Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
November 22, 2020
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Monarch in the Street
When the Son of Man comes in his glory and sits upon his throne he will gather
all the nations before him and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd
separates the sheep from the goats…
In this last parable in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is making a distinction,
separating the right and the left, the sheep and goats, the blessed and cursed. It’s pretty
clear, it’s pretty concrete, it’s pretty dramatic. Granted it’s a parable, a story, a teaching
device, but there’s no getting around that this is a parable of division.
We prefer not to hear about division in church. We don’t like division. We’re the
United Church of Christ. We like those stories where Jesus is crossing the cultural
boundaries of his time to bridge the social and religious chasms that kept people apart.
We like those scriptures that speak of our equality, our unity, out togetherness. “There is
no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or
female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That’s what we like. Not goats over here,
sheep over there.
Jesus creating a division? Jesus initiating a separation? Jesus pointing to the left
and the right, blessing this way, curses that? That makes us squirm. But there it is: the
parable of the sheep and the goats, clearly a parable of division, a story of judgment. As
Mark Twain once said, “It’s not those parts of the Bible that I do not understand that
bother me. It’s the parts of the Bible I do understand that bother me the most.”
Tony Campolo, a nationally known writer, speaker, evangelist, in an address to
the United Methodist National Hunger Summit, spoke the following:
The only description that Jesus gives of the judgment day is in terms of how we
have responded to the poor and needy. I wish it were otherwise because I’m an
evangelical. I believe in the four spiritual laws. I believe in the Bible. I believe that
salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, and I know that I would have all
the right answers if God would ask just the right questions…But these are not the
questions that are asked. On that day we will be asked: I was hungry, did you
feed me? I was naked; did you clothe me? I was sick; did you care for me? I was
in prison; did you visit me? If you did it to the least of these my brothers and
sisters, you did it to me. And if you failed to do it unto the least of these my
brothers and sisters, you failed to do it unto me…
[Tony Campolo continues]… I don’t like that kind of criteria for judgment. I want it
to be theological, but the Bible is quite clear. This commitment to the poor, this
commitment to the hungry is at the very basis of what it means to be a
There’s the dividing line, there’s the difference between being a sheep and being a
goat: how we respond to the suffering and the needs of those around us. The sheep do
it, the goats don’t. And yet in rereading this parable what caught my attention this time
through is the fact that the sheep and the goats ask the very same question. Neither the
goats nor the sheep saw just who it was they were walking past or stopping to help.
“When did we see you?” they both ask. Maybe, sometimes, God isn’t where you expect.
Let me offer a homespun illustration.
Do you remember playing hide-and-seek with your children when they were quite
young? Mom or Dad close their eyes and the kids run to “hide.” You know, the lump
behind the curtain, the toes peeking out from under the bed. After the right amount of
counting― “…Eighteen, nineteen, twenty! Ready or not, here I come!” ―you proceed to
Tony Campolo. “Hungry No More,” Christian Social Action, Sept/Oct. 2002, pp. 3-7
search high and low, making a big show of checking all those places they aren’t. “Are
you behind the door? No. Under the sofa cushions? Nope, not there.” You know how
the game goes. Meanwhile, peals of giggles are pouring out from below the dining room
table all the while you keep loudly looking everywhere but there. Finally, the children
who have been “hidden” all this time, jump out and yell “Boo!” to your “complete
surprise.” But every once in a while, your child might find a real hiding place, make their
way down to the basement and squirrel themselves behind a trunk or the water tank
, and really and truly be hidden. And you can’t find them in the usual places. You can’t
see them. You can’t even hear them. You know the children are the house. But just
where they are, you don’t know.
“When did we see you, Lord?” Sometimes God in is in all the obvious places, so
easy to find: in the scriptures, in the beauty and majesty of nature, in the warmth and
kindness of friends and family, in answers to heartfelt prayers, in the generosity of
strangers or close calls that went our way. But sometimes Jesus is in the basement, in
the cold and in the dark, sometimes looking like a child crouching in the corner,
sometimes looking like a prisoner on death row, or an undocumented immigrant
crossing the border illegally, or the straggly guy, probably a drug addict, panhandling at
the intersection. We know God is in the house. We just don’t see God in the places we
usually look for God.
“When did we see you, Lord?” the goats want to know. They didn’t realize it was
the king all along, there in the poor, in the hungry, in the naked, in the foreigner, or the
imprisoned. Maybe, instead, what they saw was “a victim of their own poor choices,”
This sermon illustration is borrowed from a sermon by Edward Markquart. www.sermonsfromseattle.com
someone who could pull themselves out of the mess they’re in if they only wanted to, or
worked hard enough, or stopped their drinking, or entered the country the right way.
But maybe the goats weren’t as hard-hearted as all that. Maybe what they saw
was what we see: so much need, so much poverty, so much suffering you almost have
to shut your eyes. It’s too much to take in. A humanitarian disaster in Yemen. 250,000
people dead of COVID right here. One more senseless shooting. Yet another ravaging
hurricane. Maybe the goats felt what we feel at times, “compassion fatigue.” You just
can’t care for everyone or take on every worthy cause out there. So, they just shut their
Or maybe what the goats saw was just a teeming crowd of needy people. It’s
overwhelming, where do you start? Maybe what the goats saw was a crowd and how do
you feed and clothe and visit a crowd? Mother Theresa herself once said, “I never take
care of crowds, only a person. If I stopped to look at the crowds, I would never begin.”
Maybe that was the problem for the goats. All they saw were crowds.
Or maybe when God was hiding in the basement, the basement of one more
hopeless cause, that was all the goats could see, the hopelessness of it all, the futility.
“What can one cup of water accomplish? What can my few dollars do? The problem is
too big. The need is too great. I can’t make a difference.” Maybe the goats didn’t see the
Lord hiding there because the basement felt endless and who wants step off the bottom
stair into a bottomless problem? We all want our efforts to be and feel effective.
But isn’t it interesting that Jesus, in telling this parable, never says anything about
efficacy? “I was hungry and you fed me (even though I’ll probably be hungry tomorrow,
too)… I was naked and you clothed me (even though you didn’t have enough to clothe
my whole village)… I was in prison and you visited me (even though I may never thank
you).” Maybe the goats were waiting till they could be sure their efforts would be
effective and produce a measurable outcome. “When did we see you, Lord?”
The funny thing is, it’s the very same question the sheep ask. They are just as
confused, just as clueless. “When did we feed you, clothe you, visit you, shelter you?”
The sheep didn’t recognize Jesus either. They weren’t doing the right thing because
they’d heard a good sermon about serving the needy and felt obliged. They weren’t
engaging in calculated gestures of charity meant to offset their having so much. They
simply saw a hungry person and they feed them. They saw a naked person and they
clothed them. They saw a child hiding in the basement and they helped them out of the
dark. The sheep hadn’t a clue they were helping the king. They were as surprised as
the goats to learn of the deeper meaning of their actions. “When did we see you, Lord?”
But if this is just a morality tale, meant to point us right from wrong, how do you
strive for unselfconscious caring? How do you aim for selfless generosity? Aren’t those
contradictions of terms? Maybe―despite the “win/lose” nature of this parable―thinking
of compassion or generosity as a test we need to pass is the wrong image. My guess is
that the sheep, if they strove for anything, strove for loving God and their neighbor as
themselves. They probably weren’t too concerned if they’d fed enough mouths to make
the grade or given the panhandler the right amount to be considered generous.
Probably their first desire and instinct was to stay close to the shepherd and take shelter
in the flock. In other words, they learned how to be sheep by being, just that, sheep:
followers of their shepherd, members of their flock, keeping company with the One who
promises to “… seek the lost, …bring back the strayed… bind up the injured,
…strengthen the weak…feed [the flock] with justice” It’s not a matter of ticking the boxes
(“Feed the hungry… check!”) or scratching “Clothe the naked” off our “to do” lists. It’s
more a matter of living close to God and letting God’s love and God’s compassion
simply start changing our hearts. We offer grace by receiving grace. We learn to love
generously by being generously loved. We bestow mercy by having needed mercy. Our
hearts change when we remember we ourselves have been
“lost…strayed…injured…weak.” Really, we don’t have to see Jesus in the naked,
hungry, imprisoned or stranger; we just have to see ourselves.
And isn’t that the way of God who created us in God’s image? Isn’t that how our
“King” rules? Next Sunday we start the Christian calendar all over again and we await
the coming of a savior who is one of us, God with us, Emmanuel. Over and over again
in scripture we are told about a God who loves us and saves us by identifying with us,
not in the end by separating from us―no matter how pungent a parable a good sheep
and goat illustration makes. Season the story with eternal flames of punishment or
eternal life, and you’re sure to get their attention. Our holy task is not to recognize Jesus
in every person who comes are our way. This parable seems to imply that’s impossible,
anyway. Our holy task is to recognize ourselves in every person who comes our way.
All we like sheep have gone astray. All we like goats have missed our chance to serve.
But praise be to our God, our monarch in the streets, who understands our weakness
and identifies with our condition, and sees God’s self in us all.