What a lot of images today in both the reading from Hebrew Scriptures and in our Gospel—an abundance of sheep—both fat and lean, some goats, God, the Great Shepherd and a glimpse of Judgement Day. Happy Christ the King Sunday!
Once every three years, this familiar Gospel reading comes around on Christ the King Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of every church year, and in Matthew, it’s the last opportunity Jesus has to teach his gathered disciples what’s most important—most worth remembering. The next chapter in this Gospel begins with Judas’ betrayal, and it’s all downhill from there. This final parable Jesus uses in his teaching may be the most important of all. We’ll best pay attention!
Are you up for a check-up? How do you all feel about going to the doctor? Truth be told, I don’t like it much—Peter will tell you that I have to be pretty sick or sore before I make an appointment. But I do have an annual check-up. Much as I hate to go to the doctor, I think that my annual check-up is important—and so does Medicare, because they pay for it. My doctor is great—she really listens. She listens to what my body is telling her in m heartbeat and my cough. She also poses questions, listens to my concerns and offers suggestions. I try to be truthful in my answers and listen attentively to her suggestions, even if they make me uncomfortable, because I know my doctor wants what’s best for me—she wants my body to be well and in tune so it can carry me gracefully through the last decade or so of my life. I want that, too.
The parable of the sheep and the goats offers each of us a chance to do a bit of a spiritual check-up–a kind of tune-up. Are we in tune with the sheep or are we hanging out with the goats? What needs to change?
There seems to be in life a constant struggle between head and heart.
Our head wants us to be in charge. In control. It calculates. It manipulates. It wants to be comfortable and safe. Number One and in power, often at the expense of others.
Our heart, on the other hand, is where compassion lives. The heart cares. It’s able to let go. To listen to others. To leave its comfort zone and do the hard thing. To let others succeed. To go second—or even last.
We can all recognize people whose heads really dominate their hearts—they are the bullies, the abusers, the bad bosses…. They are the goats—or maybe they are the fat sheep in the passage from Ezekiel—the ones butting the weaker sheep and taking their food. And if we are honest, we wouldn’t be sorry if they went the way of the goats in the parable!
We also know people whose hearts take the lead in a big way—the “Mother Teresas” among us. The ones who really listen. The ones who meet us where we are and encourage us. Those who are not afraid to leave their comfort zones to help others. Those who seem to know just what to say or do to make things seem better. Those are the sheep!
Matthew seems to see everything in black and white—you are either a sheep or a goat–you are either blessed or doomed to eternal damnation. My own lived experience tells me that this is too easy. Life is much more a blend of various shades of gray. There are days when I fall into the sheep category, but I certainly have my goat moments. I suspect I am not alone in this. Part of this spiritual tune–up might be to see where we are on the sheep/goat spectrum.
One thing I noticed about Matthew’s sheep is how surprised they are when they learn that they had met the King in disguise when they were welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting prisons and hospitals. They didn’t plan to meet him there. They simply were doing what came naturally. Their hearts were tuned to the ways of their Shepherd King.
I have sung in choirs and choruses as long as I can remember. When you are part of a chorus, being in tune with each other is really the most important thing—your diction can be perfect, but if you are out of tune, the whole thing falls flat—literally. Each of our voices has a slightly different timbre, so singing in tune takes paying attention, careful listening and lots of practice. It’s interesting—you can be singing the correct note, but if your vowel sounds don’t match, or if you have a wide vibrato like a solo singer, you can actually sound out of tune! When those vowel sounds match, your tone is straight—when you are singing in tune with others, you can sometimes even hear ghostly “overtones”—musical tones that are a part of the harmonic series above the note you are singing. With Holly’s help, I’ll demonstrate….listen and see if we can make the overtones…. [Holly Sargent came up to the pulpit and we tuned our voices]
We can apply this tuning concept to our spiritual lives as well. To quote an old hymn, we can “tune our hearts to sing God’s grace.” Like musical tuning, it takes deep listening to hear the still, small voice of God. It takes attention—attention to how we live. It takes a willingness to change from the frequency the world offers to God’s frequency. And then, staying in tune takes practice—practicing the ways of being that Jesus teaches us.
In this noisy, complicated and broken world of ours, this is not easy. Even Mother Teresa had trouble staying in tune—her private writings, shared a decade after her death in “Come be my Light” reveal her struggles and her doubts.
St. Augustine called the church “a school for sinners”—that’s true. We are a community of imperfect Jesus followers. The teachers here are also students. We feast at the same Table. We help in the tuning process—to listen, to care, to teach and to learn—and to practice prayer, forgiveness, and compassion—all skills that will help us recognize Jesus in the most unexpected places beyond this building.
When God sends each of us out into that complicated world to bring light and to be light to those on the edges—to bring the good news of God’s mercy, healing and love to all who cross our paths, it’s important to be tuned to God’s frequency for that most important work.
My friends, when we each are tuned to sing God’s grace, when we recognize Jesus in the faces around us, when we see Him in the faces of those we are serving, when we see Him even in ourselves, when we hear and experience those overtones of grace, it’s a beautiful thing. Strive for it.