TEXT OF SERMON (Scroll to the bottom for the YouTube version)
I want to notice the obvious contrast
of sheep with goats
in Matthew’s emphatically eschatological sermon –
by which I mean jibber-jaw
about God’s clean-up operation at the end of time.
I say, “Matthew’s sermon” because
I suspect that as it is presented,
it is more Matthew than Jesus.
Anyway, for modern urban-dwellers,
or even pastoral vineyard folks,
it is not a particularly vivid metaphor.
We don’t have a lot of sheep or goats around –
unless you have a yoga studio in California.
But it was a profoundly familiar metaphor
with particular meaning
to folks back in first century Judah and Galilee
The big difference between sheep and goats
is that sheep are grazers
and goats are browsers – that according
to NPR and Treehugger.com.
You see, I’m basically a city boy too,
with faint knowledge of livestock.
Sheep slowly graze on short plants
close to the ground.
Goats are browsers that look all over
for twigs and branches to chomp,
and just about anything.
While sheep get very anxious
if separated from the flock,
goats will wander far in solitary pursuit of food.
And because of that, they have a voracious curiosity.
During the day
sheep and goats were mixed together,
but at night the shepherd separated them
for two reasons:
goats needed more shelter
than warmly wrapped sheep,
and then there was that wandering thing.
In short, goats need more tending than sheep.
So that is an interesting twist in the metaphor:
the bad guys (represented by goats)
need more nurture and protection
than the good guys (represented by sheep).
But the point of Matthew’s story is still that
the Kingdom of God is like the act of separation.
The focus is not on the Shepherd (Jesus).
The focus is not on the sheep (the least of these).
The focus is not on the goats (those who neglect the least of these).
But rather, because it is Matthew
and he is obsessed with such things,
the focus of this story is on the act of separation.
Alas, it is not about that good old liberal
social action agenda
to feed the hungry
and clothe the naked.
It is about the gosh-darn Christian goat-thing
of separating the good and the bad.
Clearly Matthew has cast this story
in the hues of a Final Judgment
when God will clean up this mess
and make everything come out fair in the end fair –
that is, for those suffering in this life now.
But I want to suggest
we have no substantial wisdom
about the end of time
or any kind of after-life
other than religious fantasies.
We don’t get to know, as Jesus reminded us.
But while we suffer blinding ignorance
about the end of time
and our own personal fates
on the other side of the grave,
we do have a preponderance of wisdom
about real time
and about where our attention is required.
Clearly our attention can be on more than one thing at a time,
but what we focus on –
what we choose as a core principle for our lives –
becomes embodied in us
and so incarnate in our lives.
There are those
who are all about making their lives
into a pleasure palace
with their own name on the marquee.
There are those
who hope to leave a huge stack
of personal accomplishments
as a record of their success.
There are those
who simply want to keep getting-on, getting-on;
take it as it comes
and get it done.
Others wear the days like a life jacket –
or a straight jacket even –
and let whatever happens or comes along
define who they are.
And, of course, there are many
who don’t even think about it one way or another.
But their lives end up being marked by that too.
Then there is
the wisdom teaching of Jesus.
To echo Oscar Romero’s understanding
of that wisdom:
we are “pilgrims who traverse the earth
with the responsibility of transforming history
into the Kingdom of God.”
Now those are all very different choices,
or more particularly, principles to live by.
The goats and sheep metaphor
is all about the act of separating
those who follow Jesus
and those who do not.
But it seems more likely to me,
that we separate ourselves
by our own choices.
We amble with the flock
making similar choices,
or we wander off on our own
following our appetite.
The separating is something we do,
in this life,
not what God does
in the next life.
It seems too obvious to say
but because of what passes for Christianity
it does need to be said:
Jesus did not teach that we must become Christian
or risk losing the love of God.
In fact, Jesus knew nothing
about a separate religion called Christianity.
Jesus did not teach that we must be baptized
if we are to hope for eternal life.
But what he did teach
had something to do with the hope
of transforming history,
and something to do with a flock of pilgrims
creating a Kingdom of God
as we imagine
it must be like in heaven.
I am highly skeptical,
knowing what we know about what he taught,
that Jesus said, as Matthew does,
we must follow him or else.
I do not know any more about God
than you do, but what I have seen and heard,
and have been given inklings of,
makes me believe that God loves us
whether or not we choose to follow Jesus.
Indeed, we can be great and wonderful people without following Jesus.
In fact, following Jesus is not for everyone –
it is certainly not for the faint of heart.
But following Jesus, should we choose it,
is to be actively engaged
in transforming history
into the Kingdom of God – here and now.
There are sheep and there are goats.
We do not have to paint the goats
in utterly negative terms as Matthew has done.
We can see them as people
who have made other choices than to follow Jesus.
We do not have to see them as creatures utterly rejected by God
for making the choices they make.
And, more importantly,
we can begin to hear the wisdom of Jesus
in graduated tones and nuances:
A message for those who follow him closely,
a word to those who are in the crowd listening,
a tidbit for those who are hostile,
and even a message for those who are indifferent.
Jesus spoke to each of us differently
and with different expectations –
with even different invitations.
Jesus did not speak in one-size-fits-all language –
wisdom teachers never do.
We may hear them that way,
but that is an entirely different issue.
The one thing that seems clear,
or at least what this goat hears
when I listens to Jesus,
is the invitation to transform history
from the economy of greed
into the Kingdom of God.
We might imagine that the pandemic
has put us on the sideline,
but that is not true.
It just moved the playing field.
We can care for one another,
advocate for equity,
and love boldly
from the phone, or the computer, or letter-writing.
The people we have the most influence with
are the ones we know best.
Talking with them about ordinary kindness,
sharing with them why you think the way you do,
sharing with them your own vulnerabilities
and inviting them to care deeply for you,
and people who may be marginalized,
is all part of transforming this world
to more nearly reflect the kingdom of God.
You may be home-bound,
caring for someone who is,
or struggle with a limitation of another kind
that keeps you from being as active as you would like.
That’s exhausting and that’s painful – I get ir.
But it isn’t a stone over your tomb,
and if you thought it was,
time to roll it away.
We can do small, ordinary, itsy-bitsy things
to model loving-kindness,
and to influence friends and associates,
and to evoke hope
where gray has washed the light away.
Transforming this world
is not like the climax of a superhero movie
when the world is remade by winning Armageddon,
but rather, grains of granite
washed and rolled
and carried down a mountain
to an ocean, and rolled onto a beach.
The arch of the moral universe
is bent slowly, over time
one grain at at time,
one small love at a time,
one small life at a time,
one small gesture at a time.
There is no sideline
when it comes to transforming the world
into the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.
No sideline ever,
no matter how limited we are
we can add our small pieces.
And in fact,
figuring out how
can itself become a true joy.
This was a stewardship sermon, by the way.
I never mentioned money
because what we do with ours
is one of those small pieces we have
to add to all the other pieces being added,
by all the other lives lived.
I urge you to put yours
where you think it can nurture and water
you and I have been asked to take part in.
Thank you for being part of this today.
I hope it adds a small grain of growth,
healing, or wellness
to you life this week.
The peace of God be with you,
and happy Thanksgiving.
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