The following is based on Matthew 25:31-46, called the parable of the last judgement, but commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Weeks ago I saw that I was supposed to preach on the “Parable of the Last Judgement.”
And I thought, “Great. I love preaching about judgment.” (I hope you picked up the sarcasm).
And then, when I actually read the text, I realized that the parable of the last judgement was the parable of the sheep and the goats. And I thought, “Alright! I love this parable! I can talk about serving people, and how actions speak louder than words.” You know, preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.
This, after all, is one of the things that we who identify as Mennonites love. It’s about faith in action. Doing is what we do.
We even have that famous poem by Menno Simons hanging downstairs by our church kitchen.
True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.
It clothes the naked.
It feeds the hungry.
It comforts the sorrowful.
It shelters the destitute.
It aids and consoles the sad.
It binds up what is wounded.
It becomes all things to all people.
Doing is what we do! We makes blankets and collect rice and go to Pauingassi and sponsor refugees and rebuild houses with MDS and respond to natural disasters around the world. We volunteer and donate money to all sorts of causes and drink fair trade coffee, purchased at Ten Thousand Villages.
Doing is what we do.
And then, when I realized that I had to preach a sermon about doing to a bunch of people who are already doing a bunch of things, I had a moment of terror.
What am I going to say that people don’t already know? Should I be telling people that they should serve more? That they’re not doing enough?
And then I thought about how I would react to Mel telling me that I need to do more in my life. I would either spit venom back in his face, or I would crawl into the fetal position and cry, and say, “I’m trying my best. My life is full. Please don’t heap shame and guilt on to me.”
Margot Starbuck wrote a book about loving your neighbour called Small Things with Great Love, and in it she tells a story of going for a walk with a young mother. When the young mother found out that book was meant to be a practical guide to help people love their neighbour, she seethed with anger and animosity.
“I’ll tell you what I don’t want to hear. I don’t want to hear that my children should help me bake cookies to pass out to homeless people. The cookies wouldn’t even get baked. I don’t want someone telling me to take my kids to serve at a homeless shelter, because they don’t even know the difference between a homeless shelter and a shopping mall.”
And then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “I can barely get to the grocery store.”
How many of us feel that our lives are busy? That our lives are already full? Between work and church and volunteering and our kids and our grandkids and our parents and our grandparents, that we’re already doing all we can to stay afloat?
I was thinking, “How in the world am I going to talk about this parable without inducing hatred and animosity, or crushing guilt?”
And then, last week, I went to Laguna Beach.
I had saved up my Professional Development money and spent a week sitting at the feet of Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, soaking up their wisdom. Plus, I also went surfing.
And they told me a story that put this parable into perspective.
I want you to imagine ancient farmers from thousands of years ago. Very quickly, these farmers would have realized that in order to live, they need this crop to grow. And in order for the crop to grow, they need just the right about of sunshine and water. Too much sun, and it’s scorched. Too little sun, and they’re stunted. Too much water, and they’re flooded. Too little water, and they dry up and wither.
So, the farmer’s very existence depends entirely on forces that he or she cannot control.
Except, there is one way you can try to control the sun and the rain. You can make offerings to the gods in hope that they will bestow the right amount of sun and rain on your crop. So you take a little bit of your crop, and offer it as a sacrifice so the gods so you will make them happy and they will bestow their goodness of you.
But here’s the thing about offering sacrifices to the gods.
What do you do if you have a bad crop? You probably didn’t offer enough sacrifice, so you offer more next time.
What do you do if you have a good crop? Whoa. My offering worked! I should offer more next time to get more return!
No matter what the result of your crop is, in order to get the Gods on your side, you end up offering more, and more, and more.
(Thanks to Rob Bell for the farming analogy).
Based on the sacrificial system, you never know if you’ve offered enough. It leads to deep anxiety within us. We never know our status with the gods. Have we done enough? Should we be doing more? How do I get the gods on my side?
And eventually, you can’t offer more of your crop, because you need to eat, so you start offering other things. Like animals. And when you need your animals to survive, you start offering other things that are more and more valuable. And eventually, what’s the most valuable thing you can offer?
Your children. Your first born.
This is why the Old Testament is full of commands, telling the Israelites “Don’t be like them, because they sacrifice their children to their gods.” The Old Testament is actually a radical, progressive step forward in human history. And really, how often do we get to call the Old Testament progressive?
In today’s world, where most of us aren’t farmers, what’s our most valuable commodity? Well, besides our children, our two most valuable commodities are our money and our time. That’s why we say things like, “That was a waste of my time. That was a waste of my money.” Time and money are the things we place a remarkably high value on.
And when we come to church, what are the two things that we’re hammered on the most to give?
Our time and our money.
You have to give more time. You have to give more money. You have to watch less Netflix and buy less latte’s, because that’s time and money you can give to God and the church.
Why? So that God will be happy with us. So that God will bestow God’s goodwill upon us. So that God will send the sun and rain so that we will live.
Have you ever heard these before?
You are poor because you don’t give enough money to church. You have cancer because you don’t have enough faith. You are suffering because of un-confessed sin in your life. If you only had more faith, you’d be healed. Your parent didn’t have enough faith, and that is why they died early. If only you hadn’t sinned so much, God wouldn’t be punishing you now. This suffering you have is God’s way of reminding you to be a better person. If you give money to church, God will bless you with more.
Ohhh… We’ve heard these before, haven’t we? But there’s the thing:
God doesn’t love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. – Richard Rohr
Telling people that poverty and suffering and death are the result of not offering enough time and money – These are some of the ugliest manifestations of Christianity. It’s toxic. And yet we hear it over and over again.
But we continue to hear – Give more and give more and give more, until finally, we either lash out, get into the fetal position and cry, or simply walk away from it all.
Now, some of us here care deeply about our church’s budget, and others of us here care deeply about people using their gifts to serve a broken world, and I want to ensure you, I do as well.
But moving forward, I want to offer some definitions of spirituality that I found helpful.
Spirituality is not what you do. Spirituality is about being aware to what’s already in front of you. Spirituality is about waking up, about paying attention. Spirituality is about being fully present and alive to what’s been in front of us the whole time. Spirituality is trying to teach us about the depth of every moment, every conversation, and every relationship. – Rob Bell
There’s a story in Exodus about Moses stumbling across a bush that was burning, and he was told to remove his sandals because the land he was standing on was holy ground.
The ancient rabbis had a tradition of saying that the bush didn’t start burning and then stop burning, but rather that the bush was burning the whole time, and Moses finally noticed it. The ground didn’t suddenly become holy. Rather, the ground has always been holy, and Moses finally noticed it.
Spirituality is one’s awareness that everything is a gift, and that how we respond to that gift matters. – Rob Bell
Everything is a gift, and when we realize that, everything changes.
When we realize that every drop of water we have is a gift, we can’t help but to share that.
When we realize that every morsel of food is a gift, we can’t help but to share that.
When we realize that every roof over our head is a gift, we can’t help but to share that.
When we realize that our families, our churches, and our communities are all gifts, we can’t help but share that.
And, when we look to the parable of the last judgement, the story of the sheep and goats, do you see the question that both the sheep AND the goats ask?
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger needing clothes or sick or in prison?
When did we see you?
This is where seeing is different than believing. Sure, we can believe whatever doctrines we want. We can arrange the intellectual and theological furniture in our minds however we choose. But do we see? Do we see the divine mystery in all of creation, but especially in the sick, the downtrodden, the outcast, the ones for whom life is hard? Are our eyes open?
When our eyes are open, when we’re truly present to the moment, we begin to see the divine in everybody, and especially in the least of these.
When we truly see the divine in everyone, we will treat them as such.
My hope for us this week isn’t that we’ll try harder, or give more, or do more. My hope for us this week is that we will pray one prayer throughout our days. “Lord, open my eyes.” When we wake up, when we go to sleep, when we’re driving, when we’re at work and when we’re getting the mail with our children. “Lord, open my eyes.”
Grace and Peace to you.