Last Pentecost 2014: sheep, goats, the shepherd and the kingdom

Ezekiel 34:11-17 Psalm 95:1-7 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
Matthew 25:31-46
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them, feed them … seek the lost … bring back the strayed … bind up the injured … strengthen the weak. The fat and the strong I will destroy.
“Lean and weak” are not characteristics that our culture glorifies. We want to be “lean and mean, right?” “Fat and strong” will be destroyed. I wonder if “fat and strong” relates somehow to Michelangelo’s statue of David. When asked how he sculpted such a magnificent statue, he said “I chipped away all that was not David.” God’s work with us is not complete until, at our invitation, God chips away all that is not “us,” according to God’s call on our lives. Fat becomes lean as those characteristics and things that we do not need are stripped away. Strong, if “strong” is in inclinations away from God, is destroyed. We become the magnificent human beings that God created. God searches for us, seeks us out until we are found – again and again – by our shepherd.

And then there’s the gospel of Matthew. It’s about judgment day, right? Yes, a little. We will be judged, but the sheep and goats judgment is not about how to get into heaven. It is about a radical faith that allows the kingdom of God to crash into our lives right now. Right here. So there is a question: how transformed do we have to be? How much do we have to let Jesus in our lives? …

In the words of Bishop William Willimon:

God doesn’t want us to set aside time now and again to serve poor, hungry, thirsty, naked and sick prisoners. God wants a servant’s attitude to be woven through the entire fabric of our whole lives. We, like those individuals in Jesus’ great Judgment Parable, are called to be so deeply rooted in the Gospel, and so profoundly committed to lives of service, that we instinctively reach out to the needs of the community that surrounds us. Not because by doing so we hope to please God, but because that’s the kind of people we have become.

Isn’t it interesting that those who will inherit the kingdom had no idea what they had done to deserve such splendor. They did not know that they had ever served Jesus. The goats, those who would go into eternal punishment, also did not know what they had done, or left undone. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was naked and you did not give me clothing, in jail and you did not visit me.”

No one set out to minister to Jesus or to neglect him. If the sheep and goats had known what was required they would have responded. And certainly if people had known it was JESUS, well, we would have fed him, given him water and good wine, a gift card to a fine restaurant … would have recommended him to our most favored legal help; there was no need to have crucified him. We would have gotten him off.

There is a great sadness in this parable in that question of “when?” When did I do this? When did we serve Jesus? When did we not? We don’t know. We who have taken a vow to respect the dignity of every human being, have not seen Jesus in every human being. Of course we haven’t; some people are very difficult to serve, let alone love.

Another writer puts the whole situation this way:
One would think that actually serving Christ shouldn’t be as hard, and as disheartening, as it often is. But there we are. After all, just because we’re doing something for religious reasons doesn’t mean that, all by itself, whatever we’re doing will look or feel religious or that it will effect us in a particularly religious way.
Cleaning the kitchen in the church, or anywhere else for that matter, is still cleaning a kitchen. Being nice to a difficult person because you are convinced that Jesus wants you to, is still being nice to a difficult person. Spending time or money or energy out of Christian conviction still means that you no longer have that time or that money or that energy. (

Here’s a real life example. One woman gave up some time to serve in a soup kitchen. Another woman, one who had just received the free salad, complained because there was no salad dressing. Do you see Jesus in that complaining woman? It would be hard for many of us to see Jesus there. She just got free food! One server, however, who had no idea she was seeing Jesus, took the complaining woman aside and taught her how to make salad dressing out of things that she had on hand: mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar. Caught unawares, both of these women experienced Jesus in the other: in food provided to fill a hungry belly, and food provided in knowledge on how to “make do.” And the server? Filled a part of her soul that she didn’t know was empty. I am sure that the soup kitchen work didn’t feel religious. And the some of the people seemed downright ungrateful. We didn’t see Jesus and we took the naked salad anyway; we didn’t see Jesus so we puffed up and told her to do what “we all had to do” – make it ourselves. And both came away filled. Jesus was there.

What are we to do?

We need to ask Jesus to be present. Jesus, who is searching for us, seeking us, has promised to find us, heal us, mend us – needs us to ask for his presence. It is then that Jesus can do the work he very much wants to do in our lives – to strip away all that is not “us,” all that is not a magnificent creation. We ask Jesus to be present, and then we work hard to find Jesus everywhere. Everywhere. It is a lifetime’s work. Jesus in you. Jesus in a disgruntled “other.” Jesus in a weary store clerk, server, homeless person, prisoner, angry boss … ourselves. Look for Jesus.

Today, in a day steeped in judgment and separation, we are also given a tremendous gift: Jesus the shepherd and our participation in Cameron’s baptism. We experience Jesus in a person in whom he is readily seen: a baby being baptized. We rejoice in the abundance of children in our church, in a family returning, in the baptism of their second son. Oh, what a gift we are given, to participate in this moment with this child! And yet, baptism is not a sweet something that a family does.

To offer one’s child to be baptized is to offer him into the death of Jesus Christ, and then – this is the good part – to be risen with Christ in new life. To be claimed by Jesus Christ, always, no matter what we do or leave undone. We belong to the Shepherd. We not only witness, but participate. We vow to support him. We reaffirm our own baptismal vows.

We welcome you, Cameron, into new life. We are your new, extended family. Call on us as you grow: in struggles, in pain, in sorrow, and in joy. Let us know you; we already love you. Let’s be together as we are carved by the creator, and sought by the shepherd.

In all things, thanks be to God!

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