Judging in the Church - A Memory

"Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”  [Jesus]  John 7:24
When Jesus made this statement he was responding to religious people who were very perturbed with Him for not acting very religiously on the day of their weekly worshipping rituals.  In my scripture meditation this week, I came to this passage and the Lord lead me to remember fondly an experience from my past ministry in San Bernardino.  (I think my heart was already pondering my pastoral history fondly because I have been enjoying the memoirs of pastor, professor, Bible translator - Eugene Peterson.)

Each Sunday morning as we gathered to sing vibrant songs of praise, and to study the Bible together, our congregation would be full of energy and there was a buzz of friendship before and after each service.  During each service, the crowd was very generous with their expression, both in worship to God and in response to the unfolding of the Bible's truths.  Heads nodded, eyes smiled, cried, and questioned.  Fingers turned the onion skin pages of treasured Bibles.  Lips sometimes laughed aloud and sometimes whispered "amen."  Except for one spot in the sanctuary.

1/4 of the way back on the north side of the sanctuary sat a man we'll call "Ted" (not his real name).  Each week, as the music subsided, Ted would sink into the pew next to the pole right there in the same spot, 1/4 of the way back on the north side of the sanctuary.  And after the offering receptacles had been passed, Ted will sink into a silent slumber, with his head propped against that faithful pole.  Ted's wife sitting next to him and family in tow.

Oh, my wife and I would smile about Ted sleeping through my preaching and joke about my apparent lack of skill.  Little did I know that there were some others in the crowd who did not smile, but had some unkind words of judgement about Ted's weekly penchant for napping in church.  At one point, it came to my attention that Ted's wife had been approached by someone and within a week I was approached by someone else who was up in arms about what they called disrespect for God, the Bible, and for me.  They complained that Ted was unfaithful, and a bad example for the teens in the church.  They said that 'church' (by which they meant the Sunday morning service not the community of believers as the New Testament uses the term) should have been taken more seriously as a responsibility than Ted was taking it.

Well, long before I was approached by the person who was so concerned about Ted's example, I had spent a few evening with Ted's family for dinner.  It was during one of those dinners that I found out that Ted would regularly work all day on Saturday as a local policeman and then pick up a shift as a private security guard on Saturday nights to earn enough money to support his growing family.  My knowledge of Ted's real life situation inspired me to take this complaint very seriously.

After listening to the person express the entirety of their concern, I asked if they were aware of any others who had similar concerns about Ted.  They confirmed that they indeed did know such persons, and assured me that they had not gossiped about the topic.  I asked if we could get everyone together so that we could all talk together about this very important concern.  They agreed to arrange the gathering and I agreed attend.

At the gathering there was only one other couple in attendance.  This was a great relief to me, as I had prepared myself for a much more ominous scenario.  After they listed the other persons who could not be present for very important reasons, I very briefly confirmed that both couples we concerned with Ted's sleeping during the Sunday morning worship.  I then took the opportunity to ask the first couple if they had enjoyed their recent water skiing trip, the beach trip they took before that, the Super Bowl Party they had stayed home from church to prepare for earlier in the year and a few other events that had kept them away from church participation.  The first couple talked about their busy life quite freely, while the other couple squirmed in their seats.  After some time I explained that Ted's faithfulness to attend church so regularly came at a very significant personal cost.  I also explained that his family had been an example of putting church participation above many other potential activities.  I then asked them to recall any times they were aware of Ted's absence from church for optional activities that could have been planned around church participation.  (This was a gamble because I was aware of at least 1.)  Our conversation went on for some time and at the end, we all agreed that Ted was indeed a very good example of one kind of faithfulness.  In fact, in some ways he was a better example than we were.  One of those couples never attended another service at our church in San Bernardino.  But Ted... he was always there.  And that seemed to work out just fine for all of us.

I served as pastor in San Bernardino for a total of 12 years; 7 of them as the lead pastor in an incredibly loving and generous congregation.  It was my first opportunity to serve in the capacity of lead pastor and I needed their love and their grace.  Even in the most gracious of congregations, there can be individuals who find some kind of personal satisfaction in looking at the apparent short-comings of others with a sense of condemnation or judgement.  I have discovered that most of the time people tend to judge in others the very things that they are trying to disguise in themselves.  We, religious people, tend to look for those who share our weaknesses, but perhaps in a more obvious way, or a less socially acceptable way, or maybe in a way that is just different enough from our own struggle to seem somehow more lowly.  It is just such people to whom Jesus said, "Do not judge others or you to will be judged.  And you will be judged by the same measure that you use to judge." (Matthew 7:1)  Elsewhere, Jesus said to this same kind of person, "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37)  Condemning others does no good for the one condemned and even less for the one condemning.

A church is a communion of persons from various life circumstances, joining spirits in honor of God.  It's the joining of spirits that seems so very hard for us to do.  Yet, the joining of spirits is at the core of what makes 'church' so very important.  Let us hear and obey the angel who calls "Come let us gather together for the great supper of God." (Revelation 19:17)


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