Sermon for The Reign of Christ, Sunday, November 22 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
It is the festival of the Reign of Christ, the eve of Advent and of a second lockdown in Toronto, and we have travelled through Matthew’s most difficult parables to this one, the judgement of the sheep and the goats. I have argued already that this is intended as the climax of the sequence of parables of the last few weeks, and there’s no doubting the point, nor its importance. It tells us, without hesitation, that what makes a difference for our existential fate is our behaviour towards the vulnerable. It is the passage which gives our statue of Panhandler Jesus its official name, “Whatsoever you do.” It is a passage which challenges us to rethink our images of the divine, to see God incarnate in a prisoner, a beggar, an outcast.
This is a parish which does, almost instinctively, know that service to our most vulnerable neighbours is one of our central forms of worship, that to seek God is to live among the poor, and to offer whatever we have, however little it may be, to create a place of greater kindness. This is a place where, in admittedly human and flawed ways, this happens, and is happening still, even in these hard and complex times.
It seems a shame, perhaps, to complicate this, but most of you probably know me well enough to know that I am going to complicate it anyway.
One question—and this may seem trivial, but I think it will take us somewhere—is why sheep and goats are given their particular symbolic roles in this story. Goats are not notably selfless creatures, but neither, if we are honest, are sheep; both of them are mostly interested in their next meal, and can be refractory and difficult in its pursuit. Both are useful animals, producing milk and meat and hide, and both played important roles in the subsistence economy of the ancient Middle East. Neither of them was considered ritually unclean.
A fact about goats, which owes to their evolution in deserts and situations of scarcity, is that they lack the physical reflex which tells them when they have had enough to eat, and if they are allowed unrestricted access to food, they will eat until they literally explode. This, if we pursued it, would be almost too perfect as a metaphor for modern capitalism. But—perhaps sadly—I don’t think that really underlies this parable.
More likely, I think, it has something to do with the roles which the different animals played in the sacrificial economy of the Temple. Though both sheep and goats were offered in sacrifice for a multitude of reasons, the most vivid and central, for sheep, is the Passover lamb—the blood which remembers and designates God’s mercy on the people of Israel, their liberation from slavery, the judgement upon the Egyptian oppressors. And for goats, the really vivid sacrifice is that of the sin goat, the ritual where the people remove their sins from among them by casting them onto two goats, one of which is killed, the other sent into the wilderness—the scapegoat, for the ritual is the origin of that word. So, sheep inhabit, in some sense, the imaginary world of mercy and deliverance, while goats inhabit the imaginary world of sin, and on some level the division would have seemed to make intuitive sense.
But we need to pause here. Because Jesus takes upon himself both of these roles, is the passover lamb and the scapegoat both, is the one who comes to assume and overturn the whole sacrificial system, to tell us that we are not to kill or cast out those to whom we attribute our sin. To tell us that the kingdom of God, the reign of Christ, must be one in which no one is left out. The parable reflects that dualism which is characteristic of Matthew, that determination to divide the world into good people and bad people, and imagine the bad people—who are never us—as receiving an eternity of punishment. But of course, in the world as it really is, every one of us is, to some degree, both sheep and goat. It is a very rare person who has not ever, even once, helped some vulnerable person in need. And it is a even rarer person who who has not sometimes, wrapped up in personal pains and worries, walked by a fellow human being and failed even to notice their suffering. The dividing line cuts, not between persons, but through each of our souls. We are not to be about creating new scapegoats, the bad people who can be rejected in their entirety, who can carry the sin which we know so well within ourselves. Not one of us is safe—and not one of us is lost. For Christ is lamb and shepherd and sin-goat, all of these, and it is into those hands we fall.
And this is the kingdom to which we belong, and which we must strive to show forth within this world. We are not doing a very good job of it, as a society. In Toronto and Peel, we are about to enter a lockdown which, though necessary and unavoidable now, is coming without any of the measures which would have protected those most at risk—no mandated paid sick leave, no income support for job loss, no rent relief for tenants, no moratorium on evictions—a situation which ensures that, once again, the people who work in warehouses and manufacturing and transport, who live in small crowded apartments, mostly recialized people, will continue to bear all the danger and receive little benefit. It is coming at a time when residents in encampments, who have no other home, have been told by the City that they will be forcibly cleared out in the next week. It comes a few days after some of us learned about the death of a young man who had been a regular guest at our Friday drop-in, a harmless, damaged, fragile soul who was never given any way in to real safety.
And still, we must hold onto the vision of that kingdom, a kingdom not like any kingdom or any kind of state we know now, but a kingdom which is more like a body—a kingdom, in fact, which is a body, a body in need of food and clothing and gentleness. The body of Christ, as it comes to us in the bodies of those we encounter. The body of Christ as we can see it—sometimes, in glimpses—in gatherings of human bodies, in those moments when people have come together not to struggle against each other or against some enemy, but to share in common work and common being, as the parts of a body share a common life.
The sheep in Matthew’s parable, when they fed the hungry and tended to the sick, were not thinking about “doing good”, they weren’t thinking about Jesus, they don’t even remember what it is they did exactly. They simply saw what was in front of them, and did what seemed best to do in their given moment, and did it not because they thought they should but because, on some level or other, it was what they wanted to do.
And maybe this is what the judgement between the sheep and the goats is really about, not external rewards and punishments doled out by a calculating deity, but the reality in which each of us chooses to live. The goats—each of us, when we are the goats—have chosen not to see the body. Have chosen a world in which separate and autonomous individuals pursue their goals at the expense of others. And that is a cold, sad world to live in, a world of anxiety and loneliness. It is the world that most of us mostly inhabit. But sometimes—sometimes we see the body. We see that we are part of one another, and that when we are able to reach out in love, we become the body, the presence of Christ for each other. We are rescued from our grasping selves; we are brought back into the proper land of our humanity, we are fed and healed. We enter, for some short time, into the joy of the kingdom.
And perhaps in each moment, in each choice to see the body or to ignore it, we shape our souls and our eternities, the riches of our inheritance. We come, each of us both sheep and goat, and enter into such joy as we have chosen to know. For the infinity of God’s joy, God’s land, the infinite reality of the body of Christ, is always being offered. We have only to look, and see, and respond.