Based on Exodus 14:19-31, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35
There was a mother who had four children. This mother wanted to teach her children an important lesson about how to live fully and well in community. The lesson would involve a journey for each of her children and then an opportunity to share the experience with each other. The quest was to go and look at a special tree that grew in a land very far from where the children lived; only one child would travel at a time. Over the course of a year, the mother sent out her children. The oldest journeyed in the Winter, the next oldest in Spring, the third in Summer and the youngest in the Fall. All children found the tree, made their observations and returned home to their mother and siblings.
Once all the children were back from their journeys the mother asked them to gather for a special meal and time of sharing. Once the meal was finished the mother asked the eldest child what she had observed about the special tree in Winter. The oldest child reported that the tree was old and barren – that it was particularly unattractive and seemed to be dead. The second child, who had seen the tree in the Spring disagreed, to him the tree was showing signs of life and had green buds all over it. The third child, she who had traveled in Summer, noted that those green buds had given way to beautiful leaves and fragrant flowers which covered the tree – the shade provided was a welcome relief from the heat of the day. The youngest child, who traveled in the Fall noted that the tree was filled with the most delicious fruit – so much fruit that the branches were bowed down to the ground with the weight of them. An argument then began amongst the children about the judgments that each of them made based on how they interpreted what they had seen of the tree.
Our scripture readings for today have a lot to tell us about the difference between God and human judging. In our First Testament reading, God saves the Israelites from being rounded up and returned to slavery by exacting a judgment upon the Egyptian Army. Jesus teaches about the power of forgiveness and how God will judge us when we do not forgive. Paul teaches about how to not be so judgmental when we deal with minor differences among believers, because one day all of us will be judged by God. Let us go now to God in prayer asking for forgiveness for when we have rushed to judgment of others…
Moses and Aaron lead the people out of Egypt following Pharaoh’s decree that they should leave. However, the King changes his mind and sends his Army out to return the people to slavery. God, who is with the Israelites, interferes with the Egyptian Army. God tells Moses to stick his staff in the ground and part the sea so the people can cross. God allows the Egyptian Army to follow but before they can attack the Israelites, God has Moses return the sea to its bed – destroying the soldiers. God’s final judgment against Pharaoh has been swift and terrible.
Peter asks Jesus about how many times he should forgive someone who offends against him. Jesus says 77 times (or in some translations 70 x 7)! The point being that forgiveness in God’s world is unlimited. Jesus then tells a parable about forgiveness, mercy and judgment if the disciple doesn’t follow God’s commandments to love God and others more than we love ourselves.
Paul is trying to help the believers in Rome understand how to make a loving and thriving community out of the hodge-podge that they currently have. Paul tells them that they must focus on the important stuff and ignore individual peculiarities. We should not “pass judgment on your brother or sister…or despise” them. “…For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” and be held accountable for our ungracious and merciless behaviors.
Let’s get back to our story about the mother’s lesson for her children. After letting them disagree for a while the mother asked for them to be quiet. She told her children that all of them were right about what they had observed, but that their judgments about the tree based on their limited observations were incomplete – they each had only seen one season of the total life of the tree. She then went on to teach that like their incomplete knowledge of the tree, they should be hesitant to judge another human before they have had time to truly get to know that person. The mother taught saying, “If you give up on someone when they are experiencing winter, then you will miss the promise of their spring, the beauty of their summer and the fruitfulness of their fall. Humans, like all of creation, are constantly changing and learning,” she said, “keep from judging until you have observed over the fullness of time.” How much better would our world be if we followed the mother’s wisdom!
John Wesley, in his sermon entitled, “Catholic Spirit”, (catholic here meaning universal) echoed this week’s teachings in this way, writing: “…Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. All people [sic men] approve of this; but do all people [men] practise it? Daily experience shows the contrary. Where are even the Christians who ‘love one another as he hath given us commandment?’ how many hindrances lie in the way! The two grand, general hindrances are, first, that they cannot all think alike and, in consequence of this, secondly, they cannot all walk alike; but in several smaller points their practice must differ in proportion to the difference of their sentiments. But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works….” Members of the Body of Christ, we are a people forged together by resurrection. Jesus Christ, the head of our Church, calls us together as one and unites us. It is not God’s intention that our differences would bring division, but that through our differences, we would have a more complete expression and understanding of the fullness of God.
However, we live in a time where our differences are magnified and being used to pass severe judgment on even the smallest perceived variation (think of the unjust slave in the parable of Jesus). On September 1, 2020, New York Times writer Kate Murphy, in an article entitled, “We’re All Socially Awkward Now”, notes that our judgmentalism may be even worse in this current environment. She writes, “…Many of us have not met anyone new in months. ‘This daily interacting with individuals out in the world gives you a sense of belonging and security that comes from feeling you are part of, or have access to, a wider community and network,’ said Stefan Hofmann, a professor of psychology at Boston University. ‘Social isolation slashes that network.’ The privation sends our brains into survival mode, which dampens our ability to recognize and appropriately respond to the subtleties and complexities inherent in social situations. Instead, we become hypervigilant and oversensitive. Layer on top of that a seemingly capricious virus and we’re all tightly coiled for fight or flight.”
One of the biggest risks of trying to live in a community characterized by right relationship to God and to one another is judgmentalism. It comes from the sin of the dualistic mind which parses everything we see into “We vs. They, “Us vs. Them” or “I vs. It”. God exists in unity – three persons of the Trinity all with different roles, yet one divine and eternal essence. God’s judgments are enacted to put everything back like it was in the beginning – to restore order, balance and equity. The goal of our spiritual journey towards salvation – that is toward having the mind and heart of Jesus, is to lose our dualistic way of interacting with each other and the world, and to find our way to unity. To do this, we must put away our reactionary behaviors and seek to find that of God in every person, whether they believe just like us or not. John Wesley’s questions are still pertinent almost 300 years later…“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may….” In order to find our way to save the Church of Christ and our world, without all doubt we must! May God make it so…amen!