The Last Judgment and the Present Moment

The Rev. Professor Peter J. GomesSermon by the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University from 1974–2011, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, March 19, 2006. Memorial Church file photo.




I ask you to take your pew Bibles and turn with me to Matthew Chapter 25, beginning at the 31st verse. You will find it on page 25 in the New Testament section. I invite you all to take them. Even though this is a very familiar passage, I want you to hear it afresh as I read it out.

"When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All of the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And He will put the sheep at His right hand and the goats at the left.

"Then, the King will say to those at the right hand, 'Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations 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.'

"Then He will say to those at His left hand, 'You that are cursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

"Then, they also will answer, 'Lord, 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?' Then, He will answer them, '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. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal joy.'"

I think you can figure out where this sermon is going, but why don't you wait and see. There may be a kicker yet in the tale.

Last Sunday, I ended my sermon on righteousness and self with some reassuring lines from T.S. Eliot's magnificent poem, The Dry Salvages, about those who are only undefeated because we have gone on trying, one of my favorite lines. I have it on my desk in Plymouth.

Today, I begin with some equally apt lines from the same poet, T.S. Eliot, but these words may prove somewhat less agreeable than the others. T.S. Eliot asks in Choruses from the Rock this great question, "Why should men love the church? Why should they love her laws? She tells, them of life and death and of all that they would forget. She is tender where they would be hard and hard where they liked to be soft. She tells them of evil and sin and other unpleasant facts. They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good."

Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. That sounds like a judgment, a judgment on all our social ambitions, the stuff for which we labor both in college and in the graduate and professional schools. The social ideal for most of us is a social system so perfect and well-ordered and adequately funded that no one will need to be good.

Remember that famous line of Mae West and her magnificent pearls? Observing those splendid specimens around her neck, somebody said, "My goodness, where did you get such pearls?" To which the inimitable Ms. West replied, "Goodness had nothing to do with it." Goodness had nothing to do with it. Maybe that is the ideal world toward which we aspire. Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one need ever be good, dreaming of systems in which the second half of the second lesson need not be read because everybody would always do the right thing on command to the least of these.

But if we are to believe the rather terrifying account of the last judgment, which forms the second part of the second lesson, goodness appears to have everything to do with it, and when all is said and done, judgment is what it is all about and it is not we who are doing the judging.

How, indeed, will we answer the plaintive question of the text, "Lord, when did we see you hungry?" Why, indeed, should we love the church which forces us to face such a question and which promises that it will be asked at the end? Why should we love such a church whose overwhelmingly favorite subject for depiction in art is not the crucifixion or the resurrection or the virgin birth, but, rather, the last judgment? How could we, who are so nonjudgmental be obsessed with a church that appears to be obsessed with judgment?

Years ago, I was preaching at Saint Paul's Church in Dedham, Massachusetts, the rector of which was then my good friend, the charming and the astute C. Blayney Colmore, perfect name for the rector of Saint Paul's in Dedham. We were vesting in the robing room before morning prayer when in burst an obviously agitated young man, clearly off his meds and fully, fully possessed of strange religious chatter and unpredictable notions.

He roamed around the ministers' robing room, speaking to us and to no one in particular. He seemed unhinged in the most charming of ways. But he seemed also profoundly pots. It was the first of many encounters over long years I would have with him. But that first one was very strange, indeed quite striking and even frightening, especially before divine service was to begin.

Eventually, he ran out of steam and ran out of the room. The rector was extraordinarily calm. He'd seen it all before. I was impressed with his demeanor, and so after our interrupting friend had departed, I said to him, "How do you manage such a thing?" I'll never forget his reply. "I wait it out," he said, "and I hope to God it's not Jesus."

I have said that many times, even with regard to some of you on any number of occasions. Lord, when did we see you hungry? That is the question of those of us who hope that we will not hear Jesus ask us that question. For few of us, I suspect, could give a satisfactory answer. The notion of judgment as opposed to taste and discernment is not one that sits easily with us, and the notion of a final judgment offends many of us of tender mind and conscience.

Christian burial used to concern itself with prayers for the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of God upon the soul of the poor sinner at the final judgment. That is why we sang requiems. That is why the great composers composed Deus Irae. That is why the color was black and the candles black as well.

Today, by and large, we remember as best we can a good life and we console ourselves in its loss and we hope for the best for him, for her, and for us. Judgment seems a cruel intruder these days at the grave, and yet, judgment, believe it or not, is at the heart of the Christian Gospel.

In the old First Baptist Church of Plymouth where I was brought up, there was very little religious art or iconography in our sanctuary, the room almost as plain and austere as this one and considerably less elegant. However, because it was so plain and barren and bereft of ornament, the one representational stained glass window in the place stood out, and an eager, clever boy observed it and was fascinated by it for many years.

Over the pulpit, in the ceiling of this church was a stained glass panel through which the sun shone with great brightness at 11:00 of a Sunday morning. It was a representation of a single, all-seeing eye, one eye like the Masonic eye on our paper currency. Look on the back and you see the Great Seal, the pyramid, and at the top of which is that one all-seeing eye.

It was a fascinating and terrifying sight once you figured out what it was, an eye from heaven into the First Baptist Church. My Sunday School teacher told us that it was God's eye and that He was watching and seeing us, indeed seeing through us and would remember what He saw at the time of the last judgment. What a terrifying thought, I thought, if I was to be held accountable not only for my deeds, my sins of omission and commission, which were bad enough, but for my thoughts as well. God could see my thoughts. What a terrifying thought that would be.

Now my Sunday School teacher know no Milton except Milton Berle, but years later when I read Milton, John Milton, I remembered that window when I encountered the line, "All is, if I have grace to use it so, as ever in my great task master's eye." Living under the scrutiny of my great task master's eye. My English teacher explained that it was Milton's conviction as a Christian that we lived lives of introspection and self-examination, knowing that we did so under the watchful eye of God, who had set before us great expectations and great tasks. And that eye never blinked, and it certainly never winked.

That Puritan sensibility, morbidity, as some would say, has long passed us by and been left to others in other places. Judgment is not something that consoles us or compels us, and most of us take some perverse consolation from the old canard that once defined the difference between the Universalists and the Unitarians, both our ancestors in this place.

It was said presumably by Starr King, a good Unitarian himself, and it was said before the merger of those two denominations now nearly 50 years ago, that the Universalists thought that God was too good to judge anybody and that the Unitarians thought that they were too good for God to judge. Now that is an injustice, I hasten to say, to both traditions and, yet, for Christians, the fact of a final judgment is central to our tradition and the tradition we espouse, and just because you don't believe it doesn't mean it isn't so.

I find that the only recourse in my efforts, however feeble, to live a reasonably decent life, is the fear and the hope of judgment. Fear that in my knowledge of myself, I will be tried in the balance and found wanting at the final judgment, and hope that somehow there is a final judgment, that there is a God who rewards virtue and punishes vice so that in the end, indeed at the end, there will be a reckoning, a squaring up.

I want firmly and truly to believe that Adolph Hitler and the lesser villains of this life will be punished, and I want firmly and truly to believe that Mother Teresa and the little heroes of this life will be rewarded and that this is all a part of God's economy, God's divine plan, that in the end, when all is said and done, it will be put right.

But for judgment to be exercised, vice punished, and virtue rewarded, we need to be reminded of what it is that God, in fact, expects and for what will we be held accountable when, in fact, God does sort us all out at the end. In the words of our New Testament lesson from Matthew, "When God separates the sheep from the goats, what criterion will He use and how will we know it to be just and fair?"

It would be an easy and consoling thing to say that we have no idea what God demands and what God expects, but alas, that really cannot be so. The first lesson sums up very clearly in those almost too familiar words from the prophet Micah what it is that God expects. You heard it read by Belva Brown Taylor. You understand what it's all about. "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Oh, we could ask for something more demanding or more interesting or more sophisticated, but there it is and it's been there for a very long time. We already know what is required, what is expected. It is as plain as it can be. Justice, kindness, and humility, these are the things we are meant to do, to do to others, to show, to demonstrate, share. These are the virtues we are meant to represent and to the least, not just to the best, or to those who are so very much like ourselves. We are meant to represent these virtues in our persons, for that is what it means to be a Christian.

Unless we forget, in the New Testament, when Jesus Himself is asked, "What is the most important commandment?" He gives them a summary of the law in which all ethical behavior is to be grounded, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, strength, heart, and mind and your neighbor as yourself. On these do hang all the law and the prophets."

It is the church's duty to remind us of this so that we will not be among those who at the end ask the haunting question of our text, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did nothing about it and did not minister to you?"

During my time at Duke some years ago when I was on sabbatical, I met and enjoyed the company over the term of a Southern white preacher, now retired from the ministry of the Methodist Church. As we talked over those days and weeks and months, he said that he lived in torment, torment over his complicity in the system of racism, which his church and his culture represented. And he knew without a doubt that at the final judgment, he would be asked all about that and he would have to give an account of his complicity.

Well, that's a rather heavy trip to lay on somebody, and so I said, "Well, what do you do?" And his reply was wonderfully simple, "I live in the hope of a merciful God." I live in the hope of a merciful God. I know the private sins of my own commission and omission , those thoughts and deeds which I wish an all-seeing God knew nothing about. I wish I could block over the all-seeing eye of God in the pulpit of the First Baptist Church. And yet, I too live in the hope of a merciful God.

In the present moment, where we sit right now, we should be concerned that the most consistent ethical strain throughout all of scripture is a judgment upon us who claim to know who the Lord is and claim to be His followers. In that knowledge, we are to be judged as to how we have conducted our affairs and ourselves in the world.

How will God judge us for our treatment of the poor, not simply the so-called deserving poor, but the anonymous poor now all too visible in Boston and New Orleans and wherever you would care to turn, near and far. How will God judge us for the way we have responded to those persons? How will God judge us as a nation for our arrogance in war and our indifference in peace? How will God judge us for the needless, heedless war in which we find ourselves and the corruptions great and small at every level of our society, high and low, near and far, local, state, and federal?

Of all people, Christians have the most to fear, for we claim to act as children of the light, but more often than not, our deeds give lie to our profession. We had better hope that there is no final judgment, no ultimate reckoning, but the evidence on that point is against us. God does keep score. The Bible says so, and we need to know that and we need to know the score. That is why we need the church, and that is why in simply dreaming of systems so perfect that no one need be good, we are wasting our time and our efforts.

But this, of course, is not the end of the story. For if it were, it would be a very, depressing, very sad and rather grim story. But I have told you before of my English friend, a bishop in the Church of England, who not long ago sat for his official portrait to be hung in the precincts of Salisbury Cathedral. A friend said to him, "I hope the painter does you justice, Bishop." The bishop replied, "At my age, it is not justice I want, but mercy."

We who live unjustly and benefit from the injustices towards others cannot hope for our just desserts. Apologies are thought to be unmanly and un-American. Harvey Mansfield probably thinks they are both. Thus, we will not apologize willingly, for example, for slavery or for our treatment of the Indians or of our confiscations in Hawaii or our imperial misadventures in the Middle East or our abuse of the environment. We will not apologize for these things. And our secret and private sins, they too are often too much for us to bear and certainly too much for us to repent of.

It's not simply I'm okay and you're okay. It's worse than that. No, I'm not okay and you're not okay, but that's okay. That's what we have come to. It is not good enough. Jesus not only tells us that it is not okay, but tells us what we are to do about it and what will happen if we don't. There are some who say, "If only that first part of Matthew 25 were in there about doing good deeds to people that you didn't know were Jesus, that's moral imperative."

But the second part, where you don't do things to people in need because you're absolutely certain they are not Jesus, that is where the moral, the ethical, the spiritual rubber hits the road, and that is why the church exists, to remind us of that morning, noon, and night.

But it's not just about judgment and an impossible moral standard that God speaks to us. Thank God, indeed, that mercy trumps justice. It is, indeed as the good bishop hopes and my Southern friend opined, "We live in the hope of a merciful God, for without one, we are a people without hope."

We are in the process in this church of revising our hymn book, a delightful proposition which should please most of you. What's in it is not so bad, though our choices this morning might not suggest that, but there ... And I made them. It's my fault. I take full responsibility. But there is so much that is left out.

One of the hymns which is to be put in the revised book is one by the 19th century hymnist Frederick Faber, and it reads, "There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea. There's a kindness in His justice which is more than limited. There is grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this. There is room for fresh creations in the Lord's unfathomed bliss. For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind."

Happily, at this moment, we do not stand before the judgment seat. It is not yet too late for us to remember that the God who judges also forgives and that justice without mercy is tyranny. With that in mind, we live and we love in the hope of a merciful Savior, and we appreciate the fact that it is not too late for us to be among the sheep as opposed to being among the goats.

And knowing the reality of our sin, both private and public, personal and social, we live in this present moment as if it could be our last. Therefore, now is the time for the amendment of life. Now is the time to aspire to what we know to be good. Now is the time to arm ourselves against evil in all of its subtle forms. Now is the time to repent, to rejoice, to turn around, and to remember what is so clearly there, the love of God and the love of neighbor.

When I take all that is mortal of a Christian to the grave, I read what is called the commendation from the burial office of the Book of Common Prayer. It's nearly the last thing we do before we lower the casket into the ground or scatter the ashes. Here's how it goes. "Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, acknowledge we humbly beseech you a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeemer. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light."

Mindful of the last judgment and very much aware of this present moment, such a prayer as this says it all. My prayer for you is that we may live in its hope and die in its promise. Amen.