Today, as we gather on this final Sunday of the Church year, we find ourselves in kind of an “in-between” time. We’re in between Thanksgiving Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent. Between being grateful for all our blessings and anticipating, once again, the coming of the Christ into the world. And I can think of no better way to make this transition from gratitude to hope, from thankfulness to longing, from turkey to tinsel, than to consider the present Reign of Christ. And in that same light, I think it’s important, on this final Sunday of the Church year, to look at the very essence of this Reign.
Now, the text we have before is one that might cause us squirm in our seats. We might squirm because the reading we just heard is the second part of a larger whole. But it’s important, as we consider the Reign of Christ today, to include the whole progression of Matthew’s thought here. And that thought begins with Judgement. Matthew writes, “Now, when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.” And, of course, the judgement part comes when he indicates that those on his right will receive eternal bliss, while those on his left get eternally punished. Getting squirmy yet?
The topic of judgement makes us so uneasy because the meaning of judgement as a Biblical and theological concept has been misunderstood and misused across the years. I mean, the word “judgment” itself conjures up images of hellfire and brimstone preachers, of self-righteous church ladies, or even worse, the fear of standing before a wrathful God, trembling in our boots, as we attempt to answer for every sin. But how did we get to this point? How did our concept of judgement get so far off track?
I don’t know, “perhaps it’s because religion and judgment have been so unhappily married for so long; in fact, Jesus has a lot to say about not judging one another, and not excluding some people because they’re sinners, or at least a certain ‘kind’ of sinner?”[i] Some of our uneasiness exists because the modern church found all kinds of ways to judge each other. It became the norm to judge other denominations, the LGBTQ community, and those who were differently abled, just to name a few. But in addition to Jesus’s words, Paul holds judging others up as one of the worst of our human sins. He says, “So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things. We know that God’s judgment agrees with the truth, and [God’s] judgment is against those who do these kinds of things. If you judge those who do these kinds of things while you do the same things yourself, think about this: Do you believe that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life?”[ii]
And there’s the crux of the matter. Judgement, God’s judgment, according to Paul, is a very real thing. But somehow, we missed the point. Judgement is finally a “kindness” from God, a kindness that leads to transformation, a transformation of our hearts which leads us to change our lives. And these virtues of kindness and generosity, of tolerance and patience, can be summed up by a single word: compassion. But, you may ask, how can we lift compassion up as the most important virtue here? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book The Preaching Life, shares our concern, for “the Bible,” as she says, “is not a book with the answers in the back.”[iii] In other words, it’s important for us to look at the deeper meaning of Scripture. It’s vital that we consider the full breadth and depth and width of the gospel message. A message of inclusion, equality, and love of God and neighbor. In that light, Matthew 25, challenges us to wrestle with the issues of our emerging post-modern context rather than judge the sin of others. But how do we “live-into” this challenge? Well, it’s important to remember that “In this teaching, …salvation belongs not automatically to those who have faith, but rather to those who do faith.”[iv] Matthew consistently calls us to BE the church. This is evident in the verses that follow this bit about the sheep and the goats. Jesus says that when we serve the least of his people, we serve him. And, with a nod to a contemporary understanding of this message, I would add, “when we love all of God’s people, we love God. When we defend and preserve God’s beautiful creation, we live out our covenant with God, and when we understand judgement as a tool of grace rather than a weapon of condemnation, we demonstrate our love of God.
I read a story this past week that speaks to this idea of living into the compassionate Reign of Christ. It was about a man who was involved in a local homeless ministry. He said, in an interview, that his motivation for helping the homeless started because of his brother’s story. You see, his brother suffered from a psychological illness, which sometimes lead him to paranoid delusions. The man also shared that he knew his brother, who lived in a faraway city, traveled from one homeless shelter to another. “When I serve a homeless man at the mission,” he said in the interview, “I imagine that one of them is my brother. And I ask myself, ‘when did I see you hungry, and give you food? When did I see a stranger, and welcome you?’”[v]
This parable is finally meant to stir our imaginations; our imaginations as compassionate human beings and as Christians. The two are not mutually exclusive. Teilhard de Chardin affirms this when he says, “I think that the world will not be converted to the heavenly hope of Christianity if first Christianity does not convert itself to the hope of the world.”[vi] But how do we do that? How do we, as people of faith, as compassionate human beings, become a part of this conversion? How can we become a part of connecting the hope of Christianity with the hope of the world? I don’t know. I think each of us must look at the places in our lives where we have ordained ourselves as judge, jury, and executioner. And then advocate that throne in favor of a more compassionate, more just way of being. And it’s when we do that, when we choose serving the least of God’s beloved over judging them, it’s then, that we find our salvation. My friends, I would like to leave you today with these words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama. He once said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”[vii] “…without them, humanity cannot survive.”
May it be so. Amen.
[ii] See Romans 2:1-4 CEB
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor. The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications) 1993
[v] The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Carter. Our Spiritual Bottom Line. (day1.org) 2005