Matthew 25: 31-46
Who can possibly forget the photograph by Dorothea Lange entitled ‘Migrant Mother’? I think the image is singed on the hide of American history because it reminds us of a not so pleasant time when the least of these, the poor, the disposed, the migrant workers became even more marginalized because of the Great Depression.
Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
Taken in 1936 it is a black and white photo of a woman flanked by two children. Her hair is tied back and the furrows in her forehead are deep from the work and the worry. She looks off in the distance, her right hand cups her chin and her children with their unkempt hair, face in the other direction as if to hide their faces but tenderly rest their heads on her shoulders.
This one photograph tells a poignant story; that mothers love even when they cannot provide adequately, that the effects of the Great Depression took its toll on all people in ways that you and I cannot possibly fathom, that she is not in this position because of her own doing, and that the inconvenient truth of our economy is that we are all dependent upon one another. And that the least of these could be you or me because we share in the human experience of despair, love and grace.
You would think we should be hearing today’s scripture reading during Holy Week, not at Thanksgiving time when and our hearts are filled with generosity, and completeness. But today we end the church season of ordinary time and next week we enter the season of Advent and you can’t have a beginning without and ending.
Jesus has just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey in a triumphal procession and we know that later in the week he will be executed. He purges the temple of the money changers and merchants. He is challenged by the chief priests of Jerusalem. Then he tells a parable as he is so good at doing.
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.’ AMEN!
It’s clear that there is essential information that Jesus is trying to get through to the people before he dies. The kingdom of God will come. You don’t know when that will be so, be ready. In the meantime, and it’s that ‘in the meantime’ that we all need to be concerned with, be a decent God loving human being. Jesus wants us to be the face, hands and heart of his life to others.
Hearing today’s text is unsettling because it clearly speaks of judgment. The shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand. Yet the shepherd calls them home together, he gathers them in; and separating is part of shepherding.
While Jesus warns us that judgment will come he uses this analogy to demonstrate the necessity of ethical, decent living and a way of compassionately ministering to others. We are to care for the least of these, the poorest of the poor, who by circumstances beyond our understanding and most likely not of their making cannot do it on their own or carve out a very meager living.
The moving Anthem of Thanksgiving that (will be offered at the 10 am service) we will hear shortly ….is an expression of deep gratitude for the harvest from a providential God. 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.[i]
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 similar to Dorothea Lange. Despondent adults with empty eyes, a mother with a barefooted child at her breast, dilapidated wooden porches, the blank faces of children in rural Alabama and the desperate looks on the faces of migrant workers…Evans depicted the horrors of the depression that it had particularly on the ‘least of these’ men and women who already were downcast and had practically nothing.
by Walker Evans
Well Copland was stirred by these photographs to write The Tender Land.
Set in the Midwest in the 1930’s the farmland folks and migrant workers were hit the hardest. Yet the Moss family of the Opera finds great thanksgiving for the spring harvest in the middle of the adversities of their lives. The ‘least of these’ are giving thanks because God, the source of all things has been so good to them and that they can share their abundance with their neighbors.
They have had an abundant spring harvest and are living working, growing, loving, and sharing all of this with their friends. They were thankful for what work they had which wasn’t much and for being able to share the plentiful crops with their neighbors. The least of these doing for the least of these. This is grace and gratitude.
In part their prayer of thanksgiving….
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.
I commend this entire poem be read at your table of Thanksgiving when you are surrounded by those you love. We can be warmed by its touching words and we can also take a lesson from it.
We are dependent upon our neighbors because we are not alone in this endeavor we call life. The least of these and the greatest of these, the sheep and the goats, are at times interchangeable. We are they and they are us and we share in life’s most basic needs. So let us be thankful that we can offer each other, and those less fortunate the bounty and blessing of the harvest, the very gifts of our lives that God has given to us. Because that’s what God wants us to do. That’s how Christ wants us to live.
Gratitude is not just a once a year occurrence pulled off the shelf, dusted off at Thanksgiving and carefully placed in the cornucopia of life. It’s an 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.
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.
If the farmers and migrant workers can sing with all of their hearts a great song of praise and thanksgiving surely we can lift up our voices to.
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.