Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

But when the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all the nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

David himself would not be the promised shepherd in today’s Old Testament lesson. Ezekiel lived long after David died. David was a great king over Israel, but he was far from perfect. He did not treat all his people with the kind of mercy and grace that is suggested in this promise. In the case of Uriah the Hittite, David did exactly what the prophet warned against: trampling the weak and pushing around the humble. But the text does not refer to David; it refers to the seed of David. God promised that the house of David would rule over Israel forever. A son of David would be the promised shepherd. The Son of David would be the final judge.

That Son of David would be more than just a son. God, speaking through Ezekiel says, “Behold, I myself, even I, will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” God promises that He will not give the responsibility to another: He will be the one to save His people. This promise is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the son of David and the King.

This Sunday is the final day of the Church year, and on this day we look forward to the coming of Christ the King. For the past few weeks we’ve looked at that day with terror. It won’t be a pretty day; it will be a day of judgment. We see that in today’s texts, too. The coming King will separate the sheep from the goats; He will provide justice. Those who have been lost will be brought home. Those who have been forgotten will be remembered. Those who have been bullied will be saved. He will care for His flock. This is a promise we can embrace. But we are reminded once again what will happen to those who have been unjust, who have scattered the sheep, who have trampled on the lowly, who have bullied the weak: they will be destroyed.

The terror we have for the Day of the Lord is cause by our knowledge of our failure. We have been unjust. We have trampled the lowly, we have bullied the weak. We deserve to be destroyed. The idea of a great judge coming to set things right is frightening because it means something will have to change, something will be destroyed. If we got what we deserved, we would be the ones who would be sent into eternal punishment.

And so, on this day we ask ourselves, “What will Christ find when He returns?” Will He see us pushing with flank and shoulder, butting the weak with our horns? Will He see us wandering the fields ignoring the needs of others? The parables we’ve heard over the past few weeks have been difficult because we do not like to think about what happens to those who do not hear God’s word of hope and respond with mercy. In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus says to the goats, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.” The goats saw the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned, but did not see the face of God in their faces and did nothing to help. The sheep also did not see the face of God, but they did something to ease the pain and suffering in this world. Notice that they did not do anything spectacular. T here is no message of healing, no word of setting people free. They fed the hungry and gave water to the thirsty. They ministered to the needs of their neighbors by sharing the blessings they’d been freely given.

I wonder how many times we have ignored the needs of our neighbor because the needs were just too ordinary. Sheldon, a super-intelligent scientist character on the television show “The Big Bang Theory” has no real social skills. He says what he thinks and he thinks in purely scientific terms. Over the years, however, Sheldon has been learning and he occasionally recognizes those moments when it is necessary to do something nice. For instance, when someone is upset, Sheldon automatically goes to make a cup of tea. “What’s that,” the other person asks. Sheldon answers, “Tea. When people are upset, the cultural convention is to bring them hot beverages.” It is also appropriate when someone comes to visit. Even in this kindness, however, Sheldon sees the world through very literal eyes. If the person says no thanks, he answers, “It’s not an option.”

There was a day when it was customary to offer something to drink to anyone who came into your house, even workmen. If someone came to fix an appliance of shampoo our carpets, a glass of water gave them a chance to rest and rehydrate. I have to admit that I don’t make the offer very often anymore. Most workers carry their own water and take breaks when they need it. Most of the time they are not even in the house long enough to get thirsty. When they are gone, however, I wonder if I should have offered them a beverage. It seems too insignificant to matter. I am certain I have done far worse things in my life on which I’ll be judged.

And yet, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Now, those blessed ones did not even remember doing those kindnesses. Or at least they didn’t remember doing it for the Lord. What they did not understand is that doing it for others was doing it for God. The hungry and thirsty, poor and lonely, sick and oppressed wore the face of God. When they did that kindness, often so insignificant that it was quickly forgotten, they had done something that God would remember forever.

God does not diminish the great things we do for others. He sees the impact a multimillion dollar hospital has on the sick. He embraces the work of organizations that collect a million pounds of food for a food bank. He welcomes the ministries that meet the needs of thousands of homeless people throughout the year. But, He also sees those small, seemingly insignificant things that we do for our neighbors. When we do those things we are doing them for Christ. He will remember.

While God does embrace those larger deeds, the small ones matter because they are the things that manifest the love and Spirit of God. God wants the hungry to have food, and in the next few months we will see large numbers of people being extremely generous. People who do not normally give will buy that extra can of chicken broth to throw in the box by the check-out. People who do not give anything to charity will drop a quarter in the Salvation Army bucket. They do so at this time of year because the charities are in their face. They do it either out of guilt or duty; they give now because it is convenient. Do they even notice the homeless or hungry the rest of the year?

The sheep in this story are those who do not think about their good works. The act of generosity comes naturally, because it comes from the heart and the spirit. I don’t always give a glass of water to those workmen who come to my home, but when I see that the workmen are tired and sweaty, I naturally offer them a drink. Sheldon gives a cup of tea out of duty, because it is social convention, even when the tea is not wanted. The true act of kindness that comes from the heart is one that meets the needs of a person in that moment. Someone might need tea, while someone else needs a hug or a listening ear. Someone might need a grocery bag full of food stuff, while someone else needs an invitation to dinner. Both will fill a belly, but one person might need to feed a family, while the other also needs the companionship that comes with sharing a meal.

So, while God does honor the giving spirit that pervades our upcoming holiday season, He is looking for those moments when our spirits respond naturally to the world around us, meeting the ordinary needs of our neighbors. That’s how He can tell the difference between the sheep and the goats. Goats can do good things, too. Food banks will be filled in the next six weeks. Children will get toys from secret Santas. But it doesn’t take a Christian to do those things.

Jesus spoke the same words to two groups of people, “You saw me hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison.” He commended the first group—the sheep—who had taken care of His needs. The second group—the goats—had ignored His needs and had not fared as well. Both groups were surprised to hear that they had seen Jesus. Why pick on the goats? Why does Jesus use goats to represent those sent into eternal punishment? Why does Jesus make them sound as if they are unclean or unacceptable? The scriptures show us that goats were not only clean, but they were acceptable at the Temple for sacrifice.

As a matter of fact, the hair of the goat was used for the curtains in the tabernacle. This would not have been true if God had deemed goats unworthy. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual involved in the Day of Atonement, at which goats play a very prominent role. The Lord told Moses that Aaron should first offer a bull for his own sins, and then he is to present two goats to the Lord before the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. One goat was chosen for sacrifice, the other was sent into the desert to be a scapegoat. The scapegoat is not immediately killed; the people lay their sins on its head and it is then sent into the wilderness. Now, both goats are sacrificed, but one is given directly to the Lord and the other is left for God to take in His time and way. The fact that goats are used in the ritual for the Day of Atonement shows us that goats are acceptable before the Lord.

The goats are not only acceptable as the sin offering, but also as fellowship offerings. Anything that is given to God in sacrifice is expected to be worthy. A goat isn’t a bad thing. As a matter of fact, according to Heifer International, goats are one of the “Seven M” animals. The most efficient use of livestock resources is found in those animals that offer meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. Goats reproduce quickly, often birthing kids several times a year. The milk can be used for drinking, cooking, butter and cheese. Farms with more than one goat can provide milk, butter and cheese for sale. Goat manure makes excellent fertilizer. They are small and need less space for proper care. They eat anything, including weeds that are dangerous for other animals and people, so they are better for managing land. They can be trained to carry packs or they are strong enough to pull wagons. They can be housebroken and make rather good pets. Goat hair is used to make wool, including mohair and cashmere. These animals are certainly of some value, particularly among those families for whom one animal could mean the difference between life and death.

So, why would Christ the King separate the sheep from the goats, commending one and condemning the other? In many ways, sheep and goats are the same. In Jesus’ day, the sheep and the goats were separated at night, the goats put into a barn to keep warm but the sheep preferred to stay in the fresh air and field. Sheep were more costly and more highly valued than goats. There were always more sheep than goats on a farm. Perhaps that’s one reason why Jesus separated them in the parable.

I also find it interesting how different the sheep and the goats are when it comes to behavior. Goats are willing to eat anything, preferring leaves, twigs, vines and shrubs. They are even able to eat some plants that are deadly to other animals. Sheep prefer the short tender grasses and clover in the field. Sheep eat to the ground, while goats prefer to eat off the top of the plant. There are also differences in their social behavior. Goats are more curious, wandering to seek out new food sources. They are independent; they do not wander with a flock but move wherever they want. Sheep, however, flock together and become discontent when alone.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus separated the sheep from the goats. The goats are those who live according to their own wants and needs; the sheep stay together. I’m not sure it can be said that sheep help one another, but they are safer and warmer in a group than the goats that go off on their own. The people who are like sheep are those who live in community, sharing what they have with others. People who are like goats live for themselves. That’s certainly the difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel lesson. The sheep didn’t know they were caring for their Lord, but they cared for one another. The goats were ignorant of other’s needs and thus ignorant of the Lord’s presence. This doesn’t mean that the sheep are perfect at doing good works or that the goats never share. It simply means that the sheep are those whose hearts and spirits respond to the needs of others.

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul writes about life in community with Christ and His people. Christ is the head and we are all part of His body. We are called to live in hope of the inheritance that waits for each of us in heaven. We are among those that will be called to that throne of glory one day to face our Lord. We do not fear the weeping and gnashing of teeth that we’ve heard about for the past few weeks, worried that we have not lived up to some standard. We live in hope and walk in faith as Christ's body, freely sharing that which Christ has given to all we meet daily.

The psalmist writes, “For Jehovah is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, and he made it; and his hands formed the dry land.” This is the One who deserves our praise and thanksgiving; He is greater than anything in this world because He created it all. How can we possibly see the Creator in His fallen creation? How can we see God in the ordinary? I’m not sure we’ll ever recognize His face when we see it; neither the sheep nor the goats knew they were seeing God. The sheep responded anyway. That’s what Jesus is calling for us to do.

We don’t always see Christ in the midst of our ordinary lives, but He is with us daily. Sometimes we realize later that we’ve had a divine encounter; however, most often our experiences in sharing God’s love happen without our noticing. We serve God in those ordinary moments, like when we give a glass of water to a hot workman or share a meal with a sick friend. We need not worry about whether or not we are a sheep or a goat; we are called to simply live our faith. We may be called to feed a poor man or encourage a busy executive who needs a word of grace. Both need to be fed, are we ready to give them what they need?

Christ longs to say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, join in my happiness.” This is not something we can make happen on our own. It won’t be our good works that get us into the flock of sheep the day Christ comes as King. It is our faith that Jesus will see and that faith is manifest through hearts that respond with grace and mercy in the world. The needs we meet might be great or small, but when done in the Spirit of God they will be eternal. We need not spend our time trying to see God’s face in the people we meet. We need only live in faith, trusting in our Great Shepherd’s grace as we respond to His love by sharing His love. In this way we live in praise and thanksgiving, joining our Master in His happiness.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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