Year A, Reign of Christ November 26, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Before we came to Eugene I ran a farming project at an Anglican monastery. We had a little CSA, farm interns, retreatants sometimes helped; it was pretty exciting. Maybe a bit too exciting for a monastery. I called the project, “Helping the Land Help People Know God.” Most folks didn’t get it, didn’t understand the connection, so I used to joke about it, saying one of the reasons we did it was to increase people’s relationships to the Biblical stories. “Too many folks don’t know the difference between sheep and goats let alone how to separate them!” I don’t know if that helped anyone understand what I was up to, but it sure took some pressure off of some very uncomfortable scripture.
We’ve had a few weeks of rough scripture. Today, we hear the conclusion of Jesus’ eschatological sermon to His disciples in the story of the sheep being separated from the goats, with the clear judgment, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” The setting, the context of this sermon in Jesus’ story speaks to how important this is. The next thing that happens is the plot, then the Passion. This is serious stuff.
Eschatological… That means having to do with the end times, the conclusion of history, the fullness of time. Eschatology is one of the basic categories Christian doctrine. To have a comprehensive, or systematic theology, you have to account for time. How does it begin, exist and end? We have a basic answer for that. Yes. It began, it is, it will end. The Gloria Patri, “…as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever.” And that forever is marked by some point where judgment happens. His coming in glory to judge the living and the dead, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come, those things we wince at in the creeds, they can, and do, mean a lot of things. When we talk in terms of end times, of eschatology, it is a rhetorical amplifier, a foot stomp that signifies that the subject at hand is important. It matters. A lot. This is one of those cases. How we act in the world, according to Jesus, matters. A lot.
One of the great gifts of the Anglican form of Christianity, is that we are not expected to believe very much by way of specifics. Orthodoxy (right belief), is not an Anglican virtue in the way that orthopraxis, (right practice) is. You can have all sorts of ideas so long as you stand or kneel when you are supposed to at Mass. We are criticized for that, this what I call “flexibility”. That flexibility, or theological expansiveness is not being lackadaisical or accommodating liberal indiscipline (or it is not necessarily or just that). I don’t know if it is possible or even desirable to have a whole bunch of humans actually believing or striving to believe the exact same thing. Human history is littered with horror stories of large groups of people being held to strict orthodoxy. Moral man, immoral society. So we don’t need to have the same interpretation of stories like this, stories of the end times. But I do think we need to have a story. I think you need to have a story.
When we speak of eschatology, the end times, in the Episcopal Church, heavens, the variety of religious beliefs that we find in our midst on this subject! The bishop who ordained me took an almost perverse pride in his belief in the “resurrection of the body”, the real physical body coming back together on that last day of judgment. Our banner has been put away for a while, but as Resurrection, the image is Jesus pulling people out of a grave. My bishop knew that it made nice, liberal Massachusetts folks uncomfortable and I think he goaded us with that old-time religion. That’s fine. I might have some thoughts on his motivation and how he told people about his beliefs, but his beliefs, well, there were his. They had centuries and centuries of precedence. They brought him comfort when I knew him when he was healthy, I hope they brought him even more as he died from cancer.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most common thing I hear on this subject, on the end times around the Church of the Resurrection is nothing. Zilch. Nada. “Don’t want to think about it, don’t want to talk about it.” I totally hear that. It is quite a story. Quite a fantastic concept, the eschaton, the end. Judgment. Sheep and goats. Eternal punishment or eternal life. I think a lot of people, thinking people in particular, dismiss these parts of the story as superstitions. You can’t verify any of this, not by modern standards. It is as nonsensical empirically as the creation in six days or the flood. Very third leg of the stool, very reasonable, even though scripture and tradition might give different answers to what happens in the fullness of time.
I don’t know what happens in the end. I do know that I am getting less suspicious of those whose faith has given them a glimpse. It doesn’t mean I need to believe them, but it doesn’t mean I should to dismiss them as whack-jobs, either. Religious knowledge is a legitimate source of knowledge. For thousands of years it was the only legitimate source of knowledge, faith, religion, our encounter with Divine mystery. The Enlightenment corrected that, there are other sources of knowledge, but religious knowledge, the knowledge of faith is still legitimate. Silence can teach you things as profound and important and true as a physics textbook. The truth of beauty can be revealed in a faithfully executed Easter Vigil as much as in a sonnet by Shakespeare, or a painting by Monet or a concerto by Bach. What you experience as you receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, is as true an experience of reality as anything that we as humans have ever done, ever do. What we do here, delving into scripture, gathering at this altar, what we do here together is very real. Very true. Very important. I don’t claim any special knowledge of the details of many of these stories, like the sheep and the goats, and what happens in the final days, but my faith is telling me that there is something here, something important, something that we need to attend to. The details are not important. Or as Marcus Borg says, “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true.” What is true here in this scripture, in the conclusion of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, is that what we do, what we do here and now, what we do in this life, matters. There are consequences to how we live.
Jesus teaches this lesson to His disciples (and us) in such a beautiful way, perfect. “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… 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.’” He makes this revolutionary, salvific revelation that the way you treat the meanest, most downtrodden, most oppressed and despised and wretched of the earth, that is how you are treating God. God is with the broken; treat them accordingly. God is with the weak; treat them as such. God is hungry and thirsty and alone and naked and sick and in jail, and you worship God, you are as you are supposed to be in the world when you relieve the suffering of the creation, when you engage with eyes wide open to the fullness of the world. Wheh. And if that isn’t profound enough or stirring enough, Jesus lets us know that if you don’t do those things you will “go away into eternal punishment.”
I am trying to diversify my religious knowledge base, so I am using a variety of resources in preparing my sermons. One commentary I reference is more conservative than I am, or espouses a more traditional take on things. On Matthew 25:31-46, it urges the preacher to not make this simply a humanitarian sermon. (Perish the thought). But their point is right on. This is not a religious call to work at 2nd Sunday breakfast or give money to the Home Starter Kit Advent Tree. Though both of these acts are encouraged and appreciated, they are not going to get you into heaven (or out of hell), this is not a quid pro quo kind of situation. Be good, get rewarded. No. We are justified by faith, not works. The faith is that what we do, how we are, who we are in the world, matters. Matters deeply. Matters to the fullness of time. The specifics don’t matter, there isn’t some formula of conduct to conform too, though you could do worse than follow the examples He listed, but you can’t just be out for number one, be totally selfish or greedy or slothful any of the other deadly sins and think that there are not consequences of one form or another. Like consequences to the end.
I sat with this scripture all week. Today is the Solemnity of the Reign of Christ, or more traditionally (and patriarchaly), Christ the King. It is a relatively modern (1925) feast holding up the ancient notion of Jesus as King of the Universe, sovereign of Heaven and Earth. What happens in heaven, in the eternity beyond our knowing matters. What happens here, in time, in our lives, it matters. Jesus is concerned with all of it. Jesus is concerned with all of us. With all of you. And what we do, matters.
This doesn’t mean you need to run to the Sudan and start an orphanage, or give up tenure to feed homeless folks, not necessarily. For some of us, it is exactly what it means, but not for all of us. I know I get some critique for implying that to be Christians faithful to the gospel we need to tear the system down, that we can’t work within it, it being so corrupt and structurally sinful. I’ve made some strident claims at times, that is true, I am sorry if any of them put you out. But it is kind of funny since I am an Episcopal priest, I couldn’t get much more institutionally entrenched than that. But what I mean is that that liberal ideal of “Doing well while doing good,” can be a slippery slope of delusion and self-indulgence. Doing well, making a lot of money, having prestige, influence, doing well by worldly standards, that needs to be secondary to doing good in the world. That is the very least that Jesus said to his disciples so long ago, that is a low bar.
We are Anglicans, so what I, your priest, thinks about what an appropriate balance between worldly fortunes and Godly service doesn’t matter, not in an end times sort of way. You are responsible for discerning what is enough. You are responsible for figuring out what feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, all those things Jesus commends to you, you are responsible for what that actually looks like in your life. That is on you. That is on each of us. Maybe being the kindest boss, ensuring that the people you are responsible for are treated fairly and decently and are paid well and work in safe conditions, maybe that is exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Maybe it is being a teacher who opens the minds of students, edifying them with the beauty of knowledge, lifting their spirits to some Platonic plateau of righteousness. Maybe it is staying home with the kids and helping them become the moral people we want the world left to. Or being a good friend, a generous neighbor, a loving member of a community, a devoted partner. Only you know if what you are doing is what God wants you to be doing, and if you are doing enough of it, or if you lean more towards doing well than doing good, you get to get to discern that. My job is to make sure that you are asking the question of yourself and offer what our scripture and tradition has to say on it. And on both accounts, it is pretty clear. What we do, matters in the end. A lot.
I am not saying that focusing more on your own good than the common good is going to get you sent to the line with the goats. What I am saying is that for thousands of years, across the globe, in culture after culture, including from the mouth of Jesus Christ, we have been told that what we do matters in a most desperate way. Truly, that is Good News. It is reassuring news. I’d hate to think that what we do here is meaningless, just doesn’t matter. But for something to be meaningful, that means that there are responsibilities that go with it. And with getting responsibility, there are consequences; some good, some less so.
You’ve been doing it wrong? Had your priorities messed up? Fear not, God in Christ is merciful and forgiveness is always and extravagantly offered. You, all of us can change our ways. For remember, forgiveness is offered to the repentant. It is offered to those who repent, which means those who change what they are doing, a change the direction of their lives. What you do matters. And you can always change what you do, but, that doesn’t change how much it matters.
This is the end of the church year. Liturgically this is the end, the new year begins next week with Advent 1, our time of waiting and preparation for God to fulfill the promise of a savoir to be born among us, King of the Universe born to a poor peasant girl in a backwater province of a great empire. That matters. This matters. You matter. All we can do is live as if that is true, sometimes it is by faith alone. AMEN