November 23, 2014
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
I love the images of the shepherd in the gospels: Jesus is the shepherd who leaves the 99 alone on a hillside to bring back the one lost sheep; he is the good shepherd who calls all his sheep by name and who does not run away when the wolf attacks. His rod and his staff comfort us.
But today we get the shepherd who is also a King and a Judge, separating the sheep from the goats.
The parable starts with all nations gathered as humble subjects before the glorious Son of Man sitting on his throne as he divides the people of the world into two groups. It is a frightening scene–frightening for two reasons:
First is the reality that the one sitting on the throne has universal authority over our lives, not only because of his absolute power, but also because of his absolute truth. Like the child caught with the stolen candy bar in her pocket, the guilty will only be able to say that the judgments of the Lord are righteous and true altogether.
Second, it is frightening because the Judge doesn’t use any criteria we normally use when talking about the nations. He doesn’t separate the first world from the third world. He doesn’t separate according to skin color, ethnic background, personal wealth, or whether you are a native or an illegal immigrant. And apparently he doesn’t care about religious beliefs or church attendance.
Rather he divides them according to only one criterion: do you live your life connecting to the least of people in tangible ways that are healing and caring or do you live your life so curved in on yourself, that you ignore the suffering of the insignificant other?
And we should notice that the judge is looking for something deeper than a drive-by handout. In the Bible to give someone food meant to sit with them and share not only what you’re eating and drinking, but sharing your life and letting them share their life with you.
This is what Jesus does: he sits with all sorts of insignificant people and in the process of breaking bread turns strangers into friends. This must have happened so often because they accused him by saying: “he has meals with tax collectors and sinners!”
The good sheep are also commended for visiting those in need. That is they actually take a chair, sit down, and spend time–with the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner.
They are giving their time and they are giving themselves. And according to the Judge as they give of themselves to the least of these they are also giving to the Judge himself.
This is precisely what happens on the road to Emmaus when the two depressed and fearful disciples invite the stranger on the road to share their dinner and when the stranger breaks the bread they see that he is the Risen Jesus.
They had no idea. They are simply living with the open-hearted self-giving they learned from Jesus. In that moment those who are giving become those who are receiving, and in that mutuality the line between giver and taker is erased and replaced by what we call companions—which is from two Latin words meaning “with bread”.
Those in the parable who live with that open-hearted friendship are told by the King: `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, which means they get to keep living in this openhearted way forever.
Likewise the cold-hearted get to continue their heartless living forever.
It reminds me of the famous C. S. Lewis dictum: It is heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.
How we live today is how we will live tomorrow.
If they choose to ignore strangers in this life they will get to keep ignoring them in the next life, which means they will create more loneliness for themselves. For when we refuse to be a companion we are at the same time refusing to have a companion.
It’s like that old story of two dining rooms, one in heaven and one in hell. In both rooms there is a long table filled with the finest food and drink. And in both rooms the people sitting at the table have straight casts on their arms, so they can’t get the food into their own mouths.
In the hellish dining room the people are angry and starving because each person is only interested in trying to feed himself. In the heavenly dining room the people are having a party, because they’ve learned how to feed for one other—no givers or takers—just companions who give AND take.
Five of us—Ruthann Savage-King, Kristin Everett, Maggie Marshall, Dave Kuzara and I—attended a workshop Saturday a week ago called Eat and Share that was run by two women who have worked extensively with feeding the homeless in Boston and Worcester.
One of them told of a woman who had been a leader with the Monday lunch program for the homeless at the cathedral for over 20 years. During that time the program followed the same procedure every week: the cathedral members cooked, served, and cleaned up. The homeless people sat down, ate, and left.
When the woman retired she was shocked when she realized that even though she’d seen many of the same people once a week for decades she hardly knew anything about them. She knew a few first names, but no last names. She saw how they looked on the outside, but had no idea how they were feeling on the inside. She didn’t know who they loved or what they feared. She had no idea if they shared her faith in Jesus Christ.
She had given food, but she had not given friendship.
But of course this was not her fault—for this was how the program was designed. She was trained, as I have been, to stand on one side of the table and hand out food to those on the other side of the table, be friendly of course, but do not cross the line. You are the giver and they are the takers, after all, what could such broken people possibly have to give upper middle class Episcopalians?
For the past 6 years everything has changed at the cathedral: some of the homeless are part of the leadership team and are involved with preparing and serving while some of the volunteers from the cathedral spend their time eating at table with their guests making friends.
Because I have been involved with soup kitchens I’d always see myself as one of the sheep in this parable.
But when I’m honest there have also been numerous occasions when I’ve turned my back on those in need—usually because I’m afraid of people who are different from me–which is to say I’m part sheep and part goat.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn puts it this way: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The Gulag Archipelago
The only way I know how to deal with the terror of this parable is to notice the identity of the one sitting on the throne: Jesus most often used the phrase Son of Man to describe himself. So if the judge on the throne is the same as the savior on the cross, if the one who sees the truth of the human heart is the same one who for 33 years lived inside our “pain, wounds, and fears” not to condemn us but to heal us, then this parable is not meant to reject us but to restore us into Christ’s vision of universal companionship.
When we throw ourselves on his mercy and pray that he will remove the fearful categories of “insignificant”, “takers”, and “needy” and replace them with the only category he ever uses: the category of “human being–beloved child of God”.
When we welcome the infusion of his Spirit we are given the courage to walk through our fears all the way to that empty chair next to the scary stranger who was sent by God to be our companion on the Way.