Standing Up for Where You’re Wrong
This gospel is always one of the hardest to deal with in a sermon for me, because it convicts me so deeply.
Jesus sets forth a very clear and simple standard for our lives as disciples, and I know how badly I’m failing at it.
Am I feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger every day?
Maybe if I stretch the interpretation and say that I’m feeding the spiritually hungry, I can give myself some cover.
But honestly, I’m a fundamentalist and a literalist about these types of texts, and I know the truth about my life.
Jesus in the gospels virtually never tells us what to believe.
He tells us what to do.
And what he tells us to do over and over again is to care for and empower the poor, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable in our society.
I fear that I’m not really doing that, at least not in any way that requires much sacrifice or initiative from me, and I doubt I’m alone in this room in that cringing realization.
Reading a text like this honestly, and facing up to the fact that we’re not doing what Jesus has asked of us—that is a painful, frustrating, guilty and helpless state of mind.
We call that state of mind “being convicted.”
It hurts so much that I started to ask: what is the value or the function of this feeling of conviction in our spiritual lives?
What is Jesus trying to achieve by reminding us in such blunt terms that we’re not measuring up, aside from getting us to change our outer behavior and going out to help someone (which of course is a valuable result)?
It’s interesting, because in most contexts, “standing up for your convictions” means telling the world you’re right and you’ll defend your rightness to the death.
But in the spiritual life, “standing up for your convictions” means being honest and open with God and the world about the places where you know you aren’t following God’s commandments and can’t seem to change that fact.
It’s standing up for where you’re wrong, rather than standing up for where you’re right.
There is a certain loneliness to the feeling of conviction, because it often means realizing that there are other people who seem to be abiding in God’s will much more readily and easily than we are.
Of course, the reality is that each of us has strengths and weaknesses in the spiritual life, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Many people who serve the poor with generosity and faithfulness day in and day out feel inadequate about their prayer lives or their worship attendance.
Many people who never miss a Sunday service and diligently build and maintain their prayer lives admit in their heart of hearts that they’re not really helping people in the real world as they should. *raises hand sheepishly*
Most of us realize that dominative power will only get you so far. You can get other people to obey you out of fear and intimidation, but that obedience is only coming from compulsion.
People will go the extra mile for someone they love, not someone they fear.
The same is true for us internally. Very few of us make lasting changes in our lives by beating ourselves up and hating ourselves, although most of us give it a jolly good try.
Real transformation comes from love.
So we’re back to asking ourselves the meaning of this text.
We know we behave like the goats most of the time, which means, according to this passage, we’re headed for the outer darkness.
Jesus had to know that fear wasn’t the way to get us to change, so why did he preach this way?
Well, let’s consider something.
Maybe we’re supposed to learn something about faith from this text.
Maybe our very response to Jesus’ words in this passage tell us something about the depth of our faith.
If we know Jesus–if we have studied him, prayed with him, walked with him, trusted him with our inmost hearts–we do not fear him, and we cannot imagine fearing him.
So we know as we read this text that there is no way he can be intending to frighten us into serving those in need.
So the question becomes: what is the relationship between the feeling of conviction and our faith in Jesus?
Jesus actually creates a fundamental question in our hearts here that gets to the core of our spiritual lives: when we confront the reality of our sin and apathy, do we still believe that Jesus loves us wholeheartedly and completely?
If we read this text with fear, the answer is no.
If we read this text as an invitation, the answer is yes.
The feeling of conviction is not meant to drive us into shame and dread of a punishing afterlife.
The feeling of conviction is the still, small voice picking up a bullhorn and shouting, “There is more! There is more to the life of transformation than you realize and you’re missing it! So get out there and do something you’re afraid of!”
Because that’s why we don’t serve the poor and vulnerable, isn’t it? Because of fear.
We’re afraid of awkward encounters with people experiencing homelessness, or afraid if we give food and money and clothing we won’t have enough for ourselves, or afraid if we dedicated serious time to a prison visitation ministry or a food pantry, we’ll run out of time and our already overloaded schedules will explode.
So we are trapped between two fears.
We are trapped between a fear of scarcity and a fear of the other that keeps us from serving and giving, and a fear of condemnation from God for not serving and giving.
That is no way to live, and it is not what Jesus imagined when he said, “I came that you might have life, and life abundant.”
Living trapped between two fears reveals the deeper poverty within that Jesus has been trying to point out all along: we are desperately poor in faith.
In our fear of scarcity, our fear of the other, and our fear of condemnation, we are telling God in three different ways that we do not trust God to take care of us.
That is the purpose of the feeing of conviction—to awaken us to the reality that when Jesus said, “Oh, you of little faith,” he was talking to us.
But here is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We have just realized that we are wretchedly poor in faith in God.
But who does Jesus love more than anyone else?
Who does Jesus lift up in the gospels more than anyone else?
Who does Jesus command us to care for more than anyone else?
Our poverty of faith places us in as deep a need of the transforming love and care of Christ as any of our brothers and sisters who bear the crushing burden of material poverty, but many of whom have riches of faith that we struggle to comprehend.
Alleviating material poverty and economic injustice is a bedrock obligation of any member of the human race, Christian or not, and no matter what is happening in our spiritual lives, that will always be the immediate and uppermost ethical responsibility we have.
But as we all know, when that work takes place out of fear, duty, and self-righteousness, it does not bear fruit for the Kingdom.
We have to bring together faith and conviction and see them, through the power of God’s love, explode into gospel energy that makes a real difference for those in need.
We have to bring our spiritual poverty before God with honesty and trust, knowing that God cherishes us there and wants only to lead us gently forward, step by step, in love, until our fears gradually fade away.
Then the service and care and solidarity with the poor, the naked, and the stranger just happens, not from our own self-will or decision, but from God acting through us.
It is only when we realize how empty and poor we are that we create space for the Holy Spirit to fill and shine forth through us with truth and action.
I so long for the day when I surrender enough to grace to truly serve the vulnerable with integrity and joy.
I know my longing is matched only by God’s longing to fill and overflow my life with God’s unending love.
And so among my many fears, I am not afraid to stand up for my convictions. I am not afraid to stand up and tell the world where I am wrong, because I know God loves me there more than anywhere else.
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