11/23/2014 sermon: “Sheep or goat?”

Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Christ the King Sunday, Year A

Sheep or goat?

After reading the gospel lesson for today I began to wonder, “Are we at Resurrection sheep, or are we goats?” This was a whole lot more fun than wondering, “Am I a sheep?” Because the truth is that I am a sheep-wanna-be. This sheep stuff doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a sheep-in-training.

I’m sure that you are a lot better at being sheep than I. I say this because I recently had a “Resurrection Marathon.” I spend a whole day reading our Vestry minutes, all 50 years’ worth (all except the minutes for 1993 and 1994, the years of our first interim period, which curiously are not in our archives). What impressed me over and over again was that we at Resurrection have a long history of helping others.

Maybe you know this, maybe not. So I’m going to tell you our pedigree as sheep at some length:

  • In 1966 we hosted the Task Force for the Poor People’s March on DC.
  • In 1968 we agitated for Open Occupancy in Alexandria.
  • In 1970 we founded and continue to operate a nationally recognized preschool that welcomes children with a wide range of abilities. We also joined our social ministry forces with other congregations in Alexandria to form ALIVE!
  • In 1971 we lobbied City Council to establish foster homes in Alexandria.
  • In 1972 we were activists with the City for providing more senior housing, and for equal employment in banks, which were lily-white at the time.
  • In 1974 we petitioned the U.S. Congress to alleviate world hunger.
  • We helped many immigrant families settle here, often taking them into our own homes for a time, a Vietnamese family in 1975, an Ethiopian family in 1979, an Argentinian in 1980, Germans, Iranian students, and now Afghanis.
  • In the 1980s we helped found the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry in a time when people with AIDS were shunned and reviled.
  • In the late 1980s we hounded the Fairfax County government into founding a shelter in Bailey’s Crossroads and we founded the homeless shelter and transitional housing organizations in the City of Alexandria that we know today as Community Lodgings and Carpenter’s Shelter. For many years, and to this day, we still feed Jesus at this shelter throughout the year.
  • In the early 1990s we sent clothes and money to Guatemala and we sent Children for Peace to Russia.
  • In 1992 we agitated for maternity leave for adoptive mothers (who we know as Jesus, in a most clever disguise).
  • In the late 1990s we taught English as a Second Language.
  • And in 2001 we began hosting ALIVE’s Last Saturday food distribution program, which we continue to this day.

We have a past record, and present reality, of helping others in the name of Christ. I am talking about providing food and sustenance and clothes and shelter to people who otherwise would not have had these things. Based on today’s gospel lesson, I call this “sheep-like behavior.”

Aren’t we great sheep? Doesn’t it make your heart glad to attend a church such as this, where our predecessors (or maybe we ourselves, in an earlier life) helped others in need?

In today’s lesson Jesus tells us about a time, yet to come, when he, the Son of Man, will return to earth. Jesus says he won’t come alone next time, and he won’t come incognito. Next time, he will come with all his angels “in his glory.” There will be no doubt about who Jesus is when he comes the second time; we will all know that he is the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus says that the reason for his return, his second coming as this is called, will be to judge who goes where for all eternity. To use Jesus’ metaphor, when he judges us, the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. Jesus says the sheep will “inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” But the goats! Jesus says there is an especially hot eternity waiting for them and for all the cosmic bad guys.

What do you think of this passage? Do you believe this view of our after-life? I am sure some people, when the Son of Man returns, will say, “Don’t tell me that you meant the whole “separate the sheep and goats thing.” We have eternity all figured out: you’re going to send us all to heaven! You have to; you are a merciful God.

I want you to know that I am betting on God’s mercy. I’ll bet that, when the Son of Man returns we all will be exceedingly glad. But, no doubt, we will remember each and every hungry person we’ve fed, all the thirsty people we’ve given water to, all the strangers we have welcomed in the name of the Lord, all the sick people we have tended, all the prisoners we have visited. Because these actions are what Jesus says will distinguish the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the evil ones, us from the others.

These actions won’t make us righteous, you understand. But these actions are the fruits of the Holy Spirit that lives within us. These actions mark us as filled with life everlasting. This is why I am only a sheep-in-training. I do the actions, but the actions are still teaching my heart.

I suspect that we all will wonder, when the Son of Man first returns, whether we will be judged sheep or goats. Sort of like being sent to the cosmic principal’s office, but with a lot more consequence.

We wonder, don’t we, if our actions to help others is enough? Or whether they stem from the right motivation? Or are ingrained enough? There is reason we wonder these things; we live in a very broken system. If Jesus were here today, he might say:

  • I was hungry,
    and you put people in jail for feeding me.
  • I was thirsty,
    and you removed all the drinking fountains and made me buy water.
  • I was a stranger,
    and you said things like, “You just wouldn’t be comfortable here.
  • I was naked,
    and you paid mere children pennies to make yourselves fine clothes, and gave me your cast-offs.
  • I was sick,
    and you made me live outdoors, where it became illegal for me to even sit down.
  • I was in prison,
    where the correctional-industrial complex got rich at my expense.
  • “Or,“ Jesus might say, “you stood idly by and let these things happen.”

Our Old Testament lesson tells us the diagnosis for our present situation: those who enforce injustice will be made to eat justice. Ezekiel says that God will judge goats from sheep. Actually, Ezekiel didn’t say this, did he? Ezekiel said that God will judge the sheep from the other sheep.

Jesus didn’t say, “If you happen to have some extra money, help others.” He didn’t say, “only those with resources will be held accountable.” No, we each—including on-the-street homeless and those living perilously on the edge—must live like all lives matter. To have Jesus in us we must recognize the Jesus in each other, all others. Being a sheep begins with compassion and respect.

Here is the Good News in our lesson today: the Son of Man will judge. And the dividing line is not wealth or possessions. Rich or dirt poor, we will answer to God for how we treat those who have less than we do. We who have nothing, and we who have everything: Do we physically care for others? How do we show this, and have we shown this lately?

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