Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "On Planks and Specks"

Luke 6:37-42

 37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” 

39 Jesus also told them a riddle. “A blind person can’t lead another blind person, right? Won’t they both fall into a ditch? 40 Disciples aren’t greater than their teacher, but whoever is fully prepared will be like their teacher. 41 Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s or sister’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Brother, Sister, let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You deceive yourselves! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.  (Common English Bible)

“The Sermon on the Mount’s Little Sibling: Luke’s Sermon on the Plain,” Week Four
The mother’s words soared out of the page as I read them—convicting me in a way I hadn’t experienced in some time, and certainly not after being inundated with so many pleas for help—many of which I was simply completely unequipped to meet—that I had simply become worn down, inadequate and impatient with the aid our church has to offer.  Helping actual, real people and families became a line to check off on my to-do list, like preparing for a Bible study or writing a blog post or downloading my sermon for that week off the internet… (yuk yuk yuk)  And that is never a sustainable mentality to do ministry in.
I confess this weariness to you to underscore the impact that a mother’s words had on me.  This is, in part, what she had to say:
When our son Ryan was living on the streets of Seattle, using drugs and doing all kinds of awful things to afford them, I prayed that the people he encountered would remember that he had a story.  I prayed that the police officers, the nurses, the pedestrians he bumped into and the people he stole from might have the insight to know that he never chose to become an addict.  He never wanted to be miserable.  When he was a little boy, he never dreamed of growing up to become imprisoned by addiction.  I begged to God to bring people in his life who would trust that Ryan had a story, who would see the image of God in Ryan and who would reflect that image right back to him.
Now I pray each day that God will allow me to see His image in every person I meet, be that person the homeless guy on the corner, the man in the truck who flipped me off for forgetting to signal before my lane change, or the angry, entitled woman screaming at the checkout guy in the Costco line.  I want to remember that I don’t know their stories and to extend to them the same mercy and grace I wanted people to give to my son.
This is another new sermon series for the fall, and this series will take us all the way into November.  And there really is a simple reason behind how this sermon series got cooked up in the first place (beyond, you know, the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, me throwing darts at the wall, the consulting of sheep entrails, that sort of thing).  Luke 6 contains some of the most blunt, point-blank ethical teachings of Jesus in any Gospel, but those teachings, nicknamed the Sermon on the Plain (can you guess why?), tend to be overshadowed by the magnum opus of Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, which both parallels and dwarfs the Sermon on the Plain.  So, we’re spending these six weeks giving some much-needed attention to a sermon that often gets short shrift, even though it contains some of the most famous one-off ethical pronouncements Jesus offers, including “love your enemies,” “if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt as well,” and “judge not, and you will not be judged.”  My aim is to present all of these teachings to you in their context of an entire series of teachings, and so we set the scene, the backdrop for where this teaching happens: an otherwise thoroughly nondescript plain (hence the sermon’s title) where Jesus performed healing miracles on an untold number of people before He even began teaching.  Since then, though, the teaching began in earnest, with what we might call in the parlance a doozy: the whole “Woe are the rich,” “Woe are the filled,” and “Woe are the hungry” bit right after the beatitudes, and the lessons didn’t get any easier to swallow with last week’s instructions on giving even to those who steal from us and turning the other cheek to those who harm us.  So, naturally, the degree of difficulty once more gets doubled down, as Jesus admonishes us in no uncertain terms against one of our favorite pastimes: judging other people.

And don’t lie to me and say it isn’t a favorite pastime—we all do it.  You, me, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Whateverthehellelseisoncrappydaytimetelevision.  It’s part of our programming, because if we judge someone else to be wrong, it means that we are right for having pointed out their flaw or their sin.  It means that we have, if even only a little bit, managed to assert our moral superiority over the other person.
Christians these days, let me tell you, we are all about asserting that moral superiority.  We love playing that card, we love it oh so much.  From scolding unwed couples in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways to shaming addicts for a choice that has turned into an illness, we still retain the role we had way back during the Spanish Inquisition of policing everybody else’s own morality, only this time, we don’t use physical torture devices (unless you count awkward singles’ ministry groups).
And why wouldn’t we?  Part of our faith is believing, knowing, that we’ve come across some sort of truth, and truth is inherently right.  Which means that if we have this truth, we are right also.  And we are right in thinking this, at least at first: we have come to believe that God loves us and expressed that love through the message, life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But being right in this singular area of our lives can cause us to be wrong in so, so many other areas.
Because, see, this solid rock of Christ’s love that we stand upon is only a rock and only as solid in our lives as we apply it to be.  There are things in faith’s wheelhouse, things that it is exceptionally good at dealing with.  A loved one is sick?  Your faith can comfort you in the form of prayer, the community of a church, and the love expressed in the Bible.  Upset at how someone is being treated?  Your faith can make you strong enough to speak out for them and to uplift them before those who are hurting them, because, after all, blessed are the meek.

But—and here, I am going to say something that might rub you a bit the wrong way—that faith is not inherently good.  Faith may be true, but truthiness (because Stephen Colbert made that a word) and goodness are not always 100% the same thing.  No, rather, faith is only as good as the person who has it.  It is like anything else we possess that can be used for good or for bad depending on the person who is holding onto it.
We know, we’ve seen, all sorts of people whose faith has turned them into truly terrible, despicable people, and I don’t have to name them off for you—fundamentalists-turned-hate-groups, religious terrorists of all stripes, the proponents of the caste system in India—and there is a common denominator at work here: namely, that these are all people who have let allegiance to such a narrow strip of their faith turn their lives into something utterly false.

It’s a paradox.  A painful, violent paradox that a bit of truth leads someone to living a false life.  But that is what we see happening: people who rush to apply laws and doctrines that have no place in a 21st century world simply because they have come to believe that the truth they once knew to be saving for them demands as such.  They become prejudiced because everything must be filtered through such a narrow, primitive lens.  After all, if you are judging the world by only one or two very specific, narrow criteria, it streamlines the whole process of judgment.  You don’t have to think, you don’t have to wrestle, you don’t have to struggle.  Thumbs up or thumbs down.  Good or bad, all on the basis of that prejudice.s (unless you count awkward singles'ch retain the role we had way back during the Spanish Inquisiti

I know that this is a loaded word, prejudice, so let’s break it down before we continue on: literally, the word is a compounding of the prefix ‘pre’ (meaning before or prior to something) and judice, from the Latin word juris, from which we get words like judicial, judicious, judgment…and judgmental.  We might say someone is ‘prejudiced’ in terms of being, say, racist or sexist, but literally what the word ‘prejudiced’ means is an adjective describing someone who has judged ‘pre,’ prior or before they should do so.  It describes someone who has, quite literally, rushed to judge.

And so far, I have been talking about pretty extreme examples of this: fundamentalism, terrorism, bigotry, and the like.  But lend an ear once more to the mother’s story about her son that I read to you at the very beginning.  Confronted with a shelterless drug addict on the street, how are you liable to react?  Not just externally, but internally.  Pity?  Anger?  Compassion?  Judgment?

Because realistically, that’s what this passage has to say to us.  The chances of any of us coming face-to-face with, say, a member of ISIS in order to rebuke them for their crimes and prejudices is probably nil.  But the chances of us coming face-to-face with someone in active drug addiction, or a teenaged mother, or any of the other groups of people we are liable to pass more subtle forms of judgment on today?  I’d mark those chances at a near certainty.

So are we willing to admit now that we might indeed harbor prejudice, and not in the terms of racial or sexist lines?  That we might harbor prejudice towards someone based on a particular characteristic of them?  That we might think this characteristic, be it a religious affiliation, or a sexual orientation, or a partisan identity, completely defines them when in fact they are far more multifaceted and multidimensional than we could ever possibly know in that moment?
Or are we still happier to point out that speck in their eyes while ignoring the logs in our own?
We talk an awful lot about surrender here in church—surrendering ourselves to Christ, surrendering our lives to God, but what I’m not sure we know what any of that means anymore.  Our lives represent a series of choices, points in the road where we can go one direction or another.  I can choose to do this, to say that, or to not to.  Which means that every day that I wake up, and that you wake up, and get out of bed, you can choose whether to be a Christian, a good person or not.
What if making that choice really meant surrendering all other choices?  What if choosing the will of Christ really meant surrendering our will to judge?  Do you think that we could do that?  Or is that a part of our selfishness that we still feel the need to clutch onto, that we simply cannot live without?
A lot of you here have also been the subject of another person’s prejudices.  I know because you have told me.  And those stories…those stories of how it felt to be seen only as an addict, only as an unwed parent, only as a person with their hand out needing help…those stories are living proof of the Gospel’s truth here.  Proof painfully gained, wrenchingly remembered, that what Jesus says here is indeed part of that greater truth that we have come to know: judgment that does not come from God or from Christ will rarely cause us to reconcile with God and with Christ.  Our judgment of one another—your judgment of another person—is not what will ultimately restore right relationship between God and a wayward sinner who is casting about for the way back home.
So judge not.  Condemn not.  And I tell ye, ye shall be forgiven.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.
Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
October 19, 2014

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