Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sheep and Goats

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Where to begin?

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a nickname we’ve borrowed from Roman Catholic tradition to distinguish the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, last of those Sundays numbered like streets in a city. Call this Christ the King Sunday and you give notice that we worship and serve the one who promises to make all things new.

And that makes today just the right time to remind ourselves that next Sunday a new year begins in the Christian calendar. Advent we call it, that short season of personal preparation not just for the coming of Christmas but the coming of Christ, a taller order and a deeper calling than erecting the tree and schlepping through the mall. Set out for you today is an array of free Advent devotional booklets and for-sale Advent calendars, tools for your use at home or at work, for your own personal preparation.

My favorite step into Advent is to bundle up and walk out into the deep darkness of night when there’s no cloud cover and as little ambient light as possible, to look up and regain a sense of what a speck in the universe earth is, albeit a hallowed speck precious to the One who set in motion, one starry night, the Incarnation of the divine in the human, Jesus.

So today is just the right time to give you a heads-up that next Sunday we’ll celebrate Advent with more than a touch of incarnation as we welcome parishioners of All Saints and members of St. Andrew’s, our sister congregations in the North County. This fall, they’ve been worshiping together at St. Andrew’s, while All Saints installs new front steps and a ramp, and a new fire safety system. What prompted our inviting them here was hearing that they couldn’t find a priest available to them on the 30th, and our wardens didn’t miss a beat spotting an opportunity to let the word become flesh.

And today is when we will say farewell to Judy Buhner, who for the past dozen years has brought us her uniquely gracious mix of Quaker clarity and what she eventually discovered was her secret Anglican appetite for sermons and singing. Judy has served on Vestry, Stewardship Ministry Team, has been a lector, has preached, extended pastoral care in many ways, and has been a loyal member of our knitting group. She and Bob will soon close on selling their house (to a young family in our parish) then heading to Georgia for the winter before taking up residence in their new home in the Lathrop Community in Northampton.

So, as I said at the start, where to focus next on a Sunday with so much swirling around?

Let’s focus for a few moments on prayer. I have in mind the Prayers of the People. If you worship here frequently, you know we use a variety of prayer formats. The one we call the Iona Prayers expects no vocal participation. The silences built into that form are kept silent for the interior work of calling to mind the variety of needs summed-up in that bidding prayer.

But the one we’re using these days, adapted from the New Zealand Prayer Book, encourages voices to be heard. Four times, the leader pauses to invite you to name out loud the people and the concerns you bring with you today. If you’ll take your orange announcements sheet, you’ll see in a grid the four categories of intercession that can make this particular form sound like the Prayers of the People.

These categories include our concerns for the world; our hopes for the community we live in; the needs of individuals we’ve brought with us on our hearts and minds today; and those who have died or are grieving.

I hope that seeing what’s coming may help us choose what to do with those four opportunities when we get there. Perhaps (during this sermon) you may want to jot down in that little grid names and concerns that come to mind, and be readier to let your voice be heard.

Speaking of voices, how do you hear the voice of Jesus in that apocalyptic Gospel portion we heard? “Apocalypse” is a Greek word for “uncovering”, and here Jesus reveals a vision of the Last Judgment. Is he advocating a judgmental world view?

I doubt that his dramatic view of the end of time and the setting-right of the world’s ancient wrongs is much on the minds of 21st-century believers, and surely isn’t at the top of the charts for non-believers. But in the Middle Ages, this theme loomed large: over the main doorway of many a European cathedral is a panoramic sculpture that conveys the triumph of the good and the vanquishing of evil. This kind of scene is found painted on chancel walls in parish churches. In one half of the fresco is a glimpse of beatific glory; in the other half, it’s gruesome going. But the prominence given to these scenes presents a fascination with one line in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Not so, the kingdoms of this world. They will all have their day, then pass into oblivion; but on the last great day God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. But it’s not as if God’s kingdom hasn’t been here all along. According to Jesus’s vision (or is it Matthew’s vision?) two kingdoms have been interwoven in the roller coaster ride of history, the demonic kingdoms of this world represent one kind of kingdom that is all about self-serving, greed, violence, and oppression; and God’s reign, revealed wherever the polar opposites of those vices are to be found in virtues that are surprisingly down-to-earth. The apocalypse is the uncovering, the unwinding, the pulling apart of these two kingdoms.

This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that we’ve heard Matthew relay Jesus’s stories in ways that surprise us for what they do and don’t care about: Here in this vision of the end in today’s Gospel, the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ, and it is not doctrinal agreement with all the creedal beliefs in grace, justification, and the forgiveness of sins. The one criterion is whether we act with loving care and uncalculating generosity for people in need.

But something more is happening here than a lesson in ethics. The people who take care of others, sheltering, and feeding, visiting and encouraging, they aren’t aware of a deeper dimension to the various acts of compassion they’ve taken part in. They were content with the part they could see, that basic needs were met. But they were also part of something far greater than they knew, a global movement of compassion (at least as global as around the Mediterannean Sea and along the fault lines of the Roman Empire), namely the kingdom of God that entered our biosphere from the womb of an at-risk young mother and would forever be subversive likewise in its dealings with the powers and principalities of this world.

Wherever an act of lovingkindness moves across the synapse between the caregiver and the cared-for, one of the two kinds of kingdoms in Matthew’s apocalypse grows. Being below the radar, this growth is creatively subversive as time moves along towards what can only be called The Great Reversal at the end of time. And talk about subversive: those doom scenes from the Middle Ages show very well-fed, fashionable, powerful people, some even wearing church vestments, even mitres on their heads, being consigned to the nether reaches of eternal punishment. And the other half? They are “the least” in society, the poor, prisoners, the homeless; and, surprising even to the helpers and givers, these “least” are, says Jesus, “members of my family.”

So, while this vision of the end time reveals the primacy of ethics as essential to the kingdom of God, the vision itself reveals the nature and mission of Jesus Christ. He fulfills the great commandments of the ancient law, “Hear, you people: the Lord God is One, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Fulfilling this law in himself, his Spirit is available to be poured out upon all who seek the equipping of all to love all.

Back, then, to my question a ways back: What do you hear in the voice of Jesus in this vision of the last judgment? On the surface of it all, he appears to see the world in terms of all or nothing, white or black, good or bad. That’s not the world we occupy—or if we believe it is, it’s at our own peril.

What Jesus does in his role as judge is to reveal the great lie that such dualism is built upon, the error that says that God and Satan are equally matched and locked in everlasting struggle. While the nightly news goes far to reinforce this error, Jesus’s apocalyptic vision reveals the truth that there is one God and only one God. Once that is known, should there be any longer a need to separate sheep from goats, a need to judge people for their differences?

What I hear in the voice of Jesus is his judging not of people but of their differences, a careful weighing of what does and what does not matter, and I hear him training us to practice that skill. Already, we’ve heard the message that differences of belief and differences of opinion are not what matter in the kingdom of God. Behavior does matter, is essential, is transformative, is what counts. Differences in behavior deserve to be judged.

By his behavior, Pope Francis shows himself an agent of change, subversive to a tipping point that will elevate compassion over compulsion, comprehension above conformity.

By their behavior, ISIS jihadis perpetuate the ancient wrongs and demean the very name of religion.

In this world, there are sheep and goats. A more blatant example of behavioral difference would be hard to find, than the one I just cited. But the insidious judgmentalism practiced by neighbors and cousins is just as likely to ignite barbarism. I mean the xenophobia that results in neighboring groups fearing and hating one another simply because they have been trained to, and because they belong to opposing parties or claim different customs and religious traditions.

Reflecting on his first eighteen months as Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Justin Welby recently addressed the Church of England’s General Synod (where, at very long last, the ordination of women as bishops was finally approved and made law).

The Anglican Communion, he says, is flourishing in 165 countries. He reported how incredibly diverse he finds Anglicanism to be. “Within the Communion are perhaps more than 2000 languages and perhaps more than 500 distinct cultures and ways of looking at the world… The vast majority are poor. Many are in countries where change is at a rate that we cannot even begin to imagine.

“At the same time, there is a profound unity… underpinning the Communion, a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour… The potential of the Communion under God is beyond anything we can imagine… The prize is visible unity in Christ despite functional diversity. It is a prize that is not only of infinite value, but also requires enormous sacrifice and struggle to achieve.

“Yet if we can get near it we can speak with authority to a world where over the last year we have seen more than ever an incapacity to deal with difference, and a desire to oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of human existence for no better reason than we cannot manage difference and dealing with The Other. Yet in Christ we are held together. In Christ the barriers are broken, peace is held out to us as a gift established, which needs living. In Christ there is hope of a life that provides hope of peace.

“The future of the Communion requires sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours. Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary… but they are never sufficient. Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree…

“We must grasp the challenge… The prize is a world seeing Christ loved and obeyed in His church, a world hearing the news of his salvation.”

(Archbishop Welby’s comments appear in a press release from Episcopal News Service dated November 17, 2014, “Archbishop on the Communion’s challenges and the way forward.”
M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in Vol. VIII of “The Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1995, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)