Sunday, February 10, 2019

Foundations: a sermon on Matthew 7

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Matthew 7.1-14, 24-29
10 February 2019, NL1-23

‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as 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 turn and tear you to pieces.
‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

I don’t know how many of you are watching The Greatest Dancer on BBC1 right now, but as I was watching last night, the first words of today’s reading kept running through my mind. “Don’t judge,” Jesus says. But the host of the show says to vote for my favourite, which requires judging which dancers I think are better than others—which are more talented, more hard-working, more entertaining, more evocative, more interesting to watch. And the ones who don’t get the votes...well, they take their crushed dreams home. And often I’m left on the sofa thinking judgmental thoughts about my neighbours who have clearly voted for the wrong people, because honestly at least one of the groups that stayed last night ought to have gone, and one of the ones that didn’t get enough votes really was very good and should have gotten another week. The very concept of these kinds of shows forces us to make some judgments, and invites us to make plenty of others.

Judgment is a common theme in our lives—we have to make judgment calls, decide between options, figure out what is best. We talk about being a good judge of character. We are also prone to making snap judgments, relying on shallow information and our own biases, and those may or may not be helpful. We hear young people say “don’t judge me” both seriously and as a joke, sometimes about things as simple as choosing to have nothing but chips for lunch or as complicated as a career choice or a romantic partner. And I think some people have relied on Jesus saying “do not judge” as a way to avoid the hard work of calling for justice, speaking against racism and sexism and homophobia, or holding each other accountable when we do things that hurt others.

I’m going to let you all in on something that should not be a secret. The Greek word that most of our Bibles translate as “judge” in this passage is actually best translated as “condemn.” And the word “condemn” has a very specific meaning relating to people’s place in relation to God. To condemn someone is to place them out of God’s grace, beyond the reach of God’s love, to say that they don’t deserve salvation.

That’s a drastically different thing than simply deciding which dancer is your favourite. 

Hopefully we are uncomfortable with the idea of claiming that anyone is beyond the reach of God’s matter who they are, or what they’ve done, or where they’ve been. 

Unfortunately that hasn’t always been the case. Throughout history we have often been quick to condemn. We’ve used words like “barbarian” or “savage” or “uncivilised” or “thug” or “animal” and then from there it was a short step to stealing people, their land, and their resources. Colonialism is based in this type of condemnation, placing others beyond the reach of grace. That continues subconsciously in white supremacy or in isolationist and nationalist policies that assume some of us are more worthy of existing than others. And even more insidiously, it has crept in to our social and economic life as well, with phrases like “deserving poor,” implying that there are some who are undeserving of compassion or assistance.

I will admit that this kind of condemnation can be tempting in some cases when people’s actions are particularly horrific, or when the special-circle-of-hell tweet was funny and captured the mood of a moment, but the reality that Jesus offers us is one in which God’s love is well beyond our control, even when we might wish it was more limited. And when we insist on trying to place our limits on God, we will find those limits often end up leaving us out. Not because God will let us go, but because our small vision affects our ability to live in God’s kingdom—the measure you use will be the measure you get.

There is an old adage that whenever we draw a line that creates an us-and-them, we will always find Jesus on the other side. That is not to say we can’t draw lines of right and wrong behaviour, or personal or communal boundaries, but if those boundaries even begin to imply that there are more categories than simply “human, made in the image of God,” or that some people deserve God’s love and some don’t, or that anyone is past the point of God’s redemption, then we are on the wrong side. And that limits our own experience of grace—until the measure we give is so small that it has shrivelled our spirits and we are less and less able to receive the full measure of God’s kingdom.

I am sure that no colonial powers have thought of themselves as participating in the starving of their own souls as they conquered and stole and dehumanised and pillaged the earth for their own gain. I’m sure that is still true, that those who even now engage in those practices, whether politically or militarily or economically, don’t think of it that way. But Jesus says that is what happens: when we place restrictions on God, on love and grace, on the reality of the divine image in every face, then we find ourselves the ones restricted in the end.

It’s a hard teaching, and it will take us a lot of practice! But when we try, Jesus says we are like people who build our houses on a strong foundation of rock rather than on shifting sand. Notice that he doesn’t say it is his teachings themselves that are the rock, nor even really that he is the rock—though that is a common biblical image for God. Instead he says that the one who puts these things into practice is the one who builds on a sturdy foundation. The foundation is the actions of faithful living, striving to act in accordance with Jesus’ word, practicing all the things he says, not simply hearing them.

We all know that hearing and acting upon are two different things. All the coaching in the world won’t help those people competing on the Greatest Dancer if they don’t also practice the things the coaches say. That is even more true when it comes to learning to be a disciple of Jesus. We can listen and read and study and pray and worship, but if we aren’t also trying to do the things God calls us to do, that Jesus shows us how to do, that the Spirit equips us to do, then our house of discipleship is built on sand.

The thing about construction is that it’s often a fair-weather activity. And the house built in the dry season will always appear to be fine. It’s only when the rain comes, the wind blows, the stream rises—only when trouble makes its way over the horizon, or when we realise how much we have lost by our small measure—that we know whether it’s watertight or not. The one who builds on sand is the one who didn’t do the hard work of digging deeper into God’s word and into himself. Without knowing God’s word, how can we put it into action? And without knowing ourselves, how can we faithfully live as the people God wants us to be? 

Jesus invites us to the full measure of grace, by spending our time in studying his word, in connecting to God, in praying for the kingdom to be seen on earth...and then doing everything in our power to ensure that the circle is wide, that all know the good news of God’s love, that the systems of this world don’t continue to oppress or condemn. 

In short, building our house on rock is a way of life where our actions and our words and our prayers and our songs all line up, so light shines like a city on a hill, and all can see it. 

That’s also what the last line of today’s reading means, the one that wraps up the Sermon on the Mount. It says the crowds were amazed because Jesus taught with authority, not like the scribes...and the word “authority” means that his words and his actions matched up perfectly. He didn’t need to appeal to experts or to other interpretation, because his life demonstrated the truth of his teaching. That is what Jesus calls his disciples to learn as well—to not just talk about the Kingdom Way, but to live it, as he did. And remember, he would not call us if he did not believe we could do it. He knows it is possible to put his way of life into practice, to build our house on a solid foundation. All that remains is for us to believe him when he calls us, and to practice as best we can, trusting that the Spirit can take our faltering steps and turn them into something beautiful and strong, a refuge for all who seek shelter in the storm and strength for the journey.

May it be so. Amen.

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