What Really Counts?

Paula Northwood October 20, 2019

Scripture Matthew 25:31–46

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is a familiar one, I think—maybe not the part about separating sheep from goats, but certainly the words about how to treat the “least of these.” This parable for us seems to be straightforward—not much mystery in the metaphor. But for the first listeners, it would have been surprising. They were religious; they thought what they believed was what counted. For us, the setting for the parable is maybe the most troubling because it speaks to an apocalyptic time when the Son of Man will gather the people of all the nations for a time of judgement. But that’s a different sermon, although we may be in a time of judgment.

Amy Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes, “The Sheep and the Goats parable insists that it is not religious confession [what you say you believe], but caring for others—feeding the hungry, visiting people in prison, clothing the naked—that will bring entrance to the heavenly kingdom.” She also jokes that if you are unfamiliar with this parable and find yourself at the Pearly Gates, where there are lines marked “Sheep” and “Goats,” for goodness’ sake, get in the sheep line!

Goats get a rather bad rap in this parable. Some of you know that my daughter raises goats, those Nigerian Dwarf goats, and they are so cute! They are the ones you see on the Internet dressed in pajamas or doing yoga. My daughter doesn’t do that . . . at least not yet.

But of course, this parable is not about real sheep or goats at all, but the way we live our lives and how we treat people. It’s about the way people show up for each other. Through parables, Jesus emphasizes right relationships and caring for one another. Jesus also demands action: choose life, choose the way God wants us to live.

I have been thinking about the “least of these.” Who are the “least of these” for us? In the world at large, the list may be long. Are they the disproportionate number of young Black men in our prison system? Are they the families at the border in need of clothes and clean water? Are they the homeless who sleep in our churchyard? This list could be endless.

Early in this year, I met with the Needlers and heard about the pain they have experienced from this church. Not just their exclusion as women from important leadership positions of the church—because early in Plymouth’s history, women could not even be ushers—it was also the pain of having to justify their work as art and not feeling the support of the church as they raised the money to do the work. And now for them to hear that some of the images they created are hurtful, that is also very painful for them. Certainly, in the history of this church, the Needlers have been the “least of these” and know that place in this story.

Last July, I was invited to teach a master’s-level ethics class at Metro State. The class had 15 students, mostly students of color. I was asked to use the embroideries as a case study. I created a PowerPoint on how great Plymouth is. That’s easy to do. I shared all the work we have done in the community and our passion for social justice, music and the arts. I shared about how in a time when women’s involvement in the leadership of the church was missing, a group of women created an embroidery, possibly the largest in the United States, maybe the world. They sought out a renowned illustrator for the design. I shared how their time of fellowship while making it was life-giving. Their coming together week after week, year after year, provided a safe space for them to help each other through the death of spouses, the loss of children, divorce and just the daily struggles of being a woman in a man’s world.

But then I shared that recently we had been made aware that some of the images have caused hurt. I proceeded to show them a section of the embroidery where children and Native Americans are going into a building. They said it looked like a boarding school. I told them it depicted the early educational programs that were open to Native Americans at Dartmouth college, which was founded by Congregationalists. I showed them the section on the Amistad, which as you know shows a lighter person with a gun and three dark figures chained together and another lighter person with a gun. They said it looked like a slave ship. One student got up and left the classroom. I told them the story of the slave ship Amistad, how it was taken over by the slaves and brought into the New Haven harbor and that a Congregational minister and lawyer helped them gain their freedom.

Then I showed them the Thanksgiving scene and there was an audible groan. One student raised her hand and asked: “How bad are these going to get?” I was speechless, a thousand things crossed my mind . . . but I quickly realized, I had done it again. Because the images don’t hurt me and, frankly, because of my white privilege, I neglected to consider how the images would affect them.

I turned off my PowerPoint. I didn’t show them the other images. By the look on their faces, the pain was real. I apologized to them and identified my white privilege. I realized I would never fully understand the trauma that people of color experience in a white world. I can empathize as a gay person, but I will never fully understand. Certainly, they know what it’s like to be the “least of these.”

We did end up having a good conversation because they were gracious enough to forgive me. And they had an opinion on what we could do. I’ll share that at a later time, but the question that stayed with me was: “If our church stands for what I said it did, how does this have a place in our church?”

What really counts? That’s the title of this sermon. What makes this question so poignant is at the crux of this parable. The religious people thought they were doing the right thing, believing in the right things. But what had been life-giving for them had created pain for others. This is the story of our country. Our whole economy is set up this way. As a nation that consumes masses of the global energy, we do so at the expense of smaller countries. As a nation that was founded on the taking of land from indigenous people and that used slaves to build up its economy, American Indians and Black people have suffered. The question the parable puts forth is: How do we respond—like a goat or a sheep? By thinking right things or doing right things?

Jesus is making a plea for selfless love. In spite of all the horrible ways humans treat each other, love is possible. Unselfish people are everywhere. They dedicate themselves to alleviating suffering, are willing to give their all for another, intent on being life-giving and heart-transforming. They are not do-gooders, holier-than-thou people. No, this kind of love has been tested by trials and purified by personal growth, shaped by persistent dedication and self-giving that goes beyond duty. Selfless love takes a lifetime of effort, yet nothing is more central to the Christian life that other-centered love. This is the first and last vocation of every Christian.[1]

Jesus says “what really counts” is how we treat the other. Not what we think about each other but how we treat each other. I have a bias—all preachers do—and that bias is the love of God as expressed in the teachings of Jesus. As a leader, I confess that we Christians have acted like goats. Under the guise of right thinking and our “manifest destiny,” our ancestors annihilated the people who lived on this land. They decimated cultures and forbade American Indians to practice their spirituality and speak their language. They took children from their homes to acculturate them. Early colonists built a new economy based on slavery. Christians slave owners raped woman, beat men and women, took children from their parents and sold them. Even after the slaves were set free, they were denied the vote for many years. We can say this is history. Maybe you have seen the billboards and the sides of buses that remind us that we live in a state where we rank at the bottom on measures of housing, income and integration for people of color. That’s not history. This now. There is more work to do.

This parable extends an invitation to imagine a new way for the church to be, a church in which the needs of “the least” are met. Let us not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the cries of those around us. Our response to injustice matters, because it gives life and because we play a part in bringing about God’s kin‑dom of love and justice. If we are going to see the face of Christ in others, we are going to be part of the resistance to oppression in our daily lives.

Evelyn Underhill, religious writer and spiritual guide, writes that she ends each day asking. “Was everything done for love’s sake? Were all the doors opened, that the warmth of charity might fill the whole house; the windows cleaned that they might more and more radiate from within its mysterious divine light?”[2]

One of love’s marvelous qualities is its capacity to never cease growing. As our selflessness expands, it will continually affect our world. May a day never pass without attempting to keep in our hearts that expansive love. Who are the people to whom you might reach out, and, in your own turn, be surprised at what you might learn, and what you might receive?

Let us not be the ones who say, “Wait, wait, wait . . . when did we see you in prison? Or hungry or thirsty? When did we see you without the right clothes? Wait, wait, wait . . . when did we see you hurting? When did we see you suffer?”


[1]Joyce Rupp, Open the Door (Notre Dame, Indiana: Sorin Books, 2008), p. 151, adapted.