This sermon was delivered on Sunday, March 3, 2019 — Judgment Sunday (Matthew 25:31-46)
A couple of years ago, a young woman I know shared a photo on Instagram of a book that she was reading during Lent. In her post, she described how the book had fed her soul, not unlike how a meal might feed the body. She encouraged whoever might see her post to read that book. As one would expect, a number of people ‘liked’ the post over the next couple of days. Eventually, she posted a new photo. Then, another one. And, after that, another one. With time, the post about the book was buried and all but forgotten.
Last week, I received a message from this same young woman, who is a friend of mine. She was sharing, in turn, a message she had just received out of the blue, one that moved her deeply. It was from a young man—a total stranger—who explained how he had encountered her post back when she had first published it. He tracked down the book she recommended and he read it. He thanked her, because the book introduced him to Orthodox Christian monasticism and contemporary saints.
This was a kind note that expressed sincere gratitude for having been introduced to something that enriched his life. However, it was the next line of his message that had landed in my friend’s heart with such force, because he went on to explain, and I quote: “I plan on becoming a monk soon, and this book that I read because of your post has been one of the main reasons I decided to become a monk. Glory to God for all things.”
Now, perhaps this story might resonate with some of you. Maybe you’ve learned days or weeks or months or years after the fact that something small you said or did had a huge impact for the better in someone’s life. On the other hand, perhaps some of us have also had the experience wherein something small and seemingly insignificant we did had the exact opposite effect, producing a negative result for someone that we only learned about years later. In either case—positive or negative—even if you haven’t had this experience of learning of your impact on someone else, it doesn’t mean that you have not had one.
The short story I shared with you struck me as a providential example of what we will experience in the final Judgment. You see, when my friend received that message, she was caught by surprise. Her relatively insignificant social media post resulted in a grand turn of events in someone’s life.
Is this not unlike the response of the righteous in the Judgment, as Christ says? They are confronted with the good things they did to the Lord, and they respond, “Lord, when did we see you?” Can you imagine my friend, had she not learned of this by instant message, but had only learned of it in the Judgment? “What? I helped someone decide to dedicate his life to God…because of some Instagram post I made?” Can you imagine the joy in surprise and bewilderment, learning that this was something that might allow the Son of Man to say, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom…”?
But now imagine that my friend had posted something salacious. Something negative. Something critical. Something complaining. Something vindictive. Something enticing. Something manipulative. What might the surprise be waiting for her at the Judgment then? How many friendships might have been broken? How many temptations stoked? How many lies spread? How many people pushed that much farther away from God?
Is it not an utterly chilling thought, to consider how many of us will stand in judgment before God, battered by wave after wave of scathing realizations of the harm we have caused and spread? Imagine how we will shudder as the fog in our mind and soul is blown away by the force of his coming in glory, and the words of Scripture that were fed to us throughout our life begin to reappear clearly, shining like gold. And emblazoned in our conscience laid bare before God will be his own words: “I say to you that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt 12:36). Is it any wonder, brothers and sisters, that the saints have impressed upon us the importance of the one simple phrase: “Kyrie, eleison; Lord, have mercy”, and that we priests are constantly urging you to come for confession?
Now, as scary as that all might be, let’s collect ourselves again and remember that Jesus has shown us the way to successfully navigate this life. He has given us the answers; our life is like an open-book test. Christ didn’t come to save us so that he could later destroy us; he came to set us free, while respecting our freedom to choose. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. “Do these things to the least among you” says the Lord, “and you’re actually doing them to me”. You do good things to them, you do them to me; ignore them, you ignore me.
In other words, and to expand what he means here: in any relationship, Christ identifies himself with whoever is inferior, whoever is “least” in the relationship. And so to truly arrive at what Christ teaches here is not simply to try and tend to those who obviously meet the criteria of poverty and hunger and illness, but to become constantly aware of when we have something we can offer to the other. This could mean food. It could mean clothing. But it could also mean offering our attention. Listening. Not complaining. A hand with the chores. A compliment. A kind word. Compassion.
When we grasp this, when we can begin to see Christ in the other, our entire life becomes an epiphany of God, a constant theophany and revelation of Christ. Our behavior begins to align with our belief in and our experience of his love, and more and more of what we think and say and do is simply good. And when all that is coming from us is good and wrapped in Christ’s love, we will only be pleasantly surprised when Jesus Christ “come[s] again, to judge the living and the dead”.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus said that how we treat others in need is how we treat him. It’s that simple. May we be continually enlightened to this truth, and may the Lord bless and be merciful towards our efforts to live this way, with his help. I hope we are all standing together at the Lord’s glorious return, finding ourselves pleasantly surprised.