Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Kate and I were at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes conference in Denver this past week. It was so encouraging. We met Episcopal churches like Epiphany that are thriving and doing good works and are full of faithful people. But the most encouraging part of it was our keynote presentation by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. He is flat-out inspirational, and not just because he is a dynamic preacher, but because he is a dynamic preacher who preaches the love of God. It oozes from his every pore.
I spent a few hours with him earlier in the day in a small group setting, and I noticed something about him that reminded me of something I noticed when I met Dallas Willard and Desmond Tutu: Curry was sort of rumpled. His clothes didn’t look right, like he just unrolled them from his suitcase. Frumpy would be the word I might use.
As the Apostle Paul wrote: “We are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless” (1 Cor 4:9). This common attribute of frumpiness between these holy men comes, I believe, because they are not looking at themselves, but because they are looking out into the world. That is the nature of a soul formed in love; it goes out from itself. Love moves. Love has eyes that focus beyond the self.
The First Letter of John tells us: “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16b). Michael Curry certainly abides in the love of God.
This morning I want to talk about that love, and, because it comes up in the Gospel, I want to talk about judgment as well. They are, in fact, necessary partners in Christian theology, and it is my hope to explain how they work together, and why we need them to work together.
I’ll start with the theology of love. God is love; and love, by its very nature goes out. It is other-focused. It moves beyond its self. And we, humanity, exist to be recipients of love. God did not make us for company, or to get stuff done. God has enough company within God’s self (the Holy Trinity), and God has capacity to make or do what God needs. We were made as recipients of God’s love, and beneficiaries of God’s creation. And we were made in God’s image and likeness, which means we too can love and create. And when we choose to love “out here” and choose to create in unison with God’s creation, then we are ensconced in the kingdom of God. And when we choose to love ourselves and create for our own benefit, then sin walks in the door.
Which leads us to judgment and the lesson Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel. At first blush I’m not too excited about the Gospel. It goes against my vision for God’s love. I want the God that is always forgiving: “It’s OK, Doyt. You meant well. No problem. You’ll do better next time. I love you no matter what.” That is the version of God I want because it works for me. That love is about my kingdom, not the Kingdom of God.
Jesus came to give us the kingdom of God, and in the kingdom of God, love and judgment are partners. As the Psalmist writes: “I will sing of your love and judgment, O Lord” (Psalm 101:1). In a world organized by squishy love without judgment people turn into spoiled brats. Love alone is not enough.
Did you know every time love is mentioned in the book of Genesis it generates conflict (Sacks, NIGN, 165)? Human love is particular and limited. When we love one person it is often at the expense of another, or at least perceived to be at the expense of another.
God’s love is unlimited. Ours is limited. God’s judgment is equitable. Ours is mostly uninformed, which returns us to today’s Gospel. Jesus gives judgment to us to help us love better.
Here are three points about judgment in this Gospel:
- Atrocity and calamity is not punishment for sin.
- Judgment is meted out in God’s time.
- Judgment belongs to God alone.
All three of these points about judgment are organized to help us love. Atrocity and calamity are not punishment for sins by God. The bad actions of Pilate murdering people as they gave sacrifice in the Temple was atrocious, and not instigated by God in any way. Pilate was free, and he was a bad guy. The calamity of the toppling of Salome tower upon innocent people during an earthquake was not punishment for sin. Jesus wipes that idea off the table.
Judgment is meted out in God’s time, and God’s time is eternal not temporal. Judgment may come after our death. Now some of us don’t like the idea of meeting God after we die, reviewing our lives with God, having God point out some of our shortcomings, and then maybe holding us accountable.
Yuck! I get it. I want the squishy God who says: “You were always awesome, and I’m just so glad to see you.” And maybe that is what will happen. But knowing a God of judgment may be a wonderful trigger we need in order to return to the ways of love. If we believe we will be accountable to God, then we may be more careful with our lives and the lives of others. Belief in God’s judgment is meant to be a spiritual trigger that turns and returns us to loving actions.
Which leads to the third point I want to make about judgment: It is God’s alone, which frees us to live without having to judge others. The critique and the comparison associated with a judgmental life can be exhausting. And often the habit of judgment turns back on ourselves. The Book of Deuteronomy states “Judgment belongs to God” (Deut 1:17), and this should come as a relief to us. It is easier to be loving than to be judgmental.
Because judgment is meted out by God equitably and in God’s time we
- do not have to judge others, and
- may be inspired to straighten up a bit
The great icon of love and judgment is the Pantocrator. It is a famous sixth-century icon that is often reproduced in the domes of churches to look down on the congregation. In fact, it is painted in the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The right hand is held up in loving blessing and the left hand holds scripture given to teach justice. The face is split: eyes wide open to see into our souls, with half the face filled with love and the other half filled with judgment. It was written to be helpful: because God is judgmental, we don’t have to be, and because God judges us, we can be more attentive to how we love.
Jesus is pretty clear that love is the higher priority. He never says: “Judge one another as I judge you.” He says: “Love one another as I love you.”
“Judgment belongs to God” (Deut 1:17). God holds the balance. We are the fig tree. Jesus waters us. Jesus fertilizes us. He is the vinedresser, and we are accountable to bear fruit. And we do this by loving one another.
That was the message of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry: go out there and love. Love everyone. Love radically and abundantly and beautifully. Even if your love is not perfect and falls short, never give up, never give in. Love like crazy.
And where our love falls short because of our limited human capacity, let God provide the balance, for God’s alone is the judge.