Gratitude & Blessing
2 Corinthians 9:6-15 Matthew 25:31-46
Gratitude Sunday November 20, 2011

The image of people being separated out by God as “goats and sheep” is a stark one. It raises the issue of judgement, and makes most of us uncomfortable. We don’t like to think of God as judging us or anyone else as being unworthy. We don’t like to think of Jesus saying some people are not going to be welcome in God’s presence, because we work so hard to break down barriers, to be inclusive and to let everyone in. The whole idea of judgement seems to go against the grain of all that Jesus taught. It does not seem to be in keeping with his focus on love and compassion. Until you start looking at the whole picture here. The judgement spoken of does not happen in a vacuum. In essence, what is going on is that we are placing ourselves in one of those groups, the sheep or goats. We are the ones who are choosing to be loving and compassionate, and we are also the ones who are choosing not to be loving or compassionate. We bring judgement upon ourselves by our actions and by our inaction. When we care for someone who is hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger or in prison, we are expressing our love, not only for the person to whom we reach out, but also for God. These acts of care are also a participation in and an acting out of Jesus’ own compassion. There is a popular saying that we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world today, and if this is true, then any of these caring things that we do, we do acting on behalf of God. One side of this is that we do not act alone, and so when we choose to do something difficult, we are not alone in our efforts. The other side of this is that perhaps Christ can only act when we act, so if we do not care for folks who are in need, then these loving acts may not be done, and God’s own hands are tied, to a certain extent, by our unwillingness to participate!
If we see this scripture in its totality, then we also see why the judgement is so harsh on those who do not do loving and compassionate things for the people around them. It would be easy to carry out acts of kindness if we knew for sure that we were offering them to God, but when we are confronted by the stark realities of poverty, imprisonment and loneliness, often we don’t see God in those people or their situations. Many people in need are the kind of people we would rather avoid. Poverty is often surrounded by a culture we do not understand, and for which we often blame the sufferers. When I went with a group of young people down to Appalachia to work on homes in need of repair, I remember being surprised and even judgmental about the fact that one family made it a point to buy a case of Coca-Cola every day, and supplied their children with the latest and greatest technology even though they often went without food and lived in abject poverty. We don’t know what it feels like to be so different from other folks because of not having enough money. We don’t understand, or at least I didn’t understand, why these people would choose to buy expensive non-essential items when they needed so much more in terms of the basics of life. Their almost desperate need to fit in was something I did not grasp, and many of us in the mainstream of culture have the luxury of not needing to understand. When we think of prisons, we see criminals, people who have chosen to go against the laws of our society, and we have a difficult time stirring up our compassion for them, let alone reaching out to them in love. Even after people have served their full terms, and are therefore no longer “criminals” they are shunned by society and find it extremely hard to find any kind of work with prison-time on their record. We don’t really want to relate to folks who have served time, because we like to think we are different from them. Loneliness hits closer to home for us, I think, because each of us at certain times in our lives are the stranger. We have all experienced the sensation of not fitting in, of being outside the circle of inclusion. We usually do all we can to ensure that we do fit in, because it is just too uncomfortable not to fit in. When we see someone who is a stranger, it can be difficult to see them with compassion, partly because we question whether we are truly in the group enough to welcome someone else. In addition, they may act in ways that alienate themselves from other people, and we feel uncomfortable approaching them, concerned that we might become associated with them and lose our own tenuous membership in the “in crowd.”
I am impressed by people who have given up everything they have to welcome the stranger, to reach out their hands with love and compassion to people who are on the very edges of our society. We see the examples of those like Mother Theresa who dare to associate themselves with the sick and the poor, and we know that we cannot measure up. But God doesn’t ask us to measure up to someone else’s scale of compassion. God doesn’t ask us to take on someone else’s role in the world. All God asks of us is that we do the part that is ours to do, to give what we have within us to give, to be who we are meant to be. Of course, when we do these things in the light of Jesus’ love, compassion and teachings; at times we may feel ourselves being stretched a bit, beyond what we thought we could do. But as we already know, we are not alone in any of this. It is never really only up to us.
Our reading from Second Corinthians brings this way of being in the world into sharper focus. Here Paul is encouraging folks in the practice of generosity. He reminds us that if we are generous, God is generous with us. As we give to others, God keeps filling our coffers and meeting our needs. The imagery here is important to note, though, God supplies “seed to the sower” which reminds us that we have a role in the generosity of God. We are the ones who will take this seed and plant it, nurture it and finally harvest it. Then it can be shared. We take part in God’s generosity, not just as a passive channel through which God’s abundance flows without effort, but as a working link in the connection God has in this world. Paul writes that we, as the givers, are blessed, and so are those who receive, when we give in God’s name.
“10 And God, who supplies seed for the sower and bread to eat, will also supply you with all the seed you need and will make it grow and produce a rich harvest from your generosity.11 He will always make you rich enough to be generous at all times, so that many will thank God for your gifts which they receive from us.12 For this service you perform not only meets the needs of God's people, but also produces an outpouring of gratitude to God.13 And because of the proof which this service of yours brings, many will give glory to God for your loyalty to the gospel of Christ, which you profess, and for your generosity in sharing with them and everyone else.”
This Sunday before Thanksgiving is what we have come to call “Gratitude Sunday.” It is a day in which we think about the blessings we have in our lives and our gratitude for them. It is also a day to recommit ourselves to being a part of God’s generosity, by pledging to give what we are able to give in all the various ways that giving is possible. Together, let us seek out where and when and how God’s generosity might be expressed through us, and commit ourselves to doing what we are called to do, in response.
Loving God, your abundance fills us and our lives. Your love flows over us and out into the world. Your compassion stretched beyond any normal limits. We want to be a part of all of this. We want to be a part of You. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.