Goat or sheep?

Christ the King Sunday – November 23, 2014

Proper 29: Ezekial 34:11-16; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Homily preached by Seminarian Karen Cuffie

Have you noticed that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas? Every year lights twinkle and bells jingle a little earlier. Things are winding up. Thankfully, as Episcopalians, we have a liturgical calendar to keep us from getting sucked into the vortex of frenzied shopping, decorating, cooking and more shopping. For example, today is not only the last Sunday of the liturgical year and the Sunday before the start of Advent, it is also Christ the King Sunday. We close out the year with scripture that reminds us of Christ’s glorious reign – and the judgement that comes with it. The texts have imagery of sheep, shepherds, goats, eternal life and eternal punishment. Does the gospel reading make you a little uncomfortable like it does me? It’s clear that there will be judgement and I would really like be on Jesus’ right side when the time comes, wouldn’t you?

In Ezekiel God judges the fat and strong sheep against the weak and injured sheep and in the gospel, Jesus’ judgement is illustrated as separating sheep from goats. At first glance it seems like it would be easy to distinguish the fat sheep from the lean sheep or, the ‘good’ sheep from the ‘bad’ sheep. The differences between goats and sheep are even easier to see, but what happens when we think about people in terms of goats and sheep?

My older brother, Eddie and I were as different as night and day. He got in trouble – I didn’t. He played hooky – I didn’t. He had long hair – I had short hair. He watched MTV – I watched The Waltons. I could go on and on. The bottom line is I was nice – and – he wasn’t, from my perspective anyway. Here’s a typical example of the kinds of things he would do just for kicks: One winter when we were young, elementary school age, he dared me to stick out my tongue and touch the fence in our yard with it. It was a chain link fence. I hesitated, but he egged me on and assured me that because there was a coating of frost on the bar, my tongue wouldn’t stick to it. Keep in mind that a few of his and my friends were standing by watching and waiting. I guess I was a sucker for a dare because sure enough, I did it and yes, my tongue stuck to the fence rail. Now, that was just mean. If I had known then about Jesus separating the goats from the sheep, I would have definitely pegged Eddie for a goat, and I, obviously, would have been a sheep!

Today I know better. It’s not that easy and besides, we don’t get to decide who belongs where. It’s not our place. It’s God’s place. When we judge, even unintentionally, we try to push Jesus off of his throne. When we judge, we create boundaries that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ – boundaries that Jesus came to tear down. Jesus describes what the judgement will look like when he comes again. It’s very clear really. The sheep on his right are those who fed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner. The goats on the left didn’t do any of that. Jesus embodied all those things in the events leading to his death. On the cross Jesus was a prisoner, naked and thirsty. Jesus expects us to care for and welcome those living in the margins – the hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned. He expects us to treat others as if they were Jesus himself and not because we want to earn merits that let us in the gate, but because it is good and right – good for goodness’ sake. Neither group understood how what they did or didn’t do affected Jesus. “How was it that we fed you?” they asked. They didn’t recognize him. The righteous acted out of virtuous habit. It was second nature. What a wonderful surprise it would have been if they had recognized him! The lefties didn’t recognize Jesus either, but their response to his revelation was that if they had recognized him, they would have acted differently. I think they missed the point.

There are a lot of videos out on youtube and Facebook now that illustrate this really well. Family members are disguised as homeless people, dirty and disheveled. They are sitting on the sidewalk or standing with a grocery cart full of stuff. The video shows what happens when another family member walks by the disguised homeless person. Some never even look at the person, and the ones that do, don’t recognize their family member. These are husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, even grandparents! When all is revealed, those who’d walked by without noticing were shocked and embarrassed. Maybe they would have acted differently if they’d known. I would hope that I would recognize someone from my family sitting on a street corner like that. What really makes me shudder is that if I would have acted differently because I recognized them, what does that really say about how I treat those I don’t recognize? Jesus is spelling it out for us. Take care of all people, especially the marginalized. Treat everyone with dignity, be welcoming, be generous, offer help, and most of all, be sure to see Jesus in them because he is there, it is him

We also have to consider what this means for the church. As you know, last weekend was the annual diocesan convention in Salinas. We worshiped, we worked and unlike some other diocese, we even had fun. Every year there is a new theme and this year it is “Be the Church”.   Bishop Mary spoke about the importance of building relationships in the community, with people who are both like and different from us. Transformation is possible when we are in relationship with others outside our walls. We watched short videos, or “missio-mercials” as they were called, about what other churches in the diocese are doing to “Be the Church”. One church has regular night walks in neighborhoods that have higher crime rates – on Fridays no less! Twenty to thirty people walk together, talking with people on the streets, getting to know them, not evangelizing per se, just casual conversation. Their presence has made a difference in the neighborhood. The crime rate has dropped. We saw pictures from another church that regularly sets up a one of those easy-up structures at the local soccer fields on weekends to offer eucharist to those who might be in church if they didn’t have soccer practice. It’s a flourishing ministry!

Contrary to what some might think, the church is not dying. We are learning how to live the gospel as a church, as the body of Christ, outside our walls and in the neighborhood. When we come to the table to share the holy meal of Christ’s body and blood, we are also being sent out to be where Jesus is already. We are being sent out to seek and find Jesus in every person, righting injustices and bringing dignity to the oppressed.

Today’s gospel is especially relevant today in the midst of the uproar over immigration. Each of us needs to prayerfully consider how we as individuals and as the church might respond to issues like this. I’m not suggesting a specific viewpoint, just that we need understand why we think what we think and then be ready to enter healthy dialogue. Our challenge today, in this chaotic world, is to recognize the hidden but present Jesus and act accordingly.

So, are you a sheep or a goat? I wish that I could say that I am a sheep with the same confidence I would have been able to say it when my brother and I were kids. The truth is, I am an Animorph – like the popular kid’s book series. I change from a sheep to a goat and back to a sheep all the time. I don’t always see Jesus and sometimes I forget to look. Thankfully God gives us grace, and faith, and love, and renewal, and hope to keep trying. After many years, I learned that perhaps I had Eddie pegged wrong all along. I discovered that he was not simply a goat as I’d often seen him, but was also a sheep at times. It seems he had a heart full of enough love to take in a few people who were down on their luck over the years. He welcomed them, fed them and gave them shelter. My mother used to say he was a magnet for strays. I was at his side when he died a few years ago and I’m pretty sure that when he was lifted up, he landed on Jesus’ right side – white wool and all.

As we leave the Gospel of Matthew for another two years, let’s relish the unusual image of Christ the King, the one who sits on his throne dividing sheep and goats, the one who reigns over all and is ever-present, the one whose humble birth we begin to prepare for as Advent approaches.

Let us pray:

Almighty and glorious God, out of your love for us, you made yourself know to us in your son Jesus, the true King. Help us to recognize him in every person and place so that we might serve you, each other, and especially those who are “the least of these.” Open our eyes to see you in the world.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen