+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson for this day, specifically where Jesus says, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…
It was written over 50 years ago, and even to mention it risks alienating anyone with a birthday any more recent than the 1970s. Still, there’s something timeless about Eleanor Rigby, so I’ll take my chances. Even if you’ve only ever heard it once, the song has the tendency for lodging in your thoughts, being a song that, I think, can be accurately described as “haunting.” People, understandably, assume that the song is about “loneliness,” as McCartney himself in the chorus wonders about “all the lonely people.” For me, though, I think the song is less about loneliness than it is about … futility. “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been…” and what’s the point? Who cares about her thankless work? Who notices? What difference does it make? And Father MacKenzie darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there, and writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear… and what difference does it make anyway? Why does he bother? Futility—empty words, meaningless gestures, inconsequential actions, pointless deeds, wasted lives. Futility.
It’s not a foreign thought, is it, futility? I know this is something I struggled with a bit in seminary, as I sat alone in my dorm room, pouring over books I knew that I would likely not be able to look at again until I retire from ministry, attempting to wrap my head around theological concepts that escape my understanding because of my mortality. Sometimes, I confess, my work felt as futile and as pointless as Eleanor Rigby picking up rice.
That spectre of futility hounded me as a student, and I can promise you that, while I’ve certainly been kept busy in my first year serving here, it’s an issue that hounds pastors all across our synod. It’s an issue, I’m sure, that has hounded you at one point or another in your life. Indeed, there’s a lot in our lives, as Christians living out our vocations, which can begin to feel futile. You work diligently on the paper, pouring yourself and all you think you’d learned into it, fulfilling the task to the best of your ability … only to get it back a few weeks later, marked up in red, and a C+ circled in the upper corner, so what’s the point? You offer wise spiritual counsel to someone who sorely needs it … just to find out later that your advice has been utterly disregarded. You shed blood, sweat, and tears as you prep for the class that you’re going to teach, and you pour yourself into the lecture … and your students stare out the window, or into the endless void of an LCD screen. You baptize, catechize, and confirm your kids … and watch them fall away from the faith the moment they hit high school or college. You spend the time and money putting in a new crop in spring, which does well through the first half of the season … and a freak deluge floods out half your fields, leaving you with no choice but to soldier on and reap from what you didn’t lose. You plan the outreach event, you advertise and publicize it , hoping that people will sense your enthusiasm and thus desire to sign on … but only the usual dozen show up. You try hard to be a good husband, or a good mother, or a good daughter … but does anyone notice? Does anyone appreciate your efforts?? The temptation to go through the motions without regard for the meaning behind the motions hounds us all. The fear of futility looms and grows, regardless of the capacity in which we serve. When all is said and done, what difference does it make? What’s the point? Why bother?
Well, that’s quite the heady question, one which we can find the answer to in our Gospel lesson for today, the parable of the sheep and the goats. A word of warning, though: this is not an easy parable. It’s a difficult text, but the difficulty is not that it is hard to understand; indeed, the meaning seems altogether clear … and that’s the problem! It rubs against the grain of our Lutheran ears because it sounds suspiciously like works righteousness. If this were the only Word that we had received from Jesus, then a religion of works and salvation by human efforts would be the logical conclusion. Sheep … do acts of kindness, and they receive heavenly praise and eternal rewards! Goats … do not, and they get hell. Thankfully, this is not the only red ink in our Bibles; Jesus did say more, and we have been given a complete Word of God that that makes it clear: of course we do not earn our way into God’s good graces. We don’t buy our way into eternal life, and yes, even this parable and its difficult words agree fully with the theology that we are justified before God solely by grace through faith in Christ alone!
Notice what Jesus first says to those sheep: Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. The sheep are sheep … because God has made them sheep! They are chosen … predestined … elect! They are not sheep because they made a choice to be a sheep. They are not sheep because they did acts of kindness. They are NOT sheep because they worked hard to become a sheep! They are sheep for one reason: God has done it! God makes them sheep! God makes them righteous!
And then these sheep … live like His sheep. They go out into God’s creation, out into their ordinary lives, and they take care of those around them. They help the sick, they feed the hungry, they visit the imprisoned, they clothe the naked. They do sheep things! Sheep … act like sheep! And the goats? Well the goats choose what God never planned, never intended: they choose to ignore the call of God to repentance and life, they choose to ignore the cry of their fellow creatures. They reject grace, and they choose death. In return, our loving God gives them what they choose: they share in the unintended and unsought fate of Satan and his horde in the fires of perdition. … But not you. You are a sheep!
In the deluge of Holy Baptism, at the font, God made His claim, and gave you His Name! YHWH is YOUR Shepherd! You are His sheep! You belong to Him! So you, His sheep, live like His sheep! You go out into His world and you do what you have been given to do: you meet the needs of fellow creatures who cry for your help. That’s what sheep do! And when sheep do what God has given them to do … futility … is gone. It’s wiped out completely! That’s the point of the parable!
This is not an exhortation to be a sheep and not a goat! Sheep have no choice anyway; remember, God does the choosing! No, the point is that what sheep do as sheep is never wasted and never lost! There’s no futility! This means that your daily work is transformed! What you do - whatever you do for the sake of those around you who need your help, whatever you do in fulfillment of your God-given vocations, whatever you do that God has given you to do is exactly the work that you should be doing, and is never wasted, and is never lost! That’s the criteria! It’s not about what makes a big splash or attracts large numbers of people. It’s not about makes others applaud. It’s not about what earns financial perks or accolades or “A’s.” It’s not what makes you feel good. None of these things determine the validity, the value, or the direction of the work that you do. The only thing that matters, in this regard, is that you are doing what you have been given to do in service to those who need it.
So you study for that incredibly difficult test, and you sit through another class that doesn’t exactly fire your imagination, and you do so with all the commitment and energy you can because it is holy work! And you prep for another class on an old topic, and you work well into the night grading papers through bleary eyes, and you do it all with all the zeal you can muster because it is holy work! You rub your wife’s ankles after her long day of work, and you massage your husband’s back when he’s under stress, you lift each other up in spite of your own difficulties, not because it is easy, but because it is holy work! You wait for the checks to clear the bank, and you pour over the budgets until your eyes strain from staring at the chart, and you do it because your work is needed, because God has called you to serve in that way and thus it is holy work! You change the day’s 8th diaper, you prepare the day’s 4th bottle, and you wipe the white trickle from your shoulder and back with a sense of awe and wonder and gratitude at the sheer holiness of the work you are doing for the one who needs your service.
You don’t need work that is “more meaningful.” You don’t need a vocation that packs more prestige! You don’t need to do things that will impress those who watch or grade or evaluate. No, you just need to do … what you have been given to do, to care for those around you who need your service, and when you do that, you are doing incredible holy work just the way that God intended it to be done! That is work that is ALWAYS worthwhile!
See, that’s the way it is with sheep, and you are sheep! Elect, chosen by God, doused in forgiveness at the font … righteous! Righteous before God! You are a sheep! You see the need of those around you, and you step up to meet that need! Parishioners, pastors, professors, students, parents, children, employers, neighbors, strangers—you give them what they need from you, and you fulfill your vocation, and you are righteous! Sheep are righteous twice: righteous before God in your election, entirely passive, and righteous before creation in your vocation, entirely active! You are sheep, my friends—you live without fear of futility because you know … you know that your labor is never in vain! No deed is insignificant, and no act is forgotten! God saves you and your labor; neither is ever lost!
Eleanor Rigby and Father MacKenzie may have lived empty, futile lives and died in meaninglessness … but not you! NOT you! You are sheep, and that changes everything. Everything about you, and everything about what you do forever.
+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.