Sheep this way – goats the other. Sheep get to go to heaven; goats to the other place.
In our gospel reading from Matthew Jesus talks about a coming time where the sheep will be separated from the goats. Not like a Palestinian farmer at night, where they literally herded the sheep one way and the goats the other. But a time when the “Son of Man” will sit in judgment. And the sheep will be the ones who have fed Jesus, welcomed him, clothed him and visited him. These are the ones who will be rewarded.
But the “sheep” protest and say we did not do any of these things to you – we did not know! And the goats – who really do have a reason to protest say – we did not know either – we did not know that beggar we passed in the street was you; or that stranger we couldn’t be bothered talking to at coffee hour after church – now if we had realised it was you Jesus, we would have stopped and talked and helped out.
Well it wasn’t literally me Jesus says, but every time you reached out, every time you engaged with someone in need; it was as if you were talking to me, helping me. And every time you didn’t it was as if you were ignoring me.
Now we may well protest and say hang on a minute – it is impossible to help every person in need, and to talk to every stranger we meet; we can’t literally talk to everyone in prison – that would be impossible! If we gave money to every beggar on the street we would have nothing left for our families and children. So are we being set up for failure here? Maybe.
Once upon a time there was a monastery, once a great order, which had lost all its branch houses and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by some possible chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. I hear it is the same in all the nearby towns. So the old abbot and the hermit commiserated together.
The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. The abbot said “It has been a wonderful thing to talk with you, but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give.
The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us.
I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?
Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.
But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody.
But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.
And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Now because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate.
As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.
Jesus as the Son of Man sits in judgment on the sheep and the goats not so that we will all rush out and give away all we have, and exhaust ourselves with trying to meet the standard of gospel story; but so that we will think about what it might be like to see God or the Christ in every person we meet.
One writer, aptly named Jennifer Lord, says “the kingdom of God is not a location or a state of emotion or even a social service activity”, the kingdom of God is us, as we see Christ in each other. The kingdom of God or the way of God or the community of God is not ordered and beautiful like our liturgy. It is messy and random and as varied and as wonderful as each one of us and as each person who has walked past our doors and never dreamed of stepping inside. We step into God’s community when we look at each other as if for the first time with openness and interest, genuine interest, to know and to discover who we each might be; without preconceived ideas and judgments.
In the pastoral care training that the pastoral care group have been doing with Allanah we have been learning about our basic emotional needs for connection and care.
What a difference it makes when we really listen to each other, attend to each other, if just for a moment. Without this kind of connection we literally wither away and die.
In our church communities like in families we don’t get to pick and choose who worships alongside us; we don’t get to exclude anyone (as long as they are willing to treat others with respect and courtesy); we are stuck with each other. And sometimes we have to work at being community together, other times it comes naturally. Imagine what might happen if we worked at the spiritual discipline of seeing Jesus/ the Messiah/ the Christ in each other. If we believed in each other enough and in ourselves enough that we would see Christ in each other – not just in our beautiful music and in the eucharist, but in each other, with all our annoying habits, and ways of being.
Then the people who drop by to “picnic” in our grounds – the people who drop by for events or weddings or who drop into our services will wonder at what they find. They will not find “perfect” people; they will not find all social problems solved; they will not find all our theologies exactly the same; they will not find that we all voted for the same political party; they will not find the sheep sorted from the goats. But they might just find a community full of passion for life and passion for the God whom we find in our midst, in each other, in the messiness of life. For we look for the Christ in each other.