Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Sheep and Goats and Humankind

Scripture cited today includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46.

Come to church and learn more about sheep than you may have ever wanted to know. Clearly, they were a big deal throughout the entire sweep of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I don’t know what we have in our society that carries all the meaning that sheep and shepherds do in the Bible: the herdsman fed and dressed his family by the animals he raised, an entire economy depended on sheep and shepherds, and Israel’s religion, built on blood sacrifice, would have had to close up shop without sheep. Look at our altar and see the Messiah, Jesus, represented by… a lamb, the Lamb of God.

What would we show as the sustaining centerpiece of our culture? What would be so globally important and valuable that it could wind up as a symbol of the divine? Would it be a laptop? Nah. At least a lamb is animate, alive. How about a Texas longhorn? Many eat steak, and there certainly is a cattle industry. Maybe mentioning Texas brings to mind oil— but I don’t think a barrel of oil is going to make it onto any altar I’d care to worship at. (Now, promise me not to spend the rest of this sermon coming up with the perfect answer to what was meant to be a rhetorical question…)

The point is: in the Bible, sheep rule. At least among metaphors.

What I didn’t realize—never growing up close to sheep—is that there are bullies in that species, as there are in our own. That fact helps Ezekiel get the most out of his metaphor and insist that a time will come when God the shepherd will gather together the whole of his flock, scattered and injured by war and famine and injustice, and will impose on the flock a reversal of fortune whereby the weak will be strengthened and the strong will be, well, turned into mutton.

That sounds downright merciless in Ezekiel’s oracle today, but this does tend to be the prognosis for sheep, doesn’t it? Bred to be useful, sheep fulfill their destiny in a variety of ways that make us glad we aren’t sheep.
What’s surprising about Ezekiel’s vision of flock and shepherd is this ecology of justice that he describes. Stockyards are not known for mercy or justice, nor are sheepfolds, however bucolic they may sound. Nature is now and was then red in tooth and claw, and that pushing and butting Ezekiel cites is animal nature in the sheep pen and pasture just as it will be next Friday at Best Buy and Target.

But it is not to be so in the Kingdom of God. Justice will shape the flock, even train the behavior of the sheep, and it will be up to the shepherd to see to that. Who is the shepherd? As “sheep” represented the people of Israel in this realm of metaphor, the shepherd is in some verses God, and in others it is the king. To prophets like Ezekiel, to be a good king is to reflect the justice of God.

Methodist Bible commentator Katheryn Pfisterer Darr writes, “In Israel’s ancient Near Eastern world, kings were expected to “tend” their subjects justly, especially those who were most vulnerable to abuse: widows, orphans, the poor, infirm, and displaced. Israel’s past shepherds neglected such responsibilities, Ezekiel charges… But Yahweh, Israel’s divine king, shepherds the entire flock including its weakest members… How a society and its leaders treat those who struggle against disadvantages speaks volumes about that society’s true values—not the ones it professes to hold, but those revealed in policy and action.” By God’s values, she says, the elderly will not be neglected, the homeless will not be disparaged, and the sick will not be stigmatized. Nor, we might add, will foreigners be denied the basic rights we expect for ourselves.

Nor, she points out, will God’s creation be treated as ours to exploit, as Judah’s former kings exploited the flock entrusted to their care. “Neither are we, like the strong, selfish members of the flock… free to take more than our share of its resources, consuming at will and polluting what remains. Ezekiel’s world knew the devastation of flood and earthquake, of famine and drought, of warfare and plunder. We too know of such things; perhaps we have even experienced some of them. But Ezekiel’s world did not know the devastation of nuclear waste and chemical landfills, of cracked-open oil tankers and mountains of non-biodegradable trash. Today, chapter 34 (of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel) speaks with a piercing relevance the prophet could not have imagined.”

All of which sets us up for another unanticipated lesson about sheep, brought to us by the Gospel of Matthew, where we learn that sheep are preferred over goats. Go figure.

Goats, like sheep, were one of man’s earliest successes in domestication. They were the principal source of milk in Israel. Their flesh was eaten, their waterproof hair used to make tent fabric, their skins tanned for leather, their hides as skin bottles.

They were commonly herded together with sheep in the ancient culture. They were considered acceptable for religious sacrifice—even the Passover lamb could be a kid. But will you see a goat on a Christian altar? “With their beetling brow and thrust-out lower lip they could easily represent power and belligerence,” writes Jack Vancil, contributing to the Anchor Bible Dictionary. “Their overbearing temper and aggressiveness required the shepherd to keep close watch over the flocks so that the sheep would not be harmed.”

Ah, we’re back into the realm of butting and shoving—not just the animals, also the humans. I’ll venture the guess that eventually shepherds and goatherds went their separate ways. Mr. Vancil tells us that goats are destructive to cultivated areas, and I suppose I would know that firsthand if I had one. In a primarily nomadic culture, sheep and goats coexisted side by side. In a settled culture of gardens and pastures, shepherds and goatherds would compete for land and water and prime pasture.

Perhaps Jesus raised goats. He (or Matthew) assumed that most of his hearers wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the disparaging destiny that meets the so-called goats in his vision of the last judgment. Somehow, those goats had to represent humanity at its worst: self-involved, chomping away the neighbor’s lawn without even noticing, nose to the ground taking care of Number One, head-butting anyone in the way.

Maybe you could call this story “How to Really Get God’s Goat.”

But let’s lift our own heads out of the details enough to remember that when we hear a Gospel, we’re hearing Good News. Life is full of the other kind. Here, Matthew brings us Good News.

Jesus is closer to us than we know. Jesus is closer to us than we know. And we are called to know him, to recognize him wherever he is, in the stranger longing for the embrace of welcome, in the sick person who opens us to the call to compassion, in the prisoner who requires us to face our own fear of jails.

The good news is that Jesus is with us. The good news is that Jesus pushes the boundaries of that tiny word “us”, stretching it to include all the Bad News Bears we can think of, whom we will want to include even if by nature we don’t want to include them. He is so them that to keep them at a distance is to keep him at a distance. They, with whom we have wanted little to do, are the ones he sends to bring us to our senses, and save us from our own belligerence, our own proclivity to strip the earth bare and to be satisfied only when our tanks are on full. He lifts up those whom he calls “the least members of my family” to reveal to his whole family what matters most.

The apostle, whom I have so far neglected, sings a lovely hymn praising God and in the same verses admires the Christians at Ephesus for really hearing the Good News and acting on it. They are full of Christ. They are the body of Christ in the world, and Christ is the head of that body, filling them with his vision and wisdom, freeing them to know the hope to which he has called them, the riches he has given them in their community of love and service, the immeasurable power of faith he has planted in them. They, his church, are “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The good news? Those words spoken to the Ephesians are spoken to us, of us, for us. “They” are “we”. We too are called to take our part in God’s filling all in all. Our fullness becomes treasure only as we put it to God’s use. This season of insecurity and distress will not be empty, but rich in opportunity to turn what fullness we have to God’s purposes. Your responses to this parish’s appeal for the new year show your understanding, your acceptance of the baptismal call to become good shepherds.

Friday, a young Mom came to the parish office to deliver the gift that her little boy had requested for his birthday this week. He asked his family and friends to give food to a food pantry in place of toys and gadgets, of which (he said) he has plenty. It took two of us to haul in the great bin of all his gifts, now ready on our shelves for Jesus when he is hungry.

I had never met this Mom, who is a friend of our Youth Minister, Jacki. I sure would like to meet her son—wouldn’t you? I wrote to him immediately. He’s showing that fullness of him who fills all in all. He’s got the makings of a mighty good shepherd, don’t you think?

(Katheryn Pfisterer Darr’s commentary is found in Volume VI of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, pp. 1467-1469. Jack W. Vancil’s entry “Goat, Goatherd” is found on pp. 1040-41 of “The Anchor Bible Dictionary”, Volume 2.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Judging the Wise and the Foolish

Scripture cited here includes Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13.

There sure does seem to be a lot to pick at in today’s Gospel. What’s a bridegroom doing arriving at his wedding banquet at midnight? Why should anyone expect oil dealers to be open at that hour? And most of all, how wise is it not to share what you have? We might rather pick an argument than agree that this is an allegory of heaven.

There’s something of the prophet Amos and something of the apostle Paul in this Gospel portion. Amos is heard taking to task the religious leaders of his time, who predicted that the people of God would be rewarded by a glorious day of national fulfillment, God’s favor poured out on his favorite nation. Amos argued, “You’ve got to be kidding! There is a great day coming, and it will be what our nation deserves, but woe to you who want that day to come! Expect God’s judgment, not God’s favor. No one nation is going to be exalted: all will be judged. And don’t let that news send you into solemn assembly and the singing of national anthems. Do you want to be prepared for that day? Then let justice roll down like waters, and responsible living like an ever-flowing stream.

That’s Amos! Invite him to your next cocktail party, and while you’re at it you might want to invite the cops, too. Amos never met a status quo he didn’t shake. What he does for us this morning is help us understand what those bridesmaids in Matthew’s allegory are preparing for, and that is the day of judgment, when God sends the Messiah to sort out the mess mankind has made of life on earth.

St. Paul offers his own vision of that day, but while Amos describes it happening to a nation, Paul is enough of a pastor to know that when people have to face change, they tend to ask, “And what will this mean for me?” When the trumpet sounds and the archangel calls, says Paul, the dead in Christ will rise first, then we rise and wait no longer for the Master’s return for we will be caught up in the clouds where they are, and where he is, for a mighty reunion that will last forever. You can reassure one another with these words, Paul says.

Matthew’s not so ethereal. He locates the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead at an abundant banquet, a wedding banquet, an image used also by some of the great prophets of Israel to describe the culmination of history. And the story Matthew sets around this feast, the one we may want to argue with, is all about getting in.

It’s also about oil, isn’t it? We can relate to that. Even with the price of gasoline down dramatically, oil is just as precious a commodity now as 2000 years ago. Because we’re hearing an allegory, this oil stands for something. In Hebrew tradition, oil represents deeds of love and mercy. You just have to trust me on that; first-century hearers would have known it when they heard it.

This Gospel story was spoken to that first generation of Christians who couldn’t gauge when their Lord would return to complete his redeeming of the world. They kept praying daily, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” not knowing if that might happen tonight, tomorrow—but expecting it at any moment. What was the church to do in the between-time? This story answers that question. And it’s where the oil comes in.

The bridesmaids represent the church—all ten of them, the wise and the foolish. From the beginning, the church has been a mixed bag. Given that we’re all human, this is no surprise. There is even a Latin term—“corpus mixtum”—to name this concept that people get baptized and join the church for mixed motives and out of mixed visions of what membership requires.

This was a life and death issue in the early Church, where the emperor’s persecution of Christians kept forcing a separation between believers willing to die for their faith, and believers not prepared to do so. I say a life and death issue— to avoid arrest, some Christians outed others, reporting them to the authorities, so whom could you trust within this “corpus mixtum” of a church? And once the persecutions had abated, the persevering church had to receive back into its fold the lax who had publicly denied their faith to avoid death. Yes, the bridesmaids represent the church—both the five wise ones and the five foolish. This Gospel announces the truth they embraced, or the truth that embraced them, that only God could judge who was worthy to come to the banquet. Until that day of certainty, all belonged. Beyond that day, it would be for God to judge.

But back to the oil. All ten knew they needed it for their lamps. Five took extra oil in flasks. (Should we call them the Energizer Bunnies?) They recognized that they were in for the long haul, and they intended to be ready. Five had only the oil their lamps came with, nothing more in reserve, and the later it got, the less they had. (In this present economy, we may have great sympathy for these five bunnies.)

Here’s Matthew’s message: As we await the coming of God’s rule on earth, what is asked of us—the part we are to play in that coming—is responsible discipleship, deeds of love and active mercy in obedience to the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as well as we love ourselves. That’s the oil. And that’s what the faithful showed in that first century, as they show it in every century, choosing to live each day the life of the kingdom that we pray will come. The lesson of the oil, adapted, is that as we wait for better times, God calls us to make these times better by deeds of love and active mercy.

Those five foolish ones were there for the party, and they thought they had timed the market so as to keep partying on. They failed to appreciate how fully God relies on his people to make of life a kingdom where justice flows like a stream. They left their flasks at home, and were unwilling to pour them out. They failed to show the likeness of God in which they had been made.

But did those five wise ones show the generosity of God? Well… no. Their role is to reflect the justice of God, just as harrowing as the prophet Amos said it would be. Remember the oil: these five wise ones, emptying their flasks for God, are full of what can never be lost, the integrity of their actions and the legacy of all they have done in costly obedience. They are prepared to enter that banquet tent, and nothing can prevent them.

The other five are on empty. They’ve expected God to be on their timetable. Their attempts to control their futures have so far blocked God’s efforts to transform them. So while their five sisters move beyond the limiting range of human economy into a heaven of abundance, these five are sent back to the store. They have no hope but the marketplace, so when they try one last time to enter the banquet tent, there is no hope in them that fits the hope of that feast, and they find the flap shut. By the terms of the story, they are not prepared to enter the joy of their maker.

Well, here I’ve tried to consider Matthew’s story the way he may have meant it. But this doesn’t satisfy me. I still want to argue with it. And that helps me realize that the point of this story, and of the larger Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not to satisfy me. It is to unsettle me, much as Amos does, a holy bull in my china shop.

I want to enter the banquet tent, but I don’t see myself in the five wise ones. I’m often on empty. I fail to let my spiritual practice, my prayer, keep my lamp lit. I expect God to be on my time-table—to guide us to our next parish officers before annual meeting, for example, to move us to complete our stewardship appeal in time and in amount to prepare us for the new year. I could go on and on. And to imagine that I can’t turn to wise ones and draw some of their oil, tap some of their encouragement, that would feel like being in a merciless marketplace, not in the kingdom of God.

That would mean living by the bad news of salvation by my own bootstraps alone, not living by the good news of salvation by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ, claimed by faith and practiced in community.

It is by God’s gift and by my choice that I live in the kingdom of God, that I choose to live each day the life of the kingdom that we pray will come. I, like you, cannot live that life alone. So I’m wary of stories that, like this one, divide the “corpus mixtum”, stories built on judgment. Let God judge when all is said and done. But let’s be open to an evolving theology that allows us to let go of a tribal God thought to favor one nation, one people, one culture, or one party over others. Let God judge in that great day, and for now I’ll use a story like Matthew’s to judge myself, but no one else.

We live in an age of toxic division in the Body of Christ, and at a time of deep disunity in our nation, half of whose people see the tent flap to heaven opened this past week, the other half wondering how their hopes fit the future. We need to find each other. We need to end our religious and political pastime of judging who is wise and who is foolish.

Whether in church or in state, none of us now can live alone the life that our future requires of us. We need the “corpus mixtum” to embrace its unity, and each of us is needed to help that happen. We must find each other across all the wisdom and all the foolishness and all the judgment that can divide us. The challenges we face require us to fill our flasks for the long haul of a new order that will be long in the making, and will require us to pour out our flasks to let justice roll down, and responsible living, like an ever-flowing stream.