Text: Matthew 25:31-46 (the parable of the sheep and goats)
What inspires people to join a community like Mill Woods United? What moves us to sing and pray together on Sunday mornings? Why do we give time and energy to outreach projects like The Bread Run or the Clothing Bank? Why do we march in the Pride Parade and participate in projects for justice, peace, and reconciliation?
I ask these questions today under the banner of “Inspire” on this the first of three stewardship Sundays.
The Gospel passage we just heard was suggested for this first Sunday by the national church; and I have followed this suggestion even though there is much in this passage I question.
On the positive side, Jesus says that we meet Christ when we feed the hungry, welcome strangers, and comfort the ill and imprisoned. This implies that actions matter more than beliefs.
On the negative side, he says that he will judge as goats those whose behaviour doesn’t meet ethical standards and condemn them to an eternity of torment.
Some church-goers are inspired by this passage to engage in works of charity and justice. But it also threatens us with hell. We seek inspiration in life and in ministry. But do we also need to be frightened into doing the right thing?
Last Monday, Kim and I attended a learning day at my alma mater, Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto; and one part of it dealt with the Day of Judgement referred to by this morning’s reading. We attended this event at the end of a weekend trip to Toronto during which I presided at the wedding of my niece, Rachel Grace Bakan Kellogg.
I loved the weekend and was delighted to be part of the wedding of Rachel and her now-husband Michael Stephens. It is one of my favourite weddings, second now in my memory only to the ceremony for me and Kim almost two years ago.
It was also the most secular wedding at which I have presided. Although Rachel’s grandfather, my father, was a United Church minister and although Michael was baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, they are secular thirty-somethings living and working in Toronto, which is one of the most intercultural cities in the world.
The wedding did have some Jewish elements since Rachel’s mother, my sister-in-law Abbie Bakan, is from a Jewish family. We gathered under a canopy called a chuppah. Michael smashed a decorative glass to end the ceremony. And we danced a joyous hora during the reception on Saturday evening.
But the absence of the names Jesus and YHWH at the ceremony did not detract for me from a shining Spirit of Love that flowed through it. Although there were no official prayers, the ceremony was prayerful from start to finish. Although there was no mention of supernatural deities or judgmental saviours, their vows of love and everyone’s commitment to compassion and justice moved me.
I was inspired by Rachel and Michael and by the gracious gathering of family and friends who participated in their day. Like any gathering in the name of Love, the wedding filled us with hope, joy, and gratitude. It was a celebration on the side of the angels and not the goats, in my opinion.
Before we returned to Edmonton on Monday evening, I was happy that Kim and I could spend the day at Emmanuel College. I saw several of the professors with whom I studied from 2007 to 2011 and I enjoyed the discussions.
The day marked four anniversaries of significance to the United Church this year: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, the 30th anniversary of the 1988 decision of the United Church’s General Council meeting to allow gays and lesbians to seek ordination; the 50th anniversary of the 1968 union of the United Church with a small German-speaking denomination, the Evangelical United Brethren; and the 50th anniversary of the adoption by General Council of the New Creed.
The discussion on the New Creed is the part that fits with today’s reading. The New Creed — which begins with the lines “We are not alone. We live in God’s world” — is popular in the United Church. But one of its phrases is questioned by some.
The presenter talked briefly about this phrase — “To proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.”
Does Jesus judge us, as today’s Gospel passage suggests? And does he send some of us into an eternity of torment?
Hell is one of the teachings of the ancient church to which I don’t subscribe. Despite what Matthew has Jesus say in passages like the one we heard this morning, I cannot worship a God who magically sustains ego consciousness for all eternity in order to inflict endless torment on so-called goats.
On the other hand, I am OK with the phrase “our judge and our hope.” Judgement for me is intimately connected to salvation. It is not about a mythical Day of Judgement, but about innumerable moments of Grace in the ups and downs of life.
Accepting one’s behaviour and situation can be searingly painful. But when we accept personal actions we now regret, and when we accept that we are trapped in conditions we don’t like but can’t easily change, we find ourselves lifted out of our small selves towards the big Self, which is the God who is Love. Acceptance can be both a painful judgement and a moment of joyous healing.
None of us always act with perfect kindness, compassion, and non-violence. None of us has the ability to effect all the changes to the world we would like. Try as we might, we often find ourselves unable to do much to bring about the realm of peace, abundance and love that is God’s dream for the earth.
Accepting this involves a judgement that we are weaker and less charitable than we would like. But it is preferable to accept this judgement than to deny it. If we never regret our ethical failings and never accept our humble reality as fragile and mortal individuals who are trapped in economic and political structures that militate against the world for which we long, we remain stuck in our egos and removed from the Source of Love we call God.
The good news is that the Day of Judgement can also be the Day of Healing and Liberation. Accepting the former opens us to the latter.
One of the speakers at the Learning Day last Monday, the Rev. Carmen Lansdowne of First United Church in Vancouver, made a related statement that I appreciated.
She reminded us that liberation not only brings salvation to the oppressed but also to the oppressors. Working for reconciliation with First Nations is about helping Indigenous Canadians heal from the harm they experienced at church-run residential schools. But it also helps to heal those of us in the dominant church. It gives us a chance to repent of the church’s colonial past and the idolatry of white supremacy on which it was founded. It opens us up to new vistas of love.
Another illustration of this reality is found in last week’s biggest news story — the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford to the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee about her alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
I was moved and convinced by Dr Ford’s testimony on Thursday. Regardless of what the Senate concludes about Kavanaugh, I believe and pray that she found a measure of healing and freedom by speaking her truth in the cause of the civic good despite the fear and pain it caused her.
Kavanaugh could also been liberated on Thursday if he had used the humiliation of the accusations against him to repent of his past. Imagine if he had used his testimony on Thursday to withdraw his nomination. Imagine if he had said that being nominated to the Supreme Court by a President who himself faces multiple sexual misconduct accusations and who admitted to being a sexual predator to a reporter in 2006; a president who won three million fewer votes than his opponent; a president whose slender victory was helped by an intervention by the head of the FBI 11 days before the 2016 U.S. elections and by cyber attacks from Russia; a president who often acts as an Internet troll and an unconscionable bully; and who makes untrue, racist, and misogynist statements at a rate that makes many of our heads spin — imagine if Kavanaugh had said that in good conscience he could no longer accept a nomination from such a president. What if he had accepted the grace to stand down instead of angrily blaming those who question his fitness?
It is hard to imagine such a scenario. But repentance and conversion do happen, both for individuals and for nations. Thursday could have been Judge Kavanaugh’s liberation as well as Dr. Ford’s. Unfortunately for the U.S. and for Kavanaugh, he did not take the opportunity.
The contrast between Ford and Kavanaugh was acute. She spoke the truth in the cause of the public good. He denied the truth in the cause of personal gain and for a political agenda. I hope that someday he has a change of heart.
For any of us, moments of difficulty can become moments of judgement and salvation. This is one way to see our work as followers of Jesus. In the church, we breathe to the rhythms of love, which involve giving and receiving, sharing and listening, struggling and learning, and mourning and celebrating together. In our outreach and in-reach, we see the divine face of Christ in those we serve and in ourselves. We confront Love’s judgement and we touch Love’s hope.
Today as we look at this sanctuary ringed with tables that display this church’s work of seeking and finding and of giving and receiving, may we be inspired to continue to breathe in love even when it involves pain and to breathe out hope and joy.
The New Creed proclaims that Jesus is both our judge and our hope. This does not mean that lakes of fire await those of us who don’t measure up. It means that in accepting the realities we encounter in life and ministry even the smelliest of the goats among us can be healed.
May we use some of the innumerable moments of Grace in lives of pain and joy to accept Love’s judgement and to thereby experience the healing and liberation that is our birthright as children of God.
May it be so. Amen.