Lessons Along the Way: Knowing Our Place

Proclaimer: Emily Hull McGee | Scripture: Matthew 7:1-12 | Sunday, March 12, 2023


From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.


Jesus continues with his encouragement away from what distracts us
from God’s kingdom here on earth and toward that which brings life. We
remember those distractions: “do not pray and fast and give alms so that
everyone else will admire you, do not store up treasures on earth, do not
worry,” to which we add today: “do not judge.”

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged, Jesus says. Deal with the
plank in your own eye before focusing on the speck in another’s. Don’t throw
what’s holy to the dogs. But as you pray to God, do be bold!: ask, seek, knock.
And do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

There’s so much good here today, but I want us to sit a bit with these
first few verses about judgment.

Do not judge, Jesus says. So how do we judge? Oh the list is varied
alright. We judge based on standards we set for ourselves, or on priorities we maintain, or on the ways we perceive right and wrong, or from expectations
we carry (expectations so often unstated or unacknowledged). We judge
ourselves with the exacting stare of perfection or self-preservation. We
judge the past based on the standards of the present, looking with clear eyes
back into times and spaces where our ancestors “saw through a glass dimly.”
From the most significant (slavery and the subjugation of racial minorities,
women, LGBTQ citizens, those who are differently abled), to the most
practical (how people could have lived without indoor plumbing or Chick-fil-A
or iphones!), to the most relational (your dad’s emotional availability, your
mom’s perspective on marriage and child-rearing), we almost can’t help but to
judge when looking back. Yet we’d be wise to expect the same as our
descendants look back upon us, judging perhaps the way we live, what we
eat, how we work, who we’ve become. We judge ourselves, too often awash
in self-criticism and shame. Judgment, it seems, comes as naturally to us as

So when Jesus says, “do not judge,” are there any nuances we should
understand? Perhaps another way to understand what he’s saying is to hear
“do not judge” to mean “do not be judgmental, or hypercritical, or hunting for
faults.” As scholar Amy-Jill Levine reminds us, “‘do not judge’ means do not
put yourself in the role of God; it means: do not presume to know what’s in
someone’s heart.”1 Even better, Jesus suggests, is to deal with your own
issues first. Attend to your own blind spots. Deal with the plank that’s in your
own eye before you point out the speck in another’s. And once you’ve done
that, approach each other gently instead of from the right and hard place.
Start instead with your “doubts and loves,” as Yehuda Amichai names, for I bet there’s far more overlap across the political or theological spectrum when
talking about our doubts and loves than when talking about our strategies or
plans, and far more compassion when we remember each other’s humanity


It was Anthony de Mello who offered a rather practical, if hard solution.
“Every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone,” he said, “the
one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not,
‘what’s wrong with this person,’ but ‘what does this irritation tell me about
myself?’” “Do this right now,” he directs his reader. “Think of some irritating
person you know and say this painful but liberating sentence to yourself: ‘the
cause of my irritation is not in this person but in me.’

“Having said that,” de Mello continues, “begin the task of finding out
how you are causing the irritation. First look into the very real possibility that
the reason why this person’s defects or so-called defects annoy you is that
you have them yourself. But you have repressed them and so are projecting
them unconsciously into the other. This is almost always true but hardly
anyone recognizes it. So search for this person’s defects in your own heart
and in your unconscious mind, and your annoyance will turn to gratitude that
his or her behavior has led you to self-discovery…”3

(Pretty positive that Anthony de Mello is holier than I am!)
Man alive, do we ever find any way possible NOT to do this, right? Can
you imagine if our elected leaders got on cable news and instead of bashing
each other, revealed a new self-awareness that their political opposite helped them to see? Can you imagine if Elon Musk tweeted a new self-discovery
instead of a new burn on someone each day, or if Kim Kardashian shared
about her newfound peace from the throngs who comment on her posts each
day? Can you imagine discovering your own plank when thinking of the Elon
Musks or Kim Kardashians, or the politicians or the pundits, or the girl at
work who drives you crazy or the neighbor down the street who you just
can’t stand? What if the beliefs or attitudes or expectations or opinions or
judgments to which you’ve clung so tightly are the very things now hardening
the ground of your heart? What might pruning and plowing do for you, for
your life, and for the world? Do you have the courage to find out?


“I preached about a gun rights advocate. He wasn’t who I thought.” That
was the headline in the USA Today op-ed back in 2017 when Dr. Amy Butler,
then-Senior Pastor of The Riverside Church, one of our country’s most
deeply influential churches particularly in the 20th century, wrote about her
experience meeting Todd Underwood. You see, Amy had preached that week
on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly singling out Jesus’ commandments
to love our enemies. There, she told the story of Todd Underwood, owner of
United Gun Group, which is, as they describe, a “social marketplace for the
firearms community,” and were, as they are now known, the platform through
which George Zimmerman sold the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin.

You see, Todd had participated in a social experiment run by a group
called Narrative 4, where people on opposing sides of the gun control debate
meet each other, spend time together, and share their stories. Todd had met
Carolyn Tuft, a mother of four whose youngest daughter had been shot in the
mall where they were buying Valentine’s cards. Together, they did the hard and necessary work to sift through all that divides and distances so as to find
even the smallest patch of common ground to sit upon for a moment.

Amy had told this story in her sermon called “The Hardest
Commandment,” and not too long thereafter, she received a message from
Todd. “Can we talk?,” he asked. Amy named her general nervousness as they
arranged for a time to meet, and after they had exchanged the usual
greetings at the beginning of the call, Todd then stuns her by saying this: “I
read your sermon where you mentioned me and I know you were talking
about loving our enemies and I wanted to know if you thought of me as the
enemy in that story.”

Amy named how this question caught her off guard, immediately asking
that she lay down the assumptions she’d carried about Todd. She told him no,
that “she thought the story was a great example of the tremendously difficult
work of human relationship, how when we love our “enemies” — that is, see
their humanity and risk relationship with people who believe the exact
opposite that we do — we sometimes find there are things we share in

And wouldn’t you know it, over the course of the 30-minute
conversation that followed, they’d discover some common ground. Yes, there
were clear differences over all the places you might expect a conservative
man living in rural Missouri and a liberal woman living in New York City to
have: abortion, politics, the 2nd Amendment, racism, education, you name it.
Yet when their conversation turned back to scripture, Amy asked Todd,
“Todd, if you could sum up the Bible in one sentence, what would it be?”

“You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and love your
neighbor as yourself,” he replied. After a couple of beats I said, “Wow. That’s
exactly what I would have said.”

“In that moment,” Amy continued, “I felt we stepped onto a small piece
of ground that was shared, where each of us moved over to make room for
the other and where we understood each other in ways that surprised both
of us. And where I was jarred by, well, his humanity. His personhood…. But he
listened to me. And I listened to him. And we landed in an easy alliance where
we agreed to disagree and not to allow that disagreement to preclude
friendship. It was the strangest feeling.”4

The complexities and passions of a story like this are many, and there
are far more layers to relationships forged within the stain of racial violence
than we can unpack today. But I hope we all can hear in Amy and Todd’s story
the hard and necessary work of plank-dislodging when the stakes are so very
high, of asking the question that Anthony de Mello posed about what of me is
being revealed in the anger or irritation or judgment I feel toward another, of
wrestling with the wholly and holy inconvenient truth that each and every
one of us bears the image of God in this world. Judgment aside, Amy and
Todd kept talking and listening, and perhaps we might do that too.


So friends, what if this week you considered your place? What if you
pruned and plowed the hard ground of your judgment, not by obsessing a moment longer about the other person giving you such heartburn, but about
turning a gentle eye toward your own soil? What if, each day this week, you
identified one judgment you’ve been carrying and asked, and sought, and
knocked to God to help you locate your own plank within? What if you sat
with those self-discoveries and got curious about them, not beating yourself
up for them, but seeking instead to learn something God would have you to

I bet that the doubts and loves and curiosities and humilities would
soften that ground and make fertile the soil. And I wonder if the flowers of
spring might just press through, surprising you with new life once again.