Sermon Nov. 26, 2017

“Sheep or Goat?”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC

Matthew 25:31-46
November 26, 2017

“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.”   Matthew 25: 32

There is nothing new to say today. We have all heard these words before. Right? Indeed, that may be a problem. It may be difficult to hear them anew. They have become so familiar that we read them without hearing them. So let me take a moment to put these closing words of the 25th chapter of Matthew in their broader context.

Over the past few weeks we have been given an opportunity to work our way through the 24th and 25th chapters. At the outset, we noted that Jesus was not talking to some anonymous crowd but to His disciples. These words, then, are meant for those who believe in Jesus. In short, the church. It is to you and to me that Jesus is directing these remarks. So these are not just random comments. Throughout these two chapters, Jesus is speaking about the character of the Kingdom of God, what we, as citizens of that kingdom, are to expect and also what is expected of us. While these words may have been deadened by their familiarity, we need to take Jesus at His word and admit that ignoring them imperils our souls.

Be that as it may, when we listen with intention, there is nothing here that should shock us. Jesus not only talked about healing. He healed. Jesus not only spoke about an unjust social system but worked to change it. Jesus not only critiqued a religion of rules, He worked to give it substance. I have said it before and I say it again, “Jesus was not crucified because he was a nice guy.” The fact that He calls us to heal the sick, cloth the naked, feed the hungry, visit those who are sick or in prison is to be expected. Let me suggest why this is so.

First, we can draw on a familiar saying: “Actions speak louder than words.” Do you agree? Those who do acts of mercy do more than those of us who simply talk about it. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Turn to Matthew 21:28-32. Here we find Jesus telling the story of a man who had two sons. He asked both of the boys to go and work in the vineyard. Boy number one said he wouldn’t do it but latter changed his mind and worked in the vineyard. Boy number two said, “Sure, pops,” but he didn’t go. Jesus asks which boy did his father’s will? The one who went. Right? So even Jesus thinks actions speak louder than words!

May the day never come when I have to prove my courage. I like to think that I would stand in harms way to save those in my family. I tell myself that I would. I can even tell you that I would. But we will never know, will we, until the true test comes and I have to take action. My courage will be measured not by what I think I would do, but by what I do.

Any parent knows that actions speak louder than words. Ever been in a grocery store and heard a frustrated mother of a young child say, “If you don’t behave, we are just going to leave and go home?” The kid knows she’s not going to leave. She has to get food for the family. So the bad behavior continues. Now if she had said that when they get home little Billy wasn’t going to be able to watch a television show he enjoyed unless the behavior improved, she might have a chance. But only if she follows through.

Mennonite historian John Ruth in A Quiet and Peaceful Life tells this:

There is a variously told story of a plain-dressed Dunkard accosted on the street of a Pennsylvania town by an evangelical young man who asked, ‘Brother, are you saved?’ The long-bearded Dunkard did not respond immediately. He pulled out a piece of paper and wrote on it, then handed it to the stranger. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘are the names and addresses of my family, neighbors, and people I do business with. Ask them if they think I am saved. I could tell you anything.’”

We are measured by our actions.

Any one of us who has been in a relationship knows that there are glowing words to describe friendship and marriage. I’ve used them myself. Here’s a reflection on marriage from Joseph Sittler:

“The heart of marriage is a promise. On the face of it, it’s a crazy promise: two people who have only a partial understanding of each other stand up and make this bizarre statement that they’re going to cherish and care for one another for a lifetime. They say, ‘I take this one and this one takes me as long as we both shall live,’ not ‘as long as we both shall love.’ To many persons this seems like a mad and risky thing to do. Yet I would suggest that the madness is the romance. Without risk there is no beauty or strength or goodness.”1

That’s all find and good. It describes marriage as the adventure it is. But if one of the partners parrots these words while forsaking his or her vows the entire relationship may, and in some cases should, unravel. What we do is what counts most.

John Wayne once said, “Words are what men die for,” and I’m sure he would include women. He is right. Liberty, freedom, love, responsibility – these are words that are deserving of our respect and devotion. But what makes these words so powerful is the action that is taken in their defense. It is the willingness to die for what these words represent that gives them their power. Action, in God’s sight, is what defines us.

But there is something even deeper. Let me set the stage.

In a poem by A. E. Housman entitled Revelation the poet captures the modern religions dilemma:

When Israel out of Egypt came
Safe in the sea they trod;
By day in cloud, by night in flame,
Went on before them God.
He brought them with a stretched-out hand
Dry-footed through the foam,
Past sword and famine, rock and sand,
Lust and rebellion, home.
I never over Horeb heard
The blast of Advent blow;
No fire-faced prophet brought me word
Which way behooved me go.
Ascended is the cloudy flame,
The mount of thunder dumb;
The tokens that to Israel came,
To me they have not come.2

In short, for moderns, God is absent because God cannot be found.

But wait. Both the sheep and the goats asked the same question. “When did we see you…? See. Reveled. Known. It is in meeting the pressing human need present in each of us that we not only do God’s will, we come to see God’s face.

There is not a person here this morning who is not pressed down by some unseen burden, no one who does not live in need of kindness, no one who is not familiar with loss. So it is in meeting the need of each other that God can be found. No, it’s not some thunderous theophany from heaven, but in simple acts of compassion. The face of God is in you. The face of God is in the one sitting next to you. No parted sea, no pillar of flame by night and smoke by day. There is only the cross of Christ to carry in service to the world. You want to find God. God is in the need seated next to you. Let us pray….

1Sittler, Joseph, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1981, p. 17.

2Housman, A.E., The Collected Poems, Holt, Rinehart &Winston, New York, NY, 1965, p.158.
Matthew 25:31-46
“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.”