When I was about seven years old, and worried about death and heaven and hell, I
consulted with the family member who talked about God the most.
Aunt Ruthie graciously stepped away from her Trinity Broadcast Network programming
to answer my question about heaven.
Her face change into sunrise, and with a joy in her voice that almost scared me, she said,
"In heaven, we will praises to Jesus forever!"
So my two eternal options were fiery torment or a church service that never ends.
I didn't ask her any more questions and returned to silent worry.
Much later I learned that musicians debate whether the angels play Bach or Mozart,
meaning that heaven's playlist might extend beyond Aunt Ruthie's Baptist
And I've now had enough theological training to believe it also includes eighties power
The Bible begins with God making love out of nothing at all and climaxes with the new
Jerusalem arriving from on high – ooh, heaven is a place on earth! – while hell
itself burns away in the lake of fire.
Am I only dreaming, or is this burning an eternal flame?
Before we get there, however, there is the necessary administrative matter of the
Great Judgment, in which the king separates goats who did not recognize him
from sheep who did not recognize him either.
Maybe you can hear the sheep singing their praises to Jesus, with lyrics from Survivor:
I was always reachin' You were just a girl I knew I took for granted The friend I had in you
I was living for a dream Loving for a moment Taking on the world That was just my style Now I look into your eyes I can see forever The search is over You were with me all the while.
As the church has spent history chasing power and money and glory, its Lord has stood in
soup lines, rummaged through clothing bins, and languished in jail cells and
As the church dresses up like a prom queen, the king of all creation watches along the
wall in the shadows, hoping she will notice him, dreaming she will accept his awkward royal hand.
When she looks into his eyes, will she see forever, or will she move on to some other,
more attractive dream?
Matthew watches human nature and worries constantly about this, so his long gospel has
maintained the same steady drumbeat:
Do not judge.
Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
The messiah, whose name is God-is-with-us, is born into a sketchy family, hunted down
by the Jewish king helped by Bible scholars, and worshiped by foreign magicians.
Jesus announces blessing on the losers while battling the winners, and he tells stories of a
field full of tangled wheat and weeds and a fishnet dragged up from the sea, all to
be sorted by someone else, and of vineyard workers getting equal pay for unequal work.
In countless ways, from direct commands to plot twists to parables, Matthew is constantly trying to move us from measurement and math to lavish mercy.
Judgment is promised, but it is not our job, which is good, because we're no good at it.
The sheep don't know they're sheep and the goats don't know they're goats, and
none of them can identify the king when they see him.
Today's climactic gospel finally makes the picture clear: yes, there will be judgment.
The question is: will there be mercy?
Mercy, which is our job, is compassion without calculation.
Please remember this as you calculate your offerings and pledges.
They are something more than strategic investments.
They are gifts to the king.
Our offerings have helped Kay and Nouv in Central Cambodia, who have cleared land
for their watermelon farm which now includes chickens, spinach, shallots, pumpkins and other vegetables while the offerings of groceries we've collected
this fall are feeding hungry individuals and families across Southern California.
Our offerings have helped bring clean drinking water to thirsty children of God in South
Sudan, Senegal, Iraq, Syria, Serbia, and Flint, Michigan.
Our offerings help provide welcome to unaccompanied migrant children at our southern
border and to God's children of all sexual orientations and gender identities in
West Hills and elsewhere, two groups that bear the stigma and heartache of
rejection from human judgment outmuscling mercy, just as Matthew feared.
Our offerings of now 4000 socks will help clothe cold, wet, naked feet across the
Southland as our homeless neighbors navigate another winter.
Our offerings help provide the only radiation therapy for Palestinian cancer patients and
pediatric dialysis treatments available in the West Bank through our support of
Augusta Victoria Hospital in Israel.
Our offerings help supply Holy Communion inside the walls, and daily bread and other
needed support outside the walls, for those re-entering society in Shelton,
Washington through Living Stones Prison Ministry.
Our offerings are working mercy and ministering to Jesus even on days when we are not.
Maybe opening our hand will also help open our eyes to see the king invisible in
our midst, hiding in plain view.
The Messiah, King God-is-with-us, has been and still is.
All the while.