Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on November 26, 2023.
Where have you, have we, been surprised by grace? Where have we been surprised by joy? Where have we found ourselves at the end of ministry? The ones receiving, rather than the ones giving? And how did that feel for us?Read more: The Reign of Christ
Over my time in working with hospice, I have found that for those who are used to giving care, it is very difficult for us to receive. It’s not just that nurses make the worst patients, although they seem to. It’s that any of us who have a particular identity wrapped up in what we can do for others, that we become less that Christ may become more. Or for whatever reason it might be, our identity is wrapped up in that and it’s often difficult for us to receive grace. That’s why one of my Lenten practices a number of years ago, rather than giving something up, was to try to respond with, “thank you,” whenever I got a compliment. It’s been a difficult thing for those of us who have difficulty with allowing our spirits to take up the space that God and our friends and our neighbors allow them.
This particular passage has always been one of my favorites. It’s one that I hold dear, not just for the fact that it doesn’t say anything about, “you have to have the right words.” It doesn’t say anything about, “you have to be able to recite any particular creeds from memory.” And as someone who was born in the Disciples Church, I’m really glad of that because I can’t recite any of them. I do well to recite the sinners prayer from memory. We see within this that it is how we treat each other.
This apocalyptic drama follows on the heels of several parables that we have been looking at over the past few weeks. This is the culmination of what one pastor called the Second Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount of Olives. The sermon delivered to the disciples. And after several stories about, “the time is going to be weird, so don’t abuse your power thinking you’ve got all the time in the world,” and “the time is going to be weird, so don’t fall asleep.” Here is one about what we do with the time. How it is that we really invest in our neighbors and ourselves, that we really form our spirits.
We are reminded of questions that we might have had from others or from ourselves about why do we take offering every week? Why do we have communion every week? Why do we do these things? Why do we do them so often? Do not things lose their meaning when they are done too often? Well, I don’t know, I still celebrate my birthday every year. But I’m also reminded of my friend in the Muslim community who said that in Arabic, the word for human being is related to the word for forgetting. And so they are taught within their community to pray five times a day at specific times so that they will remember, and so that it will become something deep within their hearts.
I love this passage. This passage which tells us that it is not what we think, not what we understand. Really not what we understand, because those who thought they had it figured out were the ones who were told, “you ain’t got a clue and you need to go.” I love this passage, despite the fact that I have always seen a bit of the sheep and a bit of the goat within myself. Within this passage, the place that I usually see myself is right in the center. And I see the one in glory, the once and future king saying to me, “those pieces of you that weren’t at your best are going to be purified. Those pieces of you which were true and honorable and good, we welcome.”
Within this passage, we see some bits and pieces that have puzzled some scholars. And when I first came across that, that puzzled me because I thought this was fairly straightforward story here. Some scholars have noted the points in which this seems to talk not so much about the Christian community, but rather about those communities who might be welcoming the Christian missionaries. The various words that are used within that. And at first I couldn’t figure out why, or what there might be within that for a story which was aimed at the disciples, at least in the way that Matthew has it written down. Why would the disciples be told about what’s going to happen to other people? Then I recalled a bit of a story from C.S. Lewis. In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia comes this passage:
I have to wonder if, within this passage of the sheep and the goats this morning, we see echoes of that reminder for the Christian community not to be so dismissive of those who do not share our creeds and our worship styles, those who may not even claim the name Christ may not even know the name Christ. But rather within this, the true human being saying, “these deeds, because they were done in love, I accept as true worship. These are what it means to be a child of the ever living one. This is it.”
And I also see within this passage an amusing bit, a warning for those of us that might simply look out for ways to do good deeds as long term fire insurance. Because I have to wonder if maybe some of those goats had thought, “oh, there’s somebody that I can help,” and did it just because of what they could get out of it, whether in this life or in the next. Because the goat said, “when did we not see you? When did we not do what we needed to do?” They were surprised. And I have to wonder if maybe among the goats was a mindset of, “here are the rules, let’s just follow them and we’ll be fine.” The element of surprise in there coming up.
One of the reasons that some scholars have had trouble over this is some have clung too tightly to or, too tightly in my opinion of course, too tightly to the words of Paul that we are saved by grace and not by works. And it is true that within this passage it could be read saying, “all you got to do is the right works and you’ll get into heaven.” Except we see the surprise. We see that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by grace and responsibility. We see the surprise and the wonder.
We see within ourselves pieces on both sides of the aisle. We see within ourselves, perhaps even some of the mind set. And that caused another of my favorite writers to write how different religion and the world might have been if it had been a goatherd rather than a shepherd. Because sheep are stupid and need to be driven. Goats are intelligent and need to be led.
How is it that we might find ourselves in the position of the herder? One scholar noted that within the community that Jesus was talking to, there were not as I had previously imagined, just herds of sheep or just herds of goats, but rather they were all mixed in together, and that one person might be responsible for large piles of all kinds of animals. But at the end of the day, they needed to be separated out because the sheep were more economically valuable and so needed to be protected a bit more. But the goats could fend for themselves a bit more and didn’t need to be put into the barn.
We see within this that separating out at the end of the day. That separating out of what is valuable, and the questions of why. We see within this a good word for those of us who have been stupidly sheep, those of us who have acted in grace and hope, those of us who have acted where hope has overcome experience even, recognizing that sometimes the world has been awfully rough.
But the way things have been isn’t necessarily the way things have to be. This passage is a message of hope for all of us, for all of creation. It is also a message of warning for all of us not to get too hung up on looking for the face of Christ in each person that we see so that we can serve, but rather also seeing the face of the vulnerable one and taking joy in welcoming the vulnerable into a place of safety, a place of sanctuary. How might our worlds be different if we took that more to heart, looking for the vulnerable, not as a project, but as a person?
And I have to admit that this passage shows a place where I’d like to argue with this translator. “When did we do all these things for you?” The good hearted ones asked. “I speak from my heart.” He answered them. “Whatever you did, for the least important of my fellow human beings who needed help.” I’m surprised at the narrowness of view out of that translation, because the two-legged are not the only kin that we share. I do enjoy another translation which says, “Whenever you did something for someone who was overlooked or ignored, you did it to me.”
Who are the overlooked and the ignored? We each have our blind spots and we each have places where, because of our cultural conditionings and our points of view, we might not pay as much attention to a particular person or a particular group. When we are all together, fortunately, the blind spots aren’t all in the same place. And that is one of the beauties of a community which is so wide in the middle and narrow at the ends, as some have described both of our denominations, that we can have these places where you are able to see someone that I had not. And I take joy in you lifting that up, showing me where God is active and where God is needy. And I can show you the same: places that we had not thought, places that we had not seen. For we understand that God is still speaking, God is still acting, and God is still yearning for each and every one of us to reach out in grace, to be the sheep of God.