The Judgment Only God Can Make

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Sermon for Sunday, September 17th, 2017.

Readings:

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

 

The word Judgment seems to be getting an awful bad rap these days. What do you think of when you hear the word judgment or hear someone use the verb “to judge?”

 

I hear people accused of being judgmental. I hear people say things like: “well, I’m not one to judge” or “who am I to judge?” Even Paul says: “why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?” One could be excused for thinking that judgement in and of itself is a bad thing. But I’m not so sure.

 

I make hundreds of judgements every day. Making judgments, far from being just a bad thing, is sometimes an important part of staying alive. I have to judge when to start applying the brake when I drive my car. I have to judge when my piece of chicken is fully cooked. I have to judge how far away my foot is from the altar step. I have to judge how far I am swinging the incense from the chalice or someone’s face. In each case making a poor judgment can and has led to a rather unpleasant experience, for me or someone else. But then experience, either good or bad, can lead to wisdom, which hopefully results in better judgment in the future.

 

I’m not prepared to give up on the word judgment. I think we might need to revive it. Judgment is, after all, a part of how we make decisions. We judge between the benefits of doing one thing versus the benefits of doing another. You do it so many times a day you probably don’t even think about it most of the time. You need to be able to make judgments to survive. I think part of being a parent is about teaching your kids how to make good judgments. You weight the facts or the evidence in front of you and you make a judgment. You decide what the best course of action would be and that’s what you do. We want our kids to be able to make good judgments; we want our leaders to be able to make good judgments; we want to be able to make good judgments. So making a judgment, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the kind of judgments we make and how we make them.

 

We want to make good judgments, and the key thing, I think, to making a good judgment is having all the facts. In order to make a good decision, you need good information to base that decision on. There is no way you can make a good judgment if you don’t have all the facts. Sometimes the facts are obvious; sometimes they are harder to come by.

 

When it comes to another person’s walk with God; when it comes to the state of their soul, we never have all the facts. We need to recognize that. You may think you know someone very well. They could be your child or your spouse or your best friend, but it doesn’t matter how well you know someone, you never have all the facts about their interior life. They may have struggles that you know nothing about. They may have hopes, or dreams or fears that you have never imagined. There may be pain that they never talk about. You never know. We don’t have all the facts. Only God does. We can’t always know what is driving them, or what facts they are basing their decisions on. Only God does.

 

It can be very frustrating when people don’t see things the way you do. I can read a passage of scripture over and over again. Look up words. Research history. Study. Pray and decide what I think it means, and then somebody else comes along and reads it and says no that means something else. Were they just reading the same passage I was? Why can’t they see that my reading is right and theirs is wrong? What’s wrong with them?

 

Worship is another area where people just insist on doing things differently. I admit that I am someone who very often believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. When it comes to worship I make a lot of judgments about how I think things should be done, but no matter how many times you try to tell some people that they’re wrong, they just keep on doing what seems right to them. Next month will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg outlining all the ways in which he thought the Catholic Church was wrong and of course lighting the spark of what would become the Protestant Reformation. We have had 500 years of Christians trying to convince each other that the other side is wrong and where has it gotten us? More than 500 years really: Western Catholics split from Eastern Catholics about 500 years before that, and if you read Paul the way I do, it seems like there has always been this tendency for Christians to separate themselves from one another, sometimes over seemingly trivial matters, and where has it gotten us?

 

Anglicans (Episcopalians) are a weird hybrid. We inherited many of the protestant ideas or reforms that Luther called for, but we didn’t participate in the split in quite the same way. Not that our history is always admirable, far from it. But since the Anglican Church split from Rome not long after the Lutherans, there has been this tendency to define ourselves by not being those people (those people usually meaning Roman Catholics, but sometimes other protestants). The Anglo-Catholic reformers of the mid-nineteenth century received terrible ostracism and resistance because the things they wanted to do seemed too “Roman” and after all, we weren’t supposed to be like those people. Still to this day, I often hear Episcopalians trying to define ourselves in opposition to other types of Christians. We aren’t like this or we aren’t like that. We aren’t these people or we aren’t those people. I know I’ve done it, but I have to wonder if defining ourselves by what we are not, isn’t rather like the Pharisee thanking God that he is not like the tax collector. Maybe as we are judging or making decisions about how we wish to worship and follow Christ, we should be careful about how we view others who have made different decisions or who judge differently. Maybe we don’t have all the facts.

 

I was born in a Southern Baptist family, was baptized in a Congregational Church and was confirmed and later ordained as an Episcopalian. I went to seminary with people from a broad range of denominations and have worshiped with the most charismatic evangelicals and the most traditionalist catholics. All along that journey I have known faithful and thoughtful and believing and loving Christians. Just because we have discerned (or judged) that worshiping this way is what is best for us and for our faith, does not mean that there is necessarily something wrong with those that have discerned differently. You can make a judgment about what is right for you, without making a judgment about the person who disagrees with you. That I think is what Paul is getting at in his letter this morning: if something helps you to worship God, great. Do it. If it doesn’t don’t, but don’t go passing judgement on those that need it. If a certain type of prayer or a certain type of music speaks to you and helps you to glorify God, great, but you can’t expect everybody to see things the way you do. You can judge what is right for you, but you might not be able to judge what is right for someone else. You don’t have all the facts. As long as it is being done to the honor and glory of God, then accept that we may not always be of one mind about every detail. Being different doesn’t necessarily make you better or worse.

 

This is the conclusion I came to this week, after reading Paul’s letter over and over: I am not called to be a better Christian than you. I’m not. I am called to be the best Christian that I can be. You are not called to be a better Christian than the person sitting next to you in the pew. You are called to be the best Christian that you can be. We don’t have to judge ourselves in opposition to each other; we need to be judging ourselves against the person we used to be and the person that God is calling us to be. God is going to judge us each individually. I don’t think that God is grading us on a curve. I don’t think he looks at us and says: “well, at least he is better than her, so I’ll take him.” The same goes for us as a parish, as a church, as a denomination: we don’t have to define ourselves by constantly saying that: “at least we’re not like them.” We can make positive decisions about what is right for us as a church without tearing down others who see things differently. I really wish that Christians around the world would stop tearing each other apart. We have enough real enemies, there is enough evil to fight in the world without creating more by quarrelling over opinions. We may make different judgements or decisions about worship, practice and we may even differ on some doctrines, but could we maybe, possibly give each other the benefit of the doubt? Can you imagine what the world might be like today if Catholics and Protestants (all Christians) had decided to fight Satan for the past 500 years rather than each other? Maybe if we stopped demonizing each other we might actually get around to fighting the real Devil.

 

So here is a little admission of mine: every morning when I get up I listen to two podcasts online: the first, is morning prayer according to our Book of Common Prayer. The second is Joyce Meyer. She’s a very popular televangelist if you don’t know her. I know that may come as a surprise to some people, particularly my fellow priests, and I am sure that they are already judging me but I don’t care. I like her. That doesn’t mean I always agree with her, certainly not. We come from different traditions and often have a different perspective, but maybe that is why I like her. She challenges me to think differently sometimes. People say all sorts of things about her and I know that plenty have criticized her, but I have listened to her long enough now that I feel that even though we may have some big differences of opinion, we are worshipping the same Jesus. She has to judge what seems right to her and I have to judge what seems right to me. We all have to make those sort of judgments. But we don’t have to judge which one of us is better than the other, or which one of us is closer to God. That is a judgment that only he can make.

Forgiveness Comes First

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Sermon for September 10th, 2017

Readings:

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

If you are visiting us this morning, welcome; and if you are coming back after having been away for all or part of the summer, welcome back. The summer is a wonderful time of diversion and refreshment and travel, but I always feel it is nice to get back into the regular routine once it is over. Besides the autumn is my favorite season, so it is something I always look forward to.

 

If you are visiting or if you’ve been away, then you might not know that I have been away from the pulpit myself for the largest part of the summer. I had a very invasive jaw surgery this summer, that left me with my mouth more or less banded shut for six weeks. It will take some time before I am completely back to normal, so please bear with me if my pronunciation seems more off than usual.

 

I wrote on my blog a few weeks ago about how much I love the Andy Griffith show. Watching reruns of Andy and sucking milkshakes from a plastic bottle were my two primary sources of comfort during recovery, and while I promise I won’t keep referencing Mayberry in every sermon, I just can’t help sharing one of my favorite episodes with you this morning.

 

Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife were cleaning out the case files in the Mayberry courthouse one afternoon, when Barney stumbled upon a 19 year old case involving Floyd the barber and Mr. Foley the greengrocer. They had both been arrested for assault involving some altercation, but much to Barney’s dismay, no resolution was mentioned anywhere in the file. No guilt was assigned, no restitution or punishment proscribed. Nothing. Barney can’t believe it. Barney wants everything to be neat and orderly and he insists that everything be done according to the proper procedure. Andy tells him that it can’t be too important, just file it or throw it away. Floyd and Mr. Foley are two of the nicest and gentlest men in town and they have been friends for over 20 years so obviously whatever it was, was past. Let it go.

 

Well Barney won’t have any of that. He is determined to settle this case properly. He starts by interviewing Floyd, who doesn’t remember much. Then he interviews Mr. Foley, who thinks the dispute was over getting charged for a shave that he didn’t ask for. Then he tries to interview Goober who was five years old at the time and had been sitting in the corner reading a comic book and didn’t see anything. Well Barney tries to bring all the parties together to try and reenact the whole incident, and pretty soon their conflicting memories get in the way, then Mr. Foley calls Floyd a crook, Floyd punches Mr Foley, who then tries to get Goober to take his side, and Goober once again was reading a comic book and claims he didn’t see anything.

 

Then the whole town gets in on the battle: Mr. Foley punches Goober, Otis punches Floyd, and on and on until pretty soon half of Mayberry has a broken nose. Even Opie gets into a fight at school. Andy can’t take it anymore and he pulls Floyd and Mr. Foley into the courthouse. He sends Barney away and says to the two of them that we need to try to settle this like friends.

He says: “you two have been friends for more than 20 years, more than that you have been neighbors; you have been there for each other. You aren’t kids neither one of you and you both know the value of old friends and the first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive.”

 

The first law of friendship is to be ready to forgive. Forgiveness comes first. That isn’t what we think of when we think of Justice. When it comes to Justice we think that facts should be examined, guilt should be declared, restitution should be made, and then and only then maybe forgiveness can happen. That’s the way our legal system is setup to work. That is certainly the way Barney expects things to happen. But Andy sees things differently. Andy thinks that forgiveness comes first, and then reconciliation can happen. I wonder where he got such a crazy idea…

 

If Barney Fife represents Justice, then Andy Taylor represents Mercy. They are both fighting on the same side of the law, but you get awful nervous when Justice is left on its own. Mercy always needs to take the lead. Forgiveness needs to come first.

 

The first few times I read this morning’s Gospel passage, it seemed to me like Jesus was outlining a procedure for how to deal with conflicts in the Church. But as I dug deeper into this passage, I discovered that Jesus wasn’t creating new rules and procedures, he was amending old ones. In Deuteronomy, in the Law of Moses, it says that in order to prosecute someone for an offence or a sin, you need at least two or three witnesses. It’s a good law, because it is there to prevent someone from being unjustly accused, but Jesus thinks we can do even better. Before you go out and try and find other witnesses, before you involve anyone else, go to that person alone and try to reconcile. And even if you do have to involve two or three others, or even the entire community, your goal should always be reconciliation, not prosecution, not condemnation. But how does Jesus see reconciliation happening? Through forgiveness.

 

It becomes clearer if you keep reading beyond this morning’s Gospel passage and look ahead to what we will be reading next week:

Then Peter came to him and said: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?”

Jesus saith unto him: “I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.”

 

Well I’m not good at math, but I can tell that that is a pretty big number. I think Jesus is trying to say that we always need to be ready to forgive, no matter how many times we have been sinned against. Of course, that’s an easy thing to say, much harder to do. Jesus knows that, so he goes on to tell a parable, and I won’t retell the parable now, you will hear it next week, but I think the gist of the parable is this: forgiveness will get a lot easier when you realize how much you have been forgiven. If you know, truly know and appreciate how much you yourself stand in need of forgiveness how can you stand in condemnation of another? It is so much easier to forgive and be reconciled and to love your neighbor when you realize that we are all transgressors of the law; that we are a community of broken, sinful people, that despite our sins are still beloved of God.

 

If you come to church here regularly you will hear the word sin a lot. We are what is known as a “Rite One” parish; we use the traditional language liturgy, and despite what some people think, the difference is about more than just thees and thous. You get a lot more talk about sin and sinfulness in Rite One. It is still there in Rite Two, but not nearly as strong. I often joke that if Jesus didn’t wash away our sins the 1979 Prayerbook certainly tried. I get that such talk about sin can make people feel a bit squirmy and uncomfortable. Everybody wants to be built up and told how wonderful they are, nobody wants to hear that they might not be as lovely as they imagine. But I think it just might be something that we need to hear. Understanding and appreciating how much we have been forgiven, just might help us when it comes time for us to forgive others.

 

Our faith proclaims that while we were still sinners, Christ was willing to die for us. God was ready and willing to forgive before we were ready to ask for it. Forgiveness comes first.

 

I used to think that Barney Fife was just a bumbling fool and that Andy Taylor was wise and had it all together, but since I have reviewed the series with older eyes, I realize now that Sheriff Andy was a mess too; he made mistakes all the time. It is just easier to forget Andy’s mistakes, because his character always puts love and mercy first. He believes in the law, but he also believes that love is the fulfilling of the law, so love and forgiveness always come first. Where did he get such a crazy idea?

 

At the beginning of the episode I mentioned, before the old case of the punch in the nose is found, Andy and Barney are singing a hymn as they go about their work. Andy says the title is “Lose all their guilty stains” but you probably know it as “There is a Fountain.”

 

There is a fountain filled with blood,

drawn from Emannuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

 

The dying thief rejoiced to see

that fountain in his day;

and there have I, though vile as he,

washed all my sins away

 

E’er since by faith I saw the stream

thy flowing wounds supply,

redeeming love has been my theme,

and shall be till I die.

 

Redeeming love has been my theme…maybe that’s not such a crazy idea after all. Maybe it is something worth sharing.