The Gospel according to Ice Cube
This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29 where Jesus continues to preach on the intersection of faith and life. Read the full text here.
Sometimes faith and life are thought of as opposing forces, like magnets pushing away from each other. Faith is over here, life is over there and we just hope that maybe, one day, with all our spiritual strength we can pull these two opposing forces together. But if that’s the way it is, then I’d give up on God and religion too, because that seems hopeless. I might be able to pull it off once or twice or for a little while, but I can’t sustain that kinda union with my own two hands. Jesus says something different. Jesus says faith and life are already tied together, one reflects and informs the other. Jesus says you actually can’t separate the two, even if you wanted to. The Good News of Jesus isn’t just about heady ideals, but shapes our very being and thus our actions. The Gospel refuses to let us compartmentalize, it invites us to engage. If God really is over, with, and in all things, if every one of us is truly created in the image of God, declared blessed, and if nothing can take that away from us, if that Good News is true...then what does that mean for the way we live? How does that shape our our habits, our choices, our relationships, our understanding and practice of justice?
Jesus teaches, guides us in this way. So here we go, Jesus proclaims...“Judge not”….well, I can go ahead and sit down because I’ve already failed. Let’s be honest, I make some judgments. And while I do relish the gossipy self-righteous moments of judgment a little too much, that’s not actually what Jesus is talking about. Here, the word we read as judgment would actually be better translated as condemnation. Jesus cautions us…not to be so bold as to speak on behalf of God and make ULTIMATE judgments that declare people in or out of God’s love and mercy, and that doing so says more about us than those we cast judgement on. And thus says the Lord your God - “you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
Judgement is healthy and necessary; condemnation and condescension is where we get into trouble. I remember when I first took a Myers-Briggs personality test, I was so glad I didn’t have a strong J in my character. That J for judging held a negative connotation for me. “Judgement” was for sticks in the mud and people who need everything to be black and white. For me, judging was that thing that super-pompous jerks do to make themselves feel superior or reveals some narrow-minded worldview. But we make judgments every day - which car seat is best for my family, whether it is better for me to spend my time going on a walk or catching up on messages, whether I should continue a relationship that isn’t life-giving, whether I should get a hamburger or chicken nuggets for lunch. Judgement is healthy and necessary, so let’s not throw judgement out with the bathwater. BUT, in the kingdom of God that Jesus is preaching, CONDEMNATION is not a tool we get to use to edge others out of the God-market.
This past week, I was so disturbed. After the State of the Union address, I saw a relative post to Facebook “I can’t believe all of them so-called women allowing late term abortions. May they burn in hell.” See that’s not just judgement, that’s condemnation and it has no place among our life together as God’s people. And that is equally true of similar posts that mock a more conservative view and dismisses people as worthless and irredeemable. God has declared each one of us as precious and beloved, and no one has the authority to take that away from us, no matter what. And when we participate in condemning others, it doesn’t just hurt them, it eats away at our own souls as well. THAT’s why Jesus tells us, “do not condemn others, and you won’t end up condemning yourself in the process.”
But let’s talk about what this way of life ISN’T. This isn’t a command to roll over in the name of nice, or getting along, or pretending not to care about the things God has given us a passion for.
The church and the people of God have struggled in to find their place in the modern world not because we aren’t hip enough, or make enough Ice Cube references in our sermons, but because we lack clarity in what we’re about and why, or we don’t exhibit that clearly. Being wishy-washy is no way to live either. That doesn’t mean we can’t be open to multiple perspectives, but avoiding clarity on the pretense that it makes us more compassionate or enlightened...doesn’t pan out either. I think people leave the church and religion just as much as when we dance around subjects and wind up saying nothing of substance at all. Because people can smell the BS from a mile away and don’t need church for more of that as if we can’t readily find THAT gospel just about everywhere else.
Here’s what I think Jesus IS trying to say. If we hope to call ourselves followers of this Christ, we are called to the work of self-awareness, which brings us to humility, which leads us to mutuality. When we can look at ourselves honestly, without the fear of having to be justified on our own and so somehow perfect, we can see ourselves as God sees us - imperfect and flawed and yet beautiful and blessed. When we don’t have to spend so much energy hiding the log in our own eye because we think it will condemn us, we can actually go about the work of removing it as best as we can, usually with a community to help us.
This is where what is often called “The Golden Rule” can be problematic. “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is only good news if we would have others extend us grace, encouragement, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, we often would have others do shame and condemnation to us instead. How can we hope for others to treat us with kindnesses that we don’t offer ourselves? How can we treat others with kindnesses we don’t expect for ourselves? Yes, we should do to others what we would hope others would do for us in light of grace. But perhaps the Golden rule should also go on to clarify - do unto yourself what you would do for others - extend grace, encourage, forgive.
We all have logs in our eyes, things that make us blind or indifferent to the ways we hurt others - both individually and as a culture. When we recognize that we’re imperfect and yet still valuable to God and others, we have the humility to acknowledge God’s grace toward others who are also imperfect. We recognize that, in the eyes of God, we’re on the same playing field. We can work together to bear witness to God’s kingdom of mutuality, or reciprocal care and grace.
But mutuality and grace doesn’t mean I’m going to do your work for you. Part of doing the work of self-awareness is recognizing your boundaries and your limits. It is not your job to save the whole world. You can not single-handedly remove the log from someone else eye when they’ve got a death grip on that sucker. You can let that go. Don’t keep throwing good energy at something that will trample your spirit or maul your soul. That doesn’t mean you’re giving up or giving up hope, but you can take a break or let others take up that work for a while. It’s not up to you to save the whole world, that’s already been done.
Do you not know that every gate belongs to god, every place where walls are opened, whether narrow or wide? There is nowhere you or anyone else can go, that God is not also there alongside you, loving you, even when you follow destruction. So do not be discouraged or forlorn if you find yourself somewhere other than where you hoped you would be, God is still with you. It’s true, God make judgments over us and all of creation...and on our own merits, we fall short. But God does not condemn us because God sees us for more than our merits. God sees us as her own beloved child, imperfectly flawed and yet perfectly loved. God lets the system of merits, of score-keeping, and all those systems of superiority go. On the cross, God shows that they would rather die than participate in our power games. In the resurrection. God proclaims that nothing can stop God’s love for us, not even death. God is the only one with the power to make ultimate judgments, to bless or condemn, and God chooses blessing for all of us, even with that giant log still stuck in our eyeballs. And if God doesn’t condemn, how could we dare? Let us go from here, knowing that we we have work to do, holy work. But also that God is with us in that work, blessing us in ways we don’t always know how to receive or echo, even while we’re still in the mess and glory of it all. Amen.