By Jason Micheli
Ash Wednesday Every Day – Romans 14.1-12
If you’re all caught up on Game of Thrones and Bachelorette in Paradise, and you’re looking for something new to watch, then I suggest you check out Stalker, a dark, dystopian science fiction film from the 1970’s. I discovered it on Netflix after I’d binge-watched all 7 seasons of Californication.
Stalker tells the allegory of 3 men who journey across a post-nuclear wasteland.
Shrouded in mystery, the character called Stalker guides two other characters, who are cryptically named Writer and Professor, across the burnt out remains of a devastated civilization. Stalker is leading them to an apocalyptic oasis called the Zone. Stalker has promised them that at the center of the Zone is a place called the Room.
In the Room, Stalker tells them, they will achieve their hearts’ desire. In the Room, their dreams will come true. In the Room, you will get exactly what you truly want.
Initially, it sounds like a promise worth a journey. Only, when they arrive at the threshold of the Room, Writer and Professor get cold feet. They’re overcome with second thoughts as the frightening thought occurs to them: What if we’re stranger to ourselves?
‘What if I don’t know what I want?’ Writer and Professor, in turn, ask Stalker.
‘Well,’ Stalker explains to them, ‘that’s for the Room to decide. The Room reveals you, it reveals all, everything about you: what you get is not what you think you wish for but what you most deeply wish for.”
At the edge of the Room, what had sounded like a dream starts to feel like a nightmare. Rather than escaping the ruins of God’s apocalyptic judgement, it feels like they’re about to enter into it.
Anticipation turns to dread as Writer and Professor both have an epiphany that terrifies them: What if they don’t want what they think want? In other words, what if they’re not who they think they are?
In a book about the film, critic Geoff Dyer says:
“Not many people can confront the truth about themselves. If they did, they’d take an immediate and profound dislike to the person in whose skin they’d learn to sit quite comfortably for years.”
Eventually, Writer and Professor run away, terrified at the prospect of standing before the Room and having their true selves laid bare.
Watching Stalker this dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s, you’d never close out Netflix, check it off on your queue, click off the clicker, and say to yourself That was a happy story.
You’d never leave a review on Rotten Tomatoes to evangelize strangers You’ve got to check out this story about the Room “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…”
You might say it’s a good story, a good flick, a good scare. But you’d never say it was good news.
So how is this passage next up in Paul’s queue, “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God,” how is this good news?
This sounds like bad news.
But the Apostle Paul left the bad news behind back in chapter 3.
Back when he said that “…all are under the Power of Sin…there is no one righteous; not one…all have turned aside and stand condemned.”
That was 11 chapters ago. The bad news was 11 chapters ago.
Since then, the Apostle Paul’s message has been Gospel- the good news that we are justified not by anything we do but by what Christ has done.
That what matters is not our faith (or lack thereof) but Christ’s faithfulness.
That what counts- what God reckons- is not our unrighteousness but Christ’s righteousness.
It has been good news for 11 chapters.
Paul’s apostolic announcement has been about freedom:
Freedom from the Law.
Freedom from having to do right.
Freedom from the burden of human performance.
For 11 chapters, it’s been the good news of our freedom:
Freedom from judgement because, Paul told us, “…while we were yet enemies of God, God in Christ died for the ungodly.”
Freedom from guilt because, Paul told us, “…Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; we are now justified by his grace as a gift.”
Freedom from condemnation because, Paul promised, “…There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
If nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus
If nothing we do can separate us from the love of God- nothing:
Not our participation in persecution or war
Not our habits that lead to hardship or distress
Not our apathy that enables nakedness and peril and famine
If nothing we do-
If nothing we turn a blind eye to-
Can separate us from God, in whom there is now no condemnation, then how is this good news: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God?”
I can tell you nothing tightens the sphincters of east coast mainliners quite like a verse such as this one: “We shall all stand before the judgement seat of God.”
Still, even if the verse doesn’t make you fret with holy fear or sweat with sudden self-awareness, even if this verse doesn’t bother you, you still have to square it with the 11 chapters that have come before.
You still have to square this “…everyone will come before the judgement seat of God” with what Paul said 4 chapters earlier that “…everyone who confesses with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord will be saved.”
Which is it? Everyone will be judged? Or everyone will be saved?
How does “…all will stand before the judgement seat of God…” square with chapter 11 where Paul said that all will be saved, that God will be merciful to all.
Which is it, Paul?
It can’t be both/and can it?
That everyone who confesses Jesus Christ will be saved and everyone will stand before the judgement seat of God?
How do we square it?
Because you have to do something with it.
You can’t just dismiss it as a throwaway verse because the Apostle Paul doubles down on it in verse 12: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…”
In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of God.”
And you can’t dismiss this verse about judgement because the Apostle Paul here sounds like Jesus everywhere- all over the Gospels, Jesus warns of the Coming Day of Judgement.
As in his final teaching before his Passion, Jesus promises that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, gathering all before him.
unbelievers and believers
unrighteous and righteous
the unbaptized and the born again
All- not some- all, Jesus says, will be gathered for judgement.
The “saved” are not spared.
And all will be reckoned according to who fed the hungry and who gave water to the thirsty and who clothed the naked and who welcomed the immigrant.
And who did not.
“All shall stand before God for judgement,” Paul says.
Just like Jesus said.
And according to Jesus’ Bible that reckoning will be a refining.
A refining fire, says the prophet Malachi, where our sinful self- even if we’re saved- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away.
The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.
The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed.
The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed.
The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God who is a refining fire.
Now, keep in mind- purgation is not damnation.
Purgation is not damnation.
But neither is it pain free. Neither is it pain free.
Again, how is this good news?
What’s Paul doing saying this here, in chapter 14?
Paul left the bad news behind, back at the beginning.
But the promise that you will stand before the judgement seat of Almighty God- stripped and laid bare, all your disguises and your deceits revealed, naked wearing nothing but your true character- admit it, it sounds awful.
It doesn’t sound at all like anything to which you’d say: ‘Amen! Me first.’
A couple of Fridays ago, my oldest son and I milled around Charlottesville. I went to college there and now we have a house nearby.
Alexander and I walked around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall and UVA’s Grounds just before the tiki-torch-bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda shouting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
We saw the empty Emancipation Park snaked with metal barricades and draped with police tape.
We saw homeless men looking dazed and curious about the stage craft and street theater setting up around them.
We saw the lonely-looking white men- boys- wearing white polos and khaki cargo pants, whose faces, illumined by flame and fury, we’d later recognize in the Washington Post.
We grabbed a coffee and a soda just off the side street where Heather Hoyer would be murdered the following day.
Meanwhile, some of my clergy colleagues were in an adjacent church training for non-violent protest, learning how to lock arms, how wash away tear gas, and how roll over to protect your liver when you’re being kicked or beaten.
There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville, most African American kids. I used to work there in their after school program, Monday through Friday, when I was an undergraduate.
Walking around the park with my son, I thought of Christopher Yates, the boy who had no father at home, whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion.
Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked like him.
Walking around that park on Friday with my son, who is not white and is growing into an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.
And I got angry- righteously angry- at those who would fill the park the next day.
“God damn them all,” I whispered, making sure my son could hear.
That Sunday I led the long pastoral prayer in my congregation.
And what I prayed…I prayed about them.
I prayed about them, those whose thoughts and actions betray allegiance to the gods of bigotry.
I prayed about them, those whose apathy and excuses and silence tolerate hate and harm.
“Bring your judgement to them, O God,” I prayed.
“Bring judgement to those who embrace terror, racism, and violence…” I beseeched.
Bring your judgement I begged.
Bring your judgement- upon them.
God damn them all.
It was a good prayer, I thought.
Not everyone agreed.
One man, whose mother I buried and whose kids I confirmed, fired off an email complaining about “the Stalinist regime of [my] ministry.”
“Please don’t use this event as an excuse to ram progressive orthodoxy down our throats. More religion and less politics!!!!!!! Please!!!!
At least he said the magic word.
I read his email and sighed and, under my breath, I said “Bless his heart,” which you might not know is a southern euphemism for “@#$% @#$”
Still another worshipper took me to task for my prayer that Sunday.
Frank is in his 80’s, a retired Old Testament Professor from Greenville College. He and his wife moved to my parish a few years ago to be near his daughter.
After the final Sunday service had finished and the crowd had petered away and the ushers were cleaning up the pews, Frank shuffled up to me.
He was hunched over as he always is, a knobby cane in one hand and a floppy bible in a carrying case in the other hand.
He stopped, I noticed, to face the altar wall and, with his cane in his hand, genuflected the sign of the cross, tracing it across his lips and then his chest.
Almost always Frank has nothing but unfettered praise for me, which makes him not only the President of the Jason Micheli Fan Club but it’s only member.
Almost always Frank has nothing but praise. Not this time.
Shaking my hand, he shook his head in a ‘there you go again’ kind of way.
And he said: “Well, Reverend, you certainly were bold to pray for judgement on them.”
I was already beaming.
Ignoring my self-satisfied smile, he added: “You just weren’t nearly bold enough.”
“Professor, I don’t know what you mean…”
He cut me off with a “Tssskkk….” sound between his teeth.
“You only prayed for them. You didn’t pray for our judgement.”
“But…” I started to protest, “I was there. We weren’t the ones with hoods or tiki-torches.”
“Everyone in this country is sick with judging- judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else,” he said, pointing his finger at me.
He raised his voice a little as well as his hunched-over posture: “As Christians, we’re supposed to put ourselves first under God’s judgement…”
“…Because we’re the only ones who know not to fear the Judge…” I completed his sentence for him.
He smiled and nodded, like I’d just passed his exam.
“Christians like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter, but, every day- every day is Ash Wednesday where we bear the judgement of God on behalf of a sinful world.”
He tapped his cane on the carpet and lifted up his bible by the straps as if to say: It’s all right here if you’d just read it.
And it is- all right here.
The Apostle Peter makes Paul’s same point when he writes in his letter that “Judgement begins with the household of God.”
The household to which Paul writes, the church in Rome, was divided against itself over issues of food and worship.
It reads in Romans like an obscure, arcane issue, but wipe the dust off their dispute and you discover it’s really the same debate you see spun out all over social media, on CNN and Fox News, and across the front page of your newspaper (if you still trust them enough to read them).
It was a debate over politics and identity.
It was an issue of ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’
The community in Paul’s Rome had split into factions, drawn lines, created competing tribes whose divisions had calloused and calcified into contempt.
Sweep the dust off this argument and you see that the community in Paul’s Rome was no different than the community in the Rome we call America.
Carnivores vs. Vegetarians.
It’s different in form but not in function from Democrats vs. Republicans.
Meat-Eaters vs. Non-Meat-Eaters – it’s the same dynamic as Black vs. White, Conservative vs. Progressive, Racist vs. Righteous.
Every time, in each instance- it’s like Pink Floyd said; it’s Us and Them.
And to them all, the Apostle Paul admonishes: “Do not judge…for we will all stand before the Judgement Seat of God.”
“Judgement begins with the household of God.”
Pay attention now-
Paul isn’t arguing (a la The Donald) that there are “many sides” to every issue. Paul isn’t asserting that every possible practice or perspective is permissible. Paul most certainly isn’t urging acceptance for acceptance’s sake or tolerance for tolerance’s sake.
No, when Paul implores the Christians in Rome not to cast judgment, he’s instead instructing them to bear it.
To bear judgement.
When Paul reminds them that we will all stand before the judgement seat of God, he’s not warning them of coming condemnation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Paul isn’t preaching fire and brimstone. Paul’s pointing to their baptisms.
He’s reminding them of their calling, their commissioning.
He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.
Frank smoothed his tie underneath his jacket but it flopped out again as he hunched back over and shuffled out of the narthex.
He turned around a few steps later, pushed his glasses back up his nose, tapped his cane on the carpet, and then pointed its end at me.
“We talk all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.’
“But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgement on behalf of the guilty.”
The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others.
Don’t you see- that’s how this is good news.
It’s us. We’re the good news.
We’re the good news of God’s judgement. We’re the followers of Jesus Christ who, like Jesus Christ, mimic his willingness to bear the judgement of God on behalf of the guilty.
We’re the good news in this word of God’s judgement.
In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame- we’re the good news God has made in the world.
Just as Jesus said, the first will be last and the last will be first.
We who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified- we who should be last under God’s judgement thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.”
Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat.
Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess.
We bear judgement rather than cast it.
We listen to the guilty. We never stand self-righteously at a distance from them. We never forget that ‘there but for the grace of God’ we’d be just like them, and that them not us, them- the ungodly, are the ones for whom God died.
We bear judgement rather than cast it.
We confess: our own sinfulness and guilt, our own racism and violence and pettiness, our own apathy and infidelity and failures to follow.
Knowing that there have been plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus thirsty and not given him a drink, plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus an immigrant and not welcomed him.
Knowing that even when we have seen Jesus hungry and fed him that doesn’t change the fact that even our good deeds, our best deeds, are like rags, for not one of us, really, is righteous and there is no distinction, really, between any of us.
We bear judgement rather than cast it.
Because we know we can come before God’s Judgement Seat expecting to hear the first words spoken when God came to us: “Do not be afraid.”
We’re the good news in this word of God’s Judgement.
Stalker, that dark, dystopian sci-fi flick from the ’70’s about a Room to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secret is hid…” it’s a disturbing, unsettling, thought-provoking film.
It received hundreds of positive reviews.
It helped inspire HBO’s West World.
The British Film Institute ranks it #29 on its list of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time.
It’s a good movie.
But you’d never call it good news.
You’d never call it good news.
Not unless the cast included a few more characters, people who thrust the terrified Writer and Philosopher aside at the threshold into the Room and said to them “Me first.”