Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King [Year A] - November 23, 2014 (Matthew 25:31-46)

A very peculiar but well-timed story popped up in my newsfeed this week, especially considering I’m not a gamer and don’t really know much at all about video games. The bottom line, as best as I can understand it, is that some video game company just announced an exciting new expansion to one of its really popular games that will feature warfare action between—get this!—goats and sheep. The game itself is called (wait for it) Goat Simulator.

Now, I’ve heard of a flight simulator and a race car simulator, but never a goat simulator! As best I can tell, when you play it, your character on the screen is actually an unruly goat and your objective is to run around and try to head-butt things and cause trouble. I don’t know how the sheep factor in, but…it’s warfare! It’s got to be cool, right? Maybe the sheep just go around trying to fix the things that the goats mess up, or maybe the two actually fight each other! I might have to get into gaming just to find out!

Apparently the conflict between goats and sheep has been going on for millennia, which is why I decided this peculiar piece of news was well-timed. I knew what was coming up as the gospel lesson this Sunday. When Jesus decides to tell a parable to prepare his disciples for what the final judgment will be like, he uses goats and sheep, too.

But it’s not warfare. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite, because in the parable it looks like the sheep and goats intermingle quite well. That was the way people took care of their livestock back in ancient Israel. Sheep and goats typically got a long fine together. They had different grazing habits, and so goatherds and shepherds let their flocks freely roam on the fields and hills together during the day. In the evening, however, they were put into separate stocks and kept that way until morning. The goats were gathered together for milking. The sheep were left alone.

My guess is that this was a scene which Jesus’ disciples and the others who listened to him saw repeated, day in and day out, in the countryside and in the farming towns where they had lived. Jesus grabs hold of this common scenario in order to illustrate for them several aspects of what discipleship in his name is like. Jesus finds this everyday sheep-versus-goat situation—both the part when they saunter among the hillsides and pastures and the part when they get separated at the end of the day helpful in explaining what life in God’s kingdom entails.

This part about the life is under the reign of Christ is especially important because, as the disciples will begin to understand—and as we are reminded each and every day—Christ’s kingdom is not fully here among us yet. Pretty soon that will be their frustration, and it is ours too. We glimpse it and experience the presence of God’s kingdom from time to time when instances of humility and self-sacrifice triumph over pride and self-centeredness or when forgiveness is practiced, when systems of aggression and dominance give way momentarily to peacefulness and equality. We trust the news about Jesus’ triumph over those ways of aggression and death and the life of the new world to come, but there is still much about the world—and, quite frankly, about ourselves—that isn’t fully reflecting God’s righteousness. And so the whole world mingles and grazes like the sheep and the goats, going about our business like usual.

The mixing and grazing that the world does, this mix of good and evil, is the easier part of the parable for us to get our heads around. It’s that separation that looms at the end of the day, though, that catches our attention, especially because the unruly goats meet a rather gruesome end. Maybe the Goat Simulator game is more based in reality than I realize!

A woman in my home congregation always fretted whenever this parable came up in worship because she was so afraid she’d be a goat. She couldn’t get that out of her mind. I think that’s an honest reaction to this lesson, one that Jesus might want to provoke in his listeners. However, if all we do when we hear Jesus’ words here is worry about our ultimate fate and whether, at the end of the long day, we’re going to end up simulating goats or simulating sheep…we’re letting the law rule our life and our faith. If all we do is concentrate on those labels then it is fear and anxiety that will dictate our discipleship, and we’ll end up missing the best part of what Jesus is trying to teach.

The best part—the most important part—of Jesus’ lesson is not that one day the righteous sheep will be rid of these unruly goats but that we get to see our Lord’s face in the meantime. As we wait for that time when all creation will recognize the authority and the love of the Risen Jesus, his living presence is still among us.

The proper posture of one of his disciples, then, is not one that continually looks inward, asking “Am I a sheep or am I a goat?” but one that looks outward, wondering “Where will I get to see my Lord’s face today?”

And the answer to that isn’t so easy to forget. The Lord who has claimed us forever as his own as he gives himself up on the cross is still present among those who are suffering. If we want to see him, serve him, have his grace imparted to us, then we can go find him among the “least of these.”

Amidst all the political and even religious grandstanding about immigration this week, amidst the xenophobia and the racism that still poisons our country’s debates when it comes to that issue, amidst the confusing arguments about things like deportation and undocumented migrants and what care for our neighbor means appeared this story out of a southern California:

The Valley Springs Manor is an assisted living facility that shut down last fall. Once they stopped getting paid for their work, the staff all left except for two—the cook and the janitor. “There was about 16 residents left behind,” said the cook Maurice, “and we had a conversation in the kitchen, ‘What are we going to do?’” Realizing the residents wouldn’t have anyone to care for them, they transformed their roles very quickly. Both men, Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, ages 34 and 35, started taking care of the sixteen residents, many of whom suffered from dementia, around the clock. They doled out the medications, fixed their food, changed their clothes and bedding for several days by themselves until the fire department and sheriff took over.

“I couldn’t see myself going home,” Rowland said, “next thing you know they’re in the kitchen trying to cook their food and they burn the place down.” He went on to say, “Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for this short period of time.”

“Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty? When did we see you as a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you as a resident of an assisted living facility?”
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Living under the righteous reign of the risen Jesus, you begin to see family where you didn’t think there was any. Living under the promise of the gospel—that Jesus has suffered and died out of God’s great love for you—empowers us to greet his face each and every day. The least of these among us are, as it turns out, playing Jesus simulator, and we grow in faith and hope when we jump in their game and begin to serve, clothe, feed, and love. When we let that gospel rule in our hearts, we see the kingdom of his righteousness begins breaking in all around us.

Recently I was performing pre-marriage counseling with a young couple who recently got married, a process I always enjoy. As we were winding our session up one day our conversation drifted from the discussions about the nitty-gritty of sharing a common life, combining checking accounts and negotiating conflict, to some of the joys of having a spouse.  They got a little glint in their eye as they talked about how they had already begun to enjoy, as they described it, doing “grown-up things together.” I was a little curious to know what exactly they meant by that, because they clearly had something particular in their mind. When I asked them, they coyly looked at each other for a second and then said, “Well, last week we shopping together for items for the food pantry, and last Sunday we brought them in…together, like our parents used to do when we were little. Doing that on our own made us feel so ‘grown up.’”

Lord Jesus, hasten the day when we all define maturity that way, in terms of giving, in terms of feeding the hungry.

Humble Savior, hasten the day when your grace fully dissolves my tendency to live and serve others solely from a sense of fear that I might be a goat.

Christ our King, hasten that great day when you gather us all before your throne and there are no more border patrol and immigration disputes because there are no more borders, when there will be no more assisted living facilities because you will be our only assistance, the day when there will be no more food pantry shopping because there will be no more hunger. Hasten that great day and remind us—you Gracious Gamer, you—that you were present with us all along.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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