Well we made it.
Not to the end of the pandemic, which is redoubling its harassment of us and surging into record territories: May God have mercy!
Not to the end of this unprecedented election cycle, which soldiers on with 24-hour-news-powered inexhaustibility, wearing us all out: May God spare us!
We made it to the end of the Season after Pentecost. Maybe that’s not what you were expecting me to say, but I am happy to take this opportunity to remind you that the Church operates on a calendar that is different than the calendar that we use for all our other appointments, engagements, commitments, and schedules — you know, back when we had things to put on the calendar.
There is so much I could say about this, and if you ever want to totally geek out with me about it, I am happy to make time, but for the purposes of making the point I would like to make this morning, it is necessary to include this simple but important observation: the church has its own calendar.
The reason for this is because the Church’s work is to invite us to imagine a world that is not the same as the world. So even the way we measure time is different. The Church’s calendar isn’t about the school year, or a fiscal year, or even agrigcultural or meteorological cycles. The Church’s calendar is a story-telling cycle, marked by chapters that tell us about God’s activity in the world, and in our lives. We tell the story over and over and over again, and every time we tell it, we hear new things. The story begins, next Sunday, with expressions of hope and longing for God to come and be with us. The story ends, today, in judgment. Hooray!
Episcopalians, like many mainline protestants over the past half century or so, have moved away from language of divine judgment, seeing how the Church has often wielded that feature of God’s reign as a tool to cause harm to others. Our history of talking about God’s judgment is so problematic that we often simply equate the judgment of God with condemnation. But the Bible says that the judgments of God are true and righteous altogether, and that they are to be desired more than gold.
The Biblical record describes God’s judgment as the one thing that can finally intervene between us and all the suffering of the world. It regards God’s judgment as something to long for, to pray for, to look forward to, to anticipate, because the judgement of God brings true freedom, true justice, true peace. And lest we think they are in opposition to one another, the judgment of God is inextricably connected with the mercy of God. They might even be said to be the same thing.
If we have experienced injustice in our lives, or seen judgments delivered from human authority that seem disconnected to mercy, or which result in outcomes that diminish freedom, peace, or justice — we should not be surprised. Left to our own devices, even the best of our systems of justice and governance result in suffering for many people. But let’s not make the mistake of confusing our own imperfect examples of judgment with the promises of God’s righteous judgment, which gives life to the world.
And let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the judgment of God is something we should be afraid of: on the contrary, it comes to set us free.
For the past two Sundays we have heard Jesus telling a long parable, a parable in three parts, one that takes up the whole 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. In this long parable, which we’ve been hearing over the course of the past three Sundays, Jesus invites us to compare the kingdom of God first to a party of bridesmaids (some who brought enough oil for their lamps, and some who did not); and then to an exchange between a harsh man and his servants (some of whom earned his reward and some who did not). The parable meets its conclusion today in the passage we just heard, in which to Son of Man comes in glory and for judgment, and divides the people as one divides sheep from goats.
Let’s recap: the lesson we learned from the first illustration, about the bridesmaids, was this: THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS ON ITS WAY, AND WE HAVE A PART TO PLAY IN IT. LET’S NOT MISS IT. HERE IT COMES. STAY AWAKE.
The point we gained from the second illustration, about the harsh master and his servants, was this: WE SHOULD BE AS CLEAR ABOUT OUR OBLIGATION TO GOD AS WE WOULD OUR OBLIGATION TO A MOB BOSS TO WHOM WE OWE MONEY.
Jesus offers these illustrations to prepare us for his teaching about the judgment of God. Famously, the criteria for judgment are not status or power, or church attendance, or denominational identity, or the puritanical moral codes that apply to things like human sexuality or the roles assigned by the world’s many caste systems. All the world’s systems of justice rest on these things, and we divide ourselves into categories of righteousness that serve our own preferences. But the judgment of God is different, and does not rest on those things. In God’s kingdom, the criteria for judgment is the presence or absence of acts of mercy. “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.”
THIS IS THE PART WE HAVE TO PLAY; AND THIS IS THE OBLIGATION ABOUT WHICH WE SHOULD BE CLEAR.
“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.” In God’s kingdom, the criteria for judgment is the presence or absence of acts of mercy.
But notice also that the people in the parable are surprised to learn that the acts of mercy and kindness they had committed were in fact directed towards God. “Lord, when did we do these things?” they ask, seemingly unaware. Now if unintentional acts of mercy earn the blessing of God’s final judgment, try to imagine a world where feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners was something we did ON PURPOSE.
The world gives us ample opportunity to sit in judgment on one another, but the Son of Man comes in the glory of his angels, to judge the world in righteousness. And his judgment brings truth — the truth that sets us free from false judgment, and in that freedom for which Christ has set us free, we are equipped and empowered to love as he loves us, and to come before God’s presence with a song. Amen.