From Jailbird to Freebird: The Prison of Judgment

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost:

And the Lord changed his mind. (Exodus 32:1-14)
Invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. (Matthew 22:1-10)

Our first song this morning comes from the Atlanta-based duo known as the Indigo Girls. Welcome Me comes from their second album Nomads, Indians, Saints which was released ten years ago back in 1991.

[Verse] Welcome me to the city of angels,
devil prophets still hold my hand.
I walked your stillborn streets for hours,
ethnic echoes spitting out their trials.
[Chorus] I’ll be the first to praise the sun,
the first to praise the moon,
the first to hold the lone coyote,
the last to set it free.

The story is told of a woman who went gambling in Atlantic City. She had won a bucketful of quarters at the slot machines and decided to take a break in her hotel room. As she approached the elevators she noticed two black men were already in the elevator. She hesitated. “They’re going to rob me,” was her first thought, as she clutched her bucket tighter.

Then, she chastised herself for being so judgmental, and boarded the elevator. As she stood between the men, she became nervous and anxious. Those racial stereotypes are hard to shake when you’re standing between two black guys with a bucketful of cash! She avoided eye contact with the men as she stood there – a moment passed, then another moment as she realized the elevator wasn’t moving. Her heart was racing now as she stood between the men with her cash inside the closed, not moving, elevator. She just knew she was going to be robbed now.

Then one of the men said, “Hit the floor.” Instinct kicked in and the woman flung the bucket upward as she hit the floor. She covered her head as the quarters showered around her. “Take the money, just spare me!” she cried in her head as she cowered on the ground.

“Ma’am,” said one of the men, “if you’ll just tell us what floor you’re going to, we’ll push the button.”

The woman looked up at the two men, who, by now, were holding in their laughter. She was confused but they helped her up as the other one told her, “When I told my friend here to hit the floor I meant that he should hit the elevator button for our floor. I didn’t mean for you to hit the floor, ma’am.”

The woman was too humiliated to speak as the men helped gather up her coins. When they finally got to her floor, they walked her to her room. She was so shaken they didn’t think she’d make it. After she went into the room she could hear the men laughing as they went down the hall.

The next morning, a dozen roses were delivered to her room – and on each rose was tied a $100 bill. The card read: “Thanks for the best laugh we’ve had in years.” It was signed: Eddie Murphy and Michael Jordan.

According to the Internet that is a true story – so it must be, right? But, how many times have we had the same thought? Two dark-skinned guys in an elevator – danger, Will Robinson! Or, you cross the street to avoid people who you think look a little dangerous – or who may look homeless and you don’t want to have to deal with them asking you for money.

We judge other people all the time, by their race, their class, their size, or other appearances – and there are plenty of times when we misjudge them. We may be the first to praise the sun or the first to praise the moon – but how often do we praise the rest of creation – especially the Holy’s human creations?

[Verse] Welcome me to a haven given,
it’s well received into my open arms.
I ran in my sleep through shaking tremors,
I felt the splitting earth echoing in my ears.
[Chorus] I’ll be the first to praise the sun,
the first to praise the moon,
the first to hold the lone coyote,
the last to set it free.

As our Hebrew ancestors knew all too well – often our judgments of people and situations in our lives spring mainly from our own anxiety. This prison of judgment is built from walls made of fear and apprehension.

Fear and apprehension were constant companions as those ancient Hebrews wandered in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land. Today’s reading is rife with fear and apprehension that leads these desert wanderers into the prison of judgment. First, they judge Moses. He’s gone up to the top of Mount Sinai for a little law making pow-wow with God. This turns out to be a long conversation with way more than just those famous ten commandments being dictated, so Moses is gone for quite awhile.

The people get restless and they judge poor Moses as someone who has abandoned them in the wilderness. He’s not the leader they thought he was, so instead, they demand something they can replace him with – something that will stick around and be where they left it so they can find it when they need it. Their desire for the golden calf was driven by fear and judgment – fear that they would be left without a leader, and judgment for the man they believe failed them.

Moses’ brother Aaron, too, was one filled with fear and judgment. He let the people build the calf – probably fearing what they’d do to him if he didn’t agree. It may not have been two black men in an elevator, but you can bet Aaron was intimidated by this crowd of fearful and anxious Hebrews. He may have also been harshly judging his brother, wondering where he was at – shirking his leadership responsibilities. He probably judged the people of Israel pretty harshly as well for their lack of trust in Moses – and their even bigger lack of trust in Yahweh.

The clearest example of fear and judgment in this story, though, comes from Yahweh. He sees what the people have done and her first reaction is to completely judge the people and disavow them as his.

God tells Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you have brought up out of Egypt, have acted perversely!”

It reminds me of how parents talk about their children when they’re bad. One parent will say to another, “Your child misbehaved,” as if they will only claim the child when they are good.

Suddenly, when the Hebrews are behaving badly, they’re Moses’ people that HE brought out of Egypt. They’re not God’s children that Yahweh freed from slavery.

What this story makes clear is that the prison of judgment is so tempting, even God can land in there from time to time.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we begin to judge others – and perhaps our self-judgments shouldn’t be so harsh when even God can get overtaken by fear and judgment in a flash of anger.

God may welcome us to the city of angels, but devil prophets of judgment and fear are still hanging around – holding our hands – ready to imprison us at any moment.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] Welcome me to the city of angels,
there’s a devil monkey laying on our backs.
Where’s the heart, where’s the bullet for breaking.
Who’s gonna give me a weapon, a pacifying weapon.
[Chorus] I’ll be the first to praise the sun,
the first to praise the moon,
the first to hold the lone coyote,
the last to set it free.

Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm tells the story of two women who were each baking a cake.

The first woman had miserable ingredients. The old white flour had to have the green, moldy bits removed first. The butter was almost rancid. She had to pick the brown coffee lumps out of the white sugar and the only fruit she had were ancient raisins. Her kitchen was of the style called “pre-World War” – and which World War was a matter of debate.

The second woman had the very best ingredients. The organically grown whole-wheat flour was guaranteed GM free. She had trans-fat-free canola-oil spread, raw sugar, and succulent fruit grown in her own pesticide free garden. Her kitchen was “state-of-the-art” with every modern gadget.

Which woman baked the more delicious cake?

It is often not the person with the best ingredients who bakes the better cake – there is more to baking a cake than just ingredients. Sometimes the person with miserable ingredients puts so much effort, care, and love into their baking their cake comes out the most delicious of all. It’s what they do with the ingredients that counts.

I know some people who have had miserable ingredients to work with in this life: they were born in poverty, abused as children, not clever at school, perhaps disabled physically or mentally. But they few qualities they did have they put together so well that they baked a mightily impressive cake. Do you know such people?

I know other people who have had wonderful ingredients to work with. Their families were wealthy and loving, they were successful in school, talented athletes, good looking and popular, and yet they wasted their young lives with drugs, or alcohol. Perhaps you know some of those people as well.

It’s a mistake to judge people by their ingredients … when they have created such delicious lives. Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from singer-songwriter Madonna. This tune was originally written for singer Cyndi Lauper under the title “Follow Your Heart.” Instead, Madonna picked up the song and rewrote it a bit. It is now known as “Open Your Heart” and it appeared on her third album “True Blue” back in 1986. Let’s try it.

I see you on the street and you walk on by
You make me wanna hang my head down and cry
If you gave me half a chance
you’d see my desire burning inside of me
But you choose to look the other way
I’ve had to work much harder than this
For something I want, don’t try to resist me

Open your heart to me, baby,
I hold the lock and you hold the key
Open your heart to me darlin’
I’ll give you love if you, you turn the key.

In our Jesus story, we find our guy hanging out in Jerusalem telling stories. In this parable, he talks about a king who was holding a wedding banquet for his son. He’s got a four course meal going on here with the finest ox stew and every cut of meat imaginable. This is going to be some party.

So, he sends his servants out to invite people to this swank shin-dig. But, those who were invited were less than pleased with the invitation. Some ridiculed the servants, others just walked away from them – still others seized the servants and killed them. Talk about killing the messengers! There’s a whole lot of judgment going on in just this part of the story – the guests have judged the king and his son as unworthy of their time and attention.

The king, of course, was outraged. Not only was his invitation turned down, but some of his best servants were killed. In his rage, the next time – instead of messengers with dinner invitations – he sent troops to destroy the murderers and burn their city. Judgment upon judgment.

Then, the king, who still had all this food slowly rotting, opens his doors to anyone willing to come and eat. He sent his servants to the streets to “invite everyone you find.” So they did – they gathered both the good and the bad, so the wedding hall was finally filled and the feast was finally enjoyed.

The depths of this story could be plumbed for many, many sermons, but let’s just focus on a few things. When Jesus introduces this story he says, “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”

Jesus has compared the kingdom of heaven to many things in other parables – the kingdom of heaven is like a woman searching for a lost coin, or a shepherd searching for one lost sheep, or a landowner who pays all his workers the same whether they worked one hour or eight hours.

Those meanings are pretty clear – God is concerned with each person – searching for them until they are found and that God is generous – not favoring any person over another.

This story is a bit more troubling. Is Jesus really saying that God is like a king who, after his initial invitation is rebuffed will go out and kill those who refused to come to his party? That’s what it seems like – but that seems to be in direct conflict with the God that Moses dealt with on Mount Sinai.

Instead of a wrathful king, there Moses found a God who knew could open her heart to her people. Moses met a God who knew how to break free from the prison of judgment – to fly as a divine free bird.

Breathe deeply.

I think that you’re afraid to look in my eyes
You look a little sad boy,
I wonder why I follow you around, but you can’t see,
you’re too wrapped up in yourself to notice
So you choose to look the other way well,
I’ve got something to say
Don’t try to run, I can keep up with you,
nothing can stop me from trying, you’ve got to

Open your heart to me, baby, I hold the lock and you hold the key Open your heart to me darlin’ I’ll give you love if you
you turn the key.

Back on that mountaintop, we find Moses arguing with God, reminding Yahweh that these are her people that God led out of Egypt.

“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?”

Bold Moses calls God on her judging ways – and challenges him to change his mind and turn from his “fierce wrath” against the Israelites. And what happened? The Lord changed her mind and did not punish the people for their transgressions.

This is not the same God that Jesus is talking about in Matthew. When he says “the kingdom of heaven is like …” he’s engaging in a little compare and contrast. Instead of portraying the king as God – this is exactly how God will not react – God is not a God of wrath and judgment.

Christian activist and writer Daniel Berrigan explains that the king and his wrath is how the kings of this world react. The king is a typical world leader – he hosts dinners, but he is also a warrior who will not let his honor be violated. He will retaliate if he is attacked. He makes war, and he hosts dinners.

Berrigan writes: “We are invited to imagine a situation close at hand. A president of the United States, perhaps. Even as the president mounts an assault, he welcomes to the White House a number of distinguished citizens. He praises their achievements, bemedals them, reflects on their contributions to the culture. Then they all sit to a banquet.”

The king in this story does not represent God – but earthly powers that live deep in prisons of judgment and retaliation. God, in this story, is not the king, but the one observing the king and telling his story. Berrigan writes: “The One who tells the story knows both goodness and wickedness, because He is good, consistent and compassionate. He longs to see humans standing in the orbit of God’s love. He rejoices to see the speechless and poor, the nobodies, at His table.

“In our story, he condemns no one, not even the king. Such a judgment is redundant, the royal behavior being self-condemned. And to sum up matters, in utter contrast to the worldly king, the storyteller will give His life rather than take life.”

This is the true nature of God – the one who will open their heart to everyone – to the evil and the good, to the beautiful and the ugly, to the frightened woman clutching her coins and the two black men wrongly judged as thugs. No one is excluded – no one is judged unworthy.

When we open our hearts, Jubilants, we realize that there’s nothing to judge about others, or about ourselves. We are all at this banquet of life together. The person next to you may look suspicious and have bad table manners, but you still have no reason to judge them, because God has no reason to judge them. When we judge others, we cut ourselves off from each other – we are like the king who only sees enemies who refuse his hospitality.

Berrigan writes: “At the table are all those ‘whom the servants found … both evil and good.’ Which is to say, ourselves.

Not the wicked on this side of the table and the virtuous opposite, as though two species of humans were seated there, well separated, known for whom and what they are. No, the evil and the virtuous are intermingled, juxtaposed, lift glasses together, banter, ponder, feast.”

How would it changed the way you live if you realized that God does not look at your life and judge you as unworthy or unlovable? No matter how many bad things you may have done, or how many times you have judged others, God still sees the beauty in you. How would it change the way you lived if, instead of seeing the flaws of others, or being suspicious of others around you, you began to see others as simply guests at this big banquet called life? They may look different from you, or live differently than you, or believe differently than you – but what they crave is all the same – someone to open their heart to them and show them God’s unconditional love.

Open your heart, Jubilants, and you will open the door to your prison of judgment. Then you can fly as a free bird.

[Bridge] Open your heart with the key,
One is such a lonely number
Open your heart, I’ll make you love me
It’s not that hard if you just turn that key,
Don’t try to run, I can keep up with you,
nothing can stop me from trying, you’ve got to.

Open your heart to me, baby,
I hold the lock and you hold the key
Open your heart to me darlin’
I’ll give you love if you, you turn the key.

Oh, Yeah!