Sunday, February 11, 2018

Repentance. Seriously.

I arrived safely in Nairobi on Friday afternoon.  That night, Fr. John asked me to preach Sunday at the cathedral.  And on the parable of the sheep and the goats no less.  Ready or not, I'm back in Kenya.

Sermon text:  Matthew 25:31-46

Fra Angelico's Last Judgement Triptich

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

This is, of course, Meatfare Sunday, the Sunday we Orthodox say goodbye to meat until Pascha.  It is also Judgement Sunday, another in the series of preparatory Sundays before Lent where we deal with issues of our sin and we find the way back to God through repentance.  And in particular we read every year at this point in our journey into Lent Jesus’ awesome and terrible parable of the Great Judgment, or the Sheep and the Goats.  This parable has always struck me, as I am sure it has you, with it’s immediacy, it’s urgency, and the power of Jesus’ words to cut through every excuse.  If we have a soft heart this morning, we cannot help but hear the Lord calling out to us in mercy, reaching out his hand to us in love.

We learn a couple of things about the great and final judgment from Jesus in this parable, and though we hear this parable every year, it’s good to be reminded of them.  First, the last judgement will be a universal judgment.   It will involve every person.  It doesn’t matter how old they are or how young they are.  It doesn’t matter how poor or how wealthy.  It doesn’t matter how powerful or how powerless, how wise or foolish, how smart or stupid.  Everybody must give an account of what they have done or not done with who they are and what they have.  All of the nations will be gathered before his throne, all of the living and all of the dead.  No one will be able to bribe their way out of having to stand before Christ, no one will be able to blame anybody else.  The last and terrible judgment will be a universal judgement.

But it will be a fair and a just judgement.  No one will be able to say to God, ‘You have not treated me rightly or fairly.’  No one will be able to hide or pretend, because God sees and God knows.  And like the people in the parable who question how God is judging them, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you?’  The Lord simply says, ‘Assuredly I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’  

It will be a judgement not based on what you believe but on what you do.  The people sent from the presence of God into hell seem to have believed the very same things that the people who were welcomed into eternal life.  They address the Son of Man as Lord.  They sound properly religious.  But the Lord doesn’t judge anyone on whether they are religious enough, on whether they make pious prayers or go to church.  Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘Many of you will come to me on that Day and say, “Lord! Lord! Did we not prophesy in Your name and cast out demons in Your name and do many wonders in Your name?” And I will declare to them, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness for I never knew you.”’ (Matthew 7:22-23)  The Lord is not impressed with our loud claims to be a Christian, or to be Orthodox, or to be ‘born again’ and ‘saved’.  The Lord is concerned with what we have done with our life, with our time, with our talents and gifts, with our possessions, with our money.  Have we used what He has given us for His Kingdom and for the sake of others, or have we spent it on ourselves? The Lord Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

If this is the case, then there are a lot of self-deceived people around us and maybe even right here among us this morning.  We think that because we are Orthodox that we will go to heaven.  But that simply is not true, according to Jesus, at least.  We think that because we can make pious sounding prayers, or we shout and dance at church, or we are involved in this or that group, that we must be among the saved.  But that too is simply not true, according to Jesus.  Instead, Jesus says that we will know the tree by the fruit it produces.  What comes out of our lives tells us more clearly than anything else what our final destination will be.  But like I said, there are a lot of deceived people around us.  Some 84% of the people in our beautiful country of Kenya claim to be Christians, claim to be ‘saved’.  But at the same time, this country is one of the most corrupt nations on the planet.  The powerful abuse the weak in the rush to grab more power and more of the perks that come with power, the rich bend the rules to favour themselves, the greedy scramble for more and more of everything. Politics is all about personal gain.  Even so-called Christians resort to bribes, steal their neighbour’s land, take their neighbours to court.  If 84% of Kenyans were in the process of being saved, then Kenya would be a paradise.  The fact that we aren’t, that we are so far away of being the paradise that God has called us to be, should be an indication that the so-called Christianity of too many here is nothing but a sham.  And the last judgement won’t tell us anything new about any of us, it will just reveal everyone for who we all are.

Jesus is doing many things in this parable , but one thing in particular that I want to focus on in conclusion is this.  Jesus wants to wake us up.  All of us are on one of two paths right now, a path leading towards Jesus, towards becoming like Jesus, towards eternal life; or a path leading away from Jesus, away from becoming like Jesus, a path heading towards everlasting punishment.  And every year our Orthodox Church brings us back to Jesus, back to this point, this parable, to wake us up.  We have another chance to consider which path we are one, another chance to consider what fruit our life is producing, whether we are sheep or whether we are goats.

The real reason Jesus comes to us with this parable, the real reason our Orthodox Church highlights and underlines what Jesus is telling us, is not to condemn us but rather to give us one more chance to repent.  There will be a final judgment, the way we live our lives will be held to account, how we treat the people around us will be examined.  But I don’t have to continue to live the same way, I don’t have to continue to mistreat people, I don’t have to keep on making choices that hurt me and hurt others.  I can turn away from living that way, and I can turn towards Jesus and ask forgiveness.  I can decide to get off the path I’ve been on, and instead get on the Lord’s path.  I can be aware of the hungry and the thirsty and the poor, and the sick, the unclothed, and the broken, and choose to be part of God’s solution for them rather than continuing to be part of the problem.  Our prayers of repentance tend to multiply during Lent, and if that’s all they are - prayers - then they are completely useless.  But if our prayers are joined together with action, with doing something about what we are praying about, then our prayers will result in genuine repentance.

What path are you on?  To which destination are you headed?  What do the choices you are making today tell you about  your life and your relationship with God and your repentance?  What is the Spirit of God showing you to do right now?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at Sts. Cosmas and Damian Cathedral in downtown Nairobi, Kenya.

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