Sheep and Goats

Matt. 25:31-46; Ezek. 34:11

Sermon delivered at Westminster, Portland, OR on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011

Has anyone here ever raised goats?  As I wrestled with the scriptures appointed for today, I became very curious about the differences between sheep and goats.  Apparently, goats are more curious than sheep, and they climb.   Where the sheep eat only the soft grass, goats tend to trample the grass down, as they are reaching up for twigs and other vegetation.  Behaviorally, goats will usually dominate sheep, especially if they have horns.   I learned this from an interesting blog, about raising sheep and goats, from someone whose blog-name is “Rosepath.”

“. . . I had no end of trouble raising goats. I finally transitioned to sheep.  Goats will constantly test your fences and break them down if they can. While shearing sheep is something of a pain, it is NOTHING compared to constantly finding the hole in the fence where the goat got out, returning the goat to the pasture, fixing the fence, repeat until you go crazy. Like your trees? So do the goats. They’ll eat a circle around the tree bark about goat-head high and the tree will die.   Goats just have no fear of God and no regard for man. . . .(Really, that came from the blog—and it wasn’t a religious site!)

This passage from Matthew is challenging in several ways, isn’t it?    The judgment is not about right doctrine or good theology, not about personal piety or sexual ethics, not about church leadership or about success in ministry.  It’s about how we treat the most vulnerable people in our society.  Jesus is basically saying, I’ll know how much you love me by how you treat them.  Loving them, you love me.  Ignoring them, you ignore me.

Jim Wallace, of Sojourners magazine tells about one of his mentors, Mary Glover.  She is from the Pentecostal tradition and lives in Washington D.C., where they both have served many meals to the homeless.  She prays this, as a long line of  hungry people wait outside in the rain and cold, for a simple bag of groceries, a mere twenty blocks from the White House.  This is her prayer:  “Lord, we know that you’ll be comin’ through this line today, so Lord, help us to treat you well.”

This is a challenging passage, partly because it is about accountability and judgment.

The Old Testament passage for today, Ezekiel 34, echoes the theme: “For thus says the Lord God:  I myself will search for my sheep. . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.  As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God:  I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. . .Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?  When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  . . .I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged, and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

I don’t know about you, but this makes me squeamish:  the condemnation of the fat goats to eternal fire.  Part of what makes me uncomfortable is our human tendency to judgment and separation into groups of those who are “in” and “out”.  I can remember quite clearly drawing an imaginary line on my desk at school between me and Matthew Westbrook.  I was concerned about “boy-germs” and he was, about “girl-germs.”

And then there those other separations:  Rural and Urban.  Blue State and Red State.  Democrat and Republican.  Over 30 and under 30.  Gay and Straight.  Conservative and Liberal.  The 1% and the 99%.  And there Jesus stands, not in a stance of forgiveness, but separating the sheep on his right hand, and the goats on his left.  The damned and the saved. Not exactly warm and fuzzy scripture on Thanksgiving Sunday.

Did you notice though, that both the righteous, who had fed the hungry, visited the sick and prisoner, and the unrighteous, who did not—both, were surprised by the idea that they had been helping (or not helping) Jesus?  This suggests that those who fed the hungry and thirsty, did so, not to avoid eternal punishment, but out of compassion.  It was not fear, but love that motivated them.

Lord, help us to treat you well.

Perhaps they understood what German mystic, Meister Eckhart knew:  “What happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me. . .All things are interdependent.”   “There is no such thing as “my” bread.  All bread is ours and is given to me, to others through me and to me through others.  For not only bread but all things necessary for sustenance in this life are given on loan to us with others, and because of others and for others and to others through us.”

Jesus said, “just as you have done this to the least of these, my family, you have done it to me.  Charity can be a benevolence from a “superior” to an “inferior.”  But Jesus invites us to give from the love of family, and a sense of one-ness.

Saints and mystics through the ages have known this, that compassion is “feeling with”.  Thomas Merton wrote, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another and all involved in one another.”   Gandhi said, “I am a part and parcel of the whole, and I cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity.” And “. . .for the poor, the economic is the spiritual and God appears only as bread and butter.”

Isn’t it interesting, as over the past months the “Occupy” movement has finally caused some national discussion about economic inequality, the discussion focuses mostly on the middle class, and not the poorest?  I think there’s a reason for that.  I think it is because we are culture that celebrates the strong.  We don’t want to be vulnerable.  We don’t want to imagine that we too, could be homeless, sick and hungry, in prison.   It is very difficult to look at stark injustice eye-to-eye.  I can say this because it’s one of the feelings I have whenever someone on the street approaches me for money.

Lord, help us to treat you well.

We celebrate this Sunday before Advent, as “Christ the King” Sunday.  But Jesus redefines kingship and redistributes it, so that each person is king or queen, a royal person with dignity and responsibility to one another and to God.  Jesus is a royal person calling especially the poor to their royalty.

The “least of these among us” in our human family may be our primary spiritual directors; they reveal where of God is hidden.  And they challenge all of us to a change of heart and lifestyle.

Last month, on the drive toward our staff retreat, I was in my car, waiting for the light to change, right next to an elderly man who was panhandling at the intersection.  I usually don’t carry change in my car, but I just happened to notice that I had some money in the car console.  So, I rolled down my window, gave him the money, and was about to say to him “God bless you ”, when he beat me to it, looked me directly in the eye and said, with a beaming smile:  “God bless you, honey.”  It was a moment that felt genuine.  I felt that if the roles had been reversed, if I were the one in need, he would have been there for me.  And then, after that sweet moment, there was a long, long. . . long pause before the light turned green.  That moment of unity was very brief!

Lord, help us to treat you well.

At the Benedictine monastery, my friend, Sister Cecilia says that in each one of us, there is some inner homelessness or longing that is a basic human desire.  We extend hospitality by giving attention to one another.  That’s how we meet Jesus in the other.   We are most welcoming when we are aware of the gifts the guests bring.  We can give them charity or attention.  Not just a handout, but home, and family and welcome.

Lord, help us to treat you well.

In Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, there is a custom that families eat outside, so that they can welcome the stranger who walks by, to a meal.

What would change in our lives, if we began to look for Christ among the hungry and thirsty?  What would be different if we were more aware of seeing Jesus in the sick?  Who would we be eye-to-eye with, that we’ve not really seen before?  What blocks us from our feeling kinship with the poor?  What would change if we asked God to free us from that obstacle?  How would we, how would Westminster, and how would our world be different, then?

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