Tricky Jesus 3 - Everything Belongs
We are going to pick up today from where we left off at the end of the discussion after last week's sermon. Isa offered the last words in that conversation and they were very good words. I haven't remembered them exactly, but they were something to do with learning to listen, to suspend judgement long enough to really hear and see what is true and real, rather than reacting.
Reactions are what happen when we insert our personal story, our prejudices, our buttons and our 'hooks' in between our selves and reality. When we let our sense of 'how things should be' slide in between ourselves as perceivers, and 'what is.' An example, that some of you will know is dear to my heart: let's say that I've got laundry on the line. I go out toward the end of the day and feel that it's still pretty wet, but it's windy out and I figure that by the middle of the following day it'll be dry. The next morning I wake to the sound of rain. And immediately all I can think about is the washing. And I hate the rain. I curse and stomp and feel despair. All I can see ahead of me in the day is bringing in wet washing from the line and spinning it and trying to get it dry by other means – either living among drying racks or cranking up the dryer. But the rain is just rain. It's not out to get me. And in fact, under different conditions I love lying in bed and listening to rain. And someone else will be lying in bed across town thinking 'yay, rain for the garden!' So what I'm saying is that my reaction isn't to the fact of the rain, the rain is a pretty neutral event. It's a reaction to what I perceive the effect of the rain will be on me – it's a reaction born of fear that this day I will find it even harder to control my time and my environment. I might think that I'm having an objectively justifiable response to a real event, but actually the entire drama is being played out in my own head, and it's made into a melodrama by the existing sets of fears, angers and frustrations that I carry around within me all the time.
This doesn't just go for rain. When Isa was suggesting that we learn to listen without moving too quickly into our reactions, that implies human conversation. How rarely do we actually hear what someone is actually saying, and allow ourselves to understand it as far as possible from within their shoes, from their point of view. How much more often do we hear their words and then react, not to what they've actually said, but to the interaction between their words and the story about ourselves and our needs and 'the way life should be' that we've got on permanent auto-play inside our minds. We don't listen to people, most of the time. We listen to a stress response that has blown up like an air-bag between us and them.
Let's hold these things in mind as we hear some teachings of Jesus.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the great log in your own? And how dare you say to your brother, "Let me take that splinter out of your eye," when, look, there is a great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother's eye.
You have heard how it was said, You will love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike.
(Matthew 5.43-45, 7.1-5)
Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, "I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here.
I have titled this sermon 'Everything belongs', after Richard Rohr's book of that title. His book is about the contemplative stance to life, the stance that is able to receive and accept things without reaction. Everything belongs. The stance which says of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the light and the darkness 'you are part of what is...I acknowledge and receive you.'
When Jesus says 'do not judge' and 'love your enemies', he is speaking of that place, that way of seeing, that stance of welcome and acceptance even to those things that we have been trained to reject. We tend to fudge these teachings. We say, “when Jesus says not to judge, he can't be speaking about making proper moral assessments of good and bad, he's not saying 'anything goes'...so he must really mean don't be 'judgemental'. So... it's okay to make judgements, but not to be prejudiced, or too quick to judge without the facts. Or, don't be nasty to people that you've judged to be in the wrong.”
What that pathway of justification tends to do is simply to confirm us in our opinion of ourselves that, because we are good, we have the appropriate apparatus internally to make good judgements. We end up telling ourselves that life requires us to make judgements all the time, and so long as we're nice people, mostly, our judging ways won't cause any problems to anyone.
But I don't think Jesus is saying 'judge all you want, but don't be judgemental.' I don't think this teaching can be boiled down to 'just be nice.' I think that this teaching challenges us at the heart of our illusion that we are in any position to determine what is and isn't good in the wider scheme of things. Even Jesus said 'don't call me good, only my Father in heaven is good.' So 'don't judge' he says. Get out of that head-space that says that what is happening in the present moment needs to be assessed and measured and weighed in relation to any kind of standard. Refrain from saying 'this is good' or 'this is bad' the moment something occurs. Or 'this is safe' or 'this is unsafe' or 'this will reflect well or badly on me.' Say yes before you say no. Because what we are doing when we apply our assessing, competing, calculating tendencies to the person or the event immediately in front of us, is drawing on impulses within us that are all about protecting our selves and our cherished ideas rather than love for the other. We are letting that air-bag of reaction get between us and the world as it really is. And so we miss out on the beautiful now-ness of an interaction with reality, which is the only place where real love can actually occur.
Judging isn't only about having negative thoughts. When we live with a judging mindset, even if our judgements are largely friendly, humane and positive, we are still only able to see and welcome those things that fit the grid of the life we are creating for ourselves, out of our own impulses to control and order reality. We are unable to receive and acknowledge anything that conflicts with that grid – eventually we have to banish it either by declaring it wrong, or defective, or contaminating, or threatening. And we have to do this outside ourselves because we've already done it to ourselves internally.
We have all been brought up to believe that there are some things about us that are not okay. Things that are naughty, or inadequate, or hurtful to others, or inappropriate, or shameful, or that simply won't get you where you want to go. Some of those things we call sin, like our hateful or lustful or prideful thoughts and actions. Some of those things we just don't like about ourselves, like our big ears, or our singing voice, or our tendency to sulk. Because others, and therefore we, have judged these things, we try not to look at them. We push them away. We suppress and repress them, cover them up, silence or overcome them. And when we see them in others we are particularly rejecting and spiteful. All the energy of self-hatred goes into disliking the same fault or flaw in the other.
And this too is partly what Jesus is talking about when he says 'don't judge – because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get.' What goes around comes around. If you have a judging mindset, you will project a judging mindset, and you will feel the world judging you back. And you know what? You will develop a whacking great log of stuff in your eye – all the stuff about yourself that you can't afford to acknowledge – and you'll wander around half-blind because of it, trying to wash out everyone else's specks. Judging breeds judging. If we do it to ourselves, we have to do it to others.
This way of life is self-fulfilling. If something happens that we perceive as a threat and judge it accordingly, we will attempt to fix, clean or eradicate it. That way we maintain our worldview, and never let that other thing bring its gift to us...the gift that might be intended for our healing or enlargement. I remember once a story Murray told about walking on a beach and being dive-bombed by a bird trying to protect its nest. He knew that the bird perceived him as a threat, equally as he knew that he was no threat to that bird or its babies, and that he actually had whole lot of good will toward the bird. Like that bird, when we see things as threats – whether that's people, or the rain, or an unexpected interruption in the day, or a whole race or country – we will waste a whole lot of energy trying to drive them away, or drive ourselves away from them. When we look with an eye that divides the world into acceptable and not acceptable, we act in ways that create more division, and so on it goes.
Jesus is leading us into a united eye, a welcoming eye, a vision or a perspective in which everything belongs. Or, to use the words he used, he's inviting us to be like God, who 'sends sun and rain on the good and bad, the upright and the wicked alike.' God's love encompasses, it embraces, and it opens to and sustains and provides for even those things that we might prefer to see as beyond the pale.
We begin with ourselves. We begin by accepting ourselves in our fullness, which is to say, welcoming not just those things in ourselves that we like, or that we think others like, but also those things that we do not like, or of which we are ashamed.
Which brings us to the parable I read earlier, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I don't think that the tax collector is being affirmed for grovelling self-abasement. I suspect that this parable isn't even directed at those in the crowd who feel badly about themselves, or who feel they have a lot to repent of. This parable is directed toward those who cannot even see their own darkness any more. When the Pharisee goes to pray, he immediately moves into judgement. His vision is exclusively and habitually trained on 'everyone else', and he makes himself feel good and righteous by noticing and naming the ways in which other people are flawed.
To begin with, he can only see himself by way of all the things he believes he is 'not' – not grasping, not adulterous, not unjust. Assuring himself of all these things he then affords himself a view of his good points – his fasting, and his tithing. He's still judging. Only now he's judging himself and finding himself worthy. As I've said, judging is not only about having a negative view, it's also about applying measurements to everything, turning everything into a competition where something or someone has to be better, and something or someone else come off worse by comparison. The problem is, this man goes home completely unchanged. He hasn't really prayed, because all he's done is talk. In fact, the text reads: 'he said this prayer to himself.' A very apt description of the kind of prayer that simply enumerates our judgements about what's good and bad about the world. 'God, I don't like this, please fix it. God I do like this, please may I have more of it.' The Pharisee hasn't opened his heart to God's all-seeing and yet all-loving gaze, and he goes home still unable to see that all the things he despises in the world have a home in him too...and that all the things he might despise in himself if he acknowledged them also have a home in God.
On the other hand, the tax collector doesn't lift his external eyes to heaven. But the eye of his heart is open. Again, I don't think it's the breast beating that's the focus of this story, so much as the attention to God's mercy. Real prayer is about attuning ourselves to 'what is', to who we really are and who God really is. Prayer is about dwelling in the truth that God receives and welcomes us – our whole self, those things we are proud of and those things we are not. And it's about us receiving and welcoming God's love and mercy. In which case, in this story, it is the tax collector who is beginning to pray.
We are attempting to be a community of faith. One of the qualities that will help us to do that, is an ability to accept. To welcome. We talk about hospitality. Hospitality is the openness of the heart to the other as they really are, and not as we perceive them to be through the grid of judgement, whether the outcome of our judgement is positive or negative. True hospitality receives the gift of another person without assessing them for their impact on me. It doesn't ask 'is this person useful to me, better than me, weaker than me, annoying me, likely to hurt me, kindred to me...' by applying thousands of instant and unconscious administration tests on their words and actions. Hospitality opens, embraces, and accepts. It is not blind to faults and shortcomings, nor is it a haze of inauthentic fluffy niceness that refuses to speak from the heart about what is true. But rather, to end where we began, it's about pressing 'pause' on ourselves and our reactions in order to fully engage with another person or with a potentially challenging situation. It's about being at home enough in ourselves and in God, that we have no need to fear or blame the other. It's about letting things in before we push them away. This, in the end, is what it is to love.