Start with a question this morning – John – looking at them in a group, how do you tell sheep and goats apart?
Sheep’s tail hangs down and a goat’s sticks up!
Plenty of sheep and goats in today’s reading – Jesus gives us a dramatic image of a king separating people into two camps on the basis of how they’ve behaved towards vulnerable people. Did they act with compassion towards them or not?
In the reading the sheep and goats are separated before they are judged. Shepherds in the middle east routinely allow the sheep and the goats to graze together all day – no issues, but at the end of each day, they are separated because the goats are less hardy and need to be kept warm overnight. Apparently, once shorn, they are often quite difficult to tell apart – but now we know how don’t we – should we ever be in that position – look for the direction of the tails! ?
And Jesus shows us that we should leave the judging up to him – but he’s very clear – judgment there will be for all! Jesus’ first coming was humble and almost unnoticed – but his 2nd coming will be filled with glory – and EVERY knee will bow!
This parable has inspired practical engagement with social need down through the centuries, from the monastic beginnings of the first hospitals through John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists going out to visit prisons to the very current work of foodbanks and asylum seeker advocacy projects.
So this morning, let’s think first a bit about justice and judgement, and then a few thoughts on current social justice issues.
In the reading, the delineation is between the sheep who did the right thing and the goats who didn’t. Humans tend to use arbitrary – and often unhelpful – criteria to cause division, to judge others, such as ethnicity, religion, class or politics.
Worse than that – there is a clear element of scapegoating (no pun intended) linked to our divisions – people and groups are singled out and blamed for their activities and behaviours. We need look no further back than the last few months to see that this never ends well.
I take the view we are where we are, and our history is our history, the bits we’re comfortable with and the bits we’re not, including slavery and discrimination of all kinds. In my opinion, we need to know our history, to have it visible and in the open; to talk and debate about it as we teach our children, so that in repentance, the mistakes of the past don’t get repeated into our future.
As we now know, without a fleece, a sheep looks remarkably like a goat, and at times it is hard to differentiate motives and actions.
The concept of justice is one of the most profound longings of the human race, and central to both Judaism and Christianity, and so of course, is central to much of what’s enshrined in our laws today. Justice is hard to define and harder still to put into practice, but that has never stopped people seeking it, praying for it and working to find ways of doing it better. For me, Justice means bringing the world back into balance.
So much is unbalanced about our society today. Our news has been so dominated with covid that we could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting how much need there is in the world. I’m grateful for the updates we get via our whatsapp groups about those areas in the world that most urgently need prayer.
Sadly, the world is full of people who have been separated from their families, friends and homelands due to their ethnicity or religious/political beliefs. We have hungry children in our town. Thankful for the charities and NGO’s and foodbanks, many of them Christian who are on the ground working to support them.
The talk of reducing or cancelling our Foreign Aid budget, and all this pre-ordering of millions of doses of Covid vaccine leaves me feeling ashamed. The WHO said recently that 20m children around the world already don’t have access to the general vaccines we take for granted! How on earth do we think poorer countries can ever control Covid – a global pandemic needs a global vaccine – not millions snapped up in advance by the highest bidders!
– I want a ‘buy 2 and give one to a third world country’ policy. And I’m optimistic enough (or just hopelessly naïve) to think that if one first world government did it, others would follow suit.
I find it embarrassing to reflect that though personally I might be trying really hard to respond to need in a sheep sort of way, I belong to a society that behaves very much like a goat at times!
The way we respond to human need should be utterly instinctive – just because we’re human. Lots of people have stepped up in their communities over these months – not just people of faith – cos it’s part of being human – they may not know God, but we know that it’s part of God’s image deep at the heart of every single person. As Christians, we should be going above and beyond the immediate and instinctive – social justice – setting the example, stepping up.
Our buildings might be closed, but the church is still very much here! Living out the gospel, reaching out with God’s love and without our own judgement. Over the months to come, if the need becomes greater as the economic hardship deepens, it should be us that are stepping up to feed and clothe and comfort those in our communities who are at the end of themselves.
As I come in to land – I believe in that final judgement, God will ask us – do you love me and what did you do with the gift of life that I gave you?
Friends it won’t be enough for us to say – I tried to live a good life.
How would you answer if you were before him right now? In the light of that answer, what do you want to change? Do you know and love him as your lord and saviour? And then how can you behave in your life and your personal circumstances and restrictions to be a sheep – inside and out, shorn or not?
Can you act? For some of us, restricted by age or shielding, starting up a soup kitchen is probably not what God is asking of you! Can you support campaigns for justice, write to politicians, educate yourself and those around you about the level of need?
Can you pray? Often, once we’ve raise our awareness about a certain matter, its loads easier to pray about it consistently over time – it stops being vague and generalised as we become interested and invested in the people and the issues – it becomes personal.
Can you give? Time or money. Don’t think the little that you can do is too little – this passage tells us that the Lord sees it all ?
Love God, love our neighbour as ourselves. Christ is more among us that we think he is. Remember Hebrews 13:1-3, which says this ….
The Samaritan didn’t set up a whole ‘safe travel project’ for the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, he just went above and beyond the minimum for the person and the situation God put in front of him!
How might we please our Shepherd by the way we respond to the need around us …… God sees your heart and knows your limitations – remember the comfort of David’s reflection on Psalm 23 last week. God is not in the business of beating us up for not doing enough – I believe he offers us a series of invitations to partner with him in HIS strength not our own.
I’m going to put some links to organisations in my next email – if you’re watching us on youtube or fb, make sure you sign up.
In all the confusion this country and our world is in – remember this – Jesus has already won the victory over death and the grave, already sits in glory now, has already poured out and continues to pour out the gift of the HS – when we speak out against injustice or step out to meet human need, we are not alone!
I’m going to pray a prayer – maybe it will find an echo in your heart. Let’s pray ….
Lord – We’re not saved by works – we can’t earn our way to heaven, what prompts us to respond above and beyond is because Jesus went above and beyond when he expressed his love for you and me to the point of death on the cross.
I love him because he loved me first; I seek to serve the lost and the lonely and the least because he asks me to; I try to do it as free from judgment as I’m humanly able to because judgement is his alone. Amen