Meditation on Matthew 25:31-46
Acknowledge I humbly beseech you a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Am I a goat? Am I a sheep? I want to be a sheep. Is he a goat…that one over there? Maybe a sheep? I don’t know, I just want to be a sheep. But I am pretty sure that she is a goat…yep…there was that one time…
You and I, human beings in fact, get real caught up in who is a goat and who is a sheep. Actually, most days we just want to think we are sheep and everyone else…well…should watch out!
Let me tell you a true story about the complexity of human behavior… sheep and goats living together.
The ride from San Antonio was bumpy, dusty and hot. It always was and never seemed to get better no matter how many times you were unlucky enough to have the blessing of traveling by stage coach.
Stage coach riding was just hard on your bones, your seat, and your spirit.
Suddenly, the stage came to a stop exactly where it wasn’t supposed to…you never could be sure what kind of trouble it was. Most times it was “borrowers” – those thieves who were perpetually down on their luck and stealing from their passengers always with a promise to return what wasn’t rightfully theirs just as soon as their luck changed.
On this particular day it was a couple of famous borrowers -- the James boys. Jesse and his brother asked that the passengers get out of the coach and line up. They were tickled because they could tell they had some folks there who had some money.
One of them happened, as they tell the story, to be the “sky-pilot of the Episcopal Church” none other than Bishop Alexander Gregg himself, first bishop of the Diocese of Texas.
The bishop stood in the hot Texas sun with his hands stretched toward heaven, no altar in sight, and Jesse rifling through his pockets. At the same time Jesse preached to him and asked him questions as if he were one of the Bishop’s own clergyman.
Bishop Greg was wise. He knew better than to fuss when the masked man lifted a fat roll of paper money out of his vest pocket, and unfastened his money belt which was full of gold coins.
Then Jesse reached into the other vest pocket and pulled out a gold watch and chain. Bishop Greg could take it no longer and he kicked back in his best pulpit voice:
“I beg of you to spare that watch young man. It was a gift to me from my beloved flock.”
Jesse replied in HIS best pulpit voice:
“I reckon the Savior wouldn’t never worn no such expensive time-piece.”
Bishop Greg looking frustrated and cross stood there sticking the linings of his emptied pockets back in place.
Jesse James turned to the next passenger in line who happened to be a widow.
She looked up at the young man and spoke to him kindly answering his questions about whom she was and her travels. She handed over her purse without a complaint. In the purse was a daguerreotype of her dead husband, a lock of hair from her baby who passed, and five dollars…a small portion compared to the bishop’s great contributions.
Jesse again spoke with his pulpit voice, “Look, Bishop, the widow’s mite.”
Quoting the King James Bible Jesse said, “This poor widow hast cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: for all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living…”
“Reckon I quoted the Scripture right, didn’t I,” said Jesse.
“I believe so,” came Bishop Greg’s answer. Not able to control himself he added, “Even the devil can cite Scripture for his purposes.”
“Well, the devil ain’t always so bad,” said Jesse James. He turned and gave the widow’s purse and five dollars back. Then for everyone to see he added to it twenty dollars from the Bishop’s own pockets.
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” Jesse called back as they rode away and waved their sombreros.
So who was the sheep and who was the goat? What is clear is that it is Jesus, Christ the King who does the sorting.
While Jesus himself might have some trouble sorting them out – and I am sure he may not have imagined a character like Jesse James, or Bishop Gregg for that matter, Jesus did have a vision for what it meant to be blessed.
In point of fact, our protestant history leads us to ask the wrong questions about Jesus’ teachings – goats/sheep and sheep/goats.
Jesus says: “Come. You are blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” This is the key to understanding our text.
These ideas about blessedness and blessed work were not new to Jesus’ time. In fact he is teaching a very old truth rooted deep within the Midrash, or Jewish story telling tradition and teaching, concerning Psalm 118.17.
The psalmist writes: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”
The Midrash or teaching goes that in the world to come it will be said, “What has your work been?” If then he says, “I have fed the hungry.” It will be said to him, “That is the gate of Yahweh, you have fed the hungry enter the same.”
Blessed work means feeding the hungry.
Jesus builds on this concept of blessed work in his sermon on the mount….who are the blessed? There are two categories of those he calls blessed.
First there are those who are blessed by living their life:
Blessed are the poor
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst
Then there are those who are blessed for their work:
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who are persecuted for their work
So let us return to our teaching today: “Come. You are blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”
Jesus is speaking in particular to those who have made mercy, purity, and peace their life’s work.
These are the ones who fed people, who gave drink to the thirsty, who welcomed the stranger, who gave clothing to the naked, and who visited when others were in prison.
And these people did it not because of Jesus or because of Jesus’ compassionate solidarity with the poor.
No they did it because it was part of their spiritual life to make life and living better for others.
“Come. You are blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”
Brought up by parents who did not believe in God, a father who served as soldier and jurist in the military court, it is no wonder that he was made to join the military as soon as he was old enough. His father believed that life in the military would distract his son’s dreams of priesthood and monasteries…dreams that were not in congruent with his own heroic dreams for his son. The soldier’s plans were failing and his son’s thoughts of a holy life were increasing.
Just at the moment when all was lost and a military life perfectly ruined, the state enlisted all sons of veterans.
He was removed to the north a much harsher landscape. As a son of a veteran he was given rank and servants among the republic’s cavalry. Our want-to-be monk was content with only one attendant, who himself rose many a day to find his boots polished by his master.
He often dressed below his office with simple arms and cloak. He gave away his clothes and his earnings.
In the midst of a particularly harsh winter, when many soldiers and civilians alike were dying from exposure, he set out in his modest attire on his rounds arriving at the city gate. He found there a poor man without clothing. The man was begging. He was asking those who passed for aid, food, clothing, anything to help. No one stopped. No one spoke. No one saw him standing their destitute in the cold of the morning.
As our young man road towards him with some fear and trembling he began to realize the salvation of this young man was left to him. Perhaps in that moment, as he road closer, he thought that his own salvation was to be determined in this one instance and tested by his treatment of this man. He asked himself, “What do I have…I live a modest life and have very little upon my person. And most of my clothes I have already given to others for shelter. I have nothing left.”
Yet a moment of clarity came to him. Perhaps he remembered something someone once said. He decided in that moment, in that moment of clarity regarding his own salvation and the redemption of this man, to act.
He took his sword and divided his cloak into two equal parts and gave one part to the poor man.
The people who had ignored everything up until this moment, now laughed at the foolish soldier who was now about as unsightly as the naked man just moments before.
That night though, he dreamed of Christ arrayed in his tattered and torn cloak. The same cloak shared with the young man. Then Christ said, "When you saved this man you clothed me. You clothed me with this robe.”
The boy soldier is known today as one of the great saints of France and Hungary, Martin, Bishop of Tours.
The truth is most days we probably feel more like a borrower, or the widow, or the naked man, than Martin of Tours, or Bishop Greg or Jesus.
But Christ does miraculous work in and through our lives – the simplest kindness turned into transformative grace to those around us.
The fourth century bishop, John Chrysostom wrote that the tasks Jesus asks of each of us are not monumental or miraculous…they are really quite simple.
And they are aren’t they…
Give the thirsty something to drink.
Give clothing to those who don’t have any.
Visit those who are in prison and are imprisoned.
You and I have a great opportunity through simple things to transform the lives of people, and by so doing to transform the world.
That is blessed work. We have blessed work before us.
This is work that I look forward to accomplishing with you in the months and years to come.
May Christ who makes saints of sinners, who transforms us, raise and strengthen us that we may transform the world by works of equality, justice and kindness; in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you and remain with you forevermore. Amen.
 The Old Wild West, Raymond Hatfield Gardner and B. H. Monroe, San Antonio, Texas: The Naylor company, 1944.
 Story adapted from the Life of St. Martin, by Sulpitius Severus, translated and notes by Alexander Roberts