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November, 2017

Nurtured to be Life-Givers

 

Our last three weeks of gospel lessons have not fit well with our holiday culture of celebration. Last Sunday’ sever judgment of the foolish virgins, and the Sunday before thrusting of the timid (one talent) steward into the fires of eternal damnation seemed a bit over the top. This morning’s gospel again injects a fearsome threat of Judgement. We are warned to beware that if we do not act mercifully to one of the least of God’s family, we will be in danger of being “accursed” goats who are in danger of being cast into “eternal judgement.” End of story! No reversals allowed. In contrast to this, the Old Testament, Psalm and Epistle ring out with words of hope, mercy, promise and forgiveness, without any sense of judgement.

 

So, which is it? Are we sheep destined to eternal life, or goats destined to eternal punishment? … Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

 

Today is the last Sunday of the six seasons of the Christian year. That apparently is why on this final Sunday we get Mathew’s Gospel of the last Judgement. It’s like tidying up all the year’s lessons with some finality. It like asking the question, “Well, how have we done this year?” “Do we seem to be more like Sheep or like goats?”

 

Judgement seems to be a mixed bag. On the one hand we tend to shun judgement. Being judged is not exactly an experience we look forward to! Getting caught for doing something wrong is embarrassing. Or, getting reprimanded unjustly can be deeply wounding. On the other hand, as children we need the loving reprimands of our parents and teachers when we stray, or when we push boundaries beyond reasonable limits. Rules and laws are created to guide our behavior and protect the common good. But those same rules and laws can be oppressive and are often used inappropriately to harass and stifle growth.

 

Judgement really is a mixed bag! Jesus teaches that we should not judge others, lest we be judged. Yet, as moral beings we are required to discern between right and wrong; and therefore, make judgements about perceived behaviors.

 

The current, much needed judgement of men accused of sexual harassment is long overdue. Women who have feared coming forward, suddenly feel freer to share their stories of sexual exploitation. There now looms the possibility that our culture may begin to cleanse itself from this persistent plague.

 

Years ago, as a young assistant priest, my Rector - who I valued as my friend, called me into his office. He was awkwardly formal and distant. As I stood at attention, he said it had been called to his attention that while I was administering communion recently, my fingernails appeared in need of attention. He made it very clear that in the future I was to have clean fingernails. Wow, he was serious! On reflection, I did remember doing a lot of yard work recently and probably had not paid much attention to my fingernails. Now, very night now before I go to bed, I thoroughly clean my finger nails whether they need it or not. Such was the power of judgement on my everlasting behavior.  Dirty fingernails are a far cry from someone consistently turning away from the critical needs of “the least of these” - in a world where the needs of the hungry, displaced victims of oppression are so obviously present.

 

Just how seriously are we to take this morning’s Gospel threat of being cast into eternal darkness and punishment? Conservative evangelical preachers take the threat of damnation very seriously, and do not hesitate to try to literally “scare the Hell out of their congregants” in their fiery sermons.

 

Then again, there are ancient Church Fathers, like Origen, or contemporary theologians like Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr who regard these biblical threats as metaphorical warnings, designed to wake us up out our isolation and self-centeredness. Recently, Rohr reminded his readers that even Pope John Paul II claimed that (and I quote) “heaven and hell were primarily eternal states of consciousness, more than geographical places of later reward and punishment.”  Rohr further suggested that “weforget or deny things that are just too good (like universal salvation) to be true.”  “…the ego clearly prefers a judgmental economy of merit, where we can divide the world into winners and losers, rather than an economy of grace, where merit and worthiness lose all meaning…. When we live in grace, evil and illusion only need to be named and exposed truthfully, and then they die in exposure to the light.”

 

Is biblical judgement a fear-based mechanism meant to manipulate believers into a kind of law-abiding submission; or is it meant to be a nurturing stratagem used to assist believers on their path towards maturity in the life of Christ?

 

Many of you are acquainted with of the writings of C.S. Lewis. In one of his classic books, The Great Divorce, Lewis gives the experience of judgement a meaning that for some is more helpful then the hell and damnation approach. In the Great Divorce, a narrator finds himself inexplicably in a grim and joyless city, called the "Grey Town," which is a kind of purgatory in which pilgrims - by choice – can progress to Union with God, or they can stay stuck in the Gray City and ultimately disappear into their own meaningless ego bubbles.

 

The narrator eventually takes a ride in a bus along with those who also want to get out of the depressing Gray Town. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers notice that they have become semi-transparent ghosts. They now find themselves in a place that is the most beautiful place they have ever seen. Every feature of the landscape is unyieldingly solid, compared to their ghostly selves. The shock of this causes them pain when they walk.  Even a single leaf is too heavy for anyone to lift. Suddenly, shining men and women, whom they have known earlier in their lives, come to meet them and urge them to journey toward a distant mountain of brilliant light. They promise that as they travel onward and upward, they will become more solid, and become more and more real. The solid saint-like people offer to assist them in their journey toward the mountains and the sunrise.

 

Sadly, most all the ghosts take the easy way out, and decide to return to the Grey Town, giving convoluted excuses for doing so. Eventually the narrator meets someone who becomes his mentor; just as Dante did when encountering Virgil in the Divine Comedy. The mentor explains that it is possible for a soul to choose eternal Union with God. For such souls, the goodness of Heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experiences on earth to an extension of Heaven. Conversely, those who choose to remain in the suffocating confines of their egos, will have unwittingly chosen to disconnect with the promise of gaining a transformed life in glory.

 

For Lewis, Divine Judgement is self-imposed. It’s about the choices we make; and not about God rewarding us, or condemning us. God invites all of us into a deeper communion with one another, and with God-self in a time that is somehow beyond time. The journey begins as we learn to care for one another. It is up to each of us to decide whether-or-not we are willing to live into that invitation.

 

So, are we sheep or goats? Most certainly, we are all created to be “sheep.” It is in our DNA. It is God’s “original blessing” to us all. I cannot believe that God would force us to become something that we do not want to become. So, our egos are free to choose a goat identity. Maybe the goats in this morning’s Gospel are goats only because they have consistently chosen to be goats. And maybe, in the end, there will remain for them the opportunity to accept their original “sheep” identity. Our capacity to make personal decisions is a gift. Perhaps we are the keepers of the keys of our own final judgements.

 

The judgement gospels of the last three Sundays are, I believe, a wake-up call for all of us to use the gifts (or talents) that God has given to us in a way that is life-giving and life-serving. When we fear, or when we feel separated from one another, there is this “goatish” tendency for us to act as life-takers to preserve the little that we feel we have. Locked in ourselves, we desperately strive to keep ourselves safe by hoarding what we have, and by building thick walls around our wounded egos.

 

My prayer for you and for myself as we once again begin Advent in the new Church Year, is that we will heed the warnings of judgement that come at year’s end, and be evermore awake to the opportunities to use the awesome gifts we have, to freely and enthusiastically serve the desperate needs of so many people far and near. For (as Jesus said) I truly tell you that as “you do this to the least of these, you will be doing it to the Christ that lives in all of us.”

+Ed


2017

November: Nurtured to be Care Givers


September: Ripening

August: Seeing can be Believing

July: Jesus' Kingdom Parables

June: In the Beginning was Relationship

April: Fasting from; Feasting on

March: Holding On & Letting Go

February: Paying Attention

January: To Live the Impossible Dream


2016

December: A Theology of Creation 1

December: A Theology of Creation 2

December: A Theology of Creation 3

November: On Being Wrong

October: On Humility

September: The Sin and Folly of being "Great"

August: Fear Does Not have to be a Crippling Spirit

July: Fight, Flee or Love?

May: Singing a New Song


2015

January: Leaning Clean and Lean into the New Year

February: Confronting the Growing Divides

March/April: A Moral Bucket List


2014

January: Hunger Games

February:State of the "Union" Inventories

March: On Being Wrong and Getting it Right

April: April Showers and the Mystery of Transformation

May: Listening to Each Other's Stories

June: Celebrating Aging

July/August: Twists and Turns

September: Life-Giving Questions

October: Character Building

November: Ripening

December: The Great Political Divide


 2013

December: Re-envisioning Reality

November: Falling Leaves

October: Gap Awareness

September: Don't Worry Be Happy

August: The Law

July: Transforming Masculine Archetype

June: Ageing's Surprizing Gateways

Lent: On Fasting