~ Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24/Matthew 25: 31-46 ~
When I was in high school, I spent a summer on staff at Woodbine Ranch, our Baptist church camp. My first week there I discovered that we were having “Inasmuch” camp. “What is ‘Inasmuch’ camp?” I asked. “You know ‘inasmuch as you have done it to the least’. This is the week we have camp for the poor kids.” This was my very first encounter with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The idea that ‘inasmuch’ as we minister to the poor, we are somehow ministering directly to Jesus was an entirely new idea. But it was for me the beginning of a life journey into ministry with the poor and broken. Over the years I have sought to seriously apply the tasks of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoners. Indeed, it has been a life-long journey, moving out of my fundamentalist ‘Jesus-and-me-doesn’t-it-feel-good’ experience into a ‘following-Jesus-means-doing-justice’ outworking my faith. I came to learn that Jesus takes sides. And as a follower of Jesus, so must I.
What is the definition of Christianity? If you were to reduce it all down to 2-3 sentences, what would you say is the essence of the Christian faith?
Some might say that it means accepting Jesus into your heart as your personal savior for the forgiveness of sins. Being converted, getting saved.
Some might say it means believing that Jesus is the eternal, pre-existent Son of God who, born of the virgin Mary, was incarnate on this earth for the purpose dying on the cross in our place to appease the wrath of God. Believing, as truth, the ancient creeds: ‘very God of very God, begotten, not made’, etc.
Some might say it means being baptized and confirmed in the one true church, attending Mass, taking the Eucharist…weekly. Believing that in the church and the Eucharist is salvation.
Some might say it means following the teachings of Jesus, following the way of Jesus, as one might other ancient wisdom teachers. Seeking to live out the ethical teachings of Jesus.
I, however, believe that what Christianity means is to not just appreciate Jesus teachings, but to actually follow Jesus…on Twitter. LOL. But I do believe that, for me, being a Christian means to actually follow Jesus, as Savior and, in light of this Reign of Christ Sunday, as my sovereign. For, you see, I believe that if I want to know what God is like I should get to know what Jesus is like. If I want to see God, I should look at Jesus. When I see Jesus, I see God.
When I look at Jesus, what I see is radical love and inclusion. I see a Jesus who affirms everyone’s humanity. But in a world where the humanity of many is quashed and oppressed and diminished and dismissed, Jesus very deliberately, intentionally, takes their side. When we see Jesus, we see one who takes sides. Because he represents and knows God’s justice, because he lives God’s justice, he takes the side of the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, the naked, and those in prison. That’s why this Parable of the Sheep and Goats is so central to our understand of Jesus, of how we see Jesus.
I fully realize we have visited this parable several times over the past few months. It started back in August with Brian and Marcela gave their summer share on this church’s involvement in Mobile Meals. This parable was the featured gospel reading for that Sunday.
In September, while revisiting Noe Valley Ministry’s Vision and Mission, I preached on this parable to consider what it means to engage in opportunities for service and social action. I suggested that, as a Matthew 25 church, which, of course is based on this parable, we need to be vitally engaged with the issue of structural racism as a critical outworking of our ministry.
And then, just a few weeks ago, our guest preacher, Mary Jane Gordon gave an insightful sermon, asking the question: “Are we sheep or are we goats?”
So, you might be asking, “Why again?” Well, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, it is actually the assigned lectionary text. In this story Jesus presents a very kingly scenario. He presents himself as the king coming in glory with his royal court of angels, sitting on the throne. And as the king he judges the nations. He asserts that authority.
But in the telling of the story, Jesus steps down from his throne and goes to the other side. The other side being the other side of the wall that keeps out those who seek asylum from the ravages of the world. We now find him on the other side of the chain link cages where babies have been torn from their parent’s arms. We find him on the other side of the barbed wire fence meant to hold in the prisoners. We find him in the streets with those being killed for just being black; we find him protesting with those seeking to create a new and more just society, where everyone’s humanity is affirmed and championed.
This story is about taking sides. It is a pathway for both the oppressed and the oppressors to find a new way to regain their humanity. It’s the story of a Jesus who stands in solidarity with all who find themselves on a cross at the hands of an unjust system.
Now some might say that God doesn’t take sides. But, in the face of oppression, that notion just doesn’t fly. It’s like Jesus’ story of the lost sheep. There are the ninety-nine sheep holding signs that say, “all sheep matter” as Jesus walks toward the edge of the cliff to rescue the one. Or, in current parlance, “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care for all people, but with our particular history, Black lives need special attention. The oppressed need special attention, the hungry need special attention, the thirsty need special attention, the naked and homeless need special attention, the strangers at our borders need special attention, the sick need special attention, the prisoners, especially those who are victims of an unjust criminal system, need special attention. These are the people whose humanity is being crushed and they need special attention.
As Jesus stands in solidarity with the oppressed, marginalized, and disadvantaged, it calls into question the religiosity of the oppressors who say that God is on their side. It calls into question their standing, if you will, with God, with Jesus. For, as the story tells us, they are the ones who are rejected and thrown into outer darkness.
To change systemic oppression we must always, every time, stand in solidarity with the oppressed. And it means standing against the oppressors. It means confronting the oppressors with the harm they are doing with the hope that they too might regain their humanity if they could just turn around. If Jesus took sides, then the followers of Jesus who live in privileged society must pick a side as well. If Christianity ignores this calling and continues to pretend it is serving Jesus then it is not Jesus’ Christianity. If Christianity does not offer a better God than the one, Jesus, who has always stood in solidarity with oppression, who is on the other side of the barbed wire enclosure, it is not a life-giving faith. Rather, it is a death-dealing religion.
It is a religion as described by the prophet Ezekiel. This prophecy sees God as the shepherd who seeks out the sheep so they can be rescued, brought to the high ground where they can be fed, and lie down in good grazing land. God is the shepherd.
But this shepherd will not continence those sheep, the fat and sassy sheep, who take advantage of the other sheep, the strayed, the injured and the weak. The fat sheep butted out all the weak sheep with their horns causing them to scatter. And so God has to go out and search for them and bring them back. And for this, the fat sheep are severely judged. Given the obvious parallels, many scholars believe that this prophetic tale was the inspiration for Jesus’ own stories about sheep, including our story today. The lesson of both is that God and Jesus stand with the strayed, the injured, and the weak, against the strong. Both take sides.
As I said before, this is the last Sunday on the church calendar. It has been quite a year hasn’t it? Maybe we all wish 2020 could just end right here. Maybe we all wish we could just hit the reset button, a do-over. Little did Linda and I know when we left for New Zealand last February for our sabbatical that things would go so awry. Oh, we were vaguely aware of some mysterious virus in far off places, but not too concerning. And then we heard more and more about how it was spreading around the world and how deadly it was. However, our time in New Zealand was hardly affected – until it was. The pandemic hit there, yes, later than it hit here, but it hit. They shut down the country and we returned from our sabbatical a month shorter than we had planned.
And we came home to, well, to stay at home. And as we all are too aware, we entered into a long season of not being able to be with each other in person. We entered the world of Zoom worship. And here we are, still, and who knows for how long.
And then George Floyd happened. And the country soon realized it found it was in the midst of another pandemic – the pandemic of racism. The Black Lives Matter movement, which had been kind of dormant for a couple of years, sprung back into action. And this time around there was the palpable sense that racial justice just might make some progress. Yes, there has been considerable pushback from those who can’t continence such an idea, those fat sheep that Ezekiel talked about. But there really is no going back. Which is why we, Noe Valley Ministry, have decided, quite intentionally, to enter into the fray of figuring out what it all means for us, here. Here, we take sides.
And in all that a devastating season of wildfires, wreaking havoc throughout the land. Who will ever forget the orange dark day in San Francisco and days upon days of hazardous smoke pollution? And in all that, we realized that climate change is a real thing. And have come to realize that the poor and oppressed of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are feeling the injustice of it all most sharply. Indeed, the world today is experiencing the greatest migration of people in its history due to climate change.
And, of course, we’ve just come through probably the most significant presidential election of our lives. These past four years have truly taken their toll on us all. I make no pretense of being neutral. This president has wrought incredible destruction on our democracy and upon the most vulnerable of our country. Despite his ongoing machinations, he will be gone. And the incredibly hard work of restoration will begin. But make no mistake, we are called to take sides. To be a follower of Jesus we must take sides.
So, as we move into a new year, hopefully a much better year than 2020, we will continue to explore what it means to be a follower of Jesus. God’s future, a just future, with a justice that so many are socially, religiously, economically, politically, and ecologically hungering and thirsting for – is a future where the humanity of everyone is restored and those who hunger for justice will be filled. “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these you have done it unto me,” says Jesus. Jesus says, “take sides.” This is good news. This is the Gospel. Amen.