Have you ever noticed that it is easier to grumpy about something than it is to be grateful? I have, and I’ve noticed it in me. We had a beautiful, warm October. And then we had those four or five days of no electricity. My attitude changed. I went from celebration of beauty to frustration over no power. And it occurred to me as I was pondering that, that electricity is a relatively new phenomenon. Normally I’m not given to wild, unsubstantiated statements, but I’m ready to toss one out now. I’ll bet that more people have lived on this planet without electricity than have lived with it. It would never have occurred to Jesus to say, “I went five days without electricity, and you didn’t bring me a generator.” And there I was, grumbling about the lack of it. Now don’t get me wrong. The first two days is great fun. Its like camping inside your house. So why aren’t the other three days like that? Nothing has changed!
I’m convinced that grumpy happens all by itself. Sometimes grumbling and complaining flows out of us all by itself. Sometimes we don’t even realize were doing it. And if grumbling and complaining can happen all by itself, then it stands to reason that an attitude of gratitude is something that needs to be cultivated. Gratitude doesn’t happen all by itself. An attitude of gratitude and a sense of thanksgiving is something that we have to work at until we get it right.
Our passage this morning is all about the second coming of our Lord and the final judgment that accompanies it. As it turns out, this just happens to be the time of year for dabbling in things having to do with the end times and final judgment. And that’s kind of ironic, actually. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and it is the beginning of the Christian new year. Our Christian forebears couldn’t quite bring themselves to order their lives around the Roman calendar, on account of the persecution that they had suffered under the Roman empire, and so they came up with their own calendar. And so if I forget to say so next Sunday, “happy new year.” And in this time of the new year that we call Advent, we spend some time exploring end times and final judgment. New year, end times. Actually the end times is also a new beginning, but that’s another whole sermon.
But this morning, I’m going to try to extract a sermon about gratitude, out of a passage of Scripture that is about judgment. In this parable, and a parable it is, all of humanity is divided into two groups at the final judgment, in the same way a shepherd might separate his sheep from his goats. And for purposes of this sermon, let us assume that the sheep are the ones who have hearts that are filled with gratitude and thanksgiving, and that the goats are the grumblers and the complainers who have no sense of gratitude whatsoever.
Once everyone is divided up into these two groups, Jesus says to the sheep, “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.”
And the righteous will reply, “Uh, Jesus, it’s nice of you to say these things, but really, you must be mistaken. We’re pretty sure that we never did see you in any of these difficult situations. Forgive us, but we didn’t notice. That wasn’t us doing all those good things for you. Perhaps it was someone else.”
And we know the reply, don’t we? It is rather telling. Jesus, the transcendent king of the universe, looks lovingly and compassionately at them and says, “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.”
What happened there? Why did these people do the things that they did? Was it out of a begrudging sense of duty or obligation? Did they feel that they had to do these things in order to inherit eternal life? Not at all! They did these things because they had these things to share. They were grateful for the things that they had been given, they were thankful for the things that they had received, and so it seemed right to them that they should share them with those who lacked them. Very simple, really. And this was because they had developed attitudes of gratitude. These folks aren’t super spiritual people, they aren’t “holy Joes”, they’re just people who understand that God is the source of their blessings, and in gracious imitation of their Lord, they have found joy in becoming the source of blessings for others. I think that’s pretty cool! To find joy in bringing blessings to others, is right up there on God’s scale of being a faithful Christian. If any of us has something to share, and we all do, and if we’re grateful for that stuff, we ought to be sharing some of it with others who are less fortunate. The folks who did this in the parable discovered something utterly amazing: when they shared their stuff, without fully realizing it, they were actually becoming a source of blessing to their Lord as well. We can be people who bless others and our Lord, all at the same time, all by the same actions.
As I was working on this sermon, it occurred to me that Jesus, in the fullness of his experience of humanity on this earth, actually endured every one of the misfortunes that he lists here. He was hungry when he and his disciples passed through the grain fields on the Sabbath. He was thirsty when he opened his soul to the Samaritan woman at the well. He was a stranger at every moment that he spent on this earth, especially among his own people. He was naked on the day that he was born and on the day that he died. He was sick as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was in prison from the time that he was arrested until he was hung up on the cross. That’s quite the experience of humanity, especially coming from the man who said in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
Release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of
The Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18,19)
What remains, then are the grumblers and the complainers and the ingrates. Jesus says to them, “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.”
And we know the reply here, too, don’t we? It is one of self righteous indignation. “Now you wait one minute, Jesus, none of this is true! We never saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison, and if we had, we certainly would have done something about it! We respect you highly; we have deep admiration for you. You are a great teacher. If we even suspected that you were experiencing any of these difficulties, we would have formed a committee, we would have written a resolution. You know that we’ve got the resources, we would never have allowed you to suffer any of these indignities. It’s your own fault you didn’t speak up. You can’t treat us like this now, you have no right. You’ve caught us by surprise, and we’re not taking this sitting down. You know that we look out for our own kind, and we’ve always considered you to be one of us. This is just way too out of line. It is inexcusable. We expected more from you, Jesus. Grumble, grumble, grumble, complain, complain, complain.
I don’t see any anger in Jesus’ eyes, only sorrow. These are folks who could have been people with hearts of gratitude, but they were too blind to see the needs around them, and too consumed with themselves to be anything but greedy and selfish. And so Jesus, with sorrow in his heart, and grief in his soul, says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Some of us here this morning may still be recovering from our Thanksgiving celebrations. Most of us, myself included, sat down to a meal of absolute abundance. We couldn’t eat like that every day or we would die. Next Sunday, we will be gathering around a different table. This table will be set in a much simpler fashion. It will be set simply with scraps of broken bread and tiny little cups of wine. This is the table that reminds us of the true source of our blessings. This is the table that Jesus sets for us, and around which we sit at his invitation. This is the table where Jesus serves us. This is the table where all our needs are met, and this is the table where we hear Jesus say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
But this is also where the one who was hungry, the one who was thirsty, the one who was a stranger, the one who was naked, the one who was sick, and the one who was in prison says to us, “Take this bread, and eat it, for this is my body that was broken for you. And take this cup and drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
This is the table from which our true nourishment comes. This is the table that reminds us of the source of each and every one of our blessings. This is the table that compels us and encourages us to develop true and genuine attitudes of gratitude. And this is the table from which we humbly rise, shaken by the Holy Spirit, and moved with compassion to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to open our arms to the stranger, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, and to minister to those imprisoned by their sins. And we do this because we have been blessed beyond all measure. It is so simple. We do it because we have these things to share. And we have them because they have been shared with us.
Let us pray: O hungry, thirsty stranger; O naked, sick and imprisoned Lord, we come to you this morning with hearts of gratitude for the table of blessing that you so graciously and continuously set before us. Help us to acknowledge you always as the source of our strength and hope. We are indeed grateful for your gift of salvation and eternal life. And while we praise you as the Risen and Exalted Lord, sitting at the right hand of God our Father, help us to respond to the needs of those who bear your image, who are still hungry, thirsty, alienated, naked, sick and held captive. And it is in your Holy name that we pray. Amen.