Sheep and Goats

This sermon was given at First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina on Christ the King Sunday in 2014, the day before the verdict in the case of Michael Brown’s death was announced. 

Christ of Marynoll by Robert Lentz, OFM
Christ of Marynoll by Robert Lentz, OFM

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by God my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation for the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

The Gospel according to Matthew (25:31-46, NRSV)

Today marks the end of the Christian year. We are in a place of anticipation. We are ready for Advent to begin. We are ready for the Christmas right around the corner. The leaves have changed and the weather is getting cooler. It’s coming. But here at the very end of the Christian year, we pause. We pause and we celebrate Christ the King.

        Christ — the King.

It is a funny little holy day forgotten as the hype for Christmas mounts. We already see Christmas trees, Santas, wrapping paper, and ornaments in stores — and Advent has not even started yet. We may get absorbed in the deals to be had on the American Black Friday. We are swept up in end-of-the-year quotas, goals, and assignments. Yet, we must pause this morning and contemplate a different reality: Christ — the King.

In a perhaps more inclusive sense, this Sunday is also named for the Reign of Christ. We come to contemplate the Kingdom of God, that dimension of the Kingdom that comes at the end — the Reign of Christ. We know that Christ has come, Christ has died, and Christ has risen, but now we come to a day when we contemplate when Christ will come again. We consider the final stage of the Kingdom of Heaven when Christ will reign.

That’s fine. That’s great.

        It’s fine and it’s great because it’s in the future. It’s far off. It’s not something due in the next two weeks, so I can put it off. We stick the Reign of Christ in a far and distant land so as not to let it impact our lives, let it touch our lives.

In the meantime, we put other gods on the throne.

We put other Kings in place of Christ. We entertain other gods as if they were angels sent from heaven. We live as if so, so many other things rule the universe. Anyone but God.

We fabricate gods out of money, success, security, and excess. We create gods in our busy-ness, our hustle and bustle, and our quartered-off sections of the world. We read this passage of Christ separating sheep from goats, and it makes us wince. We don’t like this talk of hellfire and damnation …

… at least not when Christ is doing the separating the sheep from the goats.

We like hellfire and damnation a whole lot when someone else is doing the processing. We love to separate sheep and goats ourselves. We like to decide who is in and who is out. Using our categories, our classifications, our divisions, we make other gods and we make other kings and queens. We make ourselves king; we make ourselves queen.

Under our rule, the sheep are still separated from the goats.

The outcasts are cast out.

The marginalized remain on the margins.

The powerful remain in seats of power.

We maintain the status quo.

Privilege goes unchecked.

Oppression goes unchallenged.

We separate sheep from goats.

We leave the oppressed and marginalized of our societies stuck at the edge crying out for relief — relief too often from oppressions we dole out or at least sanction.

We leave them, not out of sight and out of mind, but at our own tables and in our own communities cringing on the inside, shouting the words of modern songwriter John Mark McMillan:

“Help me, Holy Jesus! Won’t you show me how to live? I’ve got monsters at my table; I’ve got Bibles bent like shivs. Help me, Holy Lord! I see the light of heaven’s porch. But so many of us were born here outside your chain-link fence.”

Unless that proposition is too comfortably abstract for us, let’s tease it out a bit. How do we separate sheep from goats in the United States of America? We separate the sheep from the goats first based on class — we have the haves and the have nots, we have the rich and the poor, we have the first and the last, we have the sheep and the goats.

In the United States, we think the poor have less value, less significance, and less humanity than the rest of us. If you don’t believe me, hear this.

Who suffers most from the ecological disasters inflicted upon our earth by gas and energy companies? The poor.

Who suffered the most from the recent coal ash spills all over North Carolina? The poor.

Who subsidizes the education of the middle class through education lotteries? The poor.

Who doesn’t have enough money for food and gets their food stamps cut? The poor.

Who do we raise taxes on when we need the revenue? For the past several years, it certainly hasn’t been the rich, that much is for certain.

We create these myths about the goats, the people we call “the poor.”

We say that they’re lazy when too many people work more than three jobs and still can’t make ends meet.

We say they’re exploiting food stamps when most of us couldn’t get by on the meager offerings SNAP provides.

We say they’re better off than the poor in other parts of the world when income inequality is worse in the United States than practically any other developed nation.

More than half of the U.S. population will be in poverty at some point before the age of 65.

And yet, despite all of that, we have the gall to say that people can just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We say God only helps those who helps themselves — we say that’s in the Bible. It’s not. “Help me, Holy Jesus! Won’t you show me how to live? I’ve got monsters at my table, I’ve got Bibles bent like shivs.”

We separate sheep from goats based on their class. Ask yourself, could someone without the money to afford our fancy clothes walk into this sanctuary and feel at home? Could the poor, the homeless, and the destitute walk into this sanctuary and feel at home?

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

“Help me, Holy Lord! I see the light of heaven’s porch, but so many of us were born here outside your chain-link fence.”

We separate the sheep from the goats in this country based on gender too. We don’t treat women like we treat men. We don’t treat women, men, and anybody who sees themselves somewhere in between the same. We separate sheep from goats. Don’t believe me? Hear this.

Women across this country get up and go to work only to be harassed on the way to their job. One woman recently spent ten hours walking around New York City and got harassed 108 times.

Women across this country get up, go to work, and are paid less than men are for the same job. In all fifty states and the District of Columbia, women’s earnings are lower than men’s earning.

Women across this country leave work and experience violence at the hands of men. One in four women experience domestic violence in the United States. Assault on college campuses, in our neighborhoods, and on our streets is more often covered up than reported — to say nothing of actually being prosecuted.

Yet, we have the audacity to spread lies about women. We blame the victims — “it’s what you were wearing,” “you were asking for it,” or “you should have been more careful.”

We use the Bible to shame them, hide them, and control them. “Help me, Holy Jesus! Won’t you show me how to live? I’ve got monsters at my table, I’ve got Bibles bent like shivs.”

We restrict women all too often to certain roles and reserve some only for men. I do not have to remind you of the unfortunate history of Baptists in the United States who refused to ordain women. I don’t have to point out all the ways the church has oppressed the majority of its members, who happen to be women. We separate sheep from goats.

Lord, when was it that we saw you?”

“Help me, Holy Lord! I see the light of heaven’s porch, but so many of us were born here outside your chain-link fence.”

We separate the sheep from the goats in this country based on race. We don’t want to hear it, but from Jamestown to Michael Brown, we in the United States have separated the sheep from the goats.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we invented a lie called race that said the color of your skin said something about the content of your character.

We pressed black bodies into slavery. We shipped black people across the Atlantic like freight. When slavery looked like it was going to end, we fought, bled, and died to try and keep it alive.

When slavery went away, we did everything we could to resuscitate its corpse. We invented the modern prison system to put people in legal slavery. Now, there are more black men in our prison systems than there were enslaved in the nineteenth century. Slavery didn’t die, it just changed.

We invented laws under the infamous name of Jim Crow to separate the sheep from the goats, and when it got struck down, we just remade it under different names — gentrification, gerrymandering, and voter fraud prevention. Jim Crow didn’t die, he just changed.

We lynched thousands of black men and women in the twentieth century for imagined crimes, to separate the sheep from the goats ultimately. That didn’t stop, it just became condoned and codified in parts of our law enforcement — from Jamestown to Michael Brown, we have separated the sheep from the goats.

And we’ve justified it with math and statistics, we’ve justified it with fake science and garbage philosophy, we’ve justified it with theology, and, yes, we’ve justified it with the Bible. “Help me, Holy Jesus! Won’t you show me how to live? I’ve got monsters at my table, I’ve got Bibles bent like shivs.”

We separate sheep from goats. Blacks in this country are more likely to suffer all manner of injustice, poverty, and suffering than most of us in this room.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

“Help me, Holy Lord! I see the light of heaven’s porch, but so many of us were born here outside your chain-link fence.”

Help me, Holy Jesus. Where do we go from here?

First, we have to recognize where we are. We need to know that we are separating the sheep from the goats ourselves whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. I do not discriminate personally against the poor, women, or minorities, but I participate in and benefit from systems that do. That’s how sin works — you don’t have to want to do it to do it. The world is a fallen place, and we have to get beyond our pride and defensiveness and recognize that fact.

The way that our country operates plays out better for some people than others, and many of the people who benefit from that system at different levels of intensity are in this room today, including myself. This parable is a message to us, it is a message to the privileged.

Did you notice how shocked the goats were? They clearly believed that they were all good with God. They did not have an inkling that they had done anything wrong. Goats rarely do. This parable bids us to see ourselves as goats, as privileged people who just assume the Kingdom of God is going to be handed to us on a silver platter. But you have to understand, that’s not why Jesus came.

The King who sits on the throne did not come to lift up the proud and the secure. Hear what Jesus said of his ministry when it began: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because [God] has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. [God] has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

There is what many have called a “preferential option” for the poor and the oppressed in Jesus’ ministry. So, make no mistake, Jesus separates sheep from goats. But when Jesus does the dividing, the end is different. The end is the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is not like we thought it was. Jesus made this point clear in the Beatitudes, the passage Ron preached from just a few weeks ago. As Jesus said in Luke: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

That’s not how we set things up!

Jesus would construct the world differently than you and I have. Consider that passage from Ezekiel read earlier in the service. God is the shepherd who seeks out his sheep. God says, “I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. I will feed them … they shall lie down in good grazing land … they shall feed on rich pasture. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”

This God rebukes those who get in the way of his caretaking, his shepherding. “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” This God rebukes the proud and the privileged. “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?”

This God is on the side of the oppressed!

Jesus tells us in the parable that not only is God on the side of the oppressed, but Jesus is one of the oppressed. When you disregard the hungry and the thirsty, you are ignoring Jesus! When you visit the sick and in prison, you are visiting Jesus! On this side of history, the closest we will ever get to seeing the face of Jesus Christ is in the faces and bodies of those who are “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison.” Those aren’t the categories we like to make. We like to keep Jesus confined to our Bibles, our hymnals, and our sanctuaries. But the Kingdom of God is not like we thought. It’s a new world with new categories that overturns oppression and strife. The Kingdom of God is not like how we make the world. Jesus has something else in mind.

Jesus has in mind a Kingdom that cares for the hungry and the thirsty, welcomes the stranger, clothes the naked, and visits those who are sick or in prison. And I would dare say, it’s a Kingdom where we care how they got there in the first place. This vision is not some abstract poetry. Jesus promises us that he is there. He bids us go and live a different way in the world.

Jesus challenges us to respond differently to the hungry and the thirsty.

How different do you think the world would be if we saw someone suffering in poverty and instead of calling them “freeloaders,” “lazy,” or “irresponsible,” we said, “I see Jesus”?

How different do you think the world would be if we saw the stranger and instead of calling them “illegals,” “criminals,” and “deportees,” we said, “I see Jesus”?

How different do you think the world would be if we saw those vulnerable to violence, naked, and didn’t blame them, call them horrible names, or ignore their stories, but instead said, “I see Jesus”?

How different do you think the world would be if we saw those in prison and didn’t see them as hopeless cases, outcasts, and irredeemable but instead were willing to entertain the thought — “I see Jesus.”

You know where Jesus is? He’s the poor in this country. He’s the women of the United States. He’s the black community. And if you want to see Jesus, there are a few places to start. How different do you think the world would be if we didn’t call people names, slander them, blame them, and imprison them, but instead said, “I see Jesus?” How would we approach immigration, poverty, women’s rights, civil right — how would we approach all the problems the continue to plague us, how would we approach them differently?

This parable isn’t about judgment. It’s about how we ought to live. And as far as judgment goes, all that Jesus says is if you want to be with Jesus for all eternity, you might want to start being with Jesus now. Because the Kingdom is here, the Kingdom is now. It has already begun. All that is left is for you and me to pledge our loyalty, to hear the voice of Jesus calling. Jesus is calling you, Jesus is calling me, to come and be with him, because he’s already here. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, our Word made Flesh, “save us from separating bodies from souls, money from morality, prevent us from preventing your Kingdom coming on earth.” Forgive us when we neglect to see you, and send your Spirit among us that we might better see you among us. Amen.

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