it’s remarkable

 

a sermon, based on Matthew 25.31-46, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 26, 2017

For all who believe in judgment – whose sense of right and wrong is crystal clear, whose moral compass is balanced, whose ethical sensibilities are sharp, whose response to life’s injustices is the hope for an afterlife when all wrongs are made right – here is the definitive Bible passage!

Jesus speaks of a celestial court. “All nations” – the whole earth, everybody – are gathered before him to be judged and divided; the righteous to eternal life, the accursed to everlasting punishment. Everyone gets what everyone deserves! Justice is done, finally, forever, never to be undone!

Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant_ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

But let’s be glad this cosmic judgment hasn’t happened yet and that we are not on trial. For none of us can be assured of acquittal. For we, even with our best intentions, are imperfect, thus fall short of the standard of judgment, which, according to Jesus, is service with our sisters and brothers in greatest, gravest need.

And it’s remarkable, worthy of recognition, that the standard of judgment has nothing to do with doctrine. Surprising given how much we Christians o’er two millennia have fought and died about whose right and whose wrong about what we believe and don’t believe! Yet Jesus doesn’t demand a recitation of a creed or a profession of faith, even in him.

Rather, and it’s remarkable, Jesus identifies service to the needy of this world as service to him, the Messiah of the eternal, living God. Thus, service is not only a cornerstone of human society, it is the code of the universe, the heart of life as God hath made it. We’re not living…being unless we’re serving.

And it’s remarkable how unremarkable this service is. With the exception of welcoming a stranger who becomes a friend or caring for the sick who may be made well, these acts of service hold no promise for lasting transformation. The systemic conditions of which human need is the symptom continue to create need. The hungry, once fed, hunger again. The thirsty thirst again. The naked need clothing again. When the visit is over, the visitor returns to a life of liberty while the prisoner remains imprisoned.

And it’s remarkable that these simple, straightforward acts of service are not intended to be deliberate deeds by which we seek to gain “extra credit” or “bonus points” to balance the liabilities, our sins of commission and omission, on the ethical ledger of our lives. As the sheep didn’t know they were serving Jesus and as the goats, had they known Jesus was in need, would have served him, service is to be spontaneous and unconscious.

And it’s remarkable that the image of sheep and goats is not only an earthly symbol with heavenly meaning, but also reflects an ordinary practice of first century Palestinian shepherds; in the evening separating their mixed flocks that had grazed together during the day, the sheep preferring the chilly night air, the goats needing warm shelter.

In this light, this story isn’t only about eternity, but also now. A story about life in this world. A life in which not only the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned, but all of us are needy, in some way, all the time. Thus, a life in which love and justice call us to reach out in compassion with those in need, for we never can know when we will be the ones in need, praying that a helping hand reaches out to us.

In that light, this story is less about God’s judgment of us and more about our judgments of others and ourselves. Are we, more often than not (for none of us always is any one thing!), sheep who serve spontaneously and unconsciously? Or are we goats who would serve if the task was great enough or the one to be served, in our judgment, worthy enough? Or are we an animal yet to be named who does see those in need, yet refuses to serve?

Which are you? Which am I?

 

 

Illustration: Christ separating the sheep and the goats, 6th century mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy 

 

 

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Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

More on public prayer

On each of the past two weekends, here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla and I have had the pleasure of hosting and housing a bride, her maid of honor and her bridesmaids.

On both occasions, on Saturday morning, in the serving of breakfast, whilst expeditiously ushering hot plates of freshly and lovingly (that is, Pontheolla-) prepared culinary fare to the table, I was brought to an abrupt and dutiful halt by the voice of prayer – the bride and her entourage, with hands joined and heads bowed, sharing in supplications to God…

On each occasion, though different the groups in nearly every ostensible social category, in their eloquent prayers, I found, I heard a striking similitude – if I had to (and I will!) characterize – of praise to God for being God, of thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all gifts, especially life and love, and of oblation to God in the offering of themselves in service to glorify God and to edify all whose lives they touched.

As both groups were 20-and-30-somethings, I offered to God a silent prayer of gratitude for the gift of renewed hope for the next generation, which these women, to a person, embodied.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 14, Thursday, March 16, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news” (and) “Follow me” ( Mark 1.14-15, 17a)

On the Kingdom of God: O Jesus, You came proclaiming that in You, Your life and Your ministry, God’s Kingdom had drawn nigh. Still, the Kingdom seems (at times, I fear, is) afar off. Kingdom-evidences in this strife-torn, sorrow-worn creation are sometimes hard to see, at least, for me.

Yet, blessedly, O Jesus, guided by Your gospel-light, with the spiritual sight of imagination, Kingdom-visions are not hard for me to seek. With the eyes of faith, I behold banquets where none hunger and all are welcome; festivals where none are poor, all attired in silken robes of equality’s wealth; where shackles lay shattered and prisons uninhabited, for liberty’s economy hath bankrupted all criminality and made charity the universal coin of the realm; where hospitals stand shuttered and dark and graveyards empty, for sickness and death are no more.

Ah, O Jesus, hearing again, hearing alway Your call, “Follow Me,” I see anew that I, in the strength of Your Spirit, in my daily being and doing, am to help usher in Your Kingdom-day; in the hungry and naked, the imprisoned and the stranger, the sick and dying, feeding and clothing, visiting and welcoming You.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] See Matthew 25.31-40: 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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “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.”

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 13, Wednesday, March 15, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On following, not worshiping Jesus (in the spirit of Verna Josephine Dozier):[1] O Jesus, You came amongst us, a Messiah without a messiah-complex, not to be served, but rather to serve through Your willing sacrifice of Your Self unto death for our sake.[2] In this, You, as my way, my truth, my life,[3] call me to follow You, not to worship You in respectful admiration, even reverent adulation. Thus, when my piety would have me only stand at the foot of Your cross, staring upward at Your broken Body in wondrous appreciation, by Your Spirit, send me away to follow You into the world to give my self away in sacrificial service. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Verna Josephine Dozier 2 (c 1995)Dr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), a nationally known religious educator, biblical scholar, author, and one of my finest mentors, in her book, The Dream of God, which she described as the creation in harmonious relation between God and humankind, wrote of the distinction between “Worship (as) setting Jesus on a pedestal, distancing him, enshrining…him in liturgies, stained glass windows, biblical translations, medallions, pilgrimages to places where he walked…Following him is doing what he did…Following is discipleship” (The Dream of God: A Call to Return, Cowley Publications, 1991, page 98).

[2] See Matthew 20.28 and Mark 10.45: Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

[3] A reference to John 14.6a: Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”