Sunday, November 16, 2014

Homily for The Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26)

Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Peter 3:3-14; Daniel 7:9-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The temptation for us is to become myopic and shortsighted. What I mean is that, we humans are prone to getting caught up in the tyranny of the urgent and the cares, the worries, and the anxieties of our day. Whatever pressing travail afflicts us, we permit it to become all encompassing, overwhelming, and mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually crippling. While our natural, God-given response should be to either fight or to flee, too often we merely roll over and play dead and do nothing at all. Either way, our Enemy wins because he gets us to shirk our vocations and our God-given responsibilities when we fear losing all the transient and temporal things that we try to acquire and to hold on to so desperately, trying to convince ourselves that they really will last and not fade away.
Money, possessions, reputation, career, spouse, children – these we clamor to amass, to keep, to protect, and to hold on to at all costs. We permit our lives, our value, and the measure of our success or failure to be judged by these fleeting things. Of course this is idolatry and a violation of the First Commandment, as we continually place our fear, our love, and our trust in created things in place of the Creator of all things. And, when we are reminded of this, we may nod our heads and say, “Yeah, I know,” and wish that things could be different, never really believing that they will be and thus never really trying, ho-hum. However, such idolatry is not a victimless sin. We’re not only hurting God – if such a thing were possible – but we are hurting other people: our brothers and our sisters in Christ, our family and our friends, our neighbors. We are hurting them, a violation of the Fifth Commandment, by not helping and befriending them in their bodily needs. You see, when we are so worried and anxious for ourselves, we are literally incurvatus in se, that is, curved in on ourselves. This means that we cannot be looking outward towards others and their needs because we are too consumed with looking inward to our own real or perceived needs, wants, and desires exacerbated by anxiety, worry, and stress from clamoring to amass, to keep, to protect, and to hold on to whatever at all costs. Such idolatry is ultimately selfishness and a worship of the self. In Jesus’ parable today, it is precisely self-centered idolatry that makes for the difference between the sheep and the goats.
You see, the sheep were already sheep before the sorting, and the goats were already goats. It’s not like the Shepherd made them or judged them to be sheep or goats at the moment of the sorting, but he knows them by sheepish and goatish fruits they bear. Sheep do sheepy things, and goats do not, just the way a healthy tree bears good fruit and a diseased tree does not. And, the fruits the Shepherd is looking for are works of kindness, charity, mercy, and love towards others: feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty to drink, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. You can only serve your neighbor in these ways if you are looking outward instead of continually inward to your self.
Consequently, the sheep, that is, faithful believers, were not even aware that they were serving their Lord, for they were simply doing the things they were given to do. As I said earlier, sheep do sheepy things. And so, it’s not that they were always conscious and aware, and certainly not keeping tallies and records, of their good works, but they produced these works much like fruit, the way an apple tree produces apples, or the way a grapevine produces grapes. The sheep do the things that they do, the things for which the Lord commends them and blesses them, precisely because they are sheep and not goats. Therefore, we must direct our attention and our meditation, not to the works themselves, but rather to what it means to be a sheep, and how one becomes a sheep in the first place.
The truth is, we were all once goats. And the truth is, we often still exhibit goatish behavior and do goatish things. And, if we focus only, or primarily, upon our behavior, our works, then we will likely despair believing that, deep down, we truly are goats and not sheep. The goatish things that we do not want to do, that is what we continually find ourselves doing, while the sheepy things we want to do, those things we do not do. Yet, even more likely, we will not despair our being goats, but we will pump ourselves with pride and convince ourselves that we are sheep, or at least that we are more sheepy than all the obvious goats we see all around us. No, we must not focus only, or even primarily, upon our behavior and our works – that is the way of the Law. Instead, we must focus upon our Lord’s behavior and His works, His humility and selflessness, His obedience and faith and His trust, His love and forgiveness, His death and resurrection for all us goats. In His suffering, death, and resurrection, our Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, has raised us from goatish death to new and eternal sheepish life. Behold, He makes all things new. He even makes the lame walk and the deaf hear. He makes goats to be sheep. Thanks be to God!
Your Lord Jesus teaches you that becoming a sheep is like being born. It is not something you do or decide, but it is something that happens to you, wholly apart from your will, your work, or your reason. Jesus also teaches that becoming a sheep is like having the wind blow upon you. You cannot make the wind to blow upon anymore than you can stop it from blowing upon you. That, Jesus teaches, is precisely the way the Holy Spirit of God works, creating faith and making sheep  out of goats when and where He pleases.
However, while becoming a sheep is not a decision or a choice that you make, being a sheep is a considerably different thing than being a goat. Sheep do sheepy, not goatish, things. And, the sheepy things that Jesus’ sheep do are the fruit of His own love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. And, that is what Jesus’ judgment parable about the sheep and the goats is really all about: love. The works of grace, mercy, love, and compassion the faithful sheep in the parable exhibit (works they are mostly unaware that they are doing!) are the fruit of the grace, mercy, love, and compassion they themselves have received from their Lord and their Shepherd. What they give and do for others does not even remotely strike them as a work or a burden, let alone a loss or grievance of any kind. And, when it is pointed out to them, they are likely to say, “That’s just what Christians do.” Christians do the good works that they do because of what Christ has done for them and for all: They give with Christ’s gifts. They show mercy with Christ’s mercy. They love with Christ’s love. They are compassionate with Christ’s compassion. They forgive with Christ’s forgiveness.
Not so the goats. Effectively, St. Peter describes the goats in today’s Epistle Lesson saying, “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” That last part, “following their own sinful desires,” is key. You see, the scoffing is really just an attempt to justify their goatish behavior. You’ve heard it before; you’ve probably asked before: “If there were a God, why doesn’t He do something about evil and suffering in the world?” “If God is real and cares about us, why doesn’t He show Himself and destroy all doubt?” “From what I can tell, there is no God; everything evolved from molecules to man, and the origin of all things is some cosmic explosion fourteen billion years ago.” “There is no God. There is no morality. There is no truth. Whatever is true for you is true enough, so long as you don’t infringe upon anyone else’s truth.” “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This is why goats act the way they do. They do not believe. They refuse to receive. Thus, they live for themselves and they serve themselves and they worship themselves. They do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, but they are god to themselves and place themselves above all things. They neither acknowledge God nor their need for Him. They do not receive from Him, thus they have nothing to give. They are what they are by nature; they are goats.
But, they tempt the Lord’s sheep to return to their goatish ways. That is why St. Peter exhorts the faithful to “be diligent to be found by [the Lord] without spot or blemish, and at peace.” Now, to be found without spot or blemish is to be found in faith, trusting in the Lord and His Word and not in your works and merit. To be found at peace is to be found content and humble in the Lord’s providence and not seeking gain or profit, particularly at the expense of others. And so, being a sheep is much less about what sheep do as it is about what sheep do not do – sheep do not do what goats do, and thus, they remain the sheep that the Lord has made them to be. And, when they do do goatish things, they return in humility, repentance, and faith to the Lord that He might forgive them and wash them anew, making them white and righteous in His blood once again.
Our Lord Jesus, our Good Shepherd, desires for all to join His fold. He continues to call both sheep and goats, and His Spirit is blowing where and when it pleases Him, able to turn goats into sheep. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” We must not fret and worry about, and become overwhelmed with, cares and desires, fears and anxieties. Then we become incurvatus in se, turned in on ourselves. True freedom, the freedom that Jesus Christ died to give, is realized in grace, mercy, love, and compassion towards others. Therefore, your Lord Jesus invites you to find rest in Him: rest from your striving, rest from your anxiety, rest from your fear. Jesus is the Sabbath rest of the LORD. Jesus is peace with God. In Him you lack nothing. In Him you have everything, and more, to give freely as you have freely received.

In the + Name of jesus. Amen.

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