Feeling “sheepish”?

Address given on 22 November – “Christ the King”

Today I want to speak about Consequences, Kings and Caprinae – and I appreciate that that isn’t quite alliteration, but it does give you a short introduction as to where I’m going!

As we come to the end of the church’s year, on this last Sunday before Advent, we come to the end of our focus on St Matthew for our Gospel readings.
I remember standing here this time last year and advising those in church that we would be in for a bumpy ride:
St Matthew’s Gospel contains within it some of the most comforting sayings in scripture – “Come to me, all you who are weary – and I will give you rest”; or “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful..”;
and some inspiring words “Go and make disciples of all nations – behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
But it also includes some of the most difficult and challenging teachings of Jesus. And Chapter 25, from which we’ve just heard, is no exception: last week we heard the fate of the slave who failed to use the talent – the coin – entrusted to him by his master; and today’s parable of the sheep and goats seems equally unforgiving.
And there’s a very clear message that there will be consequences in the next life for the way that we live today. In this particular parable, the judgement is unequivocal and final – some are destined for eternal life, and others for eternal judgement, there is no middle ground.
That vision does fit with Matthew’s liking for hard edges – for a clear dividing line between the faithful, as he seems them, and everyone else. And yet, even so, the core of this parable is actually quite the opposite – emphasising the need to show kindness to those that most need it, whoever and wherever they may be
The kindness or the indifference with which we treat “the least” of our brothers and sisters is the way that Christ deems us to have treated him – and in turn, determines the way that he will treat us.

So what should we make of Christ the King – who, in this church, is depicted in the apse behind me, looking down from the judgement throne?
Clearly our own society, even with a reigning monarch, is very different from that of the 1st Century, where kings ruled in a more direct sense.
And, for me, the harsh judge of today’s parable brings to mind a rather troubling image of a celestial Donald Trump – issuing executive orders at whim, and sending away into the outer darkness anyone whose opinions don’t fit with the version of the truth he wants to present.
Fortunately, St Paul rides to the rescue today – in his letter to the Ephesians. Here the Son of Man, seated on the throne of glory, is identified clearly as the one who was raised from the dead, having first lived among us.
For Paul, then, “Christ the King” is not some distant, despotic figure – he is the Crucified Saviour, immersed in the sorrows of the word – and whose own human face we can still recognise, in the features of downtrodden and suffering humanity today.
It is because God does understand what it is to be human that he is such a powerful judge – there is no wriggle room, no excuse of frailty in front of one who’s seen and lived it all before us.
Come judgement day, it seems, there is nothing more to be said – our actions will speak for themselves.
At this time of year, as Christmas approaches, we inevitably face a whole raft of appeals from charities at home and abroad. And this year, in particular, with so much financial uncertainty, we may be left with the overwhelming feeling that we just can’t do everything we’d like to.
But can we, in watchful Advent, take the time to notice and to seek those who seem to be in greatest need, whoever and wherever they turn out to be?
Can we make Advent a season of preparation and of kindness, in which to work out what we can do for the least of these –
whether or not that involves giving money, or spending time with someone, or perhaps making a change of lifestyle to correct the negative impact we have on others?
And now to Caprinae – the sub-family to which both sheep and goats belong.
Sheep and goats may not always appear as different as our Gospel reading suggests.
I still remember the disgust in my household, when one well-meaning tourist referred to our Jacob’s sheep as “spotty goats”!
And if woolly, western sheep can be so easily confused, then I suspect the skinny sheep of Palestine are even more similar to the goats there – proving what we already know, that appearances can be deceptive.

Scientifically, there is a difference between the two: sheep have 54 chromosomes – and are referred to as the Ovis genus; whereas Goats – the Capra genus – have 60 chromosomes.
And they behave differently.
Sheep tend to graze, munching away wherever they are put (although if you ask my neighbour about our sheep and her vegetable garden, she may question that theory!)
Goats, on the other hand, are professional foragers – wandering at will: which is why we often see them tethered here, as they can be quite destructive when left to it.

Sheep are willing to be led – “my sheep hear my voice.. they know me, and follow me” – and they tend to flock together.
Goats tend to be more independent – of us and of each other. They are arguably more intelligent than sheep – and like to do their own thing.
So is that what the parable is getting at – that we are going to be judged on the degree to which we take account of others, rather than just ourselves?
As with the animals, so with people – we can’t possibly judge good from bad simply from appearances: and, in any case, it’s not our place to judge.
It’s not even that simple with ourselves, either: none of us is entirely good or bad – like the “spotty goats” that are in fact sheep – we almost certainly display confusing elements of both.

All of us, I suggest possess noble, selfless instincts – that drive us to do good things, to think good of others, to put others first;
but there are always those selfish doubts niggling away – am I being taken for a ride here; do I really want to do this; what about me for a change?

And so we will need to work at resisting our goat-like tendencies, and cultivating our sheep-like awareness of others – if we are to be clearly recognised by Christ on the right side of the divide.

And so, to risk another bout of alliteration, Advent calls for an attitude of attentiveness.
We are invited to be attentive to ourselves, and the way we live our lives;
attentive to others, and the things that might transform their lives for good;
attentive to God – who gave us life and, in Christ, has redeemed us all.