|To Speak the Truth in Love: Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental|
|Written by Rev. John E. Gibbons|
“To Speak the Truth in Love:
A Sermon by the Rev. John Gibbons
delivered at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist
on January 21, 2007
You know that it is Nancy Daugherty who often illustrates the covers of our order of service; and it is somewhat telling that on Friday she was feeling confused. In our newsletter I announced my sermon title, “Speaking the Truth in Love,” and I wrote that this is something we say together in unison each Sunday. Well, of course, when Nancy got to her illustrating, she took a look at our unison affirmation and discovered that this is not what we say; rather we say we “seek the truth in love.” You know, I’ve been saying this same unison affirmation since I was a child but I guess I must mumble through it a bit because even I am not always absolutely certain if we’re seeking, speaking, sneaking, streaking or even shrieking. Nancy was confused because I was confused.
This illustrates the fact that Unitarian Universalists are not big on creeds – ours is a creedless tradition - because, although what you believe, your credo, is very important, no one can speak for you. Creeds speak for you. And the problem with creeds, or even unison affirmations that are regularly recited, is that they can become rote and forgettable. The English word patter, meaning “a sort of glib rapid chatter,” derives from the rote recitation of the most sacred of Christian prayers, the Pater Noster (the “Our Father”). Patter is the sound a congregation makes mumbling through the Lord’s Prayer.
Now I know that for just this reason some of us might be tempted to do away with all unison readings or prayers or even singing, perhaps (“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee” – well, I’m not sure that we’d all agree); but I believe that it can be useful to be reminded of what beliefs and convictions we share in common (mostly), even if we are occasionally confused and in need of being reminded, refreshed or corrected.
Reminding us – reminding me – what we have in common as religious liberals is what I have in mind for today and for occasional refresher sermons to come. This morning I speak with particular awareness of our guest Ulil Abshar-Abdalla and his family. Ulil, originally from Indonesia, is a central figure in the Liberal Islamic Network. He is doing important intellectual work within Islam.
And, thus, today I will try to articulate one aspect of liberal religion which I believe transcends the distinctions that so often separate and divide us. A unifying feature of liberal religion, I suggest, is that we aspire to “speak the truth in love and to make judgments without being judgmental.”
This does not come easy to any human being – Muslim, Unitarian Universalist or anyone – but of course we most easily begin by talking about other people – those troublesome other people, not ourselves – and so I offer the example of the man who was walking across a bridge one day, and tells what happened:
I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!"
I am sad to say that such is a story likelier told about Unitarian Universalists than about Baptists. There are very few subjects about which we do not have opinions and strong opinions that make fine distinctions. We are intolerant of intolerance! Quite seriously I say we sometimes do less critical thinking than we do our thinking, most critically.
Last week Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox came to our District meeting of UU ministers and said some relevant things. Cox, you may know, is an astute observer of religion and culture. He’s very interested in American theological diversities and, by any standard, he’s a progressive. He had very interesting things to say to us. On the horizon, for example, Cox sees the downfall of the religious right and – among evangelicals and liberals of all stripes, united by opposition to military adventurism and environmentalism (among other issues) - he sees hopeful signs of a renewed religious left. This coalition may include evangelicals, Pentecostals, Christians, Jews, Muslims, humanists - IF we are sensible to join with one another beyond our divisions and unite in coalition; in other words if we are able to make judgments without being judgmental.
One of the stories Cox told was about how, not long ago, our President wanted to make a commencement speech and he was advised to go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan – a bastion of rock-ribbed evangelical Christian Reform. A safe audience, he was assured. But when our President got to Calvin College he was immediately presented with a petition signed by a third of the faculty opposing the Iraq War and then there was a major demonstration by these good Christian students who objected to our nation’s failure to take global warming seriously and to protect the environment. It seems that the intelligence reports the President received before going to Michigan were, we might say, flawed.
Cox shared many things that could – and may still - be a sermon in themselves. Cox, by the way, is an ordained Baptist but he says of late he’s been attending an Episcopalian church in Porter Square that is the most racially ethnically perhaps theologically diverse church he’s ever attended. What makes this diversity possible, he was asked. He responded saying that diversity is made possible by a broad and inclusive liberal Christian liturgy: people can interpret many things in whatever way they want; they don’t argue about whether this word or that word is politically correct. They also talk a lot about Jesus and, as a result, they are drawn to an ethic of Christian compassion. Again, they make judgments without being judgmental.
Cox observes that some of the real troglodytes of the religious right – James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell – rarely talk about Jesus. They beat their breasts talking about American values and they pull out obscure quotations from Leviticus or someplace saying that gay people should be stoned or abortion condemned or whatever, but Dobson, Robertson and Falwell don’t talk much about Jesus because when you start talking about Jesus, pretty soon you’re talking about clothing the naked, or sheltering the homeless, or feeding the hungry, or tending to one’s neighbor or the powerless, the dispossessed and the least among us.
Harvey Cox even made the case that talking about Jesus can promote not just compassion but theological diversity. Jews know stories about this rabbi. Some Christians know something about Jesus. Jesus is in the Qur’an; Muslims know Jesus. Buddhists know a bodhisattva when they see one. And secular humanists – people, some like us – we, too, know about things like analogies and metaphors.
Cox recalled speaking at the UU Church in Memphis, Tennessee a number of years ago when, in an effort to promote racial understanding, there were attempts to partner white and black churches. And an effort was made to find some sort of similarity between the partnered congregations. When it came to the UU’s, the organizers said, “Well, Unitarian Universalists know about Jesus and you think of him as a man, a teacher, not as the son of God, right?” And the UU’s said right, and so they were partnered…with the Black Muslims because the Muslims know about Jesus and don’t consider him divine; and, well, we all can wonder how that partnership is going.
This morning I promised you a sermon about speaking the truth in love but I didn’t promise that it would be an easy sermon for you to listen to. And so, just to see if I can do it and you can still hear it, the story I’m now going to tell is a story about Jesus. Ulil (and other newcomers): you should know that I’m treading lightly here because this congregation is really quite eclectic with people whose background is Jewish, Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Muslim and positively indefinable. We tend to be united by values which may be non-parochially spiritual or humanist but you can also go a long time here without hearing much about Jesus. This morning the congregation is hearing way more about Jesus that they’re used to and now I’m going to tell them still more. So, you see, I’m working hard to keep the congregation from judging and possibly stoning me.
However, to illustrate what I suggest is a liberal religious value – the value of speaking the truth in love and making judgments without being judgmental, here’s the story I want all of you to try to hear. It’s from the Gospel of John, Chapter 8. Read along now in your Bibles, verses 1-11. This is the parable of the woman taken in adultery.
Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives.
And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
I told someone that I was going to illustrate my sermon with the parable of the woman caught in adultery and this person said, “Well, what did they do to her? Kill her?” And that is precisely what they did not do.
Think about the elements of that story. First of all, we can wonder where was the man caught in adultery? (presuming it was a man), but as it is the accusers came prepared to kill her, and Jesus wrote in the sand (this, by the way, is the only example of Jesus ever writing that appears anywhere in the Bible) suggesting that whoever among them was without sin should cast the first stone. And then, one by one (the eldest first), they drop their stones leaving Jesus and the woman alone. Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her and that she should go and sin no more.
This parable tells us a lot about judgmentalism. First of all, the accusers used the woman’s behavior as a means of self-avoidance. Interpret this politically or personally, but as long as you can concentrate on someone else’s external behavior, you need not look at your own. In general, human beings like to be distracted from our own limitations – why look at our own issues when instead we can look at yours? Another thing is that the accusers saw in this woman nothing except one thing: she was not a human being; she was an adulterer. That defined her and blinded her accusers to any larger context. What more might have been going on in this woman’s life?
When we use labels to pigeonhole people, well, we treat people like pigeons and the hole isn’t big enough. Terrorists! Liberals! Conservatives! Evangelicals! Zealots! Idiots! He is just a bore! Fill in the stereotypical blank.
The kid who stabbed the other kid on Friday at Lincoln/Sudbury High School. A murderer, apparently, but what more was going on with him? He too is still and will remain a human being.
Now – going back to the parable - understanding the larger context of the woman’s life may not excuse her behavior but, you know, it does makes a difference to try to understand another’s life.
Biblical interpreters aren’t altogether sure what’s going on with Jesus writing in the sand but perhaps the whole thing was so devastating a humiliation that he didn’t even make eye contact so as not to further shame her.
And then, what happens? Jesus asked the accusers to get their minds off this poor woman and instead think of their own lives; not scapegoat her. And when they did, one by one the accusers decided that probably they were not suited to throw the first stone and so they left. Jesus approached the woman with kindness, didn’t exonerate her or tell her it was no big deal. He simply told her to go and change her life.
Sin is another thing Unitarian Universalists don’t talk a lot about and I understand why: a lot of religion does a lot of pointing the finger. And going back to the theology of people like William Ellery Channing, we religious liberals tend to be more interested in ways that we may emulate our likeness to God and not be told that we’re depraved and worthless. And yet: when in our own mission statement, right here in Bedford, we say that one of our purposes as a congregation is to “change ourselves and the world,” well that’s another way of saying that we and the world are in some need of changing and that, in some large and small ways, as things are now, we’re missing the mark. “Missing the mark,” you know – in the same way that an arrow misses the mark on a target – missing the mark is the etymology of the word sin (it’s from a Greek root, hamartia, that means missing the mark); and let’s just say that when I look at the world and when I look at my own life, we and I are somewhat, uh, missing the mark. We don’t need to club one another or ourselves with accusations of sin, but I don’t need to look at the things that you or I or anybody else does or doesn’t do to realize that missing the mark is a very nearly constant feature of your life and my life and our world.
Take a look at what’s on the insert about judgment and judgmentalism. I’m not going to go through this but “healthy judgment involves concern for others;” “judgmentalism is not concerned for others.” A liberal religious outlook tries to see the larger picture.
I’m going to leave you this morning with another story told at that last week’s ministers meeting, and it is a story told by a colleague who described her annoyance at regularly finding beneath the windshield wiper of her car one of those little pamphlets that those religious crazies pass out: you know, the ones with the black and white drawings of notorious sinners being burned in the flames of hell on the cover and then inside there are descriptions of just who is going to hell – gays and lesbians (no doubt), adulterers, non-believers, liberals, Unitarians, Muslims, whomever.
And then, a little while ago, my colleague was outside her church and she saw a man she’d often seen before, a pretty grimy unkempt alcoholic homeless man who was often in her neighborhood, a man she recognized and who recognized her; a man who in an odd but helpful sort of way kept an eye on who was coming and going; a man who the minister had sometimes helped with food and clothes and money. And so this time – just recently - they chatted for a minute in the alleyway and finally the man said, “Here, you’ve done so much for me; I’d like to give you something.” And out of his jacket he pulled a pile of the little pamphlets and he gave her one.
So now she knew who’d been doing the leafleting and, not wanting to be judgmental, she was tempted not to say anything more but finally, knowing that making judgments is nonetheless important, she said, “You know, some of the things said inside these pamphlets are really hateful and make me feel really bad.” To this, however, the man was shocked and he said, “Oh no. God loves you. God loves me. God loves everybody. The Kingdom of God is in you and me and everybody.”
And so, pretty quickly my friend, the minister, realized that this man could not read and he had no idea what was inside his pamphlets. Intuitively, though, illiterately – whatever the words, whatever the scary pictures - his real religion was not judgmental but inclusive. And the story ends with him shuffling off, repeating “The Kingdom of God is in you and me and everybody.” That even such a man as had no idea what he was doing, to describe such a man as a religious crazy…well, such a description would miss the mark.
Judgments are important. I put the panels from Doonesbury on the back of the order of service because it’s ridiculous to just “teach the controversy.” Sometimes you need to call ‘em as you see ‘em. The other day our parishioner Paul Lawrence reminded me that it may not always be helpful to divide things into judgmental categories of right and wrong, but perhaps things that are more or less accurate, more or less helpful. It’s important for us to have the confidence, the guts to make judgments.
Being judgmental, however, is inaccurate and unhelpful – diminishing and damaging to others and to ourselves for when turned on ourselves judgmentalism produces shame.
To speak the truth in love and to make judgments without being judgmental, I recommend a kind of insecure arrogance or a self-confident humility or as I heard someone say of himself, “I am an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.”
May we be humble – we are only dust. May we be confident – we are, as well, the same stuff as stars.
Let’s conclude with a big risk and together in unison let’s read the entirety of Ken Patton’s words with which we began, No.437 in our hymnals, “Let Us Worship”:
Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips;
All life flows into a great common life,