The Judgment of the NationsMatthew 25:31-40 (NRSV)
“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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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, 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.’ 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 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.’
Friends, I wonder, do you agree with everything you hear? I hope not. Because as human beings, and as children of God, we are all made to process, think, grow, and question. And to be honest, our lives and our faith are stronger when we don’t simply believe what we have always been told, but when we take time to truly think about it.
There are many stories in the bible that I remember really struggling with as a child. At that time, I had no seminary training, Heck, as a young child, I had little life experience. But even back then, there were stories that I was told that just didn’t sit right with me, and they didn’t feel like the right thing to say or do. Even as a child, I knew in my heart that they made me feel uncomfortable. But they were part of the Bible. So, I believed them, and I tried my best to follow them. As I got older, I learned that the Bible is more of a guidebook than a book of hard fast rules. It is a gathering of stories, some historical and some fictional, that have helped people on their journey through life to live better and stronger lives. But the older I get, the more I find that some stories teach me what to do, while other stories teach me what not to do.
Some of the things that I struggle with the most in today’s society are the labels and the things that divide us, the groups and the opinions, the social classes and the political parties, our age, our marital status, our sexual orientation, our likes and dislikes, and our religion. As children, we don’t know prejudice and we don’t see or understand the difference between us and our neighbors. But as we grow older, we start to worry about who we are and how we will fit in.
Today we heard the parable of the sheep and the goats. It is a story that Jesus told to the disciples about a king who separates a group of sheep from a group of goats. Now that would be pretty easy to do because sheep and goats look quite different. But in this story, it is said that the sheep are good, and the goats are bad. Now, there is red flag number one for me: the sheep are swooned over and commended for having helped others, while the goats are punished.
As a child, I was a worrier, and I worried about everything! I remember hearing this story and worrying about it. “What if I am a goat and not a sheep?” And “what if my family or friends are goats and not sheep?” For me as a child, rather than being a story that encouraged me to help others and reach out to those in need, or as for some a story that told the good news of salvation, I heard it as a story of overwhelming fear and judgment which stopped me in my tracks.
My friends, the world that we live in today is too divided. It focuses on who is “in” and who is “out.” We separate people into teams and parties and clubs. We are divided by our priorities and our opinions, our passions, and the places we work and live and worship. Like the sheep and the goats, we are put in one camp or another. Sometimes it’s our race, or our color, or our ethnicity. Sometimes it’s whether we are Democrats or Republicans or Independents. More recently, it has been whether we are essential employees or non-essential employees, or vaccinated or unvaccinated. Sometimes it is whether we are religious or non-religious. And if we are religious, as Christians, are we Catholic or Protestant, or are we Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, spiritualists? And the list goes on and on.
I understand the desire to belong somewhere, but the trouble with groups and labels is that sometimes we start to believe them and how they identify us, and we live our lives and treat the people around us differently because of them.
How about, instead of all of those labels, we remember that we are all human beings and that we are all made in the image of God? What if, instead of separating and dividing ourselves and feeling like we have to stand up for what our group or tribe or community tells us, we start searching our own hearts and thinking of our neighbors not as democrats or Muslims, or elderly, or Cape Verdean, but as human beings and children of God?
Folks, if we could put our own personal agendas and labels aside and start working together to build one another up, can you imagine what the world would be like? The truth is, we all make mistakes sometimes. And sometimes it does seem as though some people make more poor choices than others. But if we label them as their choices like the king labeled the goats, they will never be encouraged and given hope that they can do and be something more, and their choices will never change.
So friends, in the week ahead, work to build others up. Thank someone for something they have done. Point out the things that they do well. Be kind and encouraging, and tell the people around you how amazing you think they are. Don’t look for their mistakes and their faults and their shortcomings but instead, look for the good. Look for the light within them and the things that make them shine, and then do what you can to kindle that fire. Because we all have tough days sometimes, and this pandemic has turned all of our lives upside-down. So, share a little light when and where you can as you share the love of God with the world.
My friends, may it be so, thanks be to God, Amen!