Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 29A ~ November 23, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
Startets Sophrony of Essex, of dearly beloved memory,
commented to me that this is the most terrible passage in the Gospel. The
Dreadful Day of Judgment, the ruthless separation of the sheep from the goats.
As the Holy Prophet Amos warned us two weeks ago, this is not a Day to
anticipate gleefully. It is a Day of darkness, not of light. A Day of Wrath.
Yet, in our love of paradox, we constantly beg Jesus to return - and quickly -
to get on with it. In his own native language, we say MARANATHA, Come, Lord!
But we do not know what we ask.
My angelic starets spoke of the passage with a distressed expression on his usually luminous face. Fr. Sophrony was a disciple of the early 20th C. orthodox saint, Silouan of Mt. Athos. One time a renowned holy man – an ascetic of celebrated attainment – came to visit Silouan. Their conversation turned to the rise of militant atheism and the suffering of the new-nartyrs of Russia, who were being killed - with horrible cruelty - even as they spoke. The great ascetic observed that we may take some satisfaction, at least, in the hope of ultimate triumph on the Day of Judgment, and the terrible fate in store for those enemies of humanity and of God.
But St. Silouan wept and protested, "Oh no! We must pray instead for their salvation. We must implore God to forgive them and beseech Hom not to take us into paradise without them, for He has commanded us to love our enemies." The great ascetic went away humbled. Well, Silouan was the real thing - a man so nearly perfect that everything around him was changed. Sometimes I think that God spoke to this sad, cruel age through Silouan, emphasizing His ancient, most paradoxical of commandments: "Love your enemies."
Startets Sophrony was also the real thing. Perhaps he found today's passage so distressing because his life of self-denial and repentance had brought him to think of himself, literally, in the way he always described himself in the prayer just before communion, like every Orthodox Christian, as the "chief of sinners". It is easy to think of this as the Byzantine penchant for hyperbole; just as easy as it is to identify with the sheep and to relish the condemnation of those wicked goats. But the truth behind the paradox will not permit that. If we are to be numbered among the sheep and NOT among the goats, we must obey the commandments of the One Who commanded us to love our enemies. These enemies, surely, are the goats. So, we must love the goats. And we do NOT wish to be separated from those we love. This passage is terrible, indeed – a mind-racking paradox.
Maybe this kind of reflection is what St. Silouan's motto means: he recorded that an angel had told him "Keep your mind in hell, and despair not." We cannot rejoice in the fate of the goats for we are surely among them. And if we obey God, we love them. yet we do not despair. A paradox. Our religion is full of paradoxes. the last shall be first. Those who hate their life will save it. A widow's penny outweighs all the other contributions. The filthy publican is more righteous than the careful observer of the law. Lepers are clean. Water is walked upon. A multitude is fed to overflowing with five loaves and two fish. And the King of the Universe is enthroned in glory as Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, as officially proclaimed by the accusation nailed above Him as He died on the Roman Cross. Fully God and fully human. One in Three and Three in One. Our whole faith is paradox: The torment of the mind. Let the mind, then, remain – gnashing its teeth in torment – yet without despair.
Go ahead and identify with the goats. Love them and pray for them and beseech God to pardon them. He cpmmanded us to do so. Do we imagine that He loves them less than we do? That having taught us to love them AS OURSELVES, He would then ask us to live in eternity separated from them? God forbid. Perhaps I turn away from the paradox, but I can't imagine that. It is SIN that separates us from one another, not the justice of God. The Righteousness of God OVERCOMES sin. That is what the Kingship of Christ is all about. And if God is to be All in All, as Paul teaches, there are no outsiders. No more sinners. No more goats, in the sense of anyone to be separated from the saved – not even the merciless.
Let us notice, as we end the Church year, the content of the terrible failure of the reprobate before the throne of the King. They are condemned not for theological error or lack of belief, nor for sensual excess or naughty pleasure, nor for falsity and betrayal, nor even for violent and destructive behavior. They are condemned for hardness of heart: for indifference to the poor and the weak. For mercilessness.
Forasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto Me.
For the purposes of judgment, every person you meet IS Jesus Christ, the King. That bum who asks you for a handout will be your Judge on the Great and Terrible Day. So, we MUST have compassion on the wicked, too, or we fail to love Jesus Christ Himself. This indeed is hell for the mind. It doesn't make sense. But the refusal to despair is an affirmation that the terrible love of God transfigures everything, including the goats - the "sinners, of whom I am the chief."
And maybe, in the final analysis, the Last Judgment is not about separating individuals from each other. That is, maybe the sheep and the goats are not individual humans, but the tendencies that are mixed up within each human soul. Maybe the JUDGMENT is the SETTING RIGHT of each person. Maybe it is about the final outcome of what our Muslim brothers and sisters call Jihad. The GREAT JIHAD, which is the struggle between sheep and goat-like tendencies within the human heart. Maybe the Sentence of Christ the King is the final rectification of our heard-heartedness and the melting of our hearts. All of them. In that case, the goats represent my hard-hearted inclination, which would refuse to give to those who ask, refuse food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, shelter to the homeless, protection to the weak, solace to the ill, and friendship to the imprisoned. This hard heart must be melted in the fire of divine Love, and the soopner the better. maranatha!
Ezekiel says the fat and the strong are to be destroyed and the weak and infirm bound up and nurtured. Maybe those fat and strong ones are not, after all, pig-o rich individuals, but all my own self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency. THAT is to be slaughtered. For Christ the King does not DIVIDE humanity: as the Collect says, it is SIN that divdes us. Christ the King destroys that sin, that division, and FREES US from it, and BRINGS US TOGETHER UNDER HIS MOST GRACIOUS RULE. And death, the Last Enemy, is swallowed up in Victory - not destroyed, precisely, but SWALLOWED UP. Even that LAST ENEMY is beloved, because it is changed by the Love of God into an intrument of Victory. "God forbid that I should glory in any thing save in the Cross of Christ." Death is transfigured, just as the deadly waters of the Red Sea, blocking the way to life and freedom for the escaping Hebrew slaves, became the instrument of liberation, when the Spirit of God blew as a strong east wind causing them to stand like walls on either side and the children of Israel to pass through as on dry land.
Death is swallowed up in Victory. death becomes the gate to larger life, invncible and eternal. Thus is the wisdom of this world confounded, thus is the mind kept in hell without despair, thus may we love our enemies as Christ the King commands - even the Last Enemy, and thus - while loving them and counting ourselves among the goats, we may nevertheless cry:
COME, LORD JESUS