Monday, November 27, 2017

Let Love Make You God's Sheep

November 26, 2017 – The Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

As a student at the University of Cambridge, your entire degree depends on how you perform on your final exams. There are no grades for essays. There are no grades for midterms. And there are no grades for attendance. It’s all or nothing right at the end. You are allowed to go to any lecture you want if you think that it will help you get ready for your finals. So, as a seminarian, when I saw that the University’s Veterinary School was offering an entire lecture series entitled “Sheep and Goats,” I gave a passing thought to showing up.

There are few distinctions as clear in the mind of the casual Christian as the one between sheep and goats, yet, as both a veterinary lecture and today’s gospel lesson would remind us, the differences aren’t all that obvious. The picture books we read as children suggest that sheep are fluffy white cotton balls while goats are slick, lean, bearded creatures, but, in fact, without a careful look at the ears or lips or tails, they can be very difficult to tell apart. A few years ago, the NPR series “Goats and Soda,” which features stories from the developing world, published a story with a picture of what the photographer, photo editor, and creator of the series all thought was a goat, but, when NPR’s lead Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, saw it, she sent the creator an e-mail to say, “That’s a pic of a sheep, not a goat!”[1] Apparently, it’s an ancient problem, too. Jesus tells us that, when the Son of Man comes to judge the nations of the earth, even the sheep and goats themselves will be surprised to discover who is who.

In these parable-like words to his disciples, Jesus makes it clear that, although the criteria for judgment is obvious, no one is prepared to hear what the judge will say. Those at the king’s right hand, when invited to enter the kingdom prepared for them, are confused. “When did we see you hungry and give you food or thirsty and give you drink?” they ask the king. “Whenever you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” the king replies. In the same way, those who are at the king’s left hand, when they learn that they are being cast into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” are shocked to discover that they neglected to care for the king by neglecting to care for others in need. If only Jesus would tell us which needy people are members of his family and which ones we can ignore! But it’s not that easy. The really scary part of this passage about judgment is that no one seems to know whether he or she is a sheep or a goat until it’s too late.

Before you lose any sleep, however, remember to whom Jesus is speaking when he says these words. He’s not talking to the crowds or to his opponents. He’s speaking exclusively to his disciples—to his closest followers, to those who know better than anyone else what it means to give their lives to the service of the king. I think that changes the way we’re supposed to hear these words. They aren’t delivered as a challenge to those who want to get into the kingdom but as an identity check for those who think that they’re already inside. Jesus isn’t telling us that, if we want to go to heaven, we had better offer a glass of tea and a turkey sandwich to every needy person we come across in case one of them happens to represent Jesus. As noble as it may be, you can’t get to heaven by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting those who are sick or in prison. But, if you think you already belong to that kingdom yet do not know what it means to have a heart that seeks to serve others in Jesus’ name, there’s a disappointing surprise waiting for you when the king comes.

There’s a dangerous apathy that lurks near those who believe in God’s unconditional love. The controversial message that Jesus brought to the world was that all people belonged in God’s sheepfold. His words to outsiders and outcasts was the fulfillment of the prophet’s promise: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a paragon of righteousness or a symbol of sin, Jesus shows us all that God is searching for us because God wants to welcome us into his kingdom. Belonging to God isn’t something we make happen. It’s God’s work—God’s choice of us. But, when we take that choice for granted and lose sight of what it was that brought us into the kingdom in the first place, we cut ourselves off from the transformation that God offers us in Jesus, and that is the transformation that the kingdom demands.

In the story of the sheep and goats, Jesus asks his disciples to search their hearts to see whether they know what it means to belong to God’s kingdom. Have their lives been changed by the call that God has placed upon them? Have their hearts been transformed by God’s unconditional love? That is the question before us today. It’s not to ask whether we have done enough good to belong in God’s kingdom but to ask whether our lives have been so transformed by God’s love that they have become worthy of it. If we believe that we have been chosen by God regardless of who we are and what we have and how we have lived our lives—if that becomes the basis of our hope for our everlasting future—then we will show the fruit of that faith in how we care for those in need. In the eyes of those who believe in unconditional love, every person in need demands our full response. The hearts of those who have been transformed by that limitless love are already poured out for the sake of others just as God’s own heart has been.

Today, I invite you to examine your life. Don’t ask yourself what you believe with your brain. Instead, ask yourself what your life says about where your heart belongs. If you do not know what it means to care about the needs of the world as fully as you care about your relationship with God, this might be an important wake-up call for you. But don’t make the mistake of trying harder to do good. You cannot know the transformational love of God by trying to work your way into receiving it. God’s love and acceptance of you is a free gift. Don’t undermine that gift by trying to pay for it. Instead, let the magnitude of that gift take root in your heart. Give yourself over to the reality that you are loved not because you deserve it but simply because God chooses to love you. Let that truth work in your heart until your heart is remade. Let God transform you from the goat you so often are into the sheep God calls you to be. Ruminate upon the mystery of God’s unconditional love until all the distinctions between who belongs to God and who doesn’t fall away. Believe in the power of that love until you cannot tell the difference between serving God and serving the least of the members of God’s family. Then you will know what it means to follow Jesus into his kingdom.


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