Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sheep, Goats, and Jesus in a hospital bed.

texts: the one about the bovids
and a smattering of Job (29:1-5, 11-16, 30:24-31)

Irrelevant song, purely for your listening entertainment:
"sheep go to heaven" by Cake
(no i didn't recommend this to my congregation)

This passage about the sheep and the goats is one of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible, in my opinion. It seems to tell us that we have to help everyone in the world, because any one of them might be Christ in need, and that we will be held accountable for it all. If anyone, anywhere is hungry, and we see it or find out about it, we are responsible for feeding them. If anyone, anywhere, does not have clothes, we are letting Jesus down if we do not put our own clothes on them. If anyone, anywhere, is sick and we do not visit them we are making Jesus lonely.
Now in Jesus’ day maybe this wouldn’t have been SO bad, because without TV and newspapers would only see the people in need who lived near them. So Jesus never got magazines with advertisements for Save the Children, and people who lived in Jerusalem probably didn’t know about the poverty problem over there in Rome. But even in Jesus’ day, there must have been homeless people in the towns of Israel, and beggars, and other folks that really needed this help. In Uganda I would always see many, many people who were disabled in some way sitting on city streets simply holding out their hands. WE don’t have such people lining the streets here because we have some systems in place to take care of people, and so someone who’s really disabled might be in a residential facility receiving care or they might be able to stay at home and receive unemployment assistance. But even with those systems, people do fall through the cracks. I grew up in New York City, used to seeing a lot of homeless people who often find places to beg near bus stops or train stations. In Jerusalem they must have lined up at the city gates or near the temple. Try to imagine a long line of people, almost blocking your way in the Jerusalem streets, some that are blind, some that are epileptic, some whose hands or feet have been crushed by an accident… imagine them holding out their hands to you as you try to enter the city, asking you for money or food. And then remember what Jesus told us in this passage about the sheep and the goats – whenever we did not help someone else, we did not help Jesus himself. This is a powerful statement, and it’s very clear what it means. We should help people whenever and however we can do it, in Jesus’ name.
Now I’ve heard people preach this passage almost to death. It comes down to a strong statement – Try harder! Give more! Did you forget someone? Did you leave anyone out? Give, give, give, give, give, of yourself and don’t ever relax or you’ll go straight to hell like those goats. (I can say that, it's in the Bible). Do more. Do more. Do more. It’s a hard sermon to hear. It’s a hard truth to face, and of course, all of us could do more. But that’s not the sermon I am going to preach today.
I want to introduce an alternative interpretation of this passage. I’m not trying to say that the passage doesn’t say what it says. It has a very clear meaning – we all ought to help other people when they are in need. I do not deny that at all. But the truth is that this can make us feel very guilty and overwhelmed by the task we feel we must do. We might feel as if we are personally responsible for helping the whole world, which is not true. We are not responsible for saving the world – Jesus does that. And I believe that most of us already have a moral sense, inside of us. We know that it is right to help other people. So I am wondering what else there is to say. I don’t want to take the rest of my sermon time beating you (and myself) over the head with “try harder! Do more! Be a sheep! Don’t be a goat!”
So let’s take a look at the passage. Let’s picture the judgment scene again. This is the very last story that Jesus told his disciples. It’s about the very end of time, and it’s called the Final Judgment for that reason.
Picture Jesus, as the Son of Man, sitting in a throne, and all the nations of the whole world gathered before him. He doesn’t have a hard time sorting them one from another – he’s not testing them or interviewing them or looking their names up in a book – he knows who is who, as easily as a shepherd can tell a sheep from a goat. Jewish goats, in those days, were usually black goats, and easily labeled as the “bad guys” as opposed to the cute white sheep – now I’M not saying I’m partial – this is just what the tradition was.
So the cute little sheep go to the right side, yes that’s why the choir is there isn’t it, and the mean old goats go to the left side – sorry, folks, it’s just for an example.
And is that all? That’s the whole story – everyone is a sheep, or a goat? Here I have to say no. There is another group of people in the picture. Jesus says “whatever you did to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did to me.”
Where are these folks? The “least of these – jesus’ brothers and sisters?” And who are they anyway? Some kind of special representative for Jesus?
I don’t think that these people are on the left OR the right. I think that these people are right up next to the throne, with Christ himself. I don’t think they’re going to be sent to the left or to the right, because they are so close to Christ that they stay with him, and go where he goes, and do what he does. Let me explain this a little more.
The first point is that this judgment scene describes “all the nations” coming to the throne to be judged. But the same word that is used for “nations” can also be used for “gentiles” which means the non-Jews. Not all scholars agree, but there are definitely some people who think that this is one case where it should be translated as Gentiles. This means we could interpret them now as anyone who is not Christian, who had not heard the gospel and become part of the family of God. In other words, the sheep and the goats are the people who are strangers to Christ. This is the judgment of outsiders.
The other important point is how Jesus describes the other group. He calls them “the least of these my brothers.” We might remember earlier in the gospel when Jesus asked “who are my brothers and sisters?” and his answer was to point at his disciples and say “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And earlier on when Jesus called his disciples and sent them out on their mission he told them not to take gold, or silver, or copper in their belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; (10:9-10) so he was sending them out poor and needy, hungry and thirsty. And when he sent them out, he said about these disciples: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
What I mean is that Jesus uses both those words – “brothers and sisters” and also “these little ones” or “the least of these” – to refer to his disciples, not just the twelve, but the people that are near him and following him. These are the missionaries that he sent out without cloak or staff or extra shoes. These are the Christians who have done his work in the world, and who have been poor and hungry and thrown in prison as a result of their faithfulness.
So! If Jesus’ disicples are “the least of these,” we who are Christ’s followers shouldn’t be worried, then, about whether we sat on the right or the left of the church when we came in today. Instead of being in the massive group of strangers who are sorted like sheep and goats, we actually are invited up to sit with Christ, right next to his throne, and to be his representatives in the world as we interact with strangers.
I’ll admit, this is a little scary. Because it means that we might have to be hungry, and thirsty, and weak, and poor, and in prison, and sick… like those brothers and sisters were. It means we might not always feel victorious and prosperous and accomplished. We might not be able to help other people with our generous gifts of money or food or time, because we ourselves may be the one who is in need.
It is scary but it is also a consolation. What one of us is NOT weak and poor and needy inside? What it really means is that when we are the weakest, the most vulnerable, even when we are helpless and we might feel hopeless, that God is there in us. THAT is how we represent Christ to the world.
I know some of you have been through terrible misfortune, or just through simple hard times. Many of you have shared your stories of how God helped you through a tough time. But even if you didn’t escape disaster – if you were truly visited by calamity and there was really nothing you could do about it – you have also shared stories of how you knew that Christ was in that situation with you. Sometimes we pray to God to remove a hardship from us, but for whatever reason God does not do that for us, and we have to stick it out and endure. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about a situation. But there is always a choice of what you are going to be in the situation. And we can be Christ’s little sisters and brothers in our suffering, if we always remember that we belong to Christ. The story of Job which Dale read is a classic example of someone who knew that he belonged to God no matter what his circumstances. Job used to be a pretty big guy in his town. He was highly regarded and respected… he didn’t have enemies… he was an elder, a wise person, an advocate for those who needed it. He was confident in all he did. But then, after some tricky little arrangment between God and the angels and Satan, it happened that Job lost everything – his house, his land, all his possessions. His family died. – and then he got sick -- he lost his health and it seemed like he was about to lose his mind. People looked at this and wondered why God was punishing him so much – wwsht – Job’s good reputation was gone. He sat on a trash heap and scraped his sores all day. The book of Job is a great book to read if you’re upset about hard times, because Job doesn’t just take it all in stride. He argues with God. He shouts out to heaven – why have you done this to me? I was righteous, I helped the poor, I was a shining example of generous and virtuous behavior in my city. How is it fair that I am no longer able to help even myself?? But even while he argued, Job was faithful through all his sufferings. He said the famous words “the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And he also said the words we sang in the first hymn today: I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the last upon the earth; and after my skin has thus been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God. He had a strong faith. And more than two thousand years later, his words survive as a testimony and a consolation to us.

And another, more recent example that comes to mind, and probably has been on your minds as well, is Isaiah Buck, the teenage boy who was in the car accident three weeks ago and who has come out of a coma and is learning to walk again. He and his family are certainly in hard times now. Even though Isaiah is making great progress, he cannot do anything for himself and he’s reliant on the care of others. The whole family is receiving help from other people. This must be hard for them. But from what I’ve heard, Isaiah and his family have brought inspiration to many other people, people who witness their faith and constancy, their devotion and love, and of course everyone who sees the miracle of Isaiah’s very life and every step of progress he makes. The Buck family has a website where they post updates on Isaiah, and HERE ARE SOME QUOTES FROM the online guestbook.
You are an inspiration to us.
Through tears of joy I praise our loving, holy God.
You have surely made an impact on my life, ever since i found out about the accident i have not stopped thinking about you,
Here’s one addressed to the parents: you two have encouraged ME with your reminder in each update that God is good and in control. You are not alone in this- thanks for letting us be in prayer with you!
I am not surprised anymore. I see God doing such awesome things.
I am greatly encouraged as I watch you face the great unknown, trusting in the God who knows all. I know the road is hard.
I am thinking of all of you, especially you, Isaiah. I have been finding myself being awakened at such random hours in the middle of the night, saying prayers over & again for you...and i know that the Lord Jesus has you in His hands, even now.

Now I can’t put words into the Bucks’ mouths and say they could be happy about being this kind of an inspiration to other people. No one chooses this kind of vulnerability, to put their lives on display for a whole community to pray over them, raise money for them, follow all their updates and talk about them in the post office or the general store and pray for them at every church in the county. No one chooses to go through this. But by being faithful and open through their hard times, they are showing us the face of Christ. They are helping us come to know the compassionate and suffering God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
This is a really hard thing to do. Usually we’ve learned “it’s better to give than receive” and that is certainly a true statement, but it’s a relative statement. Jesus never said “thou shalt not receive from others.” There is also a ministry in receiving; in opening yourself and letting people love you. And that is part of what Jesus’ whole ministry was about – becoming human, becoming frail, becoming vulnerable and hungry and thirsty and probably sometimes lonely and tired as well. By doing these things he gave us all an opportunity to love him, to help him, and to be close to him in his suffering.
So this is not one of those sermons where you’re going to get something practical out of it. The moral of the story isn’t “Go ye therefore and give to the poor” but neither is it “thou shalt not give, start receiving instead.” What I hope you’ll take away from this little study of the judgment scene is a picture of Jesus Christ. We all know that no image we can make is sufficient, and that Jesus can’t be tied down to one image – so in the stained-glass windows of our minds, let’s just add one picture of Jesus to the others we’ve known. I’d ask you to picture him, not royally enthroned with ranks of angels, but sitting propped up in a hospital bed. Look at his hands and see that they are thin and weak. Look in his eyes and see how tired he is. He is wanting, and needing, and asking, even if he cannot speak. He needs help, and he needs love.
And now put yourself in the picture. Where are you? Maybe you are giving Jesus the cup of cold water that he needs so badly. Maybe you are in the hospital bed next to him, feeling exactly as miserable as he is. Maybe you’re just a nurse, or a janitor, keeping busy around the hospital. But bring yourself near to him. Look into his eyes again and receive from him. Receive the knowledge that he is with us, that he is glad to be with us, that he feels for all our suffering, and that even in the depths of this hard life his spirit is flying, like a dove in the heavens. This is Christ. The same Christ who will be victorious over earth and heaven. This is Christ. Are you surprised to see him here in this hospital bed?
It’s surprising. It’s mysterious. But walk with him. Stay with him. Don’t be afraid to go through your own personal hardships. Christ is with us. Amen.

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