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The sermon for week September 14, 2014

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Judgment and Forgiveness

Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35

It has been a difficult week with these texts. It is hard judging how to tell you how NOT to judge. Not judging goes against everything we know: our culture, our biology. Why is Paul talking about judgment? How does the forgiveness that Jesus is talking about factor in?

I’m reminded of a quote by H. L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” I think that’s what Paul and Jesus are getting at today. To help illustrated this phrase and unpack all of this, I will begin with a story of the sand hill cranes.

A recent NPR Radiolab podcast entitled “For the Birds” told a story of the rare sand hill crane. These are beautiful birds, 7 foot wing span, majestic fliers, native species here in the states. The project Operation Migration helps to create a wild flock of birds because the whole population was decimated and was down to 15 birds total. So they are trying to get the population up and re-introduce the Sandhill cranes back into the wild so that this species might once again thrive.

These birds are all monitored by radio trackers. One special family called “the first family” were the first to produce two little chicks and raise them on their own. This family wound up nesting in a lake in a sub-division in Florida. The bird family chose one house in particular. The house of Clarice Gibbs.

Operation Migration is nervous about this. They don’t want the cranes around humans, they want them to be afraid of humans! Before releasing the birds, the conservationists had dressed up in full costumes to care for the birds and not allowed the birds to see buildings on the migration route. They'd taken a lot of measures to make sure the birds are wild. Despite these measures, six birds have been shot by humans. The conservationists went to the house and saw that Clarice had all these bird feeders up and that’s what the cranes were eating from. The conservationists came to Clarice’s door and asked her to take her bird feeders down for the sake of an endangered bird, she said no.

Everybody just figured she was a crazy bird lady. They passed judgment on her. She’s off. She’s crazy. She’s acting erratic and each time they meet with her, she seems more and more disturbed, not remembering past conversations.

It would be simple to say that “we just need to deal with this crazy lady, and we’ll be fine.” That’s a simple solution that is clear and wrong. Writer Jon Mooallem went to see her and discovered there was much more to this story.

You see, Clarice’s husband of more than 50 years had Alzheimer’s. They would spend most of their day watching the birds. He would watch and when he would see the sandhill cranes especially, he would perk up. For those of us who have witnessed Alzheimer’s, it slowly erases the person we knew for so many years. These big beautiful birds would show up, and Clarice’s husband would smile. And for Clarice, her husband would come back to her for a few minutes. His smile would make her smile. It was her only comfort during those times.

From her point of view, to see these cranes and how her husband responded to them--it was nothing short of a miracle. No wonder she said “no” to those conservationists when they came and asked her to take the feeders down.

What Paul is saying is don’t be so quick to judge. There are reasons why people act the way they do. There’s a backstory to why people believe what they believe. Paul is writing during the formation of the church; Jews and Gentiles are coming together in community and not combat for the first time in forever. After so long being apart. Some of the followers eat anything, others still follow the dietary restrictions of their Jewish faith. What Paul is saying is “If it works for them, then let them follow their heart.”

Now this is hard. This is hard because when we see others acting a certain way we tend to feel guilty. Or introspective about our behavior. Like if your friend says “I’m a vegetarian.” Our response is often, “Wow, I couldn’t do that.” Well, they’re not asking you to! They’re saying that it works for them.

One of my favorite hobbies is “people watching.” If you’re at a mall, or crowded place, you just sit, watch people and wonder what they're all about. I think it’s the true American pastime.

We are wired for judgment! It’s in our society. How can we judge whether or not we’re keeping up with the Joneses if we’re not supposed to judge? It’s in our biology! We have the reptile part of our brain which just reacts. There’s an action and reaction, it’s simple. We have the mammalian part of our brain which sees patterns and follows tried and true methods and that’s what keeps us alive. So if we see a child with dirt on his face walking through the mall, our reptile brain will react and our mammalian brain will say, “Well, that doesn’t fit the pattern and standards I’m used to.” And there’s judgment. “Too bad his parents don't keep him clean. They must be inattentive parents.” Paul is calling us beyond ourselves. We’re being told to ignore two-thirds of our brain and go with the frontal lobe. Only God can judge. We are not called to judge like that, we’re called to love and serve one another.

This is super hard. It’s a challenge to ignore two-thirds of your brain which has evolved over thousands of years and has kept our species alive. So we are going to mess this up a lot. And that’s where Jesus comes in.

In verses 15-20, Jesus is telling the disciples how to act. If you have a problem with someone, don’t gossip about them. Don’t go and talk to other people; go directly to that person and that person alone and talk to them. If they don’t listen, take a witness. And if that doesn’t work, then take it to the church and see if you can work it out. Then Peter said, “Well, how often should we do this? Like how many times, 2? 3? 7?” And Jesus says, “Not 7 but 77 times.” Other accounts say 70 times 7 which would be 490. These numbers aren’t literal, they’re not an actual quota. He’s saying “Always forgive.”

It is my estimation that Clarice Gibbs can be forgiven for not taking down the bird feeders. She should be forgiven 77 times and more! And the conservationists should be forgiven their reaction too. It was a natural reaction but we are called to move beyond our natural reactions.

We judge every day all day whether we want to or not. We judge each other’s actions all the time. As a parent, I judge my children's actions and decide to correct or divert. Do my child need a time out or is he or she fine? We limit video time for our children - we judge that too much video time is bad. But that’s not the type of judging we’re talking about here. We’re talking about background stuff. Why our kids act the way they do. Why Clarice didn’t take her bird feeders down to save an endangered species. Instead of saying “Crazy bird lady” and ending the relationship there and seeing her as a problem or an enemy, we need to ask the bigger questions and get behind the presenting factors. This is something could always work more on. Direct engagement and active listening.

I think things could have been different had Clarice and the conservationists taken time out and shared their highs and lows like we’re doing with our FAITH 5 practice. Last week, I challenged the church to try out FAITH 5, a nightly ritual that will strengthen your bond with God and your loved ones. The first step is to share your highs and lows.

In the sharing of highs and lows, you’re sowing seeds of compassion. To hear about another’s day will help us to understand how they see the world and how they see us. To try and see the world through another’s eyes, to walk a mile in their shoes is an incredible gift and is the only way compassion and love will break forth in our world. It really is a radical act.

The hard part of this is not to judge. When we hear the low part of someone’s day, there’s a reaction to try to fix it and solve the problem. “My low is that this lady won’t take down her bird feeders and might kill an endangered species.” “Well just steal them!” That doesn’t help. “Just take down the birdfeeders lady! It’ll save an almost extinct species!” That’s fixing. Listening to the deeper question of why she would risk doing harm to an endangered species because seeing the cranes gives her comforting glimpses of her fading husband… that’s the deeper reason. We only get their through listening. Just listen. Don’t judge. Just see the world from another’s point of view.

Every night we're training ourselves not to judge and to be quick to forgive. We are challenged and are training ourselves to go to another whom we judge prematurely and get the full story.
We could use this training in our everyday life and especially when we're in a crisis. If we're not so quick to jump on a side and judge we can see the larger systems at play. There are always sides in a story. We have divided up a story these past few months, the story of Ferguson.

There's Police Officer Darren Wilson's side and Michael Brown's side.

If you're on Brown's side you miss a policeman with a sterling 6 year career in law enforcement (Sickles) (Ghebremedhin and Lantz). He's 28 years old and described by friends and family as quiet, well-mannered and respectful (Suhr). He's trained in a certain way and he followed his training. I spoke to one of the officers in our congregation and he thinks that Wilson wasn't thinking of anything but maintaining the peace and his personal safety when confronted with a man who is 6 inches taller and 100 lbs heavier than he was.

If you're on Wilson's side, you miss a teen who was unarmed. You miss the technical college-bound young man who planned to go into heating and cooling (Lowery and Frankel). His teachers said he was "a student who loomed large and didn't cause trouble," referring to him as a "gentle giant." (Crouch). He dreamed of starting his own business.

And if we just pick a side, we miss the bigger picture which these two men represent. We miss the wider narrative. There's racism, poverty, unwarranted distrust on all sides, and so many more layers to consider. We miss so much when we just pick a side in our judgment and work to reinforce that judgment. We need to study the complexity and try to find a way forward that reconciles all sides and every layer.

As a Christian, I'm called to seek reconciliation and healing and not to judge. To turn the other cheek and to creatively respond. I don't see that happening when we "pick a side" and go only with Brown or Wilson. CNN vs Fox. Instead, go after the deeper message and work toward that solution.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

There’s so much backstory, the world is way more than simple cause and effect. It’s layered. I ask your forgiveness for any time I have judged and was wrong. I ask forgiveness for when I judged and was right but didn’t listen. I ask forgiveness for the times I didn’t seek you out when we had an issue to discuss. And likewise, I offer you forgiveness as well. And I will ask again 70 or 490 times more for forgiveness and will try to extend as much and more to you. We’re going to mess this up. It’s hard. But we know now to work on this.

As we deepen our faith as we walk and talk together, may we strive to listen, to understand, and to have compassion for one another. And as we sit in the complexities, we find our way forward together.

We love arguments. We love gossip, judgment and dividing. But here’s what Jesus wants for his people: “I want unity. Bear each other’s burdens, love when people are unlovable. Engage those who frustrate you. Show the world how it’s done. They’re watching. Unity. I want unity through forgiveness.”

Works Cited
Crouch, Elisa. Michael Brown Remembered as a ‘Gentle Giant.’ 8-11-14.

Ghebremedhin, Sabina and Doug Lantz. Ferguson Cop has No Temper, Is struggling with Shooting, Friend Says. 8-19-14.

Lindon, Luke. FAITH 5. Sermon from 9-7-14.

Lowery, Wesley and Todd Frankel.Mike Brown notched a hard-fought victory just days before he was shot: A diploma. 8-12-14.

Radiolab. For the Birds. Found at

Sickles, Jason. “Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson Earned Police Honor Before Fatal Shooting.”

Suhr, Jim. Picture Emergers of Officer in Ferguson Shooting. 8-20-14.

Further Reading
Andersen, David. Passing Judgement. Part 1:
-Part 2:

Lindon, Luke. How Not to Judge Other Parents.

Wikipedia. The Triune Brain.

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