Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on November 23, 2008: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
One of the images we use to describe ourselves is, “A School for Justice.” I want to unpack what that means this morning with the help of the readings we have just heard.
First of all, where did the image come from? Perhaps from an unusual place. It comes from St. Benedict, who is often called the father of western monasticism. In the 6th century Benedict was led to gather a community of Christian men who would live together under a rule of life. It was a very difficult time in his native Italy, a time when the Roman Empire was disintegrating, partly because of invasions by barbarians from the north and partly under the weight of its own corruption. Benedict wanted to create an island of order in a sea of disorder.
In writing the rule of life for his community, Benedict says, “And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord.” He meant “school,” of course, in a broad sense, a place of formation in a way of life.
So it is how we mean “school for justice.” We mean to be a place where we are formed in justice as a way of life. And we might as well say “the Lord’s justice,” because we certainly mean justice as it is practiced within the reign of Christ, within what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”
Now there are two important questions here. What exactly is this “justice” that is the Lord’s? And how, in fact, are we schooled in it?
Today’s Gospel reading makes it clear and simple what justice looks like in the kingdom of God: the feeding of the hungry, the welcoming of strangers, the clothing of the naked, and the visiting of the sick and imprisoned. The king in the story (who is surely meant to be Jesus) calls these persons “the least of these who are members of my family.”
It’s important to recognize just who these “least” are. First of all, they are not just some objectified “them.” From time to time all of us are among these “least,” if for no other reason than all of us experience illness and all of us are at least occasionally in situations where we are a stranger. It’s one reason why we try to be careful here when we pray that we pray for “those among us who are sick,” or, “those among us who are unemployed.” “The least” is us, not them. This is one way we are a school for justice: we avoid the creation of us and them. This is not to say that we do it perfectly, by the way.
Second of all, it is important to recognize that in our culture, the folks among us who are experiencing these things—alienation, poverty, sickness, and imprisonment—are generally thought of and treated as failures. For instance, the majority of Americans believe that those who live in poverty do so because of their own shortcomings. That is even true of African-Americans. A majority of African-Americans believe that those who live in poverty do so because of their own shortcomings.
This culture worships success, including the idol of the rugged individualist who is able to rise above the station of his or her parents. We need to believe that we have worked hard and deserve what we have.
The Jesus view of things is that we may indeed have worked hard and that is admirable, but we should never allow ourselves to fall into the delusion that we deserve anything. Everything is a gift in the reign of Christ. Our attitude should always be one of thanksgiving that leads to generosity, not a sense of deserving that leads to possession. This, too, is to live in justice, to believe that nothing is mine.
This means that justice and stewardship have something to do with one another, everything, in fact. A Christian sense of stewardship means fundamentally the attitude that everything I have is a gift, and it is only this attitude that truly enables me to act with justice.
Now there is a problem in this parable. It is a parable of judgment, and there is the harsh separation and rejection. We have seen this the past two weeks as well. The foolish bridesmaids get locked out of the wedding party and the bridegroom declares that he does not know them. The slave who hid the one talent is roundly condemned, and the master commands that he be thrown into the outer darkness. This morning the goats are sent away “into eternal punishment.” Not nice pictures, especially when we consider how easy it is for any of us to be a foolish bridesmaid, a frightened slave, or a goat.
And I would suggest that we are these things. It is simply impossible for any of us to believe that we are anything but goats. The sheep have lived up to an extraordinarily high standard. Not to say that we have not risen to the occasions many times and acted like sheep, but who among us has never acted like a goat?
So, according to these parables we are in big trouble! We can look forward to a future of being locked out in a state of weeping and gnashing of teeth because of our eternal punishment. Yikes.
It is the prophet Ezekiel that holds out some hope even for us goats, or, as he says, us “fat sheep.” He too says there will be a judgment:
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
The lean sheep will have their wounds bound up and their weakness turned into strength. But what of the fat sheep? God says through Ezekiel, “I will feed them with justice.”
Now this can be taken at least two ways. It could mean, “I will stick it to them.” That is, justice as punishment. I will force justice down their throats and it will choke those miserable wretches. But isn’t it possible that it could also mean that I will nurture them, school them, if you will, in the ways of justice? By such feeding they will be converted.
I choose to believe the intention is the latter, and so I choose to believe that the judgment Jesus expresses in these parables from Matthew is not the last word. I choose to believe that the goats will be fed with justice. That means I have a problem with the declaration of “eternal” punishment. Although I can understand even that to mean that I, as a goat, will spend eternity being fed with justice. I only hope and pray that I will come to find its taste sweet.
All of this, of course, may be a rationalization, but so then is the entirety of biblical faith, so I am not afraid of it.
Which brings me to the answer to my second question: How, in fact, are we schooled in justice?
It is about being fed, a very important metaphor for us. What we do around this Altar is, in fact, the primary way we are constantly schooled in justice. We, the goats, come to the Altar week by week and are fed with the bread of justice.
Why is it the bread of justice? Because as a meal it is a continuation of Jesus’ eating with those among us who were least and lost, outcast and those labeled sinners. We come not only to eat with them as Jesus did, but to be fed by him as one of them. And in this is his presence, as he promised.
This bread is for our comfort and strength, but it is also sometimes for our judgment. There ought to be times that we choke on it, and not just because the bread is dry. Sometimes we ought to come face to face with our own foolishness, our own fear, our own disregard for those among us in need, and the bread ought to judge us and change us.
It might do that in a moment. More than likely, however, it does so over time, doing its work of building up in us a sense of solidarity with one another in a circle that gets pushed wider and wider, beyond the bounds that we have set. The stranger—and the strange—are us. Those seen to be failures by the world—and even by us—are us. And we, in fact, are us, not because we deserve to be here and be fed, but because God chooses over and over again, in spite of ourselves, to give us a gift.
To be a school for justice is to be keenly aware that we all fall far short. We are all goats in need of conversion to the ways of Christ, the ways of justice.
These parables of judgment proclaim quite clearly that there is, ultimately, a choice to be made. I believe we make it, or should, every time we leave our pew and walk to the Altar rail. We ought always to hesitate for a moment and ask ourselves, are we willing to be fed with the bread of justice. And let our rising and walking and holding out our hand, be our answer, “yes.”