I’d like to take you on a little trip down Memory Lane, back to a time when things in general seemed a little more care free. I’d like you to imagine that it’s a beautiful day in the middle of Summer. The sun is shining down, the warmth from its rays fill us with happiness. The sky is a stunning shade of blue. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming and the bees are busy gathering pollen. There is just a hint of a cooling breeze. There is a feeling of contentment. God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world. All in all, it’s a perfect day for an outing, a perfect day for a picnic. We prepare our food, sandwiches, pies, pasties, pickles, cheeses – all the foods we really enjoy, we load up the car and make our way out into the countryside. This being a perfect day we find the perfect spot, we park the car, spread out our blanket and just relax. The grass is lush and green and we can hear the relaxing sound of a nearby stream. Everything is so peaceful and so calm and we have a feeling that this is a moment we would like to last forever. This is a moment when time should just stand still. In the distance we can see a flock of sheep grazing peacefully – or are they goats? We need to get closer to be sure.
Over the last few weeks the Gospel of Matthew has spoken about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the absolute certainty is that we do not know when it will come. What is also certain is that when it does come we must be ready for it. We can’t afford to be like the foolish bridesmaids who missed out because they were not prepared, no, we must be more like the good servants who increased their talents.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says that when he returns in glory then the sheep will be separated from the goats and there are some really important questions for us to think about. Am I a sheep or a goat? Why are the sheep and the goats separated? Why are sheep better than goats? Why are sheep rewarded and goats punished? What if I’m already a goat and I don’t know it? How do I make sure that I am not a goat?
So why does God compare us to sheep? After all, sheep can be pretty stupid animals. I have never seen an intelligent sheep. Actually, that’s not quite true. Just outside of Bideford in North Devon is a tourist attraction called “The Big Sheep.” If you are down there it’s well worth a visit and for those of us who perhaps enjoy a little tipple now and again they have a micro brewery there and the good news is you can sample the goods for free. As you can imagine, with a name like The Big Sheep, there is no shortage of the little woolly creatures and some of them can do some pretty amazing things. These sheep can dance, these sheep can count, these sheep can do tricks and they put on shows where you can see them strutting their stuff. These sheep are the exception to the rule however and by and large sheep do not appear to be very bright. Sheep can be prone to stray and where one sheep goes then others will follow like, well, sheep. Sheep are easily frightened – it does not take long to scatter a flock. They can not defend themselves, they have no fangs they have no claws, this makes them easy prey for predators. They can’t carry heavy loads – they are useless as a pack animal. Sheep need someone to look out for them. They need a shepherd.
There are some marked differences between sheep and goats. Sheep are grazers, they eat grasses that are rich in nutrients. Goats are browsers and they eat all sorts of things including things that are not very nutritious. Sheep will follow their shepherd who in turn will look after them and protect them. Goats can be stubborn and will not follow anyone, goats have to be driven not led. God refers to us as sheep not to be disrespectful to us but because he knows that we need a shepherd. Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” The good shepherd knows that his sheep can not bear heavy loads and so takes their cares and concerns upon his own shoulders. He will heal their wounds and calm their troubled spirits. As the psalmist tells us “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
When we look closely at the parable of the sheep and the goats we can see that the sheep acted charitably giving food, drink and clothing to those who needed them. The goats did not do likewise. It is not the evil that they do that condemns them but the good that they do not do. They ask “When was it it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”
As Christians we are called to be Christlike and we are blessed with the fruits of the Spirit which St Paul tells us are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. Good works are the direct result of living with these fruits and are acceptable to God because of the relationship between servant and master, between the sheep and the shepherd.
I would like to conclude by telling you a little story that was written by Leo Tolstoy.
Many years ago, there lived in Marseilles and old shoemaker who was loved by all who knew him. His name was Martin.
One Christmas Eve, he was sitting alone in his shop reading of the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus and of the gifts they brought. He said to himself “If tomorrow was the first Christmas and if Jesus was born this very night here in Marseilles I know what I would give him.” He walked over to a shelf and took down two tiny shoes of the softest white leather decorated with silver buckles. “I would give Him these”, he said, “my finest work.”
He placed the shoes back on the shelf and went to rest. Hardly had he closed his eyes he heard a voice calling his name. “Martin, Martin.” He could feel a presence and then the voice spoke again. “Martin, you have wished to see me. Tomorrow I shall pass by your window, if you see me and bid me enter, I shall be your guest at your table.”
Martin did not sleep that night for joy. He rose early and cleaned and prepared his little shop. On the table he placed a loaf of white bread, a jar of honey, and a pitcher of milk, over the fire he hung a pot of tea. He then went to sit by the window to watch and to wait.
Presently he saw an old street sweeper who was blowing on his hands to keep them warm. “Poor man must be freezing” he thought and so he invited the man in for a hot cup of tea which was gratefully accepted. Not long after Martin saw a young miserably clothed woman carrying a baby. She paused to rest in the shelter of his doorway. The old man’s heart was touched and he flung open the door. “Come in and get warm and rest, you do not look well,” he said. “I am going to the hospital” she explained, “I hope they will take me in and my baby boy, my husband is at sea and I am ill and have no-one to turn to.” “You poor child,” said Martin, “you must have something to eat. No? Then have some milk for the little one, why, he has no shoes on his feet. I have no shoes for him” she said. “Then he shall have these” and he took the little shoes from the shelf and put them on the child’s feet. They fitted perfectly. Shortly after the woman left, tearful, and her heart was full of gratitude.
Martin once more sat by the window and though many needy people passed and shared his hospitality his expected guest did not appear. “It was only a dream” he sighed with a heavy heart. “Perhaps I didn’t believe enough and so he has not come.” Suddenly, it seemed that the room was filled with light and visions of the people he had helped during the day appeared before him. Each smiled at him and said “have you not seen me, did I not sit at your table?” Martin heard the voice once again saying “whoever receives one such in my name receives me, for I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me. AMEN.
Christ the King 22.11.2020