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Do You See Me?
We have arrived at the end of the church year. And I think it is interesting that we don’t end at the empty tomb. We don’t end at the spreading of the gospel around the world. We don’t end even at the beautiful, glittering vision of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation. No, every year we end at “Christ the King”—a reminder that our world is “not yet” what it should be—but a reminder also that we can’t allow the “not yet-ness” to lull us into apathy.
The end of the Christian year is a bridge from the calls to “watch” and “stay ready” and “use your talents”—to the watching and waiting and getting ready of Advent as we prepare to start the story all over again—the story of God being with God’s people. In the Matthean year (the one we are finishing up today) we end with Matthew 25. The parable of the bridesmaids and making sure we have our extra oil, making sure we are ready to go whenever it is that Christ appears. The parable of the talents (as Minister Kim so wonderfully elaborated for us last week) and its insistence on us using what God has given us—investing and multiplying and doing to the best of our ability—for God.
And today’s parable, the parable of the sheep and the goats. The lesson that God, that Christ, is among us, even now. Do You See Him? “Where, where?” cry both the sheep and the goats. And the answer comes, “In the least of these, my brothers and sisters.”
Do You See Me?
I understand why Jesus might have chosen two different species—sheep and goats to depict those who are following the way and those who have lost their way. I mean, it’s easy to see the difference between sheep and goats. I can’t say that I’m an expert here, but sheep have that wool that can be shorn and used to help keep us warm. Sheep are known, at least in movies, to be able to be herded—to go where they are told to go. We have made sheep out to be adorable, and docile.
On the other hand, goats don’t have such a great reputation. If you see a goat in a cartoon, he’s probably eating trash. He’s portrayed as scraggly (even though goat hair is what makes mohair—a desirable material). Usually, you see goats pictured as rugged individuals—not nice tame flocks.
Now I don’t know if our depictions of sheep and goats has been influenced by Jesus’ parable, or the other way around. But I think there is danger in having identifiable “right and left”—sheep and goats, it makes us think that it is easy to tell who is who (even though the parable makes it abundantly clear that neither the sheep nor the goats could spot Christ in their midst).
And so I was fascinated by the Old Testament reading for this week (one that I must say I don’t remember reading and certainly not preaching on). Let me share it with you: (Ezekiel 34:11-15; 20-24)
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
Here in Ezekiel, we have God who is seeking the lost, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, strengthening the weak—doing exactly what those who have seen the least of these do. But we don’t have sheep and goats—not two distinct species, so easy to distinguish. We have sheep and sheep. We have those who have been following the shepherd, and those who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.”
Ezekiel distinguishes between the “fat sheep and the lean sheep”—maybe a precursor to the idea that it would be as difficult for a rich person to get into heaven as a camel to get through the eye of a needle.
Maybe that is why we call people who wield power, usually dishonestly, “fat cats.” Now I don’t want to get into the politics of body shaming—and we don’t have to—because their body mass number is not the reason why they are being chastised. What has gotten them in trouble is their behavior to others—going after the weak, the troubled, the “least.”
And that is why I was so struck by the title “Do You See Me?” For don’t we, (if we have any standing, any power, any respectability) don’t we try to “not see” some people? You are sitting at a light in your car, don’t you try to “not see” the person moving from window to window asking for a hand out? You are walking down the streets of New York City (I know in a past life), and there in the doorway, in the alleyway, maybe even right on the pathway, you try to “not see” those who now call the streets home. You look away to “not see” people who are obviously impaired, obviously struggling with mental issues, obviously in need. Society has not wanted to “see” those who are incarcerated, or those who are warehoused in nursing homes, or those who live in squalor, even in our country. For too many years, some of us have not seen the rampant racism, the microaggressions that happen every day, every hour, every minute to those of color, and those who we label: “different.” For too many of us, we choose not to “see” the groaning of our planet, the disappearing of whole species, the tettering on the brink of having a livable climate.
Because maybe if we don’t see, then we won’t have to act. Because “seeing is believing.” And so, if you don’t want to believe, then you can’t see.
This last parable in Jesus’ judgment series is the most stark. Yes, we can work on procuring extra oil. Yes, we can use our talents to our ability. But both of those things can be done in our own little circle. We can make ourselves spiritually ready without having to interact with others. We can focus on using our talents, on multiplying the gifts God has given us, without necessarily changing the world in which we live. But Jesus isn’t going to stop there. No, in the minds of those who created this Christian year and chose readings for the final Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, there was one last step. One most important step. One defining thing—that separates those who are going to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master”—and those who hear something else.
And it has to do with our answer to “Do You See Me?” Whether we know it or not, how we treat people, how we see people, whether we see people, especially the people that few rarely see, is the key to everything else. It is the response to “Love your neighbor as yourself” which is as important as “Loving the Lord our God.” It is the object of practicing kindness and loving mercy and walking humbly. Christianity is not an individual sport. Your faith is very small if it only concerns you.
I’m beginning to better understand the Matthew 25 pledge—to be a vital congregation, as we work towards eradicating systemic poverty and dismantling structural racism. This is not solitary work. We stand together, we gain strength in numbers, we have each other’s back.
That’s why we need to be a vital congregation—vital for ourselves, vital for our community, vital for our world.
And the two chosen focus points—poverty and racism go to the heart of how we “divide and conquer” in this world of ours. Certainly there are other important ministries. But until we make it so that no one is in bottom “survival” mode, we haven’t finished our work. And until we make it so that everyone has access to and can multiply their God-given gifts, we haven’t finished our work. No one can charge the PCUSA with having small goals. The reality is that these goals are not something that will be accomplished this year, or next year, or in the next five years, or even in our lifetimes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t put our time, and our talents, and our treasure, and our energy, and our intelligence, and our imagination, and our love into trying.
I was struck by a story Barack Obama told early in his new book, “A Promised Land.” Barack’s mother had just discovered that he had been a part of a group that was teasing a kid at school, and she sat him down and said,
‘You know, [Bear], there are people in the world who think only about themselves. They don’t care what happens to other people so longs as they get what they want. They put other people down to make themselves feel important.
Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people.
So’, she said, looking [Barack] squarely in the eye, ‘Which kind of person do you want to be?’ (p. 6, A Promised Land)
Do You See Me? Jesus asks. Do You See Me in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, those in prison, the lonely, the poor, the “other?”
Do We See?
What Do We See?
What are we going to Do about What We See?
Thank God, we have each other to try to tackle this mammoth, unbelievably difficult task.
And Thank God we have a Shepherd, a Guide, a Rock, a Redeemer, who is with us every step of the way.