Well which are you? Are you a sheep or a goat? It is a tough question, but Jesus gives us the criteria so we can know. According to Jesus, sheep are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of God because they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, gave clothes to the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. The goats are those who did not do these things. So which are you? Unlike most questions I ask in a sermon, this is not rhetorical. I want you to turn and talk to your neighbor about that question – which are you, a sheep or a goat? I know you all well enough that the idea of talking and having discussion freaks some of you out, myself included at times. But let’s give it a shot and see what we come up with.
So, what did you come up with? Did you make any decisions? Who thought they were a sheep, raise your hand. Who thought they were a goat?
There is nothing clear or easy about this task. It doesn’t take long for it to tie our brain up in knots. Because if you are anything like me, the moment I begin to think of a time I was generous, another time when I wasn’t seems to creep in. “I usually try to be a good person, but I was just really busy that day…” I say to myself, but those aren’t the rules Jesus set out. It is not about trying, it is about doing. If you feed just one person who is hungry….boom….you’ll inherit the kingdom of God. But if there is just one hungry person you did not feed…just one…then you’ll face eternal punishment. But if there is just one person who is naked and you give them clothes….kingdom of God. However, if you encounter a stranger and don’t welcome them…eternal punishment.
Are you a sheep or a goat? Honestly, I don’t know which I am. And the beautiful part, is neither did the people Jesus was talking to. Did you notice that? Both the sheep and the goats were surprised by their status. Both groups gasped, “When…when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you? Or when was it that we saw you sick and did not care for you?” They didn’t even know. Which means it is probably a silly question for us to ask ourselves, because we probably don’t know either. As one person said to me this week, how can we live up to this expectation? How can we possibly care for all of those in need around us. And she is right. How can we? And maybe that is just the thing. Jesus is preaching a paradox here. It is an impossible standard that cannot be met by anyone. So the truth we are left with is that we are not one or the other, but we are both. Both sheep and goat.
So if we are both, perhaps the point of this parable isn’t to figure out which side we are on, but to see whose side Jesus is on. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the text is that Jesus isn’t on the side of the sheep or the goats. Instead, it is clear he is on the side those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick, or imprisoned. They are the ones who are closest to Jesus. So close to Jesus in fact that he counts anything done on their behalf as done unto him. “Anything you do unto the least of these who are my family, you do unto me,” Jesus says. So close that he calls them family! No requirement of having faith or going to church, but simply in need of love.
A couple weeks after moving to Owatonna, the doorbell rang. Standing on our stoop was young man who looked like he had been wearing the same clothes for the past three or four days. In one hand was a spray bottle filled with a clear liquid and in the other, a crumpled pamphlet explaining the cleaning solution he was trying to sell. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were drugged or just desperate, but his sales pitch was impeccable. There was a demonstration of the cleaner, a couple of funny jokes, and a well-timed push to buy. But the moment my mouth started to say, “No, thank you,” he was out of there and onto the next house, as if his life depended on it. And maybe it did. I really didn’t want or need the cleaner, but was it right for me to say no? Did I prevent him from buying more drugs or did I keep him from having enough food to eat? I don’t know. But what I do know is that I think I encountered Jesus that day and sometimes I still wonder about him.
If I am being true to my heart, I don’t think this parable is about eternal judgment. About whether you will go to heaven or hell when you die. Let me be clear. You can be neither good enough to earn God’s love nor bad enough to lose it. We are all sheep and goats together. But rather this parable is about the delight of meeting and recognizing Christ right now. And the surprise is that, on this Christ the King Sunday, Jesus comes not as the king we might expect, but “instead appears to us only and always in the need of those around us.” If you feed one who is hungry, you feed Christ the King. If you clothe one who is naked, you clothe Christ the King. If you visit the prisoner, you visit Christ the king. The surprise is that Jesus appears to us here, in Owatonna and Blooming Prairie, only and always in the need of those around us.
And there is great need all around us. The clothes and coats that we collect here this season are nothing less than clothing for the naked. The 4,600 pounds of food collected by our youth and other youth around Owatonna at Boo for Food is nothing less than food for the hungry. The barnyard animals that the confirmation students want to buy for people around the world not only feed, but clothe, give drink, and welcome the stranger. There is great need all around us and it is in these spaces, spaces of vulnerability and need that Jesus promises to be present. AMEN