Getting God’s Goat
Matthew 25:31–46 | Fifth Sunday of Lent | March 22, 2015 | First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN
If you were anywhere on social media this week, you might have heard the story of a church in San Francisco that got into trouble. The problem is that they had sprinklers that they used to douse the homeless people who would linger near the building. The story was picked up by the media and took off like wildfire. People were wondering how coldhearted a Christian you could be in drenching those who had no home.
By the way, I should mention that this wasn’t just any church. This was St. Mary’s Cathedral the main church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. According to the Washington Post the church decided to use this system “ “after learning from city resources” that similar deterrents were “commonly used in the Financial District” in San Francisco to “avoid the situation where needles, feces and other dangerous items were regularly being left in these hidden doorways.”
The cathedral went on to add that it was the largest provider of homeless services in the county.
The backlash caused the church to sheepishly uninstall the system.
While I understand the righteous anger, I can also understand why the church did what it did. Having been to San Francisco and lived in Washington, DC two cities where homelessness is rampant, no one wants to come to a church where there are needles and feces on the ground. When I lived in Washington, DC in the mid-90s, I went to Calvary Baptist Church located in Chinatown. I remember one the pastor’s sons having to shoo people from a unused stairwell where a drug deal was going down. As the saying goes, Christ is in the face of the poor, but the poor aren’t always Christ-like. But turning on the sprinklers seemed to cross a line. The local head of a Homeless coalition said the practice was “very shocking, and very inhumane. There’s not really another way to describe it. Certainly not formed on the basis of Catholic teachings.”
It’s easy for us to all get on our high horses and condemn the cathedral for being so thoughtless. Things like this should make us upset. But I wonder if they should also make us more introspective. When I was in DC, I sometimes gave money to the homeless. Sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I was asked for money using a fake story. How do you handle that situation? If I ignore this person, will God say I was poor and you didn’t help? Will I get everlasting punishment for that?
It seems we might have more in common with St. Mary’s than we would like to think.
Our text in Matthew today is one of the most familiar parables. It’s commonly called the Parable of the Sheep and Goats and at other times it has been called the Parable of the Last Judgement. Whatever it’s been called it is a memorable story. The Son of Man returns to earth glory and separates people into sheep and goats. The sheep have taken care of the poor, which Jesus reminds them was helping him as well. The goats are chastised for not caring for the needs of the poor and outcast and the Son of Man says that when the failed to do the right things, they were rejecting him. Neither side knows they are a sheep or a goat. Neither side sees Christ hidden among the poor and outcast.
So what is the message of this parable? It seems to easy to say that if we do good things, God rewards us. As my Lutheran friends like to say, that leans towards works-righteousness. God will love us if we do these things and punish us if we refuse. There is also a danger here. It’s easy for someone to look at all the good they do and feel justified as they read this text, especially if they thing those around them are failing in their duties. It’s easy to hope the callous get what’s coming to them.
But let’s be honest, this parable is a hyperbole. Not all the sheep are good all of the time. Not all of the goats are bad all of the time. We are sometimes sheep, giving of ourselves to help our neighbor and we are sometimes goats, shutting ourselves from the cares of the world. We never really know who is a sheep or who is a goat even if we think we do.
Nor is the message here that all we need to do is focus on social justice and ignore the rest of our faith. The care of our neighbor can only be understood in context of being a Christian. Our concern for the least of these is the proof of God working in us, changing us. Good works without Jesus is just good works. Jesus without good works is a meaningless faith.
But we are a fallen people. We are imperfect people who sin and don’t always look out for their brothers and sisters. As Martin Luther said, we are both saint and sinner, sheep and goat.
For us to understand this text, we have to understand it in light of the cross. It is in the cross that we are made free in Jesus. We don’t do anything to be made free, to become God’s children. So, helping the poor is not getting you brownie points.
But how we treat others is the evidence of our love for God. In the ancient world, things were done out of patronage which is the fancy way of saying Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You did something for someone because they were in your debt. That is not what Jesus is calling for here. The Son of Man is calling for people to do good with no expectation of the favor ever being resolved. We love God and our neighbor so much that we will do good for their benefit. The parable is calling us to live a lifestyle of selfless love; not to check things off a list.
Today is our first Almsgiving Sunday. Almsgiving is an old-fashioned word about giving money and resources to the poor. We have donated food to Minnesota Foodshare which goes to help the Mahtomedi Area Foodshelf. We will go downstairs after service to make sandwiches for the homeless. We will give our loose change to help the Mahtomedi Area Foodshelf.
Why do we do all of this? We do it because we love God. We want to honor God by living a life that God’s son lived while on Earth: to care and welcome the other. We do this because at the end of the day, we are goats that happen to be saved by God’s grace. We are thankful to God and want to share that love with others.
I want to end with another story. Maybe you read it as well. It’s from Religion News Service and it tells the story of another church, this time in Washington, DC and how they handled a similar situation. Mount Vernon Place United Methodist was dealing with the same issue St. Mary’s had to deal with, but it was handled very differently. A pastor who works at the congregation had this to share:
Here’s what we tried at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.
A couple of months ago, we started a dialogue around how to move people off the porches of the church and assist them in moving on. Over the years, the protected and secluded porches had become sleeping quarters for a dozen or so folks, and it was now out of hand. People were using the grounds as bathroom facilities; others were leaving their belongings in plastic-covered 4-foot high mounds.
The conversation, held in a church committee meeting in January, was contentious. Some felt we had an obligation to offer a place to stay if our neighbors were homeless; others felt it was time to reclaim the building as a place that was clean and safe.
It took us hours to arrive at a decision, but we did. On March 1, no one would be allowed to stay on the porches or use the grounds for storage. We would hire security to help us enforce this decision. And here is what made our decision different: We would meet weekly with anyone who had lived on the porches to help them make the transition.
The good news was that the church has resources to support the changes we were imagining. If anyone wanted to go home, we had the money to buy a bus ticket. If folks needed something, we would do what we could to provide them with it.
So every Tuesday at 7 a.m., a small group of us met with our homeless neighbors for breakfast and discussion. We talked about what it would take to find permanent housing and kept track of commitments.
Six weeks in, when it was time for everyone to be moved to someplace else, we decided that we would continue the community we had formed beyond the March 1 deadline. At our meeting the first week of March, some miracles occurred:
Dominique came for the first time and told us he had a job if he could get a bike helmet. (Bob, a parishioner, left the meeting, went to his nearby home and arrived back moments later with a bike helmet.)
Ivy told us she had had an interview for a job at Starbucks.
Stephen said he was going to interview later that morning for a restaurant job.
Several folks needed help with transportation, so after the meeting Kris, a very committed and active parishioner, put more money on their church-provided transit cards.
After six weeks of support, no one is living on the porches anymore. It wasn’t easy, and we did have challenges. We did have to call the police when Eddie refused to leave his place on the porch. Having to call the police was the single sour note in the trajectory to reclaiming the porches and building an amazing community.
I can’t look inside the hearts of folk, but I have to think the folks at Mt. Vernon were thinking about Matthew 25. I have to believe they loved God and neighbor enough that they wanted to seek a Christ-like solution to the problem.
We are all goats. But we don’t have to stay that way. In the light of the cross, we are saved, to care for others and love our God. Thanks be to God. Amen.