When did we see you?

The Good Shepherd and two angels. Mosaic (6th)

Okay guys, look surprised

One of the things that gets me each time I read the parable of the final judgment in Matthew’s Gospel is that both those judged to be sheep and those judged to be goats are completely surprised by the King.  It seems as if they are expecting some other mark of judgment as they gather before the throne.  I think I’m struck by this because I imagine that I too will be surprised on the day of judgment.  I will likely be as surprised by who God lets in as I will be the starkness of my own judgment.  The one thing I hope I won’t be left asking is the question that gets asked by both the sheep and the goats.

“Lord, when did we see you?”

While I think Episcopalians, myself included, have a tendency to lean too heavily on the Baptismal Covenant, an invention, albeit a very good one, of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that we pretend was handed down to us by Saint Peter himself, I do think this lesson is one of those opportunity to be reminded that if this is the criteria by which we are going to be judged, we have already made vows to fulfill the obligation.  With God’s help, of course.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God might “enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know the hope to which they have been called.”  This phrase is increasingly becoming the foundation of my understanding of discipleship.  I think we grow in relationship with God by learning how to see the world through God’s eyes.  As we become more in tune with the heart of God, we see more clearly the injustices of this world, we see the suffering and are moved with compassion, we see the lonely, the anxious, the hungry, the naked, the poor, the outcast, the incarcerated, and the hopeless and we are compelled to act because in them, as in all our neighbors, we see the face of Christ.

Of course, this does not happen on our own.  The only way to fix our spiritual eyesight is with the help of God.  Through prayer and studying the Scriptures, God works on the eyes of our hearts, making us more and more able to see, so that, when the day of judgment comes, our question cannot be, or at least should not be, Lord when did we see you, because we know, with God’s help, that we see Christ in every person we meet.

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In service of the King

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If you spend much time in liturgical churches, you will no doubt see the three letters at the center of the cross in the above picture.  IHS is a Latin-scripted contracted version of the all-capitalized Greek rendering of Jesus IHΣΟΥΣ, which is to say, all IHS really means, historically is the first three letters of the name Jesus.  Over time, and especially after the Protestant Reformation cut off most Church history prior to 1617, the meaning of many symbols morphed into something else or disappeared all together, such that for many American Christians IHS means “In His Service.”

This is, of course, not inherently a bad thing.  To have Christians living by a motto like “In His Service” could prove fruitful in a world hell-bent on the service of self, and what better time to consider our service of Jesus than on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, which in many Episcopal Churches is called “Christ the King.”  The Gospel lesson appointed for Year A is comprised of Jesus’ final image of the eschaton.  I would title it “the sheep and the goats,” but after twenty minutes for frantic searching during my General Ordination Exams, I now know that the HarperCollins Study Bible calls it “The Judgement of the Gentiles,” even though Gentiles aren’t mentioned in it once. (The digressions are coming fast and furious this Monday, please accept my apologies.)

In this vision of the final judgment, Jesus offers as clear a statement on what is expected of his followers.  I’m thankful to my friend, Evan Garner, for reminding me of the context of all of Jesus’ teaching on the End Times.  “These three judgment parables are not spoken to the crowds or to Jesus’ opponents but to Jesus’ closest friends. They already know what it means to belong to God as God’s beloved children. He’s not telling them what it takes to get into the kingdom of God. He’s inviting them to see what is required to live within that kingdom.”  We, who follow in the Apostolic Tradition, should read these words similarly.  This isn’t a judgment upon those who do not know Jesus, but a clear testimony of what life should look like for those who claim Jesus as Lord.

Our lives are best lived in the service of the King.  IHS might not have always meant “In His Service,” but it is a helpful reminder that our proper response tot he love of God is to reach out in loving service to those he came to save.  We who are bold enough to claim a place in the Kingdom of God bring honor to the King when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, and visit the incarcerated.  When, at the end, it comes time to determine whose lives were lived in allegiance to the King of kings, our service of the King will be the opportunity for judgment.

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth – Oh My!

I would guess that the average Episcopalian is cool with the Parable of the Talents all the way up to the final verse.  Sure, there are some who will embrace the imagery of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as there are some Socialist Episcopalians who will balk at the whole premise of this parable, but, by and large, most of us feel like we can understand what Jesus is up to until we hear those words of judgment.  It is there that we get fidgety.

Now, I’m not so sure we feel uncomfortable about the imagery that Jesus uses because we are afraid that we’ll end up there.  I think it is probably more likely that our discomfort comes when we think of those whom we think might find themselves there someday, and we instantly become uncomfortable.  Episcopalians tend to be pretty willing to let the whole hell thing go.  But I’m not so sure that’s helpful.

Let’s be clear, this particular set of images for what eternal damnation might look like are nearly exclusive to Matthew.  The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears seven times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Six of those occurrences are in Matthew.  We are clearly getting some of Matthew’s theology thrown in here, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the whole image away.  Instead, I think it is helpful to spend some time pondering what this image is intended to convey.  Three times it is combined with the outer darkness.  Twice it is used in conjunction with the furnace of fire.  The other use speaks of where the hypocrites are.  The image is meant to convey a place of isolation, like the Jewish concept of Gehenna or the burning place, where those who were judged to be worthless, wicked, and lazy will end up in the final judgment.

This is not what Dante created for us in his Inferno, but it is still very much a place in which no one would like to end up, and that is exactly why we need to talk about it.  Not to scare anyone into belief, but to be honest about the fact that our decisions have ramifications.  Until we are willing to talk honestly about sin and about how the broken relationships that sin creates have long-lasting, even eternal, impact, we are failing to help our people understand the fullness of the grace of God.  Rather, the image that many of our people have been given is that their faith doesn’t really matter, how they live their live is without impact, and that hell is only a place “they” use to force conversion.

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Another chance to bring up our poorly worded value statement. Huzzah!

Without judgment, there is no true grace.  While we need not be known as a church of judgment, we should be clear that all of humanity stands under the judgment of God and that, at least for us, the path to restored relationship is through live-changing faith in Jesus Christ, and this Sunday offers the preacher a chance to name that reality with hope, with grace, with good theology, and, we hope, with tact.

Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

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This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.

How are we judged?

When John’s disciples approach Jesus with their teacher’s question, Jesus doesn’t balk at it.  In fact, it might be the only question Jesus answers in a straightforward manner in all four gospels.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is, despite my attempts to soften it yesterday, a question of judgment.  Even if there is hope behind John’s question, there is also a question of truth.  “Are you, Jesus, really the Messiah?” is about as forthright a question as you can get, and Jesus doesn’t shy away.  In fact, he responds the their question by giving them the criteria by which he wishes to be judged; which also happens to be the criteria by which his Body, the Church, and her members will also be judged.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus asks to be judged based on his words and his actions.  He wants the disciples of John to take back to him the lessons they have heard, specifically Jesus notes “the good news for the poor,” as well as his acts of mercy: the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers cleansed; the deaf hear; and the dead alive.”  These are the criterion of the Kingdom of God, and as such, they serve as the basis of discipleship in our everyday lives.

Advent is a season in which judgment is at the forefront.  It is a season that makes us uncomfortable because we don’t like being judged, but I think our fear of judgment is mostly based on the fact that we feel like we don’t know the rules by which we will be judged.  Here, we get those rules laid out for us very clearly.  As we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a child born in a stable and descending with power and might to judge the world the season of Advent is a perfect opportunity to take stock of our lives.  Are we being faithful in sharing the Good News to the poor, that is, the good news of God’s economic reversal to the physically poor and the Good News of God’s saving grace to the spiritually poor as well?

Only then should we begin the process of answering the “what do you see” question.  Are we reaching out in loving service to our neighbors?  Are we challenging unjust systems?  Are we bringing healing to the world?  Or, as Jesus says to wrap things up, “are our words and actions creating a stumbling block for Jesus, or are we living lives worthy of the Gospel?”

Judgement and Grace

Sometimes you just have to laugh at life, and life in the Church is no exception.  We had one of those moments this past Sunday after the Zephaniah reading.  For those of you on Track 1 of the RCL or in case you don’t remember, the lesson from Zephaniah for Proper 28A includes this gem of a line, “I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the LORD, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.”  After eight tough verses of judgement and condemnation, the lector concluded the lesson with the familiar Prayer Book phrase, “The Word of the Lord.”  Without hesitation, at all three services on Sunday, the congregation replied, “Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God!?!?  Really?  Were you not paying attention?  The reading said that the Lord would pour out people’s flesh like dung for God’s sake.  Thanks be to God?!?!

Well, yes actually.  You see without judgement, there is no grace.  One can not be forgiven if there is no need of forgiveness.  So, as is the case so often in the prophets, judgement is pronounced by Zephaniah in as stark a terms as possible.  If this didn’t get the people’s attention, nothing would.  Knowing that judgement always precedes grace, we are able to, even if it is through gritted teeth say, “thanks be to God.”

And while it is dangerous to jump between books of the Bible, the Lectionary offers a gift for those who are paying attention in the Ezekiel lesson for Christ the King.  In his pronouncement of calamity, Zephaniah tells of the day of judgement, “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.”  Ezekiel, in his promise of redemption, uses this word of grace, “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

For all those who felt just a wee-bit uncomfortable saying “thanks be to God” last Sunday, your gift this week is the fulfillment of the judgement and grace cycle.  Yes, there are consequences to our actions.  AND. Yes, God forgives.

Thanks be to God!