Sermon preached for Reign of Christ Sunday at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”
This is the final of three parables on the kingdom of heaven in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Two weeks ago, I told you I had sympathy for the bridesmaids who ran out of oil. Last week, I told you I had sympathy for the servant who buried his talent.
So you’d think that this week I would tell you I have sympathy for the goats.
You would be wrong.
You see, goats got on my bad side a long, long time ago.
It’s one of my earliest memories, actually. I was just a few months shy of four, and my family was about to move from Maryland, where I was born, back to my mom’s hometown of Salem. We were throwing a big going-away party, combining it with my brother’s sixth birthday, and my parents had splurged on one of those traveling petting zoos to entertain the neighborhood kids.
You guessed it. Among the cute and kid-friendly animal guests that day were a pair of goats. Cute, I’ll admit to. Kid-friendly? Not a bit.
These goats were mean. And eager to exert their dominance over anything roughly their size—which included one four and one six year old. I managed to run to my parents, which meant they went after my brother. With the wisdom of a six year old, he went up, climbing one of the trees in our front yard.
What the wisdom of a six year old did not include is the fact that goats can climb.
Not far—the tree wasn’t big enough to hold them past the first few branches, but my brother climbed up even further to get away from them, and while we didn’t have to call the fire department to get them all down, it did take a neighbor with a ladder bigger than ours. The goats were rehaltered and packed into their truck—with the assurance that they wouldn’t be used at kids’ parties again for a while, and my brother thought the whole thing was pretty funny, once he was on the ground again, but it left me with a very bad taste in my mouth for goats.
So there is a part of me that always feels vaguely like these goats get what they deserve. After all, goats are mean.
Except, that’s exactly the opposite of how Jesus is using the image of goats in this story. At no point are Jesus’ goats mean here. They’re simply… sort of clueless.
If you were to tell someone that Jesus once told a story, about the type of people who inherit God’s kingdom, and the type of people who… well, rather dramatically don’t, and asked that same person what kind of people each are, I expect you would hear that good people inherit the kingdom and bad people end up with that unending fire business.
And if you were to let that person know that the good people were represented by sheep, I think it might be fair that that person would expect that the bad people would be represented by wolves.
That’s the parable religious people might expect. The parable of the sheep and the wolves. The innocent, useful, virtuous sheep, who by virtue of not doing anything bad get to heaven, and the wicked, predatory wolves, who by virtue of doing many many bad things get to hell.
It might even be a parable we like. Because of course we aren’t wicked (although we all can name people who are!), and so we’re safe.
But that’s not the parable Jesus tells. There’s no parable of the sheep and the wolves. Instead, it’s sheep and goats. So close as to be cousins in the animal world. Useful in the same sorts of ways—milk, yogurt, wool and hair. Meat, if necessary. The fact that the shepherd has to separate the flocks suggests they usually hang out together. This is not a black-and-white parable. This is very much a shades of gray story.
Here’s the thing about sheep and goats, the thing that makes them different. Sheep like to hang out in groups. They stick together. They rely on each other—there’s safety in the herd. Once you can get a good chunk of sheep moving in one direction, the rest will follow, because they know they’re meant to stay together.
Goats, on the other hand, are far more independent. They do what they want, when they want. And if that takes them away from the herd, so be it. They don’t really care about the other goats. They don’t tend to prey on them or anything; it’s just simply that other goats don’t factor into their decision-making process (such as little goat brains have).
In our culture, we have come to admire people who act like the goats. We have words for them like visionary, self-made man, maverick, independent woman, rule-breaker. We give compliments like “stand out from the crowd” and “rise above the herd.” We really appreciate people who do what they want, when they want, and don’t bother others about it.
Likewise, we’re rough on sheep. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say another person was a sheep, and mean it as a compliment. There’s even the term “sheeple,” one of the more derogatory words to sling around, meaning stupid, easily led, ignorant. We don’t have much respect for people who stay with the group.
Sometimes all those labels are accurate. But sometimes we take them too far.
Jesus wants us to be a sheep. Not to be stupid—and hopefully not to be smelly—but to stick with each other. To care for each other. To recognize that we are part of a community that moves together. To understand that we are stronger when we travel together.
The list of things that Jesus asks us to do—visit the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked—is not an extraordinary list. They are things you do for your family, your group. What Jesus is asking us to do is to see that our family, our group, our herd, is bigger than we thought. That we are made to live in community, caring for each other, because when one part of the group gets stronger, we all get stronger.
But the goats don’t understand that. This is the thread of all three of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 25—not the problem of doing evil, but the problem of doing nothing. The bridesmaids fall asleep. The servant buries his gift in the ground. The goats fail to feed, visit, clothe, care. At the end, Jesus is not worried about his followers doing bad things. He knows them, has walked with them, prayed with them, shared his life with them. What he fears is that when he is gone, they will simply fall back on doing nothing.
It’s not like the goats were stealing food from the hungry. They weren’t making anybody sick, or throwing anybody in prison. They just didn’t see how it was their business. They were doing okay, so no need to bother.
The sheep are wiser. They know that the herd is healthier when everyone in it is fed, and clothed, and cared for.
And they know it because their shepherd has demonstrated it to them.
That is the twist in this parable—that it’s the king, who traditionally is the most goat-like of all, the one who can get exactly what he wants, everything he wants, without ever noticing the little people below him—who teaches what it means to live in community. It’s the tip of the hierarchical mountain who sends the whole hierarchy crumbling into the ground.
Today is Christ the King Sunday, but the king we bow to chooses to be a shepherd, and asks us to care for his sheep. And here at Crescent Springs, we do that. Last week, we were able to give out sixteen baskets of food for Thanksgiving; we’ll do that again at Christmas, along with Christmas gifts. Each week, we pack up food for our neighbors at River Ridge Elementary, to make sure that children in our area don’t go hungry over the weekend. We support the work of the PC(USA) as it reaches beyond our borders and into every part of the world. We make casseroles when our members have surgery, and take communion to our homebound people. We can’t fill every need, but we do what we can.
At the end of the day, none of us are perfect sheep. There are many, many, many times we fail to notice someone in need, or even if we notice, make the choice not to help. But none of us, I hope, are total goats either. I hear stories, you know, about you all; stories about the people you’ve helped, in all the little unofficial ways, the way you’ve seen Christ in the faces of those around you. The way you’ve made your King proud. The way you’ve followed your shepherd.
So most of us aren’t totally sheep, and we’re not totally goats. But what we are, are totally members of the shepherd’s flock.
And we know this about our shepherd: he is one to go chasing after lost sheep, even one out of ninety-nine, so that we are brought safely home again.
The king of love our shepherd is, as the old hymn says. And if we see him in our neighbors, and see him in ourselves, then it won’t be possible for us to sit on our hands and do nothing. That kind of love is the kind we can get lost in. It’s the kind we’ll want to be a part of.
Maybe I do feel sympathy for the goats after all. Because one of these days they’re going to get caught by love; they’re going to get hustled into the back of God’s truck, and they’re going to learn what it means to have someone care for them, until they learn to care for others. Maybe then they’ll be introduced back into the flock, until we’re all one big herd again.
For the kind of love that makes us one flock, under the shepherd’s gentle hand, one with neighbors and strangers, one with friends and family, and one with the King of all creation, I give thanks. Amen.