“On Being Sheep” 11/26/17 – Rev. Amy Clark Feldman

ScriptureEzekiel 34:11-16; 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46 (below)

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

It is hard to believe, but, as Stacy just shared with the children, we have reached the end of our liturgical, church year.  (Should we say Happy New Year’s Eve?!)   Next week, we open the door to a new year.  Next week, the angel appears to Mary.  We pause for four weeks, in the stillness and darkness of winter, to wait…  To wait for God to enter into our world anew.  For Emmanuel – that name meaning “God Among Us” – to come as a small baby and then invite us to walk alongside him on a path to healing and renewal of our weary selves and weary world – gathering us like scattered sheep; guiding and transforming us. 

It is so fitting, though, that on this day at the end of the year we have a parable from the end of Jesus’ ministry; about End Times (Judgment Day), with these two groups gathered – sheep and goats – looking back over their lives, wondering when it was they saw God; wondering when it was that God was Among Them.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you?” they both ask from different places.  Today we are invited to ask the same thing.    

LET US PRAY:  God, be with us now.  For when you are with us, nothing else matters; and when you are not with us, nothing else matters. AMEN[1]

I had the privilege of living for a few years in Spain, and I remember my first Christmas there.  The tradition, is not the Christmas Tree, of course, (although there are some), but, in homes and plazas, sprawling, elaborate nativity scenes – Belénes – with sometimes hundreds of beautifully crafted figurines and detailed scenery.  Sometimes they are made to look like a traditional 1st century middle-eastern towns like Bethlehem; but just as often they include anachronistic elements (out of place and time) with scenes of traditional Spanish villages playing out all around the little Holy Family — bread sellers, fishmongers, children in traditional Spanish clothes; men playing guitar; (in Barcelona it’s especially good luck to find the figurine of the man, how shall we say…  relieving himself, who often shows up behind the manger).  In short, these belenes present a world in which the little figurine of Jesus-Emmanuel is surrounded by multitudes of people (some sheep; some goats) going about their lives; totally unaware of this miracle of God in their midst and what it might mean for them.   I pray that we are not so oblivious, although I fear sometimes we are.

As I read this parable of Matthew’s again, I was struck by how surprised both the sheep and the goats are – both by their fates and designations they’ve been given; and particularly by this idea that their Lord has been present among them all along.  In their ‘holy ignorance’ our righteous sheep seem genuinely baffled, “But Lord, when did we see, feed, welcome, visit you?”  Not much earlier in this Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shared the beatitudes (you may recall that this was our passage at the start of this month): blessed are peacemakers, the merciful, the righteous, the pure in heart.  Matthew is intentional in echoing these beatitude blessings here.  The sheep in this parable are judged as bless-ed – by their nature, living with humility, simplicity, obedience, peace, mercy.  The state of their heart has led them into dark places of hunger, thirst, imprisonment, and  among strangers.  Yet they haven’t clothed the naked and fed the hungry to prove their righteousness, to see God, or to get into heaven.  They’ve done these things because they are sheep, and that’s what sheep do… and in so doing, whether they recognized it or not, they saw and experienced God, their Lord. 

Our goats seem equally flummoxed.  They ask the same question, but from a very different place, and it appears with a different tone and outcome.  They seem to say, “Well, Lord, you didn’t reveal yourself – how is it our fault we didn’t recognize you?!”[2]  Perhaps they too fed, welcomed, visited people, but something about their natures has caused them to miss God, and even work against God’s purposes, in the process. 

These goats are not a bless-ed lot.  Matthew seems to say that mercy, and peace are missing; the state of their hearts is out of sync with God – and, as Paul says, their work without love is judged worthless (1 Cor 13:2).   God takes a strong stand against these goats who think they have been sheep. 

For much of the fall, we have explored imagery of trees and growing things – about how deep roots are needed to produce good fruit.  Matthew lifts up this image of a good tree bearing good fruit earlier in his gospel.   To mix our metaphors, we could say that these sheep are good trees producing good fruit.  The goats…  bad fruit… 

What I can say is that I believe that as we stand at the end of our year, this parable invites us to take stock of the state of our own hearts and being.  To remember, deeply, that we are the sheep of God’s pasture – that is God’s desire for us.  Allowing our hearts and our natures to be transformed by that truth is what all else depends upon.      

We don’t always get it right – living led by God, recognizing God in and among us – and our lives and work suffer, I’m sure because of it.  The disciples certainly didn’t when they heard this parable first hand.  As Jesus stands in front of his disciples and shares this final parable, the plot to end his human life is just about to unfold.  Jesus – Emmanuel, God’s-self – will be stripped naked, imprisoned, hung thirsting; and the disciples, quite literally standing in front of him, cannot make the connection. In Jesus’s moment of need, the disciples do not cloth him, visit him, or give him something to drink.  They won’t have any excuse to say:  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’” In the most literal possible way, the body of Christ is the least of these, a message the disciples don’t seem to understand until the Holy Spirit moves in them and they become the gathered body themselves.    

By the time Matthew writes this gospel for his community, they would likely have identified themselves as the least of these; as the new body of Christ.  This new Jesus Way they were pioneering meant that God wasn’t only found on-high or in the Temple, but that God’s Spirit in Christ was moving in and through all those who believed.  Matthew’s early church knew themselves as sheep though baptism.  But they were being brutally persecuted for their faith.  They were the imprisoned, the hungry, sick, the strangers.  And they would have found comfort in this parable, in knowing that the nations around them would be judged according to how they treated these beleaguered sheep of God. 

As the church today, we can know that indeed God’s Spirit does move in and through us – as the body of Christ – if we allow it. As disciples, we must allow for the possibility, in a way those earliest disciples sometimes couldn’t – that God is really right here standing in front of us, among us, within us.  Right here in this Sanctuary, with the sheep sitting right beside us in the pews.   As we open our hearts to be transformed and led by God, not only will we be made more merciful, compassionate, humble, growing in right relationship with God and neighbor – but it is only then that our works are made right and meaningful, in line with God’s purposes and hope for our world.

Because, this parable calls us out to see God in the love and mercy and compassion shown to ALL those who hunger, and thirst – Jesus in the faces inside, and also outside the walls or boundaries of church life and community.    When we live as sheep we should not be surprised to begin seeing Jesus all over the place – where we might least expect him to be.

There are moments when this feels so clear in our life together.  At our community dinner with children and elders; strangers and the hungry; eating together.  I don’t think anyone there didn’t feel a sacred presence. 

There are those who sit beside us in the pews that we recognize right away as sheep; who carry and share God’s mercy, blessing and compassion.  Mrs. Libby Dell (beloved member of our church, whose memorial service will be held on Dec. 2nd) was surely one.   There are so many ways she lived this out. She used to pull me aside, over and over again, wanting to make sure in particular to welcome my husband (with his Jewish and Unitarian Universalist background – worried he might feel like a stranger), saying “it is important he know that we want him here.”   I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was hungry and you fed me.  This was Libby.  We could go on and on about the causes she held dear, her heart for mission, and generosity.  One tiny recent snapshot from the summer is: as some might know, for summer worship services, she came almost an hour early to provide and set up the reception food (grapes, cookies, ginger ale), so that everyone would be fed after worship and just as importantly have an excuse to stay and talk, connect.  On one Sunday there was almost half a box of cookies left over, and she insisted that I take them home for my boys.  I tried to get her to take them, or save them for the following week.  I said something along the lines of my boys having too much sugar anyway, and she just smiled with those sparking eyes of her, and said, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  You just tell them Mrs. Dell said it’s okay to eat all of them.”    I could go on and on telling stories – all of us who knew her could;   but she probably wouldn’t want me too, because, as a sheep of God’s pasture, she was also humble of heart.  

Libby was so much a lamb of God; a sheep of God’s pasture, seated now for sure at the right hand of her dear shepherd.  She certainly inspired in me – in so many of us—a desire to be more sheep-like, in the best possible way.  We can inspire that in one another;  allowing ourselves to be transformed so that we can walk into places of hunger; joy; imprisonment; hope and not be afraid – because we, with sheep-like wonder,  will know the answer to the question; “Lord, when did we see you?” 

Next week, as Advent begins, may we walk right up to the manger as God’s sheep– hearts transforming to be ever more simple, humble, merciful, kind, free; full peace and pure of heart; with eyes tuned to see Emmanuel – God among us – when we get there, not only in the form of a baby, but all around us — in the pew next to us; and in the face of the neighbor, and the least of these outside our doors.   

[1] From Barbara Brown Taylor

[2] See Dirk Lange’s Commentary on Matthew 25