Monday, November 24, 2008
What I made of the lendings - A sermon for the feast of Christ the King, Yr A
Imagine, if you would, that you’re the first person to arrive here one morning.
You open the door and go inside –to discover that, contrary to your expectations, you are not alone.
A distinctly smelly and obviously inebriate man is making his way up the aisle towards the sanctuary…
What happens next?
We’ll come back to that scenario later but for the moment, I want us to return to more familiar territory – the text of today’s gospel.
We know this story so well that we refer to subconsciously in every- day life as we talk about sorting out the sheep from the goats. We speak as if that’s an easy distinction, as indeed it is if you think in terms of the sheep and goats we know from our own farming landscape. Granted they are both ruminants, but there the visible similarity ends. They look quite remarkably different. It would be seriously perverse if you couldn’t distinguish between them.
Sheep are sheep and goats, well goats are different.
You can tell by them by the beards, the horns, and the smell.
Not so in southern Europe or Asia, where floppy ears and wicked yellow eyes seem common to both groups…
Unless you spend a lot of time with them, it would be hard to tell the difference.
And that, I think, is the point.
According to an article in the Jewish Heritage magazine online, though both sheep and goats could be used in Temple sacrifice, goats were seen as "armed robbers who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants." While Sheep graze at a fairly consistent ground level, goats not only graze at the ground but can also tear leaves, buds, fruit off trees, and notoriously, washing off lines, and are thus far more destructive.
But you have to get close to see a difference in how they behave... And that’s the crux of the story, isn’t it.
How they behave, How we behave.
Are we sheep, or are we goats?
It’s an interesting question – and once again, it’s not that straightforward.
The American spiritual director and author
Dennis Linn asked a group of retired nuns,
"How many of you, even once in your life,
have done what Jesus asks and fed a hungry person,
clothed a naked person or visited a person in
prison?" All the sisters raised their hands.
Dennis said, "That's wonderful! You're all
Then Dennis asked, "How many of
you, even once in your life, have walked by a
hungry person, failed to clothe a naked person, or
not visited someone in prison?" Slowly, all
the sisters raised their hands. Dennis said,
"That's too bad. You're all goats."
The sisters looked worried and perplexed. Then
suddenly one very old sister's hand shot up. She
blurted out, "I get it! We're all good
A contradiction in terms, or an accurate reflection of the reality of life?
Certainly in my experience nobody is wholly good or wholly bad. As we strive to follow in the steps of Christ we may become ever more conscious of our own failures. As Paul reminds us, “all fall short”…but there are times when we get things right as well.
So perhaps what divides sheep and goats is not so much behaviour as motivation…
As Jesus tells the story, it doesn’t seem that the righteous were going out of their way to Do the Right Thing to satisfy the demands of their absent ruler….they simply went on doing the next thing, what needed to be done…They acted from a compassion rooted deep within them…a compassion that showed that they were, whether they knew it or not, clearly citizens of the Kingdom.
On the other hand, the ones who find themselves on the left of the throne seem to have been keeping a tally…To me that’s the subtext of their question
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry...and did not take
care of you?
“I’m sure I have evidence to prove you got that wrong.
I’ve been keeping track. See all the good things I did."
But they were doing the right things for the wrong reasons…
From a sense of obligation, perhaps, or in hope of a reward.
Not from love.
They were always going through the motions, always performing rather than living out a compassionate reality…
I guess, then, that this passage is addressed to people like us.
People who would see themselves as part of the body of Christ…good people who go to church on a Sunday and try to practise their faith for the rest of the week as well.
People who, if they only recognised him, would absolutely and unquestionably set out to help the Christ in need.
Whether sheep or goats, both groups would have clothed the naked if they had only known.
Both would have visited Jesus in prison.
Both would have offered food.
BUT only one group did so…and they did so without recognising whom they served.
When Jesus returns even the most cynical or lukewarm of believers will surely be eager to offer a cup of water or a warm coat.
Knowing that we might just meet Jesus in the stranger, we try to prepare ourselves for that encounter too…but it’s not always easy.
Sometimes the strangers are just too strange…uncomfortable, challenging, positively threatening.
They don’t look Christ-like at all.
But that’s not really the point at issue.
The question is not really how we identify the Christ in our midst, but the extent to which we have been changed by his love, God’s love, so that we respond to human need - even though the one in need is the least Christ-like person we can imagine.
How clearly do we show the characteristics of the Kingdom to which we claim to belong?
Are we recognisably Kingdom people?
It’s an uncomfortable question to contemplate – so I think I’ll finish that story instead.
The unexpected visitor in the church went on to urinate in the sanctuary before settling down to sleep off a heavy day’s drinking during Evensong, coming to during the Magnificat and encouraging the preacher with a good few shouts along the way.
The church Hamish visited was, as you might have guessed, my former parish of St Mary’s Charlton Kings….and to my utter amazement and joy the congregation accepted his presence that November evening, offered him a bed for the night (an offer he scorned, since he told us proudly that he hadn’t slept indoors for many years and wasn’t about to start now) and provided bacon sandwiches and flasks of strong coffee in the morning.
They welcomed him on his terms…as the person he was.
Nobody pretended to feel comfortable around him, but nobody allowed their own feelings and prejudices to interfere with their instinct to offer practical love without judgement.
They set aside their worry that he wouldn’t know how to treat the holy space of the church “properly”…they disregarded the instinct that told them that his alcoholism meant that any help would be abused, that he was trapped in a self destructive spiral.
They stopped judging according to common sense and pragmatism, and judged, instead with the Kingdom’s eyes of love.
They began to live as citizens who were truly at home in the Kingdom, because they were modelling their life on the King.
And that of course is the answer.
What we need is to allow the transforming love of Christ to change us so that we see the person and their need and respond without thought of any ultimate gain.
We won’t, after all, find ourselves facing some kind of Spiritual or Moral Exam at the end of time – there really is nothing we can cram for.
As a colleague in one internet preaching group said
“The point of our Lord’s teaching is not the moment of Judgement: the facing up to our past and the horror-filled realisation that we have repeatedly ignored Christ sick, naked, imprisoned…
The point of this most fundamental teaching is that the Kingdom of God extends far beyond polite society.
It encompasses not just people like you and me, but lots of others whom that society deems unpalatable.”
The Kingdom of God has nothing to do with comfort and convention and everything to do with love in action…
We probably are, for the most part “good goats”, our actions and motivations a complex mixture of generosity and anxious selfishness…but as we strive to follow Jesus, to act in accordance with God’s gracious love, we will be able to let go of the goatier motivations and focus instead on the greatest motivation, the longing to help to make God’s kingdom our reality.
We all know how to be sheep…but let me remind you..
I was hungry and you gave me … FOOD. I was thirsty and you gave me…DRINK. I was a stranger and you …WELCOMED ME. I was naked and you…CLOTHED ME. I was sick and you took…CARE OF ME. I was in prison, and you…VISITED ME. When you do these things to the least of people, you do them to…ME.
“Go then,” and as he taught us, “do likewise…”