Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Pullen staff retreats are somewhat legendary among Pullen staff. While the fall and spring staff retreats predate me, it is fair to say that I have extensive experience attending these retreats given that I have participated in approximately 44 of them. Without knowing the full history of how they began, I feel that it is safe to say that they began during Mahan Siler’s tenure—the guru of church staff retreats. It’s hard for me to see Bill Finlator leading a staff retreat. When I joined the staff in 1992 these legendary retreats took place at Topsail Island where Mahan and Janice had a beach cottage. Now the phrase “staff retreat” is a bit misleading—there is very little retreating on these outings. Rather, these retreats are spent devoting hours and hours of reflecting and planning and processing. Again, Mahan style. Every retreat, Mahan would began the retreat asking each staff member to come up with a metaphor for how we saw the church in its current state. And every year, Mahan’s metaphor was that of either a well-worn shoe or a battered ship battling the rough waters at sea. Sometimes we would place bets on which metaphor he would choose. I love Mahan Siler; and I came to love our staff retreats.
What makes these retreats legendary? There are several things worth mentioning (and some things I can’t): some years it was simply the journey of getting there—a lot can happen between Raleigh and Topsail; other years it was how Mahan halted the amount of a certain kind of beverage purchased at the grocery store as we shopped for our groceries (it was tradition to stop at the grocery store on the way in to buy our food for the two to three days we would be on retreat). There are also the memorable discussions about ministry that would sometimes lead to disagreements that then led to more processing of a different sort.
Over the last fifteen to twenty years, though, the legendary aspect of these retreats has become the team building experience. Rope courses, mind games, and in some cases healthy competitive games have marked the beginning of our retreat time. One of the all-time favorites was the year, not too far in the past, where we began our retreat with a cooking competition iron chef style. The staff were divided in teams of two. Each team was given a “secret ingredient” (chicken) and access to a pantry of spices and vegetables. The teams were instructed to create a tasty chicken dish using the items available to them in 30 minutes. At the end of the thirty minutes the dishes would be judged based on taste, presentation, and creativity.
This particular year, our retreat was at the Avila Retreat Center in Durham which, at that time, was run by two nuns—Sister Damian and Sister Carol Ann. In order to fairly judge the dishes I enlisted the help of Sister Damian, Sister Carol Ann, and one of the retreat center cooks. I, nor the rest of the staff, was prepared for the judging aspect and just how seriously the sisters would take their role as judges.
Sister Damian, a confident and whom I would come to discover as an opinionated sister (at least when it came to good tasting food) didn’t hesitate at all to judge each dish as she experienced it. I can still hear her voice—too bland, not enough salt, too spicy, chicken is too dry, vegetables are not cooked enough, vegetables are overcooked. She called it as her taste buds experienced each dish with no apologies. As she judged, I recall watching each staff person take in her assessment in shock and I could tell what was going through their minds, and mine too. The internal dialogue went something like this: “Really. Is my cooking that bad? Can’t you find something good to say? After all, you are a nun. Be nice.” But not Sister Damian. Her judging was, well, to put it nicely, brutal. To reference the scripture, we were all goats.
But then, there was Sister Carol Ann. Sister Carol Ann took a different tact to her role as judge. She would taste each dish and then pause. After a moment she would say what she really liked about the dish followed by a critique that would rival most New York food critics. “The chicken was tender but lacked depth in taste.” she might say. “The vegetables were nicely cooked but they have no flavor.” “The dish looks good but lacks in cohesiveness.” Speechless we were. As Sister Carol Ann gave her judgment, again I watched the staff. And again, I could see the internal dialogue taking place: “Who is this woman? Is she really a food critic dressed in nun attire?” With Sister Carol Ann you got a little bit of mercy and a little bit of judgment all mixed together.
At the heart of our scripture text this morning is the theological and ecclesiastical question of judgment and mercy. At the beginning of this parable, Matthew has Jesus, the Son of Man, the Christ figure, sitting on his throne of glory judging the nations; separating the good from the bad—the sheep from the goats. It’s an odd and unfamiliar picture for those of us whose image of Jesus is that of a wisdom teacher who ate with sinners, spent time with prostitutes, cared for the poor, healed the sick, and who spoke truth to people who sat on thrones of judgment and power. It is a shift for most of us to picture Jesus on that throne. But even if you didn’t grow up in church or reading the Bible, you know this story. The sheep are the blessed ones, heirs to the kingdom of God. Why? Because they fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and prisoner. The goats are the cursed ones, doomed to eternal fire because they failed to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and so on. When the goats asked: “when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” Jesus then delivers the judgment: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
What are we to make of this story of Jesus sitting on a throne handing out judgment, separating the good people from the bad? How do we reconcile this Christ with the Jesus who ate with sinners and defended prostitutes with mercy?
If we are to reconcile these two images we must remember this: the God we know in Jesus is revealed not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but brokenness, not sitting on a throne but hanging on a cross, not in judgment but in mercy. Mercy not judgment. It is this one—coming in mercy rather than judgment—that feels like such a stretch for us. After all, the whole parable seems to reach its climax when the Son of Man who comes in glory dismisses the unrighteous to eternal fire. But here is the truth: the Christ who sits on the throne is the human Jesus who came into the world to identify with us by being born a vulnerable infant, not as an earthly king to rule over humanity and doom us to an eternal fire of judgment; he didn’t come to conquer the world with military or political might, but instead in the scandal, shame, and pain of the cross; and he continues to come where the world least expects God to be—in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy, and in the company of the imprisoned. He comes in mercy, and we come with our judgment.
Rather than being a people of mercy, we have become a nation of judges handing out judgment whenever and wherever we see difference. Like Matthew, we have created Jesus in our own image placing him on a throne, looking for that earthly ruler who will separate us into categories of sheep and goats—the good and the bad—and often taking our own seat on that throne of judgment. She’s a Republican, he’s a Democrat. He’s rich, she’s poor. She’s a conservative, he’s a liberal. He’s pro-life, she’s pro-choice. We judge one another without knowing one another. He drives a Lexus, she drives a Prius. She lives in a nice retirement community, he lives in subsidized housing. He works in corporate America, she works in housekeeping. She goes to that church down the road that has all the money, he goes to that radical church where they accept gay people. She’s poor because she’s lazy, he’s rich because he works hard. Placing judgment has become such a part of the human fabric, so much so, that we often don’t recognize it for what it is. And extending mercy has become so rare that when we do see it, we can’t believe it.
A couple of years ago, a photo appeared on the internet of a NYPD officer putting a pair of socks and boots on the feet of a homeless man on a cold night in December. The online photo became such a sensation, so much so, that in a two week period it attracted 275,000 “Likes” and more than 16,000 comments. Why? Officer Lawrence DePrimo wondered the same thing, surprised that anyone saw him or, for that matter, would wonder why he’d help someone in need on such a cold night. Why? The answer, comes in part from the manager of the shoe store where Officer DePrimo bought the shoes: “We were just kind of shocked. Most of us are New Yorkers and we just kind of pass by that kind of thing. Especially in this neighborhood.” Instead of showing mercy, we pass judgment.
Just this past week, I witnessed a similar experience. As some of you know, on Tuesday our church hosted Katie Couric who was in town to do an interview with the family of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old African-American young man who was found hanging in Bladenboro, NC on August 29. While the police want to say it was a suicide, there is evidence to the contrary. While I got to meet Katie Couric and even have my picture taken with her, it was her producer, Debbie, (a New Yorker) who I actually spent the day with. About 1:00 PM Debbie came to me and said she needed a stool for the interview and wanted to know where she might buy one. As we headed out to Target to purchase a stool, I commented on how cold it had gotten. For some reason I said to Debbie, “We needed our gloves today.” She looked at me kind of oddly and said, “I had some but I gave them to that woman over there.” I looked over and saw a young woman standing in line waiting to enter Finlator Hall for our Roundtable (backdoor) Fellowship. I said, “You did what?” She said, “Well, she came up to me and said ‘Your gloves look warm.’ And her hands looked cold so I gave them to her.” I don’t know if in that moment Debbie felt any sense of judgment toward the woman. If she did, she didn’t mention it. For sure, it would have been easy for her to ignore the woman or pretend she didn’t see her cold hands. Instead she extended a small act of mercy to someone needing mercy without placing judgment. She said to me, “I can always get another pair of gloves.” “When you do it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
If we are going to heal the human wounds of judgment, wounds that are deep in our country right now and are in desperate need of some care and attention, it will be through small acts of mercy—feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, giving the thirsty something to drink, buying shoes for a barefoot homeless man on a cold winter night, or giving our gloves to one whose hands are cold. The path of judgment with will not bring God’s commonwealth to Earth. Only God’s mercy through us can do that.