Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sheep and goats and gold stars

Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday; it’s also called Reign of Christ Sunday. I like the term Reign of Christ because it makes it more clear to me – and I hope you – that Jesus Christ rules over all of life, over all of creation.
It’s the last Sunday of the church year, so it gives us a chance to think about who Jesus is from birth ... to death ... to resurrection ... to ascension. Our hymns today come from most of the seasons of the year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. The choir anthem gives us the sense of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit, from the season of Pentecost.
Today is also the last Sunday of what many call the “green season,” a time for growing in faith and knowledge. For six months we have had green paraments and studied what Jesus wants to teach us. Our readings from Matthew have both assured us and challenged us all summer.
Jesus’ teaching brings us surprises. Earlier in the church year, during Epiphany, we read and thought about the Beatitudes: blessed are those who are poor, meek, grieving, persecuted. “What?!” we ask ourselves, “how can those outsiders be the blessed ones?”  
In this passage from Matthew, Jesus describes a scene of judgment, with the sheep and the goats being sorted from one another. The sheep inherit the kingdom/reign of God, and the goats are sent to the eternal fire of the slaughterhouse. Very simply, in Jesus’ message here, the sheep do ministry to and with those in need, even if they don’t know they are doing it, and the goats don’t see the ministry at all.
We usually assume that we are the sheep, the chosen ones, and that those other people are the unlucky goats, on their way to the slaughterhouse. We like to determine for ourselves that certain people are goats, and that they could not possible be loved by God the way we sheep are loved.
But what if our very assumption of sheep-ness makes us goats? Whether we like it or not, that is what Jesus is saying in this passage. Jesus is the one who does the sorting, not us humans, no matter how much we want that job for ourselves.
It’s easy to think that the more we do in Jesus’ name, the more God will love us, the more Jesus will call us his sheep. But if we are doing those actions in order to add gold stars to our score card, Jesus says, that’s not the way it works. That’s part of what could make us be goats. Our good deeds are to be done “just because” in response to God’s love for us.
For example, the other night, I was at a dinner party at a friend’s home. While we were finishing our meal, some members of the friend’s family arrived. They were spending the night on their way to a football game the next day. As we ate our dessert, the family members filled the dishwasher with all our dirty dishes. They weren’t hoping to gain gold stars in the family system; the dishes were there, they needed to be done, and they did them. It was a simple act of love and kindness.
There’s a lot of focus in our culture about getting into heaven. People ask us, “Have you been saved?” “Will you make it into heaven?” So, we wonder, how do we know if we have done enough to make it into heaven?
Jesus’ answer for that is: it’s not up to us. We will be judged. That’s made clear in this text, and implied in the Beatitudes. But the judgment is not based on how hard we tried to do the right things; it’s based on how authentically we have loved God and passed on that same love to God’s people.
Even more than that, we are judged by Jesus, who was born as a human child; who lived, preached, fed, and healed; who challenged the powers that be and changed the way people think about God. He was crucified, died, and buried; resurrected, and ascended in order to prove with his own life just how much God loves us and wants us to return that love. It is this Jesus who judges us, who wants us to be with him as we live and love, and after we die, still in that love.
In response to God’s love, we love others. Most of us are familiar with the ministry Mother Teresa of Calcutta did. She went into one of the poorest places in the world and gathered in the sickest people in order to care for them with dignity as they died. She did this ministry in the name of Christ, and told us she saw Jesus in the face of every person she encountered. After she died, it was revealed that she did this ministry in spite of a feeling of Jesus’ absence for much of her life. Mother Teresa ministered to needy folks because they needed to be cared for, not to score gold stars with God.
We do that too. We fill shoeboxes and we give to needy people in the community because we love Jesus and he has taught us to pass on what we have with those in need.
Like Mother Teresa, we try to see Jesus’ face in the faces of those we help, too. We try to see Jesus in the faces of the children who receive shoeboxes, and in the faces of the needy folks who come to us for help. Those faces are filled with joy at the way we care for them, and we hope they can see Jesus’ face through us, too.
We don’t do these ministries because we want God to give us gold stars; we do them because there are needy people and we can help them. This is why Jesus, our King, our Ruler, and our Judge will call us his sheep.
Please pray with me: Jesus, you are our king and our judge. Be merciful to us, and help us be your sheep. Amen