There is an old story about a woman who brought her child to a well respected religious teacher.
"Teacher," the woman said, Please tell my child to give up sweets. Tell her they are bad for her and will hurt her teeth and her health."
The teacher replied, "Please come back in two weeks."
After two weeks, the woman returned and made the same request.
Again the teacher replied, "Please come back in two weeks."
Two more weeks passed. Once again the woman returned. She said, "Will you speak to my child now?"
The teacher responded, "Not yet, please come back in one week."
After a week, the woman returned once again. She asked the teacher once more to talk to her daughter about giving up sweets. The teacher agreed.
As the woman and her daughter were leaving, she asked, "Why did it take so long for you to talk to my child?"
The teacher replied, "I am sorry for the delay. I did not realize how long it would take me to give up sweets."
There’s a lot to be said for this story. A lot. There’s a lot here about integrity; honesty; and having a do as I say and not as I do attitude. There’s a lot here about loving one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self. And, in my opinion, there’s a lot here about judgement as well.
In the eight years I have served as your pastor, you have not heard too many hell, fire, and damnation sermons. In fact, I’d hazard to guess you haven’t heard a single one. Now, that doesn’t mean you haven’t heard me urge all of us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus or to obey God’s commands. I think it’s important for all of us to do that, but if I am recalling things correctly, you haven’t heard me condemn anyone to hell or otherwise for committing sin.
Perhaps there are those among you who have wanted me to.
Perhaps there are those among you who have wanted me to speak out more strongly about certain decisions the national church has made.
Perhaps there are those among you who have wanted me to speak out more forcefully about choosing to do things other than worship on Sunday morning.
Perhaps there are those among you who have wanted me to speak out more forcefully about giving to the church and supporting the mission and ministry of our congregation.
Perhaps there are those among you who have wanted me to speak out forcefully against some of the policies and decisions made by our congress or elected leaders.
Perhaps there are those among you who would appreciate it more if I firmly stood up here week after week and pontificated upon who was right and who was wrong and who was a sinner and who was a saint and who would receive God’s wrath and who would receive God’s blessing.
I am sorry to disappoint you. As easy as it might be to do such things, I am influenced by something rather profound when it comes to pronouncing such judgements. I am influenced by something rather horrifying as well. For you see I am greatly influenced by something I see everyday; something I deal with every morning, every evening, and several times during the day. I am influenced by the reflection I see in the mirror.
For when I gaze at myself in the mirror, I do not see an image of perfection. Even on Sunday mornings when I put on my clerical collar, I do not see a man who has perfected the Way of Christ. I do not see a man who follows God’s laws to a tee. I do not see a man who is whole and complete. Instead, I see a man who is broken. I see a man who struggles to follow Jesus. I see a man who commits sin on a daily basis and deserves God’s punishment.
"But you are a pastor!" you might say. "You preach and teach God’s Word. How is it that you see yourself in such a fashion?"
Look again carefully at our second lesson this morning from the book of James. Look again carefully beginning at verse eight. Hear those words once more. 8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law."
Oh, the line that grabs me and holds me accountable is verse number 10. "For whoever keeps the law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it." Let that sink in. Let that go deep. If you want to live by the law, and if you fail at even one point, you are held accountable for the whole thing.
Which brings up the next question: do I follow the whole law? Do I keep the precepts of Christ and follow His instructions on what it means to live a good live and be a good person? Three chapters of the book of Matthew are widely cited as Jesus’ ethical framework for living according to God’s law. They being in Matthew chapter 5 and run through chapter 7. We know these verses as the Sermon on the Mount. When I read through these chapters, I see just how far removed I am from following God’s commands. I see just how sinful I actually am. For as I read through these verses, I see how many I actually break. Here’s a few I can say I do not follow well:
Matthew 5:22 is extremely difficult, "22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool", you will be liable to the hell* of fire."
Matthew 5:28 is impossible, "28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
I haven’t done too well with 5:38 and 39, "38 ‘You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."
And verse 44 is not encouraging, "44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." And this is just chapter 5. There are two more chapters to go full of such teachings of the law, and they are places I stumble repeatedly.
As James articulates, I am under judgement. I have failed in more than one point of the law. I stand condemned. I am no better than those who break God’s commands–those whom some might like me to condemn. I am in the same sinking boat they are sitting in. But am I, and they, going to drown?
No, there is good news. James continues, "12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment."
Mercy triumphs over judgement. God’s mercy; Christ’s mercy triumphs over judgement. God forgives that man who looks back at me from the mirror. God forgives my transgressions, and I am humbled by this.
When I deserved judgement, I received mercy. When I deserved punishment, Christ took that punishment to the cross and redeemed me. And now what am I to do? Am I to rain judgement down upon others, or am I to offer them the same mercy I was given? Am I to act with integrity or with a do as I say but not as I do attitude?
And perhaps the next time you and I are tempted to rain down judgement, perhaps we need to take a good long look in the mirror again. Perhaps we need to realize that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Perhaps we need to realize mercy triumphs over judgement in our own lives, and then we need to show that same mercy to others. Amen.