Thursday, November 17, 2011

Judgment and heartburn

Here we go - sheep and goats for Sunday. It's the Feast of Christ the King and we always end up at the end ... or at least close to the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. What isn't always obvious is that we end up in Holy Week again in the fall. It's an "extended dance version" of Holy Week in the spring where the focus is not on what happened to Jesus but instead what he was teaching during that last week.And this Sunday's lesson is the separating of the sheep and the goats with Jesus' teaching that what we do to "the least of these" we do to Jesus - and it gives me no small measure of heartburn to preach this.

Why? Because I often see so much of "organized Christian religion" focusing on our faith being a form of transactional economy. If I just do these things the right way, or behave just right, then God will love me and bless me ... which of course means I'll be blessed with eternal life in the big picture. So this lesson becomes a checklist of sorts:
  • Feed the hungry? "Well I worked at the soup kitchen once ... check!"
  • Clothe the naked? "I give away gently used clothing to Goodwill ... check!"
  • Visit prisoners? "Ummm ... not my thing ... guess I can't check that..."
We get all hung up in achieving in our lives and we think this is what God wants ... checklists and brownie points. But that's not the point of the teaching.

Yes, there will be a judgment. And this is good news because we can all look around and see all kinds of messed up stuff in our world. That's a page from the "Book of DUH!" We long for a God who is going to set things right. But, it's important to remember God's sense of justice and righteousness is grounded in reconciliation and mercy more than a boot in your backside. We fear God's judgment primarily because we make God in our own image and we know how harsh we would be if judgment was left up to us! If we're totally honest, we all carry around a "sheep and goats list" and we know exactly what those goats deserve ... at least we think we do. I try to remember that no matter what I think of the goats in my life, I know my name is on several goat lists out there and I thank God those folks don't get the last word on me! So we need not fear the judgment of a God who prefers mercy and reconciliation over destruction - we can all be thankful this God is nothing like us.

Jesus' admonition about what criteria makes a sheep a sheep and a goat a goat is often read as a checklist of what we should do. Now I'm not against going out and feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, taking care of the infirmed and visiting prisoners - that's all good stuff. But I think the point lies in not what we do but how we are around the "least of these." I think the quality of our presence when we are with those who suffer is far more important that what we do for them. Jesus' teaching then reflects a quality of how we journey with and empty ourselves of our egos to be fully present with people who are so vulnerable. It's about being humble and journeying with those who are nobodies in the world.

There is no "brownie points for Jesus" program - it's not about what we do as much as it is about who we are in Christ.

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