Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King, November 26, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 29
ELIZABETH’S OF HUNGARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN RICHMOND HILL, GA.
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly, loving, gracious Father, send now the Holy Spirit to fill us with love and action toward those in need through Jesus Christ our Lord and savior who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
“On his thirtieth birthday, the chief cashier of a bank, Josef K., is unexpectedly arrested by two unidentified agents from an unspecified agency for an unspecified crime. The agents’ boss later arrives and holds a mini-tribunal in the room of Josef K.’s neighbor, Fräulein Bürstner. Josef is not taken away, however, but left ‘free’ and told to await instructions from the Committee of Affairs. He goes to work, and that night apologizes to Fräulein Bürstner for the intrusion into her room. At the end of the conversation he suddenly kisses her.
Josef K. receives a phone call summoning him to court, and the coming Sunday is arranged as the date. No time is set, but the address is given to him. The address turns out to be a huge tenement building. Jospef has to explore to find the court, which turns out to be in the attic. The room is airless, shabby and crowded, and although he has no idea what he is charged with, or what authorizes the process, Josef makes a long speech denigrating the whole process, including the agents who arrested him.” (From The Trial by Franz Kafka which tells the story of a man arrested and prosecuted, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader.)
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, we can read about Raskolnikov, a mentally insecure student who has stopped going to university. He lives in a very small, rented room in Saint Petersburgh. He does not let anyone help him. ((Instead,) He plans to kill and steal money from an old pawnbroker and moneylender, Alyona Ivanovna, but it is not clear why he wants to kill her yet. Raskolnikov goes to Alyona Ivanovna’s apartment. There, he murders her with an axe. Her quiet half-sister, Lizaveta, suddenly comes inside. Surprised, Raskolnikov quickly kills her, too. Frightened by what he has done, he leaves most of Alyona Ivanovna’s wealth behind, only stealing a few things and a small purse. He then runs away without being seen by anybody.
After the murders, Raskolnikov is filled with worry. He hides the things he stole under a rock and tries to clean away the blood from his clothes. He becomes sick with fever and seems to wish to betray himself. Whenever anyone speaks of the murder of the pawnbroker, he acts strangely. As a result of his crime, questions, which he cannot answer and feelings which he had not expected, terrify him. He feels separated from mankind, nature, and truth. Because of this, he decides at last to confess to the police and accept suffering.
A policeman pulled a car over and told the man driving that he was going 50 mph in a 40 mph zone. “I was only going 40!” the driver protested. “Not according to my radar,” the officer replied. “Yes, I was!” the man shouted back. “No you weren’t!” the policeman said, starting to get annoyed. With that, the man’s wife leaned toward the window and said, “Officer, I should warn you not to argue with my husband when he’s been drinking.”
Judgement, there may be no other word that gives us such a chill as the word, judgment. Like Homer’s sword of Damocles, judgment may seem to dangle over our heads by a single horsehair. Even if we have not committed murder, exceeded the speed limit, driven while intoxicated—done no wrong, like Kafka’s Josef K., we may still have this haunting sense that we will be judged. The prospect of being judged strikes at the very core of our being, calling into question our righteousness; are we right; are we wrong in how we live our lives, think, feel, or in what we do. We want to be justified.
The various scandals that have recently come to life in the political and entertainment worlds certainly give us pause. Men of power and prestige have been accused of improper advances and behavior toward women. Men have been accused of improper advances and behavior toward other men. It is only a matter of time before there will be accusations of impropriety by women toward men and women toward women. Has the sword of judgment finally fallen upon them?
Some of these infractions, these improprieties go back years—20, 30, perhaps 40 years ago. What goes around comes around, as the saying goes. Surely, it was only a matter of time before these individuals would get caught. Yes, the chickens have come home to roost. Judgment has come to claim its day and expose wrongs done. In the words of Jesus, “for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.” Should we be surprised? I don’t know why. What do we read in the paper, see on television, or view on the internet? It is one bad thing after another. The human heart is just as corrupt as it ever has been. Judgment comes.
Of course, this is personal to you and to me. Each of us this morning has some something that brings shame to our hearts. We have done something wrong. Maybe a few know about it. Maybe no one knows. Will anyone ever know that thing we did, maybe years ago? Is judgment coming our way?
On the other hand, we also know that there are some that manage to escape judgment at least so far. If we reflect upon certain individuals in our families, as some may reflect upon us, there are those who consistently make life harder for others. Perhaps, that person is mean, controlling, manipulating, deceitful, or just plain hard to get along with. And, so we wait. Sure, we might have tried to tell them, but you know how that goes. So, we wait for them to get the picture, to see what it is they do to others. We wait for them to come under judgment, see the error of their ways, repent, and finally treat members of the family with decency, respect, and love. We are waiting and are baffled that judgement has not brought the light of self-discovery and the error of their ways to these family members.
Now, in fairness to others as well as to us it is not always easy to admit to being wrong. Our egos can be tough little cusses when our self-esteem is at stake. As the saying goes, it takes a big man or woman to admit that he or she is wrong. We don’t usually go around thinking we are wrong. We go around thinking we are right. Have we, though, had the experience of believing something was right and later come to understand that it was wrong or vice versa. I would suggest that ultimately what we think is right means nothing if it is not what God says is right. How are we to know? If scripture tells us something is wrong and we disagree, who is right?
The baseline of repentance is coming to recognize that what we once believed was right is in fact wrong. If we reflect on certain examples in scripture, the call to repentance is never a lessening or weakening of God’s rule for behavior. We hear Jesus say in Matthew 5:22: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (ESV). A little later in Matthew 5:28 (NAB), Jesus says, “everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
n John 8:3 Jesus did not say to the woman caught in adultery, neither do I condemn you, go and sin again. No, He says go and sin no more. Jesus would no more change the commandment about adultery than the commandments about murder, lying, stealing, and the rest. What did He say, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17).
It should come as no surprise to us, then, that we hear Jesus speaking of judgment in today’s gospel from St. Matthew. Actually, for the past several Sunday’s the Old Testament as well as the New Testament readings have spoken of judgment, coming judgment. Given the approach of Advent, starting next Sunday, the theme of judgment is to be expected. During Advent we specifically turn our eyes toward Jesus’ second coming, the Parousia, as it is known, when, as the Book of Revelation tells us that Jesus, “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah,” (5:5) will return.
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of His Parousia, His return when He comes to judge. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” Who are these sheep and who are these goats?
Personally, I prefer goats, but in Jesus’ parable goats are the bad guys and sheep are the good guys. What makes one person a sheep and another a goat? Well, the sheep gave drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcomed the stranger, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison. Meanwhile, the goats went to parties, played golf, ate and drank voluminously, made lots of money, took cruises around the world, and only thought of themselves. And, the creepy caveat to Jesus’ tales of the sheep and goats are these stinging words He lays on His listeners, you and me. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In other words, somehow the hungry, thirsty, naked, estranged, sick and imprisoned are Jesus Himself.
Wow! Who would have thought that, right? Was that guy I saw holding the sign “Will work for Food” Jesus? Was the phone call asking for money for wounded veterans really asking for money for Jesus? Were those clothes that I threw in the trash really meant for Jesus to wear? It makes us think, does it not?
Still, are we really to believe, as Jesus seems to say, that if we do not come to the aid of those less fortunate that we are somehow doing harm to Him. And, if we do ignore them or Him then that means in His words that we “will go away into eternal punishment?” Talk about judgment, severe judgment. Where does that leave us?
You may remember the story about the guy who finds himself at the pearly gates, waiting to be admitted. St. Peter is leafin’ through this Big Book to see if the guy is worthy of entering. Peter goes through the book several times, furrows his brow, and says to the guy, “You know, I can’t see that you did anything really good in your life but, you never did anything bad either. Tell you what, if you can tell me of one REALLY good deed that you did in your life, you’re in.”
The guy thinks for a moment and says, “Yeah, there was this one time when I was drivin’ down the highway and I saw a giant group of KKK Bikers assaulting this poor girl. I slowed down my car to see what was going on, and sure enough, there they were, about 50 of ’em, torturing this girl. Infuriated, I got out my car, grabbed the tire iron out of my trunk, and walked straight up to the leader of the gang, a huge guy with a studded leather jacket and a chain running from his nose to his ear.
As I walked up to the leader, the KKK Bikers formed a circle around me. So, I ripped the leader’s chain off his face and smashed him over the head with the tire iron. Then I turned around and yelled at the rest of them, ‘Leave this poor, innocent girl alone, you slime! You’re all a bunch of sick, deranged animals! Go home before I teach you all a lesson in pain!’” St. Peter, impressed, says, “Really? When did this happen?” “About two minutes ago,” replied the guy.
Suppose for the first time and on the day before we died we helped at least one unfortunate, down and out individual; gave him or her food, clothing, shelter, or a trip to the doctor. Would we still suffer eternal damnation? Or does Jesus mean to say we must help out the poor and unfortunate ten times, twenty times, or thirty times? Suppose when we were in our 30’s or 40’s we helped out those less fortunate, but, as we grew older, we became disillusioned and had not helped someone in the last twenty years. Would we still suffer damnation? Of course, there may be some individuals who have always been helpful and some who have never been helpful.
Wherever we fall in respect to being charitable to others isn’t there something about what Jesus seems to be saying in the gospel this morning that doesn’t seem quite right? What is it? Can you tell me? Doesn’t what we appear to be hearing from Jesus sound a lot like salvation by works rather than by faith? It is that the old “how high can you jump” question. It is the unforgiving dilemma that our brethren in faith, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhist and all the rest face. Can I be good enough to deserve eternal life, can I earn enough merit badges so that I can get into heaven? The answer, of course, is a resounding, “NO.” We cannot be good enough. This is difficult to hear for this politically correct, PC, culture in which we currently live. Let’s not hurt anyone’s feelings; let’s not offend anyone; let’s not exclude anyone.
Let’s be honest, if that is possible. We all are deserving of judgment. I know what is in my heart and what I have done, just as you know what is in your heart and what you have done? And no, it is not easy to admit. Yes, that ego of ours is a tough little cuss when our self-esteem is at risk.
Let me suggest that it is time to stop calling Christianity a religion and call it what it really is—reality. We have succumbed to the idea that everyone is free to believe what he or she wants (certainly true in a democracy), forgetting that there actually is an eternal reality. If you have had a personal encounter with God, then you know this is true. If you have encountered Him, then what does that say about what the Bible says? So, if we are deserving of judgment, then where does that leave us?
Well, it brings us back to Jesus, does it not, and the whole reason for His coming to earth, being born, crucified and raised from the dead. He lived and died, so that we through faith in Him would not have to face the judgment of eternal damnation. Yes, we will still be judged, but not for damnation, but for discipline. We read in Hebrews 12:5-7: “My son (and daughter), do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He disciplines every son (and daughter) whom He receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons (and daughters); for what son (or daughter) is there whom his (or her) father does not discipline?”
Yes, it is by faith in Jesus that we are saved from judgment. That is not to suggest, however, that we need not be charitable toward those who are in need. Jesus’ brother, James, reminds us that faith without works is dead. If we have no works, then perhaps where we are in our faith should concern us.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.