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First Reading = Hebrews 12:11-17
11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 12Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. 14Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. 16See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.
We are starting a new series called Practicing Peace. A few weeks ago, I sat down at my computer and prayed, “OK God. I’ve been drawing a blank on the next sermon series for weeks. I got nothing, so can you give me something? And just for reference, I only have 30 minutes before I have to help with the kids again.” And immediately I heard – almost audibly – “practicing peace.” And within 30 minutes, the entire outline of this series flowed out. So you can interpret that how you will, but to me I’m going to give the Holy Spirit credit rather than myself.
I like this series at this time for a few reasons. First, it’s focusing on peace. I’ve heard – maybe it’s just a rumor – but I’ve heard that people aren’t feeling very peaceful right now. I’ve heard – maybe it’s just a rumor – but I’ve heard that people are feeling anxious right now. Feeling like things are out of their control right now. Have you heard that rumor? Are you feeling that topsy-turvy, out-of-control, anxious feeling right now? We’re going to try to help you find peace.
And the second big reason I like this series right now is that we’re going to practice peace. Peace is something you can cultivate like a field of corn. Peace is something you can get better at like baseball or painting or playing Scrabble. So we’re going to give you tools each week that you can use to cultivate and practice peace in your life.
Peace doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes you gotta work at it! We’re going to give you the tools to work at having peace in your heart and your mind and your soul and your life. I hope that sounds appealing. I hope that sounds useful. As I’ve shared before, my mom is a mental health therapist. And anxiety is one of her specialties. So some of these tools for practicing peace are the ways she helps her anxious clients. Thanks, Mom!
So in this anxious time, we’re going to practice, work on, cultivate peace in our lives.
Our first text today is from Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon is a series of some of Jesus’ most memorable phrases and images and stories. One of my life missions is to highlight the humor in the Bible. So I want you to listen to Jesus’ hyperbole here. Think about the size of a log, the size of a speck, the size of an eye, and see if you can hear the humor in Jesus’ contrast to start our text today.
Sermon Reading = Matthew 7:1-14
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 6“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
7“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. 13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
In My Hands
Well after high school, my family moved to Port Aransas – an island in the Gulf of Mexico. And Port Aransas was famous for its fishing. Now, I didn’t grow up fishing. I seem to have some sort of electromagnetic field that makes computers work and chases fish away. It’s weird. But when you live in Port Aransas, you have to try fishing. So my family went out on a deep sea fishing tour.
It was…memorable? That’s about as generous as I can go on that. First off, my weird field was in full effect – only two fish were caught on the entire trip. Sorry to everyone else on the boat. That was my fault. I should’ve wrapped myself in tin foil or something.
Second, I wasn’t accustomed to being that far out in the ocean with its ups and downs…and ups and downs…and ups and downs. And, did I mention there were ups and downs? I was a little seasick, but I was holding it together until we pulled up to an oil rig. The smell of the oil mixed with the smell of the person sitting next to me smoking mixed with the hot sun mixed with the ups and downs…and ups and downs…and ups and downs…well, that did me in. I’ll spare you the details.
When you’re seasick on a deep sea fishing tour, what are your options? Well, I couldn’t tell the waves to stop. That wasn’t in my power. And I couldn’t tell the captain to put her back ashore. That wasn’t in my power. And I couldn’t just will myself to stop being seasick. That would’ve been nice.
They say you should get into the middle of the boat and focus on a fixed point like the horizon. That’s within your power. But I did something else. I chose to go to the middle of the boat, take a Dramamine pill, and fall asleep for the next several hours. I woke up just as we were bumping the dock as we returned to port. Brilliant timing! Best fishing trip ever!
Those two fish, by the way, were caught while I was sleeping, thus proving that my electromagnetic field is weaker while I’m asleep.
It’s interesting to think about that scenario. Because some things were in my hands, and other things were out of my hands. I couldn’t control the weather or the waves or the location of the boat or the fact that I was feeling seasick. Those were out of my hands. But I could decide to take a motion sickness pill and go to sleep. And if you ask me to join you on a deep sea fishing tour, it is within my power to say, “No thank you!”
In our text today, Jesus draws a contrast between the things that are in our hands and the things that are out of our hands.
Do Not Judge
Jesus starts our text with something that is out of our hands: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” The image of measuring here is from the marketplace, where merchant’s scales would determine the correct payment.
And you see throughout the Old Testament that God hates – that’s literally the word – God hates dishonest scales. When a merchant uses a scale that puts others at a disadvantage, Proverbs 11:1 even says that’s an “abomination to the Lord.”
Jesus isn’t saying that we don’t make judgments about right and wrong. We do that all the time. But he IS saying that we don’t pronounce the final sentence on people. For a lighter example, imagine that someone cuts you off in traffic. What goes through your head? “Well that bleep-ing bleep! I can’t believe that bleep!” That’s pretty normal. We assume that the person who cut us off is a bad person because only a bad person would cut us off in traffic.
Now let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s imagine that you’ve had a rough day, so you’re not paying attention to your speed. And your reaction time’s a little slower than normal. And you’re thinking about an uncomfortable conversation you’re going to have to have when you get home. And, oh by the way, WHOOPS! You just cut off someone in traffic.
Are you a bad person because only a bad person would cut someone else off in traffic?
We are often very quick to say that when someone hurts us, it’s because they’re a bad person. But when we hurt someone else? Well there were extenuating circumstances!
So here’s the scary thing. Jesus is saying that whenever we pronounce final judgment upon a person, the measure we use for them is the measure we will receive. If that person deserves to go to a special place in hell because of a decision they made…the measure we use for them is the measure we will receive. If the person who cut us off in traffic is a bleeping bleep…the measure we use for them is the measure we will receive.
Jesus does not need our notes on how to judge someone. That’s out of our hands.
So here’s the first tool. Instead of feeling personally attacked and therefore pronouncing judgment upon a person, let’s ask this question instead. We’ll start with the car example, and then we’ll ratchet it up from there. Would that person have driven the same no matter who was in the lane next to them? Yes! They didn’t personally target you on the highway. It wasn’t personal.
Let’s take this up a notch. Think of something that annoys you or angers you about a family member. Would that family member do the same thing even if you switched yourself out for someone else? Would your father-in-law say that no matter who their child married? Would your uncle say that at Thanksgiving no matter who else was at the table? A LOT of the time, the answer is yes. It’s not personal. You’re just the person who happens to be sitting or standing there.
The power of this tool comes from the second step. Once you’ve identified which things aren’t actually personal and therefore aren’t actually in your control, you can focus on the things you can control. If your uncle is going to say provocative things at the dinner table no matter what, then you can’t influence that. You can’t control that. You can’t stop that. It’s not in your hands.
Focus instead on what you can control: having a healthy reaction. Instead of wringing your hands about what they’re going to say next time, focus instead on how you’re going to respond in a healthy way to a very predictable provocation. That’s in your hands.
If you tend to get a little aggressive in traffic, you can focus on what you’re going to do the next time you’re in traffic. Someone’s going to cut you off some day. Someone’s going to slam on their brakes some day. It’s not about you. It’s not really about them. Traffic stinks. How can you respond differently next time instead of laying on the horn and yelling obscenities at them? Because you can’t control their driving, but you can control your response. And Jesus says the measure you give will be the measure you receive.
If that’s too abstract, here’s a different way to picture it. Sometimes our dog gets bored. And sometimes she remedies this situation by bringing us a stuffed animal that belongs to the boys instead of her. She knows! She’s baiting us to see if we’ll chase her!
In a similar way, another tool is to imagine the times when someone else pushes your buttons as them fishing for a response. You’ve already heard how much I like fishing, but imagine you’re a fish. And you see this bobbing, dangling, dancing, oh-so-tempting lure. If you take the bait, you get caught. You can’t control whether someone fishes for a response – that’s out of your hands. But you can choose whether you take the bait – that’s in your hands.
So one way to practice peace in your life is to focus on the things that are in your hands. It’s not your job to tell God how to judge someone’s faithfulness or faithlessness. Someone else’s actions aren’t in your hands. You can’t control what someone else says or does or how they drive. But you can choose how you respond. That’s in your hands.
Work On Yourself
Now for the next part of our text, let’s put Jesus’ image into a modern context. Let’s imagine that we’re standing next to each other. And you suddenly cry out in pain, because an eyelash has gotten into your eye and it’s really painfully scratchy. Being the helpful person that I am, I offer to get the eyelash out for you. Oh, did I mention that I’m in a mascot suit? Yeah, I can’t really see. And my hands are those giant three-digit mascot hands. Do you still want my help with that eyelash? Probably not!
That’s the kind of ridiculousness Jesus has in his image about the speck and the log. Can you imagine someone walking around with a tree limb sticking out of their eye? That’s a strange image, right? I could imagine a dotcom commercial from 2000 doing that!
I believe Jesus’ point is that it’s easy to see someone else’s flaws. But that also means they can see yours. So another way to practice peace is to work on ourselves. Again, that’s in our hands. You can still be helpful, but you’re not helpful to someone else if you’ve got a tree branch worth of issues sticking out of your eye. You’re not helpful to someone else if you’re in a mascot suit and they have something in their eye.
Jesus’ image ends with the other person wanting your help with that speck in their eye. But that’s only possible when we have worked on our own hearts, worked on our own souls, worked on our own minds, worked on our own words, worked on our own actions.
A while ago I asked a pastor friend of mine for some time to pick his brain on some ministry issues. And I ended our conversation by asking him, “Do I have any blind spots in this? Is there something I’m missing? Is there something I need to do better?” I was asking him to point out the speck in my eye. I wanted his help, because as I got to know him I respected his mind, his heart, his soul, and his character. I asked him to check my eye for specks or logs, because he had obviously put in the work on himself over the years.
So the goal in our text today is to become the kind of person that other people want to ask for help or perspective.
Have you ever been driving your car and a passenger decides to be a backseat driver? Maybe I’ve even just touched on one of the sticky points in your marriage! Do you like hearing someone else’s commentary on your driving? No one likes a backseat driver! So Jesus is telling us not to be backseat drivers for other people’s lives. Work on your own life first. Become the kind of person that others want to ask for help.
This can cultivate peace in your life because it again places your energy and focus on something that’s in your hands. You can work on you. You can’t always tell someone else what they should do. Or at least you can’t guarantee they’re listening. And you can’t guarantee they’ll want to be around you anymore after you backseat driver them a few times.
So work on you. Work on your character. Work on your mind. Work on your thoughts. Work on your heart. Work on your soul. Work on the words that come out of your mouth. Work on your actions so that they reflect the love of Jesus Christ. Become the kind of person who others want to ask for help or perspective. That’s in your hands.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus in our text today is telling us that we often lack peace in our lives because we’re trying to be backseat drivers. Sometimes we’re trying to be backseat drivers to God, giving him our notes on how he should judge someone.
Sometimes we’re trying to be backseat drivers to other people, pointing out where they missed a spot even while we’re sitting on a pile of our own dirty laundry.
Other people’s words are out of our hands. Other people’s actions are out of our hands. Other people’s lives are out of our hands.
To practice peace in your life, focus on the things that are in your hands. You can’t control what someone else says or does, but you can choose how you respond. You can’t make someone stop fishing for a fight, but you don’t have to take the bait. That’s in your hands.
You can’t make someone listen to you. But you can work on yourself and try to become the kind of person others want to ask for help and perspective. The kind of person you’re becoming – that’s in your hands.
So to practice peace this week, I encourage you to release the things that are out of your hands and embrace the things that are in your hands. And if you want my perspective, I’m happy to help you with that eyelash from within my mascot suit. Amen.