Sheep, Goats and the Poor

So which are you?  A sheep?  Or a goat?

Photo Credit: Riccardo Palazzani – Italy Flickr via Compfight cc

I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in.  And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church was the one you really wanted to be on.  It’s the Son of Man’s left and right, but if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd.  You have to go left if you want to be on his right.

Jesus uses a helpful metaphor to describe the sorting of people at the end of the age.  Shepherds often had mixed flocks then—sheep and goats mingling in the fields.  But when evening came, they needed to be separated in order to protect them.  Sheep could handle the cold better than the goats, so goats needed to be herded inside to be kept safe.  Two things helped distinguish one from the other: obviously the wooly coat if it hadn’t recently been shorn; but if it had, the shepherd looked at the tail.  A goat’s tail goes up, and a sheep’s always hangs down.  Tails up to the left.  Tails down to the right.  Keep it moving, it’s getting cold, and night is coming.

And so it will be at the end of the age.

A sermon based on Matthew 25.

Which sounds kind of harsh.  We’ve had three weeks of these parables now—the 10 bridesmaids with their lamps, the servants with their talents and now these sheep and goats.  In each case there’s a judgment and separation.  The five foolish bridesmaids who forgot their oil miss out on the reception.  The servant who buried the talent given by his master in the ground, gets the money taken away and then he gets tossed out into the outer darkness.  And now sheep and goats, the ones get eternal life and the other a place where there will be no joy.  You might be wondering what’s going on with this angry Jesus.  It is Holy Week, and we’re leading up to his death, so certainly his stress is skyrocketing.  But he just seems harsh.

Professor Lindsay Armstrong tells of heading to the doctor every year “for no apparent reason.”  She writes, “I make an appointment, pay for parking, sit in the waiting room, and then have a complete physical examination, in order for a team of medical professionals to measure my wellness.  It is not an entirely comfortable experience, and I confess that I often want to avoid it.  However, heart disease runs in my family, and after I am done, I have a coronary-risk profile as well as a picture of my overall health…. This checkup could save my life, and my insurance company thinks this is such a good idea that they pay the bill.”  She then continues, “In many ways, Matthew’s depiction of the last judgment is like a wellness check.  It’s purpose is not to condemn or scare but to provide a snapshot of our overall health, development, learning, and growth that should lead to new habits and ways of life.  After all, as our doctor wants us to flourish, so does our Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and King.”

If you were like me this week, you might have had a bit too much to eat.  I ran the Gobble Wobble to make myself feel a bit better when I grabbed that extra helping or three of desert, but I purposefully didn’t schedule my annual physical around this time.  I don’t want my doctor to think this is always how I eat or that I always carry a few extra pounds.  If I had been smart, I would have scheduled it after all that hiking I did this summer, when my body was humming along like a fine tuned machine.

So is Jesus being all harsh here for a reason?  Is it to get us out our tryptophan-induced stupor in order to wake up and see the truth?  Is he being a bit overly harsh critical so that we see the seriousness of it all and not just coast along on cruise control throughout our lives?

“Come you that are blessed of my Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 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.”  “When,” those on his right will ask.  “When were you hungry or sick or imprisoned, because we’re pretty sure we would have recognized you?”  “When you did it to the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it to me.”

On September 30 of this year, Congress allowed the 20 year old bi-partisan Children’s Health Insurance Program to expire without further funding. Some 9 million kids will start going without routine check-ups which were free under the program for the underserved.  Other visits had a modest co-pay, and it things like immunizations and necessary prescriptions for asthma and the like.

The US has the highest prison population per capita in the world, with some 2.3 million people incarcerated.  Disproportionately, African-Americans and Hispanic persons are more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans, even though whites make up more than 60% of our population. Black Americans make up only 15% of the population, but they  constitute about 50% of the inmates serving life sentences, and nearly 60% of those who are serving life sentences without parole.

It’s 66 days after Hurricane Maria and over 10% of the people in Puerto Rico still do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. That’s more than 345,000 people, or over half the population of Boston. There are some 265,000 food insecure households here in Massachusetts; that’s 1 in every 10.  In September our federal government moved to abolish the DACA program—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—which allowed 800,000 people who came into this country under the age of 16 without proper documentation to continue to live here—often the only place they really knew to be home.

Regardless of your politics, the categories that Jesus lists continue to be extremely relevant today.  The hungry and the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger, the thirsty and the homeless can still be found in our lives and on our streets.  And Jesus is with them.

Make no mistake what the King is saying to those on his left and right: He is among the marginalized and disenfranchised.  He lives amidst the poor and forgotten ones.  His face is the one you see when you pass a panhandler.  As Ronald Rolheiser put it, “In effect, Jesus [tells] us that nobody will get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”  That’s making me feel a bit more like a goat this morning.

But here’s the thing: everyone is surprised in this story.  The multitude of people gathered around the Son of Man at the end of the age are all shocked about their morality and their iniquity.  “When did we meet you?” they all ask the king.  “When were you sick, hungry, lonely or thirsty?”  The actions the righteous and unrighteous take flow out of who they have become.  Habitually they’ve reached out to the poor and worked to break down systems of injustice, or not.  Their actions became so ingrained that they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

Which is what our doctor wants for us in terms of our health, right? We know the things we’re to do, getting out and moving, stretching, eating nutritional food, avoiding too much alcohol and the like.  Similarly our relationship to the poor.  God chooses to be identified with the ones society often pushes out.  God wants to lift them up, and God does so through us.  God wants it to become so ingrained, so natural for us to help and fight for the fair treatment of those in need that we don’t even notice it, that we’re surprised whenever anyone mentions it.

So know the choice is before us as we end the liturgical year and turn the calendar next week to Advent.  We can imagine that Jesus is just a bit too preachy and ignore it, or we can hear his desire for us to live a life filled with health and meaning and make changes now.  He wants us to make the right call, to live more faithfully as his followers.  He doesn’t want any to perish.  So let’s reach out and help and raise up and encourage and work alongside the poor.  It’ll change both their lives and ours because the love of Christ has the power to transform and propel us to the Kingdom.  Amen.