A Sermon for Covenant
Christ the King Sunday
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 13, 2011
Dear sheep on my right, dear goats on my left, dear audience in front of me,
You have all entered this morning as players in a drama, and unfortunately for you, the cast was set before you were properly warned. Of course, you chose the seat you sat in, but you weren’t aware that you were choosing your eternal fate too. Was this predestination? Or an unfair version of free will—who can really say? Let’s not squabble over minute theological discrepancies. You are sheep (those to the right). You are goats (those sitting to the left). You get to watch (those in front middle). ‘Tis the sovereignty of this seating arrangement.
The head of the sheep committee informed me this morning that he would like to make a public announcement. Proceed.
Sheep Captain (stands up from right side): “We would like to give thanksgiving and praise for God’s abundant favor! We never even knew that we had been with Jesus, serving him when we served a needy brother, loving him when we loved an ailing sister!”
Why, yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it? Thank you.
Apparently, the Head Goat has a comment as well.
Head Goat (stands up from left side): “Um, we would just like to protest that none of this seems very fair. We always thought salvation came by faith, not works. Your theological doctrine is deliberately heretical, and we submit a formal complaint requesting a reevaluation.”
I’m sorry, but this script came straight from Scripture. You may sit down.
My dear sheep, my disgruntled goats, my curious observers, how does it feel to sit where you sit? To hear what you hear, from your angle?
My question, every time I read this text, is which am I—a sheep or a goat? I mean, I’ve been saved by grace through faith, of course, but I’m not sure if that works in this instance, so to stall my confusion, I normally take a backseat as a distant observer, like someone who merely watches a play but never enters the set and walks around inside it, trying on different characters, exploring whether it is scene one or scene two to which I belong.
And it is easy to justify sitting back there as observer because I have two pretty darn legitimate objections to this text anyway. First, isn’t this works-righteousness? How does this story fit with the rest of Christian theology? And second, I want to do works of mercy. I really do. But I’m overwhelmed. There is too much need and injustice and that makes me feel frozen and helpless. I can barely get my own life together—what do I have left to give to others?
This is really one of the only stories in Scripture where we actually get details about judgment. And to everyone’s great surprise, you don’t hear about grace or justification, confessing faith or asking Jesus in your heart. The people in this story are judged based on whether they fed the hungry, clothed the needy, visited the sick. This doesn’t mesh too well with the Roman Road or the EvangeCube or the Four Spiritual Laws . . .
I don’t think the point here is that faith doesn’t count, but rather that faith is, perhaps, a broader concept than we realize. Maybe faith isn’t all about what we mentally agree to only; maybe faith is more holistic and comprehensive than a cognitive decision alone. There’s Christian practices and there’s Christian beliefs, and could it be the question of the chicken and the egg—which comes first? Some people believe, and thus they begin Christian practices to match their faith. Other people practice their way into faith, and I don’t know, maybe some people even die and reach judgment before they’ve comprehended mentally what they’ve been doing with their lives.
Whatever this text suggests to us about salvation, it is certainly meant to unsettle the saved. Did you hear the surprise in their voices? Both the sheep and the goats didn’t realize they had been near Jesus, with the opportunity to serve him. If Jesus was able to whisper in our ears that yes, he was there that time we thought he wasn’t, that was him with the scraggly beard and the cardboard sign on the side of the road, that was him, single mom with three unruly kids at the grocery store, paying with food stamps and a few wadded-up bills from her back pocket—if Jesus whispered, “That was me,” we would all be shocked. The question is, is it a good shock for you or a bad one?
If you found out that you’re mostly a goat at heart, I’d like to sympathize with you for a moment. If the shock left you in awe that you’re a sheep and you didn’t know it, good for you, but you don’t need a sermon anyway. It’s the goats that get to me. I mean, I get why you’re a goat. You hear the overwhelming statistics about poverty and disease, you watch the horrifying accounts on the news, you listen to one organization after another beg for your support, and it is just too much. It’s better to just focus on yourself and your family—that’s plenty to keep you occupied as it is. I’m not making fun either. I mean, really, the amount of suffering out there is paralyzing.
And of course suffering is paralyzing on a cumulative level, but it can also be paralyzing in the details too. In high school, my friend Sara and I were camp counselors to a group of younger kids, and one night I woke up in my bunk bed to the sound of retching, which, by the way, was the start of a nightly event. There was a stomach bug that got passed from kid to kid while we there. I lay in my bunk, listening, knowing I should get up and help. It was my job, but I wasn’t so sure I could stomach it. Paralyzed. Interestingly, my friend, Sara discovered in that week that she actually likes taking care of the kids who get sick at camp, that she doesn’t so much mind cleaning up the vomit and comforting girls when they need it, right there beside the camp toilet. That amazed me; maybe even repulsed me. Sara discovered some strange niche that no one else would have wanted to fill, and she started giving herself permission to fill it, no matter how odd it might look to the rest of us.
I still haven’t figured out how we ever adequately serve the least of these—how we notice each and every one, how we adequately approach the problem of suffering. But I can’t help but think there is at least one sufferer out there who is waiting specifically for me to take note. That there is some strange niche of need that no one else might want to fill, and I need to start giving myself permission to fill it, no matter how odd it might look to the rest of us.
Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me,” as if the smallest thing mattered. Jesus does not seem to be commending those who’ve made great, noticeable strides in the cause for justice. The sheep in this story are surprised to learn that they’ve done anything at all extraordinary. I suppose they are the type of people who were first obedient in one small way, and then they just let that small obedience run its course—one thing leading to another, taking them places they never could have dreamed of, and they just kept plodding along until they arrived at the feet of Jesus, and they looked up and lo and behold, he’s welcoming them home.
So what if us goats weren’t doomed to stay goats? What if Goat A started with one, small obedience? Just one for now. One “least of these” who crosses your path, and you normally don’t pay proper attention. Chances are, you don’t even have to go out and find that person. You already know who it is. What if you chose to believe that one person is worthwhile, and then see where that one small belief leads you? Could be interesting. Could change everything.
And what if Goat B did the same thing, and before you know it, some of what Goat A is doing overlaps with Goat B, and I don’t now, it was like, you were a community, and the work you did by yourself suddenly took on new energy, and together you actually accomplished more than you ever realized. In fact, sometimes Goat A just needs a break from helping people, but that’s okay, because Goat B’s got your back, and you can rest awhile and recoup, and the rest of your community now gives to you. And what do you know, by the end of our time together, there’s no longer a left side and a right side to the room, but we’ve all held hands and formed a circle. We sing peace to one another, share grace and trust love, and that’s just the way we plan to enter Judgment Day—where I’ll be darned if we don’t meet Jesus with a smile on his face when he looks down on us, all huddled together in a teary-eyed bundle because we never would have made it that far alone.
Today is Christ the King Sunday—a day where we think about what it will be like to meet our King face-to-face on Judgment Day—and our text began with Christ seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by all the angels of heaven. Our eyes are drawn upward to the glittering golds and the sparkling whites. But Jesus is looking down—down at all the people of the earth, especially the needy, and he draws our gaze away from the glory of heaven to the grit of the earth, and says, “That’s where I’ve been. Did you see me? Did you help me? If your focus was anywhere else but on my dear ones, the least ones, then you missed me.”
My dear sheep, some of us aspire to be sheep too, but we need your help. Encourage us. Notice our gifts. Hold our hand and help us be holy. My dear goats, you are not alone. Many of us are goats, but if we stick together and start small, we can become something new. My dear spectators, I hate to break it to you, but eventually your job gets boring—it’s messy and complicated over here in the action, but you won’t regret joining in.
You may not have gotten to play the character you would have hoped for today (my special apologies to the hell-bound over here), but perhaps all of you can go home and try on a new role for size. It’s perfectly okay if you have to grown into it.
Praise be to Christ, our King, who keeps his eye fixed on the least of these. What a King, what a Savior, oh to be like Him! Amen.
 For those not present in worship that day, I read Matthew 25:31-46 as if the room really were divided into sheep and goats. I addressed only the right side of the room with vv. 34-40, and only left side of the room with vv.41-45.
 For non-Covenant members out there, this is a reference to our weekly benediction, where we end our worship in a circle, join hands, and sing.