November 25, 2007

"The Measure We Get"
Scripture: Matthew 7:1-6
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  While teaching at a State Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, I had a co-worker who taught in the room right across from the hall. We taught emotionally and mentally impaired preschool and elementary children with severe learning difficulties. It was hard, somewhat demanding work, but had its rewards. I loved teaching those children, trying to unlock their learning potentials. This particular co-worker had the habit of taking a “break” from his teaching frequently and would wander over to my room to see if I was “busy.” At first I listened to his ramblings about the system, the inadequate materials, the rigid rules for dealing with the children, the lack of staff to help out and the capacity of aides to “duck out” of the room at inopportune times. At first, I just listened to his tirades, sometimes sympathizing with his concerns. But after awhile he began to berate the other staff, pointing out their weaknesses and inadequacies. His judgments became harsh and exaggerated. Nothing seemed to be right for him and the critical chatter did not let up as time went on. I began to think he was the most demanding, self-righteous person I knew and looked for ways to be “busy” when I thought he might be heading for my room. At times it worked and he would head back over to his room, leaving me feeling a bit guilty, but relieved.

  As time went on certain rumors began to circulate about this co-worker. His frequency of absence was attributed by many to his marital problems. I however, began to find myself relieved when he didn’t show up those days, knowing that I would not have to listen to his critical meanderings. I did not think he was a very good teacher, felt he was much too judgmental about people, and didn’t want to have much to do with the fellow, even though we had gone to school together and had been good friends several years past. I began to be critical of other things about him, his way of dealing with children, his apparent laziness, his frequent disappearances during the day. I actually judged him to be an unfit teacher, husband and father. His marriage did fall apart and his wife and child left him for reasons I was unaware of. I began looking forward to the day he might quit and he would no longer be a problem for me to deal with. I found myself with little compassion or sympathy for this man.

  Too late I realized that I had become just as judgmental as he had. My harsh judgments against this man interfered with my ability to read the signs that would have prompted me to intervene and get help for this man. One night, after not showing up for several days, the police were called to his apartment, broke in and found him sitting on his couch, surrounded by numerous bottles of vodka, dead. It was after news of his death that I was able to piece together and see the signs of alcoholism that were part of his absenteeism, his disparaging rants, and his frequent trips to his office when he should have been with his students. But it was too late.

  We are often quick to judge others. Jesus say, “Don’t do that!” Look at our own faults first, do some serious soul searching into our own behavior before we judge and condemn others. For it is only after we have looked deeply into our own souls that we can find the compassion to deal with others. It is only when we know the speck or the log in our own souls that we can truly understand others in ways that build up rather than tear down.

  Jesus does not say that we shouldn’t discern right from wrong or decide what is morally right or wrong, but we must do so only out of our deep awareness of our own sins, not to destroy, but to build and nurture. He doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have high standards of moral behavior for ourselves and the world, but before we judge whether others are living by those standards, we must look at whether we are living adequately by them as well. Our temptation to look down on others’ sins is a temptation to play God, a temptation to have the superior edge over others.

  There is a tendency to cover our own tracks by pointing out the faults in others, by highlighting where they are not succeeding. And it often is the case that we are the most critical of the faults of others that are in fact our worst faults. But to point out the fault in others takes the chance for criticism off ourselves and places it on others, helps us direct attention away from us and on to others. One of the consequences for being critical of others is that we lose the ability to be compassionate and forgiving. Is that how we will someday be judged by God then? Certainly God will call us to mind on our criticism and judgmental behavior. It’s one thing to call someone to mind about their behavior, but it’s an entirely different thing to judge harshly rather than show compassion. And compassion is what Jesus is getting at here. Our compassionate behavior finds a way to help others see a different way of behaving, a way to call someone else to account without sounding morally superior. Our compassion allows us to see others through God’s eyes, helping them and us find new ways of living out the gospel.

  A compassionate way would have allowed me to see my co-worker through different, more understanding eyes. A compassionate way might have helped me have those conversations that would have clued me in to this co-worker’s condition and helped me find ways to seek help for him. Life is not about finding fault, but about helping one another into the kingdom of God in deeper ways. Being negatively, harshly judgmental does nothing to help people with their relationship with God. Looking at ourselves first before we pass judgment will help us be the love of Christ for those who need love.

  We can hardly escape judging others. It seems to be second nature to us. But we can make a practice of self exploration in prayer and reflection that will open our eyes to our own difficulties. When we find ourselves engaging in judging behavior, perhaps it would help to turn our thoughts to ourselves first before we act upon our judgments. Only then will we act out of kindness and possibly help both ourselves and others into more kingdom like living.

  When we are less judgmental and more compassionate the measure that we get back will be the ability to deal more kindly with others, to find understanding and live more fully in the light of Christ. Judgment is God’s territory! As we read the Bible we find that Jesus did not judge and condemn others. He simply received them into his presence with love and compassion. We are called to do the same.

  The next time we find ourselves engaging in harsh judgments against another, let’s take a moment to stop and reflect on our own capacity to engage in “sinful” behavior. Then maybe we can find understanding and compassion in dealing with others. Sometimes that log in our eyes is larger than we at first suspect.