Christ the King A14—11/23/14
Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Eph. 1:15-23; Matt. 25:31-46
“God loves you…no matter what.” At the baptismal font, week after week, in the presence of children, we hear these words.
“God loves you…no matter what.” Children seem to accept this assurance with little problem. We adults, however, are waiting for the other shoe to drop, right? Unconditional love—truly unconditional love—is so rare in the world and so rare in our experience that even though we hear the assurance of God’s love week after week we may not be convinced.
Today, the final Sunday of the church year, seems to be the day the other shoe drops. God loves you…BUT… “the fat and the strong I will destroy,” says the Lord. God loves you…BUT…some “will go away into eternal punishment.” “See?” our grown-up minds remind us. “I knew it. There’s always a catch!”
Well, which is it? God’s unconditional love, or, judgment? Lutherans answer, “Yes!” We acknowledge that it is impossible to wrap our human hearts and minds around what seem to us such obvious contradictions. We nevertheless hold and affirm in faith both of these Scriptural teachings as equally true for each of us.
“God loves you…no matter what.” That is the bedrock truth of our faith. It’s the place we begin and the place we end. Within this framework, on this Christ the King Sunday, we end the church year with what might be called the final exam. You remember final exams from school, right? A rare few among us may have looked forward to such exams but for most of us, probably, the final exam was an occasion for sweaty palms, “butterflies in the stomach,” anxiety and fear.
The readings for today might be an occasion for sweaty palms. The final exam at the end of our church year tests whether we really believe in God’s unconditional love for all people, or not. Is it fear, or is it love that drives us? The heart that is convinced of God’s love is motivated by gratitude to imitate that love through deep justice for all people: “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.”
Today is the final exam. Looking back over the past year, we ask ourselves if we—personally, and as a church–have really believed this stuff about God’s love. Has it taken root and flourished? What is the evidence? Do our hearts tug in the direction of God’s justice for all people? Or, are we fearful, concerned with self-preservation, preoccupied with guarding our privilege, maintaining the walls of our comfort zone, promoting our own group, defending our own self-interest?
What the Scriptures describe in such stark and disturbing terms—sheep and goats, eternal life and eternal punishment—teaches us this: “We can’t have it both ways.” Either Christ is King. Or, something else is. Either God’s love drives us to a heart for justice, or, we spend our days anxiously creating substitutes for God’s love.
The final exam in the kingdom of heaven is about compassion. Charity doesn’t change us. Sympathy doesn’t change us. Pity certainly doesn’t change us. But, compassion transforms us. The word “compassion” means, literally, “suffering with.” We walk alongside those whom Jesus names–the poor, the weak, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the stranger. To be a person of compassion means allowing my thoughts, words and deeds—my life!–to be shaped and changed by stories different from my own.
Today is the final exam so Jesus the teacher wants to be as clear as possible. The heart that is convinced of God’s unconditional love for all people is expressed in a life devoted to God’s justice.
Fall is fundraising season and last Sunday afternoon I was at another fundraiser, this time for Faith Action Network. It’s been said that compassion leads to justice, and justice leads to peace. Faith Action Network may be proof of that; it’s a community of Jews, Christians, and Muslims working together for the sake of the priorities that Jesus describes in Matthew 25. Four hundred-fifty people attended this fundraiser at the Renton Pavilion, and one of those was Rick Steves, the main speaker. In the course of his address Rick Steves said, “Charity is for beginners.” The good news is, all of us are beginners. But the heart that is convinced of God’s all-inclusive love will demand much more than charity. It will demand just laws. It will require changes in us and the way we do things.
Jesus summed up the life of faith in two parts: Love the Lord your God with an all-inclusive love: all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind, AND, love your neighbor as yourself. But how can we live a life devoted to God’s justice if we don’t believe that “God loves you, no matter what”? The final exam is about God’s justice. Love is the bedrock that drives us to a heart for justice…or, it’s not. Sheep…or goat. We make choices for or against God’s love minute to minute, day to day, year to year.
The heart that is convinced of God’s love does not settle for charity but is a heart devoted to God’s justice. A couple of weeks ago our bishop invited Mary Yu, a justice in the Washington State court system, to speak to pastors and church leaders. Mary Yu is an Episcopalian Chinese-American who is also a lesbian. Her personal experience of hardship, discrimination and injustice drove her to devote her life to justice, especially for what Jesus calls in today’s reading the “least of these.” Today she is an Associate Justice on the Washington State Supreme Court.
Whether a person is powerful and prosperous, or, poor and disadvantaged, there is at least one thing that could bind us to one another: the fear of not being loved. Society says in a thousand different ways to all of us, You’re not good enough, you’re not beloved unless you’re successful by the world’s standards. And we accept those standards all too easily. Those who for whatever reason are not able to make it in a dog-eat-dog world often have first-hand experience of injustice. The rest of us who are able to be what society calls “successful,” on the other hand, run the risk of making wealth or freedom or power into a substitute for love and compassion.
The final exam is not about competition or success or prosperity. It’s about love and compassion. In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle speaks of an all-inclusive love, not of his own making but a gift of God’s grace: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,” he writes, “and your love toward all the saints…God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The fullness of God’s all-inclusive love is revealed to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Our belief in the fullness of Christ’s love is revealed to the world through lives and communities devoted to God’s justice.