[a sermon on Romans 2.1-16 preached at Wine Before Breakfast on October 9, 2012]
by Amy Fisher
Deb Whelan (musical director of Wine Before Breakfast) and I were talking about the songs for this morning and she was reciting some of the words from a song when she broke off to interpret the lyrics for me: “Basically he’s calling her a slut.”
“But isn’t that against the passage? Calling her names?” I lobbied – a half-baked retort.
“No. It’s about how we’re all sluts,” Deb quipped back. And of course, she’s right.
Whoever you are – you’re in this mess.
Whoever you think are – you’re just as bad as the next guy.
Many of you know that I’m writing my thesis about a group of people who work at a shelter for men experiencing homelessness, here in Toronto. I’ve spent a good chunk of time over the last few years hanging out there and watching what happens.
I’ve been most interested to watch the formation of what I’ve been calling unlikely friendships between workers and residents … between people who might not ordinarily become friends, but in the context of this place find themselves passing time together, playing cards, watching games, working odd jobs, negotiating the ebb and flow of communal and organizational life.
Over the course of my time there, I’ve often been tempted to draw a distinction between some who are more easily engaged in friendships with men experiencing homelessness and those who tend to keep them at a more pronounced distance. There are simply some workers who are better at the “doing good” of friendship with the poor, and I’ve often been puzzled by the root of this difference – the core attitudes or beliefs which sustain it.
I don’t say this to you easily, but I’m going to hack out my research subjects a little in case it helps me to make Paul’s point. It seems to me that those who more easily occupy their role as friends to residents of the shelter and who seem more willing to befriend the poor, are those who don’t see themselves as all that different from them.
They know how easily they could be on the opposite side of the counter.
They recognize their own stuff in the faces of the men experiencing homelessness.
Their own loneliness.
Their own propensity for screwing up, or copping out, or skipping town.
They see their own needs, their own wants, their own mistakes.
They know everyone has a story.
It’s not such a far cry.
And so they carry the task of managing the poor rather heavily.
It’s not so easy to make a guy get out of bed at a certain time 5 days a week when they themselves get up early for work only 3 or 4 days a week and even then have the luxury of calling in sick, staying in bed.
It’s not easy to judge a man’s drinking habits after a particularly exciting or disappointing hockey game.
It’s not easy to deny a resident certain simple pleasures – like late-night TV, an extra snack, a grace pass to walk around the block after curfew and shake off the day.
It’s not easy to leave their work at the door.
They feel, somehow, one with the residents.
They know, without really thinking too much about it, that they’re made out of the self-same stuff.
At the beginning of this passage, on the heels of that list of sins at the end of the first chapter of Romans – its easy to assume that a particular kind of judgment is bad – the kind of judgment that is oriented only toward the bad: whatever is envious, whatever is covetous, whatever is rebellious, malicious or foolish: harp upon such things. Stick out a pointy finger at them wherever you find them and make sure everyone knows you saw it first.
That seems straightforward enough.
But my mind often wanders over the course of the text. And this time, along the way, I’ve come to wonder if by the end of the passage – the more Paul tries to unclench our grasping hand from this favourite hobby and reassign it to God - this notion of judgment hasn’t becomes a little unmoored from the narrow idea of labelling sins.
I wonder if it’s about something more than the spectrum of things in between ratting out your sister for having her eyes open during grace before meals and “clobbering” a person with the so-called truth about homosexuality.
What if judgment isn’t just the bad kind – isn’t just calling names and casting out?
What if Paul’s imperative “do not judge” encompasses the two connotations of that word – judgment that swings in both directions.
What if there’s something in very act of calling something good OR bad – labelling something true or wicked – calling someone in or out. What if the very act of judgment – of deciding – of looking around you and assuming that you know better – is the sort of thing that bears with it all the wrath and the fury?
What if it’s the very moment of recognizing something outside of yourself – the moment of parsing yourself out from them and Othering someone as separate, apart, from you – what if that’s the real problem?
If, as Brian assured us in his sermon last week, and again in his email yesterday, judgment is a demonstration of our own guilt, an act of self-condemnation, I wonder just how broadly we’re meant to understand the word “judgment.” Paul is painting big round pictures of things in this passage – using lists of words to stake out the parameters of eternal life and eternal death – stretching out each phenomenon over a number of descriptive terms:
kindness, forebearance and patience.
Wrath, fury, anguish and distress.
Glory, honour, immortality and peace.
Hard, impenitent and self-seeking.
So it’s hard to imagine that judgment is the one thing he would interpret narrowly.
What if the act of self-condemnation inherent in judgment is that you’re not actually separate from the object of your condemnation? What if there is no object outside of you on which you might safely pass judgment? What if you’re always implicated in the rebuke because …
there’s only one humanity. And you’re in on it.
The only thing Other than you is God.
Still, it’s tempting to think that if we wanted to be really careful that we could sort out this whole thing out – who’s in and who’s out.
But … if I may be so bold … I may have a bone to pick with the translators of our passage – whoever it was who decided that verse 11 should read: “God shows no partiality.” The rest of the passage – and much of what we know of God – readily negates that statement. This mistranslation invites us to read back onto the scriptures whatever modern notion we have of the blind lady of justice, calmly, impartially, arbitrating between distinct and distant interests, a stoic and sober assessment, to reach a fair outcome.
But God is not impartial. At least not in the way we’re liable to read it today.
Impartiality is something we made up …
to make up for the fact that we lack all the evidence;
to make up for the fact that we are too easily caught up in the mess;
to make up for the fact that we project our own junk all over the place.
I could hock my puny understanding of the original Greek and it would serve my point. I could mount an argument about how this word really ought to denote a broad scope of acceptance instead of unbiased decision-making. But we don’t even need to do that.
It’s as simple as “For the Jew first and also for the Gentile…” God can see the difference and may very well weigh in that information, come the end.
It’s as simple as “kindness and forbearance and patience” and how these things are supposed to lead you to repentance rather than death.
It’s as simple as grace.
We know that God is partial.
To the poor.
To the one who does the law over the one who merely hears it.
Maybe even to the one who is outside the law but who, deep down, does the good work of the law anyway; that person whose instinct, whose conscience, whose gut bears with it an unconscious obedience to the truth, bears witness to the power and permutation of God’s law.
I love how Paul knows for sure what will happen to these knowers and the judgers, but is less sure what happens to the one who does the law without having ever heard and understood it.
“Their thoughts will accuse… or… perhaps… excuse them.”
I love how it’s iffy. I love that he’s unsure.
Maybe they’ll be off the hook in a way the in-crowd never could be.
Whoever just seems to ooze kindness and gentleness and patience and joy.
Whoever just knows how to give the good gift of themselves to another.
Whoever does what they should without being told.
Whoever hopes and works for peace.
Maybe they’re quite easily in.
Either way, it’s much too big for us to sort out now.
Stuck as we are in this big blob of humanity, we couldn’t possibly know what we’re doing – judging – deciding who wins what.
An omniscient God must look down and see the fullness of a human life…
All of the strings pulling at the puppet.
All of the apparatus holding them up.
All of the scaffolding around the decrepit parts.
All the ripples of their actions.
All the effects of their choices.
The long trail of debris leading up to the instance of a person.
And the wide wake left behind them.
And only then can it be clear what the judgment ought to be.
I don’t have a smooth way of wrapping this thing up… but there are a few more words that have been on the bottom of my screen while I’ve been writing. They started out at the top but kept getting pushed further to the bottom, looking for a home – maybe just point the way for me.
They say simply:
Less us and them.
What if the work of “patiently doing good” is not just that we’re making space in our homes for the Other. But that we must make space in ourselves for the Other. Until there is no Other in us anymore…