Judgment is Real

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber to the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on November 15, 2020.  (This service was joined by telephone by church members.)

You might think, after all the events of the last few weeks that you could escape by going to church – or at least by dialing in to a service with the familiar language of the Bible and Prayer Book and find some peace and reassurance.

But no. The assigned readings used by all the major churches – well, not the evangelicals –
but almost everyone else – give us words that could have come straight from the headlines:

Take the Old Testament, for example:

The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

I’m not sure that either Trump or Biden would put it that way exactly, but both would probably see it like that if the other side finally wins.

But beyond the immediate reference, each of the three readings tells us that God is at work in human history and warns us that God has an agenda. God has an agenda in human history,
our history, America’s history, your history and mine. God expects us to create societies of peace and justice, and God will bring down judgment when we fail. And we do fail, again and again.

The Old Testament reading is the worst of the three:
The great day of the Lord is near, it tells us, near and hastening fast;

That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,

a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,

a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

And God tells us,

I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,

Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath;

God, we are told, will make “a terrible end . . . of all the inhabitants of the earth.”
Our silver and gold will not save us.

Saint Paul puts it differently in the second reading, but it’s the same vision:

When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”

And then, in the Gospel reading, Jesus brings it down to a simple story of a master and his servants and the sort of work they have done for their Lord.

The master gave his servants gifts and expected a return, as we would ourselves, and of there is no return, judgment follows.




And if the readings don’t refer specifically to the number of electoral votes in Pennsylvania
or Donald Trump’s latest tweet, I think the message is pretty clear just the same: God has given us gifts in this country and God cares how we use them. God has given us responsibilities and God expects results. And it won’t turn out well when we fail to produce.

We’re just one week away from the end of the Christian year and the readings every year at this time naturally try to get our attention and ask us to think about how we’re doing as individuals and as a society because God cares – God cares – God has given us great gifts and God expects us to shape a society that looks like the kingdom of God, not a society with self-seeking leaders chosen by self-seeking citizens who seldom give a thought to the gifts God has given or the responsibility that comes with those gifts and the use we make of them.

When we read the first chapters of the Bible and find God creating a man and a woman and giving them responsibilities and throwing them out of the Garden when they fail, we are getting the same message that we get in the last chapters of the Bible where we read of the end of time and a final judgment. It’s the same message all the way through: it’s God’s world and God cares about it
and God holds us responsible.

I find that frightening.

I find it frightening because we have a country with enormous problems, whether we look at the cost of housing in San Francisco and the homeless people sleeping on our streets or the ease with which so many police shoot citizens who happen to be black, or the far larger problem of a deteriorating climate.

Whether you are a black man held down by a policeman’s knee in Milwaukee or an ordinary resident of San Francisco who couldn’t go outside in early September because of the ash in the air that blocked the sun, we ought to be able to breath. We ought to be able to breath, but we have shaped a society where even fresh air to breath is no longer guaranteed. But this is God’s world, the world God made. Could we somehow imagine that God doesn’t care?

Sometimes I think we do imagine that – or even imagine that God is well pleased with the world we have made. Somehow, in spite of all the blood spilled at Gettysburg and in the Civil War and the two world wars and in Korea and Viet Nam, in spite of the thousands of lynchings and the maltreatment of immigrants, in spite of the prejudice and the persecution of Jews and blacks and immigrants, in spite of the exploitation of the poor and the self-indulgence of the rich, somehow we have contrived a society that remains in many ways the envy of the world – which tells you more about the rest of the world than about us.

The great German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once said, ‘God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.’ I don’t know about the fools and the drunkards but I do sometimes think that God must have a very special providence for this country in spite of our failures.

I like to point out that my four grandparents were born in four different countries on three different continents and it’s a true miracle that I’m here at all, let alone in this country and being lucky enough to grow up in a small country town where nobody ever locked their doors. But here I am, and my eyes tear up when we sing “America the beautiful.” I love this country – but that’s all the more reason to be aware of judgment.

We face a judgment, because God loves us.

For all the warnings of judgment, the bottom line is that God loves us still. Somehow we have something here of great value and need to be reminded at least once a year in these end of the year readings. We need to be reminded of purpose and gifts and judgment, to be reminded that none of what we have is deserved, and for all of it we have a responsibility, that for all of it we are held responsible because God loves us that much.

Judgment is real. Never forget it. God loves us enough to judge us.

Judgement is real. Remember that – and try with God’s help to be worthy of that love.

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