Sunday, November 23, 2008

Help! I Have Goat Feet! -- A Sermon

I got a phone call Friday from the local nursing home.  They had a man who was dying and wanted to see a priest.  Not that uncommon, really, so I asked the usual questions:  

Does he have a church somewhere that should be informed?  “No.”  

Do they know his faith? “No.  In fact, he probably doesn’t even believe in God.”

Well, then why does he want to see a priest?  “Because he’s dying.”

And?  “He’s getting cold feet.  No pun intended.”

So, when you say cold feet you mean?  “He’s afraid.”

Afraid of what? He doesn’t believe.  “The closer he gets to death the more he believes there’s something to be afraid of.  As in hell.”

What makes him so afraid?  “Well, he’s a really mean and selfish and obnoxious person --  always has been.  Besides, he’s all alone.”

No family?  “They don’t want anything to do with him.  Like I said, he’s really mean.”

As it turns out, his death isn’t quite so imminent, and the soonest I could get an appointment to see the man is next Wednesday, but the issues are real.  He’s afraid the way he lived his life might leave him open to judgment.  

In short, he’s afraid not so much because he has cold feet as because he has goat feet.    He’s afraid of the judgment to come when Jesus will sort through the sheep and the goats and point to him and say -- GOAT!

Now, I just have to say a word in defense of goats.  They are not mean and selfish or obnoxious. They are clever, curious, friendly animals and have actually always been highly regarded by all societies including Israel.  Sheep, on the other hand are dumb, though they are admittedly useful.

So why the sorting of sheep and goats?  Well, first, shepherds had to separate them out because they were sold and used for different purposes, and back then they looked a lot more alike than they do today.  But goats had one or two strikes against them.  They were seen as a symbol of virility in many cultures, and that sexual undertone made them suspect among many of the religious elite. Also, in Judaism, there was the practice of the scapegoat.  Once a year -- at Yom Kippur -- two goats were set aside.  One was sacrificed as an offering to God. The other -- the scapegoat -- was led to the edge of town and had all the sins of the community symbolically placed upon it -- then it was sent out into the wilderness, taking the sins with it.  So the goat was the sin bearer.

But mostly in the gospel, Jesus was just using sheep and goats to say that there WILL be a judgment -- a sorting out between the good and the bad.  That is what this man was afraid of.  He did not want to look down and see goat feet.

And you know, this is what most people fear when it comes to death.  They are not afraid of going to heaven.  For the most part they aren’t even afraid that they’ll just cease to exist as if they never had been.  They are afraid of eternal punishment.

But remember that the same Jesus who describes this judgment is the same one who says “Fear not.”  What is required is not so much to believe the right thing.  It’s not even required that we belong to the right church.

What’s required is ubuntu.  Now, if you’ve never heard that word before, it’s a Bantu word from southern Africa and it has been very current in the Anglican communion lately.  It has been held up as the thing that will keep us Anglicans together and will renew our purpose.  What is ubuntu?  

Roughly speaking, it is the bond which connects all humanity.  It is the belief that every one of us belongs to the other, and that when one hurts, we all suffer.  Ubuntu is what Jesus was talking about in the gospel.  Those who practice it -- who don’t care who needs their help because we are all bound to each other -- reach out to the stranger.  In Africa, any stranger who wanders into a village automatically receives hospitality without even asking -- the villagers look for wanderers and offer food and shelter.  They look for the hurting and go to them.  Those who live ubuntu enter into joy. 

In contrast, those who see no bond between each other, who live only for themselves -- well, they end up like that man in the nursing home:  alone, unloved, and afraid.  And it’s fair to say that even in the land of its origin, ubuntu is often forgotten.  There are a lot of goats out there.

But that doesn’t matter.  We are called to ubuntu, and that is what drives us at St. James’.  We live to invite others into the Kingdom of Heaven.  We breathe to go out and lend a helping hand.  We know in our core that we are connected through bonds that are stronger than mere affection.

Last week I offered reasons, even in this difficult economy, for being part of the church’s mission - for pledging your support.  Well, if you wonder what we are giving all this money for you could say it’s Ubuntu.  

That’s who we are.  We are here to affirm the bond between us.  To serve those who hurt because their pain is ours.  To hold up “the least of these” because they and we are bound in God.  That’s our mission.  That’s what we fund in our giving.  

I don’t want to disparage goats or frighten people with threats of eternal fire.  Yet there is the standard which Jesus puts before us: Do we see ourselves as bound one to another?  Do we believe and act as if what happens to a poor person in Africa (or Amenia) has meaning to us?  If so, that’s ubuntu -- and Christ will say to us, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”