Singing When Dawn Is Still Dark
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for on of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
In Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula there is a charming, 100-acre farm just down the road from where I spend the month of August every summer, and I ride my bike past it every chance I get because it is an animal sanctuary where beasts of every kind come to live when they are no longer useful to or wanted by their original owners. It is called Black Sheep Crossing, of course, because the black sheep is the lamb nobody wants.
Marty Scott, the owner, had been unplanned and unwanted when he came into the world, and always felt like the black sheep in his family, so he decided to get something good out of his experience of unwantedness. I guess Marty Scott thought Jesus was talking about animals too when he said, “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was a stranger, and you took me in.”
A huge, gorgeous Great Pyrenees named Savannah is the guard dog in charge. She had never been in a house or a car before she came to Black Sheep Crossing. Lots of other dogs, from tea-cup to horse-size. Patrick and Edward are giant Scottish Highland steers with blond hair as long and silky as Kate Upton’s, but don’t tell her I said that. Five donkeys. Nine black cats.
All the animals share the same corral. Knowing next to nothing about farming, I thought maybe you’d have to keep the animals separate, but I guess they all eat the same thing and all get along, much better than people, so it’s a nice little parable every time I ride my bike past this farm.
The goats have their own house right in the middle of the corral, and every time I ride past, the goats are standing on top of their house surveying their kingdom. It’s just a shack really, but it’s about eight feet high, and I don’t know how they get up there, but there they are. I always think that if they can get on top of their house, they could get outside the fence, but they don’t, perhaps because they like it there. They have their own house, after all. The sheep don’t get their own house.
Apparently farming ways haven’t changed much in two thousand years because one day when Jesus was traipsing across the Palestinian countryside, he spies a pasture full of sheep and goats all mixed together and unseparated, and he has one of his eureka moments. With his overactive imagination Jesus can’t resist turning that pasture into a parable.
The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a flock, a flock of sheep and goats. Just like that little farm on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, farmers would tend both sheep and goats. The sheep and the goats would graze together during the day, but had to be separated at night for a very obvious reason that I never really thought of before: the goats, lacking a warm coat of wool, had to be kept warm at night. Only the goats get their own house.
So one important job of the first-century shepherd-cum-goatherd was traffic-control–sheep to the right, goats to the left.
I hope the dark humor hasn’t been lost on you: in Jesus’ little parable, the sheep go to heaven to be with God, and the goats, lacking that warm coat of wool, have to go to the warmer place, the place of eternal fire.
One of the Great Shepherd’s main jobs is traffic-control: sheep to the right, goats to the left. And what’s both wonderful and terrible about Jesus’ little parable is that surprise is the order of the day. Did you hear the shock in the voices of all the world’s children as they face the Good Shepherd at the last day? All the criteria of goodness and righteousness we deemed so important during our earthly existence appear to be of no worth whatsoever.
We spend a good deal of our earthly lives drawing our own little distinctions between the sheep and the goats. You know how it goes.
Where did you learn: University of Chicago or City College of Chicago?
What do you do: Doctor or Domestic?
Where do you live: Ghetto or gated community?
What do you wear: Prada or Penney’s?
What’s your music: Rap or Rachmaninoff?
What’s your name for God: Yahweh or Allah?
What color are you; Hispanic or Black or Anglo?
You know how we draw our little lines. And then when we get to the end of history, we find that we’ve been dividing the flock the wrong way.
Even religious belief appears to be a non-issue as far as Jesus is concerned. The Presbyterian minister fully expected to be numbered among the sheep, but was not, while the Meals-on-Wheels volunteer, never much of a church-goer, is surprised to find herself on the right side of history, with God.
And when she asks the Christ, “Lord, when did I see you hungry, and give you something to eat?” Jesus tells her, “That cold day in January when you delivered lunch to that little old blind lady who lived above the bar on the South Side? That was no little old lady. That was me. And I’ll never forget you for it.”
Surprise is the order of the day. But I guess all the world’s children shouldn’t have been so shocked by the Shepherd’s decisions, because who is the Great Shepherd standing there at the inflexible fork near the far end of history’s long road? It’s Jesus, of course, and whom did he spend all his earthly days consorting with?
As Frederick Buechner puts it, Jesus spent all his days hanging around with “the man with no legs who sells shoelaces at the corner, the bag lady in the moth-eaten fur coat who makes her daily rounds of the garbage can, the old wino with his pint in the brown paper bag, the pusher, the whore, the village idiot who stands at the blinker light waving his hand as the cars go by.”
The Roman Catholic priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has written what has come to be one of my favorite sonnets of all time. Part of it is printed in your bulletins this morning:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame…
I say more: The just man justices…
Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eyes he is: Christ.
For Christ plays in 10,000 places,
lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his.
What Father Hopkins wants to say is that as the kingfisher’s flashy feathers flame forth the fire of the sun’s light, as the dragonfly’s whispering, translucent wings sparkle with rainbow colors in the light reflected from the surface of a pond, so the man or woman filled with the light of Christ will shine with an unearthly incandescence.
For the Christian, Jesus is the core of our being, Jesus is the distilled essence of our existence, Jesus is the light that makes us shine, Jesus is the life we strive mightily to emulate.
“The just man justices,” says Father Hopkins, turning a noun into a verb and making his sophomore English teacher wince. “The just man justices…Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eyes he is: Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his.”
Christ illumines our smiling eyes, Christ animates our gentle hands, Christ mobilizes our dancing feet. “Christ plays in 10,000 places, lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his.” Christ plays in your eyes and in mine.
Do you see Christ the Healer in the eyes and limbs of those who do his bidding? Christ shines in the eyes of the Stephen Minister who spends two hours every week listening to the shattered cries of the broken-hearted.
Christ plays in the hands of the Hospice volunteer who watches next the bed of despair through the long night of pain in the cancer ward at the local hospital.
Christ plays in the hands of the Care Guild people who spend a whole day in our kitchen every month to fill the freezer with meals for the sick and the parents of newborns.
Christ plays in the limbs of the volunteer who spends every Wednesday night teaching a new immigrant to speak the language in an alien land.
Christ plays in the skilled and gentle hands of the doctor who volunteers two days a month at the free clinic.
Christ plays in ten thousand places. You might see Christ the Healer just there. Or, alternatively, you might see Christ the Crucified. Do you see Jesus playing in the streets of the city in eyes and limbs not his?
Mother Theresa says that in the faces of the starving children of Calcutta, she sees the face of Christ. Jesus himself says, “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick and in prison, and you visited me.”
And when, puzzled, we ask him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you to eat? When did we see you thirsty, and give you to drink? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to visit you?” Jesus replies, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”
Jill Denny is the Choir Director at Mountain View High School in Silicon Valley, California. One year she told her choir that she was going to take them on a choir tour of Japan. When kids got excited and started signing up for the trip she asked one of her star students why he hadn’t signed up too.
His name was Jose Antonio Vargas, and he told her that he wasn’t going because he couldn’t afford it. Jill Denny said, “Don’t worry; we will find a way; we will get you a scholarship.”
Then Jose had to tell her that it was a lie; he wasn’t skipping the trip because he couldn’t afford it; he was skipping the trip because he didn’t have the right passport. Jose had come to the United States when he was 12 to live with his grandparents, who were already naturalized citizens, but of course he wasn’t.
He learned English by watching Frasier and Home Improvement on TV, and from the movie Goodfellas on VHS tapes from the library. Imagine learning English from those guys on Goodfellas.
He’d come here in the sixth grade; by the eighth grade, he won the annual spelling bee by correctly spelling ‘indefatigable.’ He couldn’t even pronounce it; neither can I. He couldn’t pronounce it, but he could spell it.
Jose never knew his green card was fake, and therefore that he was undocumented, until he went to the DMV to get his driver’s license at 16. He’d been here four years and nobody had dared to tell him he was illegal.
And so when Jose told Jill Denney, his choir director at Mountain View High, why he wasn’t going to Japan with the choir, Jill Denny said, “Okay then. We’ll go to Hawaii instead.” And they did. “No child left behind” was her motto, borrowed from George Bush. I’ve never met Jill Denny, but I think I would like her.
Maybe you know that in 2008, Jose Antonio Vargas won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a Washington Post team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings the year before.
I have no idea what Jill Denny’s religious convictions are, but I do know what Jesus will say to her on the last of all her days: “I was a stranger, and you took me in. Come inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
There he stands, at the end of time, the Great Judge, the Good Shepherd, this one who spent all his waking hours with the least, the last, the lost, the lame, the leper, the loser, and the lonely. He expects us to BE the Christ TO them, and to SEE the Christ IN them. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his.
Jose Antonio Vargas, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” The New York Times Magazine, June 26, 2011.