The following sermon was preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY on June 26, 2011. Listen to the audio here.
Prayer—Holy God, may you speak truth and grace through these words of Scripture. May you open our hearts to receive your love, may you still our spirits to focus on your presence, and may you enliven our minds to understand the teaching of Jesus. Bless us with ears to hear and eyes to see. Amen.
Judgment. Have you ever been judged? Do you know what it’s like for someone to judge you? If you are anything like me, you bear wounds from the judgment of others.
I remember when, living in New Mexico, I was pinned beneath the weight of a middle school bully who told me to go back to where I came from, to leave because I was not wanted there. I was a white boy, a gringo, who he judged to be unworthy and a threat in his Hispanic homeland. Fear and helplessness still linger in that memory.
I remember when, in college, I told a Christian mentor that I could be happy as a stay-at-home dad. He informed me that such a lifestyle choice was unbiblical and sinful—I was a man, and I should be the spiritual and financial leader of the household. In short, for him, stay-at-home dads would be judged by God with wrath. Feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, and confusion swirled inside me. That memory still riles me up. Condemnation doesn’t feel very good.
So when Jesus teaches, “Do not judge, so that you might not be judged,” I get all excited. Maybe you do, too. Maybe you are giving Jesus a high-five in your heart: “Right on, Jesus, right on!” Finally, here is a passage of Scripture that bites back, a passage of Scripture that gives us a way to resist judgment, to stand up for ourselves, to say “careful, you better not judge or else God will judge you…” It is a passage of scripture that touches wounds.
I suspect many of us this morning carry wounds of judgment, wounds of rejection or exclusion. Those wounds might be hidden or partially healed, but likely they are there. And judgment is something we easily associate with church and God. I’ve had many conversations with friends and acquaintances about church. Some of these conversations are deeply saddening. I’ve known friends who were sure they could never set foot inside a church again; church was a place of judgment. They shared stories of rejection because of how they dressed, or how they smelled, or how they spoke, or how they looked, or because they carried certain questions with them. They shared stories of being condemned and scorned. Some of them never actually heard a word of judgment, but all of them saw judgment in the faces of the people at church, and they experienced it in their hearts.
Some conversations are not so much about church as God—how can I worship a judgmental God, a God full of wrath, vengeance, and cruelty?
Many of us this morning might hope that this church would be a different kind of church; safe place, a place where no one, or at least most people, do not rush to judgment. Maybe we are hoping that our experience in this church will avoid judgment altogether. Maybe, somewhere behind all the wounds and experiences of judgment we carry, we are hoping that in this place, at this church, we will discover the truth about God: God does not judge us so long as we do not judge others. In such a place our wounds can be healed with time, and we can prevent new wounds from forming.
Friends, I have unsettling news: the God we serve is a judging God. The God we serve passes judgment. God has judged us, is judging us, and will continue to judge us. The question for us this morning, is whether or not that is really good news.
I want to suggest this morning that when we examine judgment through the life and teaching of Jesus, we will find surprises around every corner.
The first surprise is that Jesus does teach his disciples to judge. Yes, right here in our passage, Jesus instructs his disciples on how to judge. In verse 5, Jesus does not say, “Do not judge the speck in your neighbor’s eye because you have a log in your own eye.” No, Jesus teaches his disciples to judge the speck in the eye of their neighbor, but only after removing the log in their own eye. Jesus knows very well that judging is a necessary part of human life—we must and should make judgments—and that there may be occasions in a community of faith when we need to remove specks from one another’s eyes.
If that is surprising at all, it’s because of our “automaticity.” We have come to automatically, without realizing it, associate judging with a negative judgment; that is, we have come to think that judging at all will always result in condemnation. And if we don’t want to go about condemning folks, then we must refrain from judging—right? Not quite. All decisions are based on a judgment about what is good or right—but that need not imply condemnation. Imagine dropping your car off at the bakery. “Um, I don’t fix cars.” The baker might say. And you reply, “Don’t worry, I’m a Christian, I don’t judge.” We can laugh and think that is silly because fixing an oil leak with jelly filling really is a bad idea. Judging that the mechanic, and not the baker, will provide better advice and service for our car does not mean we condemn the baker.
Though he doesn’t say it explicitly in our passage, Jesus is making a distinction between two kinds of judgment. The kind of judgment he encourages is what might be called discernment. It is simply the process of making decisions; and Jesus encourages decisions based on good motives, good purposes, and—as verse two implies—Jesus encourages decisions that are based on good measure.
So what is that measure, what is that measure we are called to employ in our discernment? That measure is revealed in God’s judgment, what we might call final or ultimate judgment. And this is the second surprise. God’s judgment upon is grace. Jesus teaches us how to discern faithfully and make good judgments by revealing to us in his life, death, and resurrection that the very judgment of God is grace. God is not against us. God does not seek our destruction or annihilation. No, God is with us. God is for us. The judgment of God is revealed in the cross in the last cries of Christ, “Father forgive them!” We are enabled and empowered to judge with and for others because God has already judged with and for us.
And this final judgment is a judgment we have no power over, no control over, no say in. Thanks be to God. It is a judgment that has been made, forever and always. God judged us good at the dawn of creation, God is judging us worthy of forgiveness and love in Jesus Christ, and God continues to judge us as people of promise through the Holy Spirit. With that measure in mind, we are called to judge. We are called to encourage, uplift, serve, and love; we are called to risk ourselves in judgment, to name what is good, and true, and just. We are called to help our neighbor see and experience that judgment for themselves, which might mean carefully, tenderly removing a speck from their eye.
Jesus instructs us not to judge in the final, ultimate way of God, because it is already finished. To change God’s course of judgment is impossible and would not be in our best interest anyhow—for our best interest was secured in an empty grave.
And yet, despite the gracious character of God’s judgment, I wonder if we are still like my college friend. One night I came in to my college apartment, and there was my friend, someone I cared for, drunk on the floor. She was crying and curled up. As she saw me walk into the room, she started to beg, “Please, don’t judge me; please, don’t judge me.” And that is so often where we find ourselves—drunk on the floor with the fear of condemnation, condemnation that is really of our own making. We beg of God, “please, don’t judge me.”
Friends, be afraid no more. You have been judged. And how glorious it is! God looks upon you and says, beloved; God looks upon you and says, forgiven; God looks upon you and says, favored one; God looks upon you with the judgment of Grace.
If God’s judgment is truly in our hearts this morning, if we embrace and accept it, then the logs in our eyes will fall away. Amen.