I hope that none of you ever has the need to appear in court – the attorneys in our midst aside. But if you do, I would hope that the judge deciding the case is like the county Superior Court judge I met some years ago. The circumstances of the case were complex, with a number of different interested parties in the court room. The judge took in everything that was presented, asked some very pointed questions, was not taking any guff from anyone, seemed even-handed, with a dry sense of humor which he used to good advantage to create the best outcome for all concerned. With his bow tie and his bushy eye brows he reminded me of a cross between former NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Garrison Keillor. At the end of the day, I was grateful for the judge’s ruling that was compassionate and just, sorting out a tangled situation.
The imagery that Jesus uses in the extended metaphor of this morning’s Gospel is about sorting out, about judgment. In all of the parables and other teaching stories that we’ve been hearing this fall, Jesus has been preparing the disciples for the coming fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. That reign of God on earth as it is in heaven is inaugurated with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, and lived out and spread in and through the lives of all who have followed him ever since. Christ’s return in glory to our world will be the final event which will draw God’s kingdom together, the consummation of God’s purpose for God’s Creation.
Judgment, sorting out, making things just and good and right are part of God’s Kingdom, part of what we look for in Christ’ return, a major Advent theme. We long for God to set our world to rights, to sort us out, to have the world reflect the goodness and justice of God. That is part of what we look for and pray for in this Advent time.
And so we have this metaphor, this extended word-picture, of judgment and sorting out: the king with all the nations, all the people of the world gathered before him, sorting them – just as a shepherd sorts sheep and goats from each other at the end of the grazing day. How will the king decide? By the way the people have acted toward one another, have cared for one another – especially “the least of these.” That is what the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures have always called God’s People to – to care for the sick, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger and sojourner in our midst. It is the standard of behavior that Jesus expects of his followers; all we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and are now his brothers and sisters; it is a family trait. And caring for the least of these is what God looks for and hopes to find even in the hearts and lives of those who don’t claim to follow Jesus, at least not in any formal way. God loves each person that he has made – tenderly, passionately, sacrificially, with joy and delight - and calls us to do the same, to the best of our ability.
But that kind of love and compassion is not what the forces of the world values or rewards. The powers-that-be decry weakness, vulnerability, humility, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, beauty of soul, anything that is not utilitarian; that has been true throughout human history.
For Jesus to talk about judgment in this way is not to separate faith from works, not to say that believing and doing are two different things. Jesus teaches and incarnates a life centered on God and God’s reign, a seamless garment of faith and works. We know we can’t buy our way into God’s good graces; we are already there. Jesus was born into human life because of God’s great and endless love for us. That love is a gift, and it is also a responsibility. When our life is centered on God we are focused in worship and prayer and we are drawn to express and enact that faith and love in caring for others, for the Creation, for this world God has made.
This is hard work – make no mistake about it. It is one thing to make a declaration of our love or concern for those who are impoverished, or incarcerated, or ostracized, or ill. It is quite another thing to take the time to know people who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, in prison, who are sick, who are strangers. Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement in 1930s which operates hospitality houses to care for destitute and broken men and women, often had her patience sorely tried by volunteers who came to work at the houses: well-meaning people with romantic views of what they could do to help the poor, but then complained when they themselves got tired or stressed or dirty or hungry. Dorothy knew deep in her soul that when she was providing a bed for a homeless person, serving food to someone who was hungry, visiting a person in prison, sharing their condition, their reality on some level, that she was serving Christ, repairing God’s world, and making his Kingdom a reality; but it was face-to-face, skin-to-skin, and it was supported and infused with prayer, worship, and sacrament – and no small dose of taking the measure of her volunteers and herself before God.
This vision, this image of Jesus as the King who judges and sorts out the world is important for each of us to grasp, or (better yet) be grasped by. It challenges us to take stock, to look within, to examine our schedule or calendar, and then look outside ourselves and widen our circle until we can see and know people who are hungry, thirty, naked, strangers, sick, in prison. When we do that, we will see and know and love Jesus in a whole new way – as the King who was, and is, and is to come, and as the homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk. As John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople in the late fourth century said, “If you can’t find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
Come, Lord Jesus, and be our Judge, and redeem us with an outstretched arm. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday before Advent
November 26, 2017