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In the Fold with Sheep and Goats

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46 ~

Good deeds really do matter, not only to the recipients, but also to God.

Last week every time I sat down to create a worship bulletin or message for this morning I found myself walking away from the desk disappointed. I struggled for days with the scripture readings from the Lectionary. When I realized there was nothing in those texts that spoke to me I decided to look at other gospel passages.

Screen shot of Facebook video post

If you prefer to watch the video of Rev. Weekley delivering this sermon, click the image above to go to the St. Nicholas Facebook page.

In my search on Wednesday I found the gospel reading you just heard: Matthew 25:31-46. It spoke to me as a passage relevant for our community and world so I selected it as the focus for this morning- I did not understand why, really, until Friday evening.

Friday changed everything, not only for me but for our community and world: 129 innocent people killed; 353 wounded; 99 in critical condition.

As more than one world leader or political commentator said, what happened in Paris Friday changed everything not only for the individuals involved in the attacks, but for the world community.

For one thing, there can no longer be any doubt or denial that there is a group of Islamic religious, radical fundamentalists who have openly declared Jihad — Holy War — on the rest of the world.

These extremists are focusing on non-combatants, what the news refers to as “soft targets” (i.e. people like us) to spread terror.

This is no way affirms a stereotyping of Islamic people, or agrees this violent interpretation of Islamic scripture is correct. As in the Bible, passages are open to various interpretations. Some Muslims have interpreted the Qur’an to advocate brutality and violence toward non-Muslims and a mandate to create a global Islamic state. This is essentially no different from extreme fundamentalist Christians who wish to create a Christian theocracy in this nation as a means of eliminating enemies and social controversy.

Actually, I cannot think of a better passage to reflect on together in the wake of what has happened.

Many people questioned Jesus about the end of the world; how would they know, and what should they do in the meantime?

Sheep and goats at a watering holeThis is when Jesus talks about these goats and sheep.

If you had to be an animal during Bible times, it would be preferable not to be a goat.

For one reason, there’s that whole scapegoat thing. The scapegoat was the goat over whose head the high priest Aaron confessed the sins of the people of Israel on the Day of Atonement. Then the goat, symbolically bearing their sins, was driven out into the wilderness, where it probably became dinner for a hungry lion.

One could argue that being a sheep could be equally as dangerous. A sheep, after giving up its wool, often appeared on the dinner table, or in the stew, or on the altar as a sacrifice.

But goats in the Bible clearly are not viewed as sympathetically as sheep, and the gospel reading for today singles out goats for unwelcome treatment as well.

When talking about the final judgment, Jesus speaks of separating sheep from goats, and it’s clear that the goats are the losers in this sorting.

For a shepherd, separating sheep from goats is not difficult. Though both species are often pastured together and can be similarly colored, they are easily distinguished from one another.

Goats are thinner than sheep. They have different eating habits (goats browse on leaves, shrubs, twigs and vines, while sheep graze on grass and clover).

Goats are curious and independent by nature, while sheep prefer to stay put with the flock. Goats have hair, but sheep have fleece.

And a goat’s tail stands up while a sheep’s hangs down.

Of course, as Jesus continues the story, it’s quickly evident that he’s not actually talking about animals.

Jesus is using sheep and goats as an analogy for people, for people like us, who are likewise prone to creating scapegoats sorted; people who are ultimately sorted into two groups at the final judgment — sheep-people on the right and goat-people on the left.

The ones on the right are welcomed into the presence of God.

The ones on the left are told to depart forever.

The criteria for this sorting, however, have nothing to do with what one eats or which way one’s tail points.

It also has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, religiosity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other culturally determined value.

Rather, the significant criteria have to do with whether or not one has been merciful and helpful to those in dire straits; if one has rendered aid to the most vulnerable, the most afflicted, members of the culture in which we live.

Jesus said those identified as sheep have literally ministered to him by their compassion. Those on the right, well, they have ignored him by ignoring the most desperate and vulnerable among us.

One of the striking things from this account is that unlike sheep and goats, those who have loved their neighbor and those who have not can ultimately only be distinguished by Christ, who serves as the Great Sorter in this story.

The sheep and goats cannot easily distinguish between one another: this is a message every person on this earth needs to hear and accept.

We simply cannot name whole groups, nations, races, or religions as enemy.

Didn’t someone once say, “We have found the enemy, and it is us?”

“We have met the enemy and they are ours” — one of two famous quotes made by American Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on September 10, 1813, after defeating a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

In the gospel passage the doers and non-doers of good deeds don’t easily recognize which are which, and the members of both groups are quite surprised to learn which one they have been sorted into.

When Jesus sets out to teach his followers about God’s judgment, he explains it by recalling this familiar scene: sheep go one way, goats the other.

Many of us have heard this passage taught as a guilt-inducing story. Those who teach it that way assume it’s mostly about the church, how some of us will make it into heaven and some of us won’t.

But this is not likely how Jesus’ followers would have heard the story. Their attention would have been grabbed by the first few words: “All the nations will be gathered before him …” (25:32).

“Okay,” those ancient Jewish listeners would have said to themselves, rubbing their hands together in glee. “This is the long-awaited moment. Now we’re going to hear how those wicked goats, the Gentiles, will get theirs!” The story has a surprise ending, one that undoubtedly shakes everything they’ve come to believe about faith and ethnicity: an ending those caught up in terrorism and violence today cannot hear.

First, neither the sheep nor the goats are especially bright. Both of them are equally clueless as to when, exactly, they saw Jesus “hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or imprisoned.”

Second, the distinguishing feature between the two sets of people is not ethnic identity, as Jesus’ listeners suppose. Neither sheep nor goats seem to know which group they belong to until the shepherd sorts them into it. Once they find themselves milling around in that group, they haven’t the slightest idea how they got there.

So, this isn’t the old, exclusivist story about God’s chosen being destined for salvation, while the Gentiles go to perdition. Jesus is spinning an entirely new narrative.

The distinguishing feature in this new tale is not who your parents were. It’s some invisible mark that only the shepherd-judge seems able to see.

–Carlos Wilton, Homiletics contributor

Commentator George Buttrick put it, “The loving folk were so lowly that it did not occur to them that their daily kindnesses could ever have been a personal service to the Christ, or that they had done anything worthy of reward. The unloving were so callous, their religion so perfunctory, that they never thought of Jesus as being linked with [humans] in love, or as asking from anyone any forthright deed of compassion.”

What can we take away from this story for living today?

One is to recognize that sins of omission can be just as serious as sins of commission. The passage reminds us that what we don’t do can be as great a reflection of our commitment to follow Jesus as what we do do.

Another way of thinking about this is to say that apathy towards other persons, ignoring their needs or situation, a non-response, is just as debilitating as a negative one.

I was reminded of this when I read the response by French President Francois Hollande, who declared these attacks a horror, the worst since World War II; and also the remarks made by Paris Deputy Mayor Patrick Klugman when he said, “It is a horrible day in Paris … the death toll will increase … the terrorists planned to hit where people go to relax on Friday night: a soccer game, restaurants, a concert.”

My first response was, “what can I do?”

I wanted to do something. All I could think was to begin with prayer.

I posted this on my Facebook page Friday evening, asking others to join me in praying for Paris, France, and our world.

Within minutes an atheist organization posted about the utter uselessness of prayer, and how the only response is to work for peace with justice in practical ways.

This was my response: “After posting prayers for Paris, France, and our world someone issued a post about prayer as a waste of time and energy. The important thing is to get involved in justice work. Double-blind studies indicate that prayer effects both the one praying and the one unknowingly prayed for in ways we do not understand, Beyond this, prayer is not passive; it is one dimension of compassion. Practical acts of care, including working for justice are extensions of prayer for many people of faith. Drawing upon one of my favorite theologians, Fred Rogers who shared a story:

Fred Rogers next to a quote from him: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say  to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers -- so many caring people in this world."

Which brings us back to the gospel.

Jesus was not attempting to give a full description of everything about faith and life in this story, but rather to make an obvious point about not ignoring the most marginalized and oppressed persons among us — about being helpers.

This story reminds us that the arena of faith is daily life. The “goats” had separated their commitment to Jesus from the doings of daily life. But in reality, the place we live out faith is in the sheepfold or goat-fold of our daily lives.

This story reminds us that compassion belongs in not only extraordinary circumstances, but also in our ordinary and everyday encounters with one another.

We need to hear that because most of life is not played out in the kinds of events that make headline news, but in how we relate to one another in the ordinary activities of life.

For most of us becoming a sheep or a goat happens not in going to training camps in Syria or even in the kind of heroic events performed by those first-responders to the carnage in Paris.

For most of us the shaping of our forms into sheep or goat happens in the smaller things — the chance meetings, the routine places, the circumstances where, and when we do or do not do a good deed; the ways we accept or reject the people around us — things that seem to us so ordinary that we think they are hardly worth mentioning, and certainly not worthy of earning us a place among either the goats or sheep.

Fortunately, in times like these God has provided a guide for living.

I once saw a sign that read, “This life is only a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have been given further instructions on where to go and what to do.”

In some ways I wish that sign were true today.

The truth is that sometimes unexpected circumstances arise in life and we have no clear idea of how to respond.

What happened in Paris, France on Friday is such a circumstance.

As President Obama said, the attack in Paris truly is an attack against humanity and the universal values we share.

The important teaching in this story is that we remain strong in our compassion and concern for one another, engaging in whatever good works we can embrace in our families, communities, and world.

This morning these words of Jesus are instructions about what to do in such a time as this … in the face of evil — do good. It is as simple as that.

What does doing good look like?

There is an old story — probably invented by some preacher — but it illustrates the spirit of this passage pretty well. It’s about a boy living in a children’s home. For grace at the dinner table, the superintendent usually prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food to us be blessed.” After this happened several times, the boy  said to him, “You always ask Jesus to come, but he never does. Will he ever come?”

The superintendent said, “If we really want him to, he will.”

The boy thought, “I really want him to, so I’m going to put a chair beside me tonight so he’ll have a place to sit when he comes.”

That evening, during supper, there was a knock on the door, and standing there was an old man, poorly clothed, cold and hungry. The superintendent invited him to join them for supper, and he pointed to the empty chair. The man sat and, and the boy gladly passed food to him and even shared from his own plate.

Later the boy said, “Jesus must not have been able to come himself, so he sent this man in his place.”

The point, exactly.

Good deeds matter.

“Truly I tell you, as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.”

Regardless of how simple that may sound in the world this morning, it is something essential to hold on to. In fact, it may be these little things; these acts of kindness, expressions of friendship, exchanges of civility that ultimately save us from becoming like those very ones whose brutality we abhor and condemn this morning. Amen.

Originally delivered November 15, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Boaz and Ruth by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About to be Real

Scripture: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17, Mark 12:38-44 ~

The first time I read the story of Naomi sending Ruth into the threshing room for a late night tryst with Boaz I was surprised by this story of sexual proposition.

Screen shot of FB video post.

If you prefer to watch the video of Rev. Weekley delivering this sermon, click the image above to go to the St. Nicholas Facebook page.

When I understood the custom of next-of-kin marriages as a source of protection for widows such as Ruth, and through Ruth, Naomi, I realized the caring, kindness and compassion Boaz demonstrated toward Ruth that night; and also the realness with which Boaz and Ruth communicated.

Remember, in this time and culture women were often regarded much like property, and viewed as liabilities.

Surely Boaz has observed Ruth and heard enough about her in the days since she first arrived to know her situation, and also that accepting legal responsibility for Ruth included taking care of Naomi as well.

For her part, Ruth well knew what Naomi meant when she suggested that Ruth should put on her best attire and surprise Boaz late at night, alone, in the threshing room. It meant that Ruth was proposing marriage to Boaz- not a gender appropriate role for either a woman, or a foreigner.

This story is a beautiful portrayal of the complexity of human relationships when they are grounded in the reality of the situation, genuine affection and spiritual authenticity.

Boaz and Ruth appear to have mutual affection for one another: both have been observing.

Boaz, though wealthy, appears to be just as alone as Ruth.

Naomi, playing the role of matchmaker, encourages Ruth to dress up, surprise Boaz late at night in the threshing room, and proposition Boaz regarding the custom of kinship marriage.

Boaz responds favorably, inviting Ruth to spend the night, and promising to move forward with the marriage process.

The story ends happily, with Ruth giving birth to a son as a sign of hope for the future, and Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz enjoying a new level of life.

Boaz and Ruth meeting on the edge of his fields. Naomi is standing behind Ruth looking on.

Boaz and Ruth by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

Like many biblical stories, in many aspects this is a story about facing life and death issues.

Naomi faced mortality when her husband and two sons died, and she faced returning to Israel alone as a widow.

Ruth faced mortality remaining as a widow among her own people, or returning as a foreigner with Naomi to an unknown place and people.

Boaz, described and depicted as much older than Ruth, is facing his own issues of mortality even as a property owner and man of wealth (does he have other offspring?)

In the story of Ruth, these three people decide to get real with one another, and risk forming new relationships together that benefitted and blessed each of them, and through them, the broader and future community as well.

The gospel reading portrays just the opposite of genuine human affection and relationship, as Jesus points out the destructive duplicity of the scribes and the wealthy in their relationship with widows and the poor, such as Naomi and Ruth.

As in Ruth, there are issues of widowhood, poverty, religious-ethical responsibility, and genuine human relationship.

In these verses, however, community is destroyed and survival threatened by the behavior of the scribes, “They devour widows’ houses …”

The absence of genuine human affection and relationship is further demonstrated as Jesus observes the difference between giving out of abundance (the wealthy) and giving out of poverty (the widow).

When faced with our own mortality we basically have two choices.

We can try to go it alone, maybe putting on a “Happy Face” but secretly growing bitter or despondent about the limitations of our personal lives;

Or, we can gratefully embrace the life we have, savor each moment, and live each day to its fullest, pressing forward in genuine relationship with those things and people that are most important to us, taking the risk to be real and authentic rather than finding ways to “devour” one another.

As we reflect on this story of Ruth’s faithful living it is a good time for us to focus on the things in life we are grateful for today, including the precious gift of life itself.

Sometimes we forget to be grateful for life.

As Fr. Alfred D’Souza once said:

“For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin, real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be got through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

You and I can be intentionally grateful every day, no matter what is going on in or around us: an attitude of gratitude can never be taken away — but it is up to us to develop and encourage it.

Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness is a study of twenty years of psychological research led Lyubomirsky.

how-happinessIt is a scientific approach to our culture’s elusive pursuit of happiness. Slicing happiness up like a pie, she claims there are three major pieces to a cheerful makeup; to living gratefully.

1. Fifty percent of our happiness comes from disposition in our DNA. We are Tigger or Eeyore based more on Mom and Dad than anything else. Like the thermostat on the wall, our temperament has a preset temperature.

2. Surprisingly, only 10 percent of happiness comes from our life circumstances. A raise at work. The kids’ good grades or happy marriages. A steadily rising stock market and retirement portfolio.

Looking at newlyweds and lottery winners, researchers have found that people almost always return to their genetic dispositional set points after life events spike their joy.

These kinds of events come and go, and they provide little lasting change in overall life temperament.

3. Dr.Lyubomirsky claims that we have control over the remaining 40 percent of our happiness. That huge slice of the pie represents our thoughts, attitudes and actions.

And they can be managed through happiness-fostering habits.

University of Wisconsin researcher Richard Davidson concurs. After studying the brains of Buddhist monks, he found that people can show markedly higher reports of happiness after two weeks by merely thinking about kindness and compassion for 30 minutes a day.

But Lyubomirsky isn’t just taking another lap around the well-trodden path of the power of positive thinking. She adds the power of positive being.

Certain behaviors will lead to certain attitudes — or vice versa — and habits of both will increase and maintain our happiness over time.

Lyubomirsky suggests 12 patterns that promote cheers over jeers, gratitude over ungratefulness:

These include forgiveness, avoiding social comparisons, nurturing deep relationships, taking care of your body and even practicing religion and spirituality.

At the top of Lyubomirsky’s research-proven list is much of what is seen in Ruth:

Her number one happiness habit is being appreciative.

Fostering an attitude of gratitude: Not just feeling but expressing thankfulness.

Writing a thank-you note to your favorite high-school teacher, telling who he or she helped you become.

Counting your blessings and literally listing them until your haves overwhelm your have-nots.

Calling the “How’s my driving?” hotline when a driver is courteous.

Lyubomirsky cites a study in which one group of people listed five things they were thankful for.

They did this every week for 10 weeks.

Comparison groups in the study wrote different kinds of weekly lists — “five major events,” “five hassles this week,” etc.

The “thankful” group reported more happiness and contentment than did the comparison groups. They even reported improved health in the form of fewer headaches and coughs.

Skip the doc. Just say “thanks” more.

In pay-it-forward fashion, people we intentionally thank will also experience increased happiness. Expressing gratitude is the stone thrown into the flat water. It creates a ripple that affects everything around it.

It appears that looking out for numbers two through 10 is really looking out for number one.

Remember the once-trendy “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” bumper sticker?

Dr. Lyubomirsky would say, “No” to this.

I believe Moses and Jesus would say “No” as well.

Don’t make your acts random and senseless. Make them planned, intentional and habitual.

Attach them to people around you so you can infect them with happiness also.

We might think of this as a halo of happiness.

Gratitude first impacts its giver and then radiates through the receivers.

Kindergarten teachers love to give out gold star stickers and smiley face stamps because of the joy that recognition creates in their kids.

And Although God may appreciate Dr. Lyubomirsky’s science, remember that, “all truth is God’s truth”

And while God could be smiling an “I told-you-so grin,” gratitude is a mainstay of biblical virtue; and it is the way Ruth and Jesus lived up to their final breath on this planet.

Who should you thank? Spent 5 minutes listing the things you’re thankful to God for.

Look over your list.

Whenever those things you express gratitude for involve ways God provided through someone else, I encourage you to come up with a plan to express gratitude to them as well.

Another Dr. Lyubomirsky study found that people who wrote and delivered letters of appreciation to those they had never formally thanked caused their own happiness to remain elevated for as long as a month afterward!

Who should we thank?

We’re talking about volunteers.

Many well-intentioned Christians — valuing the appropriate sacrifice and modesty of service — miss opportunities to recognize, celebrate and thank those who are extending kingdom values inside and beyond our churches.

The greatest pay for a volunteer is recognition.

A personal e-mail. A phone call. A real, old-fashioned personal letter. A mention in the sermon. Dinner at your house. Looking them in the eye or hugging them while honestly saying, “We couldn’t follow God effectively without you.”

So who do we need to be thanking in our church?

How should we thank?

In a survey of 10,000 employees from the 1,000 largest companies, 40 percent of workers cited “lack of recognition” as a primary factor in their leaving the company.

I am thankful that God doesn’t leave our churches over similar lack of recognition.

While our songs and liturgies encourage words of gratitude, they don’t guarantee the inner condition of our souls, our hearts, our minds and our attitudes.

God is able to see into our heart attitudes. Naomi, Ruth and a host of biblical characters knew this: Jesus taught this truth over and over again.

Look to God with gratitude every day.

That will make you radiant.

That will make your life better.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it this way: “Unless the outer life expresses the inner world, purity stagnates and intention decays.” Unless Sunday liturgies, hymns of praise and prayers before dinner radiate out of a heart of gratitude, they are just shells of concepts. Empty words. Decayed intention.

“Thank you.”

When it’s truly expressed to God and others, it both changes us and means that we have been changed already.

Originally delivered November 8, 2015, by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Image credits:

  • Boaz and Ruth by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons