Sunday, January 10, 2010

unChristian: Judgmental (Matthew 7:1-5)

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Mildred, the church gossip and self-appointed monitor of other people’s morals, kept sticking her nose into other people’s business and telling them how to live their lives. Most of the church people did not approve of her extra-curricular activities, but they feared her too much to confront her.

However, she made a mistake when she turned her attack on Frank, a new member to the congregation. She accused Frank of being an alcoholic after seeing his old pickup parked in front of the only bar in town one afternoon. She told Frank, and anyone else who would listen, that anyone driving by and seeing Frank’s truck there would know what he was doing.

Frank was a man of few words. He didn’t say anything to her. He didn’t explain or deny, and eventually he just turned and walked away. Later that evening, Frank parked his pickup truck in front of Mildred’s house, walked home, and left it there all night.

Today we are continuing in our “unChristian” message series. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . And Why it Matters is a book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, based on some very comprehensive research done among 16-29-year-olds and their perception of Christians, Christianity, and the Church.

In short, Christians have an image problem outside the Church, and particularly among those between the ages of 16 and 29. Young adults have checked out of the Church at a rate five times higher than those over age 65. This is a problem. Jesus said that his followers would be known by their love, but as a collective group, it seems Christians are not known by our love but by the judgments we make on others. May we pray.

In the beginning, God created humankind in God’s image; and we humans have been trying to repay the favor ever since. Anne Lamott, a popular Christian writer, says “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” Today we respond to the fact that when 16-29-year-olds are polled about their perceptions of Christians, 87% responded that they perceive Christians to be judgmental. In short, if you introduce yourself to your 20-something neighbor and then disclose your Christian faith, that neighbor will likely assume that you are judgmental. Perhaps a definition is helpful here. To be judgmental is to point out something that you perceive to be wrong in someone’s life, making the person feel put down, excluded, and marginalized.

An entire generation says Christians are more focused on condemning people than in helping them become more like Jesus. Could this be telling us we have lost something in the way we articulate and describe God’s expectations? Are we more concerned with the un­-righteousness of others that we fail to see our own self­-righteousness?

My hope throughout this series of messages is that we will all approach each topic with an open mind, and that all of us might respect and value each other, and be willing to learn from each other. And maybe, just maybe, if we are willing to keep our minds open to God’s revelation and our hearts open to increasingly Christlike character, there might be things that we learn about God, about ourselves, and about our relationships with each other. God is wise enough to handle a complex generation and worldview, and God’s people need to be as well.

This week, I simply asked this question: “Have you ever felt judged by Christians?” You can take a look at my facebook page if you want to see some of the responses to the question, but there is one response in particular I want to share with you. Rob and I met in third grade and were great friends all through our time growing up. We’ve even stayed fairly loosely in touch through the years. Here is a picture of us about a year ago at our 10-year high school reunion. And here we are in our 6th Grade team photo – yes, I know you’re wondering about the sailor hats – our team in middle school was called “The Navigators,” and we claimed to be the wave of the future – and everything we did had a stupid nautical theme.

Because my last name begins with “T” and his with “U,” he sat directly behind me in nearly every class. We got in trouble for years together. With our friend, Mark Santangelo, who sat directly in front of me, we were apparently referred to in the teachers’ lounge as “the triangle of terror,” – the inevitable result of three kids who are smart, mischievous, and bored.

Rob grew up Mormon. Years later, he also came to terms with his sexuality and told us he was gay. So, in response to my question, “Have you ever felt judged by Christians,” Rob responded, “all the effing time!” On his way into a Buffalo Sabres game at HSBC Arena there was a guy standing there with a sign saying, “God will punish all fornicators, Mormons, drunkards, homosexuals, and Jews.” Rob’s brother-in-law looked at him and said, “Hey Rob, looks like you’re screwed!”

We Christians are quick to judge! We’d rather quickly sort people into neat little categories than get to know them as the complex people they are. People judge for a variety of reasons. Some judge out of arrogance, thinking they’ve arrived and have it all figured out. Some judge out of fear, afraid of those whose beliefs, lifestyle, actions, or attitudes are different than their own, or simply being afraid of the unknown.

It breaks my heart when I hear these stories and witness this type of behavior. As a Christian, I get painted with the same brush as a hate-filled person outside a sporting event, even though I am trying to represent a picture of Jesus that is almost antithetical to this particular view. People have been misrepresenting Christ, and this really burns my biscuits! I desire to accurately represent him as best as I understand and have experienced him.

Our reading from Matthew is part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. He goes on for several chapters, teaching about what it means to be blessed in God’s kingdom as opposed to the kingdoms of the world, about being salt and light in the world, about divorce, about loving their enemies, about praying, about worrying. Now, I know Jesus didn’t have a seminary education, but this is not way to construct a sermon. Where’s his focus? He covered everything! And it’s so long! If I preached this long, there is no way that you all would beat the Baptists to the restaurants after worship, that is, if you even stick around long enough to hear the ending.

But then Jesus says: “Do not judge, unless you want to be judged.” If you want to be judged, then go ahead and judge others. If you do not want others to judge you, then you should refrain from judging others. And if you insist on judging others, perhaps you’d better take that ginormous log out of your own eye before you reach over to help a neighbor with that tiny little floater in theirs.

OK, Jesus, I hear you, but come on! Not judge? If Christians don’t stand up for God’s standards in the world, who will? What about the tough issues of our time? Who is going to take a stance on these?

Sometimes, I fear that too many Christians are like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland whose maxim was, “Sentence first, verdict later!” Do we as Christians act like the Queen of Hearts? Always yelling, forcing others to paint the world as we wish, sentencing people to heaven or hell when Jesus hasn’t really given a final verdict on any of us yet? People may fear her, but are they attracted to anything in her life?

God has called Christians to be God’s agents on the earth; we are charged with representing God and the fullness of his love and acceptance to the world – we are called to fish for people and draw them to God. If I’m going to fish for people, I want to be the best-tasting worm on the hook I can be. Rather than draw people to God with the taste of judgment, I still prefer to err on the side of compassion, humility, and forgiveness, for this and this alone is the way of Jesus.

If you believe that the Christian faith is primarily about issues, then you’ll be the one always feeling we need to take a stand on things. And you’ll probably be disappointed with me as your pastor, for I will never take a stand on an issue that causes me to take a stand against any of God’s people.

And this is my stance – I am for people. Recall the heart of the Gospel message – through the person of Jesus, all people would be reconciled to God. Therefore, the Christian faith is primarily about people – about pointing people toward God, about representing the love of God in the world, about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, about having the love of God shed abroad through our hearts. Friends, no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming. God isn’t finished with anyone. Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good, and God desires nothing more than to stand face to face with each of his beloved children. Our task is to point people back toward God – we are like signs along the road, constantly pointing people toward a loving and gracious Creator who loves each of us just exactly as we are – broken, damaged, dirty, mangled – but who loves us entirely too much to leave us that way.

Ok, A.J. – this love crap is great, but what about the Bible? When are you going to talk about taking a stand for what the Bible says? OK, let’s do that.

Usually Christians who want to justify their own judgmental attitudes will quote the 1st Chapter of Romans at you, a chapter in which Paul talks about a whole long list of unrighteousness, though Scripture is clear that judgment belongs to God and God alone. But immediately in the next chapter we are told, “When you say these people are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you do these very same things. Don’t you realize how kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Or don’t you care? Can’t you see how kind he has been in giving you time to turn from your sin? (Romans 2:1,4)

In the 12th Chapter of Mark, we are told to render unto God the things that are God’s. There is only one judge – God. And for us to judge is to presume to take upon ourselves a responsibility, that, by all right and authority belongs to God. For us to judge is to presume the position of God for ourselves (Mark 12:13-17).

When we feel that we can arrogantly point out the sins of others, we are reminded in the 4th chapter of James that God “opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

God continues to reveal my own biases to me, and what a kindness and means of grace this has been in my life. I encourage you to consider your response. In fact, close your eyes and place your hands palms up, in a posture of receptivity. What wrong ideas do you harbor about people? If you feel a growing sense of self-justification – I have a right to be judgmental about sin; that’s what God calls me to do – you may have already missed the chance to have God reveal your blind spots. If people have used words like arrogant to describe you, how have you responded? Are your critics right? Are you softhearted enough to see a clear picture of your motivations?

In the movie The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino plays the devil. At the end of the movie, he leans into the camera and says, “Vanity – my favorite sin.” Unfortunately, vanity and arrogance seem to be favorite sins of Christians, too.

Arrogance within the Christian community is too often accepted or at least excused. The research shows that we tolerate our own pride; we do not feel God’s anger at arrogance. We need to start seeing ourselves and those around us for the people we really are – needy and hurting but with great potential as God’s sons and daughters created in the image of God. Maybe then we would reject arrogance as adamantly as we do any other sin, because it is especially corrosive to the faith of those who follow Christ.

God is the judge; I’m not. I am neither the judge, jury, nor the executioner. I am simply a witness. I am a witness of God’s great love in Jesus Christ for all people, regardless of who they are, what they look like, what they smell like, what they act like, what they believe, what they do, who they love, or who they hang with.

If we judge others, then we are forgetting the sin that is still real in our own lives – how we all have fallen and fall continually short of the grace of God. Friends, I am still working on trying to get the log out of my own eye; it hardly seems right for me to point my finger at the sins of others. And yet, I find that I am very judgmental toward people who are judgmental. As Ann Lamott says, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” Maybe we Christians should start worrying more about our own lives and less about telling other people how to live theirs. Jesus tells us to take the log out of our own eye before we start pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s; we can only see how distorted the world has become when we first stop to see how distorted our own lives have become.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” What a load of garbage that is! It’s like saying love the river, but hate the water. Love the fire, but hate the flame. It’s as if we say, “Love the person, but remember that their issue is actually more important than they are, and you need to take a stand against their issue, so be sure to remind that beautiful person who was created in the image of God that whatever label you have arbitrarily assigned to them is more important than they are.”

People outside the Church hear this saying, and they perceive that Christians hate them, and in many cases, they are right. And so the result is that people who are created in the image of God and need the love of God perceive that the people who are supposed to represent Christ’s love actually hate them. Friends, the Church must be for people instead of against issues. Christians must share the love of Christ – to share it radically and recklessly without any discrimination whatsoever. Christians must share the love of Christ, and leave it up to the Holy Spirit to convict and convince.

It’s not the job of any person to judge; that’s what God does. I am not the judge, jury, or executioner. I am simply here as a witness – a witness of God’s great love in Christ for all people, even those who have yet to realize the depth and the breadth of God’s love for them, even the people whom some of the saints have labeled sinners. But what is a saint, other than a sinner who continues to grow in God’s grace?

It’s not about me, and my prejudices and my biases and my view of how I think the world should work. It’s about God, and thanks be to God, who is gracious enough even to love and accept someone like you, and someone like me.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is someone I accept, even though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me. There is someone I forgive, even though he hurts the people I love the most. That person is me.”

If we judge others, we are forgetting that the grace we have received is offered preveniently to everyone around us – grace freely given to every living person. And when we look around even as we look deep within ourselves and see ourselves as sinners who have been redeemed by the grace of God, then we cannot possibly look around and see ourselves as better than anyone else. It doesn’t matter who we are. Porn stars or preachers, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t mean a rip to God. We are all God’s children, and we are all in need of this stunningly beautiful thing called grace.

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