Sunday, April 3, 2016

I Believe: To Judge or Not to Judge

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ 
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31–46 CEB)
Church, what are we to do with a text like that? Judgment! Who likes texts about judgment?! There have been moments when I’ve thought about taking a pair of scissors and cutting passages like this one out of my Bible. No one I know enjoys being judged! And no one I know enjoys having to tell someone else: “You are wrong.” Steve Martin, the comedian, understands this reality very well. He once said: Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away...and you’ll have his shoes. Well, maybe that is not exactly my point. But, at least he got this right: we do not like judgment! And we want to be as far away from judgment as possible!

Even in Christian circles, we are speaking less about judgment. Because we understand that folks don’t like to hear about a God who is bent on judging us! We certainly don’t want to think about a God who would send anyone to hell. The magazine Vanity Fair recently published an article on the actress Jessica Alba. In the article, Alba discusses her faith in God. At the age of 12, she became a devout born-again Christian. This lasted until she was 17, when, she says, she was turned off by the boundaries and labels set by fellow churchgoers. That year, she attended an acting workshop in Vermont. There she, in her own words, “fell crazy in love with a cross-dressing ballet dancer who had a baby and was bisexual.” She thought, “There's just no way he's going to hell! I felt like, at the end of the day, God is love and everyone is human (or flawed).”

I think Jessica Alba says out loud what many people in our world (even Christians) believe. God is love. God forgives. And in the end, God will not, really, judge us. But here is the problem, church. You see, we have this book. And this book is filled with passages like Matthew 25! Passages about judgment, passages that describe a God who is pretty serious about judging the world at the end of time, and passages where God is pretty serious about us staying away from sin until that time comes.

So, how do we talk about judgment in a world that really doesn’t want to hear about it?

One thing we have to do is admit that judgment is real. There we said it! We know this intuitively, even beyond the world of religion. Bad choices have consequences—we know this! If you fall, you will get hurt. If you speed and get caught, you will get a ticket. If you eat too much, you will get fat and probably have health problems. Our world is filled with natural and expected consequences for bad or harmful behavior. In this sense, we see natural justice every day. So, the idea that God would judge the world should not come as far-fetched to anyone. Judgment and justice are part of the universe.

But here is a more important point: believe it or not, judgment can be a really good thing! In fact, the first folks who heard these words from Matthew 25 believed judgment was a great thing! We tend to read these words and immediately feel the guilt, right?
  • I know, I’m not serving enough.
  • I’m not visiting prisons.
  • I don’t remember the last time I visited the sick.
  • Have I ever brought a cup of cold water to someone?
But we tend to forget that the first hearers of these words were the poor, the dispossessed, the ones without food or clothing. They heard these words and took great comfort in knowing that they mattered.
  • God cares about me.
  • He cares that people are ignoring me.
  • God cares that the rich are cheating me and my family.
  • The fact that God will bring justice to our world…that is a good thing!
In fact, there is a clue in this passage that let’s us know this is true. In verse 32, the text says, “All the nations will be gathered in front of Him [God].” So, we get this picture of the end of the world. We are all lined up before God and God judges us for not feeding the man with the sign in front of Wal-Mart, but a better translation of verse 32 is: “All the Gentiles.” The word here translated “nations” had a very specific meaning by the time this text was written. It meant “non-Jewish individuals,” or Gentiles. Jesus is saying here that all of the Gentiles will line up before God, and God will judge them for ignoring the poor. Who were the poor? The folks He was talking to! The Jews, the dispossessed, the forgotten.

We see a similar thing happen in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says:
  • Blessed are the poor…
  • Blessed are the merciful…
  • Blessed are the peacemakers…
And we think: “Yikes, I need to be more poor, I need to be more merciful, I need to be more about promoting peace…” But the original hearers were greatly encouraged by those words. Because they were poor. They were already merciful. They were already promoters of peace. Sometimes we take these passages that meant for our great encouragement, and we leave feeling guilty! And in doing so, I think we sometimes miss the point. Yes, we need to be concerned about the poor, those in prison, those in front of Wal-Mart! But the point of this text is this: Judgment will come. And judgment is good. For those who love God, judgment is good. Because we should want to live in a world where things are as they should be! Where poverty is eliminated. Where prisons are emptied. Where people treat folks the way God intended for them to be treated. God’s message here is this: The world will not always be as screwed up as it is today!

I will come.
I will set things right.
I will pick this fallen world up again.

And for that, church, we should be most thankful! When the earliest Christians set out to write down their “I believe” statements, they included this idea of judgment. To their long list, they added:
I believe Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead.
Judgment to those earliest Christians was at the core of the Christian faith and it should remain there for us. We should celebrate the fact that God will come again and judge this world. In our fallen world, sometimes evil wins. Terrorism has free reign. Cancer and Diabetes and Alzheimers come on us like a plague! The rich exploit the poor. Good, honest people are killed for their beliefs. Just this past week, nearly 70 Christians were killed in Pakistan for being Christian! That is the world we live in! But a day is coming when Jesus will return and judge this world and evil will be eradicated. Evildoers will be punished and we will be liberated and freed to live in harmony with God forever. We know that part of the script.

But did you know: there is also a part of this script that concerns the here and now?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a writer and a non-practicing Jew. She wrote a lengthy article for GQ magazine about Pastor Carl Lentz from Hillsong Church in New York City. As if still surprised by her encounter with a Christian pastor she actually liked, she wrote:
And here I have to say out loud how much I like Carl … I like him even though he is ideologically opposed to things that are important to me … He is so worried for my soul, and this should annoy me, but instead it touches me, because maybe I'm worried about my soul, too, and Carl wants so badly for me to enjoy heaven with him. How can I fault someone who is more sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life? But on the other hand, if there's one thing that's true about Christianity, it's that no matter [its cultural expression], it's still afraid for your soul, it still thinks you're in for a reckoning. It's still Christianity. Christianity's whole jam is remaining Christian.
After attending worship services at Hillsong for a number of weeks, Taffy Brodesser-Akner explained that she didn't go to church one week. Instead, she said,
I went to soccer games with my children and ordered a pizza. And at the end of the evening I cleaned the kitchen and I bent down to place dinner plates into the dishwasher, and as I did I hummed Hillsong's music to myself, and then I straightened up suddenly, and I looked out the window into the dark nothing and I realized that I missed them all very much.
Judgment—having someone remind you of what is right—can actually be a good thing. Judgment can actually call you into the life that God has always wanted you to enjoy. Sometimes we do not even know we are missing anything, until someone cares enough about us to say: “You are wrong.” “Come over here…” “Let me show you a better way.”

Brothers and sisters, that is what God wants for you. God is a just God because He loves you! Because God knows that when we walk out of step with His plan for us and for creation, we are not enjoying the beautiful life He has prepared for us.

You may need to be judged, and you may need to judge someone else! I know it almost sounds heretical, doesn’t it? “Judge not, lest you be judged.” But there is a righteous kind of judgment. I have some good friends who refused to judge because they didn’t want to come across as judgmental. After a men’s retreat, they were encouraged to form an accountability group, which they did. Several months after their group began to meet, one of the members confessed to his brothers that he’d been having an affair. They listened, they prayed, they patted him on the back. But they refused to judge him. They refused to challenge him. They refused to hold him accountable. They kept quiet. Eventually, the whole story came out, it always does. Because of their silence, the affair continued for over a year. Because of their silence, children were caught in the crossfire. Because of their silence, relationships were broken and never mended. Because of their silence, that family was not able to move toward a time of healing. They were not able to enjoy the life God intended for them to enjoy. Sometimes, judgment is good for the soul. Painful…yes. But good.

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