This Thanksgiving weekend, Pope Francis is meeting with the Rev. Dr. William Barber at the Vatican in Rome. Some of you may know that Dr. Barber is the force behind the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina, and the co-coordinator of the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign. And some of you may know that Pope Francis is the head of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. They are meeting to discuss how to work together to alleviate poverty.
Now, there are some who have had negative experiences with the Catholic Church and would look negatively or at least with suspicion upon anything with the Pope’s name associated with it. And there are some who believe that because Dr Barber’s movement is for all people, whether Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, churched or unchurched, that he has gone too far and they cannot sign on with him. To use the terminology we hear in the gospel today, they are seen by some as “goats” and so it can be justified to dismiss them, to oppose them, to judge and even condemn them.
But they also are doing real work in the world to care for the poor, for the least and the lost. Based upon the descriptions in today’s gospel, they can also be seen as sheep!
Examples abound of people who are easily categorized by others as sheep or goats, good or bad, behaving acceptably or unacceptably. Some of these are people who we once thought were sheep but now we know they are goats. The daily news reports ratchet our thinking in one direction or another, or provide daily support for the lines that we have each already drawn.
As human beings, whether we like it or not, we have a natural tendency to see the world as “us” and “them”. And so there is a sort of appeal to the notion that we might be sheep while they are goats. That we are at least trying to do good in the world, unlike those others who either ignore the need in the world or even make it worse.
Our celebration a few weeks ago was an acknowledgement of all the good things that have been done by this community over the past 30 years and more, and all the ways our beloved Vicar Joe Summers has nurtured and enabled such good works. Surely we have been sheep in the best sense of the word. Thank God we have a place and a community that helps us to not be goats!
I know that for myself, I have as many goat moments as I do sheep. For every time I step out of my own agenda and comfort zone to offer loving kindness or help to someone else, there are multiple times when I am too busy or it’s too much trouble to stop, to turn, to suspend my own judgment or fear or greed or pride, and to share what I can where there is a need. I am sad to say that I have a well honed set of goat skills, and it’s often a lot less conspicuous to use them than to actually try to be a sheep. A lot easier to get away with. A lot more convenient.
But here is this gospel, this good news. And there is a lot of good news in it! God knows our hearts. God sees when we are living lives of loving kindness. And God knows why we fall short. God is in charge, above and beyond all the powers of this world, all of which are temporary and limited. So on this Christ the King Sunday, we can experience God in Jesus the Christ, not so much as a traditional King at all, but more like our kin. When we see our sister or brother in need, we see the face of God in Christ. Here is another part of the great mystery, the great paradox of God, that God-power is greatest in weakness, that the first shall be last, that the last shall be first. Many stories in the Bible reflect how people who have screwed up bigtime are still loved and redeemed and called upon by God to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.
The reality is that God knows I am both sheep and goat. And so are we all. All God’s children have the capacity for both sheepiness and goatiness. None of us are completely sheep or goats.
And here is more good news. Only God can truly judge us, truly know our hearts. And for God, it’s not that one screwup will wipe out all the “way-to-gos”. And it’s not vice versa either. We are both continually being saints and sinners, sheep and goats, Pharisees and Samaritans. God knows. And thank God that the kind of judge we have is one who is full of grace and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. A God who sees all the crap and all the beauty in each of us and loves us anyway.
The Presbyterian Church, which is my faith background, is really big on grace. It’s considered the foundation of our faith. My favorite description of grace is one that mirrors it with mercy. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, what we have not and cannot earn. And mercy is not getting what we do deserve, based on all the ways we have fallen short.
So no matter how hard we try to be sheep, we are not ever going to match up our good works with the gifts that we receive from God. We can never ever do enough to earn such abundant and unconditional love. It’s only ours through grace.
And no matter how much we are goats, God’s mercy is greater than all our goatiness. So God’s judgment for our failings is not punishment, but forgiveness and second chances, over and over again.
The hard part comes back around to the us-and-them factor. We would much rather be able to define who’s in and who’s out, who’s deserving of God’s love and who’s not. And God knows, in this day and age, we all have our list of the unredeemables, don’t we?
But when we say God welcomes all, God loves all, God forgives all, God’s table is open to all God’s people, we mean all. Even the ones others have turned their backs on. And, even the ones we have turned our backs on.
In 1928, in Barcelona, Spain, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on the first Sunday in Advent that referenced this gospel passage. I’d like to share an excerpt from his words with you.
“God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants always to be with us, wherever we may be – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home itself has moved into us…
Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?”
I pray that whenever we meet a person who is hard to love, for whatever reason, we will not only remember that Christ is in this person, but that we will recognize Christ, that we will work to see the God light in every person, that we will suspend our judgment both of sheep and of goats, and we will simply love. Amen.