Every single one of us

Have you watched Cosmos with Neill deGrasse Tyson? It’s a great piece of science education, paying homage to the late Carl Sagan; television worth watching. Thanks to Netflix, I watched a couple of episodes last week, and again I was moved by the beautiful imagery depicting the physical cosmos from the molecular and even subatomic level to the mathematical imaginations of a multiverse. Again I was moved by the visions of Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Dominican monk who saw, long before there were telescopes, the vastness of creation beyond earth and sky. He was convinced that there had to be more than one sun in the universe and many more planets that may also be home to life. He told us that our God is too small if we can’t allow our imagination to enter the unknown, and he was burned at the stake for undermining the power of the church.

I listened to Neill Tyson, and again I tried to comprehend the vastness of 13.8 billion years of spacetime; if the history of the universe were compressed into one calendar year, our sun was formed at the end of August and just about all of known human history happened in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31. It’s mindblowing and awesome; creation is so immense and we are so small. There’s a place in Washington, D.C. that’s built to human scale; there you can walk the universe from the beginning of time to its end. Perched on a hill above the town, it is like something out of a dream, a place of grandeur and great beauty. I’m talking about National Cathedral. It’s only stone and light, yett the visual effects are nonetheless stunning. Entering the cathedral is like entering the mystery of life itself. Above the front entrance is a dramatic depiction of the creation of humankind, carved in bright lime stone, human bodies emerging from whirling, swirling textures fluid as water. Stepping across the threshold you find yourself immersed in light filtering through magnificent stained glass windows, in a place filled only with hushed whispers. The tall pillars envelop sacred silence, interrupted only by the proclamation of God’s word and the worship of God’s people.

As you make your way to the altar on the opposite end of the sanctuary, you journey through human history, past the monuments of faith and of the saints, past memorials to achievements in science and art, and past testimonials to what we honor as good, true, and beautiful. At the end of your walk down the nave you arrive before the finely carved high altar: Jesus sits on the throne of his glory at the end of time, surrounded by the whole company of heaven, balancing the earth like a ball on the palm of his hand, his other hand raised in blessing. This is Christ preparing to speak the final word on all things come into being from the foundation of the world to its fulfillment. In the cathedral even the most casual tourist moves through all of history from the beginning of time to the end, to stand before the One who will sort out everything that has happened in between.

“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Life, of course, is not for tourists who take a picture, turn around, and head out to the next sight on their city tour. Our journey through the grand cathedral of time does come to an end, and we stand before the throne of glory, naked and empty-handed, and Jesus speaks.

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

The ancient and medieval imagery of shepherd and king, of cathedral and throne may seem dated to some of us, but the testimony of the gospel is not. When all things come to an end, the final word about your life is not spoken by yourself, or by those who remember you, or by your enemies, but by Jesus, the crucified Son of God, risen in glory. Your life may seem infinitesimally small in the vastness of spacetime and among billions of human beings, but in the eyes of the judge it deserves to be recognized and weighed.

And the judge is none other than Jesus whom we judged, sentenced, and executed. The judge is the Son of God who walks barefoot with the poor and declares them blessed, who sleeps among those who have no place to lay their head, who knows betrayal and torture and death row without parole. The judge is the Least of These: rejected and ridiculed, spat upon, sneered and yelled at, beaten, abandoned, killed and forgotten. The judge is the Least of These, raised by the power of God.

The criteria of his judgment – a surprise until you find yourself in this story – the criteria are not the sincerity of your confession, or the orthodoxy of your doctrine, or your knowledge, your wisdom, your wealth or fame, but the mercy of your actions. You can make a name for yourself in a million ways, but the truth that abides when all things come to an end, the truth is divine mercy embodied by ordinary humans. We would not know had he not told us that we are looking into the eyes of Christ when we look into the eyes of the brother or sister who needs something to eat or a place to spend the night. The truth may get lost in the grandeur of the cathedral and the vastness of spacetime and the far-from-spectacular busyness of our days, but it remains true until the end of time: the judgment is not the crowning of the top athletes of piety, but the revelation of the ultimate importance of the ordinary, everyday actions of ordinary, everyday people. Hungry and thirsty, ailing, lonely, unsheltered, unwelcome, weighed down, excluded, abandoned – every one of these words describes a situation of need and waiting. And mercy is the answer. The need for mercy calls forth deeds of mercy, and the Lord is present in both the need and in the kindness that meets it. That is all that matters in the end, says Jesus: Ordinary, everyday people and all the ways they embody mercy in ordinary, everyday actions; it’s lovely in its simplicity.

But something bothers me about this story. Doesn’t it suggest that we are saved by what we do and damned by what we don’t do? Doesn’t it suggest that Jesus didn’t come to save us but to teach us how to save ourselves? And what about those of us who need to know the details: how many deeds of mercy does it take to tip the judge’s balance toward the sheeps’ side? Or how many times can I drop the mercy ball without losing my place on the team of eternal life? What’s the hope for those of us who worry about the details?

Mary Gauthier pleads in one of her great songs,

My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it’s almost more than living will allow
I love my bother, he could use some mercy now.[1]

What about those of us whose need for mercy will always outweigh our capacity for mercy, because we’re strangers to freedom, strangers to life’s wondrous depth, love?

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,

“On the one hand it is true that it makes a difference whether [humans] are good or evil, loving or selfish, honest or dishonest. It makes a real difference, that is, an ultimate difference in the sight of God. On the other hand it makes no difference. No life can justify itself ultimately in the sight of God. The evil and the good, and even the more and the less good are equally in need of the mercy of God. (…) Love is both the fulfilment and the negation of law. Forgiveness is the highest justice and the end of justice.” [2]

We are all equally in need of the mercy of God. In more ways than we can name or imagine, every single one of us belongs to the least of these who have nothing but mercy going for them. Knowing that and knowing it in our bones is the key to faith without fear. The one who comes to judge us is the one who has come to redeem us, to free us from sin, guilt, shame, fear and every shackle that keeps us from living in the glorious freedom of the children of God. The one who comes looking for mercy among us is the one who was and is and forever will be the very mercy of God. Worry and fear will not free us from anxious self-observation; worry and fear will not free us for a life of loving service to others, only faith will – only trust in God’s unending love for us.

Each human life is a magnificent journey in time and a short verse in the glorious song of creation, from God’s first to the final word. Each human life participates in the one life of God, and that is why we cannot live as solitary travelers seeking fullness in individual fulfillment. The fullness of eternal life is given shape by God’s loving attention to our needs and by our loving attention to the needs of others. Thanks be to God whose mercy endures forever.


[1] Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now, 2005

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 1937; quote from http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=436&C=335