31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I just want to be a sheep
A few years ago, I was working as a church administrator in uptown Waterloo. Our neighbour on one side was the Liquor Store, and on the other side, was a well known funeral home …. not sure if there is any significance or hidden message in the positioning of the buildings, but it did make for some interesting traffic ….
Between the church building and the Liquor Store was wide laneway leading to a fairly large, open parking lot. Between that, and the well kept church grounds, albeit small, the location was somewhat of a drawing card for panhandlers.
After I’d been there about a year, I started noticing 2 people in particular who became our ‘regulars’ … I’ll call them Amy and Albert. Albert always sat against the building of the LCBO, and Amy sat just on the edge of the church grounds.
I don’t honestly know if either of them was homeless, but given the number of hours they hung out around the church each day, it was fairly obvious that neither of them was employed.
Now, when I say I ‘noticed’ them, I mean that in the most basic sense.
I realized they were there. And that’s about it.
I would make brief eye contact, sometimes ….and I’d smile … but I didn’t make any real effort to interact with them in any way beyond that.
Some of my responsibilities at the church gave me the opportunity several times a week to walk down to bank, or to the postal outlet, or to the hardware store down the street to pick up supplies for the custodian. … and each little jaunt outside meant I passed by both Albert on one side of the lane, and Amy on the other.
It wasn’t long before I realized that almost every time someone walked by either one of them, they spoke. Maybe just “hello”, or “good morning Ma’am”, or “have a nice day today”. The first few times, I responded – with some hesitation … cause, secretly, I was waiting for the ‘ask’ … spare change?
But it never came. Not once, from either of them.
Now this went on for a little while and one day on my return from the bank I noticed that Amy had what looked to a small basket in front of her and a small pile of stones that were maybe about the size of an egg. As I got closer, I found myself quickly scanning the church grounds because part of the landscaping was small rocks, and I wasn’t sure where else Amy would have gotten those rocks, or what it was she was planning to do with them.
And there, in the garden along the church wall, was my answer. Along the edge of the garden … small rocks, each one colourfully decorated with hearts, or flowers, or simple messages like “Bless You”. I walked up to take a closer look, and I couldn’t help but smile. I turned to Amy and asked, “Did you do these?”
‘Yes’. I told her they were lovely, and I really liked how she placed them along the garden.
And she smiled. And for the next few moments, we chatted … about the rocks – yes, she had gotten some of them from the church grounds, but she was colouring them and putting them back – she had started with just a few crayons, but someone had given her the markers, which worked much better … she said lots of people had stopped to talk with her when they saw what she was doing, and she liked that part of colouring the rocks.
The talking with people.
I asked her if I could know her name … after months of walking right by her on a regular basis, I didn’t know her name. So she told me. I asked her if there was anything she needed or wanted so that she could keep colouring — a red marker. Hers was almost dried up. That’s all she asked for – a red marker.
A day or 2 later, Albert greeted me with his polite
“Good morning, Ma’am”, and then he smiled and asked if I had seen the rocks Amy put around the tree. I stopped and shared with him that, yes I had, and that the church gardener had been thrilled to see them …and another door was opened for another curbside chat. With yet another person that I had walked past, far too often, and had not really seen. And he asked for nothing, other than the opportunity to maybe help with yard work at the church, or whatever we needed done …and he wasn’t interested in doing itfor money. He wanted to do it so that he could feel useful again. I realized in that moment that in all likelihood, Albert was at least part of the reason that the church property was noticeably free of litter at times when the church volunteers hadn’t been able to come by.
In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus is telling one of his parables, a story that teaches us something about ourselves. In this story, a shepherd (or king) separates the sheep from the goats: the sheep on his right, who will inherit the kingdom, and the goats on his left, who will not.
You might wonder right off the top, “why sheep and goats?”. That might make more sense if we consider a few of the basic differences between the two.
Sheep can’t really live on their own – maybe live, but not thrive; they need a shepherd. They seem to know how much they need the shepherd, so they follow the shepherd closely; they go where the shepherd leads them, eat where the shepherd tells them, and do what the shepherd tells them to do.
Goats, on the other hand, are stubborn; they do things their own way; they will eat anything, even trash (ever known anyone that seems to thrive on trash talk? … kind of brings to mind a recent very public election campaign…but I digress); goats don’t seem to know or realize how much they need the shepherd – or refuse to admit it – so they don’t always follow the shepherd.
This parable spells out a very basic guideline of how to follow and serve Christ. In simple terms, we serve Christ by serving others: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, take care of the sick and the imprisoned ….
“just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (NRSV)
“Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me” (CEV)
‘The least of these’…
Not to be confused with the ‘less desirable’, ‘less deserving’, or ‘unworthy’.
When I first started working at the church in Waterloo, going on my regular outings, I wasn’t mean or rude or nasty to Amy or Albert. In many ways, I was worse than that. In the beginning, I ignored them. I treated them like they didn’t really exist. It might have been better if I HAD been rude, or nasty … or in some way – good or bad – at least acknowledged their very beings. By not doing so, I was adding yet another brick to their prison walls … a prison of isolation… rejection. Acknowledging someone’s existence – someone’s humanity – seeing them as a person – feeds, in a very simple but necessary way, a hunger that has nothing to do with food.
They too, are children of God. They too, are sheep.
Our caring is not to be limited to people … it is to be extended to all of creation
Bumble bees … dandelions … first food of spring … and we are slowly killing them off with chemicals on our lawns because … why? …. Because we don’t like the look of the dandelion. One of God’s first flowers of spring – first food sources for bees –and it’s deemed an unsightly weed – so out it goes.
We continue to encroach on – rob – creatures of their natural habitats in order to build bigger and more houses, and when those creatures dare enter “our” domain … coyotes in the city limits …. Foxes in the back yard …. Bears in northern communities within the town …. When they come looking for food, we treat THEM as the trespasser …. How are we being like the shepherd in any of that? How are we taking care of the least of these in any of that?
Sometimes, it’s hard to draw that line between being a sheep and being a goat. Especially when it comes to squirrels.
I know that many of you have bird feeders. You’ve probably also learned, as have I, that bird feeders are a magnet for squirrels. I’ve pretty well given up the battle with the grey and the black ones, to the point where I now put a water dish out for them when the weather gets warm so they have something to drink. I mean, if they’re going to figure out a way to empty my squirrel-proof bird feeders, they might as well have something to wash it down with.
But the red squirrels … that’s a different story. And we hadn’t had a problem with them until this fall. And it wasn’t really ‘them’. It was one. One very persistent red squirrel. It had somehow found it’s way down through a roof tile and into the rafters.
For several days, Stitches our cat was on constant alert in the family room – she could hear it up there, but couldn’t see it.
Jim first had to figure out where it was getting in and out, so up on the roof he goes and stuffs paper in any gaps between the steel tiles that a squirrel might be able to get through … you leave the paper there for a day or 2 and if it’s disturbed, that’s an indication that it’s an entry or exit point.
Ok, so he figures out where the problem is, goes back up on the roof, lifts the tiles and fixes what appears to be the problem. He leaves paper in other spots to make sure there isn’t more than one entry point. And while he’s up there, he sets a live trap because what we don’t want is the squirrel to be locked out and simply create a new way in.
He gets down off the roof and goes and sits watch in the back yard, waiting for the red squirrel. After what seemed like an eternity, the culprit appears…. Runs to one of the now-blocked spots … goes back … and after a few more gymnastics, eventually runs into the trap.
Great. Now there is a red squirrel, in a cage, on my roof.
Just exactly what does one do with that????
Well, according to Google, in order to rid oneself of a red squirrel, you must take it no less than 20 kilometres from your home, crossing at least one river, to minimize the risk of it finding it’s way back.
No, I’m not kidding.
First things first … get the cage down off the roof without (a) dropping the cage, resulting in the door opening up and a now-mad squirrel escaping, having to start all over again or (b) a scared mad squirrel peeing all over you as you carry it and the cage down a ladder.
Now for the car ride.
We decided it might be less traumatic for the squirrel if the cage went inside a box for the trip – no light, less cage jiggling – so we find a box, and Jim heads out … on a Sunday evening just before 9 pm.
When he returned … over an hour later … I learned that not only did he go 20 km away from the house, he went several more than that, crossing railway tracks, 2 rivers, and the 401. He found a quieter stretch of road, near a bush area … pulled over, put the trap on the ground and opened the door, fully expecting the squirrel to either attack him or fun off faster than the wind. Instead, the squirrel waited a few minutes, then meandered out a ways before heading to the woods.
On the way back to the house, Jim said all he could think about was “oh, I hope the little guy is ok … I hope some owl doesn’t swoop down and get him before he finds a place to sleep tonight …”
and by this point, sorry, but I was laughing to the point of tears and said perhaps I should have packed him a lunch for his first night away from home. Do you think he’ll send us a card when he gets settled in his new place??
I guess even the squirrels fall into the category of ‘the least of these’.
We are called to be sheep, to follow and do as Jesus would have us do.
To help others – all of creation – even when … especially when …. they can’t give anything back in return. In doing so, it’s kind of like helping Jesus ‘in disguise’.
Moment by moment, may we each choose to follow the Good Shepherd.
Be well. Stay Safe. Take care of yourself, and one another. Amen