(a meditation by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Church)
(20 November 2011 — Matthew 25:31-46)
For me, I remember, it was quite an exciting discovery, although I don’t think that this held true for my family as well. I was studying at Princeton University for a summer course and the family came along for a bit of a holiday. While there we went exploring in the Princeton cemetery to see what we could find. Suddenly, there it was right in front of us. I took a picture and knelt down to read the writing engraved on the granite tablet — “Rev. Jonathan Edwards, Master of Arts.”
“Come quickly and see what I’ve found!” I called out. Jeremy and Cathy sauntered over, took one quick look and replied with something less than infectious enthusiasm — “interesting.” “Don’t you realize what you are looking at?” I asked. “This is the grave of Jonathan Edwards, the Jonathan Edwards.” With long suffering patience, they replied, “it’s time to get going.”
I imagine that most people gathered here this morning would share their apathy. The name of Jonathan Edwards is not one with which too many people are familiar. However, at one time this was not true. Perry Millar, the great Puritan scholar, called Jonathan Edwards “the greatest philosopher-theologian to grace the American scene.” While Robert Handy, the historian, once noted that Jonathan Edwards was “one of the greatest intellects in the American history.”
Edwards was a New England preacher who worked in the village of Northampton, Massachusetts. One of the themes which he kept weaving in and out of his sermons was the theme of the judgment of God and the need for personal repentance. In one very famous sermon entitled “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God,” he describes the human being as a spider held over a raging fire. It was only the grace of God, Edwards insisted, which kept the spider from falling into the fire and being shriveled up by the flames.
Edwards was not a dynamic preacher. He was not at all like the American evangelist, Billy Graham. Indeed, he supposedly read his sermons in a quiet and restrained way, but their message was so powerful that people would faint with fear in the middle of the service, overcome with the enormity of their sin and the justice of almighty God.
I suspect that one of the reasons why Jonathan Edwards’ name is not well known today is because we have lost this sense of divine judgment. We don’t think of God as an austere, threatening God, as did the early puritans, but rather as a doting, grandfather who suspiciously resembles Santa Claus. In a book written some years ago now, the psychiatrist, Karl Menniger, asked this rhetorical question — “whatever became of sin?” His answer was that sin had been changed into malformed social behavior, attributable to poor parental upbringing, or psychiatric illness, or gender and sexual orientation oppression. We have become a nation of victims as one recent author puts it, and all our problems and failures are always someone else’s fault. And yet, as Menniger put it, without an awareness of our own personal sin and the judgment that this entails, there can be no real experience of healing — no in flooding of God’s grace and pardon.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for a return to Jonathan Edwards’ vision of a God who holds us dangling over the fires of hell. I believe that God is a God of love, but I also believe that our actions and our thoughts have consequences. I believe that sin affects and infects each one of us, both on an individual and a community level.
I cannot understand a society which blandly accepts sexual activities which denigrate marriage, or a society which feels that all politicians are corrupt but that’s okay because that’s the way the system functions, or a society where a few become incredibly wealthy and the rest struggle. I cannot understand people who use others and feel no guilt, who claw their way to the top and step on anyone they can to get to their goal.
Surely, one of the messages of this morning’s gospel lesson, taken from the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Matthew, is that there is a judgment. Bad does not go unpunished forever and good does not go unrewarded, even if this punishment and reward must await some future time.
This story of the sheep and the goats which I read for you earlier appears only in Matthew’s gospel and in none of the others, which has led some scholars to speculate that Matthew put the story together from various statements of Jesus. However, the image of the sheep and the goats being separated at the end of the day would have been a familiar one to Jesus. The goats needed someplace warm to sleep while the sheep preferred the fresh night air, much like some husbands and wives I know. It is not at all unlikely than that Jesus would have taken this familiar image and applied it to the judgment of all peoples at the end of time.
Whatever its background, the passage is in our Bible today and its message is one we must listen to and heed, troubling as it is. It cannot be directed just towards the non believer. It is directed towards us as well. Indeed, it is more pertinent for us who claim the name of Christ than for the non believer; for it is too often the religious person who thinks that adherence to religious norms and participation in religious rites can substitute for love for neighbor and acts of justice and mercy.
So we must hear the message of judgment but also hear the opportunity for service. And note that we are not talking about extraordinary acts of discipleship. The sheep that entered into the kingdom did not do anything spectacular. They were not famous people, VIPs who built financial empires and then donated the proceeds to charity, conquered political kingdoms, wrote best-selling books, preached to crowds upon crowds. They were rather simple, ordinary people like you and me who did the small things of life to help others, — baked a casserole for someone who was feeling lonely, visited someone in prison, dropped by the hospital to say hello to someone who was sick.
“It is not,” writes William Barclay “a case of giving away thousands of pounds, or of writing our names in the annals of history; it is a case of giving simple help to the people we meet every day.”
I don’t know about you but I find much that I don’t understand in the Bible. And the older I get the more questions I have about how and why and where God is a work within my life and within the lives of others. But one thing is clear and that is that simple acts of kindness done in love are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Who is my brother, who is my sister? asked this morning’s choir anthem and Jesus replies with these words.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’