"Sheep, Goats, and Birds"

Ezekiel 34:15-22; Matthew 25:31-40

The First Congregational Church, Columbus

July 13, 2003 - 5th Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

A man bought a bird from a pet store and was assured that it could both sing and talk. So he took the bird home with him, but came back the next day and said, "I don't understand. Something must be wrong. I can't get my bird to talk. Can't get him to sing, either. All he wants to do is sit there."

The clerk replied, "Hmm, that's strange. Tell me, does he peck on his little bell?'

"Bell? What do you mean?" answered the customer. "I don't have a bell."

"Oh, I'm so sorry. I should have told you, but it must have slipped my mind yesterday. You definitely need a bell. No doubt you get up by a bell each morning. The alarm goes off; you get started. The same goes for a bird. He pecks on his little bell, hears it, and gets his day started."

"OK. How much is a bell?"

"They're only $8.95, sir."

"Well then, give me a bell."

The next day the customer came back again and said, "I just don't understand about my bird. He doesn't sing and he definitely won't talk."

The clerk thought for a moment and then said, "Does he climb his little ladder?"

"He doesn't have a ladder."

"O my goodness, he must have a ladder. Don't you exercise every morning? Well, a bird needs exercise, too. That's the way he gets started. He pecks on his bell. He climbs up and down that little ladder. Blood circulates. He feels good. Now he's got something to sing and talk about."

"So, how much is a ladder?"

"The ladders are $16.50."

"Well," said the customer, "I guess I'll take one."

The third day the man came back again. "I'm disgusted. That bird won't sing and he won't talk."

"Sir," the clerk replied, "does he look in his little mirror?"

"What do you mean? He doesn't have a mirror. There is no mirror in his cage."

"Well, no wonder he is silent. You look in a mirror everyday, don't you?" You feel good about yourself. Now when that bird looks in the mirror, he'll think that he looks terrific, too. You won't be able to keep him quiet.

"How much is a mirror?"

"$21.95, and they're a bargain."

The man came to the store the next day. "I've had it with that bird."

The clerk asked, "Does he swing on his little swing?"

"Never mind the explanation. Just give me a swing."

The following day the man came back yet again. He looked at the clerk and said, "My bird is dead."

"Are you sure, sir?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I know a dead bird when I see one."

The clerk seemed a bit perplexed. "Well, did he ever sing? Did he ever talk?"

"Yes," said the customer, "he spoke once. When I took the cover off his cage this morning he went right over and pecked his bell. He hopped on his ladder and climbed it real good. He looked in his mirror, then moved over to his swing. And just before his toppled off his perch, he looked at me and said, "Didn't that store have any bird seed?'

That's kind of a silly story, but it does illustrate that in our generosity we quite often fail to give others what they really need. We may provide all the bells and whistles and mirrors, but still they go away empty.

Our New Testament lesson for today is one of Jesus' parables. Its setting is the Last Judgment. It reminds us that we have accountability, both now and in the future.

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory…," Jesus said, "all the nations shall be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."

In Palestine mixed flocks of animals are a common sight. By day the sheep and goats are pastured together, but in the evening the shepherd separates them. He takes the goats into the shelter of a cave because they need to be kept warm at night. The sheep, however, are left in an outdoor pen for they do best in fresh air and can endure the chill.

Then the Son of man "will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. The king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by God, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

Christ is pictured here as the shepherd-judge. Note that all nations, all people of the earth, are to be judged and not merely Israel. They are separated into two groups: those who are to be part of God's kingdom and those who are not. This separation will not be done arbitrarily, but in accord with one's life and actions.

"Come.. inherit the kingdom prepared for you… 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, 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.

"Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when? When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison?'

"'Truly… just as you did it to the least ones of my family, you did it to me'"

Six works of love are mentioned here: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. These are all important works, but it is doubtful that Jesus considered this to be a complete list. These particular acts of concern are meant to be examples, of which there could be many others as well. The afflicted have lots of needs. Perhaps Jesus might add other acts today which are equally important.

"Come, you that are blessed, receive the kingdom prepared for you, for I was homeless and you gave me shelter, I was illiterate and you taught me how to read, I was friendless and you stood at my side, I was without work and you found me a job, I was grieving and you cheered me, I was disillusioned and you gave me hope."

When Jesus speaks of "members of my family" he means any person. There are no exceptions based on race or gender or nationality or any of the other divisions we commonly regard among people. Family and friends and neighbors are to be included certainly, but so are those we don't like so well, those who we do not admire or trust, those we may think of as our enemies, and those whom we do not even know. All-- all-- have a claim upon our love and generosity. In each breast beats the heart of Christ, whether they know it or not. The point is, we know it. When we serve them, we serve him.

In one Appalachian community a young lady became the first member of her family to ever graduate from high school. On the same day she received her diploma, her great-grandmother gave her a slip of paper. This old woman only had a few years of schooling, but she wrote down this valuable advice based upon her experience of life: "Wash what is dirty, water what is dry, heal what is wounded, warm what is cold, guide what goes off the road, and love people who are the least loveable because they need it the most."

In our compassion, however, we must take care not to give what we think is best, but to give what is really needed. To provide a good income for a family is an admirable thing, but not when it comes at the expense of a parent actually spending time with a son or daughter. To give a comforting book to a friend who has suffered loss is a nice response, but maybe he or she really needs a regular phone call to help with daily challenges. To send national aid to a developing country in the form of high technology is fine, but not when people are suffering from a lack of simple and rather inexpensive medical care.

When Jesus responded to people he not only noted that they were needy, but he recognized their real problem. He was sensitive to where the hurt was most acute and gave of himself accordingly.

In our text those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God are unaware that their acts of mercy have any direct relationship to Jesus. The righteous act because others are in need, not to gain favor. They did what they did because it was the right thing to do, not to receive a reward. They responded unselfishly whenever the circumstances called for it, not to assure their eternal destiny.

That is true giving. That is the service which delights God. To give generously, willingly, and appropriately to others is the greatest thanks we can return to the Lord for the countless blessings we enjoy. So receive those in need, whomever they are, as persons truly worthy of what you can give them; and what you do give, make sure it is what they really need.

When we serve others, we serve Christ-- as surely and as simply as that.

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