(A sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday, November
23, 2008 —Matthew 25:31-46)
My father liked to sit in the balcony at Monumental Methodist,
his church for most of his life. I went back as an adult and sat with him there
on one of the long sides. I couldn’t get over how strange it was to look down
on people’s heads and how low the railing was separating us from the pew and
mid-air! We would never be able to build churches that way now. His “Mumma,” my
Grandma Spong, always sat in the second row, right down in front, the first pew
with a rail in front of it for her hymnal and Bible. Each of them found the
place that suited, the place that felt natural to them. My mother would have
found either of those locations conspicuous, so perhaps it was best that she
went to the Baptist church down the street instead.
When I grew up and started going to church without either
parent, I took a long time figuring out the right place to sit. I tried right
and left, toward the back and halfway down. I retained a fondness for the
balcony, because of Daddy, but not all churches have them. When I took little
children to church with me, I found it easier to sit up close, since they
wanted to go forward for the children’s message.
And eventually, I made my way to the choir loft, which felt
almost right, but not quite. Now whenever I visit a church, I want to stand in
the pulpit. Will it be friendly to the vertically challenged? Will I have
enough room to gesture? And what sort of view does it offer? What possibilities
lie before me?
I finally found the right place to sit in church, the place
that felt most natural. And from that seat I rise to do the thing that comes
naturally to me, telling stories from my life and the world around me that, I
hope, bring to light the Good News in the texts we read together.
But in looking at this week’s text with the Bible Study group,
I discovered that an emphasis on doing what comes naturally worried us. If the
sheep had been born sheep, and the goats, goats, what chance did they have to
overcome the fate of being sorted?
Matthew brings us to the end of Jesus’ public ministry with
a prophecy. After we read these words, the end of a series of parables and
declarations, we go directly to the narrative of the betrayal, the arrest and
the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew builds to this dramatic conclusion, in which
Jesus will reveal it all to us, and once again, Jesus plays with words to do
it. This time he is the king in the story, and he will come to judge between
the sheep and the goats. And the measure by which they will be judged? The way
they loved their neighbors, specifically the neighbors in need. Jesus wants us
to think about how we live out the Great Commandment. He wants us to look for
his face in the faces of our neighbors.
Doing what comes naturally may not be enough.
We may need to learn to do what comes nurturally, too.
Making up words comes naturally to me. I’ll never know
whether it comes naturally to my children. Is it part of their nature, or a
factor in their environment, their nurture? I only know we all enjoy manipulating
words. I married a punster, and he only encourages us. I’ve actually come to
find the puns funny, most of the time. When we gather around the table for
Thanksgiving dinner, there will be word-play, naturally.
Or maybe nurturally…
I’m pretty sure you can teach a young creature a thing or
two, but I wonder, can you teach an old goat new tricks?
Now, I don’t know about you, but most of us church people
tend to be old goats. I don’t mean in our age, but in our thinking. We grow
accustomed to certain ways of doing things. We have a sense of what “right” is.
We have a sense of who is “in” and who is “out.” And although we may pride ourselves
on being welcoming, sometimes a person comes to the door of the church who
presses us to be a sheep instead of a goat.
A few years ago, I heard a story from my friend, Kathryn
Fleming, now a vicar in the Church of England, about an encounter with a "gentleman of the road" named Hamish. He arrived at the church just before the Evensong service, where his inebriation made
quiet participation quite impossible. He declined the offer of a bed and said
he had found a spot in the churchyard, but allowed he would appreciate a cup of
coffee and a bacon butty in the morning. They parted after he made a rather
wild attempt to kiss the “lady minister’s” hand.
The next morning, Kathryn brought sandwiches and coffee to
the church, but she didn’t see Hamish. She only knows someone took the food and drink.
Kathryn allowed me to share that story in a sermon three
years ago, and when I stepped into the pulpit that day, I realized we had our own
Hamish in the congregation. John grew up in the neighboring town, had gone to
school with one of our church members, though his years of living on the
margins after being injured in Viet Nam left him seeming much older. The day I
met him he came in just as church started and sat in the back of the sanctuary
with my son, Peter, who had the Molly dog with him. John came to church on half
a dozen Sunday mornings that summer and fall. I wondered how he would take the
story of Hamish, since I never once stood near him without smelling alcohol.
Shaved or unshaved, clean or unclean, day and night, John drank.
He frightened the ladies in the nursery school one morning,
and they asked him to come back the next day when he would find me in the
office. Knowing he could be unpredictable, I brought our big dog, Sam, along
with me that day. It turned out John loved Sam; he loved all dogs, he told me.
We sat in the office and talked, and he told me about losing his place to live.
The next fall, I read about John’s death in the paper. John’s
body was discovered by a group of 2nd graders near their school in
Westbrook, not far from the house where grew up, at the gravesite of his
beloved dog. I feel like the goat when I remember John, even though I gave him
aid and even time, even though we gave him hospitality at the church, always
trying to get him to eat something, making sure he got back safely to whatever
place he called home. I look back and wonder what I could have done that might
have helped him, and I feel ashamed that most of those times I just wanted to
get him safely out the door. I wanted to give him a little cash and get him to
leave, and I didn’t want to think too hard about what he would do with that ten
or twenty dollars. Because that’s what he came for, each of those times: money.
Some people live like Jesus’ sheep naturally, but some of us
have to get there nurturally.
What stopped me from doing more for John? What stops us from
being sheep, naturally? I think we could make a list together: fear, suspicion,
judgment, lack of confidence, maybe even ignorance. I think back to that day
three years ago, when I spoke about Hamish, and I remember how John nodded as
he heard the story.
I believe you can teach an old goat new tricks, but it helps
if the old goat wants to learn.
And I don’t think Jesus leaves us much choice here, does he?
He wants us to know, without doubt, that whatever we do for the “least of these,”
for the people in need and on the outs, will be a measure of our love for him.
There are many ways to show that love for Jesus by loving
If you go over to the Community Center and pack boxes for
Thanksgiving tomorrow, you’ll be showing it. If you take home a stocking to
fill for the Nursing Home residents, you’ll be showing it. If you help with the
Tedford Shelter meal, you’ll be showing it. If you take the extra time to call
or visit or send a card to one of our members who is ill or homebound, you’ll
be showing it.
I’ve learned that in churches there are usually a few
special people who do most of the work to help people in need. And that’s the
beauty of church as an expression of Christ’s realm. We have the opportunity to
push each other. We have the chance to model for each other. We have the responsibility
to nurture each other, and in that nurture teach each other what care really
looks like. The sheep nurture the goats simply by doing what comes naturally to
And if we follow in the footsteps of the sheep, I believe
even goats like me can be nurtured to show that care, naturally. Amen.