Pastor Rick Danielson
If you have a pen or a pencil with you, you might want to use it to cross out the title of the sermon in the bulletin and replace it with the words “Executive Orders.” I was not quick enough on Friday morning before the bulletin went to print to realize that our president’s speech on Thursday night had provided the perfect title for today’s message!
“Then the king will say ‘Come, you that are blessed; inherit the kingdom prepared for you.’ And ‘Depart, you that are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Those are executive orders, and they are attached to one of the most powerful stories contained in the gospels.
The parable of the sheep and the goats has perhaps gotten a bit worn out, especially in liberal Christian circles, but one of the things I love about the stories of Jesus are the endless possibilities for exploring the details and using our imagination.
The first church I served was deep in the country. A prominent family owned a sheep farm, and I learned quite a bit about sheep from them while I was there. One evening the ancient furnace in the church parsonage died, and I spent the night with that family on the farm. In the morning, I woke to the sound of baaaaaaing, and went downstairs to discover that two lambs had been born during the night. The mother had died while giving birth, and the lambs were being kept warm by the stove in the kitchen. Now, I didn’t think that I would be exposed to such rural experiences in a sophisticated city like Boulder, but Lynne Andrade invited me to her barn recently to meet her animal family. Among them is a goat named Pecan. Pecan is adorable and is being trained as a therapy goat to work with children and adults, but honestly has a bad habit of head-butting! Every time I turned away, Pecan would come at me from behind! Goats have never had the positive reputation that sheep seem to enjoy. I guess it was also true at the time of Jesus, or else the story itself cast goats in such a negative light that they have never recovered.
The story is long, but pretty simple. All the nations are gathered for a final judgment. People are separated into two groups. The “sheep” on the right and the “goats” on the left (because of course anything that was “left” was considered inferior or evil, thus the discrimination even in our lifetimes against left-handed people.) The sheep were those who had provided food, and water and clothing and hospitality and visits to persons in need. The goats were those who didn’t. The twist in this otherwise moralistic tale is that Jesus himself seems to be identified with those who were either cared for or ignored by the sheep or the goats. “When you did it or didn’t do it to the least of these members of my family” said the king, who is also the Son of Man in the story who is understood to be Jesus, “then you’ve done it or not done it to me.”
Again, liberal Christians love this story. It fits beautifully with our priority on doing justice and caring for people in ways that will create a better world. If we are reading it literally at all, and we certainly are if we take seriously the words about hungry, homeless, naked people, then we will have to ask if this is a proscription for attaining salvation through good works. It stands in contrast with the writings of the Apostle Paul and others who eschew good works as worthless in that regard. Of course, if a traditional understand of salvation as escaping hell and being admitted into heaven is not of particular interest or concern, then this dichotomy isn’t all that important. Rob Bell, a leader in the emergent church movement, got into lots of trouble with his former evangelical fans when he suggested that heaven isn’t as exclusive as they would prefer. I’m not sure what he does with this story of Jesus, but the point is that channeling all our effort into securing a place in heaven just distracts us from what really matters right now. And it creates a whole lot of complicated divisions and disagreements about who is in and who’s out. After a while all of the energy gets sucked up by the debates.
The reading from the Quran that preceded the Gospel reading says pretty much the same thing as Jesus. What defines a person as “righteous” has much more to do with how one responds to orphans and the poor and those who are guests than with religious rituals and the ways that we pray.
One of the best things about the sheep and the goats, I think, is how genuinely surprised everyone was when they found out the reason for their reward or their punishment. “What?!” They looked at the king and said “When did we see you hungry and thirsty or a stranger or naked or imprisoned and take care of you?” (or not take care of you, as was the case with the goats.) They just had no idea what they were doing as they did or didn’t do what seemed natural to them. So the verdict was a huge surprise.
Do you like surprises? Some people don’t even like good surprises! It just knocks them off center and messes with the comfortable equilibrium of being in control of what’s going on. Holiday Inn used to promote itself as a place where there were no surprises, in other words no bad surprises. Like bedbugs and sagging mattresses. I’m generally a big advocate of no surprises when it comes to most things, including our life together in the church. A good surprise is nice from time to time, but trust comes when we respect each other enough to communicate about anything unsettling in advance. Otherwise, surprises feel like ambushes and never achieve anything helpful. Anyway, the king had a good surprise for the sheep and a bad surprise for the goats. It wasn’t that he intended to surprise them, it’s just that they were so busy doing or not doing what came naturally to them that they didn’t expect the news he shared.
There are sheep and goats everywhere. Buffalo, New York, my hometown, has gotten a lot of press and air time this week. Leroy missed the brunt of the snow, but my daughter lives in the town that got the most: 90 ½ inches. Lots of stories have been shared about neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping strangers. Emergencies often to bring out the best in people, and of course they can also bring out the worst. A friend of mine who lives in an especially hard-hit neighborhood chronicled her experience online. She and her husband found themselves housebound by the rapid accumulation of six feet of snow. After waiting three days for their street to be cleared, a plow finally appeared. Neighbors burst from their homes with shovels to clear paths from their doors to the street. But the man directly across the street from my friend plunged through the snow and directed the plow to push snow away from the end of his driveway. While that was great for him, his snow was pushed one more house down the street and blocked the driveway of his elderly neighbor. Now in addition to six feet on the ground, the neighbor had a ten foot wall of snow separating him from the street. I won’t say the word that my friend used to describe the man across the way, but it sounds like he was acting like a selfish goat. Off to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels! Only we are not really the judges. We just get to decide what our own actions will be.
In Denver, a group of churches has banded together to provide sanctuary for a man marked for deportation after many years in the United States; despite the fact that his wife and children are documented, and despite his well-established business; and despite the efforts of many on his behalf to help him move toward citizenship. His deportation was imminent. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Denver has provided a place for him to live within its walls, and several other churches have provided assistance in various ways. Members of our own church have attended meetings in Denver to learn more about the sanctuary movement and this current effort in particular.
When the President of the United States announced on Thursday night that families would no longer be subject to separation by the deportation of one or more members, many cheered loudly and others compared him to lawless dictators like Hitler. His quoting of Scripture to emphasize God’s demand that strangers from other lands be welcomed has been blasted as inappropriate by those who themselves quote Scripture to support their politics. Regardless of our political views about immigration and immigration reform, surely we need to find ways to support genuine “family values” when families are threatened by separation. The king in the parable, who is Jesus himself, issued an executive order to the sheep and the goats to come to a place of blessing or go to a place of suffering based in part on how strangers had been welcomed or turned away.
Who are the “least of these” in this story? Anyone, I guess, who is vulnerable and likely to suffer from lack, whether that be lack of food or water or clothing, like some of those mentioned in the parable, or lack of a supportive social or family network, as was the case for others. The surprise for us is that when we look at the faces of those who are The Least of These, who surround us even today, we see the teller of the story, Jesus himself. Not necessarily in some supernatural, human but divine sort of way, but in the sense that Jesus deeply identified with those who suffer.
Every day we have opportunities to choose how to respond to those who Jesus called “the least of these.” We serve and care for others not because we want to secure a reward in another life. We do so because every person who suffers is a human being worthy of love; and isn’t loving others ultimately its own reward? Amen.