A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
November 23, 2014
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
Like Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a lot on our plate today.
Our church history says it is Christ the King Sunday, a day to celebrate the authority of Christ; the calendar notes this is the last Sunday of the official church year before Advent; and the Gospel is from the rarely-consistent Matthew, who continues his challenging series of parables about the end of the world.
This Gospel is a tangle of questions about good works vs. faith, judgment vs. grace, and sheep vs. goats. On the website out of Luther Seminary, which seldom question much about Scripture, is the statement that “this parable may present one of the most outworn passages in the Bible.”
Here Matthew casts Jesus as a king on a throne who will judge those in front of him and separate them into sheep and goats. The sheep will go to heaven to be with God; the goats will depart to “eternal punishment.” The criteria for judgment will be how we treat those who are hungry, thirsty, without clothing, and lonely.
Part of the reason this passage may feel outworn is that Judgment Day and a hell of eternal punishment are no longer things that pervade our consciousness with much force. (Although speculation about heaven is all over the place). The culture has over-ridden many of the Scriptural references about judgment with research in psychology and human behavior, while simultaneously, the church has toned down talk of sin and judgment because of emerging theological ideas and because people just don’t hear these things very well any more. A friend of mine who is preaching in Duluth today said that she is going to edit the passage to only include the beautiful words about serving Jesus by serving the poor so as not to speak about judgment.
The fact is, judgment seems passé. And this may not be all good.
For example, I admire how young parents strive to give positive messages to their children and discipline them in ways that allow them to learn and not just obey.
Yet sometimes in restaurants or stores, I see this carried to extremes as a child’s most modest action is met with an enthusiastic “Good job! That just shows that you can do whatever you want to do.” I worry about this because, as a former high school teacher, I have seen what happens when the reality of judgment hits hard, and students learn that everything is not a good enough job to be the one starting quarterback, the one editor of the school paper, the one lead in the musical. There’s an old New Yorker cartoon where two students are coming out of the SAT test and one says, “Hey man, like there wasn’t one question on my self-esteem!’
There are countless other examples of our celebrate-everything culture: On the old TV show “American Idol,” the realistic if sometimes caustic criticism of judge Simon Cowell (“Darling, your singing is dreadful. Stop.”) have given way to the relentless, sugary platitudes of “The Voice,” where each celebrity judge waxes ecstatic about every contestant, predicting great things for all of these “artists”. Of course, all but one will lose. To be a writer now, you don’t need a critical old editor to please; you can blog. Facebook protocol is to never say anything critical. Need I mention Minnesota Nice? The moral landscape can be flattened with the force of relentless positivity.
Wait. Except for Congress.
Even the traditional forces of evil are transformed in the media into entertainment: the Devil is a guy in red tights and horns; zombies wander the earth with really bad hair. These movies are as funny as they are scary: “The Exorcist.” “The Omen.” My favorite: “Children of the Corn,” where Amish wannabe’s pop out of the cornfield to do damage.
It has become hard to take much of this seriously, let alone religiously. Matthew McConaughey is in talks to play Satan, described as “The Darkness That Looks Back At Us” in a Stephen King movie. (Alright, alright, alright.)
In the Church, however, our liturgy still contains language of sin, guilt, repentance and confession, and this will be even more apparent as we switch next week from the newer Rite II service to the older and more formal Rite I service during Advent.
One of the greatest gifts the Church offers people, I think, is an opportunity to structure our thinking about sin and repentance using the language that is used in the Confession of Sin. One person observes, “The Church exists so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation and loss of vision” and where – having repented– they may be restored to fullness of life and also reminded that the grace of God is there to give them strength.
Even though it is still present in our liturgy, however, language about sin and judgment no longer dominates preaching, teaching or theology in the way it once did. Fire and brimstone seems from another age. We no longer threaten hell from the pulpit. At least not yet!
And there’s good reason for that. Let’s go back to Matthew.
If we want our faith to have intellectual integrity, it’s important to label parts of Scripture as problematic or historically outdated such as references to slavery and polygamy as unquestioned norms, just as it is to celebrate those parts that are so true they speak to our deepest hearts on a level beyond words: Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
But this lesson presents more questions than it answers.
First, why is Jesus, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and eschewed titles—portrayed as a king on a throne? This is completely out of character with the rest of Scripture. This is the same Jesus who, earlier in Matthew, says, “Judge not.”
Secondly, are we “saved” by our own good works or by faith? The lesson says works, which can be a real problem for those who say that only faith in Jesus saves you and that salvation cannot be earned but comes by the grace of God.
Thirdly, why does this lesson contradict so much of what comes before and after it? The Prodigal Son –the Playboy who comes home only because he’s broke after squandering his fortune in selfish indulgence– is treated better by his father than his brothers who stayed home and kept all the rules. And what about the slave who showed up late, to work only an hour in his master’s vineyard and is paid the same as the ones who were there all day? Scripture says God loves them simply because they are God’s children, but the Matthew of this lesson would label them as goats and send them to hell.
Another thing, are the needy referenced in the parable, who may have no relationship with Jesus, content to be his representatives? Is this putting on them a special expectation to behave in certain holy ways and not throw the granola bar you hand them back in your face?
As for the sheep and the goats, aren’t we all both on any given day? Sinner and saint?
Can we dismiss the possibility of some kind of judgment in some form completely? I don’t think so. Maybe the punishment will be a heightened awareness as we see all of the opportunities we had to lessen pain when we were too busy, all of the times we averted our gaze from the helpless, all of the times we refused to be embarrassed by our abundance although we know that 1 in 8 people in the world suffers from chronic hunger, and those times when we saw only the statistics and not the tragedy of the individual life. ” A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin said. “A single death is a tragedy.”
The late Henri Nouwen, one of the great religious writers of our time, once acknowledge how he often felt frozen in the exercise of his gifts and how devastating that was. “More important that ever,” he said, “is to be faithful to my vocation to do well the few things I am called to do and hold onto the joy and peace they bring me. “
I used to say these next words every week. They are words that I probably borrowed from some source or other, but I’ve always liked them because they bring our specific mandate into focus; they help us see what we, individually are called to do:
Go into the world and know that are words of hope and healing that will never be spoken unless you speak them, and deeds of compassion and courage that will never be done unless you do them.
We are called to the things in our sphere of influence. Attend to the needs that show up on our radar screen. The opportunities that my not be there later. That catch our eye as we look across the room or at the person in front of us. For these things, I think we are accountable. To God. To each other. To the future of the world.
Finally, what if we change how we hear this passage from Matthew, hearing it not only as one of those charged to take action, but as if we are part of the needy, not needing food, water and clothing, but the needy he speaks of in the Beatitudes, the ones who feel poor in spirit, the ones who mourn, the ones who ache for justice and fairness, the ones who are insulted and even persecuted.
I fit most of these categories; you may, too. And if we hear the lesson in this way, we know that Jesus may not only be our judge, but also a tender and powerful advocate for us when we need it most, when we are one of “the least of these.”