With or without horns

Draft Shooting script for a sermon on Christ the King: Matthew 25

Just to start with: what makes a sheep a sheep and a goat a goat?

Is it horns – here’s some goats with no horns, sheep with fabulous horns.

Is it attitude, or capability for damage?  just give it some thought . In the meantime,

From next Sunday, we’re offering a daily video to recycle the penitential, reflective, Season of Advent, as a resource  which  Christianity provides for  encounter with global threats and upheavals,  but which has degenerated into a countdown to consumer Christmas, punctuated by chocolate.

(Maybe keep the chocolate!)

I’ve found it’s very worthwhile to hitch a lift on the Christian calendar: 

To work with beloved festivals and actions of our faith, variously shared  across different churches. 

If there’s any ‘landfill’ in the life of your church; something  of which you’re absolutely certain  there’s no environmental repurposing possible , I’d be delighted to hear about it. Without reservation or restriction, there’s nothing too holy to be green.

Even if not every church ‘does’ Season of Creation, for which, in EcoCongregations,  we pedal really hard,  there’s evangelistic mileage in a tree in church at Christmas, in an outing to a wind farm for Pentecost, and Easter-with-wood, from Sunday Branches to crucifixion tree,  and more.  

Last year I found you can now get into some very productive trouble with that modest  traditional practice of  giving up meat for Lent.  

Today,  many churches, mark  the  “Feast of Christ the King/ the reign of Christ”… a minefield for how we think of Jesus. 

Do we know Jesus as a friend, a mentor, companion, a partner in life lived with justice,  a comforter in disaster, a treehugging speaker to wind and waves….

or as ‘he who must be obeyed’.  I hope we’ve grown out of the latter.

Blind obedience risks idolatrous obedience to just one received  presentation of Jesus.  Imprisoning him  in the throne.  Dumping all our own responsibilities on him, as if we had no purpose ourselves. 

That is not the message of this story.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, at the Annunciation, describes herself –  repellently,  if we’re rigorous – as a “slave” – and yet asserts the right to her own decision. 

At which point the angel clears off: no longer needed!

Likewise, whenever  her son Jesus was in danger of being identified as  a despotic ruler, he repurposed, what we understand as  ‘rule’. 

Above all,  with  this story, we welcome Jesus  the  master storyteller of urgent change. Jesus the catalytic artist who, rather than being a candidate  for more profitable retraining, compellingly  recycles both fears and faith.

When we turn up at eco meetings  we get that look: Christians: what are THEY here for? 

But here’s the good news.

You’d think that it  would be an uphill task,  when Lectionaries that many churches follow, are as innocent of climate crisis as you’d expect a sheep to be of justice.

And yet, it both is and isn’t hard.

First of all,  the  glossy veneer of environmental irrelevance  in our translating and presenting of Scripture in our lifetimes isn’t that deep. 

 A wee scratch and you find something very green underneath.  Good News for every creature.  And, what Pope Francis insists on: the inseparability of Creation care  and justice, as we listen for the voice, groans, joy and praise of every creature, after their own kind.

What you also find, is , how much of Jesus is warnings. The earliest known Christian hymn is “Wake up sleeper!”

We don’t approach with  complacency recrimination, but rather, with gratitude, our immediate ancestors in the faith, who concluded  salvation was an exclusively  human thing, and tweaked sacred language accordingly. Writing prayers and hymns reducing  creation to an inert lump of property signed over to  exclusive human whim, and benefit. 

Especially, we thank them when they acted in the cause of justice.  That’s our  point of happy  solidarity with them.  Even  those who, with the best intentions, shoehorned the idea of endless linear growth and progress into  hymns, prayers and more. They longed for the end of poverty and expressed it that way,  though God-as-only-endless has  turned out to be a diabolical shortcut to ‘endless-only is God’. 

We thank them because, as we become aware of  slants filters and lenses, and because awareness breeds respect,  we are called  to seek out, right now, as they did right then,  what’s right for our own age on this planet.  

Our parents might  look like goats but they were mostly trying to be sheep.

Listen, that we may hear what the  Spirit is saying to God’s people today, because today is so different, even from a very recent yesterday. And  God keeps up to date.

When it comes to  ‘time’, Bible writers and Earth scientists both tend to think in “ages”;  in chunks of time punctuated by upheaval. The turnings of those ages are very delicate times indeed. 

They occasion leaps in faith, rather than getting bogged down in the prudence of a world which, like fossil fuels, is already passing away. That’s why scriptural  resources of judgement, inherited  from times of persecution, can be responsibly, if recklessly, recycled:

Transitions are Time to embrace – with justice – the vision and moral imagination of the common good, which,  it turns out, rewards seemingly selfless justice more realistically than selfishly tidy calculation. 

Astoundingly, science and faith concur. 

Nonetheless, when Jesus says he will be with us through the End of the Age- how do we receive that as better news, because  it’s how it’s written, than seamless,  “endless” “always”. 

Well, for a start,  whatever has an end also has a purpose.  Endings enable  new beginnings.  

When we befriend our mortality, then, through the cross, we come closer to our friend Jesus, who did not flee endings, but repurposed their opportunities. 

Befriending mortality is a  foundational insight for the deep, reverend urgency which equips us to respond in days which, far from uniquely in history,  have a right  to be seen as ‘the last days’ .

So: to this wonderful and scary folktale  of sheep and goats that the same Jesus whose God wanted none to be lost – therefore inflicted on his friends.  

This story, scarily,  but ultimately realistically, confronts us first with the challenge of ‘too late’. Life is like musical chairs. And you don’t know when the music will stop.

And that’s why this  shocking tale is not about any conveniently or impossibly remote future, but bluntly addressed to you right now.  

It’s a tale of slippery slopes and  irretrievable tipping-points, a reminder that without  extreme vigilance,  things really can get out  of hand.  

And that like every hurt  we’ve done the planet, even damage done without malice, is real damage. Seemingly  “innocent injustice” is unmasked  as self-inflicted harm.  Malice may be absent, but choices are not.

Identifying this as folktale is no insult. It’s long been recognised that folk literature – even watered down , candy floss ‘fairy stories’ – play an important part in children’s mental health and the development of character.  

In stories, like the highest of high-level computer languages; Far more going on under the bonnet of than any report of supposed fact.

This story -mixing horror and  rural idyll – wakes us up to the perennial urgency of justice in all aspects of life, and in every choice we make.  It’s a very ‘adult’ tale indeed!

Above all, in our blind spots. Sheep and goats are  equally unaware of holes they are digging, treasures they are  accruing . 

In the course of “safely grazing” -which, truth told, is what sheep and goats are most bothered with –  the sheep include, the goats exclude specifically the most glaringly vulnerable fellow creatures.

That’s where, both  in contrast and confirmation of  Christ on the Cross in Luke, this folktale from Matthew rules out any excuse of ‘not knowing what they do’.

I asked what makes  sheep  sheep and  goats goats. It’s nothing to do with horns, nor with capability for damage.  And it’s the shepherd, the judge, the protector of the flock as a whole, who  makes this identification.

I’d like to risk suggesting, because Jesus doesn’t actually call it that , that this story is not the “last”  or ultimate  judgement,  but more, a  judgment at  the end of this age.

So today,  in the midst of all our crises, do you identify as a sheep or a goat?  

As righteous or a sinner?  As sheep with horns, or a goat without ?   

Five hundred years ago, the Reformer Martin Luther concluded we should  identify, with truth, as both. If I brutally simplified the theological argument: damage is done, and we’ve been part of it, but  there’s no cause to give up,  for in Christ, it’s open to us to be goats in sheeps’ clothing.  

It was the choices, not the species that identified the left and right.  And justice, which the Jesus in this story reminds us is not a human invention, but built in to Creation from the foundation of the world.