Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Christ the King 2017

Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24
Ephesians 1.15-23
Matthew 25.31-46

I’ve recently started reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel journal, “A Time of Gifts”. Leigh Fermor is best known for his unconventional role in the Army, when he kidnapped a German General in Crete in the Second World War. But, ten years before that, as a brilliant but unruly 18-year-old dropout from education, he decided one day to walk across Europe from Holland to Constantinople, on a pound a week. “A Time of Gifts” is his account of that journey.
He set out in December, 1933, just as winter had descended on the continent. He found Holland already half familiar, its snowy landscapes and snug interiors unchanged from those known from many Dutch Master paintings viewed in London galleries. Its people were warm, friendly and hospitable, the epitome of civilization.
Then he crossed the border into Germany, and everything changed. By the winter of 1933 the Nazis had come to power. Swastikas were fluttering in the breeze, gangs of brownshirts were marching in formation, and dewy-eyed matrons gazed admiringly at portraits of Hitler in every building.
But so much seemed still the same. Incidents of outright hostility were rare, more frequent the hospitality of strangers. And, yet, kind and thoughtful people carried on as though everything was normal. They shrugged their shoulders at the antics of the Nazis, “you know what they’re like”. They didn’t seem to comprehend the magnitude of the evil that had possessed the soul of their nation.
Nazism was, in the proper sense of the word, satanic. “Satan” in the Bible is not a proper name, but a designation, “the satan”, meaning, “the accuser”. The power of accusation was what drove the Nazis, as it has driven so many other extremist ideologies before and since. We know that we are the pure and righteous people because those others are not. Jews, gays, gypsies, and others, were accused and blamed for whatever was perceived to be wrong. And those who are accused and blamed can be cast out and destroyed. Accusation ends in murder.
As we’ve been reminded in our readings for the last few Sundays, the word “apocalypse” means “unveiling”, a disclosure of the spiritual realities at work behind the scenes of world events. In that sense, the rise of the Nazis was indeed apocalyptic. And today we conclude our reading of Matthew’s Gospel with his last public teaching, the judgement of the nations, the unveiling of what has been going on through history.
And the basis on which the nations are judged is whether or not they have practiced the works of mercy. Because the works of mercy turn out in the end to have the Son of Man as their ultimate object. Christ, the Word of Creation, who has ascended to fill all things, is the standard and measure by which all things will be judged.
The nations have not known this until this moment of unveiling, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger?” The Son of Man has been concealed behind the veil of ordinary events and ordinary people. But mercy has always been there right on the surface, in plain view, always present, always possible. Always a choice to be made. And judgement is simply the truth of things appearing as they really are, in the light of Christ, from whom all things come and to whom they return.
The judgement reveals that there have been two ways of living: mercy; and its opposite, which is accusation. Because to refuse mercy, when we could offer it, is to cast out and condemn. It is to point to another and decide that they are not as worthy as I, they are lesser beings, less pure, less righteous, dispensable.
Mercy is the key to judgement, the measure of our actions and our worth. The judgement of the Son of Man has nothing to do with accusation. He himself is God’s mercy, come into the world to save us. Judgement is not accusation, but truth-telling, hearing and accepting the truth, beyond dispute.
Those who have lived mercifully discover, even to their surprise, that they are blessed by the Father, and inheritors of the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. They have lived according to mercy, and the Father’s blessing and kingdom are what mercy ultimately means.
Those who have lived according to accusation, however, discover that they are accursed, destined for the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Which is surely a metaphor for what accusation does to the accuser, the misery of being consumed by hatred and the desire to cast out and destroy.
Judgement, then, is the unveiling of mercy as the measure of all things, because all things relate to Christ, who is mercy; and therefore judgement is also the unveiling of accusation as something that has nothing to do with God at all.
That should be a caution for us in how we read this story. Because it’s tempting to look at the two groups, the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the accursed, and ask ourselves, “where am I in this picture”. And it might be even more tempting to ask where other people are. Especially the people we don’t like or disapprove of. Who do we want to number among the goats?
If we do that, we are in danger of reading this according to a standard of accusation rather than of mercy. And that is to read this story exactly wrong. The judgement of the Son of Man tells us that it is not our task to separate humanity into the righteous and the accursed. Our task is to be merciful to the very least, whoever they are, without distinction.
If we choose not to do that, we are in danger of finding ourselves in the group we don’t want to be in. Part of the tragedy of Nazi Germany was that it became a nation that thought it knew who were the righteous, and who were the accursed, and acted accordingly, with terrible consequences. To live by accusation is to reject mercy. And in denying mercy to others, we reject it for ourselves too.
To live according to mercy is also to come under Christ’s judgement. But, received in mercy, his judgement brings a light that enables us to be truthful, and confess our sins, as the truth of Christ discloses them to us. Because, yes, we have all been merciful to some. But we have also not been merciful to others. So which are we in – the sheep, or the goats? Honest confession makes it impossible to say even where we belong, let alone to distinguish between others and ourselves.
The judgement of Christ should not bring us despair, but, rather, hope, because it is founded on mercy. 

The judgement of the nations is a story of the end, the final fulfilment when Christ will appear as the origin, meaning and end of all things. But it is a story told for the benefit of those who are not yet at the end. We are still in this in-between time, the time of mercy, the time of grace. Or, if I may borrow Patrick Leigh Fermor’s title, the time of gifts. All options are still open. This is the time when we can learn to hear and tell the truth, so the truth will not surprise us when it is unveiled at the end. It is the time given to us precisely so that we can discover God’s mercy towards us in Jesus, and so repent of our sins, and learn to be merciful to others ourselves.

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