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"Who am I to Judge?"

or, Does Pope Francis’ non-judgmental attitude cause him to smile, or does his smile cause him to have a non-judgmental attitude?

A sermon preached at The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church Virginia
September 27, 2015 (Proper 21B)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector

If you’ve come here -- to this Episcopal church -- knowing we are not Roman Catholic, and thinking that you might get a break from what seems like 24/7 coverage of Pope Francis – well, sorry to disappoint you, you’ll have to wait a little longer. Because I want to add my voice to those who are praising him. Thanking God for him.

The current Pope is one of those rare people in life who motivate you to change your behavior without once telling you to do so.

Have you ever noticed that? – that the people who have the most influence on you are the ones who aren’t trying to change you? – that, ironically, the people who change us the most are the ones not trying to change us at all, but are simply leading by example, so that when you compare your life, your behavior, your disposition to theirs, you are so struck by the contrast that you spontaneously tell yourself, “I can do better. I can BE better.”?

Here’s an example: I was watching Pope Francis preach, and greet people. Here’s what struck me the most.

The Pope’s smile.

You notice how much the Pope smiles?

And I’m not talking about my weak little half-hearted grin. I’m talking about a smile that shows his front teeth.

It’s gotten me to thinking: I’ve been with you as your pastor and priest for three years now. How often have you seen my front teeth?

I repent of that. I’m sorry for that.

As your pastor, as your priest, I’ll try to do better.

And here’s why: a little experiment.

Try this:

Smile, really smile, with your front teeth showing…

…and also try, at the same time, to have a judgmental attitude, a judgmental thought about yourself, or another person.

It’s almost impossible. One or the other has to go!

[SMILE BIG] – (you’re thinking, “that cray idiot is trying to make me smile big in church and church is not a place where we should be smiling big it’s a place where we should be dour and serious and angry and judgmental…hmmm….wait a second…”)

Try to smile and be judgmental at the same time. It’s almost impossible.

Now ponder this:

Does Pope Francis’ non-judgmental attitude cause him to smile, or does his smile cause him to have a non-judgmental attitude?

This Pope is doing a lot to heal the church’s reputation – not just the Roman Catholic Church, but Christianity’s reputation, in the world. And a lot has to do with – in fact, it all started on the global stage at least, with his “who am I to judge” comment and attitude.

A major reason that people are driven away from, or turned off by, religion, is the perception that religious people are judgmental.  

The good news (I guess) is, “religious people being judgmental” is nothing new.

The passage from the Book of Numbers we heard read today is one of the assigned readings at ordinations to the Priesthood. As William Placher, the preacher at my ordination pointed out what an odd passage to be read at ordinations: the people get mad at Moses, Moses gets mad at God, and God, somewhere between exasperation and anger, says, essentially, “okay, you want priests, I’ll give you priests!”

Look at it – the people are eating manna in the wilderness, and getting sick of it. “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, but now – just this manna.”

(Can you imagine Moses hearing this?

“For FREE?!? You were slaves! They whipped you, and when you cried out, they doubled your labor and cut your materials in half! They tried killing all your baby boys! I barely escaped assassination myself.”

“Ah, but the cucumbers. And those melons, so delicious…”

So Moses gets mad at God – why’d you give me this job? Are these my people? Did I give birth to them? Am I supposed to nurse them? I need some help here.

And God gets mad at everyone, and tells Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel in church, in the tent of meeting.

Moses gathers them, and God takes some of the spirit that is on Moses, and puts it on the seventy elders.

But two men, Eldad and Medad, stayed back in the camp – they had registered, filled out their forms, as elders, but had not actually physically attended the “ordination service.”

They were qualified…they had registered…but for some reason, they didn’t play by the rules.

But the spirit rested on them anyway! 

So they prophesy in the camp…they’re in the camp prophesying. So someone comes running to Moses to tell on them – Moses, they’re prophesying without proper authorization!

-- and not just tell on them, but someone tries to get Moses to stop them.

“Moses, stop them!”  We’ve got rules to follow, and they didn’t follow them. They weren’t with us, they’re not one of us. They’re coloring outside the lines…!

But Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake?” (Who are you trying to protect? Why are you trying to limit God’s activity?!?) “Would that all of God’s people be prophets!” (May God put God’s spirit on everyone!”)

Do you see this contrast between judgement and non-judgement? This all-too-human tendency to be threatened by people when they are coloring outside the lines – even when they are doing good.

It’s the same tendency that one of Jesus’ followers falls prey to:

In today’s gospel, John, one of Jesus’ followers, comes up to Jesus and says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

How telling John’s choice of words are – this man was following Jesus, he just wasn’t following us!

(It’s interesting: just a few verses earlier, we learned that Jesus’ own followers weren’t able, themselves, to heal a boy, and Jesus had to step in himself. They were incompetent. Shortly thereafter, they see someone competent, someone else effectively casting out demons in Jesus name.

And they try to stop him!

This exorcist was confronting and defeating Satan! He was using Jesus’ name – the formula would have been “In the name of Jesus, I command you to come out!” so he was showing an awareness that his power came from Jesus, and that his success was due to calling on the name of Jesus.[1]

The disciples see someone else whose ministry is successful,
someone else who is doing good work, and doing it competently –
but because he was not following US,
because he was not “one of us,”
because he was not a member,
they try to stop him.  

What does Jesus do when he faces this judgmentalism, this narrow-minded exclusivism? 


He responds with an open and generous spirit. “Don’t stop him. No one who does a deed of power in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. …

“Whoever is not against us, is for us.”

Doesn’t that help make sense of so much that is going on, not only in our church, but in our culture in general?

Judgmental and non-judgmental attitudes are not a new problem. These two mindsets have clashed for centuries:

People who put limits on God’s grace (or try to regulate it themselves) believe in “in and out,” a “closed set” of believers. Once you’re “in,” once you’ve crossed the boundary and become one of us – mostly by proving that you subscribe to what we subscribe to, believe what we believe – then you better be careful not to cross back over that boundary again.   And people who are “closed set” believers spend a lot of time and energy protecting the border, or boundary. These people see Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp, and tell Moses “they’re outside the boundary! Make them stop!” [2]

They see someone casting out demons in Jesus name, and they try to stop him – why? – because he was not following us. He was not inside the circle.

Open set believers, on the other hand, are still concerned with “in and out,” but are more focused on the direction people are going: toward or away from the center.

Therefore policing boundaries are not as important for them as shepherding direction.[3]

Moses, open set believer Moses, says, “why are you trying to put limits on God’s activity? Why do you feel threatened? “don’t be jealous for my sake! Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets! Would that God’s spirit be on everyone!”

Jesus, open set believer Jesus, says, “don’t stop this man – whoever is doing a deed of power in my name will not turn around and cut me down. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

A “who-am-I-to-judge?” attitude reminds us to put no barriers in the way of those who seek to be close to God. And at the same time, to pay careful attention to the direction you are moving.

Because even the best of us need to watch our direction,

and even the worst of us can head toward God.


[1] Insights indebted to Sacra Pagina series, The Gospel of Mark
[2] Insight about “closed set and open set believers” indebted to the blogger Steve Collins. I’ve written more about that here:
[3] Ibid.


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