St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, College Park, MD
There are lots of sheep in the readings today. Sheep in the Hebrew Scriptures and sheep in the Gospel, with some goats thrown in for good measure. As I was working on the sermon this week I joked that the Bible is fifty-percent sheep. You could say that all of Christian tradition is fifty-percent sheep. Sheep in the histories, sheep in the prophesies, sheep in the psalms, sheep in the parables, sheep in the liturgy, sheep in the stained glass, sheep in the hymnody.
We have metaphorical sheep stacked to the rafters, but because we are mostly urban and suburban residents most of us don’t know a lot about actual sheep. I am not an expert on sheep, but I was an Animal Science major in college, where I learned a little bit about sheep. I learned how to flip a sheep, which sounds like tossing a sheep on its head, but really means gently sitting the sheep down on its backside, a position used for shearing, hoof trimming and other husbandry practices. I took a course in sheep, visited any number of working sheep farms, designed sheep diets and for a final project wrote up a business plan for a hobby sheep farm that would sell the wool of Black Welsh Mountain sheep to the hobby spinners, weavers and knitters all up and down the Eastern Seaboard. I had to design a barn, find a source for my starter flock, and write up a budget. I got an A, and my paper farm turned a tidy profit in its first year, which is something real farms almost never do. If you think you’d like to start a farm, I highly recommend a paper farm. Very few bad things happen on a paper farm. None of your feed is ever moldy, your employees are trustworthy, your lambs never die of disease or exposure, you don’t need to worry about the big sheep pushing with flank and shoulder and butting all the weak animals until they are scattered far and wide, and your livelihood isn't threatened every time an animal gets sick.
Of course, a paper farm full of paper animals doesn't produce real wool, milk and meat that can be turned into clothing, used as food or sold for money. You need real animals for that, and because sheep are nimble, good foragers, compact, gregarious and multi-purpose they were popular livestock in Ezekiel’s time, and in Jesus’ time, as they are in many parts of the world today. The biggest drawback to sheep is that predators find sheep as tasty as people do, and sheep, while they have many fine qualities, are not smart. They need protection, and if a flock of sheep is following the best grazing, you can’t just bring them all back into the barn at night and go sleep in your soft, warm bed. The shepherd has to be out there with the sheep, keeping predators away and caring for the injured. The shepherd has to know which sheep have the best temperaments and which sheep have the easiest time at lambing. If there is danger, the shepherd needs to be able to bring the sheep to him quickly. The sheep, in turn, must know that the shepherd is trustworthy and safe.
That’s the image of God we’re given in this Sunday’s readings, and yet if you look on the cover of your bulletin you will see that we call this Sunday “Christ the King.” As an American whose ancestors were kicked out of the all of the respectable countries, I don’t have much good to say about Kings and Queens. For a long time, Monarchs used the Church as a tool to oppress the poor. The rich and powerful were said to have been anointed by God and the poor were poor because of God’s will. To be a good Christian was to be obedient to the Monarchy. Kings and Queens wore crowns of gold and if there were blood, sweat, and tears to be shed, you can be sure that it was not their own. A King used his power to push the little people around. A King ate rich foods every day, while the peasants who tilled the soil and raised the livestock barely had enough to survive. A King turned peasants into foot soldiers and sent them into battle knowing that many, if not most, would die, caring not how many fell, but only that they defeated the enemy in the process. Come to think of it, there are plenty of rich and powerful folks doing that today. We might not call them Kings and Queens, but they sure act like Kings and Queens, some of them even still use God as a cudgel to get the peasants in line.
The Rich and Powerful of today are not listening to Scripture any more than the Kings and Queens of the past who claimed that their leadership was a Divine Right. Earthly rulers may push and shove to get their way, they may see themselves as God-like, but the God of our scripture is a Shepherd King with dirt under his nails instead of blood on his hands, and the earthly powers are mere sheep, just as the exiled Israelites of Ezekiel’s time were sheep, just as you and I and the poorest of our brothers and sisters are sheep. Humans, like sheep, are nimble, and good foragers and gregarious.
Gregarious, when used to talk about a college student means friendly and outgoing, often seen in groups, in livestock circles it means not only does the animal like to be in groups, it needs to be in a group. A sheep alone in a pasture is a sheep that is about to be eaten. When I say that humans are gregarious, I don’t mean that we’re all extroverted, but that we all need our flock. We depend on each other and on our Shepherd for our survival. In today’s Gospel reading, the flock, our flock, is sorted not by how well they followed the rubrics of the church, or how well they obeyed the rich and powerful. They are not sorted by how quickly they called their neighbor to account, or if they cast out their own eye because it offended them. They are not sorted by how often they went to church or which church they went to or what clothes they wore when they were there. In this parable they’re not even sorted on whether they have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
When the Son of Man turns to the sheep at his right hand he doesn't tell them “Congratulations, you were the smartest, the most pious, the shrewdest investor.” He tells them “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” That’s the criteria. We get to be sheep on the right hand side if you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned. We do these things because Christ is in all of those people and we serve Christ, and because Christ the Shepherd is in us, and the Shepherd serves the flock. We promise, in our baptismal covenant, which we’ll renew today as we welcome Drew, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Not the powerful human beings, not the human beings who have the same race, color, creed, gender, sexuality or nationality as we do, not even just the ones that we can see Christ in, all people, the whole flock. The promise is to SEEK and serve, not to SORT and serve. The love of God which we are called to spread is the servant love of a Shepherd King, and every sheep matters.
I’d like to close with a quote from Thomas Merton, a Twentieth Century Trappist Monk and theologian: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody's business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”
*St. Andrew's celebrates Christ the King Sunday a week early so that we can celebrate St. Andrew's day the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Most Episcopal churches will celebrate Christ the King next Sunday.
The Lectionary Page
The Listening Hermit: The Feast of Christ the ComradeThe Church of Scotland, Starters for Sunday (.pdf.)
Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer
The Church of Scotland, Starters for Sunday (.pdf.)
Cross posted on the Sermons at St. Andrew's blog