Being a forastero

Last week in church, the passage was Matthew 25:31-46, informally known as “The Sheeps and the Goats.” The passage tells a bit of what will happen when the Son of God* comes into glory, specifically related to what will happen to the people. The Son of God separates the people with the “sheep” on his right and “goats” on his left.

The sheep receive the Kingdom of Heaven because of how well they treated the Son. As the Son of God puts it, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

Meanwhile, the goats get a much worse deal and are cast out into the eternal fire prepared for the devil. This is because they did not do what the sheep did, they were neglectful of the Son of God.

Logically, both groups are fairly bewildered. Neither remembers encountering the Son of God during their lifetime. The sheep want to know where they went right, the goats want to know where they want wrong. As it determined the rest of their eternal lives, it’s a fair question.

The sheep hear, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The goats get: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

I could delve into what this means for grace and whether or not this is a veiled promise of damnation, a more allegorical tale, or something more, but honestly I don’t have the scholarly training for that. And I’d rather talk about the unique role this passage played in church last week.

I have been attending Monte de Los Olivos Presbyterian Church since I arrived. It’s the closest Presbyterian Church to my host family’s home and they have a close relationship with the pastor and his family. Emerson, the pastor, is a few years younger than Paco, while their children are similar ages.

On church this past Sunday, Pastor Emerson, covered the basic meaning of the passage. Most of the sermon was in Quechua, but I surmised from the sections in Spanish and my small knowledge of Quechua that he mostly covered the basic meaning of the story: “Be sheep, not goats.” He also added that being faithful was not all one could do. He added the message that church attendance is irrelevant without social work. Mainly, I had to agree with him.

He also added that it is challenging to see times when you can set yourself apart as a sheep. In fact, he added we may often find ourselves realizing we acted more like goats or that those around us seem to be goats. I found it interesting that within this church, the social action angle was the tougher part of being Christian. Within my cultural and relatively privileged setting, being good has been the easy part. Praise, belief, prayer, and testimony is what’s challenging.

Then, Emerson turned to pointing out ways we can all be sheep. He talked about giving alms to the poor and helping in the world, caring for the environment, and several other obvious examples. Then he turned to me and pointed that I was a “forastero,” or a stranger, and he hoped the congregation must welcome me.

Then he asked me how I felt here in Peru. Struck dumb, as this moment came immediately after I had tuned out during a lengthy bit of Quechua, I managed to say, “Bien.” Emerson saved me by suggesting words like “acogido” for welcomed and that generally, he hoped I felt more a part of the community. I nodded, saying that I did feel welcome, and thanking my lucky stars that I am used to being a sermon metaphor. (I’m looking at you, mom and dad.)

Mainly, I was not sure how to respond. I’ve largely received a kind welcome into Peru and into the church. Emerson and his wife have especially reached out to me and given me a hug, but otherwise most of the congregation has not reached out in any special way. We shake hands during the passing of the peace and exchange niceties, but otherwise nothing beyond that.

I know everyone wants the story of the church member that bends over backwards to make me comfortable or shares their limited resources to give me all they possibly can. That’s just not the reality though. I am at this point, a normal member of the church, and slowly entering the community. There is no accelerated path towards full participation and acceptance just because I am a gringo.

Instead, I am trying to take a more active role. Emerson offered for me to play guitar with him and accompany the music. I seized the opportunity only to find that the guitar was as far from in tune as it could be with old and creaky tuning nuts. I attempted to get it into tune before the service started, but unfortunately found that the process required a half an hour I did not have.

So, I played quietly, but at least I played. I found that the majority of songs in the church are based around the key of D and Emerson alternates between a C and D in the base. It’s not particularly harmonically complex and as a result I could fake my way through the service. Hopefully, in the future, I can be even more active, tune up and learn a few more songs. And perhaps, I’ll push them into new harmonic lands.

More importantly, it felt right to be up front playing. It’s often been my role in church services. It keeps me engaged and allows me to have a more prominent role in the community. I want to move from an observer to a participant and this will help.

And I think for me, that’s part of being a sheep or a goat. If I sat passively and without participating I would not be doing right by my own personal talents and call this year. When I engage with the members of this church, I am doing so with the Son of God.

So that’s a rough take on what could possibly be a much better written sermon. All the same, I like the metaphor. When I am being present with the congregation, I am being present with Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or whatever I feel like labeling the divine that day.

*I think the translation is really Son of Man, but as I’m not getting into historical linguistics and semantics, I’m defaulting to more inclusive language.

5 thoughts on “Being a forastero”

  1. PS–Inclusive language wise, the Common English Bible (probably the most recent English translation) uses “the Human One” to translate what’s usually called “Son of Man”– and if you google “Human One” and CEB, you should get a brief video explaining the theology and interpretive logic behind the use of that term.

  2. Putting the parable aside for a moment, given the choice of being a goat or a sheep, I would choose being a goat. Goats are far more independent and can be friendly when they trust you. Sheep are sheep; pretty stupid and fearful. In fact, as a pastor I would rather serve a congregation of goats than sheep. Whereas, a congregation of sheep would follow my lead, the goats would be out there doing innovative stuff even if you couldn’t always rely on them. Miriam Therese Winter, a feminist and spirited Catholic nun, confided that she always prized the goats who she feels were given a bad rap by the evangelists.
    Back to the parable – may I suggest you try modeling being the sheep in the congregation. What if you, as the “forastero,” displayed the sort of welcome to the members that Jesus is talking about? It could have a radical impact on the community.

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