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A Sermon about Goats
I got to preach a sermon!
I’ve been participating in an Episcopal community called Brent House for the past few years. It’s run by a wonderful priest who encourages students to preach, and so today I preached a short sermon on Matthew 25:31-46.
(If you don’t want to read the whole passage, to understand the sermon you’ll need to know that it’s a parable from Jesus referring to people who feed the hungry and welcome the stranger as “sheep” who have fed and welcomed Jesus and go to heaven, with an ongoing refrain of “for I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat.” In the second half, Jesus also refers to people who ignore the poor and the afflicted as “goats” who have ignored Jesus and condemns them to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”)
Here is the recording! A rough transcript is below:
There was a video going around the internet a year or two ago in which someone at a Trump rally declared that the COVID vaccine was here to separate the sheep from the goats. And the interviewer asks her which one she is, and she gets really offended and goes “I ain't a sheep. I’m not doing what they tell me, I’m fighting back.”
I think this is a great illustration of this gospel reading. It links the words to a specific instance of loving your neighbor. The irony works on several levels. And, you know, it isn’t about me.
Right? I would never say something like that. I’m vaccinated. I’m progressive. I care about people. I genuinely want the world to be better. And at the end of days I’ll get to hear Jesus say:
For I was hungry, and that bothered you.
I was thirsty, and you listened to a really good podcast about it.
I was a stranger, and you were furious at the people who mistreated me.
I was in prison, and you could name every single unjust system that put me there
For I was suffering. And you really cared. And you didn’t do anything about it.
And that’s what makes this passage so challenging. As Christians or just people on the more progressive side of things there is this temptation where we take problems like poverty or racism or homophobia or climate change and we educate ourselves and we read diverse voices and bring them up in bible study and we really start to care about the suffering they cause. And that is good -- we should learn, we should care, we should reflect.
But I have seen again and again in myself and others this danger, where we look at all the time we’ve spent educating ourselves and being angry and feeling guilty, and we have the right set of beliefs and values and we really do care and we assume that all of this means we’ve done our part. Whether or not we have actually given what we can to the poor. Whether or not we have actually stood up to any unjust systems. Whether or not anybody anywhere is actually better off for all the time we spent caring about their suffering. As if sympathy and self-reflection were the same as systemic change. As if what the people experiencing famine in Yemen or Ethiopia need is our personal emotional response and not food. As if the call of Christ was to care about problems and not to care for people.
Because if the hungry are not being fed, the strangers are not being welcomed, and the oppressed are not being liberated --- not just in theory but actual people’s lives being changed --- then all of our love and social awareness is just a nice way for us to feel good about ourselves.
The other thing I notice in this passage is that these actions are fairly specific and small in scale -- feeding a person, welcoming them in, visiting them in prison. This stands in contrast with some of the gospels’ other sayings. There’s no talk of casting the mighty from their thrones and selling everything to give to the poor. I see two takeaways from this.
First, love happens in specifics. If you set out to end poverty you will end up discouraged because nobody can end poverty and also what does that actually entail? But you can give someone you meet a coat. You can volunteer at a food bank. You can send your money to a family in Kenya or study a way of alleviating poverty’s effects or join a group fighting to change a specific unjust policy. Because even though we talk about love and justice in these emotionally charged supernatural terms, the actual work of loving your neighbor is often quite mundane. It’s giving up something you’d like so you can give away the money. It’s helping someone fill out a form so their asylum claim isn’t rejected. It’s cleaning a toilet in a homeless shelter. It is not flashy. It is not always rewarding. But it is love.
Second, this passage is brutal. It depicts one group of people being sent to everlasting reward and another to everlasting torment. And in my experience, many of the people who are most serious about putting love into practice tend to be very scrupulous: they tend to have very high moral standards and to beat themselves up when they fail to live up to them. And if you’re this kind of person, it’s easy to read this kind of passage, recognize all the ways you could do more, and instead of saying “okay I’ll work on these” you say “oh no I’m a failure and I’m a goat and God hates me.”
And that’s not at all what the passage says! But what makes this so pernicious is that from the inside this feels like humility. It feels like I’m just recognizing my own shortcomings, when I’m really pushing God away. It’s like when I play catch with my seven-year-old nephew, [Since this is UChicago: Catch is a game where you throw a ball back and forth] and he drops the ball once and falls on the ground and goes “I SUCK at baseball. I HATE this. I’m NO GOOD.” and we’ll say “no, you’re great!” but what I want to say is “of course you suck. You’re seven. Of course you, a child, are not a professional baseball player. We’ll keep playing and you’ll get better.”
But then we come along and we want to give all we have to the poor and we discover there’s stuff we don’t need or privileges we didn’t earn that we aren’t ready to give up. And instead of saying “I’ll start with what I can” we say “I SUCK at generosity. I’m NO GOOD and God HATES me” and sometimes we try to counter this in our friends with “no, you’re such a good person” or “God wouldn’t ask you to give up [thing only 10% of the world can afford].” But if I’m being honest I really think God’s response is closer to “of course you suck at this. You just started. This is hard and of course you, a human, are not as generous or loving as the God of the universe. We’ll stick with it and you’ll keep getting better.”
Because while we are called to love deeply and sacrificially, our ultimately hope is not that we -- today -- will do everything perfectly. Do you not know? Have you not heard? There is a God who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and he deeply loves us little grasshoppers. There is a Christ, crucified, whose sacrifice which we are about to celebrate will redeem and make new the most broken, painful, heart-rending pieces of human suffering. To whom will you compare him? Who is his equal? God is so much greater than you could possibly imagine. And his love will succeed where ours does not. And he will be faithful to us, and to you specifically, no matter what.
So my invitation to you today is to figure out where you can feed Jesus, today. Where you can welcome Jesus the stranger, today. Where you can visit Jesus in prison, today. Something concrete, and something you are really capable of doing. Not some hypothetical perfect version of yourself, but you as you are today. And my hope and prayer is that you would bring that to Jesus and see what he does with it. Today. And Tomorrow. And forever. Thank you.
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