The words, "hell," "fire," "damnation," and "judgment" do not normally fill the pages of my sermon manuscripts. The pages from which I preach most often are filled with words like "love," "grace," "forgiveness," and "serve." I do not like the subject of judgment. I do not enjoy hearing preachers preach about how God really feels about us. Yet, when preparing a sermon series on "theology 101," I knew that I could not escape the subject of judgment, just as I cannot escape God's judgment.
On Sunday morning, I tuned my radio to a Christian station as I traveled the two miles to the church. The radio preacher was preaching on judgment. He had lots of images of hell to share with his listeners. The glimpses of his sermon were nothing like the one I was about to preach, however. His sermon was all about choosing Christ. He led me to believe that if I would simply allow Christ in my heart, then everything would be okay.
My sermon was based upon the passages found in Matthew 11:20-24, Jeremiah 26 and Romans 2. I also referred to the judgment scene found in Matthew 25. Jeremiah tells of a God who is filled with both love and wrath. Paul tries to make sense of judgment in Romans. And, in both Matthew passages, Jesus makes it clear that judgment has nothing to do with accepting him but all with how we serve him - how we serve him by what we do to the poor living all around us. Judgment has to do with whether or not we are putting God before everything else. And if we are putting God in first place, then we naturally will be doing the things of Christ - seeking the lowly who need to be exalted, giving the hungry something to eat, befriending the lonely, and forgiving those who have hurt or betrayed us, to name a few of the Christlike character traits.
On Sunday morning, I arrived at the church office extra early. I read my sermon a few more times and then led our new member class (we have 14 people in the class - thanks be to God - but that is an entirely different story), and then looked at the clock. I had less than ten minutes to grab everything and get across the street to our temporary worship site. I was in a rush. I normally like to be there at least 20 minutes early. Time was ticking. I walked out the door with several of our prospective new members, crossed the street, and encountered another person coming to church. I stopped to hug her and then approached the doors of the National Music Center where we are currently worshipping. Right there in front of my eyes was a man who clearly needed some help. He was babbling as though he had consumed too much strong drink or was mentally ill. He was reaching out his hand to those who were entering, and I was taken back by it all. Truth be told, I was a little annoyed that this person was nearly blocking the doors to our church. I did not speak to him. In fact, I walked inside and asked a member of the Trustees if we should ask him to leave - if we should move him over instead of inviting him in! (I am even more ashamed of my actions as I write this post.)
Again, I was about to preach on judgment. I was about to preach a sermon in which I would tell others and myself that we will be held accountable for what we do to the least of these around us. And, I failed the test miserably before worship even began. I failed the test when I passed by this man, failing to even look him in the eye and say "good morning." I failed the test because I was so concerned about what others would think of this person. "Will he scare people away?" I thought. "Will people still come if they have to walk so close to him?"
Oh God, forgive me. Forgive me for not practicing what you teach and what I preach. Slow me down, Lord. Help me to see what is really important. Give me the courage and the wisdom to be like you. Help me, Lord. Forgive me, Lord. Create in my a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.
There is a passage in scripture that is similar to the one I have described. A beggar sits outside the gates of the temple all day long. People pass him on the way inside the temple - on the way to worship God. They pass him on the way to worship a God who yearns for them to love God and love their neighbor as themselves. Still, no one stops.
A significant part of my vision for Mount Vernon Place UMC is that we will be a people who exist for others. We will be people who are inwardly growing in our faith and who are constantly looking outside our doors to see who we can clothe, feed, befriend, house, forgive, and welcome. I long for us to be a prophetic church. I long for us to be a community of individuals who look and act like Jesus - who stop and say "good morning" to the person sitting outside and welcome them all in - regardless of what they have done, how they are dressed, what they are saying, or how 'different' they appear. This kind of community is one that I visualize often.
I only pray that the leader of this congregation, the pastor, has the wisdom to lead the way - to practice what she preaches.