Some of us have trouble telling the sheep from the goats. And you know, when Jesus looks at us, I think he sees a little bit of both. The real question is, can we see him?
Christ the King (Year A) – Sunday, November 23, 2014 – Matthew 25:31-46
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Sheep in Goat’s Clothing” – Pastor Evan Davis
As soon as we moved here to Harrisonburg, in August 2012, we heard about the Rockingham County Fair. My wife Brett’s best friend already happened to live here, and her husband who works for a turkey company was there that year guarding the presidential turkeys. We knew we were in the turkey capital now! Some of you have helped me understand the importance of the Fair to this community. You’ve explained a lot of things to me, taught me a lot about farming and how it’s done. But that first year I went to the Fair, I’d just met you guys, I didn’t see things with the eyes I have now. Everything was so new. Brett and I were walking through the barns, looking at the cows…and Brett would keep finding herself ten paces ahead of me because I would keep stopping to read those painted signs they have that tell you what the difference is between a heifer and a steer and a dairy cow. Oh my, so much to learn. By the time we got to the sheep area, my head, was still swimming with all the cattle! But then we saw all the cute little sheep, and learned about them and the different kinds. As we walked by each enclosure, I would say, “hey, these ones look cool, they’re a little different!” But then I started to see a still different kind of sheep. Their hair was shorter. Some were a little taller. I turned to Brett and I said, “these sheep look a little different…why do some of them have horns?” She said, “because they’re goats….!?!?”
Look, it’s hard to tell the difference! Ok, maybe it isn’t for real sheep and goats. But Jesus is talking about people, and they’re especially hard to tell apart. I wanted all the animals to be sheep, in my head. And I must confess….I want all people to be sheep too. And like Jesus, I want everyone to be the kind of person that feeds the hungry, gives a drink to the thirsty, welcomes the stranger, clothes the naked, takes care of the sick, and visits the prisoners. And the thing is, that’s what I see when I look at you and most people – I see people who give generously to buy gifts for strangers, to support the Salvation Army shelter, to buy a sheep or a goat for people on the other side of the world. I see people – you – who serve dinners at Mercy House, and welcome those who’ve been in prison, and are always taking care of each other, when someone’s sick, or lonely, or just feeling down. So I guess I’m looking for sheep, and I see so many sheep here today.
But you know, our eyes sometimes miss that we’re all looking at goats too. The truth is we’re all goats sometimes. We’re the goats who don’t stop to see the schoolchildren who go home to empty kitchens, or who depend on free school lunches that aren’t there in the summer. We’re the goats who use hundreds of gallons of water each week, as the wells and streams of our neighbors in the West go dry, as millions around the world have no clean water. We’re the goats who are afraid of the strangers crossing our borders – afraid they make take too many jobs, or commit crimes, or use our tax dollars, or we’re simply upset that they didn’t do it the right way.
So how’s this going to work? Will some of our deeds outweigh the others? My sheep deeds have got to be worth more than all the times I’ve been the goat and just not cared about my hungry, naked, strange, and imprisoned neighbors? Which column will come out ahead in the great sorting when the Son of Man comes in his glory?
As we hear this story from Jesus in isolation, what matters to us? It’s obvious – all we care about is whether we’re a sheep or a goat. With which hand will Jesus beckon us? It’s true that Matthew wants to emphasize anytime Jesus talks about dividing people into good and bad, faithful and unfaithful. For Matthew, there is a clear difference between living the Way of Jesus and not living that Way, and he wants us to know it. Matthew is desperate for us to know and live the way of righteousness that Jesus teaches. But remember Jesus is talking to his disciples here. These are the same people he’s made so many promises to, like “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world.” This is the one who calls not the righteous, but sinners, he says. He’s looking for goats, not sheep! Well, I guess he found some. What’s more, Jesus said also, that if there is one lost sheep, maybe out acting like a goat, this shepherd will leave the 99 sheep he has to go find the one sheep that is lost, and rejoice over finding that one more than he rejoices for the 99 who were never lost, who never acted like a goat. As we learned this weekend at Lost & Found, even if you are the one who’s wondered off, and it’s your own fault, Jesus will always seek out out and find you.
Sometimes you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Jesus is making a very strong point here, but he’s not writing systematic theology. So if he’s not saying that if you add up all the deeds of your life and you have more goat deeds than sheep deeds, you’ve got a one-way ticket to hell, then what else should we be noticing? If we’re going to be loved and claimed even though Christ has to squint his eyes and really think about it to tell whether we’re a sheep or a goat most days, then what’s he getting at?
Maybe because I have a hard time telling goats and sheep apart, what leapt out at me this week is what the sheep and goats have in common. They’re both shocked, totally surprised, to find out that the ones they’ve been feeding and welcoming and clothing and visiting and loving with such acts of compassion or the ones they’ve been ignoring or shaming or blaming or convincing themselves are unworthy are actually Jesus. They’re mutually flabbergasted, asking, “well Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” or “when was it that we saw you and did not take care of you?” It’s clear that these people were either caring for their neighbors because that’s simply what they do, or ignoring their neighbors because, well, it’s what they do. But come to find out, Jesus has been acting like a king in disguise, like the prince who takes the place of the pauper, like “Undercover Boss” – this is Undercover Christ!
This is the last story Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew. The next thing he will do is go to the cross, where he will be raised up in the glory he chooses. Jesus chooses rejection, suffering, and death as the way he will be known by us, as the way God will be known by us.1 What God has done in Jesus is to say, you’ll find me where you least expect me – born to a peasant girl in a barn in a backwater town, executed on a Roman cross, and now that’s he raised from the dead and has promised to be with us unto the end of the age, Jesus tells us we’ll find him in the neighbor with the growling stomach, in the African woman who goes to the dried up river desperate for a bucket of water, in the Guatemalan family looking to build a life in a good land, in the one lying in the hospital bed, in the one behind thick glass, concrete, and steel at the jail, wondering what life lays ahead. There is Jesus.
Whether we look a bit more like a sheep or a goat today, Jesus recognizes us as his own people. As goats who will forever be clothed as sheep, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, our baptismal robes sparkling white. And since he recognizes us, perhaps we can also recognize him, all around us, every day.
One of my favorite prayers is that of a woman who kept up a soup kitchen in D.C. every week. Before each time they opened, she prayed, “Lord, I know you’ll be coming through the line today. Help us to treat you well.”
Maybe that’s what our life is about, from now until Christ is revealed as king of creation, reigning in glory forever and ever. As we wait for that day, our whole life of faith, our whole religion, is nothing more than recognizing Jesus and treating him well. Amen.
1David Lose, “Christ the King A: The Unexpected God,” http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/ (accessed November 21, 2014).