Sheep or Goats?

Sheep or Goats?

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Rev. Amelia Nugent Edson serves the Falmouth Congregational Church in Falmouth, Maine.


Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46 (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.” 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.” 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?” 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Reflection: Sheep or Goats?

I had just settled down, finally, to snuggle my infant daughter when my phone rang. Pastor, the voice on the other end of the line asked, I know Jesus says we need to visit the least of these, and I know we are to be Christ’s servants in the world. My neighbor just got off on parole and I know God wants me to go see him, but Pastor—he’s attacked me twice and I know he has a gun in there. Do I have to go?

This passage, about the sheep and the goats, has the dubious distinction of being used as a clobber text across the spectrum of our faith.

On one side this passage is utilized as a dire warning about the danger of not “getting right” with Jesus. This is the theology of the highway billboards with clouds on one side and fire on the other that ask IF YOU DIED TONIGHT WHERE WOULD YOU GO? Are you a sheep, or are you a goat? A Christ follower or unsaved? This theology is arguably textual, and, depending on which texts you counter-reference, could even be Biblical. There are certainly white robes and pits of fire in Revelation, enough for the popular imagination (and Dante) to weave into something approaching those highway signs.

On the other side this passage is marshaled to argue for a preferential option for the poor, the imprisoned, the least of these. This is textual, and Biblical, but also deeply problematic, especially to those who are vulnerable themselves. Treating each unhoused, incarcerated, or needy person as a stand-in for Christ is downright dangerous to many of us, and—even to those with the physical and social safety to pull it off—can be paralyzing and exhausting.   

Both of these theologies would encourage my congregant, vulnerable to relapse and mental health challenges himself, to go and help his neighbor, even at great personal risk.

But what if both of these interpretations are products of overthinking? What if neither of these exhausting, and terrifying, and guilt-ridden systems is where it’s at?

The folks Jesus was talking to knew about sheep, and they knew about goats. Goats and sheep can graze together—it’s actually a very efficient agricultural practice. The goats, however, lack the woolly coats of their ovine neighbors, and their exposed flesh makes them less hardy in the cold. Thus the goats must be gathered up at the end of the day and find somewhere to shelter, while the sheep can go right on munching, protected by their self constructed coats.

What if there is no binary choice to be made here, but instead an invitation to grow out our spiritual coats? What if the act of caring for the least of these—the lonely, the unhoused, the incarcerated, and the precious person in our own soft heart, makes our spirits hardier, and more prepared for God? Seeing Jesus where ever we can in the world may give us layers of preparation, as comforting as the finest merino, for when we see him on that last day. And, prepared by our practices of giving and forgiveness and compassion, when the love of Christ appears, perhaps we will need less of a shelter, for we will have built up our own ability to encounter Christ, increased our own capacity to weather the overwhelming reality of unconditional, complete, perfect love.

Seen this way, the passage does not ask us to recite creeds or take untenable personal risks. Instead, it is an invitation to make sure that we are spreading love, and being formed by love. Not out of guilt, not out of fear, but in preparation and rejoicing over the love that is coming.

PRAYER

Lord God, help me to love the least of these, while also loving myself. When I die and encounter the fires of your love, help me have prepared enough that I do not need to run away and seek shelter from such a foreign gift. Let me see you everywhere, so that I may someday see you when you take me home again. I pray I pray I pray. Amen.

New Prayer Requests:

We ask churches and church leaders to join us in the following prayers either by sharing them during worship, printing them in bulletins, or sharing them in some other way. To make a prayer request, please contact Drew Page at paged@sneucc.org

Prayers of Intercession:

  • For those grieving for the nearly 245,000 victims of the Covid-19 disease
  • For the compassion to make safe and reasonable choices as Covid-19 cases rise in the region and across the country
  • For a peaceful continuation of election and transition procedures for this nation
  • For the people of the Philippines after Typhoon Vamco left 67 dead

Prayers of Joy and Thanksgiving:

  • For the emergency crews and drivers who respond to storm damage and power outages at all hours of the day

Please Pray for the Following SNEUCC Churches:

First Church in Charlestown, Charlestown, MA
Charlemont Federated Church, Charlemont, MA
Central Village Congregational Church, Central Village, CT
South Congregational Church of Barnstable, Centerville, MA
United Parish of Carver, Carver, MA
First Congregational Church, Canton Center, CT
First Congregational Church of Canterbury, Inc., Canterbury, CT
Canaan Congregational Church, Canaan, NY
North Canaan Congregational Church, UCC, Canaan, CT
First Church in Cambridge, Cambridge, MA
Congregational Church of Burlington, Burlington, CT
United Church of Christ, Congregational, Burlington, MA

This Week in History:

November 20, 1820 (200 years ago) The American whaler Essex from Nantucket is attacked by an 80-ton sperm whale. 20 crew members escaped in open boats, but only 5 survived the 83-day journey before they are found by other ships. The story of the Essex is rumored to have been part of the inspiration for Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick published in 1851. Whaling in the U.S. evolved into a multi-million dollar industry in the 19th century, but was officially outlawed in 1971 after 8 species of whales were listed as endangered species.

“Study the past if you would define the future.”
Confucius

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Amelia Nugent Edson

Amelia Nugent is a Member in Discernment at Old South Church in Boston, MA.  

November 16, 2020
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