The Goats from the Sheep

I hope you all had a relaxing, meaningful Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for many, is their favorite holiday. It's a forced shut down of life's routine and a time to reflect and gather, to eat and rest. It's a restorative time.

Thanksgiving is a good time to pause and be reflective about the how and the why of life. How do we live and why do we live the way we do.

This Thanksgiving I have friend that I have been praying without ceasing for, for the past week. His name is Ben and I would like to ask you to keep him in your prayers. Ben is a Presbyterian minister and is about my age. He has three kids under the age of 15 and he I went to seminary together. Two weeks ago, Ben shared with his friends on Facebook that he has stage four lung cancer. I find myself neurotically checking my Facebook to see if he and has wife Carla have posted anything. Since hearing about Ben's diagnosis, I have found myself going back in my mind, remembering those days on the south side of Chicago, under the shadow of the University of Chicago, with the lake to the east and magnificent mile to the North. The cold walks from the train, and my little room that waited for me during the week. About 20 years ago Ben and I and about 40 other fellow students struggled through Greek and Hebrew together, tried out our first sermons, and had long nights of discussions over cheap wine and Korean food about the church and the world and the call to ministry.

When I think about those seminary days, I think about a line that Andrew Bernard says in the final episode of the Office. He says, "I wish someone would tell you that you are in the glory days, when you are in it. So that when it's over you don't realize you missed it." Those three years of intense study, cloistered halls of books and theologians, living off of Raman noodles and peanut M&M's were intensely wonderful. I was so immersed in God and the Word, I literally saw God everywhere I went. I would see God on the train between Springfield and Chicago, in the people traveling with me. The business people, and the ladies going for a day to shop, the struggling people and the exhausted ones. I would see God in the billboards on the along the way. While the sign for the hotel would say, "Have a good night's rest,' I would read "Have a God night's rest." I ate, slept, breathed, walked and talked about God every day.

Ben and I, and all of our fellow seminarians spent hours, days even asking the question, "What does God want to do with me?" We were all earnestly asking the question, "What was the how and the why of life? How were to serve and why was it important?

Now I see, that we made the answer more difficult than it needed to be, maybe because the answer, while simple, is also striking We probably didn't need to try so hard. The answer is summarized in our gospel reading. It is the grand finale, it's the essence of all that Jesus has been saying in the previous chapters, as he prepares his disciples for his death and how they should live until he comes again.

They are the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples before he and they are swept up in the tumultuous events of Holy Week, is about the last judgment and what he ultimately wanted from them and wants from us.

All the nations are there. The king separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are on the right, goats on the left. He addresses the sheep: "When I was hungry you gave me food; when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; naked and you clothed me; sick and you took care of me; in prison and you visited me." The sheep are surprised. "We don't remember doing any of those things for you. In fact, we're sure we didn't." The King says, "When you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

The same exchange happens with the goats—in reverse: "I was hungry and you gave me no food; thirsty and you gave me no drink; stranger, naked, sick, and in prison and you did nothing." The goats are as perplexed as the sheep. "We don't remember anything like that. If we had known it was you, we would have acted very differently." The verdict: "Truly, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me."

Some interpreters scramble to defuse this explosive story and explain it away. Surely it's not that simple. Surely God wants something more from us. Where is the theology in that? Where is the church? Where, in fact, is religion at all? You mean to tell me Jesus doesn't separate the blue states from the red states? You mean to tell me he doesn't separate the women from the men? The poor from the rich? The Christian from the Jew from the Muslim? The Catholic from the Protestant? Shouldn't there be a line in the sand that has to do with creeds or practices, or lack thereof? Jesus says it comes down to this, in your life, how did you respond to human kind?

To be clear, beliefs and practices are important in faith journey, for certain. They are the roads you take to get where Jesus wants you to go. But there is more to faith than belief. There is also behavior.

Elaine Pagels, who teaches religion at Princeton University, wrote a book entitled, Beyond Belief and in it she tells a powerful story of how she came to that realization. She and her husband were told that their two-and-a-half-year-old son had a fatal illness. Doctors told them he had a few months, maybe a few years to live.

Not long after that Pagels was on her morning run on a cold February Sunday in Manhattan and stepped into the vestibule of a church to get warm. She is a scholar of religion but at that point was not a church person.

"I had not been to church in a long time. I was startled by my response to the worship in progress, the soaring harmonies of the choir, and the priest, a woman in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear resonant voice. As I stood watching, a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death."

The church took her in. She returned to that church, attended worship and a small group that met on weekdays where her defenses fell and she exposed a storm of grief, gathered energy and resolve to face what was coming.

She reflected, "Here was a place to weep without imposing tears on a child; here was a heterogeneous community that gathered to sing, celebrate, and acknowledge common needs and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine" (p. 4). It caused her to reflect back in history and study the practices of the church at the beginning, before it became divided and divisive.

The historian in her went to work, and she concluded that what was so compelling about early Christianity was not its theology but its very public, visible, unique, and radical love. Christians attracted a lot of attention in the second century by doing things like contributing money voluntarily to support orphans, who were routinely abandoned on the streets and garbage dumps (p. 7).

The reason Christianity took hold 2000 years ago, wasn't because it was born in a building or in a house, it was born in the streets and the ancient world had never seen anything like it. Here was the world that Christianity was born in: It was a Roman custom that if a newborn was not wanted, the baby was "cast out," with no repercussions, simply abandoned in the street or garbage dump. Sometimes those babies were picked up and raised to be slaves. Sometimes, often, they died of exposure. The early Christians did the most amazing thing. Because of what they believed about God—that God was love and expected them to love; that human beings had value because they were created in God's image—they picked up the abandoned babies and adopted them.

Christian groups brought food and medicine to prisoners. Prison was not yet a punishment for criminal activity; prisoners were almost exclusively prisoners of war, hostages to be used as bargaining chips or turned into slave labor. Christians treated them like human beings.

Christians, Pagels, discovered, even bought coffins and dug graves for the destitute, whose bodies otherwise would simply be dumped outside the city. And when the plague ravaged the cities and towns of the Roman Empire, the only thing people knew was to get away, avoid it. When someone exhibited plague symptoms, everybody ran, even the doctors, and very sick people were left to suffer and die alone. Christians shocked their pagan neighbors by caring for the sick and dying, the most vulnerable, risking infection and death themselves.

In ancient Rome and throughout the empire, wherever Christian churches were established, people were compelled, amazed, attracted to this radical love, which they had never seen anywhere before. And when they inquired why these people were behaving so abnormally, the early Christians explained that their God was a God of love who created the world out of a heart full of love, a God who loved every human being regardless of who he or she was, a God who expected them to express that same unconditional love in the way they lived. Their Lord Jesus Christ, whose name they had taken for themselves, had reflected the teaching of his people when he said one time that if you want to inherit eternal life, if you really want to live your life to the fullest in the here and now, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul and you shall love your neighbor as yourself."

The human atrocities that make our headlines, and those that don't are no less cruel and unjust today than they were under the Roman empire. The news of worshippers being masaquered yesterday in Egypt and last month in Texas and the month before that in Los Angalos it leaves one to ask the question, "Oh Lord, what would you have us do?"

It's not rocket science. Jesus has said. "You're finding me hard to track down. I'll let you into a secret: you can find me in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked. You're wondering how to follow me. Ok, let me make it easy for you. Care for the sick. Visit those in prison. Just do it, ok? Don't make it harder than it is.

One final question to contemplate...

Where are you hungry? Where are you thirsty? Where are you naked? Where are you a stranger? Where are you sick? Where are you in prison? These are the places of our vulnerability.

These are the points of the vulnerabilities we fear to be revealed when we encounter the rawness of others' distress. On judgment day we won't come before Jesus with our resumes of achievements and good works, but rather it is when we were vulnerable with another person.

One day we will ask Jesus. "When did we see you naked?" And he will answer, "That moment when you stood before or beside the least of my brothers and sisters, and realized, however painfully, that you were just as naked before me as they are.

Time goes quickly and life is precious. Every day you can get up and love another human being, is a glory day.

St. Francis of Assissi gets the final word today: Keep a clear eye toward life's end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God's creature. What you are in his sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received...but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage."


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