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Never mind counting sheep. Get to work doing good.

wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse

Reign of Christ Sunday

Sunday November 26, 2023

Gospel ~ Mathew 25:31-46

The gospel this morning is as clear as it can be: it lays out for us what we have to do to get on God’s good side. Welcome the stranger, care for the prisoners, feed the hungry. The sheep gets a gold star; the goat gets left behind.

Are you feeling a little nervous? Cause I am. I suspect that was what Jesus intended with his sorting metaphor. How better to spur people to action than to make a little competition, a fear of failure in the mix: Am I a sheep or a goat? Which one are you? I, for one, would like to be a sheep – the good people who get to the good place – but I worry I might actually be a goat, when the final score is tallied.

In fact, the whole situation is really problematic. I mean, why pick on the goats? Do we really want to be sheep – passively trotting along, lacking independence, maybe just a bit dumb? Goats may be willful, and stubborn, but they also have personality. They have their own ideas of what’s what. The sheep sticks with the pack. The goat is a rebel – and in these modern times, that’s what gets celebrated: work hard, play hard, climb the ladder, collect a pile of toys.

And hey, if we are sorting people, we should do it right. Really keep score. At least I am still a better sheep than that goat over there. That guy has way more goat in him than I do.

You see where all this earthly sorting gets us? First, we get nervous about not measuring up. Then we get defensive rather than insightful about our mistakes and how we can do better. Finally, we take the easy way out – and throw judgement around to distract from our failings. Judging other people has gotten humanity in a lot of trouble for more than 2,000 years. And yet, we cannot help ourselves - we can’t seem to resist, whether we are deciding pass and fail by gender, or birthplace, or skin colour, or how you practice your faith, or your choice in the person you love. We even like to judge whether a person’s good deeds are truly good enough.

But guess who actually decides the goat and sheep question? The individual and God. The gospel makes this clear: it’s not about the other person. It’s about our own actions.

We know this because, while we live in a finite word, God is infinite. Too often, we act as though there is only so much space in heaven, which is just another way of thinking that there is only so much love. But you’ll notice the gospel doesn’t say there is room only for a set number of sheep; there are only two groups – sheep, and goats. We are to understand that every sheep has a place, and every sheep is loved. Once we think of it that way, we can stop worrying about who is in and who is out, and then start figuring out who we are.

That is the real question of the gospel. The hard challenge is to look inside and decide: who will we be? I will go first: I’d say I am not a terrible sheep, some of the time. But I am also a pretty good goat, too much of the time. It really depends on the day. I don’t always measure up to that long list of good works that Jesus offers us this morning. In fact, I rarely do. That is a very high bar. What we really need to know is how many sheep deeds we need to do, to avoid being a goat?

This is always the problem, as I have said before, with reading the gospel as if it were a collection of short stories, not a novel. In that novel, the character of the human– that is, you and me – is complex in our imperfections: we care for one another, we betray one another; we are greedy, we are charitable; we follow Jesus, we torture Jesus. The whole of the gospel doesn’t judge us, it embraces us. At the end of it all, neither Jesus, nor God is focused on shame for the days when we were goats. The gospel is about pride for the times when we were sheep.

And to Jesus, that means one thing: Go forth and get to work. Don’t worry about goats and sheep, look for those in need. Feed those who hunger, soothe those who are in pain. Every time you help one of those people, it is as if you are helping me. When you don’t help them, it’s as if you have passed me by.

Because, in the end, we have the sheep all wrong, anyway. They aren’t passive, and they aren’t dull. What does that flock that Jesus calls us to join actually do in the world? They break all the rules. They reject being ambitious for the sake of ambition. They focus on relationships and charity and all the qualities that drive good in the world. The sheep are lucky: when they have a goat-kind of day, they are forgiven because they have created a world where kindness is infinite.

That’s the message in our gospel for Reign of Christ Sunday. Never mind counting the sheep and the goats. Invest your energy in justice, not judgement. Get to work doing good. And let God be God. Amen.

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