Monday, November 26, 2007

Judgement Call: Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

During a certain prominent war of rebellion waged against His Royal Majesty King George the III, an odd tableau transpired among the king’s rebellious overseas colonists. Trying desperately to dig in and secure their position, a group of soldiers was trying to repair a small defensive barrier. A man in civilian clothes was riding by on his horse and as he drew near, he heard the soldiers’ leader shouting instructions to the men but making no attempt to help them. The rider paused and asked the leader why this was so. The leader shot back “Sir, I am a corporal!” At that, the stranger apologized and, dismounting, proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers.

The job done, the stranger turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief…and I will come and help you again.” Of course, the stranger was none other than general George Washington, commander-in-chief of the American forces.

Friends, I don’t seem to recall offhand just how the scurrilous rebellion played out, but I think we can agree at least that this was an edifying episode. And perhaps it is not entirely unlike the scenario which Jesus paints in today’s gospel lesson. In the one, the corporal doesn’t realise that it is his own general who is serving him; in the other all of those judged as either sheep or goats are surprised to find that all along they have been dealing with Christ.

We’ve no doubt heard this gospel story before, of Jesus, at the end of all time, separating people as a shepherd separates sheep and goats, setting things right. Perhaps you take great comfort in it; or perhaps you might take offence at it and the whole notion of judgement. Or maybe you’re somewhere in-between. Regardless of where you find yourself, I would ask you to lend me your ears this evening, as we look a little more closely at this rather odd story, and what it might tell us about the surprising nature the judgement of Christ, the King.

Continue reading Judgement Call

In America, there is a one liner joke going around on car stickers, which reads “Jesus is coming – look busy!” Joking aside, this episode from Matthew suggests that it is not merely looking busy, but being busy in a certain way which is important. The tableau portrays Jesus returning at some point in the future after being raised from the grave and exalted to the Father’s right hand, this return is what theologians have called the parousia. When he returns, Jesus – who turns out to be the king – serves as a shepherd, separating the sheep from the goats.

This separation, this judgement, turns out to be surprising, not least for those who are judged. But first it is worth noticing the basis of the judgement. There is no hint here that this judgement is based on peccadilloes, on obscure dictates that we are sometimes keen to observe. Jesus doesn’t seem to interrogate his sheep over whether they’ve ever smoked or danced or had a drink of whiskey; he doesn’t seem to care if they’ve voted Tory or Labour or Lib Dem or whatever. Jesus separates sheep from goats on the basis of what each has done for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

Now some interpreters want to say that Jesus’ brothers and sisters – the Greek word just means ‘brothers’ – are the church, and that this passage deals with how the world will be judged for how it related to the church. But I think that the text wants to push against this easy categorisation some, and that there are good theological reasons that we might broaden this term and see Jesus as being a brother of all the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

In any event, it is on the basis of their serving the ‘least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters’ that the sheep are recognised as sheep; it’s on the basis of their neglect of these brothers and sisters that the goats are recognised as goats. So there’s a sense that Jesus’ judgement and separation is not at all something alien imposed on those arrayed before his throne so much as recognising the reality of what is already present, and what has been shown in the whole of their lives through attending (or not) to the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this all is the surprise of the people judged. There is a keen sense that they had no idea whether they were sheep or goats; they didn’t know they were serving the Lord or not in what they did. This means that no one can toady up to the king, no one can curry favour with him in order to get in on his good graces by doing just enough of the right thing. The judgement is not on the basis of what one has done for the king as the king, but only what one has done for the king inadvertently as he is hidden in the most humble of his brothers and sisters.

This, in turn, implies that at its deepest, life is not about securing and establishing ourselves over against everyone else; life is not, in contemporary parlance, about looking out for number one. Rather, true life – in our story’s terms, the life that leads to life – is not self-centred, but is open to others. True life is not concerned how others can serve us, but is preoccupied with serving others, especially those others who Jesus calls ‘least’, and who usually hover on the margins of our consciousness.

So we see the sheep and the goats are judged based on how they have served the ‘least’, and they are surprised to find that they were serving Christ himself – or failing to serve him. There are many things we can take away from this but I would like to focus on one in particular this evening, and that is how the judgement of Christ the King subverts our own judgement.

How does our own judgement usually proceed? I’d like to suggest three common alternatives on offer, limiting myself to religious judgements, but of course this can be easily broadened into any number of arenas.

We are all familiar no doubt with some ways in which the Bible is put to use these days whether in national politics or in the affairs of the church. It is perhaps somewhat more prominent in my native land than it is here in Britain, but we find some of it here as well. The scenario is clear – take our choice of issue, there are any number of them on offer. Find some biblical verses to support our perspective, and then claim that those who disagree with us aren’t merely reading scripture differently, but are failing to take it seriously, or perhaps disregarding it altogether in order to follow the spirit of the age. We could accuse them of hurting the church or compromising the gospel. Never mind that it’s other Christians we’re attacking. Either way, it’s clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

Or maybe we’d take a different tack. We might want to look at the spirit of the Bible as a whole, reasoning that otherwise we might miss the wood for the trees. Those people then, who select only particular verses are in danger of distorting the whole biblical message, no doubt to their own nefarious ends. Even if we can’t actually account for individual teachings of the bible, we might still be able to render some general more-or-less accurate account. Either way, it’s clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

Or perhaps we’d simply be happy to cut the Gordian Knot altogether, and just dump the Bible as the source of intractable and vicious disputes. This would be the way of the secular critic who instead embraces one form or another of pure reason as the light of life. If we were to take this route, perhaps we might call ourselves ‘brights’, just to set ourselves apart. Granted, this avenue hasn’t given us much in the way of saints, but why worry? Either way it’s clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

No doubt we can think of recent, concrete examples which fit each of these types. In all of them, we find that judgement is based on establishing ourselves as righteous, as having gotten it right, and being beyond question, having some special status. In all of them we are the good guys, and the other are the bad guys. After having established ourselves as right, in all of them we can then point at the others as unacceptable, not merely mistaken but deeply and quite possibly irredeemably wrong. This kind of judgement never touches us, but builds walls, digs ditches, erects borders to keep us away from the unacceptable. This kind of judgement seeks to determine now, once and for all, who are the goats and who are the sheep.

Sisters and brothers, how radically different do we find the judgement of Christ the King than any of this! Neither the sheep nor the goats knew who they were nor what they were doing. And because it is the king’s judgement, not ours, and is at the end of all time, not now, then we have no grounds for insisting we are the sheep or that we’re pretty sure who the goats are. We can’t rest secure knowing that we are the good guys or that the other are the bad guys. This means that there is no boasting, no self-righteousness, no self-assurance; no needing to make ourselves acceptable; no needing to make sure that others are unacceptable. There are no boundaries across which we can gesture to the goats, there are only boundaries which we can cross to love and serve our neighbour as ourselves, hoping perhaps, unwittingly, to find there Christ himself.

This is the judgement of Christ the King. And friends, what is this, at bottom, but the grace of Christ? And therein lies the surprise, that this judgement is nothing but the grace of God, who is never content to let us rest in our own sham self-righteousness, but loves us unrelentingly, constantly calling us to himself, through his Son, in the Spirit. God loves us so much that he isn’t satisfied for us to remain centred on ourselves, but calls forth from us responding love – a love which, in the mysterious nature of things, is only fulfilled in loving our neighbour, even the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, a love which is unafraid to cross boundaries of all kinds.

I’d like to close tonight by sharing with you a story which I am convinced is an example of such a boundary-crossing in the name of love. This is a story from a society that is quite intensely interested in borders and boundaries. It was originally told to Tony Campolo.

Peter Arnett, a former reporter for CNN, was in Israel in a small West Bank village one day when an explosion went off.

Bodies were laying everywhere; from every direction came the sounds of pain and fear. A man came up to Peter with a bloodied little girl in his arms and begged the reporter to take him, saying “Mister, I can’t get her to a hospital! The Israeli troops have sealed off the area. No one can get in or out. But you’re from the press. They’ll let you through. Please mister!…If you don’t help me, she’s going to die.”

Peter hides the man and the girl in his car under a blanket, they get through the sealed area and hurtle down the road to the hospital in Jerusalem, all the while the man praying and pleading for Peter to drive faster.

They finally get to the hospital, the girl is rushed to surgery, and the two men sit in exhausted silence. Eventually the physician comes out of the operating room and solemnly says, “I’m sorry, she died.”

The man collapses in tears and Peter put his arms around him to comfort him. Searching for words, Peter says, “I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’ve never lost a child.”

At that, the man looked at Peter in a startled manner and said, “Oh, mister! That Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I’m an Israeli settler. That Palestinian is not my child. But…there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of…background, is a daughter or a son. There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.”

Sisters and brothers... at its depth we find that life is not about ourselves, not about establishing ourselves and ensuring that others are unacceptable. Rather, we find that it’s about crossing borders, loving and serving our neighbour as Christ himself; in this we hear the surprising, de-centring judgement of Christ the King, which is none other than the love and grace of God, the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom. Amen.

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