After reading this passage from Scripture, I suppose many of us might be prone to ask ourselves: “Am I a sheep…? Or a goat? But no worries… here’s a short quiz to help you figure it out:
Have you ever found yourself face-to-face with a homeless person on the street and avoided making eye contact, knowing that he would just ask you for money he’d likely spend on booze? Have you ever passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road and wondered to yourself about his or her story? You might have said a quick prayer that the person would be OK… but you weren’t about to stop. Have you ever found excuses to avoid visiting someone sick in the hospital or in a nursing home because you were afraid you might catch something… or because you couldn’t stand the smell?
Have you, on the other hand, ever prepared a meal for a bereaved family, contributed your time and treasure to a holiday food drive, or ladled out victuals at a soup kitchen? Have you ever given a stranded motorist a few bucks to buy gas, or dropped some change into a Salvation Army bucket? Have you ever sat and provided a simple ministry of presence to a friend imprisoned by her own grief and anger as she navigated what St. John of the Cross would call her “dark night of the soul?” I bet you have.
So… are you a sheep or a goat? If you’re like me, then the answer is “yes.” And, to be clear, I’m not asking you to pick up hitchhikers, or to put your health or safety at risk. And I’m not asking you to throw money at folks, without any controls or preconditions. I am asking you, however, to pay attention to the opportunities for ministry that God is putting in your path every day, and to do your best to listen to what the Holy Spirit is calling you to do in such cases. It sometimes takes courage and patience, but it’s what we’re made for. We are a priesthood of all believers (cf. 1 Peter 2:5-9) and it is our Christian vocation to tend Christ’s flock and feed his sheep (cf. John 21:15-19). Each of us exists to be the Body of Christ to neighbors who are lost or in trouble.
I suppose if you preach from any particular Gospel (in this case Matthew) often enough, you end up plowing over a lot of already-tilled soil… the obedient and disobedient sons… the faithful and the unfaithful slaves… and now the story of the sheep and goats… it’s kind of like the old “Do bee – Don’t bee” dichotomy from Romper Room, right? But as I pondered the message in today’s Gospel, I realized that this is not a story about “do bees and don’t bees,” sheep and goats. It’s not even about judgment. It’s a story about the return of Christ… and salvation. This story is not about us – it’s about God.
It’s been said that every preacher really only has one sermon that s/he adapts to different days and situations. And if that’s true, I guess my one sermon is about God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. We are all fellow travelers on the road to kingdom come. Each of us is in the process of “working out our salvation, with fear and trembling,” as the Apostle Paul might say (Philippians 2:12-13), taking two steps forward and one step back most days, trying to be faithful, trying to become the creatures that God created us to be. And, some days, it can seem like a long, tough slog. But hang in there! Keep at it! God is perfect… but God is not a perfectionist. The Holy Spirit is in your corner, cheering you on.
So, what is all this about “eternal punishment” for the goats?” That’s pretty scary stuff! How much of a goat do I need to be to forfeit God’s mercy? Jesus once said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). The Kingdom of Heaven is not for sale. It’s not something we can earn, it is a gift freely given to us by God. Sin remains a problem, however. What is sin? I believe that sin is any thought, any action—anything at all—that separates us from God. And it’s all on us… because God doesn’t sin… God’s arms are always open. But we can’t receive the gifts of God’s grace and forgiveness when we’re separated from him. So, it is not the King on his throne that condemns us. We condemn ourselves when we, in our stubbornness and conceit, hold ourselves apart from God, persisting in our failure to love God and neighbor… and in our propensity to judge others. I believe this is what it means to fall short of the glory of God (Cf. Romans 3:21-26).
Author and theologian C. S. Lewis provides us with a compelling image of the results of this separation from God in The Last Battle, from The Chronicles of Narnia. The Enemy (with a capital “E”) is in the final stages of destroying the world Lewis’ readers have come to know and love throughout the series. The forces of evil seem to be on the verge of winning the day. The land lies scorched and ruined… the sky is dim, and smoke fills the air. A new Narnia is being born, but no one can yet perceive it. The few remaining followers of the great lion Aslan (Son of the Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea), including humans, dwarves, talking animals and a few mythical beasties have been rounded up… bound… and are being thrown one-by-one, through the dark and forbidding door of a Stable as sacrifices to the demon god that dwells inside. Only… when those faithful to Aslan cross the threshold of the Stable, they find themselves not in a place of death and despair but in a beautiful country, filled with trees and flowers, streams and meadows of soft grass. Everyone they’ve ever known and loved is there, and the excitement of reunion is palpable. This is not death… it’s homecoming.
A rich feast has been prepared, and all have been invited. In the midst of the revelers, however, sits a small group of traitorous dwarves. Nominally “good guys,” and disciples of Aslan, this particular band of demi-humans had pursued a path of selfishness and deceit based upon fear, finally turning the tide of battle in favor of the Enemy. It doesn’t take the reader very long to figure out that, while even these pitiful creatures have been invited to the feast… they haven’t yet arrived. They’re in a dark, smelly stable, wrapped up in their own cynicism and self-loathing… and awaiting death. They are not seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling the Providence of Aslan that is crowding in upon them from every side. Other revelers try to draw the dwarves into the reality of the new Narnia, to no avail. Offerings of sweet-smelling flowers are perceived as filthy stable litter, the finest food and drink nothing but hay, moldy turnips and dirty water from an old horse trough. Not even Aslan could counter their disbelief… the dwarves refused to pay attention to the gifts they were being offered… refused to be “taken in,” as they put it. “The dwarves are for the dwarves!” This is eternal punishment all right, but it’s not something that God did to the dwarves—it’s something they did to themselves.
So, today’s reading is not a story about good sheep and bad goats. It’s not about judgment and eternal condemnation. This Gospel story is about the return of the King of Heaven, in his glory, and what each of us is doing to prepare ourselves for that day of days. Maybe that’s why we hear it on the last Sunday before Advent. Are we making progress towards becoming the creatures God has created us to be? You know what I think? I think we’re all sheep, to one degree or another. And we’re all goats… to one degree or another. The distinction is artificial. I’ve never known someone who was either all sheep or all goat. And God loves us because of, rather than in spite of, our inconstancy. God’s arms are always open, but it’s up to us to step into that Almighty embrace.
And although I’ve spent the last few minutes telling you that this story is not about sheep and goats, I’d like to leave you with one final image featuring, you guessed it, sheep and goats. In the 1973 movie Godspell, Jesus called people from their mundane existence as mechanics, food service workers, fashion models, taxi drivers and college students to be his twentieth century disciples on the streets of New York City. As a sign of the times, Jesus was dressed as a clown Superman, while his followers had shed the material trappings of their former lives and adopted the playful attitude and humility of children. Jesus and his followers claimed a junkyard for their base of operations, made it beautiful, and then began to roam the City reenacting the parables from Matthew’s Gospel. Members of this troupe of Christ-followers moved in and out of different roles easily, sometimes playing the hero of a parable, and at other times the villain. No matter how the parable ended, heroes and villains always “kissed and made up.” It wasn’t all fun and games… Jesus could sometimes be prophetic and stern. The overarching message conveyed in the reenactments, however, was that the stubbornness of God’s creatures was no match for the constancy of God’s love.
The parable of the sheep and goats was played out in a small courtyard at the foot of a monumental flight of steps leading upwards to a beautiful garden. Faithful to the Scripture passage, Jesus separated his motley herd of disciples into sheep and goats, blessing the former and blessing out the latter. The goats were engaged in some horseplay and didn’t seem to be taking the situation too seriously until Jesus and the sheep raced up the steps and around the corner into the garden out of sight… and they didn’t come back. The upturned faces of the goats were stricken. Was this it? Was it possible that they’d made Jesus angry enough to leave them behind? For good? The seconds ticked away like lifetimes. Then Jesus poked his head back around the corner, winked at the goats, and said, “Come on!” So, fear not, little flock.
Let us pray:
As we stand on the threshold of this new Advent, may God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give you a spirit of wisdom as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart opened wide, you may know the hope to which he has called you… which is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, and the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.
In Jesus’ name we pray… Amen.