Scripture: Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ghost of Thanksgiving Past
This past week, I found myself in a conversation or two that was focused on how celebrating Thanksgiving has changed through my lifetime. When I was a child, all major holidays required a major family gathering at my great-aunt’s house—her name was Virginia, but her diminutive size earned her the nickname “Squirt” far before I came onto the scene.
My great-aunt Squirt would begin baking pies in September. These would be frozen in a chest freezer that was specifically emptied out so it could hold all the Thanksgiving goodies. When Thanksgiving actually arrived, three eight-foot tables stretched through the combination dining-room and kitchen space—not for sitting, but to support the acres and acres of food. The forty or more family members who gathered each holiday had to find somewhere else to sit and actually eat.
And of course: eat we did. If memory serves, we started eating around eleven and didn’t stop until well into the evening. There would be football on tv, Skip-Bo games in the breakfast nook, and a lot of napping. When the family gathered together, it wasn’t a place free of conflict, but it was somewhere you had a place.
Overall, these are happy memories for me. There was abundance, and acceptance, and freedom—and in ways that I’m not sure I experienced anywhere else.
But I know that this Hallmark image of the holiday has not been universally experienced. There have been times of very real lack in my own life that made any Thanksgiving challenging, and I am aware that others‘ experiences of need make even these dry times seem like plenty. I am aware (too) that not all of us have had a similar experience of gathering and the peace that being gathered can bring.
All that can make it difficult for some of us to identify with these images in Jeremiah—even though his world is disturbingly familiar. The world Jeremiah addresses is one of great inequality, one where the few manipulate the many, one where some profit off others, one where the leadership—even and especially the so-called “religious” leaders—do more harm than good, scattering and destroying those most vulnerable by their greedy policies and violent actions.
These “shepherds” have lead the people away from God’s priorities; they have abandoned the poor and the widow and the outcast (as other passages explain in more detail). They have created lack and need, and have taught that profiting off of people is in our best interests—that it is perhaps even God-ordained. They have wielded fear and despair in order to subjugate those whom they can, strengthening their own positions of power and authority.
And thus the word of hope through Jeremiah is simple and clear:
God “will attend to them for their evil doings” (v.2).
God will gather those who remain, bring them back to their home in God, and ensure their provision and ability to thrive (v.3).
And God will also raise up leaders with hearts like God’s own, who will “shepherd” them justly, who will not manipulate them with fear or despair, and who will ensure that no one falls through the cracks again (v.4).
A Biblical Perspective on Capital
Even though it may not be immediately apparent, a significant factor in this manipulation by the ancient Israelites leaders is simple economics: the poor are easier to take advantage of because they have the least agency in society. This is as true today as it was back then.
And yet there is a distinctly and consistently biblical perspective on these things. We can call it Christian—because it was clearly embodied by Jesus—and yet it pervades the Old Testament texts as well.
Following the example of Jesus, the words of God through the prophets, and the illustration of God’s priorities throughout the scriptures, we people of faith in the One True God recognize that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” [Psalm 24:1]—that everything in creation belongs first and foremost to God Almighty. Therefore, those things and resources in our possession are not really ours—they are instead part of the resources held common by God for the good of all.
This is why (for instance) the author of 1John suggests that a Christian who has the resources to help another and yet refuses to do so cannot possibly have God’s love abiding in them [1John 3:17].
It is why God in Isaiah will declare that sharing with the hungry, the poor, the homeless (and so on) is more important than any religious rituals the people of God might perform [Isaiah 58:6-7a].
It is why God through Amos will say nothing about the religious practices of ancient Israel while condemning them for “selling the righteous for silver… the needy for a pair of sandals… [and] trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” [Amos 2:6b-7a].
And it is why Jesus will tell the story of the sheep and the goats (the subject of last week’s children’s sermon), declaring: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” [Matthew 25:45b].
This responsibility to share and to care for those down-and-out, however, does not just lie with the billionaires and ultra-millionaires of the world. In the eyes of the bible, their sort of wealth is morally problematic, but the rest of us are not let off the hook.
In the late sixth century, St. Gregory the Great penned these words:
“Those who neither crave what belongs to others, nor give away what they have…”
In other words, these are people who are not jealously ambitious or cheating others in order to profit off of them…… yet these are people who are not generous, who believe they worked hard for what they have and it is theirs and theirs alone to enjoy. Far more of us than we’d like to admit probably fit this category.
St. Gregory says that these people “are to be admonished to consider seriously that the earth, out of which they were taken, is common to all men, and therefore, too, brings forth nourishment for all in common. In vain, therefore, do those think themselves guiltless, who arrogate to themselves alone the common gift of God, and who, in not giving what they have received, walk about amidst the carnage of their neighbors, because they almost daily destroy as many persons as are dying in poverty, the means for whose substance they retain hidden away in their own keeping……”
These people, says St. Gregory, are not as guiltless as they’d like to believe in the predicament of their fellow human beings. They “almost daily” destroy many others, because they have hidden away for themselves the resources needed by others to survive. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once similarly proclaimed: “We have taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
St. Gregory concludes his comments by adding: “For when we administer necessities to the needy, we give them what is their own, not what is ours; we pay a debt of justice, rather than do a work of mercy.” (Ancient Christian Writers, Pastoral Care, 158-59)
A truly Christian attitude towards money and resources recognizes that when we hold on to what God intends for another—especially to what another needs to survive—then we have effectively stolen from them…… because in God’s eyes it was theirs and not ours to have.
These destructive shepherds in Jeremiah’s day were violating these priorities and purposes of God.
I wonder what the shepherds of our world—of our nation—are telling us?……
I wonder whether they are in the business of scattering or gathering?……
I wonder whether they are destroying or tending?……
whether they are wielding fear or practicing peacemaking?……
whether they are widening the cracks through which the vulnerable fall or plugging the holes in their sinking ships?……
These things are knowable to us.
Our politicians and celebrities and self-proclaimed religious leaders do not try to keep them secret. They feel no compulsion to hide, because we feel no need to look.
But none of us escape the watchful gaze of God. And God proclaims that the days are coming:
when these shepherds will be known for what they are……
when they will be punished for what they have done……
when new and right shepherds will stand for God’s priorities of justice and mercy and the value of each human being.
Jeremiah is inspired to see a day when God will gather those who have been driven astray, those who were lost, and will bring them together. God promises a different kind of leader:
one who is just (instead of corrupt)……
who reigns with wisdom (instead of selfishness)……
who brings safety (instead of fear and terror)……
A good shepherd, who will so successfully demonstrate the ways of God that the people will never be led astray again.
Parable of the Banquet
I believe…… that Jesus is that Good Shepherd, though I wonder how well we are following his leading.
Jesus tells a story in Luke 14 (vv.15-24) about the Kingdom of God. In the story, someone is throwing a great big party—a huge Thanksgiving feast, we might imagine. Everybody that should be is invited—all the family, and maybe even the local pastor or some others of importance. Everyone says they’ll come.
Thanksgiving arrives, and there’s three eight-foot tables struggling to support the weight of the feast: turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green-bean casserole and marshmallowed sweet potatoes, corn and cranberry sauce and casseroles galore, at least five kinds of pie (to say nothing of the cake on the counter and the cherry tarts that wait at the ready). It is an indulgent feast that represents the abundant love of the host, an expression of relationship and care.
And no one shows up. No one.
The host even sends someone around to remind them that today’s the day, and they all make excuses. It’s not a priority to them. They’ve got other things to do.
According to Jesus’ story, the host of this feast gets angry—because of course, right? All that time, all that expense, all that love—shunned?
So the host compels others to be brought in to the feast…… to be gathered. These are not the folks you’d expect to show up at Thanksgiving…… in fact, they’re the ones that generally get overlooked on purpose: the homeless, the socially-awkward, the poor, the widow. Yet Jesus says it is they—and not the ones first invited—who will experience the host’s lavish love.
Back to Us
Where are we in Jesus’ story?
Where are we in Jeremiah’s tale?
Where do our priorities lie?
What other things do we focus on more than the things that are of priority to God?
What have we gathered?
And maybe even more important: Where does what we have gathered belong? Who does it belong to, and how do we get it to them?
If we are as careless with God’s priorities and God’s resources as were the invitees with the love of the host in Jesus’ parable, then we may find ourselves on the outside of God’s gathering…… with someone we would have excluded taking our own place at the table.
To reference another of Jesus’ stories [Matthew 25:14-30], if we are as careless with God’s priorities and God’s resources as the servant who was only entrusted with one talent–and kept and hid that talent instead of using it to advance the work of the Master–then we may find our talent taken away and given to someone the Master can trust to use it in the fulfillment of his eternal and compassionate purposes.
Recently, I heard someone comment that it seems as though generosity and kindness have become recreational activities limited to the holiday season. We collect canned goods, donate to charities, and work at soup kitchens around Thanksgiving (and only around Thanksgiving, and maybe Christmas) much in the way we might go see a movie at some other time of year. Sharing and demonstrating kindness has become a seasonal hobby, we might say.
But as followers of Jesus, however, treating others as we’d want to be treated is not a means of holiday recreation, but rather a central and guiding rule of life.
As God has given to us, we are to give just as generously.
As God has offered us grace and mercy, so we offer grace and mercy.
As God freely has forgiven us, so we are to forgive.
As Jesus loves us more than he loved his life…… well, you get the picture.
If we are going to actually be Christian, our whole lives (far beyond the holiday season) will be marked by being gathered in God’s love, by gathering those we can to the table of God’s care, and by dispensing the resources we have gathered in demonstration of God’s love and in protestation of the world’s destructive values.
If we are going to actually be Christian, we will live as though the coming days of Christ’s reign are already here, embodying the kingdom priorities of grace and love and care.
According to Jesus, what benefits us the most is when others profit. Amen.