Clarity is a blessed luxury that all too often we do not have access to. We hear the sound-bites and the punditry and make a decision or hold an opinion that sounded good when we heard it, but sometimes that opinion falls flat in the face of reality. As servants of the truth we need to be careful to not make snap judgments or grab on to opinions simply because someone we have agreed with in the past holds them. Every source of news is biased, every human being is biased by their own experiences, so it is of crucial importance for us to never accept words of judgment directed at others at face value. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I found the reaction to the Zimmerman verdict to be incredibly ugly and filled with demonization and people questioning the character of others who they had no real relationship with. Then came the reactions to the reactions, some of which were even uglier than the initial reactions. The truth is that if we are judging others and speaking of others being evil because of opinions they hold, or if we demonize those we disagree with or who are different than we are, we are disconnecting ourselves from the truth of Jesus and the covering of his sacrifice. The bible is clear that we are not only separating from the truth, but that we are playing God when we pass judgment on others. James tells us:
11Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?
There are two cautions here that James directs at us. Do not speak evil against or judge another person. Now I don’t know about you, but I wonder at times if this is even possible. The one charge consistently leveled against the church is that we are so “judgmental”. We have a very difficult time of things since we have the call to speak the truth as best we understand it and to the best of our abilities. James is not telling us to silence ourselves when it comes time to be truth speakers. What James is talking about is the motivation and methods we use to speak. When we speak evil against each other, this is when we proclaim another person to be evil because of their actions or the effects of their actions, we are in essence judging the motivations of others and declaring those to be evil. When we do that, we are claiming the ability to look into the hearts and minds of others and there is only one being in the universe with that ability. Thankfully that ability is beyond us, because I know that I would abuse that kind of power. There is only one person any of us can judge the motivations of with a slim chance of being right, and that is ourselves. Even then we can be like Paul who constantly found himself doing the things he knew he shouldn’t, not doing the things he should, and having no idea why his own mind continually betrayed him. Often when we speak evil and judge others we are trying to hide our sins from sight by redirecting other people’s attention. James warns us that even if we think we are fooling other people, there is a judge that sees through our charades, and even though we may try to save or destroy others, God is the only one with that power.
James implies that when we judge we are considering ourselves above the law. Now one of the things that I had drummed into my head in seminary is the danger of feeling like you are beyond reproach simply because of your leadership position. They reminded us repeatedly that many people will try to put us on pedestals. This danger doesn’t just apply to pastors though. Any one of us can find ourselves on a pedestal looking down at the huddled masses that just aren’t good enough to be up here where we are. It is a heady thing to be in leadership no matter what sphere of life that leadership is in. We must be doubly careful to use the power we have in ways that build others up rather than tear them down. When I had my first management position at a camp, I had some good mentors to help me through these possible struggles in leadership, but the hardest thing for me was when it became clear that I had to fire someone for excessive lateness and some attitude issues. I could very easily have just fired the guy for being lazy, but I prayed about it and God helped me see that my inexperience contributed to allowing the situation to get where it was. My boss guided me through being up front with the person and I had a conversation in which I owned up to the part of the problem that stemmed from my mistakes. Then we drew up a written agreement that explained what needed to be done in terms of timeliness and attitude on their part and better communication on my part. The person ended up getting fired for breaking that agreement because they really wanted to be a counselor and were miffed that they were placed in the kitchen. There was more going on then I was aware of at the time, but by owning my part of the problem and working on my end the person was better able to open up with what was really going on.
This week I get to share my testimony of faith at Yearly Meeting and the truth of how God has saved me from myself time and time again. I have spoken evil against people that I disagreed with or I felt had harmed me in some way, I have even spoken evil of and judged people who I will most likely never know, and God faithfully rebuked me and convicted my heart for the things I had said and done. It seems like judgment is hardwired into my brain and at times I feel like just giving up on the whole practicing mercy thing and taking the easy way of passing judgment rather than listening and praying and showing God’s mercy, but James reminds me that in not judging others I live into God’s laws of love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. When I judge others or speak evil against them I break both of these commandments and end up committing the sins that Jonah committed against the citizens of Nineveh. Like Jonah I refuse to go share the opportunity to receive God’s mercy with others, like Jonah I am embittered when God forgives rather than destroys, and like Jonah I know the truth about God’s character that makes me want to run from those people I have judged to be unworthy of God’s love. When God relented from punishing Nineveh, the city responsible for the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel, Jonah prayed: “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2b God’s love often does not match what we want out of the situation. We want to see punishment and people getting what they deserve, but we forget, Oh how easily we forget, what we have been spared from. What punishments for our failures have we been released from because of the mercy of God? How can a wretch like me forget the amazing grace that came upon me and released me from the power of death? But I do, all too often, forget. Do you forget sometimes as well? Do you like me think that you have the power or ability to save someone or destroy them? Do you like me need James to remind us of the truth of our warped perspective? Who are we to judge our neighbor?
This might sound familiar to you, but there is a solution to this problem that is within your reach. It is not easy to remember to do it, but I am going to say it again and again in the hopes that it will at least sink into my thick skull: Pray. Remind yourself that you dwell in the presence of God and ask God to teach you mercy and grace. The lessons are hard learned, but it is impossible to learn or appreciate them without cultivating a constant awareness of God’s presence by communicating with him. Remember that God is not only right there in the car with you as you drive, but is also right there with the person that almost swerved into you. God is right there as you face the ethical dilemmas at work, school and home; and is right there ready to help those who are facing those same ethical decisions around you. What would it look like if instead of judging others for what we can’t stand to see we instead pray that God would open their eyes and hearts to His presence? What if instead of criticizing others for where we think they are falling short we are instead attentive to God’s workings and tell them that: “When you did that wonderful thing I saw God at work in you!”? When we are on the lookout for God’s handiwork in those people we are trained to be enemies of we get the opportunity to name that good in them as a witness to the gospel. We get the blessed opportunity to live out to them a faith that sees them as beloved of God. If our words say something different, that what people do prevents God from working in them, we deny the truth of our own sin and the redemption that God has given us. God came to us while we were still his enemies and guided us into his love, his redemption. God loved us when we thought we were unlovable, at our darkest most broken moments God looked at us and in a voice filled with love said “Come to me my beloved child.” When we pray on a regular basis carrying our awareness of God’s presence with us we cannot help but become agents of change in the world around us. This change does not come from harsh denunciations of others’ failings, but from loving people so much that they begin to change in order to live up to that love. It doesn’t always work, but since when did that matter in God’s eyes. We are not called to succeed; we are called to be faithful. That is how God’s love works in me. I feel the undeserved mercy, grace, and love that I constantly receive from God and my heart’s desire has become to live up to what I receive. Obviously I still don’t, but the presence of God’s love can spur each of us on to greater acts of love, mercy and grace, just so that we could live up to the tiniest bit of what we have received.
I have an assignment for you that will be a difficult one, but one I think you can do with God’s help. If there is someone who you struggle with loving, for whatever reason, I want you to pray that God’s love, mercy, and grace fill their life. Do this as often as you can, constantly reminding yourself that God is with you to help you pray. As we enter into open worship ask the Holy Spirit to guide your heart towards the people or person God most desires you to be holding in prayer.