I once heard a pastor describe another pastor’s sermon this way: “It was nothing but one darned illustration after another hung loosely on a clothesline of thin theology.”
Well, this sermon has a lot of illustrations, but the clothesline upon which they are hung is today’s second reading from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Let’s begin with one of the illustrations.
A Rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest were sitting next to each other at an inter-faith event. When dinner was served someone thoughtlessly had placed a slab of ham on the rabbi’s plate. The rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other things as his faith and physician permitted. The Roman Catholic priest leaned over in the direction of the Rabbi and said, “Rabbi Cohen, you and I know that the dietary laws from the Old Testament were developed at a time when pork was indeed dangerous due to lack of refrigeration and low heat in cooking.” He went on. “Of course trichinosis was rampant and your ancestors in the faith were right in prohibiting eating pork in order to save the lives of many Israelites. Those days are gone, pork is safe, and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you eat your first mouthful of ham, Rabbi Cohen?” The rabbi paused briefly and then responded, “At your wedding, Father Maguire. At your wedding.”
If St. Paul were living today and writing his letter to the Romans he would start with that illustration. Paul was dealing with folks who were being judgmental of others. Those who insisted on fasting as a religious ritual looked down on those who felt that God had liberated them from all that. Conversely, those who ate what they pleased looked down their noses at those who practiced fasting. Those who set aside particular traditional days as holy days thought that those who didn’t were insufficiently pious. Those who held the conviction that every day was to be set aside for prayer and praise made fun of the others as being stick-in-the-mud fuddy-duddys. And so, in frustration, Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?
At first glance it would seem as if our readings today were all about forgiveness. The lesson from Genesis tells the story of Joseph’s brothers who asked and received forgiveness for selling him into slavery. The gospel deals with a parable of a king who forgave a servant his debt only to find that the servant refused forgiveness to a fellow servant. The hymn that we are about to sing after the sermon today is about forgiveness.
But this sermon isn’t about forgiveness. It is about judging. Many times we judge others to have committed a sin or to have done something wrong when all they have done is behaved differently or spoken differently, or dressed differently, or had a different haircut. I know that, when I hear somebody speak with a West Virginia or Tennessee accent I begin to make judgments about that person. That’s a sin I must stop. They may be making assumptions about me when they hear me talk. What a nerd!
The old story is told of the man who got on the ocean liner and soon went to the purser. “I’d like to put my money in the ship’s safe,” he said. “I was just down to my stateroom and I think my shipmate looks suspicious.” The purser said, “I’ll be glad to put your money in the safe. Right alongside of your shipmate’s. He was here 10 minutes ago right after he met you.”
It is a just and good thing to forgive somebody for their sins, but when we forgive them for something that wasn’t a sin to begin with then all we have done is to commit the twin sins of pride and prejudice. Sometimes what looks like a sin may be something completely different. For instance, this past week I heard a CNN reporter attempting to describe people scrounging for food in Barbuda which was 95% completely flattened by Hurricane Irma. Barbuda is a sovereign nation. They don’t have a safety net like FEMA to rush in. People were without food and water. The camera showed was what once had been a grocery store. No walls were left standing. Only canned goods strewn about. People were rushing to help themselves. He began to describe them as looters, and then asked the camera the question, “How can you call it looting when all you are doing is finding food and water to save your family?” Our words influence other people. When others hear judgmental words we use, their opinion may become judgmental too.
When we see someone who does something we disapprove of we need to remember that there are three things we may not know. First of all, we may not know the background, what led up to the “sin.” Second, we probably don’t know the other options this person may have tried. Third, and most important, we don’t know what we ourselves would do in such a situation.
Words mean things. For instance, to call somebody an “illegal alien” conjures up an image which may or may not be just. First of all, people are not illegal. Their actions may be illegal. But people are not. “Aliens?” At best the word “alien” means “not like us” and at worst it means “somebody from Mars.” But when you use the word “Dreamers” to describe people who were brought here as children and are dreaming of a bright future, that conveys something completely different.
Sometimes well-intentioned judging is harmful, too. For instance, when we all gang up to over-welcome a person of color who is in worship with us we mean well, but what that communicates to that person is, “I see that you are different than we are. I have some presumptions about you.” I would commend you to our Sunday morning Adult Forum which is looking at how even progressive-minded churches like our own can see race in ways we may not realize – ways which are not always honest or helpful.
Let’s confess that often what we think we see isn’t really as it is. Our perceptions of right and wrong are so colored by our own cultures, traditions, biases, and prejudice. A young couple once moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor backing out of his driveway. “That car is not very clean,” she said. “He either needs to take it through the car wash!” Her husband looked on, but remained silent. Every time her neighbor would back out of his driveway, the young woman would say, “He still hasn’t washed his car!” About one month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean car back out of the garage and said to her husband: “Look, he finally got his car washed. I’ll bet his wife had to hound him to do it.” The husband said, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”
We need to clean our own windows and see people the way God sees them. There is some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us, but there is forgiveness for all of us. Once we have addressed our own judgmentalism we are called to come to the aid of those who are judged. Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play baseball in the major leagues. Breaking baseball’s color barrier, he faced hostile crowds in every stadium. While playing one day in his home stadium of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Robinson committed an error. The fans began to jeer him. He stood at second base, humiliated, while the crowd booed. Then, without saying a word, shortstop Pee Wee Reese went over and stood next to him. Reese put his arm around him and faced the crowd. Suddenly the fans grew quiet. Robinson later said that arm around his shoulder saved his career.
Let’s let St. Paul have the last word once again: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? … For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.