Tuesday, October 06, 2015

October 4, 2015 The Lord's Prayer - Building God's Kingdom

When I was in seminary I was required to take a class called Church and Community.  The class was designed to get us thinking about how we connect the church and community to one another, and to get us to think very seriously about that connection we were required to participate in three projects.  One was called The Plunge, of which I’ve spoken before.  The Plunge required us to live on the streets of downtown Louisville for a weekend, with only a dollar in our pocket.  We had to survive on our own from Friday evening until Sunday evening.  All of us were required to do The Plunge.  We got to choose the other projects, and one of the others I chose was to ride throughout the night shift, on a Saturday, with a Louisville police officer.  I rode with an officer assigned to a neighborhood that provided for quite an interesting night.  One of the calls we received was to go to a home where a burglary was in progress.  When we arrived at the location the officer asked me if I wanted to stay in the car or go with him.  I said I would stay behind and watch the car.  Somebody needed to protect it.  He said that was fine, but reminded me that if he startled the intruders they might run straight towards me.  So I decided he should have some backup and I told him I would go with him.  One of the other calls that came in was for a domestic disturbance, which he said was perhaps the most difficult call because you never knew what situation would confront you.  We arrived at the home and found there were several officers already at the home, and inside was a man holding a knife to his wife’s neck and threatening her life.  Again, the officer asked me if I wanted to stay in the car or go with him.  I said I would watch the car again.  For some reason – probably a lack of judgment – I left the car and walked up to the porch to stand near the officers.  It was a very tense situation, was finally resolved, and once the man had been subdued the officer asked me to come into the house with him.  In retrospect, I believe he thought it might be good for a young, preacher-in-training, to deal with some of the harsh realities of life.  It was a difficult scene to take in.  The man, still in the house, was in handcuffs and I’ll just say he was being less than cooperative.  He was yelling about what he was going to do to everyone there, including me.  His wife was still in the room, and she was terribly upset, as you can imagine.  It was a very unpleasant situation.  But there was another person in the room as well, an infant, in a crib.  I walked over to the crib when I heard the baby whimpering, and because I don’t want to be too graphic about the conditions of that crib and what was in the crib with that baby, I’ll just say that I almost lost my stomach.  It was a very harsh jolt of reality.

Unfortunately, it was not an isolated picture of reality.  I think it’s safe to say that we deal with some very harsh realities in our world, so much so that some people will question the very possibility of maintaining faith in the face of such realities and to question how God could allow such things to happen.

I think it’s safe to say that humanity has despoiled and pushed God’s creation to the edge of both chaos and ruin.  As we continue our study of the Lord’s Prayer, we come to a phrase that tells us our world does not at all reflect what God desires for his beautiful creation. 

The phrase we’ll consider today is Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
We’ll read the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew’s gospel as well as a passage from Psalm 146, that compares the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of the world – 

Matthew 6:5-15
“Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Psalm 146:3-10
Do not trust in princes,
in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
the sea and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
Who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
the Lord raises up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous;
The Lord protects the strangers;
He supports the fatherless and the widow,
but He thwarts the way of the wicked.
10 The Lord will reign forever,
Your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!

I kept going back and forth on the title of this message.  I couldn’t decide between Building God’s Kingdom, and The Most Difficult Prayer, because the phrase which we study this morning contains what I think are the hardest words to say in a prayer – thy will be done.  But I decided on Building God’s Kingdom, because that is what it means to do the will of God – we build his kingdom.

The ancient Hebrews had an interesting way of writing, and we find it all through the Old Testament and also in the Lord’s Prayer.  They used a style of writing called parallelism.  Parallelism means to express the same idea twice, but in two different ways.  The first phrase presents a value and the second phrase helps to define it, which is exactly what Jesus does in the phrase we study this morning. Thy kingdom come is the first phrase and it presents the value that God desires to become reality, that his kingdom would be present in our world, and the second phrase, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven, defines how that value is to come about, which is by doing God’s will. 

What does it mean for God’s kingdom to come, to reflect heaven, where his will is done?  Any time God’s will is done, by anyone, anywhere, his kingdom is present.  So the kingdom is here, because God’s will is being done in different places, but obviously, his will is not always being done, so it’s not quite here yet either.

To be in the kingdom, to build the kingdom, is to obey the will of God.  It is not something that has to do with a nation or a political kingdom or a people, but comes about when the will of God is accepted in a person’s heart and that person seeks to do God’s will.

We ask particular questions related to prayer, most of which are how or why questions – how does God answer our prayers?  Why does he answer some of our prayers and why doesn’t he seem to answer some of our other prayers?  But perhaps the most important question related to prayer is one we don’t often ask, and it’s a what question – what are the things for which God wants me to pray so that I can be in his will and be a part of the coming of his kingdom? 

We often consider God’s will for our lives, but it’s generally in related to the basic questions of life – where to go to college, what vocation to enter, what job to take, and where to live.  All of those things relate to God’s will, certainly, but to really ask the question of what is God’s will for the world goes far deeper and asks more fundamental questions about life and about the world, because God’s will, and praying for God’s will, encompasses far more than just what is happening in our own lives.

So this morning, I’ll ask several of those questions.

Where is our trust?
Psalm 146:3 says, Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
I’m not sure any of us have a great deal of trust in our political system these days and of those who inhabit it, unfortunately.

I think we all have trust issues, honestly.  When I was on the streets of Louisville that weekend I was sure praying for a jolt of trust.  At that point, I was already living a hand-to-mouth existence trying to make my way through school, and my fear that I was not going to be able to meet my own needs was a very present fear.

Follow your particular candidate, vote for you particular candidate, but God reminds us that his kingdom is founded upon trust, because he is trustworthy.

Where do we place our trust?  God offers us a promise for the present and future based upon the past.  We remember what he has done for us so we will have trust in what he will do.  The ancient Hebrews were often reminded to remember the past so that they might have hope for the future.  The same is certainly true of us as well. 

How will we care for others?
Who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
the Lord raises up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous;
The Lord protects the strangers;
He supports the fatherless and the widow,
but He thwarts the way of the wicked.

The greatest testimony to our church, or any church, is not based in how many people show up here on a given Sunday.  The greatest testimony lies in how much we care for others, and this is a constant theme of Scripture.  In Matthew 25:40 contains one of the greatest pronouncements of Jesus – Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

The power in any church is not its drawing power, but its sending power – sending forth the people to be the hands and the feet of Christ, especially in caring for others.

There is a common misperception that many people are doing really well living off of government benefits, but I will tell you that isn’t true.  That’s a perception that, in my experience of ministry, is false.  There are scores of people who awaken every day and wonder how they will adequately feed their families, how they will adequately clothe their families, how they will provide them medical care, and how they will find the money needed to live in these expensive times.

A new book titled $2.00 A Day: Living On Almost Nothing In America reminds us that millions of Americans have no income, and about 3 million of them are children.  These are not individuals who are struggling; these are individual souls with almost no income whatsoever.

Perhaps we believe some of the misconceptions about the poor because those misconceptions provide a buffer to us.  If we believe they are really not living in difficult circumstances, if we believe they are doing very well living on government assistance, then we can sleep easier at night and we don’t have to worry so much about our responsibility to help.

It is, of course, difficult to know where to begin when the problems seem so insurmountable, but we can begin somewhere.  I don’t know all the answers to how we tackle these problems, but I can at least help hand out food at the Serenity Center.  I can help to pack backpacks for the schools.  I can fix a meal for the men’s shelter.

Is love our ultimate value?
Love is always the underlying value, the foundational principle to our lives as followers of Jesus.  You can find it the underlying principle all throughout Scripture.  You can’t care for others if you don’t love them.  You can’t trust God if you don’t love him.  And it’s love that is the greatest distinction between God’s kingdom and so many earthly kingdoms over the course of history, because many kingdoms never offer the choice of whether or not others will be under their rule.  But God never forces his kingdom on anyone; it is freely offered and can only be freely received.

Years ago I was changing a church sign, and though I can’t remember the exact message I put on the sign it was something to do with love.  You can’t go wrong with the topic of love.  As I was finishing a passerby noted that’s all we need.  If we could just love one another the world would be a better place.  That’s all we need to remember.  Though it seemed a bit simplistic to me, I realized the message on the sign seemed a bit simplistic as well. 

But there is nothing at all simplistic about love.  Love, real love, results in bruises from running headlong into life’s realities.  Love, real love, has frayed and scratched knees from spending time in prayer for others.  Love, real love, is messy, complicated, and difficult, and it’s also beautiful, but not in a false way.  Real love isn’t an image of perfection; real love is a love that tells people you don’t need to be perfect for me to love you, or for God to love you.  God is not looking for perfect people; he’s looking for people to do his will.

May God’s kingdom come, as we do his will.

Monday, September 28, 2015

September 27, 2015 The Lord's Prayer - How To Be Different

September 27, 2015
Matthew 6:5-15

The Lord’s Prayer:  How To Be Different

Last week I began my message by asking what would be the two verses of Scripture that are most well known.  This morning, I would ask you about the prayers most known to people, which would probably be two.  First, the Serenity Prayer, written by the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr in the mid 20th century –

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

The above lines are most familiar, but there is a longer, less known version that includeds these lines –

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

And certainly, the other paryer would be the Lord’s Prayer, sometimes called the model prayer, as it becomes the example of how we should pray (as Jesus says in Matthew 6:9 – this, then, is how you should pray).

This morning I begin a series of messages based on the Lord’s Prayer.

Because our computer is down I can’t show you a picture I would like you to see, but I’ll use it next week (it is at the top of this manuscript and in the weekly study guide).  It’s a picture of the Lord’s Prayer hand-etched onto the head of a pin.  How do you hand-etch the Lord’s Prayer onto such a small space?  An Englishman by the name of Graham Short managed to do so.  He etched the prayer onto a space that is 0.0787401575 inches across.  It required him to look through a microscope and to engrave only at night because the vibrations from the daytime traffic made it impossible to do the work.  Such precision also required that for the first hour of his engraving session he does nothing but sit still, until his pulse slowed (his resting heart rate, helped by a great deal of swimming, is 30 beats a minute).  He also straps his arm to restrict its movement, and when all was ready worked between his heartbeats, so nothing would jolt the movement of the needle across the surface of the pinhead.

Isn’t that incredible? It’s amazing to consider the concentration, the care, and the dedication required to do such work.  But my first response was why?  Why would anyone take such time and effort to make an engraving so small it requires a microscope to see it?  The second response was, imagine if we could devote that kind of concentration, care, and dedication to prayer on a regular basis.

But perhaps we do, even without knowing it.  Paul writes in I Thessalonians 5:17 that we should pray without ceasing.  Does this mean we are we to pray all the time?  Does it mean to continue in an attitude of prayer?  I think the answers to those questions are found in Romans 8:26, where Paul writes that in the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.  I think one of the things Paul is saying is that we pray all the time, even though we might not be aware of it, because deep within our heart and our soul we are crying out to God in a way in which we don’t even realize or understand.  Prayer comes not just when we bow our head, close our eyes, and fold our hands, but every moment that we breathe, because there is some kind of deeply spiritual communion between the spirit of God and our own spirits.  So we pray in two ways – unconsciously and consciously.  When we pray consciously, Jesus says to do so like this –

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
“Pray, then, in this way:
Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
14 For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
15 But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Today I’ll begin with the first words of the Lord’s Prayer – Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. 

Our Father
These two simple, basic, words are very significant, and in using them, Jesus radically transformed what people thought at the time. 

First, note the word our.  When we think of the word our we do so in a possessive sense – something that belongs to us.  But our, here, is plural, not singular.  It does not denote an ownership claim.  We don’t have an ownership claim on God.  In the time of Jesus, there were plenty of people who felt they had an ownership claim on God, and that attitude, unfortunately, is still very pervasive today.  Having an ownership claim of God results in an us versus them mentality, as in we are special to God and you are not.

In May I was in Sandusky, Ohio, which sits on the shore of Lake Erie.  One afternoon, as I was walking along the edge of town, near the lakefront, I heard live music, and it immediately caught my ear.  The song was Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf, and I knew immediately I had to follow the music to see what was going on.  It so happened that Biker Week was talking place in Sandusky, and I soon found myself in the middle of a gathering of bikers  And I don’t mean the 10 speed bikers; I mean the boot-wearing, Harley-riding, leather-vest clad, big beard, lots of tatto kind of bikers.  And there I was in my khaki shorts, T-shirt, and green tennis shoes.  Talk about sticking out.  I put a post on Facebook about wandering into the wrong place and it wasn’t long before someone challendged me for thinking differently about people just because they looked different from me.  And you know what?  They were exactly right to do so. It takes constant reminders, I think, to keep us from lapsing into a default position of defining ourselves by what group we are part of and what groups are not part of us.  And too many groups want to claim God as the father for their group and declare he is off limites to other groups.  We do not own God.  We are his creation and his children, and that is true of every person, not just the ones that we want to designate as being part of our group.

Then there’s the word father.  The word father is such a personal word to use as a designation for God, which was a very different concept than what people were used to at the time.  The Aramaic word Jesus used was abba, which means daddy.  It was one of the first words a child learned to say, and it reflected a very significant shift in the manner in which people viewed God.  Jesus presents God as not being distant and detached but as close to us and as interested in us and as loving us as would one of the most significant relationships we can understand.

There is an element, certainly, of the holy and majestic and powerful to God, but at the same time God – the mighty creator, sustainor, and Lord of this universe – is as close to us and familiar to us as a member of our own family.

Who Art In Heaven
The past week must have created a lot of uncomfortable moments for atheists.  With all the coverage of the pope, it must have gotten under their skin quite a bit.  The wall to wall coverage, even if you tired of it or weren’t interested, was undeniably quite extraordinary.  That so much of life came to a halt to focus on the gospel message is testimony to the great spiritual hunger that exists all around us, and within us.  Obviously, we are nowhere near as secular as some claim.

It was a week that served as an important reminder that life is more than just the physical and material.  Who are in heaven reminds us that there is more to this life.  In spite of the claims of some that we can only believe in the things we can see, touch, measure, or test, that is incorrect.  Just because some people have a scientific, materialistic, reductioninst view of the world doesn’t mean that is the reality.  There is a spiritual component to every life, even among those who deny the spiritual part of life.  Who can gaze upon a beautiful sunrest or sunset and not feel something spiritual?  Who can listen to a beautiful piece of music and deny that is moves something deep within us, a part of us that I would refer to as our soul?

Through my years of ministry, while visiting people in their final days, I’ve seen the proof that there is more to this life than just the physical.  There is this very thin layer between this life and eternity, and at the end of life many people are blessed to see both worlds at once.  They have one foot in the temporal but the other is already stepping into the eternal.  While they see this world in which we live, they can also peer into the next world.  I have been with people who will speak of seeing Jesus in the room with them, they will speak of departed loved ones who have come to comfort them as they prepare for the greatest of journeys, and they are not hallucinating.  When people experience such moments there is a clarity about them that is more pronounced than what we experience in our daily lives and there is an alertness and awareness that proves to me that what they see, what they experience, is not an illusion but the ultimate in reality.

Hallowed Be Thy Name
The word hallowed is a combination of two words that together refer to what is holy, and holy because of being different.  Any object that is holy has a different purpose.  A church is different from other buildings because it has a different purpose.  The Sabbath is different from other days because it has a different purpose.  The priests and prophets of the Old Testament were different from other people because they had a different purpose.  An altar was different from other monuments because of a different purpose.

To say, then, that God’s name is to be hallowed is to recognize that God is different, holy, and must be treated differently from anything else in existence.

I never wanted to be different growing up.  None of us like to be different.  It’s why we follow fashion trends, even very questionable fashion trends.  I didn’t always dress like this, in a conservative blue suit, blue shirt, blue tie, and dress shoes.  Back in the 70s I dressed way cooler than this.  Do you know what kind of suit I wore back in the 70s?  A leisure suit.  It was dark blue, with a collar that was wider than my shoulders and had bold, white stitching all around.  My shirt was silky and white and imprinted on the front was a picture of some deer in a meadow with mountains in the background.  Completing that really cool outfit was a pair of platform shoes and my big afro.  When I went out of the house dressed like that my dad would say, are you really going out looking like that?  My response was, dad, when you look this good, you’ve got to go out!  But I very distinctly remember wearing that leisure suit one too many times.  One Sunday morning I wore it to First Christian Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, and I noticed I was the only one wearing a leisure suit.  Suddenly, they were out of fashion and I didn’t get the memo.  That leisure suit went from a source of fashion awareness to a source of embarrassment, and I put it away forever because I didn’t want to feel different.

No one wants to feel different.  When I was in high school I had a patch sewed onto my blue jeans that proclaimed I’m a non-conformist!  Do you now why I had that patch on my jeans?  Not because I was a non-conformist, but because everybody else had that patch sewed onto their jeans!  We are so afraid of being different that we will sometimes do things we don’t want to do just because we want to be like everyone else.

I was often given a hard time when I was young because I went to church and because of my faith.  There were times when I was bullied and ridiculed because of it.  I didn’t like it, but at the same time I didn’t really care.  Don’t ever be afraid of what people think of you, especially if they think less of you or differently of you because of faith.  As followers of Jesus, we are different, and there’s nothing wrong with being different!

When I arrived in the church parking lot this morning, I pulled into my usual space and sat for a few minutes admiring the sunrise.  The sun was not far above the horizon, and the colors radiated beautifully throughout the early morning sky.  As I enjoyed the view, I was reminded of a couple of important truths – no matter how bad things might be today, the sun will come up tomorrow, and it will come up tomorrow because God is still in control this vast universe.

There are many things we can legitimately pray, and one of those is the fear of being different.  But let us also remember that, because God is in control, we really do not need to be afraid.  But if you are, pray.  If you are afraid of being different, pray.  If you are worried people will reject you because you are different, pray.  When you are afraid, pray.  In all things, pray!

Monday, September 21, 2015

September 20, 2015 Judge Not

September 20, 2015
Matthew 7:1-5

Watch the following video, and notice that you will make some judgments that are not correct
https://youtu.be/lzrP1DNd0L0 (Hilarious Church Invitation)

It’s okay to admit to yourself that you probably made a few incorrect judgments as you watched that video.  It reminds us of the dangers of making judgments about other people.

If you were to ask people inside the church to quote a verse of Scripture, you would probably get one of two responses.  Can you guess what they might be?  The top choices would probably be John 3:16, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life, or John 11:35, Jesus wept.  John 3:16 is a verse we all memorized at some point in life, most likely in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School, and John 11:35 is one we learned because of its brevity.

If you were to ask people outside of the church to quote a verse of Scripture, what do you think it would be?  Most likely, it would be Matthew 7:1 – Do not judge.  There is, of course, more to that verse than just those three words.  The remainder of the verse is an important qualification – (do not judge) so that you will not be judged.

Jesus tells us not to judge, but we all do it anyway.  In fact, judgment seems to be the default position of the human condition.  It’s almost as though we can’t avoid making judgments and being judgmental.  It is often our gut instinct, our knee-jerk reaction.  It fills social media and nobody wants to read comments on web pages because of the harsh judgments that our levied there.

This morning’s message is Judge Not, and it is taken from Matthew 7:1-5 –

1 Do not judge so that you will not be judged.
For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.
Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, 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 brother’s eye.

Among the important lessons in this passage are –

Some judgment is good.

We make judgments every day, and not all judgements are wrong.  In fact, we often speak positively of people who exercise good judgment.  That person demonstrated good judgment, we will say.  Or, we might say that person is a good judge of character.  In those instances, we understand that judgment is not a negative, but a positive, aspect of life.  Used in this way, then, judgment might best be defined as discernment. 

Discernment is defined in several ways, but perhaps most importantly it refers to the ability to choose wisely between several options in life.  It is not always clear, for instance, how one should decide in regards to a vocational choice in life, but a person gifted with discernment is one who can ask the right questions and make a choice that demonstrates good judgment when it comes to such an important decision.

Over my years of ministry, I’ve been asked countless times the question how do I know God’s will for my life?  When they ask that question, they never ask it in terms of morality; it is always asked in relation to what vocation they should choose, who they should marry, or whether or not they should accept a particular job offer.  I can’t answer those questions for people.  To answer those questions, people must use good judgment – discernment – to find an answer.  They must ask themselves questions and utilize prayer as a way of discerning what is the direction for them to choose.  I wish God answered those kinds of questions with words blazened across the sky, but he has never done that for me, but what God does is place people in our lives who can help us discern his will and he can, through prayer, lead us to make a good decision.

Judgment is wrong when we seek to decide who is righteous or unrighteous and who is acceptable and who is unacceptable to God.

While we might wish to be described as people of good judgment we would all bristle at a description of being a judgmental person.

The kind of judgment Jesus was speaking about was most often reflected in his oft-used target – the Pharisees.  The Pharisees began as a movement to reclaim a sense of devotion and personal righteousness in one’s daily life.  It was, certainly, a very laudable attitude on which to found a movement, but it was not long before it devolved into a caricature of their lofty ideal, and they soon came too reflect an attitude of harsh and unyielding judgmentalism.  Most people turned away from the Pharisees, believe they were far too harsh in their attitudes toward, and treatment of, other people. 

There are, unfortunately, plenty of such people around today, and it’s a sign of how judgmental religious people are viewed to be that Pope Francis made worldwide headlines simply for saying who am I to judge?  That kind of attitude should not be a surprise, and it certainly should be common enough that it doesn’t make worldwide headlines when a religious leader demonstates a non-judgmental spirit.  The pope was, after all, only reflecting what Paul writes in I Corinthians 5:12 – What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Isn’t that an interesting verse, and one that is very much overlooked.

But, to some extent, judgmentalism is reflected in all all us, at some point, whether religious or not, so I should note that a judgmental spirit is certainly not confined to religious people.  As people of faith, we are sometimes as seen – without good reason – as being intolerant and bigoted, and we are sometimes lampponed with what is little more than a caricature or cartoonish version of what it means to be religious.  I get some interesting reactions from people simply because I’m a minister, and some of the reactions are very judgmental and assume things about me that are simply not true.

Judging others makes us blind to ourselves and our own failures.

Humanity has an amazing capacity at self-delusion.  Generally speaking, we are not always self-aware.  When Tanya and I were traveling back in May, we were on a train that was traveling from Holy Head, Wales to London.  At one stop, in northern England, a group of six or seven 30-somethings boarded the train and sat with us.  They were on their way to the horse races at Chester, England, so they were very interested to know we lived between Louisville and Lexington, and they were very familiar with both Churchill Downs and Keeneland.  One of the young ladies remarked that she loved listening to our accents, so I told her that she would love visiting America, as we very much enjoy listening to a British accent.  She had a very pronounced British accent, but looked at me rather quizzicly and said, I don’t have an accent.  We were speaking the same language, and I’m of British descent so I should have been able to easily understand her, but I almost needed subtitles!

By judging others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.

John 8:1-11 contains the classic story of the woman caught in adultery.  In verse 11, Jesus tells the woman go now and leave your life of sin.  It’s a fairly simple pronouncement, and could, actually, be said to every person, as sinfulness is the reality of every person.  I think that verse bothers some people, as they believe it lets people “off the hook” for what they have done.

The real tragedy of a judgmental attitude comes into view when we make a judgment about someone without knowledge of their true character or their circumstances in life.  It is making an assumption about someone when you might not have the full story or enough information to make such an assumption.

Years ago, when I was doing youth work, we had a young man who was very good at reaching out to young people in difficult circumstances.  He befriended a young man who was in his later high school years and was living alone.  For various, and sad, reasons, his parents were not in the home and the young man was trying to take care of himself.  He was working in a fast-food restaurant and trying to keep up with his studies at school, but obviously, was struggling under the circumstances.  The young man in our youth group managed to get him to come to our youth meetings a couple of times and then convinced him to come to church on a Sunday morning.  Because of his circumstances, the young man didn’t have nice clothes to wear, so he wore what was available to him – a pair of tattered blue jeans and a T-shirt.  As he walked into the sanctuary, he nervously walked down the aisle to find a seat.  As he passed by one of the pews, a member of the church looked him over and then said, rather disdainfully, well, look what the cat dragged in.  The person did not approve of his appearance, and thankfully, the young man did not appear to hear the other person’s comments. 

But I heard them, and it made me both sad and angry.  The person had no comprehension of this young man’s circumstances or of the content of his character.  He was doing the best he could, and under the circumstances, he was doing pretty well.

I am grateful that God does not judge us in such a way.  While we can be so hard on one another, God judges us with mercy, grace, and love.  Thank God for his mercy!