Today is celebrated in our liturgical calendar as Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday. And today marks the end of our liturgical year, so that’s nice, 2020 is sort of, over today. Christ the King, enthroned in glory, gives us an assurance of who has final authority and to whom we’re accountable for the power we hold in this life.
“Just as you did it to one of the least of these” and “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these” is either a reassuring balance that even the smallest acts of mercy we take are received as acts of righteousness in the face of need and injustice. Or It may feel like a maddening judgmental score card where our every action is weighed as good or bad and the side with the highest total determines our fate. That’s a pretty natural place for our minds to go considering that in a contest, other than golf, the side with the highest point total is declared the winner. The judgmental score card is too often accompanied by a paralyzing feeling of “what’s the use in trying” in a complex world of big and small systemic injustice. One thing is very clear…Prince, R.E.M. and Jimmy Buffet all lied to us, this end of the world scene does not sound much like a party at all.
Matthew’s Gospel ends Jesus’ ministry with this series of three teachings. All of them include forms of judgement, only one of them is any sort of party, in the first part of chapter 25 describing being ready for the end with images of entering a wedding banquet. From our story today, we have an image of judgment comparing this end process to sorting out of sheep and goats. From here the Gospel moves on into the passion narrative and the plots to betray and crucify Jesus.
All this feels heavy to me in these waning days of global pandemic Fall with Winter coming. Be reminded, fear not, an inbreaking of hope, peace, love, and joy is, and always is, coming. Tempting as it is, let us not skip this drama in Matthew. It certainly serves a purpose for the author in their communication with their community. Ever the convincer, Matthew dials up the end of time imagery in a continued effort to ground Jesus in the same line with all the other Jewish hero’s and in this case the promised one with authority of Judgement, seemingly a reference to apocalyptic narratives in Daniel, chapter 7:13. The long and short of the message being; this is the one, listen to him.
Here, in our story, Jesus describes not only what a process of judgment might look like (there are multiple), the Son of Man’s role in it as king, but also the default mode of life of the righteous sheep-le (meet the needs as you encounter them), and the goat-y behavior of the unrighteous (qualifying or being asleep to the needs all around).
It could easily be my own agenda here, but I took note as an Ordained Deacon the UMC, that the “accursed” in the story, question Jesus by asking, when did we see you and not diēkonēsamen (minister to, or take care of) you. Admittedly, I read into this Jesus’ underlying conflict with religious leaders who, rather than extend mercy, enforced extra financial burden upon the sick and prevented them from participating in religious and social life until they paid up to become ritually clean. No mercy, until you pay. Maybe they were not religious leaders at all and thought those acts of mercy were reserved only for official roles. The result is the same either way, official role, or none, when they failed to extend mercy to the lest of these, especially those who could not pay, so also, they did not extend it to the king.
For me today, the biggest temptation of this text might be to just start naming all the goats. Especially right now when it’s so obvious. Like, extremely obvious. Just look at what they are wearing it might as well say “goat.” Look at who they talk to, look at who they do not talk to. Look at the legislation they’re passing, and the legislation they fail to pass. Look at who they voted for. Look at the wild departures from agreed upon norms. Look at their high property values and their low taxes. Look at the conditions of their schools and their neighborhoods. Look how they treat their neighborhood. Look how judge-y they are. They didn’t even post about that thing on social media, but they posted about that other thing without hesitation. Look at what they’re watching and reading, they think that’s news, it’s 100% goat-y. And they’re so mean if you even get one word wrong. They act so entitled. There’s no way this is not clear to everyone, even them, they aren’t even aware.
And of course, in a narrative story, where there are sheep and goats and it’s so incredibly obvious that they are the goats then of course that means… I mean you know, just look at who we voted for. Look at how we do church. Look how caring we are. Look how we support the established agreed up normative system. Look at our school and how smart our kids are. I tip big when I have some faceless person risk their life to bring me food in the pandemic. Look how good I am at naming how goat-y they are. It’s so painfully obvious that they are the goats and that means I…am…the……………….king.
Right, well…yes, so…..hold on, that actually doesn’t sound right at all, that sounds a little goat-y.
I met my now spouse, Cortney, 11 years ago when we were living in Burkina Faso. She was there through Peace Corps and lived in a town called Bogande. I was there with a non-profit living in the capital, Ouagadougou. In a straight line, were about 100 miles away, which of course is an 8 hour bus ride. If you’ve never lived on the edge of the Sahara Dessert, you should know it’s hot. Also, there’s not a whole lot to do out in smaller towns, so you need to think of your own entertainment like books or a game called “goat or kid (human child).” It’s played by listening to random sounds on the other side of your wall that could be either a goat or a kid, then guess which one it was. You may then get up and go look to see which one it was, or, again it’s a very hot place, wait to see if the goat or kid passes within your view so you don’t have to stand. That’s the whole game, plenty of kids, plenty of goats and they make similar sounds when they’re little.
There were also plenty of sheep. Funny thing though, dessert sheep in Burkina don’t look like the sheep we’ve been conditioned to think of here in the west, big wool fluffy coat. Many of the sheep that I encountered had little coat at all. Well, at a distance when they’re all mixed together, and especially since I didn’t know what I was looking for it’s hard to tell which is a sheep and which is a goat. For instance, this photo, which is one of my personal favorites, I took in a place called Bani. I posted this picture to my Facebook page and captioned it “A man with his goat.” And it should be no surprise to you at this point, that that is not a goat. That is a man with his sheep.
Matthew’s point was never to send us in a spiral trying to figure out who’s a sheep and who’s a goat. I don’t even think Matthew’s point was to make those receiving the message spiral on judging ourselves as sheep or goat. Chapter 7 verse 1 and 2, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” No, this story is once again driving home Chapter 3 verse 17, “this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is also, driving home the point of what the righteous do, like all of the sermon on the mount in chapter 5. Merciful, peacemakers, salt, and light.
Matthew shows us in this story the operating mode of the righteous. It doesn’t come from striving in the sense that their work was somehow forced. They ask the question same as the unrighteous, “when was it that we saw you in need?” Their actions just seem to be the outgrowth of their understanding of the law and their practice of faith. As they encountered those in need, they seem to have met the need through whatever means available. Their whole disposition seemingly oriented to perceive and to respond, however large, however small. Likewise, the so called “accursed” having been similarly instructed and encountering those same needs chose not to respond. Or, and potentially more dramatically, they substituted their own understanding of what a need was by qualifying it on some scale other than God’s justice.
The disposition of the righteous in this story remind me of a sense of encounter with God’s grace as we describe it in the Wesleyan tradition. God’s grace and God’s Spirit continually working in this world. Waking us up to the need, brokenness, and the beauty present in our world and in ourselves. Inviting us to receive and live into a life of relationship with God and one another through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ. Then dwelling and walking so closely with us that works of mercy and justice become a reflex and not a 9-5 occupation or a task list.
My time in Burkina showed me that I lack the skills, knowledge, and love to truly know the difference between a sheep and a goat. I should refrain from inserting myself as King in this story. We aren’t called to render judgment anyway. But we are called to identify and respond to the needs being expressed by our neighbors. Pray that it would be so.
Pray we will respond to the need expressed when black trans women are 7 times more likely be killed than the rest of the population. The need expressed when the prisons are private and exist to turn a profit. The need expressed when an election year means record-high gun sales and this time 40% of those sales are to first-time buyers. The need expressed when a city in a tight budget year can “find” 80 million dollars in relief for businesses, hotels and entertainment but no additional funds to end chronic homelessness and ensure people don’t die on the street. The need expressed when a quarter of a million people have died from a virus in barely 10 months, yet there is still no coherent national leadership for a coordinated response.
The need expressed when 17% of The District’s population is at risk of eviction proceedings unless protections are extended. The need expressed when 80% of those at risk of eviction are households of color. The need expressed when nationwide the estimates of the number of people at risk of eviction by year’s end stands at 30 million people, translating to 12-13 million rental households and meaning most of the individuals are children. The need expressed when it consistently takes nearly a decade to replace homes resulting in the displacement of public housing residents. The need expressed when Breonna Taylor’s killers are still on the loose.
The need expressed when we can’t even do, the least we can do to help each other in this moment and put on a blessed mask.
The need expressed, when the needs expressed feel too large and too long standing for us to do anything about it. Respond.
Some days the response will be giving water to one who is thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner. Some days it will be trying to tear a whole prison down. Some days it will be standing in the street saying look over here these lives matter and they are at risk. Many days it will be ensuring we’ve not substituted our own understanding of what a need is by qualifying it on some scale other than God’s justice.
The needs expressed, need forgiveness, grace, and accountability. And so do you and I.
Doesn’t feel like much of a party, but we pray for the end all the same. Yes, of this sermon. But also, the end of this pandemic. The end of uncertain days or at least these next 60 days. The end to our many emergencies. The end to loneliness, destruction, anger, and violence. God can do it. We can do it. Fix your eyes on an enthroned Christ and remember his teach; we can do it. May our response today be letting God work to make us a people of reflexive mercy and justice to serve even the least of these. When that happens, then we can watch the inbreaking of joy, of peace, of hope, of love that comes next.