Our Sermon for November 26th, 2017: Caring for the Sheep, Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46
Caring for the Sheep: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46
Did you know that every year, about 50,000 pounds of clothes are left at the starting line of the Boston Marathon? That's right... 50, 000 pounds of clothes. I learned about this giant pile of clothes back in April when WGBH, the PBS station out of Boston, did some reporting on it. Has anyone here ever been to the running of the marathon? I haven't. It was glad the report reporter described the early morning scene just before the start of the race. Ten of thousands of runners arrived in Hopkinton Common, where the race starts. It's still pretty chilly in the Boston area in April. The runners show up in jackets and sweatshirts, gloves and sweatpants. But, they don't run in all that gear. When most of them start they race, they are wearing light shirts and shorts. Where does all of the warmer clothing go?
Apparently, it just gets dropped at the beginning. Or shed as they head out of the first quarter mile of the race. Then, volunteers come and bag it up. For a long time, that was it. Some charity might come and pick up the bags. But, sometimes no one came and the clothes would just get thrown away (apparently, after running 26 miles, few people feel like coming back to get their sweatshirts and a program that carried bags of clothes to the finish line had been discontinued due to security concerns). All of this changed when a lady named Judy Pitasi showed up. She couldn't stand to see all of those clothes go to waste. After volunteering with the race for many years (her brother ran in a couple times), she passionately spoke up to the organizers about how these clothes could actually do some good. They ended up putting her in charge of the newly formed clothing collection program.
She and a whole bunch of volunteers (last year, it was 201) pick up any clothes, towels, yoga mats, anything that gets discarded along the way, between the starting line and the Ashland town line. They haul their bags of goodies to the 10 trucks that Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay sponsors. All of that stuff is then separated out, with a portion sold in the Big Brothers Big Sisters' thrift stores and the rest sold to other thrift stores around the country. The proceeds go back to the mentoring program that Big Brothers Big Sisters run. The most recent years' hauls, which netted about 26 tons of clothing, have raised enough money to cover a full year's mentorship for 20 kids. When asked why she was so passionate about doing something good with the clothes left behind, Pitasi said, "It’s just inside me, I’ve gone without at a period in my life, so I know what it’s like not to have 'the best' or to have your shoes worn out or whatever. So, I think I have a good understanding of what others might need." Her work helps clean up the streets, provides thrift stores with quality athletic clothes, helps a local non-profit get funds, and, in turn, helps kids get mentors. This seems like a win for everybody.
If there was anything that would get you on the sheep side of the sheep vs goat list, it would be something like this, wouldn't it? I mean, it's right here at the end of Matthew... well, not the very end, but in the chapters before Jesus' trial and execution. It is the point where Jesus is trying to leave his followers, and some of his naysayers, with the last bits of teaching he will have time for. He is telling them something about what it means to follow God and work with God to build God's reign. Jesus told them that God's inbreaking can happen at any time, so they need to stay awake and pay attention. Jesus told them that they had been entrusted with great gifts that they can use to serve God and warned them not to squander them. Jesus told them that God had some expectations of them, too. This part of Matthew 25 is the part about God's expectations.
He calls upon imagery familiar to them, both because they are from farming communities and because they are familiar with the apocalyptic and prophetic literature of their faith. As you heard in our reading from Ezekiel today, lists of good and bad animals were common. In Ezekiel's case, it was a list of greedy sheep and skinny sheep. God would judge harshly those sheep who took more than their share and scattered the frail and sick sheep away. God would tend to the sickly sheep. The lean and the lost would make up God's flock. Maybe some of this language is also familiar to you from other parts of Matthew. You may remember that in chapter 5, God will bless the mournful, the meek, and the poor in spirit. That sure sounds like Ezekiel's flock to me.
Jesus cites a slightly different list... it's not sheep and sheep, it's sheep and goats. As I have said before when preaching this scripture, I'm still not sure goats get such a bad rap. But, they do. Goats are on the judged list and sheep are on the blessed list. The people who will be blessed are the people who have fed and clothed Christ through feeding and clothing their neighbors in need. People who welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned and tend to sick will be counted among the blessed. Scholar Fred Craddock once proposed that out of all the questions that Jesus could have asked his followers, out of all the theological arguments and questions about dogma, we should take notice that this question seems most important: "How did you respond to human need?" In all of their preparations and faithful waiting, this is what Jesus told them to pay attention to. Or, at least, it's what he would be paying attention to.
It's interesting to me that neither the sheep or the goats realized that they were being sheep-like or goat-like. Isn't that strange? I mean, I'm pretty sure Judy Pitasi knows she's doing a very good thing by organizing the clothing donations at the marathon. It is probably a clue to us that this parable is to be more than just a check-off list of what to do to get to heaven. While it's true that Jesus was certain that God calls us to action to live out our faith, this section might not simply be a reiteration of a list of how God resides in the lives of those who struggle and who are burdened. I read an article by a scholar named David Jacobsen who pointed out something interesting. Did you notice that at the beginning of the reading, it says that the Son of Man with gather the nations before him? I hadn't paid much attention to the nations part before. Jacobsen thinks we should.
The "nations" is usually shorthand for gentiles who don't follow Jesus. Now, the person who wrote Matthew was trying to figure out how to equip a particular group of Jesus' followers who were being persecuted by the broader religious community. Jacobsen thinks that what is happening here is that this author wanted to make sure this particular group of persecuted Christians knew that Jesus was looking out for them, that Jesus would pay attention not just to their behavior but to the behavior of the people who had power over them. Of course Jesus would ask his followers to tend to the poor and hungry. That's what Jesus called the whole point of their faith. Jacobsen thinks Jesus was asserting that he would bless the people who care for the poor and oppressed among his followers. Even people who don't consider themselves followers of Jesus, when they clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned, Jacobsen thinks they were honoring Jesus without even realizing it. They didn't intend to be sheep, but they were assuredly sheep because of their actions.
This is a radically different interpretation than I've read before. While I certainly think it helps explain why the sheep didn't know they were doing sheepish things (they didn't follow Jesus... how would they know what he expects or thinks God expects of them), this interpretation certainly troubles any notion that those who do what Christ commands but don't explicitly follow Christ will be excluded from God's reign. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising. I mean, "love your enemies" is at the core of Jesus' teachings in this Gospel, too. This is a Gospel with all kinds of hard, paradoxical sayings. What is clear though, is that God's grace will always be wider that we can imagine. It probably will end up extending well beyond the people who look just like us and believe just like us. If we want to find Jesus, we'll need to look for the people, all the people, who are caring for the skinny sheep and the lost strangers.
Have you heard of the Muslim man, Adeeb Joudeh, who keeps the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem? His family has been the keepers of the key since at least the 1500's. Another Muslim man, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, is in charge of opening the door to welcome in those who come to worship. His family has also been doing this for a very long time. These two families came to be entrusted with these roles when splits within Christianity soured relationships among the many Christian denominations who worship in the space. The Christians could not trust one another, but they do trust these two Muslim families to make sure that all the Christians will have access to the space for worship. Those guys sound like they might be sheep to me.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these sources while writing this sermon:
Edgar B. Herwick III: https://news.wgbh.org/2017/04/12/local-news/what-happens-50000-pounds-clothes-left-boston-marathon-start-line
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3477
Fred Craddock, "When He Shall Come," The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Carla Works: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1019
Oren Liebermann: http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/26/middleeast/easter-muslim-keyholder/index.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.