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Of Goats and Sheep

11/23/2014 Christ the King The text for today’s sermon is Matthew 25:31-46.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

She was a Nubian, and her name was Cuddles.  She acquired her name, not by reputation or behavior, but the honest way – through birth.  And, although her name didn’t seem to fit her at all, that’s what I called her.

Over a two year stretch in Ohio, Cuddles and I got to know each other.  I met her soon after the birth of her two kids, during a period of time in which she seemed quite helpless and needed me to help her meet the basic needs of life.  Yet, in spite of her helplessness, Cuddles remained quite independent, obstinate and downright stubborn.  She never seemed grateful for anything and she refused to listen to reason.  She balked whenever I tried to give her direction.  She felt that she knew best and if what I was asking her to do was not her idea, she had to be coaxed and prodded into doing those things that were in her best interest.  She had to be sure that she was getting something she wanted before she would concede to follow anyone’s lead.  For blind trust and self-giving were not part of her vocabulary.  Cuddles was single-minded, independent, self-centered, obstinate, and downright stubborn all the days of her life.  And yet, this behavior was completely normal.  For, you see, Cuddles was a goat.  And for two summers, I house sat and took care of her and the other animals on the farm while her owners were away on vacation.

Unlike many of us who have not had a chance to get to know sheep and goats up close and personal, sheep and goats were common animals in the Middle East during the time of Jesus, and everyone had some contact with them.  These animals were found everywhere as shepherds roamed the countryside with their flocks in search of good grazing land, adequate water, and shelter to protect the flocks from predators and thieves.

At a distance, it was hard to tell sheep from goat and goat from sheep, for unlike the animals in this country, in the Middle East, the animals were colored alike.  Both were stained by the red sand.  Both animals grazed on the same land.  But the shepherd could always tell them apart and would separate them and care for them according to their needs.  They could do this because the animals rarely competed for the same food.  The goats preferred only the best morsels which were often found in places where sheep could not go.  At night, the shepherds would separate the sheep from the goats as goats sought night-time shelter and the sheep flocked together out of doors.

Growing up in this environment, Jesus would have known what sheep and goats were really like.  He would have known the differences in their basic temperaments, and how closely these animals could mimic the behavior of people.  So, he used these two common animals as a way to teach people how to care for each other and how to serve him.

As a good shepherd, Jesus tends to both the spiritual sheep and spiritual goats among us – the sheep-like people who know their dependency on their shepherd, and the goat-like people who think they know best.  The sheep-like people willingly follow and do the will of their shepherd, often without knowing that they had done it at all.  The goat-like people tend to be independent and stubborn, and follow their own whims.  Yes, they too will follow the lead of their shepherd and do his will, but often only when they see the benefit in it for them.  Both the sheep and the goats know their shepherd, as sheep and goat like people know their lord.  Yet, in the end, when the shepherd comes as judge and king and separates the sheep from the goats, only the people who are sheep like, those who have followed their Lord and done his will without regard to gain or reward will be at his right hand.  And, the goat-like people?  Well, they will be surprised.

The problem isn’t that the goat-like people don’t want to follow and serve God.  They do – but they want to limit their circle of care.  Their vision of who should receive their help is narrow, while Christ’s vision is broad.  They seek a reward in doing what is right and good and helpful for people in need, but serving is its own reward.  The question is one of response and motivation – that is, why we do what we do.

Why do we serve God by helping our neighbor?  Why care?  Why do we risk reaching out to others in the first place?  Do we serve our neighbors in response to their needs without looking for reward?  Or do we serve in order to put the spot light on ourselves and on the good deeds we have done so we can carry those deeds like badges of honor?

Just like sheep and goats, we have done nothing to earn the abiding care of our shepherd.  There is nothing we can do to earn what God has given us in Jesus Christ, the good shepherd who willingly laid down his life for us.  It is through Christ, our good Shepherd, that our basic needs are met.  It is through Christ that we will be saved, and it is the will of Christ that we serve others as if we were serving Christ himself.

We serve best when we respond to human need experienced by human beings who bear the creative mark of the same heavenly Father of us all.  And as there is no face which does not bear the image of God, there is no one outside the umbrella of our care and service.  As there is no circumstance in life in which Jesus turns his back on people in need of his grace, so we are to care for one another with Christ-like compassion and mercy.

My friends, the basic difference between sheep and goat is not one of value.  It is one of response and motivation.  And when Christ the King, our Good Shepherd returns, he will separate sheep from goat.  He will separate those who served him well from those who did not.  And, the sheep he will place at his right hand.  They will be blessed and inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  But, as for the goats?  They will be unpleasantly surprised as they find out that they had failed to recognize the face of Christ among them and to serve freely.  For them there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

As we move into the Season of Advent and anticipate Christ’s coming again, may we be motivated to serve others in their need.  May we look into the faces of all people and see in those faces the creative and redemptive work of a Christ who came to serve and who beckons us to serve others in his name.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.



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