Archive for sheep and goats

Needy Goats, Needy Sheep

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2017 by timtrue

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic

Matthew 25:31-46

1.

I went to Mexico this past summer with my oldest daughter for a Spanish-language immersion experience. For four weeks we lived in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town some 180 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Everyday we’d leave our villa at about 8am and walk the mile and a half or so to the language school, where we’d study for six hours then acquaint ourselves with the sights, sounds, smells, foods, history, and culture of interior Mexico. We’d return to our villa in the early evening to study and prepare for the next day, and maybe to blog about the experience.

Occasionally—if it was raining hard—we’d catch a bus or cab. But mostly we walked. We averaged a little more than five miles a day.

It is common, walking in Mexico, to encounter persons in need. Sometimes it’s a mother with small children just sitting there, on the sidewalk, in the shade, open coffee can in front of her with a few pesos in the bottom. Other times it’s a person offering small, hand-made curios for sale. On occasion we’d encounter a musician, singing passionately to an imagined audience in hopes of real money materializing on the cobblestones at his feet.

These were genuinely needy people.

And, of course, we wanted to help each and every person we saw. We were wealthy Americans, after all, and knew a daily quality of life they would likely never experience, even for a short time.

And, of course, we felt inward pangs of guilt every time we passed by a needy person without emptying our pockets of spare change—or because we had just emptied our pockets for the last needy person.

I’m sure you have experienced this struggle.

2.

Today is the final Sunday of the church calendar, the feast of Christ the King.

Today’s collect puts it this way: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

This is that day: the day when we anticipate what it will be like to have all things restored in Christ, God’s well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose message above all else was, “God is love.”

What will this restoration of all things look like?

Our collective imaginations have played with this question. Will it be this world renewed? Will it look somewhat the same as it does now, but a richer, fuller, more vibrant world; a world without poverty, hunger, or need? Will we recognize mountain peaks? Each other? That blind musician I once helped? Buildings?

Or, will this world be destroyed and burned up? Will Christians be raptured away and all non-Christians left to face a new-world dictator? Will there be an evil man called Antichrist who is really under the control of a great and terrible beast? Will there be a terrible Apocalypse? Will zombies factor in?

Today we encounter the only detailed description in the New Testament of what this restoration of all things will look like.

And, in case we’re tempted to try and solve this riddle, today’s passage is meant to be evocative, not literal.

I mean, really, if it were meant to be interpreted literally, then we’d all have to be transformed into sheep and goats before facing Christ! And when in the eschatological sequence does that happen?

So, just what are we to do with today’s Gospel?

3.

I’m afraid that most of us, when we read or listen to this passage, identify with the sheep.

There are two teams, the sheep versus the goats. The sheep are Jesus’ team. They on his right and are welcomed to join him in that place where he will be their eternal captain. The goats, however, are on his left; they will be ushered to that place of eternal perdition—and we all know who their captain will be. . . .

So, show of hands, who wants to be a goat?

But—to reflect a moment—what about the goats?

Did you notice? They’re just as surprised as the sheep when Jesus addresses them.

To the sheep Jesus says, “Whenever you did these things to the needy, you did them to me”; but to the goats Jesus says, “Whenever you did not do these things to the needy, you did not do them to me.”

And both sheep and goats are surprised. Both ask, “Lord, when did this happen?”

It seems, then, that both sheep and goats did in fact welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and incarcerated; and both sheep and goats let opportunities pass them by.

Hasn’t each one of us done this? Hasn’t each of us acted on opportunities to help someone in need; yet also let opportunities to help the needy pass by?

I mean, if I’d given money in Mexico to every needy person I passed in the street, I would have busted my budget on the first day!

So then is this last-day scenario really fair? The sheep are remembered for the few opportunities they acted on; but the goats are remembered for the opportunities they passed by.

What about all the opportunities the sheep let pass by?

And there’s this: both the sheep and the goats are in the position of being able to help. Both sheep and goats are approached in life by the needy; both find themselves in the position of being able to do something about it when approached. Both are able to offer food or clothing; or to visit the sick.

But what about the needy themselves? What about those who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, the stranger, the sick, and the incarcerated?

They are not in a position of helping others simply because they are themselves in need. With respect to today’s passage, they are neither sheep nor goats. So what are they? Where do the needy fit in?

We identify with the sheep, not the goats. But I’m not so sure this is what Jesus wants us to do. For when we identify with one team over another, we end up drawing distinctions. We end up saying things like, “We go to church and they don’t”; we end up thinking ourselves better than they in some way—which is exclusive.

But Jesus calls us to love, to inclusivity; not exclusivity.

4.

Maybe the question we ought to be asking today is not whether I am a sheep or a goat; but, “With whom does Christ identify?”

Is it not with the needy?

Yes, Christ is the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords, sitting on his throne in glory. But, at the same time, Christ is the person in need.

“Whenever you welcomed, fed, clothed, or visited those in need,” he says, “you did it to me.”

“I am the one in need,” he says.

And are we not, likewise, those in need?

Why do we follow Christ in the first place? Why do we commune at his table week after week? Is it not because we are in need?

Call it the fall, call it marred human nature, call it sin. Whatever you call it, however it is described, we stand in need of salvation, redemption, and reconciliation to God. And that is the greatest need of all.

Thus today’s passage confronts us with a great mystery. It does not have a simple, either/or answer. Rather, it is both/and:

Christ is both the divine King of all creation and the needy. He is both God and humanity. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is both distant foreigner and next-door neighbor. He is both sheep and goat. He is both in need and helper. He is both Savior and the one being saved.

We meet Christ on this final Sunday of the church calendar as King.

We also meet Christ every day of the year: whenever we pass a person in need on the street; whenever we greet our neighbor; whenever we see our own needy reflection in the mirror.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Loving Like Sheep

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , on November 23, 2014 by timtrue

sheep goat

Matthew 25:31-46

Every Sunday we say the Creed together. This statement of belief is our common bond; these are the words of the faith we share.

And every week, at the end of the middle section of the Creed, that section about Jesus, we say these words: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

We believe this, these words of the Christian faith.  Jesus will come again to judge.

But what will this coming again, this judgment, look like?

Our culture’s imagination has been captivated by this question.

A generation ago popular Christian imagination produced the film A Thief in the Night in which the main character, Patty Dunning, awakens one morning to find that her husband, along with millions of other people, has vanished during the night seemingly without a trace.  Where did they all go?  How did it happen?

More recently the very popular book series Left Behind has hit the bestselling Christian scene, just released in fact as a major(ly bad) motion picture starring Nicolas Cage.

Apocalypse scenarios are everywhere in pop culture too—scenarios not so Christian in focus but nevertheless addressing questions about the end of the world as we know it: movies like Mad Max and Knowing; TV shows like The Walking Dead; radio broadcasts, books, comics, video games, music; even attempts more literary in nature, works like C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

What’s gonna happen to us?

Today’s Gospel passage gives us a picture of this final judgment too.

And it looks a lot like some of these apocalyptic scenarios.  Sheep and goats walking together approach a Great Shepherd.  When they stand before this Great Shepherd, he separates them: the sheep are directed to his right; the goats to his left.  And on his right—where the sheep go—is paradise and everlasting bliss.  But on his left—where the goats end up—is endless, eternal punishment.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a goat!  I don’t want to be left behind.  If some kind of thief in the night comes and take souls off to everlasting paradise, then that’s where I want to be!  How do I sign up?

Here’s what I mean.  I read today’s passage about sheep and goats coming forward to be separated by the Great Shepherd, and of course I want to identify with the sheep.

This identification is only natural, I should think.  The sheep are the ones who pass on to the Great Shepherd’s right-hand side, the ones who are told, “Come, you who have been blessed by my Father, and enter the great inheritance he has promised you.”

Of course these words are directed at me, right?  I’ve been baptized.  I prayed to receive Christ on April 1st, 1985.  I attend church faithfully.  I pledge.  I serve.  Of course I’m a Christian!  Of course I’m saved!  Of course I’m one of the sheep, not one of the goats!

But then I get to the difficult part of the passage; that part where the Great Shepherd addresses the goats—who act surprised by being excluded.

They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you naked, hungry, sick, or in prison and not help you?”

The implication here is that they did in fact help others.  And so the goats actually express surprise at being directed to the Great Shepherd’s left-hand side—as if they didn’t really know they were goats in the first place!

Then the Great Shepherd answers them: “Whenever you saw the least of my people naked, hungry, sick, or in prison and did not help, well, then you did not help me.”

And I think of all the many times I have failed to help a needy soul.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there are times I’ve seen someone cold and given her blankets, or hungry and given him food; there are times I’ve visited the sick or someone in prison.  Sure!  And I’d like to think that whenever I did these things I was doing it for the less fortunate in Christ.  And in this sense, if I’m a sheep, it’s all fine and well; because I’m actually doing it for Christ himself.

But what about all those times I’ve passed someone by?  What about that time I walked right on by that homeless woman who asked me for a handout in front of Walmart?  Or what about that time—to bring it closer to home—when my son was in bed with a fever and I grumpily refused to bring him a cup of water?

Well, according to this passage, I can’t really be sure if I’m a sheep or a goat.  If I am a sheep, fine.  All those times I didn’t do something for someone are forgiven, erased.  But what if it’s the other way around?  What if I’ve been deceiving myself?  Then, if I’m a goat, it doesn’t matter what I’ve done for needy people.  Instead, it’s all about whatever I’ve neglected to do.  Whatever I did not do for anyone, even the least person in Christ, I did not do for the Great Shepherd.

And so I think, I want to be a sheep, not a goat!  How can I make sure I end up a sheep and not a goat?

I want assurance of my salvation.

Okay, stop! Whoa!  Back up!

Like with the apocalyptic scenarios at the beginning of this sermon, my imagination is running away with me.  I’ve asked the wrong question; and I’ve followed it down a lengthy trail into a place that doesn’t even exist—into a pretend den of apocalyptic zombie-rabbits.

For the last few minutes, wrestling over assurance of my own salvation, I’ve actually been looking at the second coming from the perspective of works.  I’ve been thinking that salvation from the Great Shepherd’s judgment is all about what I do or don’t do.  I’ve been looking at this as if my works are going to save me.

But this idea—that works save—is not the message of the Bible.  Salvation is not about works; it’s about grace.

So let’s back up.

The question to ask is not, “What if I’m a goat?” or even, “How do I become a sheep?”  That’s not Jesus’s point.  No one who hears this story wants to be a goat; and everyone’s already identifying with the sheep anyway.  Rather, then, let’s look at how the Great Shepherd interacts with the sheep.

“Come, you that are blessed,” he says, “and enter into this place of eternal paradise.  For you clothed, fed, tended, and visited me when I was naked, hungry, sick, and in prison.”

And do you remember the sheep’s response?  “When did we do this?” they ask.  It’s as if they say, “What?  We did?”

They’re surprised!

And the Great Shepherd answers, “Of course you did!  You did it whenever you helped the least of persons.  Whenever you help the least, you help me.”

So they’re saved at the last day.  But they’re saved not because of anything they’ve done.  Nevertheless, a kind of subconscious mindset governs their actions: they do good acts, but they do them without even being aware of it.

This is the point: salvation is nothing we achieve; but comes when we least expect it.

It seems that the best questions to ask ourselves, then, are, “What is this subconscious mindset?” and, “How do I acquire it?”

As to what it is, that seems fairly obvious to me.  There are two great commandments Jesus teaches us: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor.  Clothing, feeding, tending, visiting—aren’t these just various expressions of godly love for a neighbor, for another human being created in God’s own image?

But the answer to the second question is not so obvious: How do we acquire a mindset of service—a mindset that clothes, feeds, tends, and visits?

It starts with those closest to us, right?  We see our own family members—our own brothers and sisters, our mom and dad, our children, our spouses—everyday.  Day in and day out!  And, yes, to live in close proximity with each other we have to look out for each other.  But we tend to take those we’re closest to for granted.

We all do this.  We put on a public persona at work or school where we’re kind to others, we put others’ needs before our own, we consciously try to live out Christ’s teachings; but when we get home, we change our public personas for private ones, like changing clothes.  And these private personas are different.  It’s easier to let our guards down in front of family.  They know us.  They know our weaknesses.  And they love us anyway.  So we take them for granted.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means by least.  Whatever you do for the least of these—whatever you do for your very family members—you do for me.

So, a challenge for this week: look for ways to serve your own family members.  And it doesn’t have to be big.  Take out the trash for your brother.  Do the dishes for your sister.  Cook your wife a hot breakfast.  Do something to show family members you love them.

But don’t stop with just this week.  Do it next week too.  And the week after that; and the week after that; and so on, and so on; until it becomes so second-nature that you barely even realize you’re doing it anymore—until it becomes a habit.

This is the picture that the sheep paint for us in today’s Gospel.  And in practicing such habitual love, our own salvation will come from nothing we achieve; but when we least expect it.