Judgment and Mercy

A sermon preached at`St. Andrew’s Church, Kent, Connecticut, on November 13, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber.

I sometimes think we live too long to understand the Bible properly. Not that I would change anything; I still like waking up in the morning  and living in the northwest corner, but science has so changed the shape of human life  that I’m not sure we can still look at it the way the Bible does. Every year at this time  we find ourselves reading Bible passages full of warnings about the end. The Old Testament reading spoke of a “day of wrath” and the Gospel warned of being “cast into outer darkness.”  This week the parable of the talents, next week parable of the last judgment, all with the same note of warning:  life is not forever; there will be a judgment; you need to be ready. And after next Sunday we come to Advent itself and the serious stuff: “heaven and earth will pass away” and all that.

But you know, I’m not really sure it gets our attention.  A century ago, when the normal life span was maybe sixty, back in the middle ages when the normal life span was maybe 35,  they had a sense of “the shortness and uncertainty of human life”  that I’m just not sure we can share. Yes, terrible things happen:  we know about the Trade Towers  and all that. and if we go to war, young people will die.  And, of course, no one yet has proved to be immortal.  Death is still out there somewhere, but when we see so many lives go on well into the 90s and often past 100, I’m really not sure we can relate to all this stuff  the Bible and Prayer Book give us about the approaching end the way we ought to. We grow up expecting to live to be 90 or 100 and that’s a long way off, and by the time we get to be 60 or 70  it’s been a long way off for so long that I’m not sure we really take in the fact that it’s closer than it used to be.  All of which is perhaps my own personal reflection,  how it seems to me. But think about it.  How does it seem to you?  Do these parables about the end and judgment have an effect?  Do they make you take stock? Do you go home saying,  “It’s a fact; I need to make some changes because I’m not really ready for God to send an appraiser to put a final value on my life the way I’m living it now?”

So that’s a first thought about today’s gospel.  Can we really hear it? Does it speak to us?  Does it get our attention? If not, what would?  I think we need to get that in place first because otherwise the parable of the talents becomes something about stewardship,  about our pledge, about contributing to a holiday bazaar, and that just doesn’t get it. This is about life and death, about why we are here, what life is all about. And it is very realistic. Talents are distributed.  Everybody gets some. It may not seem fair that one person gets five talents and another only one, but, hey, that’s how it is, and nobody asks you to bring back ten talents if you only started out with one. But whatever you start with, for that you are responsible. Whatever life gives us, we are responsible.

I’m sometimes wish we could keep election seasons to maybe a week or ten days because I’m tired of hearing politicians appealing to our greed, running for office and asking for votes on the basis of what you and I get out of it. Cutting taxes on one side, increasing your benefits on the other.  Isn’t there anyone out there who’s been formed by reading the Bible, who understands that with gifts  comes responsibility? I don’t remember ever hearing  Franklin Roosevelt speak. He was dead long before I was old enough to vote.  But I know that he said, “To those to whom much is given,  from them much is required.”  Some of us do remember John Kennedy saying,  “Ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America.”  Of course, that wasn’t a campaign speech,  that was an inaugural address. Where is the candidate who can inspire us by challenging us, by asking us what we might do with the great gifts we are given?

As I read American history, there are two great traditions: one is the ethic of self-sacrifice,  of mission, of a calling to set an example for other nations, to share the gifts we are given: at every level, from the smallest community, to the world stage,  to give without counting the cost because God has given so much to us. Whether you think in terms of the wealth of this country  or in terms of the cross and Calvary, the Gospel and the promise of life, either way,  one strong strand in our common life has been thankfulness for gifts given  and the challenge of changing the world.

But there is another tradition,  and that’s the one of rugged individualism, of the self-made man,  of the pioneer who finds and exploits, of the one who sees an opportunity and uses it enrich himself.  Whether Bernie Madoff or Goldman Sachs, we’ve been there before.  Enron and WorldCom are not that far back.  And then there were Teapot Dome in the 1920s and the Robber Barons in the late nineteenth century.  The Vanderbilts and Goulds and Astors were not remembered for the holiness of their lives. But now we have institutionalized greed and we’ve made it possible for everyone to go to the corner store and buy a chance on making your own million or ten million. “Hey, you never know!”  Actually, you should know:  when governments support themselves by lotteries,  they prey on the poor, they encourage our worst instincts, and they insulate themselves from having to make tough decisions.  Why raise taxes if you can add a new enticement to the lottery?  But God will not ask us why we didn’t win the lottery.  God will ask us why we spent our discretionary cash on the lottery when we knew our neighbor’s need.

And look at the catalogs that they stuff in our mail box.  Every day they come, and who needs that stuff? What are they pushing this year that every child will die for and every parent kill for?  Bishop Smith spoke to our diocesan convention a few years ago about his embarrassment when he used his sabbatical time to visit countries in Central America and saw American television programs  being watched in the poorest slums. What must they think of us, he asked,  to have such wealth and use it on such foolishness?  I stopped asking for Christmas presents years ago.  I ask for gifts to Episcopal Relief and Development; isn’t that what Christmas is all about:  God’s love coming into the manger, into the poverty of this world, enriching us with the love we need  not with the toys we break and discard?  Suppose Jesus were to return on December 26  and ask us what we got for Christmas: how embarrassed would we be  to show him the list? Are we, will we ever be,  able to face a judgment on our use of our talents?

I suspect we don’t want to ask ourselves that question  because no society has ever been given so much and been so well aware of the need  to use it wisely and well.  And yet we fail the test. These Advent messages leave us, it seems to, me without hope – except for the mercy of God.  But that, I think, is really the primary message of Advent: not despair, but mercy.  I think what Jesus wanted people to realize was – and is –  that we are totally, totally, dependent on God’s mercy – and that’s not a bad position to be in. The good news of the Gospel,  the fundamental message of the Christian faith, is that, in spite of our failures, there is mercy – mercy enough and to spare. God loves us,  Jesus died for us, and our gracious God  invites us here today to taste and see how gracious the Lord is and how much God loves us all.

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