Do Not Judge—A Sermon from Luke 6:35-42

Do not judgeI told somebody this past week that the sermon for today could really only last a few seconds. Don’t get your hopes up, it’s going to be longer than that, but it seems like I should be able to just say something like, “Jesus says, ‘Do not judge.’  So, stop doing it. Amen, let’s stand and sing.”

It’s not as though the command is unfamiliar to us.  The text we’re dealing with is in Luke 6:35-42.

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” And he also told them this parable:  ” Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will not they both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

It’s one of the most popular passages in the Christian Bible, well known among Christians and nonbelievers alike.  In fact, I don’t know if there is any Christian ethic as respected by the outside world as “Do not judge.”  Of course, the world is also acutely aware of our failure in following this command, and knows that while Jesus tells us not to judge, we are quite practiced in the art.  Unfortunately, it comes quite easily to us.

Judgement against our friends, family, neighbors and strangers simmers deep within our hearts.  Occasionally it might pop out as gossip or a sharp word, but we try to police ourselves about that, because we know it sounds bad.  We don’t want to be known as judgmental people, but truthfully, even when we don’t actually say what we’re thinking, it is just so easy to harbor our verdicts, the bitter condemnations of people around us, deep in our hearts.  We don’t want to judge.  We know we’re not supposed to, but it just comes so easily to us.

One of the problems here is that we try to avoid judgmental behaviors without really working on judgmental attitudes. We try to catch that stuff before it gets out of our mouths, but really, by the time we get to that place we’ve really already lost the battle.  The mouth is just speaking out of the abundance of the heart, and it’s the fact that all that condemnation is in our heart that is really the issue.  Our morality begins with our identity, or at least our understanding of our identity.  The way we understand ourselves controls the way we interact with other people and perceive them in powerful ways.  That said, there are two significant things I have come to understand about myself that, the more I internalize them, the more they help me escape my tendency to judge.   I want to share and confess here in the hopes that they can help you out as well.

1.  I am not God. I know, it’s a shocker. But, seriously, it’s helpful for me to get in touch with the fact that I am not the sovereign lord of the universe. I believe people are accountable for the good and evil things they do in the world—but most of them aren’t accountable to me. I didn’t create anybody, and I’m not supremely powerful.  Beyond that, my failure to be God also means that I have a limited amount of knowledge and insight into people.  I don’t understand the whole of anybody’s situation, don’t understand the different things in people’s backgrounds that make them act the way they do.  I don’t even understand why I do half the stuff I do, much less what’s going on in anybody else’s heart! So I will never the authority or information I need to pass judgment on anybody else.

2.  Not only am I not God, but I also know that I am not perfect. Far from it, in fact.  Most people I know can confirm this, but of course I know it more truly than anybody else could possibly suspect.  After all, they can’t see what’s inside my heart.  I am, like the rest of you, a broken human being, a person whose heart has been twisted by sin and who is powerless to recover except for the grace of God.

This is an important nuance to the world’s criticism of the church as being too judgmental.  It wants to believe everything is alright. It’s as if the world wants refuse our right to judge on the basis that everyone is basically equally good. But we refuse to judge on the opposite basis, because we know that everyone, including ourselves, is broken and sinful.

I know, that because I’m not God and I’m not perfect, that I need grace from God. I need the grace of forgiveness and the grace that God gives to change and purify me. Truthfully, I need all the grace I can get.  And that self-awareness really heightens the shock of this text for me. How I give grace to people around me can actually affect how God gives grace to me? Whoa. That is an absolutely stunning idea, and as it becomes more firmly lodged in my mind, it has the power to really shape the kinds of things I harbor in my heart towards other people.

Gratefully, though, I’m also aware that I receive grace from God! It’s not like I’m merely aware of my sin, awaiting some pending judgement and trying to butter God up before he makes his decision. I live in the joy and awareness that God has already acted decisively to extend grace to me.

Many of us live fairly aware of those two things, our need for grace and how we receive it.  But, we stop there, not realizing that those who need and receive grace from God are also called to learn grace from God. I want God to teach me how to treat others like Jesus treats me.

For our community of faith, that really is the critical turn. So much of our worship and conversation revolves around what we need and receive, and how valuable it is to us.  But how much value do we place on what we are called to become?  How much do we value a gracious spirit? May God help us to honor those among us who cultivate that spirit, who become people of heroic forgiveness, who turn back any effort to condemn others from taking root in their own hearts.  May we value those who work hard to become merciful, just as our father is merciful, and may we become a place of grace for those who—like us—need to receive it.

Amen.

(This is part three of a series on the Sermon on the Plain. A list of the sermons and the audio recordings are here.)

Powerless Preacher, Powerful Word

I think every preacher worth more than his salt has a memory chest full of moments like mine from this past Sunday.  It had been a tight week, the sermon had puzzled me all week, and when it was finally together, I wasn’t particularly pleased with it. I never really came to a sermon structure I particularly liked, and the sermon teetered between being too simplistic and useless and overly dramatic and bullyish. It was a tricky sermon to get out, partly because the text (Luke 6:27-36) is so raw that it seemed to be defying me to do anything but read it slowly.  It didn’t want to be massaged or tweaked, it just wanted me to listen to it.

Anyway, whatever the cases for my unease, I just didn’t feel like I had my A-game that day.  I just wasn’t feeling great about what I had put together.

But nonetheless, people were, in that instance still able to hear the Word of God in the sermon moment.  I felt like I was at my least effective moment, but the effect of the word was clearly felt by many in the church.

Look, count me among the people that gets a little gagged when I hear things like “God really showed up!” when we talk about stuff like this.  I usually don’t like it because it feels really trite and cutesy.  I’m not a robot, but I just don’t like that kind of emotional stuff.  It’s probably because I really value intentionality and control.

But this past week was one in which I really did feel as though the power of the word of God was functioning in a powerful way in our community, regardless of my performance.  For someone that flirts with hubris, that’s a good thing.  (I have a website with my name in the domain, people.  I’m more vain than I should be. If I didn’t realize I had arrogance issues, that would be an issue.) It’s a good thing to realize that preaching, even when I am practicing my craft well, isn’t really about how well I perform.  Preaching is about how honest I am with the word, and how well people hear the word. So, this week I want to do the best I can, but I know that the best part of the sermon won’t be some cute saying I made up with or any smoking hot exegesis.  It’ll be in the moments with the Word, when we simply listen together to the Word.

That’s where the power is.  That’s where the power has always been.

The Destructive Mentalities of a Disengaged Church

In this series of posts, I’ve been writing about the concept of church mentalities, and particularly the sorts of mentalities that need to be developed if the church is to be meaningfully engaged with the local community. As painful as it may be, we must recognize that we aren’t developing those mentalities in anything like a vacuum.  There is no truly clean slate.   Rather, we are simultaneously developing one set of mentalities while working to counter destructive mentalities already exerting influence.  Mentalities destructive to the church’s purposes are often thoroughly entrenched within the church for a variety of reasons in the personal histories of church members.  Any of the potential purposes the Church might take on faces this process of reconstructing the proper mentalities, but here I’m specifically interested in our particular purpose of engagement with the surrounding community and its problems, and what mentalities potentially exist that would be counterproductive to that purpose. Below is my initial list of these potential destructive mentalities that threaten to keep churches disengaged. Truthfully, some of them are foils, but I think others ring true and are closer to home than I like to admit.

1. Service is a painful discipline. You just have to suffer through it, and force yourself to get it done. If it was fun, it wouldn’t be service.

2. We serve because we get something out of it.  Service is great for the high school kids’ college applications, our personal resumes, our social lives, and our reputations (particularly in the church). Not to mention the fact that God will someday reward us if we serve!

3. We have what we have because of our hard work. It is God’s way of blessing us for doing things the right way, so that we can enjoy the things he gives us.  We don’t owe anything to anybody, really.

4. Evangelism is about helping people obtain forgiveness. Conversion is infinitely more important than “discipleship”. The first steps of the Christian journey are by far the most important, because they involve accepting God’s forgiveness—if people are motionless after that, at least they won’t be going to hell.

5. We are a peaceful and stable church. This is how we’ve grown! When we take new initiatives, we threaten what we’ve spent years building, and threaten the very peace which brought people to our church in the first place.

6. The church is primarily interested in saving souls. Everything else we might do is a vehicle towards that end. We can judge our success by the number of conversions, and if we don’t see many of those, that we can at least hope that we have planted the seed of the gospel in their mind so that it will eventually bear fruit.

7. Service is a special gift of some christians. It’s great that god has given some people such servant hearts.  It’s the job of the rest of the church to encourage and support those people.

8. We want to support our people in service. The best (or only) candidate for a partner is the one who thinks like we do, talks like we do, and practices like we do.

9. Most people’s problems are a result of their own sin. If they hadn’t made some bad decisions, they wouldn’t need our help.  In fact, most people asking for help are probably abusing the system. They’ll probably go to hell even more because of that.

10. Commonality leads to friendship. Our best friends are people with whom I have common interests, common ideas, and a similar background. In fact, we’ve probably already been friends for a while.

11. It’s us against the world. The world is full of so much corruption that it’s better to isolate ourselves from it, and make sure not to associate ourselves with evil of any kind.

In some ways these might stand as opposites of the mentalities that encourage community engagement, so that they constitute poles on the opposite side of a spectrum. Alternatively, we might understand these mentalities as threads within the tapestry that makes up our mindsets as individuals and as a group with a corporate identity. Within that tapestry are threads of many different hues, some of which are brighter, some are darker.  In other words, some of these darker threads might exists alongside lighter threads, and it is a blending of light and dark threads of many colors that influences our thoughts, actions, feelings, and words in particular moments and over time. Part of our work in creating a good “working” tapestry is developing positive mentalities, in other words, weaving lighter strands into the fabric.  On the other hand, there may be darker threads that need to be pulled, removed from the tapestry.

I suspect these destructive mentalities might be more controversial than the positive set.  I’m not sure I even agree with how negative a couple of them are. I would very much welcome your comments, whether in agreement or civil dissent.  Help me think.

The Other Beatitudes—A Sermon from Luke 6:20-26

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  Unfortunately, if I got up this morning and started reading, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who [yawn] mourn, for they will be…”, it wouldn’t be long before I’d see your eyes glaze over, and we’d have to have a coffee break for everybody to stay awake for the rest of the sermon.

Everybody knows the sermon on the mount.  It is familiar, beautiful, and powerful.  It is full of language that is burned into our conscious consciences, a part of our ethical core as disciples.  And it should be well known!  It is, after all, the living and powerful word of God! It deserves a place in our ethical core!  But unfortunately, like is often the case, familiarity breeds contempt. In our familiarity with the Sermon on the mount, we have lost something of our ability to really listen to what it really says.

But, what if the sermon on the mount had a little brother?  I have a couple of little brothers.  They’re both tough as nails.  They don’t mess around much, say what they mean and mean what they say.  To top it off, they’re stubborn as all get out.  If you can get that mental image in your head—the little brother, fists up, ready to get nasty if need be—I’d like to introduce you to the little brother of the sermon on the mount.  It’s name is “the Sermon on the Plain”, and it waits for us in the middle of Luke 6. (The sermon doesn’t even get its own chapter!  It shows up here just after Jesus has named his twelve apostles.  It almost seems to function as their introduction into what being a disciple of Jesus is really going to be about.)

The Sermon on the Plain is really a distilled version of the sermon on the mount.  They have a lot in common, but the sermon on the plain is shorter, tougher, punchier.  Maybe it’s just because it is less familiar that it feels a little more stubborn and unrelenting than its big brother does.  But instead of talking about it too much in generalities, let me show you what I mean, and let’s read a little bit of it together.  It starts out with a set of beatitudes, just like the sermon in Matthew.  They read a little bit differently, though.  We’ll start in Luke 6:20. These are the “other beatitudes’.

And He lifted his eyes to his disciples and said, “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry now, because you will be filled.  Blessed are those who are crying now, because you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you and when they exclude you and insult you and throw out your name as something evil because of the son of man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy! Because, listen—your reward in heaven will be greater, because their ancestors did the same sorts of things to the prophets.

On the other hand, [this might be a good time to pull your toes in] cursed are you who are rich, because you have received every bit of your comfort. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will go hungry. Cursed are you who laugh now, because you will mourn and cry. Cursed are you when everyone says good things about you; because that’s how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

I find these “other beatitudes” to be intense, raw, and inescapable. I look into them, and I easily see myself.  Unfortunately, I see myself on the wrong side, not among those who are blessed, but among the cursed.  Jesus paints two pictures.  One is of a group of people who are poor, hungry, saddened.  They are outsiders, and everyone talks and thinks badly of them. Jesus looks at that group and says—you are blessed! In his eyes, they’re the lucky ones!

and then there is another group.  They are rich.  They have full bellies.  They are happy and laughing, and everybody likes them because they’re easy to get along with.  Doggone it, that’s a pretty good picture of just the kind of guy I’ve wanted to become my whole life.  Isn’t that just a cup of cold water to the face?  The very kind of person I’ve spent my whole life—Jesus says they’re cursed.  He looks at them and says, “Man.  Gotta feel sorry for you guys.”

This set of beatitudes says that in Jesus’ eyes, the reality of the world is the opposite of everything I’ve ever known.  He takes all my assumptions about the world, and politely blows them to pieces.

Anybody else bothered by that?

If we’re really reading it, we’re bothered by it.  It’s so unrelenting and demanding.  It’s so physical that it won’t let me spiritualize it and shoo it away.  no “poor in spirit” here.  It’s the poor that are blessed.  No hungering for righteousness in this sermon, only the really physical feeling of hunger that comes from not having enough food to eat.

Faced with such a demanding text, I think two options present themselves.  “Option 1” is that we take these simple sayings and tease them out, dissect them down, gradually interpreting them in ways that dull their sting a little bit.  In option 1, we interpret them away, and I have to admit that this is a pretty compelling path.  I would love to do that, to employ whatever sophisticated exegesis and interpretation methods might promise to soften the blow a bit.  I wish I could take these things that Jesus says and turn them into what I think he should say.  I would love to somehow transform these beatitudes and woes into something interesting.  But they aren’t that, are they?  Not on their own.  This text isn’t interesting—its dangerous.  It is sharply critical of my vision of my very life.

Option 1 is to interpret them away.  In Option 2, we let them interpret us. What if we could let these words diagnose us?  What if I could let them shape me into the kind of person that Jesus admires? What if I could let them really challenge my idea of what the good life is really all about, and provoke me into letting Jesus teach me about his way of life, his vision of life.

This week, sometime when you’re by yourself in front of a mirror, I want to ask you to take a few moments and let these other beatitudes challenge you with a couple of questions.  Stop and look, literally, into your own eyes and ask yourself a few questions.

First, “Who am I becoming?” What kinds of things characterize who you are, both inside and out.  What dominates your life?.

Second, and more interesting, “Who gets to decide who I am becoming?” Looking at where you’re headed is a good start, but for people who claim to be disciples of Jesus, a more basic question is whether or not we are really letting him determine the vision for our lives.  The guy who said these beatitudes is really painting a radical vision, but am I willing to let that vision really affect me.  Drive me?

Finally, “What about everybody else?” It’s not just about me. These beatitudes not only change the way I see myself, but the way I look at almost everyone I see.  People aren’t good or bad, lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed in the same ways I normally think about it.  My ideas of status and value just don’t hold up in the face of these beatitudes.  But, it’s not my ideas of value that really matter anyway.  It’s what Jesus values that really matters.  After all, he is the master.  I am the student.

I’ve got a lot to learn.

(Audio version here: The Plain Beatitudes. This is part one of this series.)

Sermon on the Plain—Cedar Lane Edition

This past Sunday’s sermon was our introductory foray into the sermon on the plain, an extremely distilled dose of Jesus’ vision of what his disciples are like. Part of the challenge of this past week’s sermon was to get in a mirror, eyeball to eyeball with ourselves, and think about three questions:
1. Who am I becoming?
2. Who decides who I become?
3. How does Jesus’ message change the way I see other people?

I shot a little video of some Cedar lane folks reading through Jesus’ sermon on the plain, as a way of helping us hear it.  I want to invite you to settle in, hear these words, and spend some time meditating on those questions. May God bless the hearing of his word.

Mentalities for a Church Engaging the Community

In part one of this series, I talked about how complicated it can be to develop a particular set of mentalities within the church.  That’s not all that helpful without some concrete examples of what we mean by mentalities.

The church here at Cedar Lane (Tullahoma, TN) is working to become more engaged with the community, so here is a working set of mentalities that I’m teasing out as part of that transition.  They are not in any particular order yet.

1. We love to serve people. It’s not a burden to us, something we do reluctantly out of guilt.  We find joy in serving other people, and the more we do it, the more we love to do it.  We anticipate having a great time while we serve.

2. Service is a sacred duty. Although we could never repay the gift of Christ’s sacrifice, we receive his actions both as gift and lesson.  The cross is both the means and the purpose of our redemption, a binding path for us to follow if we are to honor our commitment as disciples of Jesus. The Lord bids us honor him by serving our neighbor.

3. Our lives are not our own. Everything that we are, do, and possess is conditioned by the Lordship of Jesus Christ over us. There is no question of convenience or desire.

4. Evangelism is the invitation to participate in the kingdom of God. This necessarily involves the invitation to serve. We don’t view ourselves as servants and others simply as recipients of our service, but everyone as having potential for service in the community.

5.  We are a “Servant” church. It is part of our corporate identity as a people.  Theologically, this is rooted in the idea that the church is the physical representation of Christ on earth today.  In as much as we recognize from scripture that Christ is “servant”, we work to fulfilling that identity in our body of believers.  It is part of who we are.

6.  Whenever we fight against darkness/brokenness, we fight with and for God. Darkness shows up in the world in thousands of different forms. Family failure, financial despair, emotional imbalance and the grief of life unfulfilled are all expressions of evil.  The mission of the church in the world is not just to get people to accept Jesus in order to gain forgiveness in preparation for their death.  Rather, the church exists to embody the God who works to restore and heal his broken creation.

7.  Everyone can serve. Everyone.  Absolutely everyone has a way of fighting darkness in the world.

8.  We want to help people help people. When we see someone taking initiative to push back against darkness somewhere, we don’t immediately suspect their motives, and we don’t jump into criticisms.  Our first reaction is to respect their initiative and passion.  What might they need in support?  Encouragement? Advice? Freedom or space?

9. We do not judge the people we serve. We recognize that before God we have our own problems, and our own sins.  We rely on the forgiveness of God, and are compelled to give what we expect to receive.  We relish opportunities to be gracious and merciful. We know we don’t occupy the high ground, we don’t have a status that allows us to stand in judgement over other people.

10. Service leads to friendship. Our normal thinking about status—that we are superior to others—is an illusion that stands as a fundamental barrier to relationships.  When we serve, he voluntarily dispel that illusion, and open up the possibilities for new relationships. We also deepen the friendships with the people we serve with, so that all the friendships of the church are built upon the identity of service and the practices of service.

11. We want to be great neighbors. Our church is planted within a particular community, and God calls us to be good neighbors to that community.  We are a part of our community, and don’t exist in isolation from the community and its problems.  Jesus teaches us how to be good neighbors, how to interact with the people with whom we share our city.

There’s my initial list.  I hope it’s useful in defining what I mean by strategic “mentalities”.  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below regarding what kinds of mentalities might additionally be helpful in making our transition, as well as how the ones I’ve listed strike you.  How present do you think these mentalities are? Are they sound theologically?

The next post in this series will address common destructive mentalities. I’d welcome comments ahead of that post as well!