Counting Sheep

“Counting Sheep”    Matthew 25:31-46
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, November 26, 2017

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Our family went to see the new Justice League movie this week. I don’t know how many of you have seen it yet, so I’ll be careful not to spoil it for you.  As you can see on the poster, the Justice League is reuniting to save the world, a task which can’t be done alone.  Even as superheroes, they don’t have enough power to overcome the evil in the world without each other. Their world is in a mess, full of chaos and mayhem.

A world full of chaos and mayhem. It sounds more like current reality than the context of a good Science Fiction story. It’s a world with good and evil at war with one another, with darkness and light, with villains and superheroes, with justice and injustice, and with death and life. This is the world Jesus entered into and inhabited long ago. The people Jesus lived among had been waiting for a superhero to show up for years.  For them, justice was something they still longed for but was beyond their reach.  Many of them must have given up on justice and were probably questioning how their God could even be a judge and that if God was the judge then their lowly plight in the world must be their judgment.

But then Jesus shows up and starts telling stories. He tells stories about a king, kingdoms, vineyards, prodigals, bridesmaids, workers, farmers, birds, and seeds. His stories, especially the ones we’ve explored in the last month or so, frequently feature a day of judgment and are apocalyptic. The story we’ve just heard from Matthew is certainly apocalyptic, as Jesus begins it telling of how the Son of Man was coming to gather and judge all nations from his throne of glory, separating people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats when the night comes.  The sheep are the righteous, those people who loved the most vulnerable and marginalized. Whatever they did for them, they were doing for God.  The goats were the people who didn’t do anything for the most vulnerable and marginalized. They either didn’t care for them or they did but just didn’t care enough to turn their beliefs into actions. So whatever they didn’t do for them, they didn’t do for God. What Jesus wants the people to hear and know is that they still had a king, one who still had a kingdom, one whose kingdom was characterized by love and compassion for the most vulnerable and oppressed, and one who would bring justice for all people.

The words of Jesus are for us today, here in our world. We are to hear them within our own context, understanding that a day will come when we are judged by God as a sheep or a goat.  God will hold us accountable for what we have done—or haven’t done—for the most vulnerable and needy in our world.  The standards that we may have used for ourselves or to judge other people become meaningless at this point. In light of what Jesus has said, what matters most is what matters most to our Judge.  As James Forbes, a former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, once said, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.” In this day when Christians in America are known more for fighting same-sex marriage than for caring for the poor, for being more concerned for jobs than climate change, for building church campuses than for affordable housing, for protesting abortion more than advocating for people without healthcare, and, most recently, for caring more about keeping a Senate seat than morality.  Are we Christians not the goats in this story, thinking we are righteous sheep while all along neglecting God in the distressing disguise of the “least of these” of our world?

As cute as goats may be, I don’t think anyone here wants to be one after hearing this story.  So, how do we make sure that we are sheep?  Or, at least sheep more often than we are goats?  We live as sheep when we collect and donate coats for the coatless who come to the clothing closets as temperatures begin to drop.  We look like sheep with aprons on when we volunteer to host or serve a table at the Highland Blessing Dinner each month.  We are sheep when we participate with other churches in our neighborhood to provide an alternative to payday lending in Highland.  Our flock is strongest when we do things like help an at-risk child with reading, celebrate birthdays with homeless veterans, direct ex-prisoners to employment, provide diapers and formula for babies and moms in crisis, and when working with other faith groups and organizations to develop a program for workers to have living wage jobs.  These are just a few of ways we can make sure we don’t end up with the goats. But what are other actions we need to be doing for the “least of these” in Highland and in our city?

You’ve probably seen Undercover Boss, the tv show where an owner goes in disguise to see how he or she will be treated by the employees and how there is a time of review w each one at the end. It is always interesting to see the looks on the worker’s faces when the owner takes off the disguise. What we must know this morning that each one of us will have a review with God on what we did or didn’t do for the people in need who live among us.

The world in Justice League is familiar. Our world is in trouble. What it needs most is not superheroes, but sheep.

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