Monday, March 12, 2012

Exams, Hazing, Judgment, and Grace - Richard R. Crocker

Exams, Hazing, Judgment, and Grace
Richard R. Crocker, College Chaplain
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
March 11, 2012
Matthew 25:31-46

This is the season for exams. Some of you are in the midst of them. Contrary to what you may hope, however, exams never end. They keep happening to us throughout our life, even if only in our dreams.

All of you have had the dream, I expect, where you realize you have to go to a class to take an exam – only you have never been to the class all term and you are totally unprepared? It is a common dream. Exams are a kind of judgment: they determine whether we have learned what we were intended, or expected, to learn.

Some Christians seem to believe that life is a pass/fail exam, where the only question is “Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” The correct answer means you go to heaven; the incorrect answer means you go to hell.

Other Christians have an equally simplistic view: in their belief, there is no judgment, only universal acceptance. All is forgiven. Everybody passes, no matter what. They call this grace. While both perspectives have many adherents, neither one is supported by the scripture passage that we have just read, where, Jesus himself describes the judgment which awaits us all.

The scripture passage is one with which I expect and hope all of you are already familiar. It is a vision that uses the language of metaphor and parable to describe the ultimate test, the ultimate exam.
Christ himself is the judge, and all nations, all people, are assembled before him. He separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are those who, not seeing Jesus, have nonetheless lived lives of compassion – giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty; who have welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, and visited those in prison. They did not do this out of fear of judgment; they did it because they understood, at a very deep level, their common humanity, and they understood, even without perhaps verbalizing it, the compassion of Christ. These are the people whom Jesus says, when they showed compassion to the very least person, showed compassion to him, and they will inherit the kingdom prepared for them. On the other hand are those who did not practice compassion, who passed by the hungry, thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned without a thought, absorbed, we assume, in themselves, and perhaps seeing themselves as somehow separated from common humanity. By failing to respond in compassion, they not only failed the individuals they ignored, but they failed to minister to Christ himself, who identified himself with needy humanity. These people who have lived without compassion enter into eternal punishment.

Now, if we take this passage seriously, it is very worrisome, because most of us are in the second category. Maybe all of us. It is much easier to say “I accept Jesus as my savior” and to continue a selfish life than it is to live a life of compassion. Despite occasional acts of compassion and charity, we are largely oblivious to the needs of the world; protected as we are by the affluence of our surroundings, we live carelessly. So perhaps the passage is after all a warning that, through our actions, we all deserve to go to hell. But I think not. Rather, I think it is intended as a lesson about what is truly important in life – important for us to learn, to understand and to do. It is a description of the final exam that we all will face – an exam which does not depend upon what we say about our faith, but upon what our faith makes us see and understand and do.

In this passage, the reality of judgment cannot be ignored. But the criterion for judgment is not our words, but something so basic in our way of responding to the world that we are totally unaware of it – a love that grows in us unaware.

We would all like to think that there is no judgment - that whatever awaits us in the final balance of our lives is just praise and acceptance – not judgment. Some scholars credit Jesus with the first part of this parable, but the church with the second part. I think they are wrong. Jesus talks about judgment a lot. It is inescapable. But when Jesus talks about judgment, it is a form of grace.

Grace. You say? He is talking about people going to hell. How is that grace?

Well now I am going to move into even more controversial territory. So far I have mentioned exams, judgment, and grace. But what about hazing? Just this: I understand that the supposed purpose of hazing is education.. Hazing, as it has been done for many years in many organizations and in many cultures, in a way of initiation that begins by making people realize what they do not know by going through a experience that tests them. Thus, in some cultures, young men and women are subjected to harrowing tests of initiation before they become recognized as adults. And, at Dartmouth, organizations perpetuate these archaic impulses, sometimes in harmless ways, sometimes in harmful ways.
This is not necessarily good. I am not arguing that it is good. I am simply saying that it is a kind of archaic way of preparing people for their role in a society or an organization, of teaching what is required and expected. After the hazing comes the acceptance, the gracious reception. That is the theory anyway.

A certain amount of pain – of facing our own inadequacy - seems, to many people, necessary for learning, enlightenment, or for grace.

Jesus did not come to bring us undemanding acceptance. Yes, his message is God’s love for us, but this gracious love includes judgment. Just as no one of us would think much of an exam where everybody passed, no matter what – no matter how careless they had been, so we cannot learn compassion without suffering. This is what Calvinists (and others) have meant when they tell us that even our sufferings are potentially instruments of God’s grace.

Now we have to be careful with this because it can easily be distorted. Love is never the same as hatred. Grace is never the same as cruelty. But growth inevitably involves failure, and if we never become aware of our failures, if we are constantly affirmed even for our errors, stupidities, and, cruelty and careless acts, we never learn what it is to be a compassionate person.

I believe, as Kurt has told us, and as Kip has told us, that the ultimate message that God has spoken to all creation is love. But that love is demanding – in the same way that life is demanding. What about hell? Hell is facing ourselves and seeing how our obliviousness and our actions have hurt other people. We need to know this. It is judgment. Judgment comes to us in all sorts of ways. It may come by failing an exam, by losing a relationship, going through an illness. We must face judgment before we can understand grace.

Hell can be a cruel doctrine, and it is true that the church has seemed wickedly enchanted with it. Hell shows what we deserve. Grace is knowing what we deserve – knowing it, yet experiencing a loving acceptance that forgives us – does not excuse us, does not paper over, does not deny the ways in which we have hurt ourselves and others, but that nonetheless forgives us. This is why this parable must be complemented by other parables of Jesus, such as the parable of the prodigal son, who runs away from home, wastes all his substance, sinks into depravity, yet who, in complete disgust with himself, returns home, expecting his father’s righteous anger, only to find the father awaiting him, with open arms. This is the basis of our hope. This is the picture of grace. This is the vision that makes us both ashamed and redeemed. In the words of the hymn: “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Amen.

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