Nobody IS Wrong (6th Epiphany A)
“Nobody IS Wrong”
6th Sunday After the Epiphany (Year A)
February 16, 2020
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; 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. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
I was recently invited to a party where I didn’t know a lot of people. I’m a pretty outgoing person but, as we all know, those situations can be a little awkward. And my wife, Rev. Kelly, was planning to come with me but had to back out at the last second because she thought she had the flu. (It turns out it was just a cold and she was fine about a day later.)
So I go alone, which means I don’t have a close friend to fall back on if/when a conversation gets weird. I feel a little defenseless. So, I try to gravitate toward people I know but most of them are already in conversations. And that’s when a white woman who I’ve met only a couple of times before starts talking with me.
This party was intended to help people get to know each other so I was prepared for that. But this woman, who we’ll call Mary, she was one of those “over-sharers”. I learned way more about her than she did about me because she kept talking and didn’t ask too many questions. On its face that isn’t too bad because I don’t mind listening. But what she said started to get on my nerves.
Mary lives in Savannah now but she spent many years living in New York and Los Angeles. She moved here for the cost of living. And since I mentioned that I grew up in New York, she assumed that I shared some of her views on “the South.” This is one of my biggest pet peeves: Northerners who come to the South and just talk bad about it, who don’t really try to understand it, but just criticize and make fun of it. And that’s where this conversation turned. She talked about how when she visits her friends in NY and LA, she can always share new stories about how “the South is so bad; people are racist and ugly toward each other.” And one the one hand, I agree with her that we deal with lots of racism in the South, but I know people are racist up North and out West too. Different parts of the country express racism and prejudice differently, but racism is an American (and even global) sin, not a regional one.
So what I found annoying was that she was pointing the finger at others without noticing her own faults (for example, she repeatedly mispronounced my name, which is fine, but then tried to argue that she was right when I gently corrected her). And by spreading her views in the North and West, she was fostering the false idea that racism only exists in the South and that Northern and Western whites are morally superior. I pushed back a little on what she said, but she was not hearing it.
This was not the only thing about the conversation that I found off-putting, but it was the only one I feel comfortable sharing in this forum. And by the end of the conversation, I was ready to get out of there and find anyone else to talk with. This woman was just irritating and I better bounce before I start an argument in my other friend’s house.
But I spent some time reflecting on this later, and I realized that I was being just as judgmental as she was. Here I was playing the same card on her that she was playing on her neighbors in the South. I was annoyed with her and wanted to get out of there any way I could. I didn’t want to listen to her anymore and I didn’t want to engage in real, meaningful conversation. After a certain point, I gave up the benefit of the doubt and just mentally I dismissed her. I thought she’s too socially awkward; she’s too snobby; she’s too weird.
In my frustration, I didn’t see her as a child of God. I was unable to have enough compassion for her to respect her in our differences. I was unable to empathize with the hurt she had experienced that formed her own judgmental opinions. (She told me about that too, because again, she over shared some). And even if I am convinced that I’m right and she is wrong, I failed to acknowledge that God can change even the most stubborn of human hearts. I failed to see that God might change me through this sister.
When I see Mary again, I have at least two options. I can continue down the first path, avoiding her, disliking her, and silently judging everything she does or says. Or I can try to exercise the love and compassion of Jesus. I can try to understand her for who she is and empathize with her. I can try to listen and learn and share my perspective in a humble manner. I can show her respect and dignity. Maybe we’ll never be best friends, but Jesus does teach us to love our neighbors, when the ones we find annoying.
In this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shines a light on our own hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Do you think you’re better than a murderer? Well, everyone has been angry and murdered in their heart. Do you think you’re better than an adulterer? Well, everyone has lusted after somebody in their heart. Do you think you’re better than Southern racists? Well, Northerners won their wealth off the slave trade and sometimes have more segregated schools than the South does. Do you think you’re better than the awkward, fake “woke” princess at the party? Well, if I weren’t so mean spirited, it wouldn’t have been so easy for me to call her all those names.
The point Jesus is making here is that everyone sins. We can not accuse others of sins with a high and mighty attitude. None of us is so much better than anybody else that we should hate or despise or dehumanize them. I don’t have to like someone else’s personality or their actions or their words. But I also don’t have to treat them like garbage.
This doesn’t mean that sins have no consequences. It doesn’t mean that we can’t call out bad behavior when we see it. What it does mean is that we cannot act as if we are fundamentally better than others. Everyone is worth more than their worst behavior. Everyone is worthy of respect, dignity, and compassion. Everyone is able to be forgiven and redeemed. No one is too far gone from the reach of God’s grace and mercy.
When I see Mary again, I have at least two options. I can continue down the first path, avoiding her, disliking her, and silently judging everything she does or says. Or I can try to exercise the love and compassion of Jesus. I can try to understand her for who she is and empathize with her. I can try to listen and learn and share my perspective in a humble manner. I can show her respect and dignity. Maybe we’ll never be best friends, but Jesus does teach us to love our neighbors when the ones we find annoying.
Good News of the Week: In God’s eyes, everyone does wrong, but none of us is wrong. Nobody is pure evil. We are all beloved creatures of God and we all have the opportunity to repent, to change for the better. It’s God’s job to judge not ours. Instead, we need to remember that God's grace is available to all of us, and likewise we should extend grace to all. Amen.