Miriam passed away last week. She died on a Friday, leaving her two days short of her ninetieth Christmas Day. The world is diminished by her passing.
Miriam was a member of a church I served before, in the past. But she was more--so much more. A widow still devoted to her husband, the mother of five wonderful daughters, grandmother to their children, great-grandmother of a flock of striking and well-mannered youth and even a great-great grandmother. And a friend. Mostly a friend to a group of women and men who, like Miriam, were devoted to faithful service; Miriam always wanted to be a missionary but did not travel far. A friend to me. And the gyroscope of a congregation in the process of becoming more outward-focused. As she was. A faithful servant. A missionary to the people of her own community.
It's hard for me to imagine the
Miriams of this world passing through a gate and being judged, sorted, made to move to the left or to the right, labeled "sheep" and "goats." No, Miriam was a sheep--that is, she is one who answered the call of Jesus on a daily basis, feeding the hungry, bringing water to those who thirsted, clothing those who were naked and visiting the prisoners--mostly prisoners who were surrounded by bars or wearing chains of their own making, but the others, too. A sheep, all of her life or, certainly, as long as I have known her; I don't imagine she had to wait in line or to show her credentials.
This judgment of which Jesus speaks in the 25th Chapter of Matthew--the Gospel does not say that it comes at the end of our lives. Jesus speaks, in the text, of the coming in glory of the Son of Man, and of the angels, and of a great separation of those who follow His teachings and those who do not. The sheep. And, the goats. The sheep inherit the kingdom. The goats do not, but find eternal punishment. There is no word of death. The sheep find eternal life. Neither is
there word of change, yet we have seen it happen. We have seen people changed from goats to sheep and, on occasion, sheep turned to goats. For the goats, there may be a profound event, or simply eyes opened to the possibilities of this world and, with this change, a newfound commitment to turn outward, to see the other and to find what is alike about us all. Others, perhaps having suffered loss that denies their hope, begin to turn their focus inward. Goats becoming sheep, sheep goats. Change does not await death; neither does the separation of the sheep and the goats.
In this parable, Jesus does not so much tell His followers how to live as tell them the consequences of the choices they make. Fundamental to the lesson, though, is gratitude. Eternal life is not earned by the doing of good deeds, nor is eternal punishment -- which is separation from God -- the product of the failure to do good. Our status as "sheep" or "goat" reflects not whether we are God's beloved but, instead, how we have chosen to respond to the love we have received from God. We can choose how we will respond--whether our gratitude for God's grace compels us to love one another so much that we truly follow Jesus or whether we take grace for granted. The consequences of the choice to live as a sheep is the early inheritance of--life today in--the Kingdom.
The beginning of a new year--2017. What an opportunity to consider change, including the transition from "
goatness" to "sheepness."
Earlier, I said that the world is diminished by my friend's passing. Maybe so but, maybe, not. In her life as a missionary to her community, in her life as a mother, in her life as a friend and in her life as a gyroscope for her congregation, Miriam demonstrated a Christ-like focus--a commitment to "sheepness"--that burns in the hearts of all who were blessed to walk the walk of life beside her and to share in the power of her witness. As she departs--as we are not yet allowed to walk beside her along the path she walks today--the choice falls to each of us: shall I become less goat, more sheep in 2017. Shall I seek to inherit the Kingdom today?
Happy New Year!