Sermon on Matthew 7:1-6 for Lent 3 A, March 16, 2014
“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? 5 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.
Once, Michelle and I were invited over to another couple’s home for dinner. When we walked in we both noticed a brown blotch on the dining room wall at about at eye level. It looked like a coffee cup had been thrown. The atmosphere between the host couple was icy. We could tell that it was not going to be a fun time.
We have all had that experience of being in a place in which the relationships have become toxic. It happens between couples, married or not, between siblings, in families, in organizations, in churches – in fact, no place where people gather is free from the danger of toxicity. When it happens, it sucks the oxygen out of the room. The joy is gone. People turn to all kinds of coping strategies that range from pathetic and immature to down right destructive and harmful.
There is an Alternative
It does not have to be that way. There is another way to be. Even toxic relationships can be healed and transformed. It is easy. But it is hard. It is easy to know what needs to be done. It is hard to do it.
This teaching of Jesus that we have read is about how to have relationships that do not become toxic. Why is it here? Jesus is not a marriage and family therapist nor an organizational consultant. But here, in the Sermon on the Mount, the first major set of teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is laying the groundwork for his new community.
We have noticed how Jesus is being presented to us by Matthew as the new Moses, teaching from the new mountain the new Torah. Think about it for a moment: what was the occasion when Moses went up Mt. Sinai and came down with the tablets of Torah? It was the exodus from slavery to freedom. That was the formative event for the people of God, the Israelites.
Moses was forming a new community with a new identity. The Torah told them how they were to live together as a community bound together by covenant.
Now, Jesus is forming a renewed community, bound together by a new covenant, and giving us instructions about how to live together. This new community is supposed to be a radically alternative to the way humans often function together. Instead of power and wealth, this community values meekness and poverty of spirit. It values peacemaking over tactics, games and strategies. It values purity of heart over devious schemes and duplicity. This is supposed to be a healthy and health-giving, community; a joy and pleasure to be a part of.
So what is to keep it from becoming just another toxic group of frustrated, angry, bitter people? This teaching is how. We can sum it up easily: don’t be judgmental, and be hard on yourself before you find fault in others.
The Problem of High Ideals
But it starts with a big problem. A community that has high ideals and high standards like ours is even more vulnerable to becoming toxic, precisely because of its high standards. We know what kind of life is congratulated as “blessed” and what kind is not. A high-standards community is uniquely vulnerable to becoming a judgmental community as we hold one another accountable to those high standards.
We in the church have to face this squarely. Most of the world that surrounds us believes that we are experts in being judgmental. We have a well-earned reputation. We have, in the past, made people wear scarlet letters. We have shamed people. We have, for example, looked down our noses at tattoos and body piercings, as if they were signs of inner darkness, and we have been blind to our own pettiness and arrogance.
So, this is going to be a difficult one for us to handle. Our own high standards make being judgmental feel appropriate, like we are holding the moral high ground.
The Key: Holding Ourselves to the Standard
The key, according to Jesus, is that our high standards should be the standards we hold ourselves to. Our attitude towards others has to be tolerance and forgiveness, as Jesus has already taught.
Every time we feel the urge to wag the finger we should remember what they told us as children: at least three other fingers point back at ourselves.
People of the Log
When I was in seminary we were having a discussion, probably theological, I do not recall, but at one point my friend said you me, “You really like to argue.” I said immediately, “No I don’t!” I wanted to argue with him about it. He was a counseling major so he knew what to say when people were being ridiculous, so he told me, “You may wish to check out that perception.” In other words: “wrong!” What was obvious to him and probably everybody, I was blind to.
It happens all the time. This is part of what being married is for. Michelle tells me I don’t open doors normally, I burst into a room – I never knew that about myself. She tells me often that my tone of voice is too sharp. It doesn’t feel sharp to me. She tells me I look angry sometimes – to me, concern of all kinds makes me frown. I talk too fast – but it doesn’t feel fast to me. This list could go on and on.
We are all like this; we are simply unaware of aspects of ourselves that are blatantly obvious to everyone else.
And, we are experts at finding flaws in other people. We people of high personal standards are better at holding other people to those standards than holding ourselves to them. And so, we judge people. We criticize, we complain to other people, we fire off sharp emails, we punish with stony silence or glares or sharp retorts, or leaving, or worse. And our relationships become poisoned and toxic.
It does not have to be this way. We can have healthy relationships. We can have health-giving relationships which are a joy and source of life to us.
It starts with the person in the mirror. We are the ones required to turn off the judgmentalism. We are the ones required to take the log out, because it is in our eye.
Starting with the Self
But it hurts because this is all about ego; it is all about our pride. It is all about our need to be right and to prove to everyone that we are right. This is what Richard Rohr calls our false self, or our small self.
The false self wants to look good. It wants to win. It gets all ego-invested in its own ideas so that it becomes protective and defensive. Alternative points of view are threatening. The small self sees the world dualistically, as either-or, black or white, all or nothing, win or lose. There can be no compromise, no gray areas, no ambiguity or uncertainty. It has to hold the moral high ground. The judgmental person is operating out of this false self.
This is how we all started. This is characteristic of what is supposed to be, as Rohr says, first half of life issues. But we are supposed to grow out of the false self in the second half of life. The true self is who we are in God – beloved, precious, forgiven, found, non-dual.
The Two Paths to the Second Half of Life
So how do we get from false self to true self? What pushes us from judgmentalism to open-heartedness? What helps us go from the dualistic first half of life to the non-dual second half of life? Rohr is right, I believe, to suggest that there are only two means: suffering and contemplative practices.
We will all suffer. That is a given. That is what it means to be a mortal human being. All of us have experienced suffering, and all of us will. For many, the suffering will become our teacher. We will learn what is important and what is ephemeral; what is of lasting significance and what is the thin veneer. We will learn to see the ego for the small sham that it is, and let go of its petty pretensions.
The other path to the second half of life is the path of contemplation. This gets us back to the theme of Christian spiritual practices. In contemplative or centering prayer, we are silent.
In silence, we say no to the constant chattering of our internal monologue. We take a break from the continual judgments we make as we narrate our experience to ourselves – telling ourselves why we like this color and not that one, or how this driver is bad or how that facial expression was meant to hurt us. We turn off the ego-centered voice, and put in its place a sacred word that anchors us in the present moment, non-judgmentally, letting it be just as it is.
I can tell you that this practice of silent, contemplative prayer has had an effect on me. I can tell you also that Michelle wishes it to be much quicker and more effective – transformation takes time. I have a long way to go, but I can tell it is working. Now when I hear her tell me that my tone was sharp, I am sometimes able to listen and consider it, whereas before, I simply “knew” she was mistaken. I cannot see the log in my own eye, but I can slowly become open to learning that it is there.
Jesus is forming us as a new community. A non-toxic community. In fact a healthy and health-giving community. It is a community of high standards. It knows what is holy and sacred, and protects its values from being cast aside and trampled.
But the members of this community know how to hold ourselves accountable to our high standards without being judgmental and fault-finding of others. We know how to forgive, and we do it, even seventy times seven if needed.
We daily grow and mature in faith by taking time for daily spiritual practices like silent contemplation. The world is not used to us being this kind of community, but is desperate for us to be so. It needs us to be this kind of community as much as it needs salt and light. For if we become toxic, is there any hope?