Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
In this season of gratitude, I am grateful for another chance to listen to and wrestle with and learn from and a familiar text from the gospel of Matthew. I am grateful that this ancient text survived and we can still learn from Jesus’ stories.
This parable about the kindom of God comes at the end of Matthew 25, after two other parables about the reign of God. “It is like 10 bridal attendants waiting for the wedding to begin… And it is like a wealthy business owner who goes on a trip and gives the employees money before setting out… And it is like the royal one sitting on the throne with the people of all the nations assembled…”
As people guided by intellect and reason, we may want a more scientific explanation of the reign of God. How else are we to understand and implement this reign unless we have an accurate, indisputable description? How else are we to be part of bringing the reign of God unless we have a formula by which to create it? Yet what we are given by Jesus and the prophets are stories, metaphors, images, songs, poems that help us catch glimpses of “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In order to grasp that beautiful reign of God, we want to help create it, control it, hold on tight and never let it go. And that is precisely what Jesus warns against. We cannot predict, or control the kindom because it is beyond any one of us. It is not my reign to control, or yours or yours, certainly not the Rabbi or the Bishop or Cardinal or Imam. It is the reign of God – a reign that is full of wonder and joy and awe and justice. If we want to begin to approach the reign of God it will take imagination and creativity – stories, art and poetry, banquets, games and songs. We will have to, we will want to, work and play and create together to live into it.
So we continue to tell these stories from Jesus, generation after generation. And as we learn what to watch for, we get small sitings of the reign of God. Here and there when we cooperate and create and maybe when we least expect it, when we let go and stop trying so hard, there it is – a moment in the reign of God.
Sometimes it is hard to understand just what Jesus is talking about since the stories he tells come out of such a different time and place. For this picture of the reign of God, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah, (Isaiah 2) and riffs on Isaiah’s vision: people from all nations will come streaming to the royal one. In Jesus’ version, the royal one is also a knowledgeable shepherd, maybe reminiscent of King David who had been a shepherd before taking the throne?
It is more than 25 years since I went to Kenya but I still remember the revelation. We were in the countryside and came upon a herder with what we were told were goats. I was pretty sure they were sheep, they sure looked like sheep to me. That’s when I realized that separating the sheep from the goats is not as easy as distinguishing the difference between fuzzy wool and sleek fur. You can’t quickly separate the sheep from goats if they are just mutely standing there or even if they are milling about in the pen. You might examine their tails – sheep tails droop, goat tails stick up. But what you really need to watch is their behavior.
Goats will eat all kinds of things, browsing through leaves, twigs, shrubs, even poison ivy. Sheep like short grass, down near the ground. Goats are more curiously independent, while sheep like to stay with the flock. http://www.sheep101.info/sheepandgoats.html
Behavior – that is what Jesus is talking about with sheep and goats and the reign of God. The sheep behave one way and the goats another way. The sheep give food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty; the sheep welcome those who are friendless; comfort and clothe those who are naked and sick; visit those who languish in prison. The goats don’t even see the need, “when did we see you hungry or naked or welcome you…” The goats don’t see those right in front of them or remember those who are locked away. Sheep and goats are distinguishable not so much by how they look but by what they see and how they behave.
This parable describes the social problems of Jesus’ day. It sounds like hunger, sanctuary, clean water, adequate health care, unjust imprisonment were all ways that people were marginalized. While not an exhaustive list, these are still things we struggle with today. How can it be that two thousand years later, we who do not usually read the bible literally, can read this passage and the issues literally sound contemporary?
Maybe that is why this passage has always made me feel guilty: the list of ills is all too familiar. Hunger and thirst and healthcare, exclusion and unjust imprisonment: they morph but they persist. Now thirst looks like lack of access to clean, uncontaminated water in a country where we thought clean water was a given. Hunger looks like food deserts, in a country where food is abundant. Welcome to the stranger looks like opening up cliques and congregations as well as opening borders of countries. Visiting those in prison can look like writing holiday cards to those who live in fear behind bars. Try as hard as I can to be an aware and compassionate sheep, sometimes I feel like a guilty goat. And even when I am a sheep, and respond to the needs in front of me, the needs are still there, they don’t go away.
So it almost feels like a response to this dilemma,when the next passage in Matthew is the story of Jesus anointed by an unnamed woman. She pours a bottle of expensive perfume, all over this head. The disciples are outraged: such extravagance should not be wasted this way, even if it is on Jesus. To their protestations, Jesus says, “Leave her alone. You will always have poor people with you.”
This is another phrase that Christians sometimes take literally: “the poor you will always have with you.” This is not a prophetic commandment, as if unending poverty is good news. It is not an excuse to act like goats, ignoring what is in front of us, closing ourselves off to need in the world.
It is an unfortunate reality but Jesus doesn’t say the solution to never-ending poverty is to ignore it. He affirms the woman for doing what she can in the face of his impending death. And Jesus affirms the sheep for doing what they can even though hungry and thirsty people and refugees keep coming. He affirms the sheep for doing what they can to share clothing and visit people who are sick or in prison. He affirms the behavior because even if it doesn’t eradicate the problem, in some mysterious way the Royal One is served. When we look at the people who are too often ignored; or when we are sidelined and yet stand up for ourselves; when we respond to the needs in front of us or connect with the people who are hidden away in prison – in some inexplicable way, we are seeing the face of the Holy One.
Jesus’ words to the disciples help me understand that we may never eradicate poverty. But we can try to eliminate apathy and hopelessness and feeling defeated. We can work together to respond to suffering here and now. We are not alone as we seek the face of the Holy. As sheep, we travel in herds.
As Janet said, this is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we recognize that our highest allegiance is to a kindom other than the one whose borders we live within. Jesus lived in the Roman Empire but he reminded his followers, and all who will listen, that the Reign of God will trump Caesar every time.
Like Jesus, we live in a noisy, demanding empire. We see government officials who believe that titles and stolen wealth are reason to receive praise and power. We see those in power demand the flag be honored because they say so. We watch as those who hold governmental power try to define new truth for all people, across all walks of life.
In a time and place such as this, Christ the King/Christa the Queen/Christus the Ruler Sunday takes on renewed significance. We remember that the man Jesus is now Christus, no longer bound by time and space but now in all times and all places. A Ruler/Queen/King like this is more powerful than any human ruler in power for four years or eight years, or even 37 years (in Zimbabwe.)
It takes a powerful imagination to see beyond time and space and be committed to such a long view, to the Reign of Christus. It takes a lot of creativity to keep remembering that we are part of a world wide faith that reaches over and beyond the borders that world powers create. We have to keep looking back to Jesus while looking forward to Christus, and remaining committed to sheep behavior right here and now – even when it feels like goats get a better deal.
In some of Jesus’ stories about the reign of God, the ruler throws a banquet to which all are invited. Today after the service you are invited to share in a royal banquet to help us remember that we are part of the kindom of Christus. We do not have stewards to prepare golden goblets of wine and we will not have crowded tables overflowing with food. This banquet is lovingly prepared by the children in children’s church and the pastorate. This banquet has a little of this and little of that; a banquet to satisfy our hunger but leave us yearning for justice. This banquet reminds us of those who still hunger and thirst, those who need a table to be part of, those whose lives are wasted behind bars and those who long for health and wholeness.
This banquet reminds us that at the table of Christus there is always room for one more sheep.
May it be so.