Separating the Sheep from the Goats

Rev Deborah gave this sermon on Sunday 26 November – Christ the King.

Today is the ‘New Year’s Eve’ of the church’s year. The liturgical year finishes today with the celebration of Christ the King. Next Sunday we begin the liturgical New Year where we move from the gospel of Matthew in Year A, to the gospel of Mark as we start Year B.

Over the last year we have travelled alongside Matthew’s gospel, and as we have seen, Matthew’s gospel is hard hitting and pulls no punches. Today is no exception. We celebrate Christ the King. In John’s gospel the theme of kingship is explored in the passage where Jesus stands in front of Pilate and is asked ‘are you a king then?’. In Luke the passage for Christ the King is Jesus on the cross with the inscription ‘This is the king of the Jews’. In our first reading from Ezekiel, we hear about God leading people as a shepherd. He gathers in his beloved, though wayward flock, bringing them out of darkness into light, out of hunger into fulfilment, out of destructive chaos into safety.

‘I, myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians talks about God as exalted as one who leads with power and wisdom revealed in fulness through his son Jesus Christ.

In Matthew, the gently, gently touch is scrapped, and Jesus kingship is explored through judgement. Judgement is a word that we shy away from and, yet justice is one of the most profound longings of humans. If there is no justice, then deep within ourselves we know that something is out of sync, something is not right. Justice is hard to define and harder still to put into practice, but that has never stopped human beings and societies seeking it, praying for it and working to find ways of doing it better. Justice doesn’t simply mean punishing wickedness, although that is regularly involved. It means bringing the world back into balance.

St. Matthew tell us about the coming of the Son of Man with the announcement that justice will be done at last. We see Jesus exalted as ruler of the world, exalted to a position of honour and we hear something about how his just rule will be executed.

This week justice has played a key in our news. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in. The 74-year-old war criminal was found guilty of orchestrating massacres and ethnic cleansing during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, including the massacre at Srebrenica, Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two. UN Criminal Tribunal found Mladic guilty of 10 of 11 charges, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 civilians died. Justice.

We have heard about the resignation of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe with wild celebrations breaking out in capital. Emmerson Mnangagwa has been sworn in as the third president of Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980, taking the oath of office in front of 70,000 people in Harare’s main sports stadium. He has pledged free and fair elections to be held next year and that the ‘people’s voice would be heard.’ Zimbabwe has the opportunity to forge a new path free from oppression.

We have also heard about the increase of the sentence given to Oscar Pistorius after South Africa’s Court of appeal agreed that the previous sentence for the murder of his girl friend was too lenient.

These are human forms of justice. Matthew talks of the justice at the end of time,

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘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 one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. When the Son of Man comes there with be judgement and justice will be done. Jesus will be exalted, and his just rule will be established.

So, do we need to wait until Jesus return for this justice to take place?

The next section of our gospel reading says definitely not and Matthew uses the image of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats to illustrate this – the sheep being separated onto the right-hand side of the king and the goats on the left-hand side. In the Middle East, to this day, sheep and goats regularly graze together, but need to be separated at night so that the goats, being less hardy, can be kept warm. It’s often quite difficult to tell them apart.

So, what are the criteria that is used to separate the sheep from the goats?

Jesus response is:

  • When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat.
  • When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink.
  • When I was stranger, you made me welcome.
  • When I was naked, you clothed me.
  • When I was sick, you looked after me.
  • When I was in prison, you came to me.

The criteria that separates out the sheep from the goats is how care for the vulnerable, the poor and the marginalised. There’s no other way. Basically, judgment in the next life will be based on how we treat the poor in this life.

I suppose that it can be summarised by the statement:
‘Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.’

There is a book called ‘In the Company of the Poor’ written by two people who have spent their lives struggling against ‘the insomnia of the scandal of poverty,’ Gustavo Gutierrez is a Dominican priest and theologian who splits his time between his parish in Lima, Peru, where for fifty years he has lived and worked among the poor, and teaching at Notre Dame University. In 1971 he published a game-changer of a book called A Theology of Liberation, which established his reputation as the “father of liberation theology” and made famous the notion of a “preferential option for the poor’.

In this chapter of Matthew, it is how respond to those in need. In meeting the needs of the impoverished, we are in fact, doing it for Jesus – not because we have to or because we have a tick list to ensure that we are in the ‘sheep’ category.’

Christian care for the poor isn’t just a utilitarian act of social justice. It isn’t an altruistic act with no element of self-interest or expectation of reward and it is not even merely a sign of a believer’s personal faith. Care for the poor is “the privileged way to serve God.”

We care for the poor not out of guilt, ascetic renunciation (although God calls some to that path), or some communistic ideal that rejects private property, nor. Caring for the poor is not a passport for heaven. It is part of our lives. In serving the poor we care for our own souls by imitating the character of God himself. ‘Only in heaven’, said Mother Teresa, ‘will we understand how much we owe the poor for helping us to love God like we should.’

In 2012, the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa had over 4,500 nuns serving the poorest of the poor in 133 countries.

The Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 has over 185 communities that are committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.

In 1950, the Baptist minister Bob Pierce (1914–1978) founded World Vision with the words, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” Today World Vision is a billion dollar a year relief agency.

Millard Fuller (1935–2009) was a self-made millionaire by age twenty-nine who renounced his wealth to follow Jesus. He joined an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms, and out of that context founded Habitat for Humanity that builds housing for the poor all over the world.

So where do we fit into this? C S Lewis says in his book ‘The Problem of Pain’, comments on today’s gospel reading by saying ‘This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me.’

Martin the Cobbler

There was a cobbler who lived alone in his shop with one window that looked out on the street. His wife and children had all died and he asked God, “Holy One why have you so long delayed your coming? I have almost given up hope in seeing you. Please come to my humble shop this day and show me your face.”

Outside on the street the cold winter brought snow. Through his window he saw a beggar who shivered in the cold. He invited the beggar into the shop to warm him and offer a meagre meal from his shrinking larder. The beggar thanked him and left.

As the day passed, a few customers came with repairs they needed for their shoes and harnesses. A young boy sought shelter from the cold and snow. The child’s feet were wrapped in old dirty rags and stuffed with paper. Into the shop he invited the boy. After making him some warm milk and a sandwich from the little food he had he went to his closet and found a pair of shoes that belonged to his son. He fit the shoes to the boy. Grateful, the boy left with a promise to return to visit him.

It was approaching dusk and the cobbler despaired of a visit from the Lord. A woman with her young babe appeared in front of the window. She was dressed in a thin piece of cloth and she looked as if she might freeze to death. The cobbler invited her into his shop. Wary of the old man, she hesitated at the door, but feeling the warmth within she stepped across the threshold. The cobbler made her some tea and went to his closet to find a heavy woollen cloak that belonged to his wife. Giving her the cloak the woman thanked him and after he shared the rest of his larder with her, she left with the child.

The sun descended and left the cobbler bereft. “Why didn’t you come and visit me today,” the cobbler asked? There was a voice that spoke to him in his humble shop: “But I did come to you. When you invited in the beggar, the boy, and the mother and her child, I was there with you. In each of their faces you looked into my eyes.”  Martin then remembered the scripture: “When did you see me hungry and feed me, alone and naked and clothe me and thirsty and you gave me a drink.” The visitors who had come to his shop that day had been his master. In their faces he had looked into the eyes of God.

That night the cobbler slept happy and at peace for the first time in many months.

We can’t solve all the problems in the world, but we can make a difference and work for justice. Not only can we make a difference, we are called to make a difference

In a few minutes we will be affirming our faith through saying the creed. Today’s gospel parable is a statement of what Jesus himself believed, his creed. What would be the impact if at the invitation to profess our faith we were to all stand and say words from today’s Gospel:

“We believe in feeding the hungry.

We believe in giving drink to the thirsty.

We believe in welcoming the stranger.

We believe in clothing the naked.

We believe in visiting the imprisoned and the sick.

We believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”

We can say these words but the real definitive creedal statement, as Jesus makes clear in this Gospel reading, is to actively feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, visit the imprisoned and the sick.

We profess our faith by our actions and bring justice to our world.


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