November 12, 2023
Dadgie and I used to watch Colombo. Those episodes were great. You always knew “whodunit” from the very beginning. The thrill was in seeing how the rumpled detective managed to figure it out, and seeing the perpetrator get his due at the end of the story. With a wrinkled forehead and the hint of a wry smile, Colombo rendered his judgment. It always came at the end. Our forebears in the faith told us that judgment is what happens at the end – after you die. It’s the final verdict on your life.
But in the New Testament the Greek word for judgment is krisis. This word krisis does not necessarily mean the end, or what happens when the “Great Detective in the Sky” finally figures it out and nails you; it’s about separation. A krisis is a point of division between good and evil, between carelessness and justice, between “back then” and “from now on”. It’s obviously the etymological source of our English word crisis. And our word carries the same sense of a division. A crisis as what happens when a life takes a major turn in the road.
Our gospel story this morning is about ten bridesmaids who were getting ready for a wedding. I’ve done a lot of weddings, but I don’t think I’ve ever done one with ten bridesmaids – must have been a pretty big deal wedding. But for such a grand affair, they don’t seem to have planned very well. All these girls are sent out to wait for the bridegroom who must have gotten so caught up in his bachelor’s party that he lost track of the time, or had to sleep off the booze, or something. So the girls are sitting up all night waiting for this guy to show – already you can tell this affair is off to a clumsy start. Well, you know the story. When the groom finally appears (about midnight) five of the girls’ lamps had gone out and they were off trying to buy more oil. But the bridegroom is a hard man. When the girls finally show up he renders his judgment and doesn’t let them into the wedding feast. Jesus calls those five “foolish” because they weren’t prepared.
This is a story about judgment – the judgment that proceeds from a moment of crisis. And, ironically enough in our twenty-first century, it’s a story about oil. The foolish five brought on the crisis of judgment because they hadn’t considered the possibility of running out of oil.
We may be very close to midnight – to that critical point where humanity starts running out of oil, but maybe not. It could be twenty five or thirty years off. So, many of our industrialists tells us to relax. There’s plenty of time. As soon as the bridegroom shows up we’ll all have a party. What could possibly go wrong? That opinion notwithstanding, you and I know that an awful lot is going wrong, and there’s more to come. We don’t have twenty-five years to stop burning fossil fuels and avert global chaos. We are already seeing climate change impacts on our weather, on coastal communities, on food and water resources, and global conflicts. And the changes in our climate are absolutely connected to the hundreds of billions of metric tons of carbon we have been spewing into the atmosphere. There is no longer any serious debate about this. Ninety seven percent of the world’s geophysicists, meteorologists, geologist, and other climatologists agree that global warming is happening and that human activity is the major cause. “But why should we worry? The party is going to start any minute now and we’ve got plenty of oil for our lamps.” That attitude is holding more sway in the marketplace and the halls of Congress than is sustainable. Humanity in our time will face the bridesmaids’ judgment: whether we planned ahead and were prepared to deal with the looming oil crisis or were more interested in having a party.
Judgment is not the scorecard tally that confronts us at the pearly gates, judgment is the natural result of the decisions we make. This is the kind of Judgment that Jesus spoke of so often in the Gospels. He consistently set before his disciples, his listeners, and us the importance of any moment of krisis – any turning point in our lives that hinges on a decision to give one’s self to greed, narrow self-interest, and carelessness, or to live for love, and grace, and abundant life.But you and I are frequently unprepared for that krisis. Speaking about Jesus’s imagery in these closing pages of Matthew’s Gospel, Richard Lischer, the Duke University scholar and writer, says that “the crisis comes like a thief in the night, when you are sleeping. The thief pries open a window and climbs in. Like that. Judgment comes when you least expect it.” The Prophet Amos said, “[It’s] as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” This is not only true for warring peoples caught in the grip of bloodlust, and legislatures dealing with a fossil fuels crisis, it is true in your life and in mine.
Most of us can recall moments in our lives when the check came for all that we had put on our plate, so to speak. Sometimes those moments come in dramatic shocks. That was the case for a young seminarian named Wes Seegler. He had been assigned to write a personal statement of faith, drawing on all he had learned in three years of theological education. He had completed a lengthy section of the paper displaying his knowledge of standard theological categories and theses. Pleased with himself and his excellent work, he took a stroll across campus before diving into the second section of his treatise. He writes about his trip back to the room where he had been writing: “Humming the ‘Triumphal March’ from Aida, I strode confidently over the sidewalk leading to the class building. Near the sidewalk was a small tree. Suddenly, a mother mockingbird flew off her nest to challenge me. It was the biggest damn mockingbird I’d ever seen, and she dived at my head like a Kamikaze. Zoom. I ducked. Zoom, another pass. Zoom. Zoom.
“I backed away from the tree. She perched in the top and glared at me. I glared back. I decided to try again. She took to the air and thrashed around over my head. Again I backed off. The situation called for strategy. What would Kierkegaard do?
“The solution was simple. I would walk all the way around the chapel. This way, I would avoid the enraged bag of feathers. No, that would be defeat. I became angry. How dare a bird defy a man soon to be an ordained priest in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church!
“I prepared for war. Texas state bird or no, my adversary was going to get clobbered with Tillich’s Systematic Theology, Vol. II. I advanced. Vol. II was cocked like a baseball bat. She flew way up in the air. “Ah, she’s retreating,” I thought. Then she plummeted. My God! She’s going to dive on me from two hundred yards! I ducked behind a hedge. So much for open warfare.
“Alas, there was only one thing to do – capitulate and walk around the chapel. Grudgingly I began my journey. A seminarian who had just written a brilliant summary of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” had been backed down by a damn mockingbird. I was a broken man.”
Seegler goes on to acknowledge how the judgment of the mockingbird softened and humbled him, and actually made his paper a bit more genuine and heartfelt. He added, “Christian symbolism depicts the Holy Spirit as a bird coming down out of heaven. The gospels say it was a dove. I wonder.”
Seegler’s story is fun, but it’s also telling. If, as John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” then judgment is what happens to you while you’re busy getting carried away with yourself.
Here’s the good news: falling under the judgment of the Almighty does not mean some final score on a pass/fail test. Judgment happens all the time. It erupts out of the crisis that flies down on us seemingly out of nowhere. But it is not out of nowhere; it is intimately connected to our histories. It is the logical result of the choices and decisions we make. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore. For you know neither the day nor the hour.” It’s another way of saying: Think, therefore. Consider, therefore. You may not know what you think you know. You may not really know what you are doing. Sound advice for peoples and nations. . . for you, and for me.
Every decision we make marks a turning point, an opportunity to take another path, sing a different tune. And whether that path is lobbying, voting, and networking to press for the care of all creation and sensible energy policies, or simply a decision to soften up a little and find a gentler, more humble self, none of us is alone in the task. That’s the beautiful thing. When we seize the opportunity that rides on the heels of judgment we can seize also one another’s hands. The very strength of the Spirit is alive in our combined efforts, and grace, as the hymn says, will lead us home. Let’s sing it together.