The good place

Over the past couple of years, one of my guilty pleasures has been the TV sitcom called “The Good Place.” In the pilot episode we meet Eleanor Shellstrop, a young woman from Arizona who wakes up on a comfortable couch in a quiet office lobby. Looming before her is a huge sign that says, “Welcome! Everything is fine.” A friendly, well-dressed, white-haired man named Michael (played by Ted Danson) calls her into his inner office and tells her that she has died, “her life on earth has ended, and she has entered the next phase of her existence in the universe.” Michael reassures her that upon her death, she went to the “Good Place.” Eleanor discovers that her whole life on earth had been recorded and judged: every moral choice she made had been evaluated on an elaborate point system, and she had earned enough points to go to the Good Place.

The show briefly displays some of the point values assigned to various behaviors, and this is just one of the many ways the show’s creator, Michael Schur, has a lot of fun. If you sing to a child, you earn 0.69 points. But if you end slavery, you earn a whopping 814,292.09 points. (If you commit genocide, you are docked 433,155.25 points, a figure that seems too low, if you ask me.) I laughed with our associate rector Rachel, who is vegan, that in the “Good Place” afterlife, being vegan earns you 425.94 points, but not talking about your veganism unprompted earns you 9,875.37 points. And so it goes.

Our friend Eleanor, however, is in for a shock. As Michael explains the point system to her and describes the particular moral choices of her life that earned her the most points, she realizes that there has been some sort of cosmic clerical error, and they have the wrong Eleanor. She does not belong in the Good Place. She is there by mistake. She should be in the Bad Place, and another Eleanor, who died in Arizona on the same day, is in the Bad Place, suffering the eternal torture that our Eleanor has earned.

At this point I need to emphasize that as a religious professional who studies systematic theology, eschatology, and Christian ethics, I do not endorse any of this as real or true. When we die, I believe we will be met not by Ted Danson but by God, and no, we are not laboring under a vast and arbitrary point system.

But as Christians we do hold that our actions here on earth have some kind of relationship with our destiny as children of God. We know from St. Paul that the producers of “The Good Place” are mistaken: there is nothing we can do to earn salvation. In “the Good Place,” I get 29.95 points if I attend my cousin’s friend’s child’s jazz dance recital. In St. Paul’s accounting system, I earn 0.00 points for suffering through that recital. That said, Paul has a lot to say about how we should behave, never mind that no matter how we behave, only the work of Jesus Christ on the cross can save us.

Matthew, the evangelist, also has an interesting take on all this. We just heard a portion of it. In Matthew, Jesus identifies so fully with our needy neighbors that he says that helping them is the very same thing as helping him. It is the one and only criterion for moral judgment. “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,” Jesus says, “you did it to me.” In Matthew, Jesus is a shepherd sorting livestock, sheep here on his right, goats there on his left. By the time this judgment is made, the sheep and the goats are self-evidently who they are: there’s no courtroom suspense with the jury coming back and silently handing the verdict to the judge, and the judge waiting a few anxious moments to announce the defendant’s fate. By the time the shepherd judges you, you’re either a sheep or a goat. And the whole system is designed not to determine whether you will spend eternity on a heavenly vacation or in a hellish torture chamber. The whole system is designed to bring about on earth the dominion of peace and justice that God so fervently desires for all creation, and particularly for those among us who are the weakest and most vulnerable.

We should sit still for a few more moments before this vision of the Day of Judgment described by Matthew. It might take us a while to really, truly let go of the idea that our eternal fate is being decided, that the judgment is arbitrary and out of our hands, and that the judgment is really even about us at all. Let’s try to let go of the Sistine Chapel interpretation of this passage from our scripture.

When we sit still before this image of the Day of Judgment, it starts to sink in what’s really being said here. First and foremost, the “least of these” in our culture are not only loved by God; they are how and through whom God appears to us. Convicts trapped in our vast prison system; refugees fleeing political oppression; homeless veterans who lack mental health treatment; children who suffer abuse and neglect; victims of racialized violence and discrimination; survivors of sexual harassment and abuse… these are icons of God’s presence, signs of the presence of Christ in our daily life. God does not need anyone to suffer for God to appear among us, but as long as there is suffering in the world, that is where God will appear. That is what God will be concerned about the most. That is our mission field, our moral sphere, our field for harvest. As long as our neighbor has a need, our neighbor’s need will be where we find God.

Today we commemorate King Kamehameha and Queen Emma, leaders of the people of Hawaii during a time of immense transition in their land. Their kingdom was decreasing before the advancing realm of the United States, and these two sovereigns are remembered as kind, thoughtful, generous leaders who represented their culture at its best: open-minded, loving, generous. They were concerned with “the least of these.” Like the Bohemian good King Wenceslas of the beloved children’s Christmas carol, these royals remembered the poor; they cared for the widow; they comforted the orphan. Their goodness did not give them a free pass into heaven. That was not the point of their lives, or the destination or grand prize they earned at death. Their goodness was simply how they found and recognized God right next to them.

We die how we live. In life and in death, God is near us, even right next to us. God is present most powerfully in the weak and the lonely, the sick and the suffering. God also is present in our own hearts, stricken as they often are by grief and sorrow. When we gather at this Table and extend our hands in love to one another, holding the weakest and the most vulnerable tight in our embrace, here, together, we find that God is with us. We need not wait for a terrifying Day of Judgment to come before God’s presence. God is here. You need only extend your hand.

***

Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill (Episcopal), Alexandria, VA, November 28, 2018.

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 33:12-22
Matthew 25:31-40