The Last Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 25: 31-46
One year ago, November 23rd to be exact, by the grace of God, I was ordained to the priesthood in Christ’s one holy catholic and apostolic church. If you were there, you know, it was an ordination to remember. The church was packed full, the reception hall and food beautifully prepared, the acolytes and choir practiced and vested, even the clergy were getting in line to process….but there was no bishop. Nope. A quick phone call at 10 minutes to the hour told me what I didn’t want to hear, that my friend, Kee, Bishop of Alabama, had gotten the time wrong. The congregation was ready to begin singing, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and Kee was just leaving Birmingham. If I were a person who looked for signs at every turn, who wondered if God was telling me something each time carefully laid plans went awry, then I probably would not be here today.
Many of you, my friends and family, have told me that there’s a sermon in this story, and I’ve wondered what you’d have it be…possibly one with the moral: good things are worth the wait. Or, perhaps, a sermon on the merits of extending grace, as you’ll surely be needing it in return one day. Or better yet, maybe just simply, humble thyself in the sight of the Lord. All things in God’s good time. I’m leaning toward that last one, as I suppose no one can have enough humility and not even I can tell God when it’s time. I’m having fun with this, but I’m serious too. The meanings we attribute to the stories of our lives are so important. They are guideposts—our stories and the meaning we gain from them help us make decisions and tell us who we are.
I’m sure you know this already—you don’t need me to tell you. Even the stories we don’t care to remember, like my Uncle Pud, who didn’t like to talk about the war, even these silent stories shape us. I grew up knowing how awful war is just by seeing my sweet kind great uncle quietly tortured by what he’d experienced.
Our stories are powerful and the meanings we give them shape our very reality—they are the lens through which we see the world. Every successful political, religious, and military leader who ever lived knew how to assign meaning to stories to gain followers—for better or for worse. It seems likely Matthew the evangelist knew this reality too, when he wrote his gospel. His audience was a sectarian group of Jewish Christian followers, a group who was divided internally over what to believe, infiltrated with false prophets, and surrounded by opponents well versed in the law. It seems Matthew set out to arrange the then 4 or 5 decade old stories of Jesus into a coherent message that would unify and strengthen this wayward, arguing assembly of Jewish Christ followers who were overpowered by their rivals. We can see just how intently he did this. Matthew, over and over, uses quotations from Hebrew scripture to show that Jesus fulfilled Jewish expectations of the Messiah (writing the statement for example, “all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” 14 times). Matthew structured the majority of his gospel into 5 main sections, intending to give his Jewish readers the impression of the 5 books of the Torah, showing Jesus as the new Moses. Matthew, more than any other gospel writer, also appeals to a rigid apocalypticism. We’ve heard plenty of this in the past few weeks of stories we read—Matthew’s telling of the signs of the end times, the parable of the bridegrooms who let their lamps go out, and the man who hid his talent for fear of his Lord being subject to weeping and gnashing of teeth. These stories, like today’s story of the sheep and the goats, are difficult for us to hear. They appear to stridently separate out non-believers, non-Christians, non-Jewish followers of Jesus for dire judgment. If we take these stories literally, Jesus seems to say that the only hope these folks have will be in treating Matthew’s Jewish Christian missionaries –who he calls “the least of these,” with generosity and kindness.
The sheep and the goats parable is strikingly difficult. In order to understand it in seminary I turned to one of my favorite NT testament scholars, Amy Jill Levine. She says this: listen up folks, especially those of you who don’t know scripture—you non-believers, there’s one important thing you need to know: when you get to the Pearly Gates, if there are two lines, get in the sheep line, don’t ask any questions, and don’t wonder what the goat line is all about. Just get in the sheep line. You’ll thank me for it.
I have Levine to thank for this funny, and for much more, including my understanding of Matthew’s gospel—as this gospel is a puzzling dichotomy. Matthew is famous for telling us about the resurrected Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples: go “make disciples of all nations.” Yet earlier in his gospel Matthew writes that Jesus explicitly told his disciples not to go among the Gentiles, but to go instead to the lost sheep of Israel. Matthew is the only gospel writer to separate the sheep from the goats, but he also is the one who included Gentiles in Jesus’ family line of ancestry. It seems that Matthew’s ardent zeal for the success of the movement moved him to passionate interpretations of the stories, but he knew well the Jewish traditional understanding of salvation is universal: God’s plan is to call all to himself, judging Jew and Gentile alike.
Some of my favorite Jewish stories aren’t in the bible. In the Jewish tradition, there is a kind of story-telling that elaborates on scripture; it is called Midrash. Stories from Midrash give listeners a way to use their imaginations and to find meanings in the text. From a single verse of psalm 118, for example, that says, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” here is an ancient midrash story:
In the world to come it will be said to a man, “What has your work been?” If he says, “I have fed the hungry,” it will be said to him, “That is the gate of Yahweh; you who have fed the hungry enter the same.” If he says, “I have given the thirsty to drink,” it will be said to him, “That is the gate of Yahweh؛ you who have given the thirsty to drink enter the same.” If he says, “I have clothed the naked,” it will be said to him, “That is the gate of Yahweh؛ you who have clothed the naked enter the same.” And similarly, he who has brought up orphans, and he who has given alms, and he who has practiced works of charity.
Sound familiar? This midrash expresses the overarching Hebrew narrative, of God’s ultimate compassion for the oppressed. This midrash story makes the psalm’s meaning applicable to the lives of those who have the ability to serve. “The Gate of Yahweh” is the way of the Lord: so go, care for the hungry, the naked, for orphans and those in need. We can even imagine Jesus telling this story of midrash, as he lived a life committed to serving others.
This is NOT to say that Jesus never talked about judgment! He did! Judgment is the theme of this Sunday: Christ the King. This day we are reminded that we cannot presume to stand in God’s place, we cannot judge, only God. But this also is good news! God’s son came to upend our notions of kingship—the king is the shepherd. The shepherd king rules by revealing truth: this is his judgment. Without truth there is no justice. God’s work of justice reveals truth.
And in these days, do we ever yearn for the truth to come out.
My friend Kee, Bishop Kee is a great storyteller, as perhaps you heard at my ordination. He could write some wonderful midrash. Kee can find Christian meaning in his childhood experiences of blowing up mailboxes as a kid and in cooking Lobsters, because he knows the story of Jesus so well. He not only knows the stories, he knows Jesus. Jesus the shepherd—who searches for every last one of his sheep, Jesus the healer—who gave and gave of himself to Gentile demoniacs and little Jewish girls alike, Jesus, God incarnate—who humbled himself to become human for our sake. Jesus, the king who brings truth, showing us the way of humility and grace.
Maybe this is the thing, humility, I needed to be reminded of on the day of my ordination. Which by the way, did happen, in God’s time…and we sang after all,
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heav’n to earth come down:
(And we Called upon God to) fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown:
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter ev’ry trembling heart
Our stories and the meanings we gain from them tell us who we are and guide our lives. The gate of Yahweh is the way of love-choose this way. Let God enter your trembling hearts. Or as my friend Kee writes in his book, Jabbok:
When we get to the Pearly Gates it ain’t going to be a matter of what did we believe, but how did we love…And it ain’t goin’ to be did God choose Heaven or Hell for us, but, do we choose God or do we choose ourselves.
In the world to come it will be said to a man, “What has your work been?” If he says, “I have fed the hungry,” it will be said to him, “That is the gate of Yahweh; you who have fed the hungry enter in…”
Thanks be to God.