by Ellen Sims
Psalm 50:1-6; Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Luke 12:32-38
In Matthew Jesus warns, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged” (Mt. 7:1-2). Despite Jesus’s judgment against judging, many people image God as a harsh judge, and many Christians—the kind who bring “YOU’RE GOING TO HELL” signs to Drag Queen Story Hour—see it as their job to judge how others live.
I want to think a church like ours leaves the judging to God. And I want to think a God like ours does not judge in a way that has connotations of condemnation and contempt. But the Bible treats God’s judgment in various ways—and we’ve seen some of that range in today’s lections.
We began our service today reading a psalm about God summoning the earth itself and all the witnesses of the heavens to a judgment of the faithful.
Then in our Hebrew Bible reading the prophet Isaiah referenced those two notorious cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, to call down judgment against people that were, like the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, going through the motions of worship but failing to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.” (By the way, friends, here’s another passage that shows the sin of Sodom has nothing to do with anybody’s sex life.)
Finally, in our Gospel text Jesus represents God’s positive judgment of those whose “treasure” is not in possessions but is in heaven (that which is ultimate). In that analogy, Jesus says God judges positively those who serve others–like the master who became a servant to his slaves. These three texts judge that God’s judgment is righteous yet surprising. Unlike an earthly judge who might favor the cause of those with power and money, God judges in favor of the oppressed, the orphans, the widows, the slaves. That’s how judgment is meted out in the Kin*dom of God that Jesus preached.
At Open Table we don’t always read all four lections assigned each Sunday as more strictly liturgical churches do. And sometimes I edit slightly the lections we do read to remove a potentially triggering part if I don’t have time to address the matter. The lectionary often exposes us to scriptures that need to be unpacked to avoid harm or to convey relevance. Maybe I should be more trusting of holy scripture, the Holy Spirit, and YOU to make meaning from a sacred text in ways that are healing and hopeful. But the truth is that many scriptures have been layered over with harmful interpretations, making it hard for us to detect the words of justice and grace.
Today is one of those Sunday’s when I hear running through our texts a common theme that could be triggering. That theme is judgment. And it’s not only LGBTQ Christians who’ve been beaten up by the Bible verses.
I don’t deny that the Bible often describes the judgment God renders—-even as it speaks against judgments humans render against one another. The Church and the Bible have sometimes harmfully pronounced judgment against people. I want to suggest today a spiritual practice in which we willingly subject ourselves to God’s “judgment” through a gentle, loving, insightful process. I don’t want to domesticate God, but I do hope to suggest a healthy means of cultivating intimacy with “God” and developing self-knowledge along with knowledge of our world. We must be adult enough to face into crises we’re called to help address—like climate change. Being too fragile to hear hard truths about our planet or ourselves will spell our doom.
Let’s start with today’s psalm, a gentler judgment, although many might still hear the word “judgment” as if a finger is being pointed in our faces. Churches of our past have made some of us squirm under the glare of God. But consider again that in today’s psalm God’s “judgment” comes to us like the sun’s revelation of “what is.” The Psalmist suggests God’s judgment “shines forth” as illumination rather than condemnation or a critique prior to tortuous punishment. Because we’re not programed to hear God’s “judgment” in this positive way, we might recoil from the reading, fearful of God’s critical glare.
Unfortunately, some of us have imagined God’s gaze upon us being like the piercing, merciless Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. What a terrifying image of God. Recall that elsewhere the Psalmist, unlike frightened Frodo, INVITES God to “search me and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139: 23-24). The Psalmist isn’t masochistic. The Psalmist yearns for this intimate relationship: to be known fully and therefore loved FULLY.
Earlier you took some moments to feel the gaze of Love that offers you a chance to know yourself better and consider what a loving light might illuminate in you and about you. It’s not an easy thing to look deeply and honestly when we usually take pains to avoid recognizing flaws in ourselves.
Let’s try another spiritual exercise. First call to mind a strength you have, a character trait of which you’re genuinely proud. Now, through God’s loving perspective, see if there is a shadow side of that strength that, taken to an extreme, can potentially become a problem. After all, taken to an extreme, every virtue can become a problem. (Silence.)
In this period of silence you may have just discovered a place for growth in your life, a growing edge. Through the light of God and with the tenderness of God, look at that possibility for growth in your life with fresh clarity and perhaps accept that personal challenge with more gentleness for the “You That Has Some Work To Do.” (Silence)
I wonder if it might be helpful to you if I occasionally point out WHY our worship services are designed as they are. You might want to hear occasionally why Open Table’s worship life emphasizes and regularizes some things but omits other common liturgical practices. For instance, we don’t regularly say prayers of confession. That’s not because we are sinless. It’s because a lot of us have been beaten up by the Church and are recovering from brutal condemnation. Most of Open Table’s prayers of confession are corporate prayers that acknowledge ways we’re complicit as a culture in harming other people, other creatures, and our planet. But we’re less comfortable with litanies in which we name ourselves as sinner since scriptures and prayers have been so weaponized against many of us. Of course, I encourage you, as you are able, to recover a healthy way of prayer that includes self-examination—whether you call that “confession” or not.
Let’s look again at the Lucan passage. The act of judgment in this passage shows the God Jesus Loved siding with the lowly and the God Jesus Presents as judging the powerful, not the lowly. God judges the judgers. Jesus does not represent a God who looks down on us but who lifts us up.
Finally we return as we began to the psalmist’s declaration that God “judges” the peoples of the earth as a light and by shining that light to show “what is.” That’s what light does. It reveals what is. The light is the light of Love.
The song we just sang, and which was composed by our own Corey Harvard, says this about the light of God’s judgment:
There is no fear in your love
There is no shame in your light
Only the laughter of God
Shaking the dead back to life
There is no fear in your love
There is no shame in your light
Only the mercy of God
Only impossible life
When God’s light shines upon us, the people of God look at themselves and their families and their city and their imperiled planet and SEE. Prayer, prayers of confession especially, help us SEE who we are. And then it’s up to us to decide—having seen—what to do.
The act of judging others and ourselves varies in scripture and in how you and I judge. When we are judging others to demean them, we may do so out of envy or hatred or our own insecurity. Such judgement is harmful. When we judge ourselves in a way that is honest but not self-abusive, judgment can be helpful. When we judge options and processes and situations, judgment is a means of maturing. In fact, to live a compassionate life, you and I MUST judge . . . what is the good choice, the better option, the most loving response. We constantly make judgments. In that process let’s hope we try to see ourselves and others clearly but compassionately.
We would do well to allow God to judge us; that is, we would do well to consciously subject ourselves to a spiritual practice of imaging God as a means of knowing ourselves honestly but compassionately. God sees us not with the flaming eye of Sauron but the adoring eye of the Great Lover.