Sermon -- Nov. 22, 2020: "It's Better to Be a Sheep" -- Clara Thompson

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24                                                        

Matthew 25:31-46                                                                  

 

It’s better to be a sheep!

By Clara D. Thompson

 

            Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew have been chasing me all week long.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Thanksgiving, remembering the celebrations of my childhood.  One of my clearest memories of Thanksgiving as a youngster growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is the annual Thanksgiving assembly held in the gymnasium of Burns Park Elementary School.  With the mothers filling the gymnasium balcony, for most mothers were home in those days, the children lined up by classes in the hallways outside the gym.  Soon the pre-assembly chatter would stop and the piano would start to play the familiar songs – they were the same every year.  Voices young and old alike would begin to sing, “Come ye thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home” and my stomach would start to get butterflies.  As my class would move forward down the hallway in single file, each of us with our hands tightly clenched around a canned good to put into the big cardboard boxes that would line the gymnasium walls, we would inch slowly ahead.  Every year, I brought a can of Del Monte fruit cocktail for the needy at Thanksgiving.  It was one of my favorites (my mother always said I should bring something I like, not something I wanted to get rid of!), and to this day whenever I see fruit cocktail, it puts me back at Burns Park Elementary School and its Thanksgiving all over again.  As my feet crossed the threshold of the gym, glancing up into the crowded balcony in the hopes of spotting my mom, I always got a lump in my throat and my eyes filled with tears.  I was so proud as I marched in singing “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing” and I knew that all was right in the world.  As I placed my can of Del Monte fruit cocktail in any one of the cardboard boxes that would be taken to those in need, pride would swell in my heart because I was feeding the hungry.  I hoped that my can of Del Monte fruit cocktail would be appreciated by the unknown child who would eat it, and I wondered if the brother and sister in the needy family who received my canned good would fight over the cherry like my brother and I usually did. 

            Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew have been chasing me all week long, because you know what?  I never knew any of the people who received my can of fruit cocktail.  Certainly they didn’t go to Burns Park Elementary School, for we were among those who gave, while in my childish mind others were among those who received.  Oh, I had my suspicions as to what the needy looked like, but I didn’t know their names, nor where they lived, nor how they lived.  I guessed that they probably lived on the other side of Packard Road, or down by the train station.  You see, “the needy” were totally unknown to me and so, aside from the Thanksgiving assembly, to me it was as if they didn’t even exist.  They were not part of my world, or at least so I thought.  Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew have been chasing me all week long as I’ve thought about the Thanksgivings of my childhood.

            Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew have been chasing me all week long.  “I was naked and you gave me clothing.”  Well, I’ve knit a number of hats for the school children at Thoreau Elementary School in Madison, and crocheted hats for the Salvation Army shelter on the east side, and I take old clothes that are still in fairly good condition to the Goodwill drop off center, but I don’t have a personal connection with anyone who receives them.  I confess to you that sometimes it still feels as if the needy in my area aren’t really a part of my world.

            Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew have been chasing me all week long.  “I was sick and you took care of me.”  This past week I’ve learned of six more people who I know who have a loved one battling Covid, four of whom are in the hospital.  Though I’ve remembered them in my prayers each morning when I take my prayer walk, reality is, I haven’t actually gone out of my way and DONE anything to help them.  Partway through this past week, during my prayer walk, it occurred to me that my prayers have been asking God to do something … heal them, comfort them, sustain them … but our Gospel lesson for this morning is asking US to do something.  Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew have been chasing me all week long.  Our Lord’s words have been nipping at my heals, tugging at my heart, at times welling up inside me and spilling out of my tear ducts.

            “’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘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’” (Matthew 25:37-40).

            Our Gospel lesson for this morning is about how we live our lives.  It’s about living the God-life as one writer put it.  Did you notice that there is nothing in this passage about professing faith or claiming Christ as savior?  The judgment message doesn’t separate believers from non-believers; in fact, neither the sheep nor the goats appear to have any clue what Jesus taught or who is judging them in this instance.  It’s about living the God-life.  It’s about doing something to take care of those in need.  It’s about feeding the hungry, not just with an occasional canned good – though that helps! – but about changing one’s attitude and lifestyle.  It’s about clothing the naked, not just with a handmade hat or with our discarded used clothing, but with a true spirit of sacrifice and generosity.  It’s about welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned.  Not just praying for them – though that’s important too! – but actually welcoming them and visiting them, taking the time to be a part of their lives, and to let them be a part of ours.  How interesting it is that in our Gospel reading from Matthew neither the sheep nor the goats even realized what they were doing (or failing to do).  They’re all caught up in the surprise that comes from the realization that the kind of life we actually live makes a difference.  How we treat others, even the least among us, makes a difference.

            And perhaps the biggest surprise of all to both the sheep and the goats is that what they did with their lives had any connection whatsoever with Jesus, that there was actually more at stake in what they did than the needs of the ones that they had met, or the needs of the ones that they had failed to meet.  You see, by connecting with the plight and personhood of those who are the least among us – Eugene Peterson calls them “the overlooked and ignored” – by acting out a connection with them, the sheep found themselves responding with clothes, drink, fellowship, and healing gifts, whereas the goats appear to have done nothing.

            This is not an easy text this morning!  It has chased me, haunted me, all week, because it’s not really about a choice that we have between doing what is right and doing what is wrong.  Most of us don’t really get those choices all that often, and when we do, we usually choose to do the right thing.  That’s not what this Gospel lesson is about … rather than being about the choice between doing what is right and doing what is wrong, it’s about the choice between doing what is right or doing nothing at all.  It’s not that the goats were necessarily mean to the hungry or thirsty, we cannot assume that they put their cans of Del Monte fruit cocktail into the Thanksgiving boxes while they pulled out their cell phones and ordered up a catered lobster dinner for themselves.  It’s not that they made ugly hats for those who were in need while flaunting their own fancy clothes.  It’s not that they visited the sick or those in prison and then treated them poorly.  It’s not that the goats were rubbing their advantage in the noses of those who had less.  It’s that the goats ignored those in need … right in their own neighborhoods!  It’s that the goats didn’t even know who the needy were in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or Madison or Pardeeville, Wisconsin, or Tulsa, Oklahoma.

            I know in the midst of the pandemic when we’re all asked to stay safer at home, it’s easy to think, “Well, what can I do?”  We can pick up the phone and make a call of encouragement.  We can pick up a pen and write a note, or a check.  A lot of us still cook.  We can make a pot of soup for someone who is sick, or a plate of cookies for someone who is alone.  Our Gospel lesson for this morning makes it perfectly clear.  It’s not about the choice between doing what is right and doing what is wrong.  It’s about doing what is right or doing nothing at all.  Jesus’ words have been chasing me all week long, nipping at my heals, tugging at my heart.  This next week, I hope they chase you.  Amen.

 
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