Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon for July 13, 2014

Laws for Living: #3 Peace with Others

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:1-6)

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ~e.e. cummings

Jake’s emotional outburst was legendary. Infamous. Seven years after that fateful meeting when Jake’s temper spewed the hot ash of anger, seven years after Jake had left the church, seven years after the congregation’s minister had also resigned and moved far away, members of the church still talked about Jake’s roaring, vulcanian tantrum.

The members of this established, oldline church tiptoed around conflict in the weeks leading up to Jake’s explosion. The congregational temperature rose due to a number of issues including financial pressure and shrinking membership, the grief of impermanence and no place to vent worry. Blame increased. Some people faulted the long-tenured pastor, whom several members thought had stayed past his usefulness. While some devotees united around the minister, another group called for his retirement. The factions kept their anxiety just under the boiling point until Jake erupted on that critical meeting night. After Jake’s emotional explosion, the church could no longer manage the heat of conflict.

Seven years later, I met Jake at a denominational event. He was confident and approachable. We hit it off over dinner. Finding an opening to hear his version of the story, I asked him, cautiously, what happened at that meeting. With evaporating poise, gazing down at the floor, hands folded in front of him, he said,   “That was a terrible night. There’s no doubt about it. I lost my temper. I know everyone blames me for what went wrong at the church. But do you know what I wish? I wish just one person would have called to see if everything was alright.  No one ever talked me after that. No one ever reached out to see if I was OK. If they had, I would have told them about how I came home from work that night, right before leaving for the church meeting, and my wife told me she wanted a divorce. I was so upset. So angry and confused. I went to church that night even though my world had turned upside down. Looking back, I shouldn’t have gone to the meeting. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I’m sorry. But still, I wish someone had bothered to ask.”

When people act badly, I try to remember Jake’s story. We don’t often know what happened during someone’s day before we see them. One person could be having a lovely day while another may be feeling terrible. When someone snaps at me, I tend to take it personally. I may choose to be offended. I can also choose to marginalize or disparage the person by whom I fee attacked. I can criticize. I can gossip. I can fault. I can judge. Or, I can choose another reaction. I can choose not to take it personally.

I can choose to follow the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge. Take the log out of your own eye before you examine the speck in someone else’s.” It sounds straight forward to me.

We tend to think that Jesus is talking about the self-righteous kind of judgment – those opinions of ourselves that put us in a one-up position over another. There’s another kind of judgment I want to talk about today. It’s what happens when you look at another person and judge the other to be more competent than you. What happens when you look around and others are always smarter, faster, thinner, wealthier, happier, nicer, luckier and more talented than you?  It’s a double judgment, really.

The first judgy thing you are doing is comparing yourself to another person – haunted by the specter of self-judgment. The second piece, however, is that you are really making assumptions about the other. You are deciding for yourself that the other person must have it better than you – the other person is better than you.

Have you ever delighted in the downfall of someone whom you perceive as better than you? Have you ever been in rivalry with another person, but the other person has no idea?  Psychologists have a world to describe this phenomenon:  projection.  Projection involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might start believing that she or he does not like you. Projection is an unconscious fantasy that we are able to rid ourselves of some part of our thinking by splitting it off and putting it outside ourselves, usually into somebody else. 

In church language, we have another word for this behavior: Envy. Envy is a feeling of unhappiness at the blessing and fortune of others. It’s a projection of an idealized fantasy. In others words, instead of dealing with my own unhappiness, I make up a story about how great the life of another person is, convince myself to believe it, and then resent the person I made up the story about. Instead of taking responsibility for my unhappiness, I make up a reason why someone else is responsible for making me unhappy. In the words of one ancient theologian, envy is sorrow for another’s good. It’s the painful and often resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by someone else. Envy and rivalry are poison to true community. When envy takes root, we are constantly on edge, competing with each other and throwing elbows over the smallest advantage.

So, when Jesus says, “Do not judge others or you to will be judged,” the intent may be deeper than just confronting our tendency to look down on others. J.B. Phillips paraphrases Matthew 7:1 like this: "Don't criticize people, and you will not be criticized." In The Message, Eugene H. Peterson paraphrases it, "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults -- unless, of course, you want the same treatment."

The English theological and scholar John Stott prefers the word censoriousness. It means, “marked by or given to censure;” not  an objective, discerning judgment, but the harshness of one who is a fault-finder, a blamer, one who puts the worst possible interpretation on the motivations of others.

Part of the problem with envy and judgment, with projection and censoriousness, is that they are based on false perceptions. Whatever we are thinking about another person is probably not true. We don’t know what pains the other person bears. We don’t really know how another person is doing behind the veneer of success. We don’t know what that person faced before he came into a meeting and exploded unexpectedly.

And yet, many of us have a tendency to compare ourselves with others—over and over again. Demoralizing and useless as it is, we keep doing it. 

Think about it. What does your status, your value, your worth have to do with anyone else’s?  What does the size of my body have to do with anyone else’s?  How is my self worth any different if I say it should be equal to or greater than someone else’s?  Comparing myself to others does not change a thing about me in reality. I am what I am. Right now.  And that’s the reality.  Or, as one anonymous commentator said, “Why compare yourself with others? No one in the entire world can do a better job of being you than you.”

What might happen if we stop mentally assessing our worth by comparing it to others?

What might happen if we can make peace with others by making peace with ourselves?

Here is your homework, if you choose to accept it. It’s called “Flip the Focus.” The next time you find yourself being judgmental, envious, or censorious, identify something positive that you have —a trait, a possession, a relationship, a value— something that you can feel good about. It has nothing to do with any other person.  We are done comparing ourselves with others, so this so there’s no need to try to ‘one up’ someone else in your mind.

For example, the next time I wish I had a big vacation house on the shore, I can flip the focus and remember: I may not have a vacation house, but I do have a loving family to share my time with.

If I find myself comparing my body to another person’s, I can flip my focus and remind myself of how well my body has served me all these years.  And I can remind myself of other positive traits—I’m a generous friend, a loving partner, a talented cook, and a funny person.

Let’s move away from devaluing ourselves and others. Choose to move away from feeling bad about yourself for not being like someone else. Flip your focus and remind yourself of all that you are instead of focusing on what you think you aren’t.

Over time, you will see a change. You will find yourself looking for the good in everyone, including yourself. Instead of always finding ways that we don’t measure up, you will find ways to celebrate the parts of you that make you unique.

It’s OK to be easy on yourself with this. We are all caught up in this problem together. But do you know what? As Christians, we are also caught up together in Jesus Christ.  We are caught up together by the Spirit, and together we can be set free.

I do not need to envy my neighbor’s success. I do not need to bring another down by judging her in my mind. I am not defined by the blessings of others. I am defined by the grace of God. I can make peace with others by refusing to measure myself by a false standard. I can resist the compulsive and relentless urge to compete with everyone under the sun (especially those who are called to do the same things that I am). I can put away malicious dreams about the downfall and failure of others by savoring the sure knowledge that God is lavish in grace and that she has promised to graciously, freely, and abundantly give to me, and to them, God’s all-consuming love.


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