Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sheep and Goats

I don't know about the rest of you but sheep and goats stories don't really work for me. True, I have parishioners who keep one or both and I've read - and preached - all the stuff about sheep behavior, goat warmth issues, scapegoats and even shepherds.

The only reason I can think of for Jesus to use sheep and goats is that you don't house them together. They can go to the same pasture but they sleep in different places. So his listeners would have been caught up in the familiar, I suppose.

But then it gets a little weird since neither sheep nor goats do much talking that we can understand and it is clear that Jesus has moved out of the pasture and onto the judgment seat.

So there we all are, milling around the great conference center in the sky. In order to get into the meeting area, we have to show our badges. But the folks guarding the doors seem to be sending some people in the doors on the left and others into the doors on the right. When we get inside, there's a big net separating the room and no one can get by it.

Jesus addresses us all and says that the left half have served him and the right half didn't. Shock and surprise are present in both groups. Both ask, "Lord, when?" but get very different answers.

It's the surprise that gets to me. Faithful Christians ought not to be surprised. At least, I'm sure that's what I was taught somewhere along the line. And most of us, especially given that we know this parable by heart, usually notice when we pass someone by or stop to help them, don't we? If we don't help someone, we have good reasons for our non-action, of course. We rationalize it or at least say that helping would have put us in danger. If we help, we may well do so gladly and willingly but often, there is that little voice in our heads reminding us how good we are being, the points we are scoring.

Here's why I think the sheep and goats are surprised. I think the sheep automatically, without thinking, stop to help, move over to share the grass and water, cuddle up to keep the shorn one warm. To be told that every time they did this, they did it to the Lord is a surprise to them because it was the natural thing to do.

The goats don't stop for anyone ever. Life is all about them, making sure they have enough, they are warm enough, they are safe and are receiving God's bountiful grace. But it never occurs to them to make sure others are taken care of. That's a sheep thing and goats are not, simply not, sheep. So they, too, are surprised to hear that they have systematicallly, all their lives, rejected the Christ even though they thought differently.

I don't think many of us are goats. My guess is that even the tycoon with the hardest of hearts has a little sheep in him/her somewhere. But I'm equally sure that most of us haven't reached sheep status yet. Kindness, generosity, giving are things we still have to work at, especially if it means I might feel shorted by helping someone else. But I know we can get there. I have role models who are/were great sheep, nary a goat gene anywhere. I'll bet you do, too.

And when we get pretty good at being sheep, let's convert the goats. Let's show them how to be short-haired, butting-headed, omnivorous sheep. Still goats but different. And I'll bet goats have some good things to teach even all those surprised sheep!

Saturday, November 1, 2008


I don't know exactly what I will preach tomorrow - especially since I have a children's homily at the second service instead of a "real" sermon - but it will be something like the following. And, of course, who knows what the congregation will, in fact, hear!

Pharisees: just like us?

I know it seems such an obvious thing to say but Pharisees didn’t come fully formed. When we encounter them in the gospels, they are grown men and, somehow, it never occurred to me before to think of them as anything else.

But they were children once just like we were. Okay, not *just* like us but certainly the first century equivalent of that. They were helpless babies, learned to roll over then crawl and finally stand up, graduating from walking to running in what probably seemed like a blink of an eye to their mothers.

Most likely, their fathers were Pharisees before them but Pharisee wasn’t a job like being a carpenter or tilling fields or tending sheep. No, Pharisees worked like everyone else. A Pharisee was more like being an Episcopalian or Baptist, Republican or Democrat. In those days, politics and religion were so closely connected it was hard to tell them apart, a lot like it still is in the Middle East today in fact.

Pharisees were one party within Judaism. They might be described by others as liberal but I doubt we would use that word. Pharisees believed their authority could be traced all the way back to Moses by way of other prophets. They stressed a single verse of Exodus: you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Second Maccabbees says it this way: God gave all the people the heritage, the kingdom, the priesthood, and the holiness. So you might say the Pharisees promoted democracy. They established schools and synagogues all over the country and encouraged fathers – all fathers – to see that their sons were instructed in the Law. The Pharisees became the most learned of all people and saw Torah rather than Temple as the central focus of Jewish life and faith.

The Pharisees opposed capital punishment. The Sadducees were strict in observing “an eye for an eye” but the Pharisees believed in making financial restitution instead. They wrapped up the laws that led to the death penalty with so many restrictions and qualifications that they were almost never applied, almost being the key word.

But the Pharisees were also a fairly exclusive club. Calling themselves habirim, they would swear an oath in front of at least three other Pharisees that pledged strict adherence to the laws of Levitical purity, promised to avoid associating with anyone considered an ignorant boor, and guaranteed payment of tithes and other fees to the priests and the poor. And those laws included all of the oral law derived from the Decalogue. All 613 laws, not just the basic ten.

“The aim and object of the Law, according to Pharisaic principles, are the training of man to a full realization of his responsibility to God and to the consecration of life by the performance of its …duties….” ( – Pharisees). That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Then why does Jesus rail against the Pharisees so in today’s passage from Matthew? Why does he heap woes upon their heads?

Because in the pursuit of responsibility to God, the Pharisees put too much emphasis upon their own importance and knowledge. They became the message rather than the messengers. It was more important to be *known* as a Pharisee than it was to actually *be* a Pharisee.

They were no longer true to who they were. Image trumped reality. They stopped being compassionate. They stopped being strict observers of the Law unless someone else was looking. They became, to a certain extent, the ignorant boors they were supposed to shun. Being better than the Sadducees and others became more important that dedicating their lives to God.

We can say this is about pride and humility but I think it goes deeper than that. Pride is not always a bad thing. We can be proud of what we accomplish but we cannot take all the credit. We cannot say “I did it all by myself” when we know that we are given our talents, we are given opportunities to use them.

Humility is not always a good thing. People have turned themselves into doormats in the name of humility when perhaps God was calling them to stand up and take action. We can “aw shucks” ourselves to a point where no one will consider asking us to help because we have convinced them we aren’t useful.

Before we can be proud or humble, we have to be honest. We have to know ourselves well, understand our worth or usefulness and be willing to take on kingdom work.

There is an old derogatory maxim that says, “Those who can do and those who can’t, teach.” That’s a terrible thing to say about teachers, isn’t it? But I would guess that we have all encountered someone who hasn’t the ability for something who is more than willing to tell us how we should do it. How many of you parents have had childless people try to give you sage advice on raising children? How many of you kids have had adults tell you how easy you have it these days even though they never had the homework you do and weren’t required to learn all the world throws at you today?

Honesty about ourselves includes being honest about our faith. We can’t tell someone how to be a Christian when we don’t spend a lot of time at it ourselves. If we haven’t got a prayer discipline, we can’t hold others to that standard. And yet we do that sometimes, don’t we?

I read an Easter sermon the other day that made me want to stand up and cheer. Dr. Fred Craddock, a Disciples of Christ pastor, once told a congregation that they couldn’t begin to have Easter if they hadn’t been to the funeral. You don’t get to Easter Sunday by skipping Holy Week and especially Good Friday. Dr. Craddock could say that because he hasn’t ever skipped it! His congregation could hear it because they knew without a doubt that the man was not saying “do as I say, not as I do.”

Never lose sight of the being that God has made you. Pop psychology says be comfortable in your skin and that’s good theological advice, too. If we can do that, then we can – along with our Father – be proud of what we accomplish and – because of our brother – be humble in those same accomplishments.