Archive for sheep

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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Gate Contemplation

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by timtrue

John 10:1-10

I am the gate.

These are Jesus’s words here. We usually like to focus on what follows, when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But here Jesus specifically says gate. Jesus is the gate.

In this word, gate, there is a certain sense of exclusivity, isn’t there? Consider: a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The sheep were led into the sheepfold by way of this gate every night as a place of protection from predators and thieves. They were led out to pasture in the morning, when the sun was up, when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by day. But by night, when it was too dark to see, the sheepfold provided boundaries, allowing the shepherd to hear a thief or predator trying to climb over the wall and thereby to defend the sheep. The gate, then, is the way in and out of this protective boundary.

But exclusivity rankles our modern sensibilities, doesn’t it? After all, the church is not some protective boundary from the world, not some place to which we’re supposed to retreat every Sunday for protection from the bad ones of the world, the thieves and predators. Rather, the church is supposed to go out into the world, from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria to the ends of the earth. It is the means through which God is realizing the Kingdom. We’re trying to include unbelievers, not exclude them!

Besides, isn’t exclusive thinking at the root of social evils like racism, caste systems, and war?

Exclusivity rankles us, yes. The other side of this coin, inclusivity, feels much better. At least to us. Today. In the twenty-first century. In the Episcopal Church.

And it feels better for good reasons, reasons based on God’s love. God has called us to an outward love, a love that focuses on the other, a love we demonstrate towards our neighbor, someone who is different than I am. It’s easy to love myself. It’s hard to love my neighbor.

But what about inclusivity? Can we take it too far?

At the last general convention of the Episcopal Church, the diocese of Eastern Oregon called for us to consider what they call an Open Table. What they mean by this is a Communion Table open to everyone, regardless of belief, religion, or practice. So, for instance, a practicing Muslim ought to be able to come to the Communion Table if he likes, they say.

This is an inclusive idea, one aligned with radical hospitality.

Yet the naysayers—of which I am one, by the way—say that according to history, tradition, theology, and even Jesus’s words, the sacrament of Communion is only for baptized Christians. Some naysayers I know, including a former seminary professor of mine, go so far as to say that an Open Table is promiscuous!

In any event, we naysayers aren’t inclusive here, but exclusive.

But do you know there was a time in the Church’s history when a practice called “fencing the Table” was the norm? In 1873, in fact, a group split off from the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA for this very reason, because we did not allow baptized Christians to take Communion unless they were Episcopalians. Methodists were fenced from the Table! Baptists were fenced! This group today is called the Reformed Episcopal Church, by the way. Back then we were too exclusive for them. The irony is that today we’re too inclusive for them to consider a merger.

So, do you ever wonder—like me—if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong thing? Ever wonder if we’re focusing so much on inclusivity and exclusivity that we begin to lose sight of the actual gate?

By day we’re out to pasture. It’s warm and sunny; there’s delicious grass to munch on. But we feel a little vulnerable. We wonder if we’re in the right neighborhood, if our kids are hanging out with the right friends, or how to outsmart the sheep next to us. Our thoughts move in the direction of exclusivity.

But by night we’re safe inside, in our enclosure, protected. And we begin to think about those poor, lost sheep outside of the fold. How can we help them? Who will go to them and show them the way to the gate? Our thoughts move in the direction of inclusivity.

The church’s history is a giant pendulum-swing.

But Jesus’s point is that he is the gate. Through it—no, through him—we find safe pasture. Through him we find shelter and protection. Through him, as today’s passage says so clearly, we may have life and have it abundantly.

This is our end, then: abundant life. In our day-after-day routines—waking up, making coffee, eating breakfast, commuting, accomplishing whatever tasks at work or school, praying, reading, studying, watching TV, walking the dog, watering the lawn, deciding whether to be inclusive or exclusive in any given situation—we may know rich abundance, profound joy, in all of this, if we just keep our focus on the gate.

But how? That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s a person in here who doesn’t want to experience profound joy in his or her day-to-day routine. And if Jesus is the gate, then keeping our focus fixed upon him is the key to the gate, so to speak.

Well, then, how do we do it? I offer a few suggestions from the text.

First, don’t try to enter by another way. This seems to be one of Jesus’s main points, doesn’t it? There is a sheepfold with only one gate, the port of entry. Anyone who tries to get in by another way—climbing over the wall, dismantling the wall, or whatever—is not the gatekeeper or the shepherd or the sheep, but a thief or bandit. These are not friendly words.

A popular notion today is that there is more than one way to eternal life. Some will say it’s reincarnation, others enlightenment, others still that a life of good works will get you there. Now I don’t know about any of that. But I do know that Jesus Christ says he’s the way. And he left us two great sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He has also left us the church and its proven traditions like prayer, scripture reading, and fellowship. Why try entering by another way?

Next, don’t try to enter on your own. Always in this passage we see sheep in the plural. The sheep enter and exit through the gate together. There is also the suggestion that lost sheep join the regulars, thereby becoming part of the flock. But my point here is community. We should engage in the sacrament of baptism together. That’s some of the reasoning behind godparents. It’s the same with the Eucharist and the traditions I already mentioned: do them in community.

A final suggestion: learn to recognize Jesus’s voice. He is the gate. But, as the text goes on to say, he is also the good shepherd. He knows the sheep; and the sheep know his voice.

So what do I mean here, that we need to learn to recognize Jesus’s voice? Just this: it’s a matter of worldview. It’s not just listening for Jesus in spiritual matters—in the church, in sacraments, and in traditions. But it’s listening for Jesus in all of life. You watch a movie or a TV program, or you read a book. Where was Jesus in it? What is Jesus saying to you in your Facebook habits? When you enjoy a family meal together, how is Jesus speaking to you through it? You see? It’s all of life. Jesus is the gate, and also the good shepherd, in a comprehensive way, in all of life. We need to listen for his voice in everything.

Jesus is the gate so that we might live a life of profound joy, a life of abundance.