Above and Beyond

The challenge is not just to return good for good, but good for evil.

Epiphany 7a 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
I’m sure all of us have heard, or perhaps even said those words, “go the extra mile.” Churches will even talk about “extra-mile giving” to describe contributions that members make beyond their regular tithe or offering. The contrast is between actions seen as a duty, and those that are above and beyond the call of duty. The military will recognize such actions by awarding a medal or a commendation.

The problem is that the “extra” or “second mile” that Jesus talks about is not about doing better than good. He is not talking about doing good at all. In fact, he says that this is about how to deal with evildoers. Do not resist them, he says; if someone hits you on the right side of your face, let them hit you on the left as well; if they take you to court to sue you for your shirt, give them your jacket, too; if they force you to go one mile, march another mile for good measure. None of these are good things; these are nasty things done to you by nasty people — evildoers; and Jesus says that not only are you supposed to put up with it, but to welcome more of the same treatment. Most surprising of all, he continues by saying that you are to pray for these evildoers who persecute you, and to love your enemies. “Going the extra mile” is not meant by Jesus as a shorthand for generosity to those who deserve it. No, it is about acting like God.

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For God, Jesus assures us, makes the sun rise on the evil as well as the good. God sends sweet rain on the righteous, but on the unrighteous, too. If we are to show that we are children of God, we are challenged to behave like our Father in heaven, to act like God in this crazy way that God acts — when God rewards with good even those who are evil; to do good even to those who do not, by our understanding, or any by reasonable standard, deserve to be rewarded; to forgive those who trespass against us.

This is not an entirely new teaching, though Jesus puts it in terms that are considerably more blunt than they had been in the past. There have always been those who adopted the other point 9of view: the tit-for-tat of doing good in return for good done, a kind of reversal of the Golden Rule: not doing good as you would be done by, but doing good — or evil — as you are done by, a gracious act in return for a gracious act, a tit for a tat, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There were always those — and there still are — who would talk about “the deserving poor” as if being fed when you are hungry or given something to drink when you are thirsty was something you had to qualify for.

In response to such people who thought that good treatment must be earned, the Lord spoke to Moses, charging him to tell the people that they were called to be like God — to be holy as God is holy. So when they reap the harvest, they are not to reap every last patch, or gather what falls by the side; they are not to strip every last grape from the vines, or pick up those that fall on their own — even though the grain and the grapes belong to them, they are to leave these portions of their own crops for others, for the poor; not because they deserve it, but because they are poor, and this is how God means to provide for them: to let the people be good as he is holy; to let some of that good filter through to them.

This may be hard for some to understand. They might complain that it is an unfair attempt to redistribute wealth, or combat income inequality by taxing those who have to give to those who do not, and who, moreover, do not deserve to be helped. Think of old Ebenezer Scrooge, who scoffs at the idea of giving a little so that the poor could have some food and drink and means of warmth at Christmas-time. “Why?” is his cold-hearted question. When told that some of them might die, he proudly shows his lack of care, “If they had be like to die they had best be quick about it and decrease the surplus population.”

And sad to say, the world is full of Scrooges to this day. There are plenty who want an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, to be rewarded and praised for doing what is really only a duty to one’s fellow human beings — not just those you like, not just your friends and your family, or those who pay you back, but even, as Jesus said, your enemies, and those who persecute you.

And my friends, I will admit that this doesn’t make sense. But it is how God acts; it is how God asks us to act: not just to do good when we are done good by, but to do good even when we are persecuted, punished, and put upon.

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I will end this reflection by telling you the story of an Irishman named Gordon Wilson. One day in November 1987, Wilson and his twenty-year-old daughter Marie were watching a parade on the streets of Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland. Just as a group of parading soldiers and police came by, a terrorist bomb went off, leveling the brick wall next to which Wilson and his daughter were standing, and the wall collapsed and buried them both under several feet of bricks. Wilson couldn’t move, but under the pressure of the bricks he felt someone take his hand. It was his daughter Marie. He could hear her muffled voice, “Is that you, Dad?” He answered, “Yes, Marie.” In the background he could hear distant sirens, and the sounds of people moaning or screaming. He asked, “Are you all right, Marie?” “Yes,” she said, but then she began to cry and moan, and the moan built towards a scream. He asked again if she was all right, and between sobs she kept assuring him that she was, and then she became more quiet. Finally, after a long silence, she said, “Daddy, I love you very much.” Those were the last words she spoke, as she sank into unconsciousness.

They and others injured by the terrorist attack were unearthed and taken to the hospital, where Marie died. Later that same day a reporter asked Wilson if he would consent to an interview. His injuries were relatively minor — just a broken arm and shoulder — so he agreed. After telling his story, the interviewer asked, clearly expecting and answer that he could really make use of, “How do you feel about the people who planted that bomb?”

Wilson surprised many when he said, “I bear them no ill will. I bear them no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back. I pray, I shall pray tonight and every night for God to forgive them.” Over the next months and years, people expressed amazement that he could forgive such a terrible act. But he explained, “I was hurt. I had lost my daughter. But I wasn’t angry. Her last words to me were words of love, and they put me on a plane of love. I received grace from God through those words, and through the strength of God’s love for me, to forgive.”

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Love... your enemies, Jesus said, and pray for those who persecute you. God willing, none of us will ever be asked to walk the extra mile that Gordon Wilson walked, a walk of forgiveness and an affirmation of life even in the face of death. He could have walked a very different path, he could have walked a way of anger and revenge. Instead he chose the path of love, a love that overflowed from his dying daughter’s hand, and brought him peace.

May we be so washed in the love of God that we too can learn to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, and to forgive. In this may others see and know us to be children of a loving, forgiving God; for God forgave his enemies, though they nailed him to the cross. Such is the way of God, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile. Let us strive to be perfect as he is perfect, holy as he is holy; to be like the one who is above and beyond all, to be like the one whom we worship, and follow him whom we adore, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Ethics of Jesus

A crash course in the history of ethics, and where Jesus fits into it all...

Proper 16c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath... if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

The news reports daily inform us of unethical behavior by people who are supposed to be the pillars of society. We hear of judges taking bribes, police abusing or even murdering unarmed citizens, politicians engaged in “sexcapades,” and perhaps worst of all, coverups of clergy sexual misconduct. Sometimes we will hear of an attorney or a politician or a doctor called before a professional ethics board. So what are these “ethics” that people keep talking about — and violating.

Well, ethics is a system of morality — for deciding what is right or wrong. And it should come as no surprise that there are a number of different ethical systems, just as there are many different philosophies and religions. Some ethics are intertwined with specific religions or philosophies, but many of them have impact well beyond the faithful or the philosophers. I’d like to explore a few of these systems, in order better to understand where Jesus and his teaching on ethics fit into this big picture of morality: how do we know if something is good or evil.

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One ethical approach is to take a look at the results of an action, and to decide whether the action was good or bad based on the results, in particular in terms of utility or usefulness: is the result productive or destructive. This is likely the common-sense way that most people think about good and bad. The proof is in the pudding. Of course, it raises two questions: first, results are not always what we intend them to be. We might well be able to say that the results of an action are good or bad, but that will not really tell us whether the person who did those things intended them to be good or bad, and surely the morality must lie in the person. What if there was no intention at all? What about, for instance, an accident? This is precisely how the law courts distinguish between manslaughter and murder — the lethal result is the same, but we don’t judge manslaughter as seriously as we do murder, because the person who did the action didn’t intend it, and is judged less harshly.

The second question raised by a results-oriented ethic goes a bit deeper. How do you measure, apart from gut feelings, if the result of an action is good or evil? A number of philosophers, from Epicurus of ancient Greece on up through Jeremy Bentham of Georgian England, came up with a reasonable way to measure good and evil, based on the amount of happiness or pleasure. This forms part of the many a political or economic system: I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in terms of well-being or happiness. And any people find this notion easy to understand, and it is very popular. I think if you were to scratch the surface of most people’s thinking, you will find this underlying it: what is best for most is best. The downside, however, is the way in which it becomes too easy to trade off the happiness of the many for the sufferings of the few, or the one. It is a favorite puzzle of ethicists to ask such a question as, “If you could stop a train from going over a cliff and killing 100 people on board by pushing one man in front of the train to stop it, would it be moral to do so?” I know if you were to ask that question, you would see some hands go up, and say, yes! Others would say, no. This ultimately is the ethical question to which Caiaphas answered Yes, he explicitly chose the death of Christ because it was expedient that one should suffer instead of many. So in spite of its common-sense attractiveness this utility ethics falls a bit short of providing trustworthy guidance, and might lead you to do something very bad indeed.

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A number of the philosophers of the centuries before the birth of Christ made a similar judgment on using utility as a benchmark. Among the most important of them all was Aristotle, who in later years simply came to be referred to as “The Philosopher.” He was an exponent of what is called virtue ethics. In this system you incorporate the notion of happiness, of well-being, but combine it with the character of the person who is acting, cultivating personal virtue, and righteousness, and uprightness, and most important of all, moderation. as the best guide to doing good.

That too sounds logical, but in a way it is a kind of circular reasoning: good actions are what good people do, much as art is what artists do. But isn’t there bad art? And while it is true that a good tree brings forth good fruit — isn’t it the goodness of the fruit that tells us that the tree is good, and not the other way around? Moreover, relying on such a way of thinking, relying on ones own sense of virtue, that we are good in ourselves, can blind us to our failings. A recent study found that people who reported themselves as the most generous, and could prove it on the basis of what they gave to the church or to charity, were also the ones who were most likely to cheat on other matters; and it is also a sad truth that in spite of their zeal to “defend marriage,” the divorce rate is actually highest among Evangelicals. People who think of themselves as good in their own eyes seem to feel entitled to a “pass” to do the occasional bad thing; much as someone who has stuck to their diet feel they “owe it to themselves” to binge with a quart of ice cream — and so undo any good their diet might have done.

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Dissatisfaction with these forms of ethics led to yet another philosophical answer: the ethics of duty. This is the ethics of law. If you want to know what is right or wrong, look at the law-code and it will tell you — simple as that. This form of ethics is popular precisely because it appears to give clear guidance. It is the ethical form of the Law of Moses, which spells out what is good or bad in black and white, in words ultimately attributed to God’s own hand and voice at Mount Sinai, written on stone and spoken in a voice that terrified its hearers, so that they begged not another word be spoken.

The problem with this approach — as we see in the Gospel — lies in the fact that rules have to be applied to real life, and interpreted and understood. The words spoken by God on Mount Sinai had to be put into practice. Isaiah provides us with a reminder of one of the most important laws: keeping the sabbath holy. Most importantly, no work is to be done on the sabbath, so it became necessary to define — well — “what do you mean by work?” and then to apply those definitions to changing circumstances and technologies. For example, Exodus (35:3) specifies that kindling a fire is a form of work and not to be performed on the sabbath: no lighting of fires. With the advent of electricity — electric stoves and lights — this law came to be applied in modern settings, and observant Orthodox Jews will not turn on a light switch or a stove once the sabbath has begun. If you’ve ever visited an Orthodox Jewish hospital — like the other Mount Sinai right here in New York! — you will have encountered the phenomenon known as the “sabbath elevator” — an elevator that stops on every floor, and the doors open and close on every floor, so no one has to push any buttons, thereby “lighting a fire.”

This is one of the problems with duty ethics — rules provoke even more rules, and very clever ways around them. And although Jesus, as a Jew, respected the spirit of obedience and duty, he also had a bone to pick with those who were more caught up in the letter than the spirit of the law.

And so he advocated, as we see in the gospel passage today, an ethic based on love — and love not just as an emotion but as an action. We know that he taught — from the law — that you should love your neighbor as yourself. But in today’s passage he brings the point home — literally home — even more keenly by saying, essentially, “Forget the neighbor! You should treat this woman at least as well as you would treat your own livestock!” No wonder he is angry, and those who tried to send that poor, sick woman away are ashamed!

Jesus rejects any ethic based on selfishness, pleasure, expediency, usefulness, or a mere list of regulations. He would never think of throwing one person under a train in order to save others from going over a bridge; but he would — and he did — throw himself under the headlong rush of all of our sins, giving his own life so that we might not perish, but have everlasting life.

Ultimately any ethical system must stand the test that Jesus set in the Golden Rule: to do as you would be done by — not just not doing things to other people that you would not want done to yourself. But actively doing for others what you would want done for you. That is whey he said that there is no greater love than to give your life for the life of someone else — to throw yourself down on that hand grenade, killing yourself in the process, but saving all of those around you. There is no greater love than to give yourself for the sake of others, because that is what anyone would want done for them, isn’t it? Don’t we all want to be saved? And aren’t we glad that someone has saved us!

It is one thing to say, do not cheat, do not steal, do not covet; it is quite another, as Isaiah says, to remove the yoke of suffering from those who suffer, to offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. If we do this, the light indeed will rise in the darkness, and the goodness of God will shine like the noonday, in the never-ending sabbath rest where all is good and all is peace, and all are freed from bondage.+

Fruit Bearing

A Rule of Life is like a gardener's toolkit to help cultivate the planted seed of the Word in one's heart.

Proper 10c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

A few weeks ago I spoke about how Saint Paul sees us as living in Christ, and today he provides us with another image for that way of living, similar to an image used by Jesus himself, when he talked about the vine and the branches, or the seed scattered on different kinds of soil: the word of God is like a seed planted in us, seed that grows and bears fruit as we remain rooted in the life of God like a fruit-tree planted in good and fertile soil. Through the centuries there have been many ways by which people have been graced to fulfill that great obligation — to live in Christ, “rooted and built up in him,” as Saint Paul will say a little later on in Colossians. And one of those ways people have found to do this is through a rule of life.

Now, it might strike you as a little strange, given that over the last few weeks we have been walking through Galatians with all of its stress on freedom from the law. As we noted in Galatians, however, freedom from the law does not mean lawlessness; and Paul himself cites the same rule as Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here lies the difference between a law and a rule: a law is designed to tell you what not to do; a rule is a tool to live by.

Let me give you a classic example: that venerable classroom tool, the ruler: It is true that a ruler can be used — or perhaps I should say, could have been used, before attitudes towards corporal punishment changed — to rap someone’s knuckles for misbehavior; and I’m old enough to remember the days of the rapped knuckles. But the primary use of a ruler is not to rap someone’s knuckles. What is the primary use of a ruler; what do you use if for? — you use it to draw straight lines, you use it to measure things. There is no “law” about it — it is a tool. When used to rule lines on a piece of paper you use it to help you to stay on the straight and narrow.

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A religious rule is similarly a tool for keeping your life in order, for living a life in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Some such rules have been around for centuries, written by a great saint of the past: Francis, Benedict, or Augustine. Some of those rules are complicated and detailed, while others are simpler, but perhaps no less demanding: after all, isn’t it true that “love your neighbor as yourself” is easy to say but sometimes hard to do. So a rule of life — a religious rule — can be as complex as that Saint Benedict wrote, or as simple as the Golden Rule, or to ask yourself, in another rule you may hear from time to time, “What would Jesus do?” If you can do no more than this, answering the question posed in that little four-letter rule, WWJD, you are well on the way, so long as you remember to take the next step and do as Jesus did.

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But some people feel they are called to a more formal rule of life, a religious rule. Think of it this way. Remember all the good advice which we got from our parents about keeping healthy? Don’t go out without your coat; or, Remember to carry an umbrella; or even, Eat your vegetables. Compare those simple, homely, household rules; that good and traditional wisdom — which everyone knows about and most people with any sense follow — compare those informal guides to the specific instructions that your doctor might give you after an operation, or the written prescription she writes out, for a specific kind of medication. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive. You don’t forget the wisdom of eating properly just because in addition you may have been instructed to avoid certain foods or take a certain prescription.

It is the same way with these formal rules of life that many people in the church follow. One of the reasons for having such a rule is the same reason we have a prescription from a doctor — it’s a black-and-white piece of paper, that tells you exactly what you are supposed to do when you admit that you are in need of healing, whether of body or of soul. That rule, that religious rule, is a constant reminder, to those who follow it, of how much they need God in their lives. These are words of instruction for tending the garden from which we hope to bear the fruit of the spirit.

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Who are the gardeners? They are, in the case of a formal religious rule, the monks and nuns, the sisters and brothers, the friars and hermits. Let’s have a little history here for a moment. In the early days of the church, there were a few bold Christians, seeing corruption in society around them, and sometimes even in the church itself as some of its leaders became more like secular princes than men of God, and so these bold few souls went out to live in the desert to live lives of prayer and solitude. Then there arose the first communities, as some of these desert priests and sisters learned that they needed companionship from like-minded people, and they gathered together in small communities. And those communities in the very beginnings of the Dark Ages, as the world was crumbling around them, in those communities they preserved the writings, the music, the history — we’ve all seen the images of the monks copying out documents. It is to them that we owe the preservation of so much of our history that might otherwise have been lost. They preserved the wisdom of the past in manuscripts and music, and they made prayer almost a full time occupation.

And when a brighter age dawned on this old earth of ours, in a warm Italian summer of the 13th century, a poor little man named Francis came along and said that God loved the poor, and he reminded the monks, some of whom had since grown comfortable and fat in their palatial monasteries, that they were in danger of acting more like the priest and Levite than the good Samaritan. He reminded them to serve the poor, and preach the gospel at all times, using words if necessary. And so the first community of friars minor was rounded — a fancy Latin term for “little brothers” — and so it was born, the Franciscan order.

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I could go on and talk of the later changes in the history of the many forms that religious life took, the many different rules, as in the great missionary communities, the orders who ran hospitals or schools. They’re right in our neighborhood: the Jesuits at Fordham, the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College.

And while I’m at it, let’s not forget the Anglicans and Episcopalians! Nicholas Ferrar and his family, back in England in the 17th century, found ways to tend their spiritual garden in life and work and study as a model Christian family. In the 19th century many traditional communities were reestablished in England and America: communities of dedicated people, men and women who strove to serve the poor in the inner city slums, reawakening people in the gray, dull factory towns of Northern England to the beauty of worship — with music and art in an age that had tried to rationalize everything, to mechanize everything; they helped the world to rediscover the deep peace of a life of prayer and common service to those in need.

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Today there are dozens of such communities in the Episcopal Church, of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of ministries, all following their rules of life as ways to tend their spiritual gardens. My own Brotherhood of Saint Gregory is just one of many of these communities. Some of them live a monastic life, in one large monastery, working and praising God together; others are out in the world, scattered all over the country, in small groups, alone, or with their families.

One thing ties these communities together, one thing they share: they are all made up of people who have vowed to follow a common rule of life. Now, you might say, Why would anyone need to go beyond the simple Golden Rule, or any other such obvious guide to Christian life? And you’re right to ask such a question.

Well, remember what I said of doctor’s orders? Each of us requires different therapies and prescriptions for good health, and some of these ailments fall into broad categories, and people who have similar needs or similar ailments or require certain therapies find similar helps, and they even form support groups, don’t they? There is a solidarity of knowing that others have a condition you share, and can help keep you on the program for recovery.

And it is the same with those who follow a rule of life for their Christian journey: they know that they need this direction and guidance, and fellowship to support them, in strengthening them to persevere in their journey. They have found when they do that, that “the word is very near them” — and their rule of prayer and service helps them to live so as to follow the life that God has prescribed for them, the Great Physician who has given them a prescription written on their hearts.

They have found, for example, that they need one particular helpful prescription: Take one dose of prayer on rising and before retiring, and with meals. And so they’ve recited the Daily Office of morning and evening and noonday and bedtime prayer for almost 1800 years in one form or another.

Rules of life help those of us who are called to them, because we need them to get our lives in order. And don’t we all need that guidance — to listen to that “near word” spoken in our hearts? Doesn’t ever gardener need the tools of rake, and hoe and spade in addition to the seed, if the garden is to be tended and bear fruit? Whether it’s the Golden Rule, or the Rule of Saint Benedict, the rule is a toolkit, an aid in time of need. We’ve been assured that when we need something, and ask for it in prayer, we will receive it. People find these rules of life because they are seeking God, and God provides the way — as Jesus said, he is the Way.

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Such rules are all around us, but if they remain unused they are no better than the heart medicine unopened on the dresser, or the garden tools locked up in the shed. Christ, the good physician, has given all of us our own prescriptions — tailored to our needs — but it is up to us to use them day by day. Each of us has God’s word planted in our hearts, and suited to our abilities, talents and needs, to bring forth the fruit that each of us can bear, as we cultivate it with the tools that God has provided to each of us. God speaks to us as he spoke to the lawyer, to each of us in relation to what he gives us and what he asks of us: “Do this, and you will live.” By his word at work in us, so may it be.+

The Dividing Line

(Please forgive the occasional cough on the audio; I was recovering from a chest cold!)

Saint James Fordham • Proper 29a • Tobias Haller BSG

When the Son of Man comes in his glory… he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Someone once said that the world is divided into two sorts of people: the sorts of people who divide the world into two sorts of people, and those who don’t. Well, it would seem from today’s readings that the Son of Man, when he comes in power and great glory, will turn out to be exactly the sort of person who divides the world into two sorts of people: those who are blessed by his Father, and those who are accursed. There is no middle ground, no room for compromise, and no appeal. This is nothing other than the Last Judgment.

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When I was five years old I had my appendix out. This was in the days before HMOs, so I had a good long week in the hospital to recuperate, and I can tell you it was very boring after the first few days. The most boring thing was that although I had a coloring book, I had only two crayons: and they were green and yellow-green. And however much I tried to get those two crayons to express other colors, all I was left with was green and yellow-green, darker or lighter, but still green without relief.

In today’s Gospel, everything is similarly monochromatic, tinged with the sharp and angry tone of the wrath of the Son of Man, without any hint of relief, any hint of anything other than his bright green judgment, clear and cutting, as sharp as the edge of a crisp blade of grass, or the fine green edge of a palm branch. There is no variation of shade, no warm autumnal reds or golds to take the edge off the kryptonite-like, piercing green judgment of the just judge.

The Son of Man is the final judge, seated in the last court from whom there is no appeal. Everyone, from the day laborer on up to the President will stand before him. And each one who stands there, and that includes each and every one of us too, will receive either a complete acquittal and reward, or a death sentence.

This is not the world of “both / and” but most definitely and finally “either / or.” Either each of us will find ourselves among the blessed, or we won’t.

This judgment is so terrible and terrifying that when we hear about it we must wonder what can be the cause for such a great reward, or merit such a final punishment. Surely the punishment must fit the crime and the reward fit the good behavior. It seems so unfair, so merciless, for God to consign people to the burning rubbish-heap for having failed to do such trivial tasks, such simple actions. Surely such punishment is for the wicked tyrants, the stereotypical Hitlers and the Stalins, for the mass-murderers and terrorists.

But Jesus is unflinching in his judgment. Consigned to the flames along with mass murderers and torturers, is the store owner who didn’t give a piece of bread to a homeless man; the man who was too busy to visit his sister when she was in the hospital; the woman who wouldn’t visit her son as he lay dying of aids; the lady who kept her closets full of clothes she never had the time to wear instead of giving some of them to the thrift shop; and countless, countless others; and maybe you, and maybe me. It just doesn’t seem fair to consign people to the destructive fire for such trivial reasons, for failing to do such simple things, things we would have done if only we’d known.

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If only we’d known. Hmmm, but we do know, don’t we? And that is why God’s judgment is fair, after all. It is not as if we have not been told that whatever we do to the least of God’s children we do to our Lord. It is not as if we have not been told exactly what God wants us to do for each other: to do as we would be done by. And that is why God’s judgement is fair, and that is also why in the long run it is also merciful.

It is merciful because the way to avoid the death sentence is so easy. That is the good news in our Gospel today. What it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven is to do as we would be done by. God has told us and assured us that he will reward with the kingdom of heaven those who simply feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and the prisoners, and clothe the naked. We don’t have to walk around the world at the equator on burning coals. We don’t have to climb a holy mountain and fast for forty days on bread and water. We don’t have to whip ourselves with knotted cords and wallow in repentance. All we have to do is treat with dignity and charity those whom God places in our path, not turning aside from those in need, but meeting their need with outstretched hands and open hearts.

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God’s judgment is terrible, but it is fair, it is just, and it is merciful. That is the good news. God has told us what he expects of us. This passage in Matthew was meant to warn the nations — that is, us — to give us fair warning that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were coming to visit, to bring the good news, and it was in how they and us treated those ambassadors of Christ that they would establish their future — joining the blessed in eternal joy, or departing into the flames of destruction. The warning was simple: treat others as you would yourself be treated.

The problem is that most people would rather think that God has impossible expectations for us, that God expects us to be perfect and never do anything wrong, but that God will be merciful when we fail and forgive us and let us into heaven.

But that simply is not the Gospel — or at least not the whole Gospel — as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has delivered it to us, through his ambassadors, through our many fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters in the faith. Although it is quite true that God would rather that we not sin, and that God will forgive us when we do sin, when it comes right down to it the Gospel isn’t primarily about our sin and God’s forgiveness. That has been dealt with — Jesus took care of that for us — remember? when he forgave even those who crucified him? — he did it on the cross, a full, perfect, and sufficient oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world: and as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

But what kind of life? That’s the question. The Gospel isn’t about our sin and God’s forgiveness so much as it is about what we do with our lives once we sinners have been forgiven. Having been made alive, what do we do with our lives? How do we set our hearts, as the hymn says, “to finish God’s salvation?”

Rather than set us impossible tasks and then have mercy on us when we fail, God has been merciful to us beforehand, and set us a simple task from the start. How much simpler can you get than, “Do unto others as you would be done by”?

It is our response to this command from God that will determine our final place with the sheep or with the goats. We have all been forgiven, saved through the great work of Christ accomplished on the cross; but the second part of the work of salvation, our finishing of salvation, lies in our hands, and most especially in what we do with our lives in relation to each other.

We have been forgiven our sins, but do we forgive others who sin against us? We have been provided with daily bread, but do we give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, however inconvenient their asking, and however frequently they ask? We have been given the blessings of hearth and home and nation, but do we welcome the stranger and make those most unlike us feel comfortable and at home in our presence? We have been protected and clothed and warmed, but do we provide clothing for those who lack it? We have been comforted by the visits of friends and strangers, but do we visit the sick and those in prison, or sit at home browsing the Internet or answering our e-mail, or drowsing in front of the TV or caught up in a video game? These are such simple things, my sisters and brothers, such simple things to gain or lose heaven by.

The judgment of God is terrible, but it is fair, and just, and it is merciful. It is terrible in its finality, as the world is divided into the blessed and the damned. But it is fair and just in that we have been asked to do no more than we would be done by. And it is merciful in that we have been given ample warning. Oh that today we would hearken to his voice!