When Gratitude Isn’t Enough
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” This quote, often if not accurately attributed to 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart, is a lovely thought, worthy of the most tasteful inspirational poster; but in light of today’s Gospel, I’m not sure it’s accurate. There’s nothing quite like the threat of eternal punishment to shake us out of our Thanksgiving stupor. If only we could leave things as they’re left in today’s psalm, if only these were our only instructions: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name.” Why? Because “the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.” If gratitude is all that’s required of us, then maybe it’s not so bad to be the sheep of God’s pasture. There doesn’t seem to be much ground for judging between sheep – until Ezekiel bursts our bubble.
We might not naturally think of ourselves as the fat sheep from today’s first reading, but I’m guessing most of us are on the well-fed side. What do we do then with this vision of a God who destroys the fat and strong, who feeds us alright – but with justice? Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen quite a few of the mighty among us fall hard. Politicians, actors, legendary journalists have seen their careers vanish within a matter of days over how they’ve treated those they’ve perceived as weaker. Justice, as most might identify it, has been swift and merciless – and, let’s face it, unequally applied. There are still plenty of fat sheep out there pushing with flank and shoulder, butting at the weak with their horns, trampling the pastures and muddying the waters for those who come after them.
That’s part of the appeal of our Gospel reading, I suppose. We social justice types love this story at first – with its clear mandate to care for the “least of these.” We know it’s our job to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked and care for the sick. People of good will across the political and religious spectrum can actually agree on this one, even as we might disagree over how to go about it. Nevertheless, most of the time, if only to be polite, we do try to cut the reading off before the king turns from the sheep to the goats.
It’s fine with us for the sheep to inherit the kingdom; but what about the goats? You see, we know the truth (about ourselves, anyway) – that we’re both sheep and goats, depending on the moment. We can be both at the same time. For every time we give away a bag of clothes to the needy, there’s at least a couple more times we buy more for ourselves instead – without considering who made those clothes or how well they’re clothed or fed. We might welcome a stranger as long as we’re here in church, but we’re just as likely to stick to those we think of as our own. While we might find ourselves praying for prisoners, few of us actually go out of our way to visit them. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes we do listen to the better angels of our nature, but there are just as many times when we’re too scared or overwhelmed or just plain greedy to be generous.
Even if we wanted to meet every need we see, we know we don’t have the resources to pull it off. That’s where prayer comes in – because it’s hard sometimes to know how to give effectively; we need more than our good intentions and knee-jerk guilt. We need discernment; we need prayer. So we pray about what to do next and, when we get it wrong, we ask for the courage and wisdom to get it right the next time.
Perhaps that’s all we can do – throw ourselves on the mercy of the court and keep trying. It seems preferable to the other options. I suppose we could try to take charge of the almighty sorting hat and decide for ourselves who goes where. But if this passage makes anything clear, it’s that the role of judge does not belong to us. We can only hope we’re being judged by eyes more just and merciful than our own.
In the face of overwhelming need, most of us take option #2 and pivot to gratitude instead. We decide that feeling lucky for what we have is enough. There’s nothing wrong with being thankful (in fact, it’s a central spiritual practice), but there’s something missing if our response stops there. Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry, and you were thankful for what you had. I was thirsty, and you called yourself blessed.” As pastor and writer Lillian Daniel puts it, “when (we) witness pain and declare (ourselves) lucky, (we) have fallen way short of what Jesus would do…The hungry don’t get fed, the homeless don’t get sheltered, and the world doesn’t change because people who are doing okay feel lucky. We need more.”
Those dissatisfied with doors 1 and 2 could try what’s behind door #3 instead: deny that there will ever be judgment for things done and left undone. Bank on God’s mercy; forget about justice. The problem with that is that it makes God indifferent to human need. Do we really want a God who has no intention of ever setting things right? Most of us would welcome a world where we’re not held captive to the criminally greedy anymore and those who wreak havoc on the fragile are made to pay.
The problem, of course, is that we don’t know how to hold justice and mercy in the same hand. Most days, we feel forced to choose – and most often, we decide on justice for others and mercy for ourselves. We rail at the mighty who’ve fallen among us and find it all too easy to dismiss the accomplishments that made them mighty in the first place. Especially in times of high emotion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to hold two seemingly irreconcilable things at the same time – that we as humans can be both generous and selfish, simultaneously sheep and goat. Thank God we serve a Savior who can hold justice and mercy together. Praise God - we follow a Shepherd who laid down his life for both sheep and goats, for those on his right and those on his left. We can rejoice today because we do have a God who holds us accountable - but whose mercy is also everlasting at the same time. God’s justice is part of God’s faithfulness to the weak; it’s how it endures from age to age. We’re here on Christ the King Sunday because we’re offering our allegiance to the One who exercises power not by lording it over us but by sharing it with us – calling us to seek him in the needy and then keep serving them whether we’re able to see his face in them or not.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to consider the hungry, the thirsty, the people who need clothes in your circle of influence; the strangers, the sick, the imprisoned people you know and how you might seek and serve Christ in them. If you can’t think of anyone who fits into any of these categories, how might you reduce the distance so you can see their faces again? Once you have those folks in mind, you could pray on how we might hold two things in our minds and hearts at the same time – what might justice for them look like? What might mercy look like, and how can we be a part of it? In the Name of the One who is worthy of thanks but who wouldn’t think of letting us stop there, Amen.