Posts

Sheep and Goats, Oh My

Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 100
Matthew 25:31-46

 

25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Shepherd of Israel, hear our prayer as your Son heard the plea of the criminal crucified with him. Gather into Christ’s holy reign the broken, the sorrowing, and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

You may be surprised to learn that in some cases it is really hard to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat.  Really, now they both make different sounds, Baa-baa-baa and nea-nea.  But from a distance it is hard to tell them apart. So, how are a sheep and a goat different?

 

There is a website called “the difference between” and it says: the easiest way to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat is to look at their tails.  A goat’s tail will go up (unless the goat is frightened, sick, or in distress).  A sheep’s tail will hang down and are often (docked) cut off for health and sanitary reasons.   The next difference is that they don’t look much alike.  A goat has hair and a sheep has fleece.  A goat is more slender of the two animals.  In the west people eat sheep meat but in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent people eat goat meat.

 

Jesus, however, can tell them apart because he says when the Son of man makes judgment it will be “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  The shepherd, in this story is Jesus and he can tell at a glance which is which even at a great distance. The shepherd is watching, and he will make judgment.

 

Like it or not, this parable is about judgment.  Judgment is a fact of life.  We are judged in every aspect of our lives: our work, our play, when we go to the grocery store, when we walk down the street, we are judged.  How we look, what we wear, what we say, what we eat, what we drink, where we worship, if we worship.  We simply cannot escape judgment in life. So, Jesus is talking about something we know very well – judgment.

 

But this parable is about more than daily judgment, much more than superficial judgment – it is about final judgment.  Jesus is warning his followers of God’s judgment to pay attention to how do we live, how do we love, how do we treat others?   This parable raises the tension between obedience and disobedience. Do we listen to Jesus and follow his teachings or not?

 

So, are you a sheep or a goat? I know you are thinking and wondering. So which is it?

 

What is interesting in this text is that both the sheep and the goats are in the flock. The shepherd cares for and watches over both the sheep and the goats.  Also, notice that both the sheep and the goats are unable to see in the King in “least of these.”  So, the shepherd declares that he has been watching both the sheep and the goats and he is fully aware of their actions and their blindness.   Then the shepherd chooses which to bless and which to curse.  Then, the shepherd judges them using the criteria of their works of compassion.  Pretty harsh.  But there it is in black and white, the Word of God.

 

Now, for this Presbyterian pastor this is a tough biblical text. I preach and teach week after week about God’s free grace.  It is grace that saves us apart from anything we can do to save ourselves.  It is grace that forgives us.  It is God’s grace that says I love you even when you are unlovable.  That is the Jesus I worship, the Jesus I love.   But this parable reveals a much different side of Jesus, this Jesus is on the throne giving out judgment and honestly it is hard to take.  On a good day when I have felt compassionate toward my fellow human beings I might be able to accept it, but there are other days when I know I haven’t cared enough.  It is then that this parable hits me right between the eyes.  And I want to scream, “But I thought it was all about grace, I thought it didn’t matter what I did, that you still loved me and saved me.”

 

And that is the tension of the Bible, the tension of being a Christian.  Yes it is about grace.  And yes it is about works.  It does matter how you live.  It is as if Jesus is saying to us, “You think it’s all free grace?  You think you can live anyway you want?  Remember the story of the sheep and the goats?  You aren’t off the hook so easily.  I see you and judge you on how you treat others!”

 

This parable is often interpreted as our way to earn God’s favor by our “good” works and it often evolves into a guilt ridden moral appeal for us to get out there and do “good” things.  The problem is that this parable is really not about our good works.  It is about “seeing.”  Jesus is not judging the virtues of the sheep or the faults of the goats, but, rather, he is pointing out the hidden-ness of the King in the “least of these.”  Neither the sheep nor the goats saw the King in all the misery around them.   So, Jesus points out what separates the sheep from the goats.   It is not that the sheep are better able to see Jesus in the misery of the world but, it is that the sheep treat everyone equally; they treat them as their brother, their sister, their fellow human being, and not as lower class citizens or useless human beings – they may in fact be the least, the last and the lost, but they are still children of God.  So, you see neither the sheep nor the goats were able to see Jesus – and neither can we so the message is this – treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself. Because you never know when it just might be him!

 

That is what Jesus is talking about here how we treat everyone because you never know when Jesus might be “the least of these,” because we will never be able to discern Christ in our neighbor. That is not our job to discern which person is Jesus and which one is not!  No, our calling is to believe that Christ is already there with them.

 

It is clear in this passage from Matthew that what Jesus wants us to do in response to God’s grace is to have compassion for the least of these – to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned.  There is simply no way to wriggle our way out of that expectation.

 

Yes, God is a God of grace and love and it is free and undeserved, but there are clear expectations with that grace and the expectation is to love.  The expectation is to open our eyes real wide and see Christ in everyone we meet, especially the hungry and the thirsty and the sick and the imprisoned.  Jesus wants us to treat everyone we meet as we would treat him.  He wants us to see the worth and the dignity of every person.

 

It is not natural.  Naturally we want to turn our heads at the ugliness of it.  We want to hold our noses at the stench of it.   We want to close our hearts to the horror of it.   Jesus calls us to respond differently to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to see him in those in need.

I love the fact that this is the chosen text for Christ the King Sunday, highest of high days where we crown Jesus Lord of Lords and King of Kings, where we sing, “Crown him with many crowns…” But yet, we aren’t reading a text about a King in our sense of royalty.  We are reading a text where Jesus can be found in the least, the last and the lost and that makes him the greatest King of all.

 

When Jesus comes and tells us we have fed him and clothed him and welcomed him we might say, “When was that?  I don’t remember seeing you.”  And Jesus will smile and say, “Every time you showed compassion and treated someone with respect and kindness that was me.  Every time you lifted your hand to help someone up, I saw, and he says, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

 

Let us pray: O God, the good Shepherd, hear our prayer that you would open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to respond to those in need; the broken, the grieving, those filled with sorrow, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned and the sinner, that all may know wholeness, joy, and forgiveness. Amen.

Come and See, part 2

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 66:1-10
Matthew 21:23-32

1Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;

2sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.

3Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.

4All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name.”

5Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals.

6He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him,

7who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let the rebellious not exalt themselves. Selah

8Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,

9who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.

10For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. (Psalm 66:1-10, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Fill us with your Spirit, that we may celebrate your glory and worship you in spirit and in truth; this we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Well it is that time again, Stewardship! This year the Stewardship season will end with Commitment Sunday on October 26. Over the next several Sundays you will hear from your fellow church members about why they give and what the church means to them.

 

It is fundraising time.  It is all around us.  You hear it on the radio, with WXVU and NPR just wrapping up their Pledge drive.  I have gotten phones calls and letters from the schools I attended all wanting me to remember them again this year, and I bet you have too.  And then you come to church and we are asking for you to give.

 

We often think of Stewardship Season as the time when the preacher gives his or her best “fundraising” sermons to raise the money for the next year’s church budget.   The preacher, if he or she is good at it, is supposed to preach these fundraising sermons like a good dentist.  The dentist first gently puts in the right amount of Novocain to numb the pain and then he or she goes on and does the tough stuff in your mouth and on your teeth and hopefully you never feel it.   Well it is now time to lie back, relax and breathe deep, because this won’t hurt a bit…But no pain pill today, no hiding behind Novocain. We putting it out in the open. It is Stewardship time here at Indian Hill Church. And that is actually an exciting, joy filled time.

 

Stewardship is not about raising money.  It is a response.  It is our response to God for all that God has done for all the world and more specifically for each of us in our lives.  Stewardship is our response to God for what God has first given to us.  Our response is to thank God and enjoy those gifts and blessings and share them with others.

 

This is something the Psalmist knew and expressed in our text for today.  The Psalmist invites the people of God to come and see what God has done and how God has blessed them in so many ways.

 

The Psalmist invitation is to see the blessings of God and the first blessing is the gift of life itself.  Yes, life has its ups and downs, most of the time we are immensely grateful for the opportunity to be alive.  There is so much in life to enjoy – beautiful sunrises, good food, friendships and the joy of human love.  God gives us everything in life.   Best of all, God gives us the promise of love, God’s presence and the gift of forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

God’s life-giving and life-sustaining power that sustained the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land is precisely what the psalmist wants the whole world to Come and see. The psalmist declares, “Come now and see the works of God, how awesome are God’s deeds toward all people.” The psalmist recalls God’s “awesome deeds” of transforming the Red Sea into dry land and permitting God’s people to cross the river into the Promised Land without getting their feet wet.

 

The Psalmist is so excited and grateful, he wants to shout it from the rooftops. “Come and See” how great God is. Come and See what is going on in life with God. Come and See what abundant life feels like and looks like.  Stewardship season is a time to take stock, to look at our lives, our faith, and our church.  It is time to look at what is important to us and what we want to do and where we want to go.

 

We have so much. So many gifts, so much to be thankful for. And we can do more. We can help more, reach more, and love more. We can give more.

 

Look at this incredibly beautiful sanctuary, as you leave today notice the glorious grounds around us which still amaze me when I walk around and see the grass and trees and flowers and hear calmness of nature around us. Notice the exciting things going on with our children and youth, listen to these spectacular voices, join with your fellow church members who are giving their time and talents with MEAC, 20/20, IHN, IPM, etc.  See we have so much to be thankful for.  We can be like the psalmist and stand on the rooftops shouting, “Come and See…what God has done and is doing.”

 

I hope that we can all see that stewardship, tithing, and giving has a strong spiritual benefit: when we give with joy and generosity, we do so in response to God who gave it all for us.  When we give with joy filled hearts we begin to think and live more faithfully.

 

We don’t give out of guilt because that is not what life or faith is all about.  And we don’t give out of obligation, but instead we give out of gratitude and thankfulness for all that God has done for us and to us.   It is a mindset, a way to live, and a way to live out our faith.  It is a fact that generous people actually are happier than less generous ones, so generous people tend to focus on the spiritual rewards of giving.

 

You are people with a whole lot of choices to make.  You are starting your family, paying your mortgage, putting children through college, caring for parents, and saving for retirement, providing for your family. You have bills to pay and obligations to meet.

 

Each of us has many worthy opportunities asking us to give: our beloved college, the American Heart Association and Cancer Society, the Hospice that cared for a dying parent, or the art museum, symphony or the Reds and many other things that have touched our hearts and moved our souls.

 

So, God, his mission and the Church, are in a long list of organizations and things that are competing for our time, talents and money.  But I would challenge you that giving to God is the core of our faith. Come and See, Come and See and GIVE and be grateful, grateful to the God who gave you everything you have and provides for all your needs.

 

People give to vision, not to budgets.   So here is step one of our vision: we are invited to open our eyes and see how God has blessed us and how God has provided for us.

 

As children of God we do count our blessings. When we realize just how we have been blessed then we give thanks to God.  The way we give thanks to God is to share the gifts we have.  Putting your offering envelope in the plate is one way of saying, “Thanks to God.”

 

Let us pray: Dear God, open our eyes and hearts to the signs of your activity in our lives that we might live in hope. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The Journey to the Cross, step five: The Challenge

April 6, 2014
The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:1–14

Reverend Stephen Caine

37: 1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”  4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”  7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.  9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:  Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.  11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’  12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.  13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Generous God, out of your great abundance you give us things both spiritual and physical. Help us to hold lightly the fading things of this earth and grasp tightly the lasting things of your kingdom, so that what we are and do and say may be our gifts to you through Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.

It has been a couple of years ago since my family took a spring break trip to Washington, DC.  We drove through East Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, DC and Maryland.  Many of the places we visited were Monuments, Cemeteries and Crypts.  We saw Washington and Lee University named for George Washington and Robert E. Lee.  We toured the beautiful campus and the historic Lee Memorial Chapel where Robert E. Lee’s crypt is.  We even saw where his horse, “Traveler” is buried.   Then we went to Charlottesville, Virginia and toured Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.  There is a family cemetery on the Grounds where Jefferson is buried along with other members of his family.

 

Then we went to DC and walked the Mall.  We saw the U.S. Capital, the White House, the Washington Monument, the World War II Memorial and the stars that represent the soldiers who died, the Korean War Memorial and the haunting real-life faces on the statues, the Lincoln Memorial, the Viet Nam War Memorial and the names; name after name after name of war dead, and we finished with the Holocaust Memorial, where a pile of shoes were the haunting reality of all that had died.  These shoes were worn by Holocaust victims who were forced to remove them as they were stripped and herded into the gas chamber to their deaths.  The images, sites and sound of the dead were all around us.

 

The next day we visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington and his burial place.  Then we went to Arlington and the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial, and the struggle depicted on the faces of those brave marines as they fought to capture Iwo Jima, an important island in the Pacific Theater in the war with Japan.  The next day we traveled to Annapolis, Maryland and toured the United States Naval Academy.  We were blown away by the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel and underneath the chapel is the crypt of the great Commodore John Paul Jones, the naval leader of the American Revolution and the founder of the US Navy.  While all of these memorials, homes and monuments were very impressive, what touched me the most was our visit to Arlington National Cemetery.  I have seen the Cemetery on TV and in pictures but seeing it in person is breath taking.  As far as the eye can see white headstones.  It has been called the garden of stone.  There are Army Private’s buried in the same hallowed ground as Presidents and Five Star Generals.  Inside Arlington National Cemetery, high on a hill overlooking D.C. is the most impressive of all sites we saw.  It was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.  The Unknown Soldiers entombed there are from:

  • World War I
  • World War II
  • The Korean War
  • The Vietnam War

The Tomb of the Unknowns is guarded by a special guard the 3rd Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”) of the U.S. Army.  We watched this particular guard march his solemn march back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  It was a highly emotional scene.

 

So, as I read Ezekiel 37 this week it brought back many of those images of walking in the beauty of that hallowed ground acutely aware of the supreme sacrifice these men and women made for our freedoms in this great land.  I thought of all of those bones, those bodies, those soldiers, those men and women buried there and what they did, what they died for – our nation and an image for our nation, our world, today – can these bones live?

 

There are not just a few bones lying around; no these bones have been dead for a long time – dry, white bones.[i]  No life left.  No chance.  Dead. Dead. Dead.

 

In order to understand how the bones came to be in this valley, we must understand the history of the Israelites.  On Mount Sinai, the people entered into a covenant with God.  God promised the people that if they were faithful, they would be put in a land where they would become a people and not just a band of slaves wandering in the wilderness.  They would become the nation of Israel, the people of God.  The people were faithful, and God delivered them into the land.  Eventually a king was placed on a throne.[ii]

 

Over time, however, the people of Israel turned away from their covenant with God.  They were not worshipping God faithfully.  They were not taking care of the widows and orphans around them.  They were concerned with having more wealth, more power, and more stature.  They no longer defined themselves as the people of God.  Instead they saw themselves as a political nation.[iii]

 

The nation of Israel as they knew it didn’t last.  It was destroyed, and the people were sent into exile in a foreign land. The people were reduced to this pile of bones.  The people cried out to God, their hope was lost, they were cut off completely.  The people of Israel no longer knew who they are, they had lost their identity, their way and they were dead.[iv]

 

It is in that depressing, dead place that God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live? I can just imagine Ezekiel wanting to say, “Well of course not.  They are dead.  Dead bones don’t live!”

 

But instead Ezekiel says hesitantly, “Only you know God.” And that is the crux of our faith.

Only God knows—

  • Where life can come from death…
    • Where hope can arise from despair…
      • Where joy and laughter follow grief…

 

We might not see any evidence of it because all we see is dead, dry and lifeless bones.

 

And that is where our faith comes in because God calls us to believe without seeing.  The Lord’s words provide room for hope.  “Hope is believing in the face of the evidence and then watching the evidence change…”  In a dark valley of death, with Israel lost in deep exile, God commands Ezekiel to speak words in the face of death.[v]  Can these bones live?

 

Only you know, God.  So, in the meantime; we worship and we pray and we trust in God.  We remember too all that God has done, and we tell it.  We tell our faith story and we begin to see how it is part of God’s story… we trust that God can make even old, dried out, dead bones, get up and dance…Can these bone live? Only God knows!

 

Let us pray: O Almighty God, you alone can transform our unruly wills and desires of sinful hearts: Grant that we your people may love the thing which you command, and follow what you promise; so that among the many changes in the world around us, our hearts may be fixed on thee. Amen.

 



[i] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.

[ii] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.

[iii] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.

[iv] Rev. Heather Daugherty, Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, New Life Exists, a sermon preached on May 31, 2009—Pentecost on Ezekiel 37:1-14.

[v] Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine