Monday, November 21, 2011

Gratitude, Grace and Abundant Living

Matthew 25: 31-46
Some words of Jesus cut to the quick of human nature.  But they also show us who we can be as a people of God, centered in Christ and living the Gospel message of hope, help and redemption.  His words show us that there is grace and because of God’s life saving grace our lives can be lived in gratitude and with joyfully abundant hearts.

It seems we should be hearing today’s reading during Holy Week, not at Thanksgiving when our hearts are naturally and so easily filled with generosity and giving and fullness and love.  

In context, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in a triumphal procession.  He purges the holy temple of the money changers and merchants and is challenged by the chief priests of Jerusalem. 

Then Jesus tells some stories, some parables, four in particular with the same message.  It’s clear that there is essential information that he is trying to get through to the people.  The kingdom of God will come.  You just don’t know when so, be ready.  In the meantime, be a decent God loving human being.  Be the face, hands and heart of Christ to others. 

            Hear now the Gospel of Matthew, the 25th chapter…

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

 Then the righteous will answer him, “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 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.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

Hearing today’s text is sort of like peering over Santa’s shoulder, watching him check his list just about Thanksgiving time.  He checks his list, he checks it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice so that he can begin to make the toys for the good girls and boys of the world.  He can also make sure that he has enough coal on hand for the other ill behaved children.  But Santa is not God, nor is Santa the shepherd who provides for our needs.  Pay no attention to those retailers out there.

The shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand.  In first century Palestine, sheep and goats would graze together, yet each night they had to be separated to preserve the flock.  The sheep enjoy open air living and the goats need protection.  Two different ways of living.   

So the shepherd calls them home, he gathers them in at night; separating is part of the job of shepherding.  Jesus uses this analogy to demonstrate the necessity of ethical, decent living and a way of ministering to others…..or not.  There are choices to be made.  Consequences will result.  We will be judged, like it or not.

So rather than choosing whether or not one is a sheep or a goat, or scrambling to make sure we are the sheep so we can get on God’s right side, let’s admit that there is a little sheep and goat in each and every one of us.  Most of the time we do the ‘right’ thing; sometimes we fall short of God’s expectations for us.

Yet, God affirms us all equally to begin with, we are gathered in together.  God values us individually… irreplaceably.  God protects and guides us through many a deep dark place and accompanies us to the heights of the mountaintops.  I believe it is a comfort and a joy to know that we are loved with compassion and tenderness even when we display goat-like behavior.  This is grace.  The great good news is that we can envision a future built upon hope and when we do that we free ourselves up to live our lives IN gratitude. 

Gratitude is not just a once a year occurrence pulled off the shelf, dusted off at Thanksgiving and carefully placed in the cornucopia.  It’s an each and every day way of living.  Gratitude flows NOT from the things that we have or have obtained in life.  It is a human response that flows out of the gift of divine grace that God has extended to us in all circumstances and all times. 

The moving Anthem of Thanksgiving that we just heard is an expression of gratitude for the harvest.  The Promise of Living is from Aaron Copland’s opera entitled The Tender Land written around 1952.  The libretto was written by Horace Everett and you will find the words in your bulletin so that you can reflect upon them later.

Copland was moved and inspired to write this music after he had seen photos by Walker Evans, who documented the Great Depression in poignant and heartrending black and white photography.  We know this economic downtown severely affected everyone particularly the least of these.  Not unlike today, just different. Copland was stirred by photos;  the empty faces of children in rural Alabama and the desperate looks on the faces of migrant workers. 
The setting for The Tender Land is the Midwest in the 1930’s.  Farmland folks.  Perhaps they were hit the hardest and migrant workers were the poorest of the poor as they are today.  Yet the Moss family finds great thanksgiving for the spring harvest amid the adversities of their lives.  They give God’s providence the utmost thanksgiving because  they have had an abundant spring harvest and are living abundantly working, growing, loving, and sharing.   
They were thankful for what work they had and for being able to share the plentiful crops with their neighbors. 

Hear now again in part this prayer of thanksgiving.

The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor.

The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving……

We plant each row with seeds of grain, and Providence sends us the sun and the rain,
By lending a hand, by lending an arm bring out from the farm, the blessings of harvest.

Give thanks there was sunshine, give thanks there was rain, Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain, O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful to the Lord for His blessing.

The promise of ending in right understanding is peace in our own hearts and peace with our neighbor.

The promise of living, the promise of growing, the promise of ending is labor and sharing and loving.

I commend this poem be read at your table of Thanksgiving. There is a promise of living that is dependent upon our neighbors because we are not alone in this endeavor.  The least of these and the greatest of these are at times interchangeable.  There is promise of growth when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none.  We grow beyond ourselves and into the world when we thank God for all that has been done in our lives.  Then we are truly free to live our lives in grace and in gratitude. 

May the promise of living be our prayer of thanksgiving to the God who loves us deeply, who provides for us in profound ways, who will gather us in each night, protect us from all harm, and renew us in the light of Christ.

Reverend Suzanne E. Wagner

Photos by Walker Evans

1 comment:

zeder said...

be blessed, regard uwe-jens (berlin)