Proper 29 Sermon Year A "Even a Goat Can Get a Break"

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Ezk. 34:11-17; Ps. 95:1-7; I Corinth. 15:20-28; Math. 25:31-46

Goats tend to get a bum rap. Think of all the slang sayings where the term goat is used as a negative.

"Making someone a scape goat", where by we select someone else - usually weaker and more vulnerable - to take the blame for some wrong we have done.

"He's just an old goat," a reference to a man who is crabby, unkempt, or just a little too interested in the ladies.

"There she goes again, acting the goat," a British saying referring to someone who plays the fool.

"Boy, that guy really knows how to get my goat!" An expression used when a person knows just how to irritate you. The contempory version is knowing how to "push someone's buttons." "Getting someone's goat" originated with an old Welsh belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize one's enemy, you would steal or "get" their goat, rendering their cows less or non-productive.

A word search of "goat + slang" in Goggle results in numerous sayings using the word goat as a pejorative: the Sicilians and Australians in particular having pithy ones, which ultimately were best left out of this sermon!

Even today's scripture from the Gospel of Matthew seems to reinforce this negative association with goats. "The Son of Man [will] come in his glory . . . and he will separate [people] one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left." Matthew then goes on to say that the sheep - who represent the righteous - will inherit the kingdom of God, and the goats - who represent the un-righteous - will enter into the eternal fire: a judgement determined by their treatment of those people in need, that they have encountered in their lives.

Goats get a bum rap, seemingly even by Jesus. Or do they?

Is Jesus actually condemning certain people to eternal damnation? I believe the answer is no. What Jesus is doing is giving a warning. And an opportunity to amend our ways.

You see, I believe that God does not condemn anyone in their totally - goats and/or the un-righteous - to the eternal fire. There is a judgement, and that is something we need to seriously. But we are also made in God's image and beloved by God, and because of that, ultimately what is good about us will be saved.

What God does condemn are those parts of our personality that are goat-like. What God judges and will separate at the end of time is the goat part of us - that part that is self-centered and mean- spirited - from the sheep part of us - that part of us that is selfless and compassionate.

Barbara Brown Taylor has a sermon on this topic which says that we're all goats in one way or another. For instance, my "goat" side is judgmentalism of the whole LaHaye/Wilkinson Left Behind book series crowd. It's the side that does pass by a person in need - even for practical reasons, (like sometimes I have no money, or I am in too much of a hurry to stop and help). It's the side of me that gets jealous, and the side that gets annoyed by how obtuse people can be to accepting the Good News. It's my goat side that tries to identify the people who are sheep and goats in my life . . . and where I always end up determining I am sheep. (Funny how that works!)

What are your goat characteristics?

Today's Gospel is a warning sign: it directs us to be aware of the reality that we humans have both goat and sheep potential. Be on guard against the goat part gaining the upper hand over the sheep part, Jesus says, because that is always the danger - to be seduced into thinking it's acceptable to be the goat.

To use more contemporary language: we need to get in touch with our inner goat, and then strive to redeem the goat part, by being more like sheep. Stripping away the metaphor: we need to hear Christ's call to be compassionate and selfless people, and to respond to that call.

This following story is excerpted from an article that appeared in the magazine, The Witness this month.

"In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, [Douglas] tells the story of his Baltimore slave mistress, Mrs. Sophia Auld, a woman who had earned her own living until she married and who had never had a slave until young Frederick came to live in her household. When he first meets her, she is the Christian ideal and would have been recognized as such by all of Douglass' readers. She prefers him to look her in the face, a bodily representation of equality that was a punishable offense in the slavery South, and she begins to teach him the alphabet until her husband forbids her to, warning her that teaching a slave to read is against the law and will only give him ideas that will render him unfit for the life of unquestioning service before him. Following the nineteenth-century womanly ideal of submission, she obeys her husband, and Douglass portrays this move, this first step in treating him as less than fully human, as the beginning of her descent from Christianity into hell.

Douglass explains that Sophia Auld's initial generosity of spirit is not just confined to the members of her own household, including her new slave, but is lavished on the larger community and on all wayfarers. He writes, "When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach." That is, she obeys Jesus' command, and the Episcopal baptismal covenant, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In today's Gospel, to which Douglass alludes in this passage, Jesus describes a final judgment in which the litmus test for being sent either to eternal life or eternal punishment is people's care for others, especially the poor and marginalized. The Sophia Auld whom Douglass first meets would have been one of the righteous asking, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And, as Jesus explains, "the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'" (Matthew 25:37-40).

But Sophia Auld's living into Christ's call is short-lived, for "The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.... Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness." Once she begins the "depravity" of treating young Douglass as "mere chattel," as less than a human being, she loses her Christian charity as well. No longer does she recognize that the hungry, the naked, and the mourner have a claim on her attention, and her "angelic face gave place to that of a demon."

Sophia Auld allowed the social and cultural demands of the slavery South to nourish and strengthen her inner goat, and diminish her inner sheep. And in doing so, her angelic nature died and she became demonic.

Where in our lives do we allow social, cultural or peer demands, to encourage the goat to rise up, and become the predominant behavior we display?

It is our Christian calling to feed, cloth and comfort those in need - to see Christ in all people and to respond accordingly. It is our Christian hope that God's mercy will allow us to transform and redeem the goat in us, and save ourselves, in our entirety, from the eternal fire.

The icon The Good Shepherd byRobert Lentz on on today's bulletin cover is a provocative one. Has anyone noticed what makes it so?

The Good Shepherd is embracing a goat.

The Good Shepherd is an African.

The Good Shepherd has feminine facial features.

A more traditional icon would have portrayed a white, distinctly male, Good Shepherd with a sheep.

What is Lentz conveying to us in this icon?

Just as in the Gospel story, this icon tells us that Christ the Good Shepherd appears to us in the most unexpected guises. Yet the goat has recognized Christ the Shepherd in this unexpected, unusual person. In return for that recognition the Good Shepherd has embraced and transformed the goat. The goat has been redeemed.

Be alert. Stay awake. Welcome and treat each person as if they are the Good Shepherd himself. When you do so, be prepared for the Good Shepherd to embrace you as well.

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