Sermon for Swedenborg Chapel
May 26, 2013
The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven, however many they may be, and indeed, if it were possible; even to Godself; for The Lord is mercy itself and good itself. Mercy itself and good itself can never condemn anyone but as humans, we condemn ourselves when we reject the good.
On this account no person is ever allowed to judge concerning the quality of the spiritual life of another, for The Lord alone, as before said, knows this; but everyone may judge of another in regard to the quality of his moral and civil life, for this concerns society.
–Emmanuel Swedenborg (Secrets of Heaven 2335.32 and 2284.3)
Last Sunday was my first ride on the T during my time here in Boston. Riding up from Quincy to Harvard Square for church. There was construction on the way so at the JFK stop we got off, took and a bus up to UMass station where we spilled off of the busses into the parking lot, up the stairs, over the tracks, down the stairs, and onto the platform to wait for the next train.
I’m a fan of public transit for a number of reasons, not the least being the fabulous variety of people watching that one can encounter. As three bus-loads of people crammed simultaneously onto the platform, there was no shortage of faces and voices and conversations to observe.
The mother and daughter heading out for a shopping trip, the group of college students discussing graduation, the out of country tourists complete with cameras and languages that I could only understand the tones of. Amongst the hum of these crowds, two voices rose above, loud and insistent, abrasive in a tone that I heard before the costic words began to sink in.
The two older men moved closer to the pillar I was standing by and I began to listen to the words. Within the three to five minutes we stood waiting for the train, I witnessed a stream of judgment flowing from their lips. Judgment of women and Muslims, school teachers and Jews, educated and those who educate them, immigrants of all kinds (well, except, as I would learn later in this diatribe, those early waves of Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants), Quincy elementary school’s weekly schedule and Harvard’s willingness to accept non-Bostonians into the school and city. I wondered what group would be condemned next, who else they could think of to judge.
Judge not and you shall not be judged.
In your worship time together here at the chapel, for the last few weeks, you have been looking at the sermon on the mount, this series of teaching from Jesus that we find early on in the Gospel of Matthew.
The fact that they were giving on a mountain, the mount, is striking if you think about the spiritual context of such an image. In the language of correspondences that Emanuel Swedenborg opens up for us through his writing, a mountain represents a high plane of thought and feeling. A place where we feel near to the Divine and can gain perspective and then look at our everyday life and maybe interact a little differently with ourselves, God and the people around us.
These mountain moments, these high places, can be times where we can remember that we’re all made in the image of God and we are called to see theDivine working in everyone, the call to love God and love our neighbor.
It’s in this body of gospel teachings that we find these words, “Judge not.” One of the many messages in the Sermon on the Mount, and the message I hope to wrestle with together in this sermon.
As titles were added to the Bible, the term “the sermon on the mount” emerged, but according to my preaching professor, one would not be an effective preacher if we attempted to pack all that Jesus does in these three chapters into one sermon. In fact, as I’ve been mulling and researching these six verses over the past week, I have found a number of sermons in the richness of the text. But today, in honor of my profs words of, “focus in on one idea per sermon Anna”, we’ll focus here. Chapter seven, verse one: Judge not and you shall not be judged.” Seeing the image of God in all people.
Exhibit A I thought, as I listened to the judgement flowing out of this man’s lips as we waited for the train. Is not this man the one Jesus would have used this passage with? In response to the flow of characters and judgements that were being spewed from his mouth would Jesus have dived in and proclaimed these words to this man? “Judge not!” Silencing him and cutting off the diatribe?
There was part of me that wanted to. Each venomous word, directed at some “them” or “they”, reinforcing the “us” that he stood for. The harsh worlds about groups and people stirred up something inside me. Should I, could I, step in and say: “Judge not!”
Was it fear that held me back? Or wisdom? Or some of both? I don’t know. But I did not say anything. I did keep listening though. And breathing and began praying. Judge not and you shall not be judged. See all people as lovingly made in the image of God. Breathing in and out with that prayer enough times to crack open a willingness to attempt to see how The Lord might be looking at this grumpy old man on the T.
Throughout scriptures, sacred texts, in the words of theologians and mystics, people across the ages, have asked the question: Does God judge us? How does God judge us?
Throughout Swedenborg’s teachings we can hear a refrain about who God is and God’s engagement with judgement. We read it this morning from Secrets of Heaven, “The Lord never judges anyone except from good; for God desires to raise all into heaven…
The Lord is mercy itself and goodness itself. Mercy itself and goodness itself can never condemn” (Secrets of Heaven 2335.3).
Swedenborg describes this image of God–a God who is overflowing with goodness and mercy, unable to condemn or turn the Divine face away from the beloved creation, always drawing us to Godself and to connection with the goodness and love within our hearts and wills. God calls us to this well known phrase we heard in our scripture reading from 1st Samuel this morning: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
And so, judge not and ye shall not be judged.
If we work from the premise that it is not the Divine who does the judging, as the Divine is mercy and goodness itself, which are incapable of judgment, then it turns the lens on humanity, on each of us, to engage the question.
If judgement is not a Divine attribute, then is it a human one. “The Lord can never condemn anyone but as humans we condemn ourselves when we reject good.” (Secrets of Heaven 2335).
Ah-ha–the crux of the matter, humans having the choice to accept or reject the good from the Divine. This is the place that we live as humans, receiving influence from heaven and influence from hell, as we live in the place of freedom, the place of tension between.
As many of you discussed the very end of the book Heaven and Hell at Thursday evening book group, this topic of spiritual freedom is central to this conversation. The freedom that comes in living between these heavenly and hellish influences. The influences of God, endless love and mercy and the influences of evil, selfishness greed and insecurity pulling us towards hell.
And God, out of love, holding us in the suspension between, giving us choice, the freedom, the spiritual space to build our loves over time, and choose our collective orientation towards heaven or hell.
And so, in this place of suspension that is the human experience, we can choose. Not a one time choice that we are then eternally judged on. And not a choice that is arbitrarily made by a judgmental deity. The choice of heaven or hell, both in our daily experience in in our eventual eternal state, is built on, multiple choices, time after time, choice after choice as we encounter ourselves and others and as we encounter our judgements.
Now before we go any further, I think it would be useful to wrestle with this term “judgment” for a minute. At first glance, we can hear this word in various ways. Judgment. Judgmental, critical, abrasive, crude. The man on the T spewing judgment for all to hear. Our passage implies something of this definition when we’re told “judge not.”
But there is another side to this word. We talk about having good judgment, we strive to “judge fairly” be it in court or in a child’s dispute over the favorite toy truck. We extol those who “judge well.”
How do we reconcile these two diametrically opposed definitions of this same word, and what is The Lord talking about in this passage? Judge not and you will not be judged, the standard you use in judging others is the standard by which you will be judged. So there’s some relation here to the judgment, there’s some place for it, but what is the standard we hold?
Here is where I turn again to a Swedenborgian concept to diagram this judgment chart. Swedenborg sketches out two types of judgement, internal judgment and external judgment. God interacts with each human, not looking at the external, but looking at the heart. We as humans on the other hand, cannot see someone else’s insides, we do not know another person’s story.
It is not our job, let alone our possible ability, to judge another person’s internal state. And it is never our job to deem someone less human, less a beloved child of God, less our neighbor to be loved, on any external expression, characteristic, or definition.
External states, actions, reactions, and interactions bring forth the opportunity for a different sort of judgment. This could be called reason, public judgment, street smarts, or wise choices. The ways that we make observations, choices and actions based on our experience, knowledge and, well, judgement. Or as Swedenborg says, “Everyone is allowed to judge concerning another as to the quality, as to the moral and civil life, for this is of import to society” (Secrets of Heaven 2284).
Listening to our intuition, proactive planning, locking doors, being aware of risks, using good judgment, this is a gift. A gift from The Lord as we navigate this word in which we are all left in freedom, suspended between heaven and hell and encounter a mix of heavenly acts and hellish acts. There is a time, a place, and a use in good judgement in terms of the external actions of individuals and collective forces.
The invitation I hear in this sermon from Christ, this mountaintop call, is to not stop with the act of external judgment. Instead, this call not to judge is an invitation to open ourselves up to seeing something deeper in the hearts of those around us, to look for the glimpses of God, to see all created in God’s image.
To ask questions such as: What is the story of this man on the T? Where are the glimpses of the Divine in and amongst the hurt and anger? Where has he been wounded and shut down, how are the words coming from his mouth asking for something that he is not getting? Crying out to be heard and valued as a beloved child of God, seen as a respected member of the human race. How are his critiques of others a reaching and a grasping for creating his own sense of identity by distancing himself from the many “others,” the “them’s,” the “those people,” that are not him?
Before coming to Cambridge last week, I was in Nashville at a preaching conference, the Festival of Homiletics. Brian McLaren, a favorite writer, preacher and theologian, was there and during his talk he engaged this idea of judgement and how often as humans we work to form our identity by defining ourselves by all the things we are not in other people or groups.
He was looking at this phenomena specifically in terms of groups of people, such as religious gatherings, churches, movements and denominations. I would posit that we could both identify with that and that the some principles occur in us as individuals.
McLaren offered the idea that groups tend to build an identity around something good initially. A mission, a sacred text, a shared culture, land, or a space. There is one thing they all have in common. But then quickly it seems to be the human condition, or something, that if the group starts to question their identity, rather than returning to the center, there’s a tendency to look outside of the group and begin to create a strong sense of collective “us”, by creating a “them” out there to dislike, be hostile towards and differentiate from. James Alison puts it this way, “Give people a common enemy and you will give them a common identity.”
We see this phenomena throughout history, in our neighborhoods, churches, families, interactions in the word, in our personal development of identity of who we are, and yes, as we ride the T.
Each time we cover over the image of God in others based on externals, be it race or gender, opinion, physical appearance, culture, ideology, religion, or dress, we engage in what I hear The Lord speaking against in our text today. It is not our place to judge. It is not our place to quantify another persons worth. And in judging not, we then are not judged. By the same measure we judge others, we will judge ourselves.
Rather than building up our own self worth by defining ourselves by all that we are not, we’re invite to see ourselves as beloved children, formed in God’s image, and from that place, to see the image of God in all people.
As we look for God’s image in others, compassion can arise and the desire to dig deeper and imagine what might be going on in another’s life, or in a collective of people, that has led to actions that display in ways that are abrasive to our sensibilities.
We can be called to imagine what it might look like to develop a strong and benevolent identity, as we individually and collectivity move towards those that we have labeled as “them” or “other” in the past and see them as neighbor and fellow child of God.
Naming, as the prophet did, the choice we each have to follow our own flawed judgement (as Saul did) or to follow the Lord’s judgement, as the prophet Samuel called for. To look at others as The Lord looks, with mercy and goodness, wisdom and humility.
When I began to breath and pray as we settled in on the train, sitting a few seats over and down from our loud friend, I began to wonder about his life and mine and see the places of hypocrisy in my reactions. Yes, he was spewing judgement out loud in public in ways that we can easily deem as inappropriate and harmful. But what was I building in the judgements inside me about his words?
I happen to have enough filter, or fear of what others may think, not to be exposing my judgements and thoughts to our fellow passengers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have judgments. And I am blessed to have safe, healthy places where people listen to my sorting out and to be seen and heard by others. I don’t feel need to vent loudly on the T to all that will listen in order to feel heard.
But maybe this man doesn’t. Maybe he isn’t privileged to be surrounded by people who listen to him, who see him, who hold up and remind him of his preciousness as a child of God. Is each word that escapes his lips a reaching and grasping to be seen–to have it reflected back to him that he, he too, is a beloved child of God, created in the image of the one who does not judge, the one who is mercy itself, goodness itself and who loves us all, eternally.