Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Nov. 26, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Nov 26, 2023 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Last Sunday after Pentecost

Nov. 26, 2023

Aly is a woman who grew up Jewish and became an Episcopalian, and then in her mid 50s she was homeless for a time. A reporter asked about running into people whom she’d known ‘before.’ Aly said, “I did. I saw a whole list of people, I kept a list in the beginning of people that I saw —who didn’t see me. I saw two people at the mall, [a priest I knew] was walking around the streets and I just sort of waved as I walked by…nothing.” The conversation continued and Aly said “there’s a church van that comes by [the shelter] to pick people up and take them to church, and I guess they go because they have a meal afterwards, but the horrible thing is that we were escorted up to the balcony.” Everyone had to hear a sermon first. “When one woman went downstairs, she said everybody wrapped their arms around themselves just like they were holding on to their purses…”

Hard as it is to hear Jesus’ words in today’s parable such judgement from well-intentioned people happens every day and with very little knowledge of what makes us sheep and goats. This is a grand finale kind of parable, appropriate on this final Sunday of the church year, and in it all the themes of earlier parables are also gathered in. Jesus includes “all the nations,” indicating he’s not talking to just one people, religion, or place—but to the whole world.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory … he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Notice he is shepherd over them all; ’sheep’ and ‘goats’, as it was common for a shepherd to have a flock made up of both. In our reading from Ezekiel the Hebrew word translated “sheep” here is a catch-all term for any small cattle, both sheep and goats, a flock. (34:11) One verse cut from our reading is, “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats…” Our ears hear them as overtly distinct, but no one can sort them without knowing the flock personally.

The Good Shepherd comes to lay down his life for the sheep—and also lays it down for the goats, in that he draws them all to himself. When God instructs Moses and Aaron on the first Passover and selecting “a lamb” God says, “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.” (Exodus 12:5) indicating that a goat may serve as the Passover Lamb. Jesus draws them all to himself, and as the Rev. Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “nothing, not even evil, is ever exempted from it. Hell has no choice but to be within the power of the final party, even though it refuses to act as if it is at the party. It lies not so much outside the festivities as it is sequestered within them… hidden, if you will, in the wound of Christ’s side…but it is not, for all that, any less a part of Jesus’ [universal] shepherding of his flock.”

Jesus’ teaching was certainly met with hostility and a response of rejection, (or ‘unfaith’ as Capon calls it), and it was also met with new ears and the faith he called for. ’The goats’ are not bad immoral people or loaded down with endless sins, and the sheep are not constant do-gooders who never fail to show compassion. Think over the parables we’ve been hearing lately—Jesus doesn’t make ‘being bad’ something to keep you out of the kingdom, any more than ‘being good’ is an automatic entrance or requirement. Instead all are accepted, not by their works, but by their faith. Goodness and evil coexist side by side even within God’s kingdom—recall the parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds) left to grow together? Not until harvest will they be separated, and it is by the winnower’s hand, not ours, that it is done. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not the executioner of the weeds or the goats. 

The grace that comes forth most strongly for me here is that faith is always the indicator Jesus uses. That might anger those who want to equate faith with fairness —i.e. ‘why is that bad guy saved when I’ve tried my whole life to be good? Why did my home get bombed when I’m not even Palestinian/Israeli/Ukrainian/Russian…?’ ‘It’s not fair!’ Remember how the Prodigal Son cleans up his act and starts being a hard worker, a good son and brother? No? That’s because it isn’t in there. He goes home to his father having done everything wrong and hoping to beg the lowest job in exchange for food. Instead he is welcomed in. All he has to do is receive and accept the love he’s offered. Evil is not banished (much as we might like it to be!) rather it is provided for in a sense. This flock isn’t all sheep, and as Capon put it, “the King in this parable does the least damaging thing he can think of with the cursed; ‘You never did like my parties. Why don’t you just go downstairs to do your sulking?’” Yes, Jesus’ language is much harsher and more rebuking. He draws together those lessons from the preceding parables to teach this last ‘Great Judgement parable’ and then reveals he’s about to be crucified. 

What the sheep have that the goats do not is a relationship with Jesus; “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.” (25:40) They are praised for trusting Jesus enough to have a relationship with them as much as they with him. 

Is it heresy for me to say I’m not sure that’s the final end of those goats, those ‘unfaithful’? I trust Jesus’ message and promise, his resurrection, and his eternal love. Is a loving God ever done with us? This is why we can be glad we aren’t the ones taking stock of the goats and sheep, and certainly aren’t doing the sorting. How would we even begin to know how? These are the same folks who didn’t realize that their giving food, drink, and welcome to strangers or neighbors meant doing it for Jesus. “Lord, 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?”

The woman I spoke of at the start of the sermon went to several churches for help, including Episcopal ones. And there were “moments full of grace, and moments of deep disappointment. The graceful moments were when people actually welcomed me, asked if there was anything they could do, handed me a leaflet, invited me downstairs to coffee hour and refreshments or in some cases gave me some oranges and in another one a bag of nuts. And then on the other side, there were those who were almost afraid to look at me.”

“I went to one church, they had breakfast for $3, and when I said I thought that was more than I could pay, I was reminded that it was $3 for a continental breakfast and $5 for the full breakfast…so I said ‘how about just some of that fruit–just a little bit.’ I never received it, and that made me very sad. Part of me was wailing inside for their lack of hospitality. It was particularly difficult because it is a church I really love.” She loved it—and knew it well, because Aly is Bishop Geralyn Wolf of the Diocese of Rhode Island, and some years back she spent part of her sabbatical as a homeless woman. She explained that “for some reason we choose to see whom we want to see… But the thing is, I join those who also don’t look, who also are unaware of my neighbor, who close my wallet when I should open it. It’s not that I’m immune from this; if anything, my eyes were opened because of the position of homelessness that I took. I like to think they were open before, but I think it’s a lifetime journey living into those passages of Scripture which hold the poor and those who mourn in such honor and esteem.”

She didn’t do this to secure eternal life. Her story is not one of good deeds and right actions, it is a sheep story of living faith—one of enormous trust and relationship with her Shepherd. She carried no phone or credit card, and only a few staff people knew about her plan in case of emergency or arrest as she made her own fake ID! Only a few staff people knew about her plan in case of emergency or arrest. Her faith led her to want to learn first hand what this parable spoke of, and to do so from a place of risk. Although scared at times, she had faith in a two-way relationship with Christ that was established forever, well before and after her. The real question is whether we will trust the truth of it enough to make it a two-way bond or distrust and leave it as one-sided. 

Robert Farrar Capon, Parables of Judgement, Eerdman’s Publ, MI. 1989
The Right Rev. Geralyn Wolf, Down and Out in Providence: Memoir of a Homeless Bishop, Crossroad Publ. 2005

© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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