Monday, December 1, 2014

Saving Goats: Sermon on Matthew 25:31f

When Pastor Grady asked for a title to tonight’s address I told him “Saving Goats.” 

Obviously sensitive to the double entendre he was smart to ask  ‘is ‘saving’ a verb or an adjective.”  Think about it.  As Christians when we have read this last third of Matthew 25 and been given the chance to think about it have at least worked through if not finished with, “its better not to be a goat.”  Especially if one wants to avoid eternal punishment.  

But most of us don’t get to that warning by itself.  In everyday living being a goat usually gets thrown into the list of all those other “things to be avoided:” sickness, poverty, nakedness, being a stranger, imprisonment, . . . and now goatness

So "saving goats" is not what we usually learn in this last lesson from Jesus.  That’s right.  His last lesson.  Following in Matthew’s narration of the Good News, Jesus will go to Bethany to be anointed with very expensive ointment and then immediately to Jerusalem to his last meal with his friends and onto his trial and execution. 

His last lesson.  That ought to get our attention.  He’s about to die for us.  For us. It doesn't make sense to read this and the previous sections of this chapter as simple lessons on getting along.  For too long Christians have heard Matthew 25's three pieces like boy scouts or parents sending their kids off to school.  

Too often we have reduced what we learned from the bridesmaids to "be prepared."  From the parable of the talents we learned to "use it before you lose it." And from Chapter 25's last third we learned don't be a goat or in its historically trivialized form, "be nice."   

But this is his last lesson so we need to listen closely when he starts with, “And when the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. And before him will be gathered all the nations.”

Son of Man.  Interesting phrase.  Used by Jesus more than any other when referring to himself.  Son of Man.  In a contemporary rendering, “the human one.”  The human one will gather all the nations.  All the nations.  Nations is from the Greek ethnos. We say ethnic groups now.  We should just say us.

That idea comes from a lecture/sermon I heard years ago from Carlyle Marney, former pastor to the governor of Texas and then senior pastor of Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist Church before founding the Interpreter’s House at Lake Junaluska as a place for Christians and in particular Christian clergy to rest, re-examine, and re-focus their personal callings.

Marney, who would only admit to being a “Baptist, south of God” in talking about our “ethnos” said it this way

For him it was the dream of the American experiment -- We are the ones who get to choose our religion -- and for him it was also the failure of that experiment in what we now call denominationalism. 

Marney talked about our buckets and how it just didn’t matter how many we made or how big those buckets were. 

In a deep fried Bone tired voice flattened by preaching in Texas too much he said this,
“The name for who were are in relationship to God isn’t Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness.  There is no bucket of our making big enough. The name for who we are in relationship to God is HUMAN.  And the pronoun is US!”

All the ethnos, all the buckets, one day gathered with the Son of Man.  All of US! and still, still there will be goats. 

Now hear me. When Jesus tells us about the sheep and goats I don’t think he’s making simple predictions about the future. There is no “Just wait and see.”  If that were the case he’d be done. 

But there is a Bethany, a Jerusalem, a Calvary, an empty tomb.

He is about to die for us.  I think he is using the story to get a response, not just from the disciples or the jews who would have heard “the nations” as everybody but us.  I think he wants a response from us, too

Excuse me if this sounds trivial but I think we need to hear Jesus as sounding more like Marley’s Ghost to Ebenezer Scrooge that night in those dreams.  Especially the third dream the one that showed Tiny Tim dead.  Not just crippled, not just hungry, not just cold, but dead.  Because nothing had changed. 

Jesus’ picture of the goats is just like the picture Dickens paints for us with Scrooge.  

Dickens doesn't want Scrooge to be "scrooge." Jesus doesn't want anyone gathered from all the nations to be a goat.  Jesus doesn’t want the goats to be cast out.  Jesus wants the goats to do what Scrooge did. Scrooge repented! Scrooge woke up to Christmas day a changed man!

Remember . . .  goats are better than no goats.  Milk, cheese, mutton, goatskins!  Why let the goats go to waste?  Save the goats! Why let them be lost in an eternal punishment? Save the goats, yes!  But not for their own sake.

Save them because my family needs them! Just like Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family needed Scrooge.

Whenever you did it to the least of these my kindred you did it to me. I’m having a hard time reading it any other way.

The sick, strange, poor, hungry, naked, imprisoned ones are my family. My family. And who are the goats? 

Whenever you didn’t help one of us, my family says the human one you were a goat.

In failing to feed, clothe, welcome and visit the goats look a lot like Scrooge on Christmas Eve or a lot like some other good Christians that I know. 

Especially like those Christians who say things like:  “You make your luck,”  or  “Are there no prisons? or “I got mine,” or “Bah, Humbug” or “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” or “Are there no workhouses?” or “Poverty is the fault of the poor.” 

Thanks be to God none of those utterances are in Matthew 25 much less the Bible.

Does God expect us to do our part.  Yes.  “The laborer deserves his food.”  Now that is in the Bible.  Matthew 10:10.

But there is in this last lesson from Jesus NO condemnation of those who are hungry, poor, naked, strangers, sick or imprisoned. 

NO condemnation.  But an embrace.  They are my family. The only condemnation is self inflicted.  It is a condemnation chosen by the ones who will become goats when they act as if what they have to clothe, to feed, to cure, to visit, to share, came from some source other than God.

By forgetting that it all comes from God in the first place the goats in us condemn themselves.  So . . . wake up Scrooge!  Wake up Mr. and Mrs. Christian.  It all comes from God and is meant for the whole family.  So wake up and give thanks.  Care for the poor and give thanks.  Feed the hungry and give thanks.  Clothe the naked and give thanks.  Welcome the stranger and give thinks.  Visit the sick and give thanks.  Meet those in prison and give thanks.

Do all these things and give thanks

Because the goat you save may be your own.

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