I’ll be honest, I’ve been wrestling with the Matthew text a little this week. It seems heavy-handed with its judgment, with its apparent black-and-white, sheep-and-goat mentality. It seems to me tone-deaf for this congregation—for you—especially this year, this week, this morning.
You have been working so hard. The ways in which you give of yourselves is remarkable. You are known among this community as leaders in doing good.
In fact, I worry that we’ve been working so hard at this that it is beginning to take a toll. We are frayed at the edges, the margins in our lives are so thin that we have little energy left to be gracious and kind and adaptive when something unexpected comes along. And then we end up hurting those who are most dear to us, our greatest allies and our closest friends. We lose our creative edge, our ability to imagine new solutions is diminished.
So I am declaring today a sheep day. I here-by declare this sanctuary a goat-free zone!
It is, after all, too easy to grab onto the negative, onto the judgment, and make assumptions that are not especially fair to these ancient texts and have more to do with our own culture when it comes to all things “shepherd.”
For example, I heard this week that sheep and goats in some middle-eastern countries are almost indistinguishable. The only way one traveler could tell them apart was by the way their tails went either up or down. They aren’t the little pygmy goats you may have seen climbing on everything—cutest things ever. It took a shepherd’s eye to tell them apart.
I’ve also heard that in these ancient times sheep and goats were separated at night because goats were smart and more able to defend themselves than sheep were. Sheep required a level of protection goats did not.
My point is, we should be careful making assumptions about sheep and goats, and for that matter about notions of reward and punishment that dismiss the God we encounter elsewhere in the scriptures who searches and searches like a woman for a lost coin, who runs toward his prodigal child to forgive before he’s even asked. My point is we all have a little sheep and a little goat in us. And my point is God seems to hold grace and justice, and us, for that matter, in ways that we are only beginning to understand.
But today is a goat-free day, and we are in a goat-free zone.
Today is a day for us to be sought after by Ezekiel’s shepherding God who sought out the sheep of Israel and by association shepherds us too. Listen again:
I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out … and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses… 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice.[i]
You see, it’s not that doing good works will magically punch your ticket into a life hereafter walking the streets of gold while those jerks who never do much of anything for anyone but themselves will get their due in the fires of hell. There’s a little sheep and goat in all of us. And these ancient texts refer to historical experiences of exile and homelessness and wandering and what it takes to find ourselves.
I suspect the link is a different one tying works of compassion to our own development. And we have those works of compassion pretty much down pat. But the question still remains how we move from compassion to justice, from good works to a good society that serves everyone rather than just the few and makes for the ways of peace. And I suspect we need some margins to do that. I suspect we need some space, some rest, some gentle pasture and clear waters that only a good shepherd can lead us to.
And you don’t have to pay much attention at all to the headlines to realize we are at a moment in history in which we could use some wisdom and some justice and a society that is a little better than it is. We live at the hinge of an era—not just in the church, but society as a whole—waiting to see whether we will choose to invest in a future that has room for everyone, or a collection of oligarchies that serves just a few.
And that’s going to take some creativity. It’s going to take some deeper listening. It’s going to take us working together rather than against each other as if we are so many sheep and goats.
In a report released last Tuesday, the UN Population Fund noted we’ve hit an all-time high of young people around the globe and they are mostly in poor regions of the world: “Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social progress,” the report states. But the authors warn that this demographic surge could also have the potential to destabilize nations unless young people can secure access to health services, education and jobs.[ii]
You see, a good society, the kind of society in which we can say Christ is King, or if you prefer less dated language, a world where love is the rule and people have what they need, and our relationships give life and we reap what we sow and work reasonable hours that allow us to make a living wage and enjoy our families and nurture our children and make for a future, that kind of world takes more than us working harder and harder. The real task is not trying to do more, but about being present in a different way in the good you are doing.
If we aren’t going to be manipulated, we will have to be on our toes, we’re going to need room to reflect. I saw somewhere this week that Black Friday in the United States is what we do the day after we’ve given thanks for what we have. We give thanks on Thursday, then what do we do? We rush off on Friday to buy up more stuff. I’m just not sure we’ve got this thing figured out yet.
So I’m hoping that Thanksgiving or at least some day this week you will make for yourselves room to do nothing more than give thanks. And I’m praying for you that you will be able to see the green pastures and clear waters—that the “eyes of our hearts” will be enlightened as Ephesians so beautifully says it that we can see the peace that rules our hearts, that is here all the time calling to us, guiding us, making a way, setting our hearts and our lives and our world right.
Because you work hard. And it would be such a shame for all that work to go to waste because we missed the loving shepherd and the feast he prepares for us.
[i] Ezekiel 34:12-16. NRSV.
[ii] See http://time.com/3591947/young-people-united-nations/ for the brief article and http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/SWP%202014/Report%20files/EN-SWOP14-Report_FINAL-web.pdf for the full report.