is to be outraged. It is to stand up and be counted. It is not to play into the hands of the white establishment. On the Daily Show this past week, John Stewart did a scathing and insightful piece on race. It’s called “Race Off”. If you get a chance Google it. He says it so much better than I can. (Here’s the link: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/ufqeuz/race-off)
But Jesus is saying, as you judge, realize that you are going to be judged, too. So, keep your ethics clean. Keep your house clean. Make sure you are on the up and up before you condemn someone else. Take the log out of your eye, and maybe you can see clearly.
When we do confront someone and we have taken the plank out of our eye, Jordan says that we should do it “face to face, in private, in a cool atmosphere which has been sterilized against anger, tension, and pride.” He suggests that we’ll also need the spirit of God to do that effectively. (The Sermon on the Mount, Judson Press 1952, P.100)
This is where we get to the other part of the suggestion: How to forgive and accept. Now, we can spend a whole season on forgiving and accepting. People confuse forgiving with forgetting. That is not the case. Forgiving is about taking power back. It’s about refusing to let another’s actions define our actions. It’s about claiming your own sense of identity and integrity. As a wise therapist once said, it’s about not giving someone free rent in your brain. And here’s the rub, someone doesn’t need to repent in order to forgive. Sometimes we need to be the adult in the room and rise above the need to retribution. We can spend years of our lives harboring a grudge against someone until they repent. And what if they never do? How much control do they have over our lives?
Jesus said, judge not in order to avoid judgment. He also said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. On the very cross, he said, blood dripping down his arms, “God, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” I think they knew darn well what they were doing. But I think Jesus was saying something deeper:
Forgive them because they are blinded by a militarism that says might makes right.
Forgive them because they are victims of a system that needs retribution if we have insulted someone. Jesus was said to have been crucified as a blasphemer.
Forgive them because they are caught in a society that does not recognize hope.
Forgive them because they cannot forgive themselves, for the log is so imbedded in their eyes that they are blind.
How do you forgive the one who has judged you? Well, that’s hard. Especially when the judgment holds some truth. Remember that you are a child of God whom God has called to be a piece of the hope with which God has entrusted us.
Forgiveness is about putting your energy someplace else, someplace more helpful, more life-giving. It takes a conscious effort to fill your mind space with something other than rage against someone who has wronged you.
Judgment and punishment are tied so closely together in many of our minds. But what if God came not to punish and judge but to set free and give us the gift of life?
Can we accept that? Can we accept that we are all damaged goods trying our best to make sense of our place in this world?
What if God became human in Jesus not to simply die an atoning death for our sins, but to walk with us on this journey of faith and to show us the ways God would have us live?
What if God got fed up with all of the punishing that we do of ourselves and each other in God’s name?
What if Jesus came so that we might stop all of this violence?
I think that’s exactly why God came to us in Jesus. It was to show us a different way to live. A different way to love, a healthy way to interact with one another, and to get religion out of the clouds and away from the warriors and the muckety mucks and into the hands of the people who need it most.
Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Mount to unpack religion gone wrong and to give us all a chance at real life-giving community. When we live in this kind of community then we see the God that really matters because we can see it in each other.
Jesus said in today’s scripture, “Judge not, lest you be judged”. We know that we judge each other. We have standards that we are to live by. We want to know who is right and who is wrong. We want to make sense of our world.
Mishpat, Krisis can usher in something good, but be careful. Along with judging comes retribution. Along with judging comes the feeling of superiority we feel when we are more righteous than another.
May we create a world where judgment/Mishpat/Krisis is the means by which we become better servants of the living God and that we see ourselves as parts of a torn fabric of humanity searching for healing. May we forgive and accept that.
May we live in peace.
May we subvert the popular tendency to demonize our opponents.
May our spiritual life aim toward reconciliation and harmony with our sisters and brothers who seem bent on judging and punishing us.
May we not succumb to the spirit of hatred, but use our indignation to restore the torn fabric of our community typified by the subversive spirit of love.
So my friends use good judgment, especially in a crisis. It’s God’s way of waking us up and it can only work if we take the log out of our eyes.