Sermon preached November 20, 2011
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Play part of Shorty Long: Here Comes the Judge
Here comes the judge. Can we speak helpfully about God as judge, about Jesus as judge. The language is there in our Christian tradition. The Apostles’ Creed has the statement about Jesus that he “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Seems pretty inclusive.
The language is there, but is it meaningful? Is it helpful? Often I think not. Here is a portion of an e-mail I received on November 12: I just saw your church listed as a GAY friendly church on gaychurch.org. To accept sexual deviancy as normal is a sin. You put your soul in danger of eternal damnation for welcoming unrepentant homosexuals into God’s house. You blaspheme the Name of God. Homosexuality should be criminalized. Homosexuals commit crimes against God, against nature, and the Holy Bible and against the human race. This was followed by a couple of Scripture quotations and a prayer to be prayed. The sender’s e-mail address was Glory2Jesus@ArmyofGod.com. When I read something like that, with judgment dripping from it, I am not sure that we can speak of this concept very helpfully at all. Even less extreme statements of faith make claims that leave us feeling uneasy about the concept of judgment – like the statement of faith of the national Vineyard Church which affirms “the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.” Eternal conscious punishment – how wicked does one have to be for that to be a justifiable judgment?
Over time the church has perhaps lost credibility in speaking about judgment. The kinds of wickedness that the church has held up as leading toward eternal conscious punishment are things like dancing, watching movies, having a glass of wine. When we hear language about eternal damnation, eternal conscious punishment, judgment, well, we may cringe. I think that is why we avoid the topic. We hear “judgment” in a church and we think about judgment as passing judgment, as criticism, as censure. We think of people being “judgmental.” The word “judgment” in a religious context evokes images of an angry God ready to pounce on our least mistake – a “gotcha God,” and when you are “got” the consequences are dire – eternal conscious punishment.
For those of us who don’t think this is the God of Jesus Christ we just avoid the concept of judgment. If we can’t speak helpfully, better not to use the concept at all.
But what if there is something here that we would do best not to lose? What if the concept of judgment might be helpful to us in our lives as people of God who follow Jesus? There is a text from Paul’s letter to Roman Christians that may help us. “So then each of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12). What is remarkable is that this paragraph begins with cautionary words about “judgment”: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister” (v. 10). Maybe that is the beginning of redeeming the concept of judgment – get away from constantly worrying about others, constantly judging others. Maybe that really does not bring glory to Jesus.
What if we begin with a sense that in our lives we are accountable to God? Could we then translate the idea of judgment into ideas like thoughtfulness, self-reflection, listening for the still, small voice of God within? When you consult a dictionary about “judgment” you don’t simply get ideas such as criticism, or censure, or passing judgment on others, you also find ideas like “think,” or “form an idea.” Maybe this is more the essence of judgment for Christian faith – thoughtfulness, self-reflection, listening for the still small voice of God within. And if this is a more helpful way to think about judgment in the Christian faith, it also changes the time frame for thinking about judgment. Now is the time for us to think about faith, ponder our lives.
So how might we think about our lives now? Matthew 25 is meant to help us out. Jesus tells a story about a future judgment – tells a story, a story following a story about ten bridesmaids, a story following a story about three servants and their money management. Jesus tells a story about accountability. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Does he tell this story to evoke fear? I don’t think so, just as fear was not the point of the last story he told about the guy who buried his single talent. Jesus tells this story to invite, even provoke self-reflection, thoughtfulness – to invite judgment in the now of our lives.
As people of God who follow Jesus, how might we know we are on the right track? As people of God who follow Jesus, what direction should we be going in our journey of faith? I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.
For five plus years, I have been convening an “interfaith book group” sponsored by the Oreck-Alpern Interfaith Forum at the College of St. Scholastica. The group reads fiction with religious and/or cultural themes from diverse perspectives. The book we are now reading is called Breakfast With Buddha. It is the story of a man from the East Coast whose roots are in North Dakota. His parents die and he has to return to the Dakotas to care for their estate. The man, Otto, has a sister whose life is very different from his. She has been a seeker, perhaps a bit on the fringes. She does Tarot and palm readings. Anyway, she is supposed to travel with Otto to North Dakota, but instead sends with her brother a monk, tricks him into it really. The book is their travel story from the East Coast to North Dakota. The story is funny, tender, and even a little enlightening.
At one point in the journey Otto has been flipping through radio channels and he listens to Christian talk radio for awhile. But when I listen a bit longer to the so-called Christians, it sounds to me as if their cure for what ails us is more and stricter rules, more narrow-mindedness, more hatred, more sectioning off of the society, and it has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness (153).
Just a novel, just a story, but like Jesus’ story the bottom line seems to have something to do with kindness. Or if you like your theological reflection more, well, theological, here are some words from theologian Robert Neville. In his book Symbols of Jesus he writes these words: Christianity is first and foremost about being kind. (xviii) Neville admits that what constitutes kindness can be open to debate. Yet he writes that we know something about the nature of kindness – being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent…. To be kind is also to be courteous. (xviii).
As Christians, we want to be able to give an account of our lives in terms of kindness. There is, I think, a place for judgment in our lives as people of God who follow Jesus, as we translate judgment into attention, self-reflection, and discernment.
Judgment is about seeing the world with new eyes. We look for kindness, and celebrate where it is found. We consider the meanness in the world, and ask how we might do better. Unfortunately, there is a lot of meanness in the world. I think our economy has become meaner. I helped officiate at a funeral a while back for a person who had been a mining executive in Chisholm. One story I heard about him was that there was an employee whose son really wanted to be a teacher. Unfortunately, the only way this young man could go to college was if he had a job. My friend, the mining executive said, “I will find him something.” He did – found him a custodial job, and if the young man’s school schedule made getting to work difficult on occasion, my friend the executive, would begin to do some of the young man’s work. I don’t think there is enough of that kind of kindness in our current economy where the bottom line is calculated so carefully that there are no jobs to be found for someone.
Even so, whatever the meanness in the world, we look for and celebrate acts of kindness and beauty, affirming that the Spirit of God might be at work, even when those being kind don’t think in those terms. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. I think of all the acts of kindness, large and small, engaged in by members of this congregation – volunteering at food shelves and care facilities and hospitals, bringing animals to first grade class rooms, Ruby’s Pantry, mentoring. We have two people in our congregation who have been leading groups at CHUM for ten plus years. See. Celebrate.
Judgment is new eyes. Judgment is self-reflection. How are we doing as a church? How am I doing as a person? Where can I grow in kindness? What disciplines will help me in my life be kinder, gentler – disciplines of prayer, meditation, study, action? How can a cultivate a heart of kindness?
And in our deep self-reflection we discover another voice that speaks to us, the voice of God heard in the voice of Jesus encouraging our kindness – judgment as discernment. God’s voice of judgment is not a “gotcha” voice, but the voice of kindness itself. At times the voice will identify places where we need to grow in kindness. At times the voice will rejoice in kindness in our lives. If we listen carefully, we may even hear the smile of God in our lives enjoying our kindness, and when we hear that we will want to hear it again.
So there is this guy named Otto, entrapped by his sister into driving across the country with a guru, a monk – Volya Rinpoche. And along the way he thinks about Jesus. It has always seemed to me that, if Christ’s message could be distilled down to one line, that line would have to do with kindness and inclusiveness, not rules and divisiveness. I think he is on to something, something Jesus, too, told a story about once upon a time.
Judging by that standard, there is beauty to celebrate. Judging by that standard, there is room to grow. Amen.