NJB Ezekiel 34:11 "For the Lord Yahweh says this: Look, I myself shall take care of my flock and look after it. 12 As a shepherd looks after his flock when he is with his scattered sheep, so shall I look after my sheep. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered on the day of clouds and darkness. 13 I shall bring them back from the peoples where they are; I shall gather them back from the countries and bring them back to their own land. I shall pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the inhabited parts of the country. 14 I shall feed them in good pasturage; the highest mountains of Israel will be their grazing ground. There they will rest in good grazing grounds; they will browse in rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself shall pasture my sheep, I myself shall give them rest -- declares the Lord Yahweh. 16 I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the injured and make the sick strong. I shall watch over the fat and healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them. 17 "As for you, my sheep, the Lord Yahweh says this: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats. 18 Not content to drink the clearest of the water, you foul the rest with your feet. 19 And my sheep must graze on what your feet have trampled and drink what your feet have fouled. 20 Very well, the Lord Yahweh says this: I myself shall judge between the fat sheep and the thin sheep. 21 Since you have jostled with flank and shoulder and butted all the ailing sheep with your horns, until you have scattered them outside, 22 I shall come and save my sheep and stop them from being victimised. I shall judge between sheep and sheep. 23 "I shall raise up one shepherd, my servant David, and put him in charge of them to pasture them; he will pasture them and be their shepherd. 24 I, Yahweh, shall be their God, and my servant David will be ruler among them. I, Yahweh, have spoken.
NRS Matthew 25:31 "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, 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."
Although I have been pastor at Community Presbyterian in Coolidge for fewer years than I have been pastor at First Presbyterian in Florence, it was actually at Community that I “auditioned” for the Florence pastoral search committee. But since it was [here] in Coolidge that I was delivering that sermon, I used the only anecdote I know about the taciturn President of the United States — “taciturn”; compare that to our two most recent Presidents — the taciturn President of the United States after whom Coolidge is named: Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth President of the United States.
The anecdote is that this man of few words returned from church one Sunday morning, and his wife asked, “How was church?” “Fine,” Coolidge replied. “How was the sermon?” “Good.” “What did the minister talk about?” “Sin.” “What did he have to say about it?” “He was agin’ it.”
I believe that our “Ritual of Confession,” our collective prayer of Confession and our silent prayer confessions of sin followed by reassurance of God’s grace toward us when as Jesus God went to the cross so that those sins were forgiven long ago, I believe that our “Ritual of Confession is central indeed essential to worship, sort of self-purging us so that we might better absorb the words of Scripture and whatever might be correct in my comments. But as central as is forgiveness of sin to the entire idea of Christianity, I do not otherwise talk much about it, about sin. And while at least one of my Florence parishioners wishes I would talk more often about sin —and I, too, am indeed “agin’ it” when it comes to sin, — I do not do so; I do not talk much about sin because there are limits to my hypocrisy, which I do not mean as false humility nor implicit self-righteousness; I do not talk much about sin because there are limits to my hypocrisy, and perhaps because I fear that those sins I wish known only by God might become known by others.
At any rate, as we today effectively exit one ecclesiastical, or “church,” year for another — remember, next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, — our Scriptures for today, even if not explicitly, confront us with sin by suggesting to us judgement, by telling us that there will be judgement at that future time we have the past two weeks discussed as parousia, Jesus’ return to earth at some unknowable future time, as parousia and the resulting eschaton, the end of history and of life on earth that would then, occur, per the orthodoxy of Christianity. If those ideas are not quite clear from today’s readings, remember neither Ezekiel nor the writer of Matthew was a modern day theologian, but that end time represented by the parousia and eschaton is when this separation or division of sheep into two categories or of separation of sheep and goats would occur.
It is not my objective to question that bit of Christian orthodoxy, though as I have stated, without question, I in fact believe Jesus is here now, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in that regard my belief is western Christian orthodoxy; I am not in any way a complete heretic. I have noted before that according to the Nicene Creed as adopted by the Church in Rome, from which Protestantism ultimately sprang, the Holy Spirit comes to us from the Father and from the Son. in Latin, filiusque, but that as result of the Roman Church’s separation from the Church in Constantinople, “the great schism,” as it is called, which took place in the year 1054, the Church in Constantinople and the Orthodox churches coming from it omit filiusque, “and from the Son,” as I have mentioned on other occasions, and thus Orthodox Christians believe the Holy Spirit comes only from the Father.
But for me, Jesus is here, now, in that Holy Spirit.
But at any rate, our Scriptures today by mentioning this separation of sheep and of sheep and goats confront us with sin without using the word. How? Well, what will be the basis of the division among sheep or between sheep and goats of which our Scriptures speak? Won’t that be the same as “sinners and non-sinners”?
If so, I think it is worth understanding that there are, fundamentally, two kinds of sin, at least using the concept I wish to use. There, are first, sins of commission, such as theft or adultery or killing or idolatry (the biggest of all in the Old Testament); we are all aware of those and some variation, I hope lesser, of those figures into our personal confession, I would imagine, sins of commission, doing something we should not do; sinning by doing something a “commandment” tells us not to do. And in case we do not think we have "committed" any such sins, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that when in our hearts and minds we so commit, we do sin. But there are also sins of omission, of failing to do what we should and ought to do, of failing to do what a commandment says to do.
As we read Jesus’ statement in today’s lesson, of what does He speak? Does He speak of division based on what someone has done wrong, of sins of commission, or does he speak of sins of omission? That in today’s reading it is clearly the latter, sins of omission, is not to say that He approved or approves of violating any of the Ten Commandments; He makes that clear elsewhere. But in what we read today, Jesus makes clear also that — and this is my qualifier — if there is judgment, what we have failed to do will be weighed!
And those things clearly and properly fall into what we can call “Mission” for the Church, and, no surprise here, into what “Loving our neighbor” means for us as individual Christians.
The sin of omission is to fail to live out that Great Commandment when we have the opportunity and ability to follow it.
It’s a wonderful tradition that the Florence congregation has — and the past few years it has found support among members of the Community congregation — the tradition of preparing and offering food boxes to needy families and individuals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, with thanks to Safeway which, through its Florence Anthem store, has offered support, and to Shope’s in Coolidge which in the past has offered turkeys at reduced prices. For about $25 per family, it is not that expensive an undertaking — well, come to think of it, reaching about twenty-five families makes it a bit more impressive — for about $25 per family, these parts of Christ’s Church are heeding that commandment.
But that is just one example of what we can and should do; your generosity to the churches on the Navajo Nation reservation was another example.
In fact, when we really do well in loving our neighbor such that we overcome those sins of omission, being a GOAT is not a bad thing to be: “GOAT” in capital letters is an acronym that is now used, at least in sports, to describe “Greatest-Of-All-Time.” Get it? If we as Church can be faithful in mission and we as individuals can be faithful in loving our neighbors, we might not be the GOAT, that is Jesus himself, but we will be “among ‘em,” to paraphrase another historical figure, Dizzy Dean.
We may not be the GOAT, there is only one to whom I think that term is properly applied and it is neither Michael Jordan nor Lebron James, but to the extent that we do feed the hungry and help the poor and needy, we do not have to fear any sorting by Jesus, but I think the historic, “Well done, good and faithful servant” will fit us.
We might still be sinners, some more than others, but it will not be because we failed to do good, to show love to another, and I do believe God will not discard us, or God would never have sent Jesus to die on our behalf. As we end another year in the life of the Church, the earthly body of Jesus, may we resolve, well, “Yes,” let us resolve to sin less, but also, “yes,” let us resolve that in this coming Church year we shall do all in our ability to show that we understand what Jesus indeed wants of us.
And, by the way, that is a truly great way of giving thanks — of “Thanks-giving.”
And in His name. Amen.