Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Less Judgment, More Curiosity

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Mark 8:27-38,  James 3:1-12

In the last couple of weeks, it has been hard to miss Kim Davis.  She’s the county clerk in KY who refused to issue marriage license to same sex couples on the grounds that it was against her religious convictions.  Her story has been everywhere – the story itself as she went through the various levels of our court system appealing the decision at every turn and then ultimately was found in contempt of court and sent to jail, and the commentary on those events from Christians and non-Christians, on the left and the right.  I am tired of hearing about this story and perhaps you are too. Perhaps you are a little annoyed that even here, in the sanctuary, I have brought it up. 


I promise I won’t dwell on it.  I’m only thinking of it as one example of the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion which we enjoy in this country.  By the way, if you don’t already know, it was a Baptist minister named John Leland, who along with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, fought to have freedom of religion included in the Bill of Rights.  Leland wrote "Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free."[1] 


That’s a bit of church history for today, no extra charge.  I am grateful to our Baptist ancestors who championed religious freedom and I definitely agree that sometimes the best thing for Christians can do is to get arrested for standing up for their convictions -- allthough that is not how I would describe the Kim Davis’ case.  If anyone is not heartily sick of the story already, we can talk about it more at lunch.  But for now, I just want to share one more thing. 


Rev. David Gushee is professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the AWAB dinner in Kansas City in June.  In his blog last week, he spoke to Kim Davis and others who were angrily rallying for her.  He said,


“Brothers and sisters, clearly you intend to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to your Christian faith. I respect that. You are willing to pay a price for your faith. I respect that too. You believe the Bible could never permit two men or two women to wed. Understood. Many Christians agree.  But your actions in defense of the faith are actually harming Christianity and its witness today.  Ask yourself whether the Jesus the world is seeing in you today resembles the Jesus we see in the Gospels. It’s a question for all Christians, all the time." [2]


“Ask yourself whether the Jesus the world is seeing in you resembles the Jesus we see in the Gospels.” 


That is not how the author of the book of James would put it, but I think that idea is consistent with his thoughts.  He is very concerned with how Christians act and speak.  Of the letter’s 108 verses, 46% touch upon some aspect of speech. 


Two weeks ago, we heard from James 1, “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.”  Talking with one of you afterwards, I said that when I preach, I am usually preaching to myself first. Here in chapter three, James says that teachers will be judged with greater strictness.  So especially for anyone who sees the pastor as a teacher, I want to acknowledge that I am again preaching to myself first and I am definitely in need of this sermon.


I also want to remind us that we all learn from each other in this community.  All of us learn from each other’s example – from witnessing acts of kindness and generosity shown to others or from the card or e-mail that arrives just when we need encouragement.  Some of us learn from what we hear other people say in worship or Sunday School or coffee hour conversation.  Some of us learn from silence when we know that someone has managed NOT to say the less-than-helpful thing that was on the tip of their tongue. 


Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book on Christian community is called Life Together.  It was written in 1938, a time when animosity and suspicion and hostility seemed to be on the increase, and WWII was imminent.  In it he wrote,


 “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship is listening to them. . . Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother [or sister] will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too."[3] 


I want to suggest that we all learn from each other, but in order to do so, we have to listen to each other.  Some of us are still working on the text from two weeks ago, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  For some of us, that is a life’s work.


We all do learn from each other, therefore we are all teachers.   Teaching and learning involve listening and speaking, and so James cautions, “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”


Well, that’s the sermon in three verses.   I could just wag my finger at all of us and say “tame your tongue” and sit down.  But I think that would not be helpful.  I know it would not really help me.


Here is something that is helping me:  A few weeks ago a friend told me about attending a professional conference.  In the packet of materials that everyone received, there was a button.  The button said, “Less Judgment, More Curiosity.” You might have noticed that I am wearing a button like that. So are several other folks.  Thanks to Edith Leet for making them for us. 


“Less Judgment, More Curiosity.”  Ever since she told me those words, they have become a mantra for me.  I could tell myself “watch your tongue”, except that sounds like a scold and my internal self is good at ignoring scolding.   But if I say, “Less Judgment, More Curiosity”, it sounds like an invitation and my internal self is fooled, at least momentarily.  And I wonder how I could be curious, instead of critical. 


So for example, I wander into the kitchen where Jim is cooking supper.  Jim cooks supper all the time without my assistance.  If you’ve ever eaten at my house or eaten a contribution from us to a potluck, it was most likely Jim who prepared it.  He does not need my help to cook.  But if I happen to be there before the cooking is over, without thinking, I might say, “You don’t really chop vegetables like that do you?”  But now, I say to myself Less Judgment, More Curiosity.  (Or at least I’m trying to.)


I am finding this mantra very useful.  In a few months or next week, it may slip my mind and you may find yourself in a committee meeting with me.  If I need it, you might just whisper “Less Judgment, More Curiosity”.  Hopefully, I’ll take the hint.


I wonder if anyone ever said this to Peter, that disciple who was always taking his foot out of his mouth?  Like in the story from this morning, where first he recognized Jesus was the Messiah and then he rebuked Jesus when Jesus said that he had to suffer and die.  Peter made two judgments – one was believing that he knew the true role of a Messiah and the second one was that he should rebuke Jesus.  What if someone had taught him “Less Judgment, More Curiosity”?  What if instead of rebuking Jesus, he had said, “Jesus, please help me understand this.  Why do you have to suffer and die?”  If Peter had done that and the gospel writers had recorded Jesus’ answer, it would have saved so many trees from becoming theological books and papers.  In the gospels, Jesus says several times, “It is necessary” or “I must” in reference to the cross.  But he never says why, leaving theologians to debate their own theories ever since.  “Less Judgment, More Curiosity” on Peter’s part could have made such a difference. 


Words have the power to bless.  Words have the power to curse.  We have the power to choose words of blessing, words of healing or to choose words of cursing and wounding.   As we acknowledge the start of another school year, we might remember that childhood saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  What a ridiculous saying.  It is, of course, completely untrue. 


One child remembers that  "In first grade, Mr. Lohr said my purple teepee wasn’t realistic enough, that purple was no color for a tent, that purple was a color for people who died, and that my drawing wasn’t good enough to hang with the others. I walked back to my seat counting the swishes of my baggy corduroy trousers.  I took a black crayon and wiped out what I had drawn.” 


Words of judgment.  Wounding words.   



But "In second grade, Mr. Barta said, ‘Draw anything.’ He didn’t care what. I left my paper blank and when he came around to my desk, my heart beat like a tom-tom while he touched my head with his big hand and in a soft voice said, ‘The snowfall. How clean and white and beautiful’" [4]


Mr. Barta understood the power that he had, the power to bless, to heal, to restore. 


Less judgment, more curiosity. 


David Gushee said, “Ask yourself whether the Jesus the world is seeing in you today resembles the Jesus we see in the Gospels. It’s a question for all Christians, all the time.”


In light of James, we might modify it just a bit and ask ourselves, whether the Jesus the world is hearing in us today resembles the Jesus we hear in the gospels.


Sisters and brothers, from our mouths, may there be words of blessing and healing, words that build up, words that make for peace, words that resemble the words of Jesus.  And may God grant us less judgment and more curiosity.  Amen. 



[1] http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/people/john-leland.html

[2] http://davidgushee.religionnews.com/2015/09/04/why-this-christian-says-christianity-is-harmed-by-kim-davis-and-her-fans/#sthash.TF5mybLN.dpuf 

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, (New York:  Harper and Row, 1954),  p. 97-98.

[4] Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications), 211.