June 13, 2021 Sermon & Worship Link

Rev. Janet Gear

Rev. Janet Gear

Guest Minister

feast of faith

Missional: Sheep-to-Sheep

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:31-46

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Text punctuated for delivery.

“Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food.” Matthew 25:34b The parables of Jesus are about the reign of God – what it’s like, how it arrives and who it includes. The parables are also rather heavy on judgement, and the parable of the sheep and the goats, as you may have noticed, is what we’d call an extreme example of judgement. Honestly, who needs it? Who in this world needs that kind of judgement? Needs to be told – they’re in; you’re out. They’re chosen; you’re rejected. They’re sheep; you’re a goat. None of us do. None of us needs that kind of judgement. Unfortunately, it turns out whether we need it or not, we have it. We’ve already been judged. “In the present age” as Matthew calls it, by which he means both then and now, in the “present age” we are all judged. We are judged by every measure the human community can invent: beautiful/plain; worthy/undeserving; employable/not employable; trustworthy-looking/dodgy-looking; normal/strange; citizen/refugee; important/a waste of tax dollars. We have already been judged. And it’s into that harsh landscape of judgement that Jesus wanders with his herd of goats and flock of sheep wagging their tails behind them. Jesus can’t be blamed for starting the judgement. The judgement of the age preceded him and it precedes us. It’s perpetual. He’s simply pushing pause with a parable because the conversation going on around him is headed in entirely the wrong direction. Jesus is attempting to keep the focus on the reign of God, but all the attention is fixed on him. “What will it look like when you’re King?” people are asking. “So, Son of Man, how will you manage this situation?” “It’s not about me,” Jesus says. But they don’t hear him. So he tells this parable. He gathers up all the attention the religious authorities are giving him, punts it out of the picture. Deflects it. Not out of modesty, but to make a point. And he makes the point by getting out of his own story. By completely disappearing among the sheep and the goats. In the parable Jesus tells – the great judgement it’s called, though we’ve already been judged – not a single pair of eyes in that flock or among that herd catches sight of Jesus. Neither the sheep who innocently feed, clothe and care for him nor the goats who neglect to do so. Neither of them sees Jesus. He successfully slips from view as if to say, “there. I told you it wasn’t about me.” According to Matthew’s gospel, the reign of God is not about Jesus. It is inaugurated in the lowlands of the tilted landscape which disproportionately leaves some people in greater need of feeding, clothing and care than others – a broken landscape we too may be complicit in creating. The reign of God is the beautiful natural movement of compassion which begins among those most naturally inclined to it and slowly may make its way uphill toward those who don’t even notice where compassion is needed. It starts among sheep – sheep-to-sheep – and may one day reach the goats, though Jesus isn’t counting on it. Louise told me about how her family never stayed anywhere long enough for her to make friends at school so she grew up lonely. She credits that experience of loneliness for drawing her to volunteer in the L’Arche community. Her own childhood shaped her eyes and her heart for compassion, and for befriending others. Viviane was kept at a distance by her neighbours when she moved into a traditional town that hadn’t known anyone in a mixed race marriage. She is a fountain of encouragement and empathy for the refugee families sponsored by her local congregation. The hurt we have felt can protect others when it becomes compassion for whoever ends up in the same shoes. When David moved from the coastal village to the city, he saw and felt the absence of community. He opened a café downtown for people with no family for company and no living room for comfort. Our own desires can become a bridge of compassion to meet others whose longing is exactly like ours. What we are calling “missional” faith, is faith that flourishes in acts of compassion. Faith that is expressed laterally sheep-to-sheep. It’s the faith of spontaneous, uncomplicated “love of neighbour” that happens when a person looks someone in the eye and sees some part of themselves – recognizes the loneliness, remembers the poverty, relives the alienation. It is a way of living the great commandment, born in empathy or an extra dose of humility and kindness. Louise, Viviane, David. None of these people saw Jesus. When did we see you? You didn’t, Jesus said. And that’s exactly what I was hoping. You saw your neighbour instead. According to Jesus’ parable, that neighbourly compassion builds the kingdom of God. I suppose we should have known that. Jesus never said, keep your eye on me. He said love your neighbour. He may well have said, “keep your eye on neighbour” because the rest follows. We cannot love what we haven’t noticed. Jesus assumes that your neighbour is a sheep. I’m assuming the same because by neighbour we don’t mean the man next door, we mean the ones judged by this tilted world and left wanting. We mean those judged unworthy, undeserving, unemployable, unwelcome, and unwell. And we mean those who could use some compassion. When someone is hungry, offer them food. When someone is struggling, find or be the help. When someone is homeless, give them a home. We CAN DO these things if we see the “someones”. It’s trickier if we don’t even see them. According to Jesus, if we don’t even see them; we’re goats. Melissa remembers watching her mum bundle up clothes and take them across the lane to her neighbour, always with a jar of jam or a bunch of flowers. Melissa had no idea what it felt like not to have what other people had because of how much things cost, but her mum remembered. So now for Melissa, volunteering in the Thrift Shop isn’t just something to do on Thursdays; it’s a legacy from her own mum who shaped her eyes for compassion and her actions for the dignity of friendship. This kind of compassion stays for generations in our spiritual DNA, creating second and third generation sheep: it may not be you who lived through the potato famine or the displacement, but you became a social worker; it may not be you who had polio but you became a physio-therapist; it may not be you who became a refugee but you who became the immigration lawyer. Compassion can be passed down, pure and unassuming, devoid of pity or superiority. Compassionate faith can be passed down or passed on too – sometimes it flows directly from a parable into a heart, from a hymn into our hands. You know the sheep when you see them. Perhaps you’re one yourself. For those with what we are calling “missional” faith, being a sheep is effortless. They don’t even see it in themselves. The church talks about meeting Jesus among neighbours in need, but frankly I don’t think missional faith sees it that way at all. They see the neighbour in the eyes of the neighbour and that’s the point. If we feel motivated to aid others because we might meet Jesus there, we have it backwards. Besides, Jesus doesn’t stipulate the motivation. Only the action. For that reason, there are people of faith and no faith working side by side all around us, filling the gap that is left in a world that judges some people UNworthy of healthy food, clean drinking water, and affordable housing. No sector of society has a corner on compassion. Countless counsellors and nurses, social workers and special education teachers, social entrepreneurs and food bank volunteers, engineers without borders, overseas volunteers and public servants are evidence of that. No, no sector of society has a corner on this. But ours has a commandment about it. It’s fairly unambiguous. Be compassionate to your neighbour, sheep-to-sheep. Show compassion to the one who is just like you, the one who is struggling, just like you are; who is lonely, just like you were; who is hungry just like your parents were; who is homeless, just like you wouldn’t wish on any one. Compassion is not complicated. Jesus didn’t ask for more than we could do. He just asked for the most important thing we could do. And because of that, more often than not, we have been spared the harshest blows along the steady slant of this world’s judgement. Spared because someone we’d never met taught our child who couldn’t learn with the rest. Spared because someone whose name we never knew came to the scene of the incident or the accident. Spared because someone we never met again showed the way out of addiction or violence, furnished the room, or set clothes in our size aside at the Thrift shop. When did I see you hungry, imprisoned or in need, they would ask, because none of those sheep whose names we never knew, saw Jesus. They saw us. When people say they don’t consider helping others an effort, when they don’t even notice their own kindness, or when they say how much they love to serve, we have front row seats to the reign of God. Sure, there are attention-seeking givers but genuine sheep slip out of their own story, just like Jesus did. In them, we are glimpsing the very heart of God, seeing what love looks like. It looks like coming to life through recognizing our own vulnerability and beauty, in the cherished face of a neighbour. Made in the image of God, we have been created for one another, made to tend the wounds the judgement of the world inflicts. We have been made to look into each other’s eyes and see a familiar face – to see in our neighbour’s face a reflection of our own – our neighbour as ourselves. Compassion isn’t complicated. Jesus knew what he was asking for. And he knew it would change everything. It wouldn’t just look like the reign of God; it would BRING it. By the grace of God, compassion alone will bring it. May it be so. Amen.