Sheep and goats. Goats and sheep. That’s all we are. All we’ve ever been. All we’ll ever be. But here’s the rub, which are we?
Recently, I have been hearing a lot folks say they are tiring of the battle. Tired of the in-fighting. Tired of the online fighting. Tired of the rock-throwing, vitriol spewing free-for-all they are witnessing among their friends and family and in their community. They say with a sigh, “I just want to be part of Matthew 25 community.”
The Matthew 25 society they seek refers to the parable of the sheep and the goats — the one where Jesus does his sorting.
To the sheep on his right, he says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.“
To the goats on his left, he says, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
What’s a bit unnerving is that both sheep and goats respond to Jesus’ proclamation the same way. “When?… When did we see you?” Apparently, we don’t get to keep our own score. We aren’t privy to our sheep or goat status. What separates sheep from goats is the did or did not.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus is in each of these interactions, and counting it for or against us.
We don’t get to record our own righteousness. Jesus does that. If we want a Matthew 25 community, we can build it, attending to one need at a time. Beginning with our own need of a Savior, who will help us with our deepest longings and strengthen us in our weakness. In our gratitude, we’ll begin feeling sheepish.
I have a sneaking suspicion that when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, and he sits on his throne, if he looked out upon all the nations gathered before him it would be to his utter delight to say, “Y’all come.”
Perhaps he knows though, that very likely there then would be a mad dash to the Kingdom door, with pushing and shoving and trampling. He would have to appear in the rear of His glory and remind us, The last shall be first… You goats in the back need not bother. Perhaps the separation of right and left is just his way of keeping things orderly so no one gets hurt.
The church is funny that way. Sometimes, it seems, that we think the ordering is up to us. Then in our trying to keep things orderly people end up getting hurt. I remember my hurt when I was a new Christian and, while I sat in the coffee shop reading my NIV version of the Bible, a total stranger approached in order to share that I was reading the wrong version of the Bible. The King James version was the only right one. What a goat, right?
Not necessarily; not my call. But certainly anyone witnessing this moment left with a sour taste in their mouth. Surely, at the very least, we should be living as good pasture grass so no ewe sheep will be driven to the goats.
What if, instead of aspiring to be sheep and not goats, we considered this sincere and honest admission from Abraham Lincoln. When asked why, with his obvious interest in religious matters and his familiarity with the Bible, he did not join a church, Lincoln replied:
When any church will inscribe over its altars, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement for the substance of both Law and gospel, “Though shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself,” that church I will join with all my heart and soul.”Henry C Deming, Congressman from Connecticut, as quoted by Carl Sandburg in the introduction to Lincoln’s Daily Devotional
I want to be part of THAT community. Don’t you?
What makes us fit? A good fit?
Our shape? Size? Color? Language? Nationality?
Our behavior? Net worth? Service record?
Our church membership? Community service? Volunteer hours?
Our education? Employment? Contribution?
How many lives we’ve touched?
How many stories we’ve listened to?
How many hands we’ve held?
How many sacrifices we’ve made?
How many gifts we’ve given?
What we’ve done? What we’ve left undone?
How much we pray?
How often we meditate?
How acquainted we are with God? a Higher Power? a Supreme Being?
How many Bible verses we can quote?
How obedient we are?
How dutiful, faithful, diligent?
What makes us fit for the Kingdom? a good fit in the Kingdom?
Our Creator does.
The One who knows the shape of the Kingdom space we were created to fill.
What does Creative shaping feel like?
A spin-whirl-hum, twirling,
A pinch-push-pull, settling,
A chisel-whittle-hone, admiring,
A plant-water-fertilize, tending,
A spark-breath-glow, emerging
Going, grasping, gauging,
round and round, in and out,
down and up and toward.
All for the want of light.
The light of love pulls us
When darkness comes,
Love reaches for us.
Our hand fits perfectly in This hand.
Our body nestles perfectly into This bosom.
Our soul rests perfectly in This soul.
In our Creator’s image, we fit.
We always fit.
“I declare my courage to participate in the building of the reign of God that is in the world and in me.” ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen with Nathan Ball
Where is the line between heaven and earth? When people pass, what do they pass? Where do they cross from here to there? If we’re headed toward something, shouldn’t we see it so we’ll know when we get there?
I see you…. you line on the horizon. But you are fickle. Yes, as the sun rises, you take shape. But as the sun sets, you fade and I can’t see you anymore. Certainly not in the distance. Up close all I can see is darkness. It feels firm at my feet, yet I can reach into it. The air has a different texture. Which is you? Where are you? Where is the line between?
Ah, when the sun rises, I’ll see! But wait: the fog obscures; the snow covers; the rain pelts; everything tosses to and fro in the wind. Where is the line? Where can I step to safety? Stand fast? Reach across? I just want to know where the border line is, so I’ll know I’m close.
If I crossed and looked back, would I see it then? From over or beyond or within, would the line be clear between terrestrial and heavenly? Between what was earthly and what was not?
No, I think not. Because Lord, when You stepped down from Kingdom into Dominion, You brought the line with you. Wherever You went, the Kingdom was. When you died and returned to heaven did you take this distinction with You? Did you erase the line? Obscure the evidence? Muddy the waters?
Or did you leave it with us?
As we enter our days, could it be that we cannot see the line between heaven and earth because it surrounds us? Actually encircling our travels, an amorphous heavenly goop (okay see-through slime if you will), that moves as we move. It goes before us and behind us and hems us in on each side. Perhaps the earth we see, the darkness and the poverty as well as the lightness and joy, we see through this heavenly plasma around us. Perhaps, it’s meant to tint our sight if we tune our eyes to just the right frequency. Oh, the strain and squint of the effort.
My eyes need rest. I count on them for so much. How can I count on them for this? Why must I work so hard to distinguish lines on the horizon or boundaries near at hand?
I want to trust that You are the line between and the passageway from here to there. Whether darkness or light, You are there in the middle. Perhaps I don’t need to know where the line is, just that it is. Perhaps there is no line, just a distance which is narrowed each time I reach out or over and feel for what’s in the darkness and pull it closer.