Sermon for June 14, 2015

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Matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Dividing the Sheep from the Goats

I have a confession to make today: I have preached many times before on this passage about sheep and goats, but never in front of a congregation that included ranchers, farmers, and people who probably probably actually know a thing or two about real farm animals. I don't know a whole lot about farm animals. But I do know a story about some pigs, some cows, and some holy men. It goes something like this:

It was a dark and stormy night in West Texas (basically a whole lot of wind, thunder, lightning and no rain). A Jewish Rabbi, a Hindu Holy Man, and a Baptist Preacher were traveling together in a car from El Paso to San Angelo. The car broke down, and the three religious men walked through the storm until they came upon a ranch house. They knocked on the door, and when the rancher answered, they asked if they could stay for the night. The rancher replied, "I only have room for two of you in the ranch house. One of you will have to sleep in the barn." The Hindu Holy man offered to sleep in the barn, so the Rabbi and the Baptist Preacher went into the ranch house. But a few minutes later, there was a knock on the ranch house door. It was the Hindu Holy man. He said, "I cannot sleep in that barn. There is a cow in the barn, and my religion teaches that cows are sacred." So the Rabbi offers to sleep in the barn instead. A few minutes later, there is a knock on the door. Of course, it's the Rabbi, who says, "I cannot sleep in that barn. There is a pig in the barn, and my religion teaches that pigs are unclean animals." With a disappointed sigh, the Baptist Preacher says, "Fine. I'll sleep in the barn. I don't mind the pig or the cow." A few minutes later, there is a knock on the door. The rancher answers the door, and standing there are the pig and the cow. "We cannot sleep in that barn...there is a Baptist Preacher in that barn. We have standards too, you know!"

Growing up, my Mom and my Dad had two very different ways of organizing things. My Dad would divide everything into categories, organize them by color, size, shape, or purpose. Everything had a special home, and everything lived in its home. My Mom, on the other hand, would gather everything into one big pile...and then put the pile somewhere. Like a drawer, or a closet. Or on top of her desk. My Dad was a divider, and my Mom was a piler. Which one are you?

The fact that I've just divided my parents into two categories and placed each one in their respective place...should probably clue you in to which one I am. I am married to a piler, my eldest son is a piler, my daughter is a divider, and my youngest son...well right now he's a thrower. We have yet to see where he (or his things) will land.

Dividers and pilers--Which is better, though? There are plenty of ways we divide or pile things together in the world. Some good, some not so good. Racism and sexism are, essentially, ways of dividing people by ethnicity or gender. On the other hand, "stereotyping" is the practice of piling different people together under one label. All blonds are airheads, or all lawyers are crooked. I thank God for libraries, which pile together books, periodicals and other information resources from every corner. But I also thank God for the Dewey decimal system that divides them into categories so I can find the right one.

Dividers and Pilers--which one is God? To read today's passage from Matthew, you'd think God is a divider: Dividing left hand from right hand, sheep from goats, blessed from cursed, eternal life, from eternal fire. But elsewhere in the gospels we read that Jesus is the good shepherd, the one who brings the lost sheep back into the fold. Definitely a piler.

So how do you reconcile those two images of God? Is God simultaneously a divider and a piler? Or in some cases one, but in differing circumstances the other? I think we want God to be a piler...until someone gets added to the pile who we think doesn't belong. Or we want God to be a divider...but only if we get put on the right side. This is, of course, a problem. A very old problem in the world of Christian doctrine. And too often, this verse from Matthew 25 is at the heart of the problem.

If I've learned anything in studying the Bible, it's this: The scriptures are always more complicated than they seem. People who say "just read the Bible and do what it says" are usually neither reading the Bible very deeply, nor doing what it says. Today's scripture passage is no exception, and attempts to over-simplify its message often do more harm than good. There are a number of problems that arise in today's text, and I've divided them into three categories: Interpretation problems, translation problems, and doctrinal problems. We're going to tackle those problems today. We're going to go deep. We're going to go a little bit nerdy. But first...I have a really good sheep joke:

A devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the range. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn't believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep's mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" "Not really," said the sheep. "Your name is written inside the cover."

Did I say that was a good sheep joke? I get confused...maybe it was a baaaad one. Back to our problems with today's text:

We'll start with interpretation. By this I mean literal interpretation vs. figurative interpretation. Is Jesus using metaphor in this passage, or is he speaking literally? I don't know anyone who actually thinks he's talking about real sheep or goats here--that's an obvious metaphor--and yet many people seem to think that the part about eternal life or eternal fire is quite literal. Is Jesus really jumping back and forth between literal and metaphorical? Because that would be unlike his typical approach. And what does the metaphor mean, anyhow? "He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep at his right and the goats at the left."

Since I knew that I would be preaching to an agriculturally saavy crowd this morning, I actually did a little online research to learn more about sheep and goats. Mostly, I wanted to know why a shepherd would separate his sheep from his goats? Well, apparently they don't get along so well together. The goats are more aggressive and tend to dominate the sheep.

Now, conventional wisdom for this passage is that sheep are supposed to be obedient followers (and therefore good) while goats are independent and strong-willed (and therefore bad). I found lots of sermons online that took things in this direction -- be a good sheep and follow Jesus! Don't be a stubborn goat!

But I've got a problem with that: There are other places in both the Old and New Testaments where God's people are called an insult. Stupid sheep, who followed the wrong shepherd. Docile obedience can sometimes get you in trouble, too.

Conversely, how many of the great biblical heroes of the faith could we label as "independent and strong willed?" And God uses them. Often. So I think it's safe to say that being like a sheep can be either good OR bad, and being like a goat can be either good OR bad.

Another problem I have with the metaphor: Let's say you're the good shepherd, and you've just finished dividing your sheep from your goats, which as we've said, is probably a good idea. What do you do now? Burn all your goats to a crisp, apparently. Because they're bad. Seriously? Both sheep and goats have equal value to the shepherd. No self-respecting shepherd would divide his flock only to kill half of it. The goats are valuable to the shepherd, too.

One last problem with the metaphor of the Good Shepherd. Whether you're a sheep or a goat, in the end, is the shepherd really your friend? He leads you beside the still waters for a few months, but then it's off to the market where he sells you for profit so you can be eaten for dinner. Metaphors only extend so far, and this one in particular ought not to be taken to its logical conclusion.

Moving on to problems in translation: Verse 32 reads "All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Only in the original Greek, it doesn't say anything about separating individual people from one another. The King James version actually gets it right here: "And before him shall be gathered all nations, and he shall separate them one from another." Them. The nations. Or, in Greek, εθνη (ethne) -- the ethnic groups or tribes of people. In other words, you get to be judged not by your own individual actions, but by the cumulative actions of the people you are associated with. Take a good look at the person sitting next to you on either side! Better yet...wherever you live, think of the neighbors who live nearby, and ask yourself how you'd do if you were judged on the basis of their actions and commitments! How many of you are going to go home and put a "for sale" sign in your front yard?

The next translation issue is with the words for sheep and goat: προβατα (probata) and εριφων (eriphon). Probata, according to Strong's Dictionary of Biblical Greek, is "any four footed, tame animal accustomed to graze, most commonly a sheep or a goat. Uh oh. The word we're using for sheep could also mean goat.

What about the word for goat, then? Eriphon comes from the word Erion, which means "little and hairy." So Jesus is separating the sheep...OR the goats...from the...little hairy creatures. Now we're really in trouble.

But all of these little problems are minor compared to the huge problem this passage raises in relation to basic Christian doctrine for the past 500 years or more since the Reformation. Most protestant churches teache that you can't earn your way into heaven. Salvation has nothing to do with good works, but comes instead from faith: Believing (or confessing) that Jesus is Lord.

And what is Jesus saying here in this scripture passage? It seems like Jesus is saying "Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you BECAUSE I was hungry and you..." Depart from me into eternal fire BECAUSE I was hungry and you..." In Greek and in English, the preposition "for" or "because" implies cause and effect. In other words, Jesus is pretty obviously saying that you are in or out based on what you did (how you treated others)...not based on what you believed. So much for the Reformation and the entire doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.

What a mess. By this point in my sermon writing process, I was a bit depressed. The problems are obvious enough, but are there any solutions? Surely this passage is in the Bible for a reason. Surely the problem is with the people (including me) have mangled and interpreted it through the years, and not with its inherent meaning?

If you're as depressed now as I was writing this, don't worry: I may not have all the answers, but I do have another sheep joke.

A shepherd was looking after his sheep on the side of a deserted road. Suddenly a brand new Porsche screeches to a halt. The driver gets out--he's a young man dressed in an Armani suit, Ray Bans, Apple watch, Patent leather shoes, designer shirt, with a Boss tie. He says to the shepherd 'If I can guess how many sheep you have, can I keep one?' The shepherd looks at the large flock of sheep and says 'Okay'.

The young man taks a few snapshots with his cell phone, uploads them to a NASA website, scans the field using satelite technology, opens a database in the cloud linked to 60 Excel tables, filled with logarithms and pivot tables, then downloads a 150 page report to his iPad. He studies the reports and says to the shepherd 'You have 1,586 sheep'.

The shepherd replies, 'That's correct. You can have the pick of my flock.' The young man packs away his equipment, looks at the flock and puts one into the back of the Porsche. Right as he is about to leave, the Shepherd says, 'If I can guess what your profession is will you return the animal to me?' The young man thinks for a minute and says 'Okay'.

The shepherd says 'You are a Management Consultant'. The young man says 'Correct, how did you know?' The Shepherd replied, 'Simple. You came here without being invited, you charged me a fee for something I already knew, and you don't understand a thing about my business. - Now, can I have my dog back, please?'

I told you at the beginning of the sermon that I was a divider. I've been looking at this passage through the eyes of a divider, categorizing and separating and isolating and putting things in their places. But when I look at this passage through the eyes of a piler, I see something entirely different. Different from the way it's usually understood, but also far more compelling.

Take the metaphor of the sheep and the goats, for example. I said that it would be a good idea for the shepherd to divide them from one another, but it turns out--if we're really talking about sheep and goats here--that you don't have to. They divide themselves: Sheep prefer the flock, and though some stray, they also tend to freak out when they're alone.

Goats on the other hand prefer their independence and will avoid the sheep at all costs unless they are penned together in close quarters. They divide themselves, but a good shepherd still shepherds both in different ways, according to their needs and their nature: The sheep are shepherded actively, and the the goats are shepherded passively, by giving them space.

Those of us who are sheep fear being divided from our flock. Those of us who are goats fear losing our independence, being forced into the group. We divide ourselves, but God, the good shepherd, (the piler and not the divider) guides the entire flock--all of humanity--each of us according to our need, disposition, and personality.

What about the translation issues? Are these sheep, goats, little hairy creatures, or what? Again, if we look with the eyes of a divider, they have to be different, even opposite extremes somehow: Sheep/goats, good/bad, saved/condemned. But I think the ambiguity of the original Greek might be intentional. The things on either side are...kind of the same thing. Yes, some are ultimately rewarded, and some are ultimately punished. But there's not as much difference between them as we might expect. We are all sinners. We are all saints, depending on the time of day, the weather, and the person driving in traffic in front of us. No matter what side we ultimately end up on, it's good to remember that we're much more alike than we are different.

And the problems of doctrine? Are we saved by grace, or by doing good works? Again, that's a way of dividing, and maybe that age-old argument misses the point in the end. Looking at those who fed the hungry and those who didn't, perhaps we should ask, "In what ways are they all in the same pile?" I think it's this: They're all surprised. One side is surprised to be told they haven't been feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and the imprisoned. Probably they're surprised because they genuinely thought they *were* doing all those things. Likewise, the other group genuinely thought they *weren't* doing those things...and were surprised to be told they had been.

Jesus often says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. First...last...those words separate, divide and judge...God is indeed a God of justice. But those words also imply that everyone is standing in the same line. They imply that everyone is moving in the same direction, toward the same objective. Some get there first, and others get there last...but everyone who chooses to stand in the line...eventually gets there.

So is God a divider? Or is God a piler? I think my current answer is, "Yes. He is." And whichever one you are, whichever eyes you see the world through, it is helpful to occasionally look the other way around. In any case, it should be a comfort to know that the one who judges and divides us is also the one who unites us and calls us together.

I suspect I will never fully understand how that works. But that's ok, because where understanding ends, faith begins. Where certainty falters, hope flourishes. Where grace and good works, sinners and saints, sheep and goats alike ultimately fail, love...God's love...will always prevail.