When? Sheep, goats, and decisions

by | May 24, 2020

Our conversations for the past few weeks centered around the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, where the pandemic is highlighting inequalities in our systems. As a result, groups of people are disproportionately affected. Meanwhile, there is growing tension and division in our country.

Whether you are on the frontlines helping to save lives, take care of the dead, or some other essential worker, your service to others is crucial. And words fail us in expressing our appreciation. I’m wondering whether authentic gratitude requires more than words.

One of the many things that I love about my job is sharing what I believe to be true about God. This is my not so secret recipe for coping with uncertainty. I recognize that God is the only sure thing. And as long as I can manage not to restrict my expectations too much, I can marvel at God’s predictable unpredictability.

Sometimes I wonder if a lack of predictability has more to do with missing some of the pieces or clues that signal the answer to what’s next. Predicting that people get anxious after trying to stay home seems like a sure bet. Anticipating that people losing their job during this pandemic are eager to know what the future holds seems predictable to me. Who do they call first?

Who doesn’t like predictability unless life gets so predictable that there is no variety? In the Old Testament, there is a story about people making their way from slavery to freedom, and eating the same thing every day. Guess what? They complained. And so would you and I.

I think it’s fair to say that some variation is desirable. And I suspect that you and I differ in how much variety we prefer, and in which parts of our life we welcome change. Reliable, predictable, and always on time. That’s what we hope for from others. Along with grace, when we fail. And help when we fall.

One of the problems with division is the scarcity of these last two preferences. These can be hard enough to deliver to the people who agree with us. So how do we decide when we show grace? When is it our job to help? Does it matter if I disagree with the person needing grace or help?

When is it our job to help?

The answer to these questions is cleverly hidden in plain sight, in scripture. My experience is that we look right at the answers when we bother to look at all. And we look right through to the other side. The side where we find our personal bias and an explanation that suits us.

Jesus often answered questions like these. But he preferred to answer with stories. Not riddles, but stories that offered illustrations. I like the way that Jesus teaches. He wants us to think for ourselves, but with a dose of divine guidance. Our human nature isn’t suited for grace and offering help, except when we dig deeper into that space where we discover and experience love.

When? Sheep, goats, and decisionsOne day Jesus was explaining what it will be like when the time comes that God holds us accountable for our actions. This is critical, Jesus told those first listeners. I’ve found that if people don’t believe they need to answer for the outcome of their decisions, the results are predictably not so good. Statements like “Try it. What harm can it do?” are thinly veiled declarations of a lack of accountability.

Jesus also liked using metaphors. A metaphor is a thing that acts as a stand-in for another. In this story, Jesus talks about sheep and goats. In this case, sheep and goats are metaphors for you and me when making decisions with better outcomes and bad decisions with less desirable results. But the point of His story addresses our questions about grace and help.

The story begins with the sheep and goats together in one place. And God plans to sort them out. Since this is God, a sheep can be a goat, and a goat can be a sheep. The distinction is based on whether the sheep or goat offered grace and help when Jesus was in need.

Jesus praises the sheep among us because when He was thirsty, hungry, naked, in prison, or sick, the sheep offered grace and help. And the goats didn’t. Simple enough choice. I suspect that most of us would offer Jesus a drink, something to eat, the shirt off our back, or take Him to the doctor. I also think that most of us wouldn’t hesitate to help Him get out of prison. In fact, we would doubt that Jesus belongs in jail. We would conclude that something must be wrong with the system.

I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes…
Matthew  25:35

The irony in the story, along with the suspense, builds when Jesus tells the sheep that they are sheep, deserving a reward because this is what they did for Him. And they are confused. “When did we do one of these things for you, Jesus?” they asked. And His response is powerful.

“When you did any of these things for the least of us, you did it for me,” Jesus says. I read His response as the key to answering the questions about when and to whom we show grace and offer help. Whenever there is vulnerability. Whenever there is a need. Whoever finds themself vulnerable or in need.

I still remember discovering this story over a decade ago. I read the story many times before, but this time I didn’t look through it to see and hear what I wanted to see and hear. Instead, the story found a place, first in my brain. It rattled around in my head for a while. Eventually, it found a second home within me and settled into my heart. This story became a part of me. I think about it often. I wonder if I am a sheep or a goat. I want to be a sheep. Don’t you?

We covered a lot of ground in our list of current events that scream at us through the carnage of what was once normality. But we didn’t spend enough time on any one subject. For one, our right to vote is under attack here in Michigan. Even as Cyndi, Gabriella, and I return our application for a mail-in ballot, we fear that our vote may be in jeopardy. These are the issues that must matter to the church if we are to follow the Savior, who first told this story.

And this Sunday, we transition to our next series, Live. Your pronunciation and emphasis differ depending on whether you read this title as a verb or an adjective. You choose.

Our next series is a continuation of a journey we began just as COVID-19 became national news. Our journey started on March 1, the day after the first death from COVID-19 in the United States. We called our first series, Woven. God’s timing was incredible. As our conversation went from sculpted to unraveling, we lived out this metaphor in life. Many of us felt like we were unraveling at the time.

With Easter, came Risen. Of course, what does it mean, amid a pandemic, that Christ is risen? This Sunday, we end our current series with this call to action from the lips of Jesus. And we begin the series Live on a Sunday when Christians around the world celebrate a time when the first church had its first membership drive, led by the very Spirit of God.

For more information our series, Risen, see the article, Coming up in worship on our website. You can find more information on Live elsewhere in this edition of our newsletter and on our website.

I invite you to join us this Sunday. We plan to be live via webinar, through Facebook live, or you can call (929) 436-2866 and enter the meeting number — 324 841 204. We go live at 10:30 am. You can find these links along with more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.

A reminder that we publish this newsletter that we call the Circuit Rider each week. You can request this publication by email. Send a request to info@FlintAsbury.org or let us know when you send a message through our website. We post an archive of past editions on our website under the tab, Connect – choose Newsletters.

Pastor Tommy

A Community in Love with God, Each Other, and our Neighbors.