A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 31, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Corinthians 3:9-15 and Psalm 98
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What images come to mind when you hear the word ‘judgment’?

I did a Google image search on the word ‘judgment’ and the first big swath of images were of gavels.  There were a few scales, the scales we associate with the legal system.  I had to dig down a ways to get to an image that had to with anything else – like decision-making.  The sense of ‘judgment’ in the American zeitgeist connects to the criminal justice system.

And that connection links the word ‘judgment’ to condemnation and punishment.  That’s not too surprising when you consider that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 724 people locked up per 100,000 people in the general population.  That’s a rate that is five times the world median.[1]  So it’s not surprising that we associate ‘judgment’ with condemnation and punishment when you look at how our jails and prisons function, especially compared to prisons in another country.

Did you notice that quick clip of someone at a TED Talk?  He mentioned a difference sort of approach to prisons – from condemnation and punishment, to restorative justice.  Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime.  It seeks to restore (thus, its name) balance, harmony, and well-being.[2]

While I’d love for you all to think about criminal justice reform and maybe even work for it, that’s not the subject of today’s sermon.  I bring this up to prime the pump.  The focus on today’s sermon is on God’s judgment.  Which brings me to some other images.

“The Last Judgment”

Classical paintings of the final judgment are filled with images of condemnation and punishment.  This is “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo.  It is the altarpiece behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel.  “While traditional medieval last judgments showed figures dressed according to their social positions, Michelangelo created a new standard.  His groundbreaking concept of the event shows figures equalized in their nudity, stripped bare of rank.  The artist portrayed the separation of the blessed and the damned by showing the saved ascending on the left and the damned descending on the right.”[3]  Condemnation and punishment.

I’m not sure how this view of God became so predominant in Christian theology.  It probably has something to do with the co-opting of Christianity by Empire, and the primary image of God moving from Jesus’ metaphor of “Father” to something more like Caesar.  Certainly literal interpretations of Matthew 25 influenced things.

“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 the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,…  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by 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 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.’”[4]  And, the passage goes on to also talk about eternal punishment.

The tough part comes when we realizes that we are all goats, that we have all failed to notice Jesus in his distressing disguise, at least some of the time.  What hope do we have?

Our hope, I think is two-fold.  First, we don’t always miss Jesus, so we’re not just goats – we’re good goats.  Second, God’s judgment isn’t punitive.  God’s judgment is restorative.

Brian McLaren says that “in biblical times, good judges did more than condemn or punish.  They worked to set things right, to restore balance, harmony, and well-being.  Their justice was restorative, not just punitive.  The final goal of judgment was to curtail or convert all that was evil so that good would be free to fun wild.”[5]  And he says that this is God’s form of judgment, too – a judgment that sets things right.

This sense of God’s judgment undergirds Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous hope, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[6]  This is actually a paraphrase of comment by the early 19th century transcendentalist Theodore Parker predicting the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause:  “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[7]

As a Christian, my hope is that all in me that has not yet been put right in my lifetime will be put right by God in the life to come.  I do not see it being put right by the torture of hellfire and brimstone.  Yes, I now there have been plenty of Christian preachers who warn of tortures to come if we don’t find holiness in this life, but I don’t think that’s how God works.  In fact, I think that’s a misinterpretation of God’s use of fire in judgment.

In the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the image of fire as the tool God uses to burn away shoddy construction.  The foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ, he says, and it’s up to us to build on that foundation.  We can use quality items to build our lives, or we can use substandard items.  God’s judgment will burn away the substandard items, saving only us and that from our lives that is good

McLaren expands on this metaphor:  “So if some of us have constructed our lives like a shoddy builder, using worthless building materials, there won’t be much of our life’s story left.  We will experience the purification of judgment as loss, regret, remorse.  We thought we were pretty smart, powerful, superior, or successful, but the purifying fire will surprise us with the bitter truth.  In contrast, others of us who thought ourselves nothing special will be surprised in a positive way.  Thousands of deeds of kindness that we had long forgotten will have been remembered by God, and we will feel the reward of God saying, ‘Welcome into my joy!’”[8]

As wonderful as this hope is, you all know that I think how faith is lived now in this life is more important than the hope faith provides for the next life.  This fire, God’s fire of restorative judgment, can also work in our lives now.  When we open ourselves to the flames of the Spirit of holiness now, the shoddy building materials can be burnt away now.

Sometimes, I think this refining fire comes in the form of trials and difficulties.  We all experience them, and sometimes they can feel like a punishment for some wrongdoing.  But that’s not what they are.  They are consequences of the choices we and others make.  Some of these experiences, let’s be clear, can be horrendous.  When someone suffers child abuse or spousal abuse, that is the consequence of choices someone else has made.  It is certainly not a punishment from God and it is not the victim’s fault.  And I don’t know if the Holy Spirit would ever use such experiences to draw us deeper into holiness.  I suspect, more likely, that the Spirit simply wants to heal the wounds – physical, emotional, and spiritual – that abuse causes.

But other trials and difficulties – those the Spirit of Holiness will use, if we allow it, as a refining fire to burn away the dross in our lives.  “So, … delay is like a fire that burns away our impatience.  Annoyances are like flames that burn away our selfishness.  The demands of duty are like degrees of heat that burn away our laziness.  The unkind words and deeds of others are like a furnace in which our character is tempered, until we learn to bless, not curse, in response.”[9]

Here’s the thing.  “If we believe in judgment – in God’s great ‘setting things right,’ we won’t live in fear.  We’ll keep standing strong with a steadfast, immovable determination, and we’ll keep excelling in God’s good work in our world.  If we believe the universe moves toward purification, justice, and peace, we’ll keep seeking to be pure, just, and peaceable now.  If we believe God is pure light and goodness, we’ll keep moving toward the light each day in this life.”[10]

restorative justice 2You’ve probably seen the first two frames of this cartoon before.  The left frame is typically labeled “Equality”; the middle is labeled either “Equity” or “Justice.”  Take a look at this version that adds a third frame.[11]  In the left frame, it is assumed that everyone will benefit from the same supports, but, obviously, they don’t.  In the middle frame, each person is given different supports to make it possible for all of them to see the game.  In the right frame, all three can see the game, not because of supports, but because the systemic barrier that caused the inequality in the first place has been removed.  This is what restorative justice looks like.

This is what the Spirit of Holiness does in our lives – our lives as individuals and our life together as community – when its refining fires burn away the straw and the dross.  Opening ourselves to the Spirit of Holiness that sets things right again typically means opening ourselves to some painful experiences.  The restorative fires of God’s judgment can be painful.  “Like a mother in childbirth, groaning with pain and anticipation, the Spirit groans within us.  She will not rest until all is made whole, and all is made holey, and all is made well.”[12]

Now, as we move into a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scriptures that captured your attention; or
… a time when what seemed impossible became possible and then actual for you; or
… the idea that life’s troubles are like a refining or purifying fire; or
… the image of a refiner’s fire. As you picture that image of heat and purification, ask yourself what areas of your life are being purified these days. Hold these areas up to God.

[1] “World Prison Populations,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm (probably posted in 2011; accessed 30 July 2016).  See also http://www.idcr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/WPPL-9-22.pdf

[2] Learn more about restorative justice at websites like http://restorativejustice.org and http://rjoyoakland.org/restorative-justice/.

[3]The Last Judgment (Michelangelo),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Judgment_(Michelangelo) (accessed 30 July 2016).

[4] Matthew 25:31-32, 34-36, NRSV.

[5] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 49. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” a speech given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967.

[7] “Theodore Parker,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Parker (accessed 30 July 2016).

[8] McLaren, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The cartoon is taken from “Equity and Inclusion Lens Handbook,” a Resource for Community Agencies created (as best I can tell) by the City for All Women Initiative of Ottawa, Canada, 2015. It can be found at http://www.cawi-ivtf.org/sites/default/files/publications/ei_lens_community-agencies-jan-2016-en-print.pdf (accessed 30 July 2016).

[12] McLaren, op. cit.

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