Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 30, 2014
In our Faith Exploration group, we have people who are new to the Christian Faith and long-time adherents. We have doubters and skeptics as well as strong believers. But one thing we all share in common is our desire to learn and to grow in our faith, however that is defined. The moment when anyone thinks that they don’t need to learn anymore; that they don’t need to grow in their faith is the moment when their faith becomes stagnant. None of us will ever arrive at Christian perfection—we will always be pilgrims on a journey of faith that is ever new and changing as life changes. For this reason, we need to be open to new possibilities, new understandings that may challenge our convictions and positions.
Those who are sure of life; those who see clearly, believe firmly, are resolute in their convictions, unwavering in their integrity, consistent in their judgements, faithful in their religious beliefs may be least able to see where the Spirit is leading.
The Pharisses, long maligned in the course of Christian history, were actually not a bad bunch. They were faithful to their religious tradition. They were upstanding citizens, dependable, hard-working community leaders. You could count on them to stand firm on moral principles. They were the type of leader every church would love to have. Except for one problem. It was hard for them to admit mistakes, to admit fault. They worked so hard to do things well, properly and in good order, that it was hard for them to see the good in other viewpoints, hard for them to admit even the possibility that those who disagreed with them, particularly over ethical issues, might be right. Their moral integrity served to limit their spiritual sight. And so, when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, they saw only a broken commandment, not a life restored.
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that some of us, today, are so concerned about “our own modern version of ritual purity and preserving the law that we fail to see what really matters. We might be blind to the truth right in front of us, especially if we don’t expect it outside the normal bounds of what we think religion ought to be. Those who think they have it all together and can judge others may be well-meaning and sincere but they are the people to watch out for, because they think they can see better than other people.” Seldom do these people consider that they might be wrong.
The United Church has a long history of thinking it has it all together, allowing it to pronounce unequivocal judgements of right and wrong. This mentality has served us well in the past. It has allowed us to be leading voices for universal health care, for women’s right to work outside the home, for Aboriginal self-determination within both society and the church. The United Church was at the forefront on many progressive, social issues. But our resolute stands for justice have also caused us to make some serious mistakes. Removing Aboriginal children from their families, punishing them for using their language and practicing their spirituality were not helpful, to say the least, for their education.
We realized that when we are so sure about something, we cannot see otherwise until we’re stopped dead in our tracks by some major upset. We have learned to actually consult with the people we were trying to help, instead of assuming we knew what they needed. We learned the spiritual virtue of humility.
In Aboriginal spirituality, the Wolf is the teacher of humility. Traditional teaching notes that the wolf will lower its head in deference to larger animals. After it has hunted, it will bring the food back to the den to share with the rest of the pack before it takes a bite. Elders tell us that these characteristics teach us about humility. When I was in Haida Gwaii, I bought this mug with a Haida drawing of the wolf to help remind me of this important teaching.
The Latin root of humility is humus, which means the earth, the dirt, probably in reference to Genesis 3:19 which says that, out of the earth, the ground, the dust, the dirt we were taken and to it we shall return.
Jesus spent a lot of time getting dirty—getting right down in the dirt with the very people who were dirty, who did questionable things, who were spat upon by those who lived a more upright life, following God’s commandments.
You see—the strange thing about those of us who try very hard to live ethical, moral lives is that we tend to judge those who don’t seem to try or even care. But Jesus wasn’t angry at them, those who disregarded morality and responsibility —he was angry at us, the ones who try hard, the keepers of morality and the Protestant work ethic.
Just to be clear—we are called to judge. We are called to discern between that which is life-giving and that which is death-dealing. We make decisions and judgements every day about what to do and not to do. But we have to be very careful when we judge and there are two mistakes we often slide into. The first is when we make judgements on the basis of patterns that we have recognized, but misunderstand those patterns when making conclusions. For instance, we may notice that a high percentage of people who are homeless are Aboriginal. The reasons for this have much to do with poverty and racism, but some can notice the same patterns and come to conclusions that are racist. That’s where we have to catch ourselves in our judgements.
And here’s my confession on this account. Some time ago, I read in the paper a headline about an MLA being moved to the cabinet and named the minister of advanced education and literacy. I glanced at the summary and the picture and then turned the page to read the article. It wasn’t until I hit the first “she” that I stopped. I had assumed the minister was a man and was confused when I read “she”. I turned back to the front page and, lo and behold, the person in the centre of the picture was the minister. Off to the side, in the background was her husband, the one I had first assumed was the minister. Even though I was reading the paper alone at the table, I think I still turned a few shades of embarrassing red when I realized the sexist assumption I had made. Judgements are necessary to make, but we need to be ever vigilant to reign them back in when they cross the line of sexism or racism. We all cross the line at times, regardless of who we are. The challenge is for us to recognize when our assumptions cross the line before they turn into actions or words.
The second mistake we make with judgement is that we tend to direct it outwards much more frequently than we do inwards. This is what was really ticking Jesus off in our gospel lesson. It wasn’t judgement per se that upset Jesus so much. It was judgement that was always directed towards others and never towards oneself. It was a lack of humility in the religious leaders of his time and ours that blinded them, blinds us to the gospel of love.
Jesus spat in the dirt, in the filth on which others had spat and walked and thrown refuse. That which was the most unclean of anything around was what Jesus used to heal, to open eyes to another reality that is outside our own worldview.
Humility tells us that we only see partially, that our truth is only one of many truths. Humility suggests to us who are resolute in our convictions to be a little less resolute and open to critique, to the possibility that we might be wrong; that there might be a better way that we have yet to discover.
Samuel Butler, a British novelist in the 19th century, wrote “A blind man knows he cannot see, and is glad to be led, though it be by a dog; but he that is blind in his understanding, which is the worst blindness of all, believes he sees as the best, and scorns a guide.”
Jesus, open our heart to see. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/april-3-2011-fourth-sunday-1.html