Sermon for Sunday, September 17th, 2017.
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
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.