Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Missed Meal (6/29/14--More Light Sunday)

The Missed Meal
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 29, 2014
More Light Sunday

1 Samuel 18:1-4
When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

1 Samuel 20:30-34
Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.’ Then Jonathan answered his father Saul, ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’ But Saul threw his spear at him to strike him; so Jonathan knew that it was the decision of his father to put David to death. Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food on the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, and because his father had disgraced him.

1 Samuel 20:41-42
As soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever.” ’ He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city.

1 Samuel 23:15-18
David was in the Wilderness of Ziph at Horesh when he learned that Saul had come out to seek his life. Saul’s son Jonathan set out and came to David at Horesh; there he strengthened his hand through the Lord. He said to him, ‘Do not be afraid; for the hand of my father Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so.’ Then the two of them made a covenant before the Lord; David remained at Horesh, and Jonathan went home.                     

2 Samuel 1:25-27
How the mighty have fallen
   in the midst of the battle!

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
   I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
   your love to me was wonderful,
   passing the love of women.

This summer my sermon series is based on famous and some not so famous meals in the Bible.   I will be preaching on texts in which meals provide the setting or the occasion for the story.   

Things happen at meals.  As we know it is at the table that we get to know people.  Meals are the occasions of celebration and the occasions for conflict.   The table is the setting for human interaction.  

Every table has its rules.  Who gets to sit at the table?  With whom do you eat and with whom do you not eat?  Who is invited?  Who isn’t?  Who sits where?  Who controls the table?   

The central sacrament or the sacred event of Christianity is the meal that we celebrate ritually as communion.   It is at that table that we learn who we are as followers of Jesus.    

So I have chosen some stories that feature meals.  At times the meals are the story and at other times they provide the occasion for the story.   Still at other times, the meal is one event among others in the story.   

Today’s story features a meal as an event in a larger narrative.   It is a meal in which a chair is empty.   The table is filled with food, but not with the whole family.     The story is Saul’s table.

Saul was selected to be the first king of Israel.  According to the story, Saul lost favor with the Lord and the Lord through the prophet, Samuel, chose David to be king in place of Saul.  

We all know the story of David killing Goliath, the Philistine, the giant of Gath.  That got Saul’s attention.   Saul brought David into his house and he became a leader in Saul’s army.    The women sang to one another:

Saul has killed his thousands,
And David his ten thousands.

But it wasn’t just the women who loved David. 

For Saul’s son, Jonathan, David was love at first sight.   It is poetically rendered in the first verses of chapter 18:

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

In other words, Jonathan fell head over heels in love with David. 

A heterosexist reading of David and Jonathan is that they were “friends.”  That’s it, just good friends.  A heterosexist reading bristles and is insulted and offended that there could be anything romantic or, God forbid, sexual between David and Jonathan.   

Heterosexism is seeing the world as if heterosexuality is the norm, good, and from a theological perspective, blessed by God.   Other relationships including same-gender romantic relationships are viewed as impossible, or if not impossible, then certainly not normal, not good, or theologically speaking, not blessed by God. 

Heterosexism is a set of blinders that keeps people from seeing a fuller spectrum of reality.   Heterosexism sees the aunt who has been living with her “friend” for decades as “single” and who just happens to have a roommate.   Heterosexism is unable to recognize the sacred covenant that binds the aunt and her “friend” as lovers, as partners, and as in reality a married couple, even if our various institutions have not recognized their marriage.

Heterosexist readings of scripture have read its stories, including the story of David and Jonathan through a narrow band of light.  So it is good to shed more light, a broader band of light, on this text and on these characters.        

One way to see more light is to have assistance in reading this text from someone who knows from the inside what it is to love someone of the same gender.  A wonderful, liberating, honest book is by Christopher Hubble.  Lord Given Lovers:  The Holy Union of David and Jonathan.   He writes:

“The central truth of this book is that God proves Her love for Queers by affirming and validating the holy union of David and Jonathan.  This truth will remake and reshape our society.  A widespread knowledge of the story of David and Jonathan will save lives and accelerate the progress of our civil rights movement.”  P. 83

The author is a Gay Christian who understands this story.  He is not a trained biblical scholar.   But trained biblical scholars, while crucial to understanding texts, are limited by their own blinders.   That is why we need many eyes, especially eyes from the margins to show the church and the world what they see.    To put it theologically, that is a way that God provides revelation.   In the hymn,  “We Limit Not the Truth of God” we hear this refrain:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth
  To break forth from His Word.

That light and truth comes from voices long silenced telling us what they see.  

What they see is Jonathan’s heart pounding with love for with David.   So much so that he gives him all of his stuff.   Here is the text:

“Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”

In other words, “I promise to love this guy forever!”  And he gave him

“his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”

When you fall in love with someone, you give him or her your stuff.   It just happens. That is the first of several covenants that Jonathan makes with David.    

Now David, with his new gear, given by Jonathan who is in crazy love with him, goes out and conquers the Philistines.    Saul is impressed but also jealous and paranoid because the women are singing that David is ten times more potent than Saul.  Saul kills his thousands, but David his ten thousands.  

Saul decides to get David in the house where he can watch him.  He offers his daughter, Michal, to David as a wife.    The text says:

Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David. 

A heterosexist reading does not say that Michal’s love for David was just friendship.   Don’t read any sexual overtones into that one.  

Anyway, David marries Michal.   That is expected.  There was no place for the love between Jonathan and David to be recognized.     David is now Saul’s son-in-law.

Saul gets more and more jealous and paranoid of David and tries to have him killed.   Saul even talks with Jonathan about that, but the text says that Jonathan “took great delight in David” in other words, was in crazy love with David and wasn’t about to let Dad hurt him.    

One day David is playing music for Saul and Saul goes nuts and tries to kill him with his spear.  David goes on the run.    At one point he finds Jonathan and asks him why this is happening.   It his hard for him to believe that Saul hates him this much.  So he decides on a test. 

He is to eat the meal to celebrate the new moon.  This is when all members of the household were to eat together.  David and Jonathan and Saul and family members would all eat together.  David decides to skip this meal.    David tells Jonathan that if Saul misses him tell him I had to eat with my own family and if Saul is cool with that, that will be a sign that all is good.  But if Saul is angry, then I will know that I won’t be safe there.    So they work out a way by which Jonathan will communicate Saul’s feelings toward David.    They make another covenant:

“Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.”   20:17

Did I mention these two are in love?

At the meal, Saul does ask why David missed it and Jonathan tells him that he had a family obligation, then Saul is angry with Jonathan.  Here is the giveaway language:

“You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!  Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”

The storyteller through this language is telling us that Saul knows that Jonathan and David are lovers by use of us these words, “perverse, shame, nakedness.”   Same gender relationships have been around as long as there have been relationships and heterosexism has been around just as long.  How many meals have exploded with anger from the angry father.     This is the meal where what has been bubbling underneath finally surfaces.    David and Jonathan’s love is dangerous. 

Jonathan communicates to David through a method that they devised that it is not safe for him or for them.    According to the text:

“…they kissed each other, and wept with each other;  David wept the more.  Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’”  20:41-42

The remaining chapters show David on the run from Saul.  David has the opportunity to kill Saul and doesn’t.  He takes the higher road.  Finally, Saul recognizes this about David and they reconcile and Saul blesses David who will be king.    

Later Jonathan and Saul are killed in battle and David laments:

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
   I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
   your love to me was wonderful,
   passing the love of women.

What is fascinating and liberating about this tragic story is that the narrator has no condemnation of David and Jonathan’s love.  The language of their love is beautiful and poetic, heartbreaking and true to experience.   It is filled with sacred language, the language of covenants made before God.   There is no hint here that God does not bless their relationship even if Saul does not. 

David is of course one of the most important characters in the Old Testament.  Second to Moses, in some senses he is even more important than Moses.   The great hero of the Bible, King David, has a same-gender relationship that is blessed in the eyes of God.     A heterosexist reading cannot see this, of course.   

A heterosexist reading will spend a great deal of effort, scholarship, money, and power to communicate that the Bible or even God forbids same-gender relationships.    But that is simply not true.    Sometimes we need a story that reveals more light.   The love between David and Jonathan can be that story.   You’ll never convince those who are steeped in a heterosexist reading to accept that.   That isn’t the point.  The point is for LGBTQ folks to accept it.   

It is difficult to overcome messages by authority figures that are condemnatory.  We can beat up on ourselves and believe that we are sinners or are wrong or abnormal for a variety of reasons.    The tragedy and the sin of the church has been its condemnation of LGBTQ people and its misreading of its own texts to bolster up its prejudice. 

I am pleased that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is slowly, at a speed peculiar to Presbyterians, realizing that covenants are important.    The General Assembly this year approved for clergy and churches to use all the sacred mojo available to them to bless these God-given and God-blessed relationships.    That is a done deal.    For instance the wedding at which I officiated for my daughter Katy and now my other daughter, Amber, last November, would now be legal in the eyes of the PCUSA.    Clergy can do their pastoral work of participating in sacred covenants, which is really what we do, without fear of disciplinary action. 

The General Assembly also has sent a measure to the presbyteries to change our constitution to expand marriage to two people.    I am confident that this congregation will do everything in our power to assist in passing this resolution through our presbyteries.   When the church finally does the right thing, we need to support it.

The church is changing and the larger culture is changing and there is a reason why.  It is because courageous folk have claimed who they are and have said,

“This is who I am and this is who I love.”

When I go to speak at college classes or on the radio or in sermons or one on one to people, I go upheld by your courage and your witness and your full spectrum of light.   The “Sauls” of this world can be mean and ruthless.   But love is stronger.   

This congregation is important in communicating the inclusive courageous, love of God in this area.   Our congregation has taken a leading role.   In addition to hosting holy unions and to hosting our social gathering on every second Sunday evening, we now need to ask what more can we do?   

I can see the need of supporting PFLAG Tri-Cities that meets at the Presbyterian Campus house on the third Thursday.  I can see perhaps some small support groups in our church to offer spiritual support for LGBTQ people and allies.  A study of the book I mentioned earlier might be a way to go.    Finding a way to work with at risk LGBTQ youth is on the agenda.    Our More Light sub-committee is collecting ideas.    We have the resources and we have the need.    Spirit is moving among us to help us put resources and needs together.

David and Jonathan weren’t able to be together at the meal that Saul hosted.    It was a meal that didn’t allow for their love to be recognized and celebrated.    That is not Christ’s table.   Christ’s table is open to all.    Christ’s table is changing all meals.    

Christ’s Spirit is moving and making change.

How is God calling you to be that agent of change? 


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Practicing Disorganized Religion (6/8/14)

Practicing Disorganized Religion
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 8, 2014
Pentecost Sunday

On the day of Pentecost the entire group was together.  A sudden noise from above, like the roar of a strong rushing wind, filled the house in which they were sitting.   Phenomena resembling jagged fiery tongues appeared.  One of these settled upon each person.  All were filled with Holy Spirit and, all, directed by the Spirit to give utterance, began to speak in foreign tongues.  Among the residents of Jerusalem were devout persons from every country under the sun.  In response to the noise a crowd flocked together, for each and every one of them heard these people speaking in their native languages.  In absolute bewilderment they exclaimed:  “Aren’t all these people who are speaking Galileans?  How can it be that each of us is hearing our original language?....

All were bewildered and perplexed, constantly asking one another, “What is going on?” although there were some who made fun of the whole business by announcing, “They’re full of cheap wine.”

At that Peter took his place with the other eleven apostles and addressed the crowd in a strong and solemn tone….

“Save yourselves from this unscrupulous generation….”

Those who accepted Peter’s message were therefore baptized.  On that day God brought three thousand persons into the community….

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, cultivation of unity, their meal, and their prayers.  Awe overtook everyone.  The apostles became the agents of numerous portents and miracles.  All the believers remained together and shared everything.  They would sell their goods and property and distribute the proceeds to everyone on the basis of need.  Every day they met together in the temple and ate in homes, taking their food with happy and sincere hearts that were filled with praise to God.  Everyone approved of them, and the Lord increased daily the number of those who were being saved together.

Galatians 3:28
You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female.  Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.

Most of my worship services are based on themes that I choose.   For my first ten years or so of ministry, I preached from the church lectionary, the texts of scripture assigned for each Sunday.    Then for various reasons, I decided to preach on themes of my own choosing.     But on big Christian days, such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, we connect with the tradition. 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, from which we get the word Pentecostal.    It is the celebration of Spirit.  My early years were spent in a Pentecostal church.   It could get exciting at times.  People spoke in tongues.  In fact, there was an expectation to be baptized by the Spirit and speak in tongues.    Other gifts of the spirit included interpreting tongues as well as healing.    The emphasis was on the spirit.    The services weren’t quite so orderly, but there were people in charge and they were skilled in bringing things back to order. 

The speaking in tongues was not speaking in a different language.   It was gibberish or from the insider’s point of view, spirit language.  It wasn’t Hebrew or French or Swahili or something.  It consisted of sounds you created yourself, or the spirit did in you.  The technical term is glossolalia.   The Apostle Paul speaks about glossolalia in his letters.   He is a bit reserved about it.  He acknowledges that it is a gift of the spirit, but insists that interpretation of tongues needs to accompany it.  

You can imagine a wildness to these early communities.   Think of a spontaneous, non-hierarchical spirit fest of healings and people dancing around and casting out demons and healing and partying on.    This would be a vehicle for those on the margins to participate.   Slaves and women and the impoverished could be slain in the spirit and for a moment be equal to masters and husbands and the wealthy.  

One could imagine that it could be empowering for some.  It would also be disorganized.  It would be chaotic, perhaps even dangerous.   It would come and go, like the Gospel of John reporting on Jesus: 

The spirit blows every which way, like wind:  you hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s headed.   John 3:8

One could also imagine a need to control this in some way.    There would be some suspicion.   What is the message being communicated?  Who is in charge of the message?  Will this movement make good citizens?  Is this disrupting the social order?  

There is a tension in these early communities, and throughout history, between spirit blowing where it will and the need to keep spirit on message.    The Apostle Paul as we read him in his seven authentic letters plays both roles.  At times he is wild, breaks rules, comes up with marvelously egalitarian and border crossing sentences like these from Galatians 3:28:     

You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer male and female.  Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.

And at other times, he is stubborn and picky and tells people they aren’t doing it right.   Women, cover up your heads.   Don’t speak in church.     Paul is all about telling people what he thinks the message is.   Paul embodies both wildness and control.   We all do in some way, right?   We have both superego and id.

By the time we get to the Book of Acts, we are 70 years after Paul’s letters and 80 to 100 years after the death of Jesus and the events that Acts is supposedly reporting in this second chapter.    Shelly Matthews of Brite Divinity School wrote a commentary on Acts this past year called Taming the Tongues of Fire.    She makes the case that the author of Acts created an idealized history of this early movement taming the wildness of the movement and making it palatable to the sensibilities of Roman elite.  Acts is the Karl Rove of the New Testament.  Acts makes sure that the Holy Spirit stays on message.

This second chapter of Acts is in the form of a report on the manifestation of Holy Spirit.   Notice how orderly it all is.  There isn’t a wildness about the arrival of the tongues of fire that symbolize spirit.  The apostles are waiting in a room.  There is a great rush of wind, but the apostles, 12 of them, not 37 or 186, but 12 an orderly number, receive the tongues of fire.   The twelve apostles are all men.  Mary Magdalene is not one of them, nor are any other women or men with whom Jesus spent time. 

When they speak, Acts is careful to say that they are not speaking gibberish, but they are speaking languages that while unknown to them are known to those who are listening.    Those listening hear clearly the message each in his or her own language.     Critics of the apostles say they are drunk.  This might have reflected a legitimate criticism of the early Christian movement.  Early Christian gatherings like gatherings in Roman society were meals.   Meals consisted of food and wine, maybe lots of wine.    Jesus drank wine with his friends.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.    These spirit infested wild meals that Paul wrings his hands over in First Corinthians were more common than not. 

Acts wants to communicate to Roman elite society that Christianity is not about disorderly conduct with slaves and women speaking out of turn, disrupting the social order and folks getting a bit tipsy for Jesus.    It was orderly and on message and men who were in positions of authority that was handed down by Jesus himself ran the show.  Peter was the spokesperson.    Peter gives a sermon about what this all means.    The sermons in Acts sound the same regardless who is speaking.    These sermons are the words of the author of Acts placed on Peter’s lips and other characters in Acts.    They are salvation history sermons.    Tragically, they blame the Jews for killing Jesus.    Acts does this to get on the Romans good side at the expense of the Jews.  By the time Acts is written, Christians and Jews have separated.   That the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus is historically inaccurate of course.     Jesus was a Jew killed on a Roman cross.    This reality is turned around.   I am not kidding when I say Acts is the Karl Rove of the New Testament.   

The Acts of the Apostles has been regarded as the history of the early church.  Pentecost is even called the birthday of the church.    This is an idealized history.  This is how a second century author wanted us to understand this early movement.  His own reasons are pressing in the second century.  He wants the Romans to appreciate Christianity as a socially upright movement, unfairly criticized, and not to be confused the more “rebellious” Jews.  Acts tames and blames. 

This may be disconcerting.   You may ask, “All this celebration at Pentecost is a celebration of an idealized history, not the real thing?”   I offer that we can be celebrating the real thing, that is Spirit, but we hear that Spirit by reading against the grain of our received text. 

We need to read our texts critically and as Shelly Matthews writes in her book, Taming the Tongues of Fire, read them against the grain.    We do that by asking impertinent questions such as why are there twelve male disciples and why do only they speak for Spirit?    Then we start to ask if the author is writing against a more non-hierarchal, egalitarian movement by writing the story in this way. 

A second century critic of Christianity, Celsus, accused Christians of being harmful to the social order and said that Christianity was made up of

"only foolish and low individuals, and persons devoid of perception, and slaves, and women, and children, of whom the teachers of the divine word wish to make converts.” 

Celsus also admonishes the Christians to serve in Rome’s military and to take office in the government, assuming they were not.    While Acts is earlier than Celsus, that critique of Christianity as anti-social and anti-Roman order was probably present in the time of Acts and probably accurate.   It was also a movement made up of people on the margins.  This was consistent with the movement that centered around Jesus.  Jesus, we should never forget, was executed for sedition by the Roman government.    It is likely that those early Christian communities were far more wild than Acts paints them to be.   

The first thing is to read our foundational myths with a critical eye, against the grain.  Then ask, what then can we celebrate when we celebrate Spirit?    Now, I am not saying that everything Acts reports is bad news to reject.   I love the idealization of the early communities that shared everything.    It is not likely that that was universal.   That is idealized history.  Nevertheless, that did, I think, reflect at least in part, in some communities, an egalitarian movement over against the dominant society.    I also like the idealized message in which voices of justice, love and peace that transcend language barriers are heard by all, and once heard, people are motivated to act as Acts proclaims.   Against the grain and even with the grain, the Book of Acts inspires.

Two words to describe early Christian communities would be diverse and disorganized.   Think of Occupy Wall Street.   Think of the variety of movements and organizations for environmental causes, LGBT rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and labor movements.  Some of them fly and fall and then start again in a different place.    They are all over the place. They compete and disagree and evolve and die out and resurrect.   Spirit is messy.  It blows where it will. 

We like orderly stories.   We want a narrative.  We create idealized histories of our own individual lives as well as our collective lives.    While we need to do that we also need to recognize that we are doing that.  Life is far more messy and complex.  Spirit is more wild.  

That is what I need to hear.  I like to control things and keep Spirit on message.    That is not bad.  It keeps the trains running on time.   But idealizing our history can leave people who don’t fit the narrative too well, left out.      

I am thinking about the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church that begins next weekend.   It is an orderly event. Everything is timed to the minute.  The Holy Book will be Robert’s Rules of Order.    It is a context that does allow for many voices who will want to be heard.   Voices that have been long silenced.   Voices that have been tamed, blamed, and dismissed.    The task will be to listen.  To hear them as disconcerting as they may sound and as disruptive as they may be to our own understanding of our story.  

Voices will be speaking for the recognition of love between people that the dominant society has long dismissed as irrelevant.    I think those voices are speaking from Spirit.    Spirit calling us to act.

We will hear voices of those who have been oppressed by those who we have regarded as friends and whose oppression is connected to us.   It is complicated.  It is messy.  But even that is not an excuse to dismiss the voice of Spirit and not to act on behalf of justice.

We will hear voices on behalf of Earth groaning under the weight of the toxicity of our energy consumption, voices on behalf of those sold into slavery today, in this modern world, voices on behalf of death row inmates, voices on behalf of animals suffering in factory farms, voices on behalf of victims who experience the terror of  drone strikes that supposedly stop terrorism, voices of victims of sexual violence in the military, voices of victims of gun violence, and the list goes on.

I don’t say this enough, but I am glad to be a Presbyterian.    We have a lot of problems, but we do try to listen.    I am hoping for a Pentecostal uprising, a messy wild spirit fest, in which those without voices speak out and we hear them in our own language and our hearts are moved to act.     I hope that happens not only at General Assembly but here in this congregation and in our larger community.    

I hope we embody the words of our own Brief Statement of Faith and receive Spirit’s courage:

to unmask idolatries in church and culture,
     to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
     and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Measure for Measure (6/1/14)

Measure for Measure
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 1, 2014

The Sermon on the Mount Emmet Fox
The plain fact is that it is the Law of Life that, as we think, and speak, and act towards others, so will others think, and speak, and act towards us.  Whatever sort of conduct we give out, that we are inevitably bound to get back.  Anything and everything that we do to others will sooner or later be done to us by someone, somewhere.  The good that we do to others we shall receive back in like measure; and the evil that we do to others in like manner we shall receive back too….

…Students of Scientific Christianity who understand the power of thought, will realize that it is here, in the realm of thought, that the Law finds its true application; and they will see that the one thing that matters, in the last resort, is to keep their thoughts right about other people—even as about themselves.  The right thought about God, and the right thought about fellow-man, and the right thought about one’s self; that is the Law and the Prophets.  Knowing that Dominion is located in the Secret Place, it is on the Secret Place that they will focus their attention in observing the commandment—judge not.

The Golden Rule in Scientific Christianity is:  Think about others as you would wish them to think about you.  In the light of the knowledge that we now possess, the observance of this rule becomes a very solemn duty, but, more than that indeed, it is a vital debt of honor.

Matthew 7:1-5
Don’t pass judgment, so you won’t be judged.  Don’t forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back.  And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.  Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye, but overlook the timber in your own?  How can you say to your friend, ‘Let me get the sliver our of your eye.’ When there is that timber in your own?  You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see will enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.

The Jesus Seminar voted these first two verses of chapter seven black.  That means they did not think they originated with Jesus.   Here they are again:

Don’t pass judgment, so you won’t be judged.  Don’t forget, the judgment you hand out will be the judgment you get back.  And the standard you apply will be the standard applied to you. 

He may have said something like this, but this was common wisdom found everywhere.    We hear it in phrases like this:

What goes around comes around.
You reap what you sow.
You get what you pay for.
An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth.  

They are all similar to what is found in Matthew 7:1-2:
The standard you apply will be the standard applied to you.

Or in the King James:
“…with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.”

This common lore is wise but it most likely did not originate with Jesus.    The memorable aphorism that follows about the sliver and the timber did likely originate with Jesus:  

Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye, but overlook the timber in your own?  How can you say to your friend, ‘Let me get the sliver our of your eye.’ When there is that timber in your own?  You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see will enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.

When the author of Matthew’s gospel is compiling this section, he framed this aphorism as a commentary on the common lore of “what measure you ye mete shall be measured to you again.” 

The common lore that is reflected in verses one and two of chapter seven is based on a belief that there is an external scale of judgment and balance in the world.   It is a belief that either in this life or in the life to come we all get what is coming to us.    Matthew’s gospel is filled with this theology.    

The most common metaphor for God in the Christian tradition is judge.   God as righteous judge has been central to Christianity since Anselm developed the substitutionary atonement theory in the middle ages.    The judgment language of Matthew’s gospel provide the roots for this theological tree.  

Of course, other religious and spiritual systems have some kind of balance written in to them whether the judge is a personalized god or an impersonal force like karma.     So the idea of you get what’s coming to you, or what goes around comes around is pretty much a common truth even as it may be expressed in a variety of ways.    I would add that some ways are more appealing than others.  

For example, I like the notion that this existence is one of many schools our soul passes through.  We get what is coming to us, yes, but as part of a learning experience that may go on for many lives.     I find that more appealing than the idea that there is one life and if you screw it up it is eternal fire for you.    If I had to choose between those two ideas of how justice works in the universe, I would choose the first one.    I prefer to think of life as progress and learning rather than that life is a punitive test.   Of course, there are variations and nuances regarding these two possibilities of justice and balance.   

It is interesting that we tend to need a sense of justice.   There is comfort in believing that God or that some force of the universe is keeping track and working to right the wrongs and balance the equations.    Martin Luther King Jr. said, quoting someone else, that

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

I like that and there are days in which I believe it. The sentiment inspires me to keep working for what I think is just despite the long odds.   I am invited to trust in spite of my limited ability to see.    But I am not sure.    I trust that honestly expressing a doubt in a sermon is probably ok. 

I am getting to Jesus and his interesting aphorism about the sliver and the timber.   In getting to it in regards to this whole justice business, I do have to say that if we really want a just universe, we might have to face an unnerving possibility.    I think of my life, schlup that I am married to a beautiful, bright, loving bride.   It is really not fair.   It is obvious that injustice works in my favor. 

My wife is God’s answer to Job.  God and Job are arguing.  Job is telling God what a lousy mess God has made of things.   Drone attacks, corporate greed, pollution, infomercials…it is easy to make a list.   God nods and says, “Yeah, maybe.”   Then he points to this beautiful woman.  “See, I made her and she loves you.”   Job has no argument.  “You win, God.” 

The unnerving possibility is that the just world for which I long may be too just for me.    That is the twist that Jesus is making.    This section found in both Q and Thomas reflects the creative wisdom of Jesus that turns the tables:

Why do you notice the sliver in your friend’s eye, but overlook the timber in your own?  How can you say to your friend, ‘Let me get the sliver our of your eye.’ When there is that timber in your own?  You phony, first take the timber out of your own eye and then you’ll see will enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.

When we remove this aphorism from Matthew’s frame of external justice we are not hearing an illustration about the judgment of God or of karma.   We are instead hearing about how to be in relationship with others.   More importantly, we are hearing about how we can be conscious of ourselves.   The timber in our own eye is what psychologist Carl Jung called our shadow.  The speck in our friend’s eye is our projection of that shadow.   The word translated as phony refers to an actor in a play.   It is the mask we wear.  To paraphrase Jesus:

You who set the standards for what is right and wrong,
for who measures up and who doesn’t,
you who have kept a tally of  the wrongs you have received,
you who know well the faults of others,
can you see yourself?

The shadow is that part of ourselves of which we are not conscious.    It is often thought of in negative ways, but it can contain positive aspects as well.     It lies beneath the mask that we present to the world.   The reason we see the speck in another’s eye, is that we are projecting unconsciously onto others our own shadow, that part of our personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. 

Carl Jung wrote:

"Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is."

A symptom of our lack of conscious awareness of our shadow is judgmentalism.   The point is not to judge ourselves for being judgmental.  The point, and the invitation, behind the aphorism of Jesus, is to pause when we make a judgment and ask why what we see in others bothers us.  

What Jesus is saying is rather than assume that that person needs a fixing, while that could be true, a healthy response might be self-reflection.   It could be our own shadow needing an audience.   That part that we see in others that we really don’t like could be a part of ourselves that we have hidden or denied.    It could be the caged bird within singing for freedom.

The way of therapy is to identify our shadow and encounter it.   That can be painful because we can recognize that we are made up of characteristics and impulses of which we are ashamed.   But with courage, with heart, we can in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “learn to walk in the dark.”  We can educate ourselves about who we are and we can begin to assimilate those shadow parts of our personality into our conscious awareness.  

The dark or the shadow is not an evil or bad place.  It is not a place to fear.  It is a sacred place, a place where we can encounter the holy.     The long process of life of recognizing and assimilating our shadow is a process descent and ascent.    We descend into the dark so that we can ascend into the light.

The goal is not just to muck around in the shadow and stay there or to allow the shadow to overwhelm us.    In the words of the psalm, “we walk through the valley of the shadow of death” in the trusting confidence that we will walk through and that we will be more integrated for doing so.   We may even be able to see more clearly and can truly be a help to others as they discover their own shadows.     In the words of Jesus,  “then you’ll see enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.”

The shadow can also be where one’s strength lies dormant.   It is the bird imprisoned in a cage.   Discovering the shadow can be discovering those aspects of self that sing for freedom.   When we criticize the sliver in another’s eye, that sliver may be for us what we wish we could be.  It could be the caged bird within singing of freedom.  

I am thinking of the caged bird in memory and appreciation of Maya Angelou who died this past Wednesday.   This is her poem, “Caged Bird.”

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind  
and floats downstream  
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and  
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill  
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams  
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream  
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied  
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom.

The shadow, the timber in the eye, and the caged bird, all are metaphors for what lives beneath the mask that we present to the world.   As we are unconscious of them we live unaware and more shallow lives than we could.   

The depths of life invite us 
to attend to the darkness, 
to remove the timber, 
encounter the shadow, 
hear and perhaps even free the caged bird, 
and to discover the sacred in that walk in the dark.