On the Sunday of the Last Judgment

Sermon for Sunday, February 19

The Lord said: When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” Then He will also say to those on the left hand, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting 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 no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” Then they also will answer Him, saying, “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?” Then He will answer them, saying, “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.” And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)

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

You are holding a cup of coffee when someone comes and bumps you, making you spill your coffee everywhere.

Why did you spill your coffee?

“Well, because someone bumped into me, of course!”

Wrong answer. You spilled the coffee because coffee was in the cup. If tea had been in it, you would have spilled tea. Whatever is inside the cup is what will come out. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45.)

When life comes along and shakes you (which will happen) whatever is inside of you will come out.

It’s easy to fake it until you get rattled. We have to ask ourselves: What is in my cup? When we’re startled, or hurt, or wronged, what spills over? Joy, gratefulness, peace, humility? Or anger, bitterness, harsh words and actions?

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). What a waste, to wash and shine the outside of a pot, and make a grand impression with my religion and morality, without cleaning the inside, where my heart is still dark and dried out and far from God.

I used to visit a dear old lady named Hannah. She was present and aware… more some days than others. She’d often point out the window at the Horse Heaven Hills and say, “One day Jesus is going to come over that hill and take me home!” 

After a while she began to lose the power of speech. But she’d still point out the window and emphatically say, “Jesus! Jesus!” 

And then one day Jesus came and took her home. 

I pray that when the time comes that I lose all my filters and pride and ability to perform righteousness, that what comes out of me is Jesus.

*     *     *

In today’s Gospel, the Lord separates us, sheep from goats. He describes the kind of actions that characterize the righteous: Out of the abundance of their heart, they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the poor, tend to the sick and so on.

But is it possible to have done those things and yet not to be found in the Book of Life(Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27, 22:19) If we understand what it means to be righteous, we will realize that the answer is “yes.” We might have done all those good works and still not be righteous.

Last week we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. When people say “We ought to be like Jesus and hang around with sinners,” they sound like the older son, labeling his brother a sinner, unlike himself. The week before that was the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: “Glad I’m not one of those sinners!”

Now today we read that even the sheep and the goats don’t know they’re saints or sinners. “When did we ever feed or clothe You, Lord? There were so many…” 

Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt 23:25; 7:21-23).

“I never knew you.” That is the key. “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3.) From the heart in increasing union with God come fruits of righteousness and grace. “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23.)

In a sermon for this Sunday, Saint John of San Francisco said:

When “the books are opened (Revelation 20:12) it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a fornicator. When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul. And if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not become free of it, it will come to the dread Judgment also with the same desire for the sweetness of sin and will never satisfy its desire. In it there will be the suffering of hatred and malice. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth of powerless malice.

Through familiarity, passages like today’s Gospel may lose their ability to shock us or keep us up at night. But the first time you heard this passage, I expect it was scary. It ought to sober us, because the truth about each one of us is that we are sinners. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23.) When the Lord describes what happens after the Judgment, “The wicked will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” where will we sinners be?

John the beloved disciple writes about the same event:

I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God. And the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And anyone was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11,12,15.)

What is stressful or worrying, we don’t want to think about, in a childish magical hope that it will go away. For this reason the Church gives us reminders to face this reality. Not ten minutes ago, in the Beatitudes, we sang:

At Thy fearful coming, O Christ, when Thou appearest from heaven, when the thrones are set up and the books opened, then spare, O Savior, spare Thy creature.

Since God is the Judge, nothing can help thee there: no zeal, no skill, no glory, no friendship, but only the strength that thou gainest, O my soul, from thy works.

Lord, let me not hear Thee say, “Receive what thou dost deserve” as Thou sendest me from Thy presence. Let me not hear Thee say, “Depart from Me into the fire of the accursed.” But may I hear Thy words of blessing to the righteous.

And at the far end of Lent, we will begin Holy Week by singing:

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom he shall find watching. But unworthy is he whom he shall find slothful. Therefore beware, O my soul, be not overcome by sleep, lest thou be given over to death and shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse thyself and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God; through the prayers of the Theotokos, save us.

I see Thy bridal chamber all adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. You are the Giver of Light; illumine the garment of my soul and save me.

Next Thursday night, in the Great Canon, we will sing a verse that woke me up and made me weep twenty years ago when I first heard it:

I am deprived of the bridal chamber, of the wedding and the supper; for want of oil, my lamp has gone out; while I slept the door was closed; the supper has been eaten; I am bound hand and foot, and cast out.

At times in my life, through apathy, or laziness, or self-pity, I have let deadlines pass and opportunities go by. I know well the feeling of the bottom dropping out of your stomach when you realize you have done this to yourself. Again. And now we have to think what it means to stand with the rich man in hades (Luke 19:16-31), watching from far off as Lazarus and the righteous enter into the marriage feast of the Lamb of God, without us, and the door closes to us, because we neglected so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3).

It’s important to note that in this parable Christ is not arbitrarily deciding who gets what fate. He is revealing what we are.

What is in your cup? In that day the word whispered in the ear will be shouted from rooftops, and every secret will be known.

When masks are taken away and hearts are revealed, will you be at Christ’s right hand? Or do your sins and your passions condemn you? Does your lack of the virtues of Christ expose the reality that your soul is empty? Out of the abundance of your heart, are there no pure, righteous thoughts or actions flowing?

Good. Then the Gospel is for you. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Blessed are the beggars who bring exactly nothing to God. Because they can offer the humility of the Publican.

Like the Prodigal Son, we want to make our speech to God, bring him tears of regret, and promise him our repentance, this time, for real. And like the Prodigal’s father, the Lord already saw us back when we got up to return to him, and he forgave, and has already slain the fatted calf, and our room is waiting for us. Save your speech. The Publican had it right: “God, be gracious to me the sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).

The thief on the cross won the Kingdom with a single word: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom!” (Luke 23:42).

Isaiah saw the Lord, “High and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1ff). Seraphim flying overhead sang out, “Holy! Holy! Holy is the Lord of Hosts!” and Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips.” And one of the angels went to the altar, where a sacrifice was already offered – the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8) – and he took a coal from that offering and touched Isaiah’s lips. ”Behold, this has touched thy lips, and taken away thy sins, and purified thine iniquities” (Isaiah 6:7).

“Confession isn’t a trade in which I barter my regret for forgiveness. My repentance doesn’t make me deserve this gift; it just means I’ve stopped hiding from mercy and started cooperating.” — Leah Libresco.

God doesn’t forgive because you repent; God forgives because he has already placed you in the sheepfold. Because welcoming and making you holy is what delights the Lord. God offers repentance to you as a gift, to free you from what hurts and binds and controls you. Not only to pardon your transgressions but to set you uncondemned before his judgment seat, having no fear and no condemnation. That’s why, in the Orthodox faith, Lent is a season of hope.

Are you a goat? Here and now is the time when that can change. “Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2.)

The Church has showed us the Publican and the Prodigal as a roadmap to repentance, in which goats like us can be purified, illumined, and acquire the likeness of Christ. Now, today, we’re about to take that roadmap and set out on the journey.

Are you dreading the fast? All those services. A vast, baconless desert. I have seen Lenten fasts where in the fasting and prayers I learned something about how my secret sins worked and how to rob them of the power to compel. And I’ve seen Lenten fasts where I was just tired and wanted it to end.

But fasting began to make sense when I understood that the part about food is not the heart of the season of repentance. Fasting from meat is a tool the Church has found to empower our prayers and works of repentance. But, if you have begun to share the Church’s understanding of fasting, you may even look forward to this coming season, as a chance to take inventory and clean house in your soul.

Saint John Chrysostom asked:

Are you fasting?
Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see someone who is poor, take pity on them.
If you see a friend being honored, do not be envious.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eyes, and the feet, and the hands and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of greed.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at what is is sinful.
Let the ears fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?

That we may pass the whole of this day and this life in peace and repentance, let us pray to the Lord. A Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask. Then we will hear Christ say, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.