Withholding judgment

Sinners all, we must depend on God’s mercy
April 30, 2004

IT CAN BE such a shock to discover that the church is full of sinners. Which of us has not sat and listened to the story of hurt and disappointment told by a refugee from the parish down the road, someone who has suffered slight or insult from a fellow parishioner or from the clergy? And which member of the clergy has not counseled the person who arrives in the parish having been a "member" of six parishes in the past three years, who is looking for the latest geographic cure because no parish has measured up?

I’ve always loved, and found to be true, Henri Nouwen’s (paraphrased) declaration, "Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives." Church community is the place where Christ issues the invitations. Christ’s taste in guests is not always mine.

Surely it is an understandable impulse for Christians to want to maintain what they see as the purity of their church, even to ride into battle to defend the honor of God against those seen as a threat or corruption. I suspect we each have our inner crusader, our inner Grand Inquisitor eager for the hunt.

Whenever I am most certain of my neighbor’s sin, I am stopped in my tracks by Jesus’ injunction to consider the log in my own eye. For each of us there are certain sins that stand out as the least acceptable, the most egregious, the ones we think pose the greatest threat to the church, usually sins we see as different from our own. I no longer believe that God’s honor needs any defending by me. Surely, God’s honor, God’s church, will stand because God upholds them.

It is with fear and trembling that I try to sort out my own sin before God. There are the obvious misdeeds and omissions that I know only too well; these I can easily confess. Then there are the complex messes of good intention and bad consequence, bad intention with good consequence, and those muddles of obscure motivation, action and inaction I can’t sort out at all. As a confessor, I see the same ambiguities in others. After we have done all the confessing and unraveling within our power, we lay the tangle in God’s lap with our hopes, our tears, our sighs. What comes to us is God’s immense mercy. The wheat and the tares will be sorted out in God’s hands.

I am so grateful that the church is the hospital of souls, not the club of the few, pure, elect. Before the awesome complexity of human souls, even as a well-schooled priest and confessor, I make no claim to prescribe the right diagnosis and cure, save that mercy of God’s through Christ.

I am so grateful that Jesus came not to save the righteous but sinners. Why should I wonder that the church is full of them? Like me, they are trying to find their untidy way toward God in a complex world, wrestling with circumstances and experiences sometimes beyond my ken.

Do I believe in God’s justice? Indeed only the one who knows hearts, minds and souls entirely may and must judge us. But I suspect that the people I’d most like to throw out of the community where I live, those whose sin most offends me, are just those God invited there, that we might deepen one another’s compassion and humanity. In God’s eyes, likely they look much like me.

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