On Discernment

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday September 16
Exodus 18:13-26
Matthew 7:1-14 [15-end]

Just back from Synod

For me, amongst many challenges of Synod, not least the anti-human mechanisms it imposes on the spirit graced body of Christ, is that of knowing when to speak and when to remain silent.

Anyone who has sat through such proceedings and coming from the C of E where Synods were an almost full time occupation, I think I have more experience of them than anyone else locally, will know that it is the failure on the part of ‘certain individuals’ to know when to speak and when to remain silent, that can often turn the tedium of such gatherings into a more or less mild form of torture. At least in England you didn’t have to be on Diocesan Synod . . .

The sensitivity to the movement of the Spirit, the gift of discernment, a Gift long birthed in Silent prayer is all but absent in these days.

One need only think of the current President of the United States and his predilection for tweeting his thoughts when and wherever it suits him . . . and before we tut and shake our heads we must remember that what finally rises to the top is the long suppressed truth about us all . . . to realise that Knowing when to speak and when to be silent is one of the lost gifts of an age when we are all ‘to have our say’, to ‘be out there’, tweeting our anger and outrage at his anger and outrage.

It seems to me that perhaps we have come at last to that age Jesus spoke of when he said ‘Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’ Luke 12:3 Everything it seems is laid bare – discretion, modesty, appropriate hiddenness as the Source of Life are alien to our culture – and thus the loss of Wisdom

Wisdom teaches us that proper discernment must always begin with ourselves. If we cannot carefully discern the motions of our own hearts, then it would be wise more often than not, indeed in almost all circumstances, to remain silent . . . and I say this as a huge caveat to understanding our readings from Scripture this evening, and hearing them truly

First, and briefly to Exodus and Moses. Poor Moses – as he would on occasion complain to God, ‘Why have you done this to me?? Look at these people . . .’ although also on occasion when the truth of the people was revealed and God threatened to break out against them, it was Moses who stood on their behalf and said, ‘you’ll have to kill me first . . .’

but Poor Moses, there he is day by day and all the people bringing their disputes to him. It is so reminiscent of my days as a Year Head having to deal with the perpetual wail – ‘Sir, she gave me a dirty look . . .’ I have great sympathy for Moses. So there he sits, day by day sorting out the disputes and judging the people . . . that is, having to pronounce judgement for one side or the other. It was in this vein that Solomon when made King asked God for Wisdom . . . insight, to discern and judge aright – for one thing we can say without fear of contradiction is that humans and their relationships with one another are messy . . .

Well Moses’ father in law, Jethro see this happening and sees Moses wearing himself out and suggests he spreads the load, by appointing judges amongst the tribes to sit over most of the cases, and only the thorny ones be brought to Moses – like an appeal to the Supreme Court . . .

Jethro says ‘You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain’ – Ah but . . . you might say, isn’t that judging them? Isn’t that what Jesus explicitly commands against in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount??

Well . . .

What does Jesus say?

We have a little problem with the way we are trained to read these words of Jesus in the Sermon, and it is particularly a problem for those who like to read their Bibles. FAR be it from me to say to anyone, ‘Do not read your Bibles!’ BUT there is a problem. Firstly of course there is the simple matter, obscured from our eyes, that Scripture, that which is written was until the invention of the printing press something almost always Heard, not read. The production of a BIble, up to that point would require the skins of over 150 calves . . . they couldn’t be obtained in bulk from Manna bookshops.

Now there are other problems with uncritically reading the Bible, that is reading it without realising that the very act of reading from a book presumes many things which may not be helpful – but I just want to focus on one aspect – that the text is broken up into chapters, and then verses, which of course if you are listening you do not hear, suggesting a fragmentary nature to the text and then to make matter infinitely more awkward, at some time in the C17, some well meaning soul added little headings here and there . . . to make it clear what Jesus was saying, so reading uncritically we absorb these headings, which are rife in the Sermon, because the well meaning person obviously thought that the Sermon was a collection of the sayings of Jesus. And therefore almost everyone who says ‘The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of the sayings of Jesus’, usually say it in part if not totally because they have been so conditioned to say it . . .

which is a problem when it comes to the words of Jesus about Judging others . . . because they are followed by words which suggest that we should judge others . . . but we miss this if we treat the words as if they were in isolation

Listen then

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

‘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.

“Well there you are! Jesus contradicts himself” – Do not judge – do not throw your pearls before swine . . . Well surely if we realise they are swine, we have judged . . .

So we need to consider what Jesus says here. Firstly Judging is a matter in this regard of ‘the eye’. Noting ever and again how The eye is the subject of things, and what is more that Jesus says that our eyes do not see clearly . . . We see the world in many ways as we are. As so often is said -if you wish to change the world, start with yourself – for so often, what we see out there is a projection of what is in here – and our way of seeing is influenced by our hearts – so ‘first take the log out of your own eye, THEN’ Jesus says ‘you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

The gift of discernment, a Gift long birthed in Silent prayer is all but absent in these days – all but absent when all we see is with the eye and we are swift to speak, and swift to anger to use the words of James’ Jesus’ brother and the one who most closely comes to the words of Jesus in his epistles.

Ian McGilchrist in his wonderful work – Master and Emissary points out how we have become more and more dominated by the left hemisphere of our brain. It’s way of seeing is precisely to see splinters – to see fragments. We see the fly but do not acknowledge or perceive the precious ointment in which it is sat. Left hemispheric thinking is also associated with anger. There is so much anger in the world today – so many pointing to the flaws in others . . . there is a sort of fundamentalism here oft unacknowledged. It seems to me that ‘Once a fundamentalist always a fundamentalist’ People who once condemned ‘those people’, now turn their ire on ‘those people’, the people they were once happy to associate with. The Heart is not healed in such people – it is tragic.

Very briefly then, Jesus goes on ‘‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ Having cleansed the eye of the heart – having learned to be still before God and learned the gentle receptiveness of the Spirit, one may ask aright. If we ask out of damaged vision, we do not see to ask aright, we do not know what it is that we are truly to ask for. It is with such healed vision that these words of Jesus become a lived reality within us.

‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’ The Cleansed eye which discerns the Truth of things only sees themselves in the Other truly, not now for judgement but for Loving Service . . . but says Jesus, this is not easy. If we drift along as we are, we shall miss the way – broad and easy is the way that leads to destruction. The Work of the heart is a lifelong one, it is hard and narrow – for it has but one aim, to Know and Love God, and thus to live in and through His Life – our true healing

Jesus then goes on – following on fro our reading to speak of the discernment which is knowing a tree by its fruit – before warning of the perils of Self Deception. ‘On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you workers of evil.” how terrible self deception can be, that those who believe they are doing the work of God discover they are doing no such thing . . . we should tread lightly

So Moses seeks those who ‘fear God’ For whom God fills their Vision, whose Sight is healed and who will be able to discern the Truth of things – only the one who sees God truly sees. Such people we discern are trustworthy and hate dishonest gain. They are no longer in anything for themselves – In the Fear of God, Seeing truly the Life of their fellow. Judging properly because they Discern Well, for their eye is focussed on the Light and Love of God


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