Sermon on the Parable of the Sheep and Goats
It’s one of my favorites. If there were only one story in the Bible, I would be okay if it was this one. Sometimes when I’m annoyed by some of the bad stories in the Bible, I remember that there are passages like this one that reminds us to treat everyone with dignity and how helping others is a sacred act.
I came across a remarkably similar story when I taught a college comparative religions class. It came from the Persian Zoroastrian religion, and it predated Jesus by hundreds of years. I love the thought of other religions influencing Jesus’ teachings.
This story guides how we behave as a congregation.
For most of us, it’s a familiar passage highlighting our faith’s emphasis on caring for those on the bottom rungs of society. Jesus tells the righteous/sheep that as you cared for the least of these, you also cared for him. Bay Shore is a church that takes this seriously. That is why we always have projects that care for others. Your offering dollars go to so many worthy causes in our city. People are fed and clothed, visited, and comforted in their time of need. We are a mission-oriented church familiar with sheepish behavior. We see needs, our hearts are touched, and we do what we can to help.
Why Bay Shore Church? Because not all churches make helping others central to their identity. Some are great at caring for people’s spiritual needs but helping their physical and circumstantial needs is put on the back burner. One of our church members told me about a southern California church that got a new pastor, and the first thing he did (by request of some of their members) was kill all of their mission programs. They feared an emphasis on helping others obscured the church’s vision of saving people’s souls. But what good is it to save a soul if you don’t recognize or alleviate their suffering in this life?
In my first week at Bay Shore, our mission commission’s chair pressed me to increase the percentage of the Christmas offering that goes to missions. I love that even in the lean years when we had significant budget deficits and were looking to cut expenses, no one ever said, “Hey, let’s cut back on the percentage of mission giving.” Our leaders understood that helping others is central to our identity. It’s in our DNA. They believed in moving forward in faith that God would find a way.
Bay Shore Church is committed to fulfilling that old slogan. Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, as often as you can. We see you not only working on our programs but also living it out in your volunteer work and how you treat people in your sphere of influence.
How the nations are judged
The parable of the sheep and goats is Jesus’ final parable. Sometimes you save the best for last—it might be a summation of what was driving Jesus the whole time. Because this story is so influential for our church, let’s take a little time to see its impact on our personal lives, our church, and even our nation.
Remember, it’s a parable, a story we walk alongside and wrestle with. Jesus imagines a final judgment and a great division of the nations. Notice that it’s not individuals but nations. Jesus says that God judges societies or nations by how well they care for the poor and marginalized communities.
How well do you think the US is doing?
- We have about 600,000 unhoused/homeless people. How well are they cared for? Have you been to skid row? Did you know one of the biggest spikes in the homeless population in the last two years is elderly people whose rent and health care costs got beyond reach? https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness/
- Feed the hungry, Jesus says. How many food-insecure people live in the US? More than 34 million, including 9 million children.
- Visit the prisons. How well do we care for inmates? Our criminal justice system has largely dissolved into pure punishment without hope of rehabilitation. By the time they get released, many inmates become harder criminals after prison than before they went in.
- How are we doing in caring for the sick? 31 million Americans are without health insurance. Millions don’t seek the medical and dental help they need because they can’t afford it and live in areas where health care coverage is unavailable.
It’s not to disparage our country and all the great things about it, but we can, and we must do better.
Doing your part
For our society to do better, we must each do our part. There are a few simple things we can do. First, we can advocate for justice and make our votes count. Don’t just vote on what is best for your pocketbooks. Ask what is good for society as a whole. What policies have a shot at alleviating suffering?
Second, we structure our lives to move from good intentions to good actions. The sheep in the passage are those who do faith, not those who possess faith.
On the American frontier, people formed covenant groups to support each other in living out the faith. They’d get together weekly, and John would say, Tim, you want to help the disadvantaged, so how did you do this week? Did you feed anyone hungry this week? Sue, did you visit anyone who was sick this week? Is there anything we can help you with so that your best intentions become actions? The point was that it’s easy to think we are doing more than we are, to rest on a few good deeds and think we’ve done enough. One of the nice things about giving through the church is that you can say, yes, I’ve done something.
A Spiritual Practice
Third, we can experience caring for marginalized people as a spiritual practice. Jesus said as you have done it to these people, you have also done it to me. Helping others spiritually connects us to Jesus. It is as important as worship or prayer, or meditation. It lifts you. One of the best ways to rise above a gloomy mood and feel sorry for yourself is to do something for someone else.
I always talk about our church being all about helping you advance on your spiritual journey so that you can make a positive difference in our community and world. And now we see these things are interlinked. When you help others, you advance on your spiritual journey. You grow close to Christ.
Divinize not Demonize
Incorporating caring for others helps get us out of a dangerous cynicism. You drive by a homeless encampment and get disgusted by garbage strewn everywhere and stolen bicycles. You find out about the homeless guy who stabbed several people this week in Long Beach, killing one of them. You see the social media posts where people advocate violence against homeless people and lump them into one big derogatory category, “the homeless.” It’s easy to fall into cynicism. I get it. I fall into it, too. There is just so much need and no easy solution; it’s easy to throw your hands in the air and harden your heart.
But Jesus reminds us to divinize, not demonize, people who are in need. As you did it to them, you did it to me. Yeah, there are some really bad actors out there, but the majority aren’t. There are so many causes to homelessness you can’t lump them into one category or solve it with a magic wand. There is addiction, mental illness, high cost of housing.
Because Jesus said as you have done for the least of these, you have also done it for me. A friend taught me when to say, “Jesus, is it you again?”
Did you see Jesus come to our worship service last week? An unhoused man came into our worship, walked down the aisle during the opening hymn and handed Pastor Susie a quarter, and walked back out. The next time Jesus comes, let’s help him feel comfortable and stick around a little longer.
It reminds me of their dignity. Compassion is not someone elevated reaching down to the disenfranchised to feel better—as if the main part of me helping you is so that I (and my neighbors) feel good about myself for being so noble. It is reaching across to an equal, a fellow traveler on the journey who is also created in the image of God.
Pema Chodron says,
Compassion is not a relationship between healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.
How to help
I talked to social service folks who offered advice on how to help.
Don’t do anything unsafe. Trust your gut. When you do feel safe, acknowledge people. Offer a kind word. A little non-hostile, human interaction goes a long way.
Give money to church social service agencies, and maybe have a little care packet in your car for panhandlers.
Do hands-on work when you can. Interactions change your life. It creates space for something holy to happen. We have COA starting next month back inside. Be a server. Christmas families, get involved. That person-to-person relationship helps you to stay on the side of the sheep. Where you really want to be.