Sermon on the Mount: Eye Test
Last week, as some of you know, I went with a group of folks down to Owego to help repair a home that was flooded in 2011 with Hurricane Irene floodwaters. Before we got to Owego, the site coordinator asked me to send him some information about what kind of skills the folks I was bringing down had. Would we be bringing a plumber? An electrician? Our team was eager, willing to work and help and learn. But for the most part, I had to tell the supervisor that our skills were: none. We weren’t really skilled labor. Cheap labor, yes. But skilled – maybe not. Somehow, our lack of skills resulted in us being assigned the task of hanging sheetrock. The house we worked on was very old, and there weren’t many right angles or level places in the house, and it made it even harder to do a job we hadn’t even ever done in ideal circumstances. Because the studs behind the sheetrock weren’t evenly spaced, or necessarily straight and square, we had to draw arrows on the floor and ceiling and make notes and measurements to remind ourselves where we could place screws when we were attaching the sheetrock. So with my arrows in place I would try to screw a line of screws in the sheetrock from top to bottom of the piece. But somehow, towards the bottom, I would always start missing the stud altogether, drilling the sheetrock into nothing, making holes that would have to be covered up with extra spackle. I would swear that I was drilling in a straight line up and down. But if I backed up a few paces, or asked someone standing farther back from the wall to help me, I realized that I was not drilling in a straight line at all. Not even close. My screws would veer off, inch by inch, into a crooked, curving line. My perspective, too close, looking down, at a wrong angle, made it so what I thought I was seeing wasn’t accurate at all.
We’re continuing to work through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ long section of teaching in the gospel of Matthew, and today, Jesus wants us to be aware of our human frailty of screwed perspectives. Do not judge, he says, for with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
I’ve shared with you before a rule of thumb for reading scriptures, as has Pastor Aaron: If you find yourself reading a passage and thinking about the people other than yourself who “really should read this passage,” you’re headed down the wrong path. When Jesus is talking, he is talking to you. To me. To us. The person he’s talking to here is the person who is hearing his words. That person you know who is so judgmental who really oughta think about this passage? Yeah, that’s you. That’s me. Now that we’ve cleared that up…
Have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t really know how to do something well, while you’re in a group of people? And you find yourself trying to watch out of the corner of your eye to see how the other person is doing something? I find myself doing that at the gym when I want to use a piece of equipment I’ve never used before. I’ll never just ask an employee to help me use the equipment. I’ll wait and watch until someone else uses it, and then try to copy what they did. Everyone compares things. It is how we assess the world around us, figure out our place, what to do, how to group things in our mind, how to notice differences and similarities and be able to process the overwhelming amount of information we take in every day. We are taught, in fact, to compare things. It is part of how we learn. How many times in school did you have to write an essay where the instructions were: Compare and contrast this thing with that thing. How are apples and oranges alike, and how are they different? Compare and contrast doesn’t necessarily ask you to rank things, determine which is better than the other, but it does teach us that we can better describe things when we talk about how they are alike and different.
We get into trouble when we start adding value to the similarities and differences we see. Something is good because it is like me. Something is bad because it is different than me. One thing is faster and one thing is slower and faster is better. One person looks like this and one looks like that and looking a certain way is better. All the people who look like this are good, and everyone who looks like that is bad. Suddenly compare and contrast becomes compare and judge.
Throughout the sermon on the mount Jesus repeatedly says things like “Do this in secret, so that God, who sees you, will reward you, rather than doing this in a public, showy way, so that you get the rewards of being lauded by your peers. Jesus doesn’t tell us to do this because we’re actually supposed to hide the fact that we talk to God like something we’re ashamed of doing – it isn’t a secret to be kept in that sense. Rather, I think Jesus emphasizes this over and over because Jesus knows about our human propensity to be unable to do anything, even talk to God, without looking to our right and our left to see what others are doing.
The apostle Paul tried to teach some early Christians – and us – about the ridiculous behavior of judging others in his first letter to the Corinthians. Remember when he talks about how we’re members of the body of Christ – one body of Christ, made up of many parts. It doesn’t even make sense, Paul argued, for one part of the body to feel better than, more useful or important than other parts of the body. All the parts work together, all the parts are needed, and none of the parts can do the job of the other. The eye can have 20/20 vision, but it will still never be able to smell, no matter what a bad job the nose is doing. Paul tries to help us with our perspective, helps us see each other more clearly.
Along the same lines, one of my favorite verses in the Bible comes from 1 Samuel, when God calls on the prophet Samuel to anoint a new King, after King Saul stops following God. Samuel goes to the house of Jesse and looks over all his sons in turn, finally choosing David, the youngest, who Jesse initially didn’t even bother bringing out as a choice, so sure was he that David would not be picked. God had told Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Jesus is trying to get us to see like God sees, to look at each other’s hearts. To do that, we’ve got to get a new perspective. We start by looking in the mirror, and clearing out all those obstructions that often we’ve put there ourselves that keep us from seeing God, ourselves, and each other, clearly.
Some of you have already received and some of you will be receiving phone calls from members of our Lay Leadership Committee in the next couple of months. It’s that time of year, when we work to people our teams and task forces and councils with people in our congregation who have gifts of leadership or skills in particular areas. Please, still answer your phone even though I’ve warned you in advance! Well, it isn’t just that time of year for Liverpool First – my mom’s church is in the midst of the same process, and she recently receive a call asking her to serve as a member of the Session, the Presbyterian version of our Administrative Council. When she was telling me about this, she kept saying, “They must not know me very well, or they wouldn’t ask me to be on Session. I wouldn’t be very good at that.” I tried to explain to her that she was wrong – in fact, it is my mother who doesn’t know herself well, who doesn’t see herself clearly enough to know what an asset she’d be to the church’s leadership team. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves very well, do we? We don’t see ourselves well, and with our own skewed pictures of ourselves, we have a harder time seeing each other clearly, looking into each other’s eyes, seeing each other face to face, because our vision is already distorted. We’re not seeing what God sees.
We joke in our family about the rose-colored glasses my mom uses when looking at her grandson, my nephew, Sam. We all adore Sam, of course. But when Sam was getting in a little bit of trouble at school, his parents were concerned and talked to Sam about behaving better, about being respectful, about listening to adults. My mom, however, said something like: Well, no wonder he was feeling a little cranky at school. He was awfully tired, he had such a busy weekend. He wasn’t feeling like himself. And he’s so smart, sometimes it is just hard for him when he gets bored at school. Somewhere in my Mom’s head, she knows that Sam can misbehave, and she wants him to be a good boy. But her love for him, her complete adoration of him is so overwhelming and unconditional – she looks at him and sees everything wonderful there is about him. It’s not that she’s seeing things that don’t exist – he is wonderful! But she thinks he’s so wonderful, she loves him so completely, there’s nothing he could ever do that could make her believe he’s anything less than a precious gift in her life.
Don’t you know, don’t you know that that is how God sees us? You and me and that person who drives you crazy and that person you envy and that you might even call an enemy that Pastor Aaron challenged you to pray for – God adores us beyond reason. There’s just no reason to compare yourself to others, to measure yourself against them, to find them wanting, to find yourself insufficient. To try to rank yourself and make sure you’re coming in first or at least not coming in last. God adores you. And there’s nothing that pleases God more than when we adore what God adores – each other. Isn’t that one of the things you love – when one person you love comes to know and love another person you love? When your parents love your best friend? When your children love each other? When you introduce two of your good friends to each other and they become friends too? When your spouse adores your side of the family like you do? God loves for us to love each other. For us to see ourselves and each other in the way that God sees us – that’s what God wants. Because if we saw each other as God sees us, how could we hurt each other? Judge each other? Neglect each other? If we saw ourselves as God saw us, why would we need to make sure we’re measuring up? Why would we feel so insecure that we proved ourselves by pushing others down?
Do not judge. Don’t you realize how blurred your vision has become? It’s time for an eye test, time to clear away the obstructions, time to really see. See ourselves. See one another. Look with God’s eyes, look through God’s rose-colored glasses, glasses that see the best potential in us, offer unlimited second chances and unwavering support. Take a few steps back and make sure you’re seeing clearly. And then you can help others do the same. When you do that, God is pretty sure you’ll like what you see. Amen.