Let me begin by thanking the staff of this beautiful Cathedral for the invitation to preach on behalf of the citizens of the State of Indiana. It’s a real privilege.
Who am I to judge? Who am I to judge?
One hears that response quite frequently in the kind of university setting that I’ve been teaching in much of my adult life. I say, “What about Hitler and the Holocaust or Pol Pot and the horrible things that happened in Cambodia? What about Joseph Stalin or Chairman Mao where reliable evidence would suggest perhaps 20 million people were killed, directly or indirectly, under their auspices? What about people who have done horrible things, like abusing children or depriving other people of the basic necessities of life? What about people who are rapists or violate the dignity and worth of others, the most vulnerable in society? What about them?”
It may be, of course, that when a young person in our society says, “Who am I to judge”, they are, in fact, hesitating to play God, that they really don’t know what goes on in the heart and minds of other people that motivates them in their behavior. Or it may be they simply want to be open minded about the unresolved issues of the day. They want to be of liberal spirit. Who am I to judge?
I say in return to them, “It’s an adult responsibility to judge. It has to do with the values of your life, what gives you a sense of dignity and worth.”
First of all you judge your own behavior and recognize your failure and seek forgiveness from the living God, or seek forgiveness from the person whom you have harmed. And we legitimately judge the behavior of others, if not their soul. Surely we do not want to play God, but a meaningful life, a happy life, requires judgement constantly about behavior, about policy, about the ways we use our God-given talent in the proper service of others. So we need to judge.
But a second set of problems may have to do with the nature of sin, and its elusiveness. There was a wonderful book a number of years ago called, Whatever Happened to Sin? by a Christian psychologist. And his point was that in this day in age of history and the post-scientific revolution, we can “poo poo” sin. We redescribe bad behavior. It all has to do with our genes or our environment. We’re not really responsible. And if we’re not responsible we’re not fully moral individuals in the world. We’re not free. We’re not fully human.
For sin and freedom go together. Sin is the violation of freedom of our promise to God at our Baptism that we would live a good life in imitation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To be a sinner, in some sense, is to be human. So to acknowledge our sinfulness, not to escape into the easy excuses, is to be more fully human than not.
So we have two enlightening stories from our Scripture readings today. One about a person in power, King David, who lusted after the wife of Uriah, one of his military troops. And he concocted a scheme that Uriah would be killed in conflict, but he would not be blamed. And then subsequently marries her, and she bears him a child. And Nathan comes representing in some prophetic way the voice of God. And begins to accuse him of his sin. And uses a parable to indict him. Of course, David knew his sin. He had a guilty conscience, but thought he had gotten away with murder. And Nathan holds him accountable. And in the process, David experiences a measure of forgiveness. And yet because of the significance of his deed, he will pay the price in the future.
And Jesus, in a situation that was so often a teaching moment for him, the context of a meal in which he so often displayed his openness to the outcasts of society, to those who had been written off by others, in this case is invited to a meal by a Pharisee. And it becomes again a teaching moment. For the Pharisee had invited a woman of less than the best reputation, a public sinner, and it becomes a way of catching Jesus. For she is effusive in the way she greets him, with tears and the wiping of feet, a most basic gesture in a desert culture. And then anointing him. It comes a way of connecting this sinner with Jesus who brought forgiveness into her life.
But the indictment, in a great reversal of expectation, becomes directed not at Jesus but at the Pharisee. For he tries to play God, thinks that he’s immune from accusations against himself. And so Jesus once again uses a parable, and he indicts himself.
Of course the answer in the Christian tradition about who is to judge is that we are all to judge. But not easily. And not according to the wrong standards. We are to judge ourselves and others by the standards of the Gospel, the degree of love we manifest in our relationships, the justice that prevails in our response and interactions to the needs of others, the integrity of our life in the workplace, our faithfulness to the commitments we make—another high capacity in human freedom.
We are called to judge ourselves by the highest standards, and inevitably as we grow older in the human condition, we recognize our failure, our insufficiency, and we turn to the living God, in God, the God manifest in Jesus, a God who heals, who forgives, who enables us to make a new start.
In some sense, the Christian life is a progressive pattern of a recognize of our need for forgiveness of our human failure. But never to the extent that we lose our hope, our capacity for change. For we can live a grace-filled life. We can be charged in the power of the Holy Spirit to do wonderful things, to rise to the challenge of the pattern of behavior that Jesus gives us in the Gospels.
So let us answer the question, “Who am I to judge?” by doing it properly as Jesus did, recognizing when someone comes to us seeking forgiveness from us, our responsibility to offer in turn, not by trivializing what happened, but by accepting a recognition from the other human agent of the need for change before God.
And may in the quiet of our hearts, whether in a beautiful Cathedral or in the wonders of nature, as we periodically review how we stand before God and recognize our failures as well as our grace-filled successes, may we turn to that God as this woman did and as David reluctantly did and say, ‘Oh Lord, forgive me, for I have failed. I am a sinner.”
We proclaim in this beautiful liturgy here the presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. We are buoyed by that recognition. We are comforted by that presence. May this gathering in prayer that we celebrate today be an opportunity for renewal in the Spirit not only for a recognition of our sinfulness, but even more, for the perpetual power of Christ forgiving presence in our life.
May God be with us in the days and weeks and years ahead.