St. Simon’s on the Sound
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25: 31-46
Today’s gospel reading about the sheep and the goats is yet another parable that sets us straight with regard to those who are fulfilling their baptismal covenant, truly engaging in compassionate living, and those who are not. The question for us in today’s gospel is - who is a sheep and who is a goat? Can you tell? It’s not always so easy – and yet, to not understand the difference and, therefore, the importance of this message from Jesus, can lead to sharp disappointment and potential damage to those who are the target of our “compassion.”
As an example, let me tell you a story about some good folks who believed that there were sheep, but who really turned out to be goats – or, did they?
A small group went on a mission trip to Haiti. Their work was focused on providing a three-day Vacation Bible School experience for children situated in a small orphanage located in the capitol city of Port au Prince. Each day the mission team would be shuttled from the guest house, where they were staying, to the orphanage. After several hours at the orphanage, they returned to the guesthouse for an afternoon of prayer and studying.
Their shuttle bus took them through Cité Soleil (Sun City in English) a shanty town located in the center of Port-au-Prince. Most of Cite Soleil’s 300,000 residents live in extreme poverty. Children and single mothers predominate in the population. Social and living conditions in the slum do not allow residents to fulfill even the basic human needs. Homes are simply shacks made from rusty metal sheets. Infectious diseases are wide-spread. Garbage collection, clean water, and basic sanitation does not exist in Cité Soleil. The average life expectancy of Cite Soleil residents is between 45-50 years of age.
The mission team members were naturally troubled as they drove through this section of Port au Prince. They were especially troubled by the fact that mothers were carrying small infants wrapped in newspaper to keep them warm. One evening at supper, they agreed to purchase baby blankets and hand them out to the mothers as they drove down the boulevard that transverses Cite Soleil. That decided, they quickly finished dinner and rushed out to the street vendors selling baby products, and bought up as many blankets as they could find.
The following morning, as their bus drove down the Cite Soleil boulevard, the mission team members handed the blankets to women and their babies through the open bus windows. The women grabbed at the blankets and waved at the team, with big smiles on their faces.
The team felt great. They had done a wonderful thing. They had demonstrated compassion for the cold and impoverished babies. Now the babies would be nice and warm, the mothers would heave a sigh of relief; all that dirty old newspaper could be tossed away. In those moments they felt themselves to be truly be good shepherds, compassionate people caring for God’s flock.
On the way back to their guesthouse, just a few short hours later, the team members looked out of the bus windows and were aghast as they saw the very same blankets that they had given to the mothers hanging in vendor’s stalls for sale, once again. And, even worse, the very same babies were still wrapped in the offensively dirty newspaper.
They were angry. These mothers were callous, they only cared about money, not their babies – how could they???
The mission team leader suggested that the driver stop the bus so that one or two of the mothers could be interviewed. Since no one on the team spoke Creole, the bus driver was asked to question the mothers about the blankets and the newspaper. After several moments of conversation, the bus driver turned around to the team and said, “They say, thank you for the blankets so they could sell them and get the money they need to buy food for their babies.”
Maybe these team members weren’t sheep. Maybe they were really goats.
In today’s parable of the sheep and the goats, we learn that the coming Son of Man has actually been present among the most vulnerable members of society all along. He is already here – the kingdom has been a home for the sheep since the “foundation of the world.”
The Son of Man of this parable upends paradigms of time and power and privilege. We discover that he makes, and has made, his dwelling place not in castles and elegant homes, but in mangers and fields. He makes, and has made, since the foundation of the world, his dwelling place among the least.
The Son of Man of this parable is crowned with king-like attributes of universal and everlasting dominion, but does not act like a typical king, or ruler, or judge. When Jesus remarks, “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,” we learn that He is one of them, one of the least. The least are his family.
And, who exactly are the least ones – needy members of the Christian community, the wandering Christian missionaries of Matthew’s day – or, perhaps anyone in need. Why didn’t Jesus give his disciples a clearer identification of the least ones? Perhaps because doing so would make us all goats. Should we have to ask?
Today’s parable implies quite clearly that we should not have to ask.
In this parable, the king speaks first to the sheep, affirming that they are blessed by the father; they will inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world – from the beginning of time. Selflessly and without having to wonder “should I, or shouldn’t I,” they have given him food, drink, hospitality, clothing, care and visited him when he was in need.
The king’s address to the goats runs through the same list of acts of compassion, but is expressed in the negative – the goats are “accursed.” The goats voice surprise at the king’s comments: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…?”
Although the sheep and the goats voice identical questions - “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…,” their questions carry very different implications.
The sheep acted out of genuine compassion, without any awareness that the king might be present among the least ones, and without any thought of potential reward. The goats, on the other hand, are trapped within the social code that orders relationships and values giving to those at the top of the pyramid, not those at the bottom – those who have nothing to give back.
On the lips of the goats, the same question that the sheep have asked implies something quite different. For them, the goats, “When did we see you hungry…?” implies that, had they only known of the king’s presence among the least ones, they would have been right there, attempting to serve his needs.
What does this parable – this teaching of Jesus about the sheep and the goats have to do with the missionaries and the baby blankets in Haiti; and, perhaps, more importantly, us here at St. Simon’s, so many years later?
Everything really. This parable must be central to our consideration as we prepare to engage ourselves and our church in the world. It is a parable that forces us to carefully consider and discern, our intentions, our decisions, and our actions as we go forth each Sunday morning in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
Are we, without concern of acknowledgement or reward, embedding ourselves among the least of those who live around and among us – those whom we serve? Are we developing a loving companionship with them; giving them, when it is truly needed, food, drink, welcoming, visitation, and healing? Or, are we standing outside these communities of the least, sitting in parish halls and other church meeting rooms developing projects and programs that are intended to give to them – the least – what we deem they need?
There is a big difference. The former is based on our becoming one - one body with the least – the body of Christ. The latter is based on a class system of “haves” and “have nots.”
Put another way, do we dare to live among the least of these? Do we dare to descend from the bus in Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and become one with the mothers and babies? Really be present with them and experience the pain that they experience in not being able to feed the infants in their arms. Serving them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Or, do we find it more comfortable to sit in the moving bus, gazing out of the window and imagining that baby blankets will solve the problems of mothers who wander the streets of Cite Soleil. Do we even imagine that in their wandering they will stop at the next garbage heap to seek some small morsel of food for themselves and their family? Or, that when in next rains they will live in a sea of mud and water for days on end?
Do we develop a mission project, wherever it may be, that allows us to live with the community that we intend to join with for several hours over a period of two or three days - entering into companionships that will allow healing of mind, body and spirit on both sides? Or, do we sit at home and engage in a series of committee meetings to decide upon what gifts we can take them on our next visit?
This may seem an extreme example; but, really, it isn’t. The sheep are those who seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace among all people – loving and respecting each other, just as Christ loves us. This is the case for all sheep. Sheep in engaged in world mission, sheep engaged in local mission; sheep engaged in congregational mission.
Being present with; being among; walking beside; listening; loving others in the power of the Spirit. That is the job description for a sheep. That is the job description for all of us – all of us baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN