Love and Judgment

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on November 20, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber.

It used to be  when a man and a woman were married in the Episcopal Church or anywhere in the Anglican Communion that they would come down the aisle and stand before the priest and he would look them sternly in the eye and say: “I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgement when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Holy Matrimony ye do now confess it . . .”   They changed that in 1979 but I still sort of miss it. Oh yes, it’s a bit overwhelming: “the dreadful day of judgement when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed.” It’s a wonder more brides and grooms didn’t turn tail and head back down the aisle, but if they stayed, you knew they were serious. You knew they weren’t taking it lightly and that God was serious about it too.  And that’s not a bad thing to be sure of.   It’s why I sometimes preach on judgment at funerals. I think it’s good to know that God cares enough to be your judge.

We’re down to the end of the Christian year. Next week we begin the new year with Advent Sunday. And what better Gospel reading could we have here at the end than this to tell us God loves us, really loves us, really cares, really puts a value on us, values every single thing we do. God loves us enough to judge us. That’s a lot.

Do you hear what I’m saying? Have you ever worked long and hard on something, really given it your best shot and thought you had done yourself proud, and brought it in to your boss, your agent, your mother, and been told, “I’ll look at it later when I’m not so busy”?  Have you ever been told, “Look, just do what you can; it doesn’t matter how it looks”?  Of course, that, too, is a judgment. To say, “You aren’t worth judging.” is a judgment. To say, “It doesn’t matter what you do,” is a judgment.  Better far to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be separated out with the goats and sent to a warmer climate. At least that says, “You matter; God does care what you did.”

The souls in Dante’s Inferno at least knew God was not indifferent, that their lives were important, that their actions made an eternal difference.

To be judged  is to be valued, cared about, loved. When you tell a child to go to his or her room, you do it because you love them. You judge them, yes, and punish them, because you care. There are parents in every community – I think we all  know it – who don’t care, whose children are not judged but indulged, not disciplined but dismissed, not held to a standard, not seen to be worth their parents’ time. And that’s not loving; and children need loving.  We all need that kind of love.  We need to know someone cares enough to take the time to be critical, values us enough to think we could do better, loves us enough to expect us to do our best. That’s what judgment is all about: it’s about love. God is love: therefore God is our judge.

We have a good many people these days for whom there is no work to do, no place in our society. That’s a judgment too; a devastating, destructive judgment. And it’s not just the unemployed of the inner cities  who face that judgment.  There are many in every community who have been through the experience of being declared redundant. The organization you work for decides to reorganize and suddenly there’s no job for you, no place to go on Monday morning. It’s a judgment of value and it can be devastating, demoralizing. It says, “You don’t matter. Your skills are irrelevant. You yourself are a mere replaceable part.”  Better far to be judged and found wanting, to be held to a standard and judged by it even if we fail.

I think, to be honest, that the church often fails us in this respect. Unlike the God we worship, the church tends not to call for our best. We’re terrified to be thought too demanding, not friendly enough, not loving enough. There are churches that set standards: that list the amount each person pledges, that take attendance on Sunday morning, that send a committee around to visit each family each year and review their manner of life. What do we do? We look at someone whose pledge is insignificant compared to their income and express enormous gratitude; we keep sending the Newsletter to people who haven’t darkened the door in years; we write letters of appreciation to those who donate their old clothes to the rummage sale. Is that all we’re capable of? Is that really the best we can do? Does the church value us so little as to expect nothing much and be gratified when we achieve it? All I can tell you is, that when we do that the church does not reflect God’s love faithfully. Fortunately, God loves us more than does God’s church. Thank goodness! That’s good news. God loves us, therefore God is our judge.

Let me just point out two things about that judgment as it’s described in this morning’s gospel. First: it has to do with human relationships and, above all, relationships with those in need. Here we are at the last judgment and God does not say, “You weren’t in church on Sunday;  you didn’t pay your pledge; you used bad language .”  All the things we tend to center on as being what the church cares about. I wish I could tell you that on judgment day they will check your pledge card  and your regularity on Sunday morning.  That would make a great theme for stewardship Sunday. But it’s not in the gospel.  What is in the gospel is a very narrow focus on human need and our response: how we responded to the sick, the hungry, the homeless.   On that basis alone, if this parable is to be believed, depends our eternal destiny.

Notice one other thing: neither the sheep nor the goats were consciously aware of the significance of their actions. Both alike  are puzzled: “Lord, when did we see you sick or in need and fail to visit you?” In other words, the actions taken were instinctive responses arising out of  deeply ingrained character.  They did what they did  because that was who they were – and they never
even thought about it or remembered it.  I think the lesson is that there’s no way to calculate our way into heaven: to do the right thing because of the hope of reward.  No, the judgment is not on our calculated acts but on our character; who we are when we aren’t even thinking about it. And that is the result of many things but the one that we can do something about is exposing ourselves to  God’s love and judgment now.  Isn’t that why we’re here on this harvest festival, this judgment Sunday of the year?

We never do get a harvest, you know, by a few carefully calculated actions.  You can’t plug an apple into the tree for a quick  fill up of juice and flavor; it has to hang there day after day for months and absorb all that the tree, the earth, the sun, the rain have to give.

We too have to absorb almost unconsciously the life God pours out on us in word and sacrament and Bible study and prayer  – in the life of a continuing Christian community. It’s nothing sudden and dramatic but slow and patient and mostly unaware.  You come, for example, and hear this gospel and all the other gospel stories week after week and after awhile it works on you and you see a need and you respond  without even thinking why you do it. It’s just who you are, who you have become.

Surely that’s what God wants: not the showy dramatic moment  but the slow formation of character, the habitual, instinctive response  that comes from long exposure  to God’s love.   When that day comes – the day described in the gospel this morning – we will be judged  because God loves us and the love that will save us in that day is the love God pours out on us now.

Leave a comment

Your comment