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Newaygo United Methodist Church
Friday, November 17, 2017
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Separating Sheep From Goats

Separating Sheep from Goats
Matthew 25:31-46
 
After driving in that awful blinding snowstorm a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of the time when I woke up one late fall morning and saw that a surprise snowstorm had occurred during the night. So I got up, prepared for the day and settled down for my morning devotions. I marveled at the white stillness of the morning as I looked out the patio window and through the screen of the back patio porch. I might have missed it but as I looked out I focused on a daddy long legs inching its way up the screen. The fierce wind threatened to force it back down, but the determined spider clung to the screen and when that gust of wind died down, it continued to climb, taking slow careful strides. I don’t know where it was headed, it just kept on going clinging when the wind burst again and then continuing its journey when the wind was quiet. The spider seemed out of place, there in the cold whiteness of winter weather, not at all something I would have expected to see on that day. I swallowed my fear of spiders and went to the doorwall to get a closer look. In spite of the harsh wind and cold and the snow that had accumulated on the screen, that spider, with great determination, managed to hang on and maneuver himself to his destination at the top of the porch. I stood amazed that such a tiny, delicate, thin thing could overcome the tremendous obstacle. That it could even hang on seemed a major miracle itself. What ever obstacles I found in my own life seemed insignificant compared to what that spider had to overcome. Inspired by the journey of that little creature, I was better able to face the difficult day ahead with courage and deeper insight into the little miracles of life that God places before us. 
 
Many times it’s not the big stuff that has the most impact on us. In his parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus points out the types of things that are required for living the kingdom of heaven while we are still here on earth. Being part of the kingdom of heaven is not about performing sensational miracles such as healing the sick, or feeding multitudes with a few loaves and fish, or even about praying a powerful prayer or preaching an inspiring sermon. Being a part of the kingdom of heaven is more about doing simpler acts of uncalculated giving. Being a part of the kingdom of heaven is about offering something to eat to a person who is hungry, or giving a drink of water to someone who is thirsty, or welcoming a stranger, or cheering a sick person, or visiting a prisoner, whether that person is in a correctional facility or confined to a nursing home or bed. Being a part of the kingdom of heaven is about the simple, unthinking help we give to people we meet every day.
When Jesus talked about the two groups of people, the sheep and the goats, neither group was aware that they were or were not helping Christ. The goats complained that they had not been given the opportunity to help Christ. They did not see Jesus sick or hungry or thirsty. In fact he didn’t seem to need anything, so what opportunity did they have to help him? What the goat people did not have was the ability to see who was in need around them. They shut their eyes to the needs of those who seemed insignificant to them. If they had known that Jesus was there in those people they certainly would have helped him, because Jesus was important. He was a great teacher, he was famous, and he drew quite a crowd. To help Jesus meant doing something important. Of course we would be glad to help Jesus if he needed it!
 
Now let’s look at the sheep people. They were equally surprised that Jesus said that they had fed and given water and comforted him. Perhaps they assumed, like the goat people, that because Christ was not present with them, nor did he seem to need anything, they could not have helped him. But Jesus said otherwise. In as much as they did it to the least of those in his family of followers, or those that he loved, they did it to him. The sheep people helped others because they could not help but do so. It was second nature to them to extend themselves in simple hospitality to those who needed help. But more importantly they could readily identify who needed help. They did not shut their eyes to those who were in need. Likewise they did not classify people as important or unimportant. They saw need and responded. 
Francis of Assissi was born in the aristocracy of his time. He had wealth and was high spirited. But he was not happy. Life for him was incomplete. One day he was out riding and encountered a leper. The man was loathsome and repulsive in the ugliness of his disease. Francis, without thinking, dismounted his horse and put his arms around the stranger. In the face of the stranger he beheld the face of Christ and his life was changed.
 
William Barclay tells the story of Martin of Tours. “He was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One cold winter day, as Martin was entering a city, he saw a thinly clad beggar, practically blue and shivering with cold. Martin took off his worn and frayed soldier’s cloak, cut it in two and gave half to the beggar. That night he had a dream. In it he saw the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus among them; and Jesus was wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to Jesus, ‘Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?‘ Jesus answered, ‘My servant Martin gave it to me.’”
 
Why is it the simple things Jesus asks of us? I remember my encounter with the spider and it was in that simple event in nature that I was inspired to think about living my day with courage. Likewise when we offer simple hospitality to another person, we offer inspiration. A simple meal can bring hope to one who has lost hope. A glass of water can not only refresh but can tell someone that they are cared for. An encouraging word in time of sickness can lift someone’s spirit and improve their chances of healing. Even offering a sweater to someone who is cold, can ignite a warmth in the receiver that encourages and bonds them to another human being. And when we offer something to a stranger, we may never know circumstances that surround their need. We may never know that when we extend a kindness we might be breaking a downward negative spiral in the other person’s life. 
 
Jesus cares for the sick and hungry and thirsty in all the ways humans can become hungry and thirsty. He cares for Aunt Martha, who drowns her loneliness in alcohol. He cares for Mary, who just lost her job and faces the daunting task of finding enough money to feed her family. He cares for Fred who fights depression because his wealth cannot make him happy. He cares for Kendra who grew up in a home of violence and abuse and finds it hard to love anyone. He cares for Robert who thought the only way to make ends meet was to steal. He cares for Albert who goes from church to church seeking something he cannot name. He cares for Althea whose children were taken away from her because her drug use made her unfit to mother. 
 
There are many ways in this world to be hungry and thirsty and if the kingdom of God is ever to be realized it must come through our care for others, through our ability to offer simple things to those in need. The kingdom of heaven is already here when we recognize need in others and when we respond because something in us simply has to respond, not because of who they are but simply because they are. That happens when we are filled with the love of God. Our best prayer for the hungry and the afflicted might go something like this: Dear Lord, Through my hands and my voice and my smile and my giving, be with those in need. May I be the hands and feet and voice of Christ to those who need Christ.
 
So far this world has not been able to feed its hungry, even though there is plenty enough food to go around. So far this world has not been able to share its resources, even though there are enough resources for all to live comfortably. So far we have not been able to eradicate disease like small pox and diphtheria, and tetanus even though we have the technology to inoculate and provide preventive medicines to all people. We haven’t succeeded to make sure that every human being has basic needs met. Famine still exists, diseases decimate populations, drought kills livestock and crops all over the world, and violence and crime are still major problems world wide. The threat of war is always on the horizon. But the kingdom of God is here in the people who know how to identify the needs of those around them.
We are coming upon a time of busy preparation and celebration. We will find times we feel frazzled and at wits end because there is so much to do. Through it all we will need to keep sight of God, to continue to wrap ourselves in His love and from the surrounding reach out to those in need.
 
When I was serving in my first two churches, there was a poorly dressed man who entered the village church at the beginning of the service on a fairly brisk day and sat down in the back pew. It was highly unusual that a total stranger would wander in the church since this was such an out of the way place. There were no more than 10 families living in the village and everyone knew everyone else. I noticed that the stranger kept his head down and appeared to be sleeping through most of the service. Only once did our eyes meet and there seemed to be a brief connection between us. I offered a smile of welcome and he nodded and put his head down once more. He would stand when the rest of us stood to sing but other than that he seemed oblivious to the proceedings around him. After the service one of the members of the congregation came up to me and asked if I had noticed the stranger in the back row. She had started to head back to greet him and find out who he was but he had disappeared when the service had ended. Shirley was upset that she had not been able to greet him but I reassured her that we had probably met some of his needs simply by allowing him to come in out of the cold, warm himself up and get some needed sleep. It was probably all he wanted. I did not mention the sense of peace I had felt when we exchanged smile and nod. I wondered then if Christ himself had been able to find a quiet place to come and rest where no one would bother him, where he could get some warmth and a little nap. 
 
It really doesn’t take much for the kingdom of God to be upon us and around us. It is in the simple, uncalculated acts of kindness we offer to others that we encounter Christ.   In this time of Thanksgiving, in the days of expectation and waiting and celebrating, may we offer ourselves to those who need an extra smile, a kind word, a cup of coffee, or a warm piece of clothing. And may that offering come from the heart of God within us, truly given simply because God loves.     

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