Sheep, Goats and… Chocolate Chip Cookies

16 Nov

chocolate-chip-cookies(a sermon for November 16, 2014, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 25:31-46)

Those of us “of a certain age” will remember that Reader’s Digest magazine used to have a regular feature they called “My Most Unforgettable Character;” in which readers would write in to tell true stories of some of the more unique people they’d known in their lives.  For me (though I certainly could name you a few!) that would be the late Stuart Farnham, who was my classmate and friend back in my seminary days.

I’ve mentioned Stuart before from this pulpit; he’d been a kindergarten teacher in a little village in Vermont for 20 years when he finally answered a very persistent call to pastoral ministry, moving his wife Maedean and their five sons to Maine so he could attend seminary.  He was a great inspiration to me and a good friend; but I guess what I’ll always remember the most about him, and Maedean as well, was how you were always made to feel incredibly welcomed in their home; as far as they were concerned, you see, the whole seminary family was their family; so not only were you always invited to stay for dinner, it was pretty much expected you’d stay!   And being single and a commuter student, I did… many times (!)… as did many others over the course of those years. There were very few times when there wasn’t an extra place (or two, or three) set at their kitchen table; and though (given the fact they had these five growing boys always running around) it was inevitably a noisy, chaotic and sometimes even harrowing experience (!), there was always lots of love to be shared.  And that’s why early on, the Farnhams became for me the very model of what Christian hospitality and caring is all about.

That’s not to say it didn’t always happen in, shall we say, a traditional fashion!  In fact, one of my all-time favorite stories about the Farnhams had to do with Maedean’s famous homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Maedean was always baking off those cookies – and they were amazing – but the problem was that she could never keep up with demand; between five big, strappin’ boys who were always hungry, a husband with a sweet tooth, and visitors like me (hey, they told me I could help myself!), Maedean was never able to keep their cookie jar filled up!

At first, Maedean used to keep that cookie jar atop their refrigerator; then she’d put it in the back of the pantry where it was meant to keep the cookies “out of sight, out of mind,” but to no avail; every night Maedean would come home from her job to discover a newly emptied cookie jar!   Needless to say, she’d gotten a tad upset about that; she’d tried setting limits, making deals, and had issued more than a few direct threats before finally engaging in what was some wonderfully inspired and finely-tuned espionage!  To wit, Maedean began to hide the cookie jar:  under the bed, in the cellar, in the woodbox; wherever her boys would not think to look.

It was actually a pretty good plan; so imagine Maedean’s surprise when on one fall afternoon she came home to find an empty cookie jar in the kitchen; cover off to one side, the telltale crumbs lying about on the sideboard!  This was the last straw, and though I was not there, I was told that the house quite literally shook as Maedean yelled in a way that only a parent can: “WHO ate all the cookies!?”

It was like a drill sergeant had issued the order for inspection, because immediately six pairs of feet all came running; all five boys, and Stuart, too!  And there was no doubt whatsoever that Mom meant business: “All right, I have had enough of this: I want to know who ate all these cookies, and I want to know now!”  Of course, by this time the boys had all learned the importance of a quick and firm alibi; and each related theirs in turn to their parents.  That is, every one of them except Tim, who at the time was around 16, and usually in some kind of trouble with his parents for something or other; as I recall, he always seemed to be perennially grounded!  So now the truth finally surfaced and the crime was revealed: it was Tim who’d found the hidden cookie jar (just behind the towels in the back corner of the linen closet) and had single-handedly absconded with the whole jarful of cookies!

Now, it’s Dad’s turn to yell: “Who, young man, gave you permission to eat all of those cookies, and how could you eat that much, and don’t you ever think of anyone else and what have you got to say for yourself?”  And there was this long silence; until very quietly and with a bit of catch in his voice Tim said simply, “There’s this man… he walks down Hammond Street every day… he’s really thin, and it doesn’t look like he gets very much to eat.  So I got a grocery bag, filled it with cookies and took them out and gave it to him.”

I’ll always remember that at this point when Stuart told the story, he just chuckled and shook his head, saying, “So what could you say to the kid?”

“‘Lord, when was it when we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing…’ and the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

In those last few days in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and before the agony of the cross, Jesus spoke a great deal about the necessity of actively waiting and preparing for the coming of the kingdom of God; and he told them parables that not emphasized this great truth, but which also served to illustrate the dire fate awaiting those who were found unprepared:  the five foolish bridesmaids locked out of the wedding celebration for lack of extra oil for their lamps; the servant who dared not invest the talents entrusted to him by the master and ends up cast “into the outer darkness.”   Stories with distinctly unhappy endings; but with a message that was crystal clear: be ready for the kingdom when it comes, or face the consequences.

And now, in the last of these stories Jesus tells of a final judgment: of that promised moment “when the Son of Man comes in his glory,” and all of the nations are gathered before him; when people will be separated from one another “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”  This, says Jesus, is the judgment:  when all is said and done, when our lives are finished and our world is done, we will be judged, and the judgment will determine whether we will be as sheep, welcomed into the kingdom; or treated as goats, forever cast “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”   But isn’t it interesting: that the criteria for said judgment ends up having actually very little to do with how “religious” we are, or how “spiritually correct” we have endeavored to be; it won’t focus on our record of service in the church, or what we put in the offering place; it won’t even come on the basis of good and charitable thoughts and long-cherished philosophies!

No, as Jesus describes it it’s all pretty simple; disturbingly so, in fact.  As the king explains to the sheep at his right hand, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you have me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes.” [The Message] In other words do the right thing, and take care of people; be good to others; reach out to those in need… that’s what it’s all about; that’s what sets the sheep of this world apart from the goats; it’s as simple as that!

Of course, it’s not all that simple; if it were, there wouldn’t be the need for the kind of swift and severe judgment that Jesus warns of in this parable!  And even in the story, sheep and goat alike appear to be rather confused as to how or why they ended up where they ended up:  “Lord, whenever did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison,” they ask, “and how was it that we ever did these things for you, or, for that matter not do these things for you!”  It’s one thing to know what you have to do, or supposed to do and when; it’s another when you’re not even aware if you’ve been doing it or not!  So it’s a valid question:  “Lord, when did we see you?”  How are we supposed to know what we’re to do when what we do ends up being so crucial?

The beauty of this particular parable is that Jesus has a very clear and concise answer, albeit one that’s no less simple:  “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  It turns out, you see, that true caring is an indicator of the condition of a believer’s heart; and that means everything.  So it matters that the person who has been the recipient of God’s compassion will then turn around and share that love with others in real and tangible ways; it matters that one’s faith encompasses both an awareness of things as they really are in this word but also the compassion and commitment to respond to that reality with love; it matters that one’s mission and purpose in life is centered on being about the work of the kingdom right there in the places and amongst the people with whom they dwell.  Or, to put a finer point on it, a bagful of chocolate chip cookies might not be the singular tool that will wipe out hunger in our time or make for world peace; but the heart-felt, Christ centered act of sharing those cookies with those in need might well be what it takes to inherit that kingdom!

This is actually one of the most straightforward of Jesus’ parables and what it does for us even now is to bring each one of us in the church back to a very fundamental question about our Christian faith: where’s our heart?  Do we have the kind of heart that takes from everything around us, ignoring the cries of brothers and sisters in need; or do we have the kind of heart that gives of itself in Christ’s name and for the sake of his kingdom?

Beloved, let me be clear: our answer to that question, yours and mine, makes all the difference as to our life in this world and in the next.  Because also, make no mistake: Jesus is there to remind us that we’re accountable.  It’s sort of like what’s printed on a sign in the gift shop of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.; it’s posted just over the cash register and it reads, “We may not have seen you take it, but God did.”  It’s true, and in all things:  God sees.  God knows… everything in our hearts; most especially regarding the small and seemingly unnoticed things we have said or done, or perhaps have left unsaid and undone.  I know that it’s a sobering thought for us to consider that such things do make such a big difference to God; but the good news here is that our understanding this might just lead us to view every opportunity for love and caring as something precious and not to be missed.  That outreach might become more than answering a one-time appeal, or merely the required response to having been asked to help; that a Thanksgiving Basket, or a Love Offering – or maybe even the chance to let a friend or even a stranger share their burden with you or cry on your shoulder – becomes just one part of a life and living wholly devoted to God and those whom God loves.  This is how our words and our deeds, our hands and our heart, our attitude as well as our practice become not only the ways by which we love our neighbor as ourselves, but also the way we honor and worship the Lord our God with true thanksgiving and praise!

When did we see you, Lord?  Beloved, I hope and pray that when our time of judgment comes, we’ll already know the answer to that question; that truly, we saw the face of Jesus Christ in all the people we encounter along the pathways of our daily lives, and that at every stop along the way we were able to honor him by the love and care we were equipped and empowered to share as persons, as people, as families and yes, as the church.

Because at the end of the day, whether we’re talking a box of groceries or a bag of cookies, it’s Jesus we’re serving.

So might it be, beloved; and thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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