Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Lots of people are contemplating a quiet Thanksgiving this year, and not by choice. From talking with folks I know that even those who do gather will keep it very small, under the pandemic guidelines. I’m so grateful for the island community groups that will be cooking and providing free dinners to anyone who wants one regardless of need. For anyone who will be alone, at least it’s a way of feeling like you’re still part of a community.
But I also know someone who is actually relieved this year, remarking, “Thanksgiving is the only holiday you have to spend with family you dislike. Fortunately it’s only for a meal, and most of us can make it through that.”
You can’t choose your family, right? Though I do remember as a child sometimes wishing I could be adopted into some other family. I had several friends whose families were on my short list. Of course now I know every family has conflict and struggles.
God’s family, both for better or for worse is featured in all our lessons today. Ezekiel brought God’s word of judgement that God’s beloved community Israel had failed to be righteous. Their unjust ways yielded enormous gaps between the haves and the have nots. Meanwhile even the king, anointed by God, stood by and let it happen.
More happily, in the letter to the Ephesians, the church is honored for its “…love toward all the saints…” meaning particularly the collections they have taken and sent to Jerusalem for the church leaders to share with the poorest and most vulnerable members of the family of faith there. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this family?
This letter was probably a circular letter, addressed to all the churches of Asia Minor. So we are hearing about the commitment of the church to its own most vulnerable members. This work was in addition to efforts by the people of every church to cloth the destitute, heal the sick, feed hungry people, visit prisoners, and teach the love of Christ to people in the community around them every day. No wonder they received such a high commendation and encouragement.
In the gospel Jesus describes the coming kingdom, or reign, of the Son of Man. In contrast to Ezekiel’s picture of strong sheep ganging up on weaker sheep, here all the sheep are blessed and given their inheritance with the Father, while all the unfortunate goats are sent to dwell with the devil in a rather ouchy environment of eternal fire. But we know Jesus wasn’t talking about livestock really… any more than Ezekiel was.
It shouldn’t need to be spelled out. But Jesus did anyway. With the prophetic urgency of Ezekiel, Jesus invited his own generation to consider their own standing before God.
It turns out that with Jesus family takes on a whole new form. According to Jesus, the king will say, “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” And the blessing will not be something someone is born into. Or even baptized into. It will be a matter of how one chooses to live in relationship with others. But the surprising thing is that although you can opt into this family, some people are adopted into the family and don’t even know it! That is, it isn’t about genetics or good behavior so much as reflexive generosity.
In fact, the description Jesus gives of the habits of the blessed ones who bless others, seems to have become the model for the faith and practices of the churches of Asia Minor a generation later who gave so much so willingly.
Even so, Christians, perhaps unconsciously, often apply the sheep/goat judgement to sort out who qualifies for care and compassion. Because, we feel, the need is very great and there’s not enough to go around. Jesus did say, “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.” So step one is to decide who is worthy. Who is a member of Jesus’s family? Sheep to the right, goats to the left. Now, let’s do some caring!
But listen to what Jesus said about his family. In Matthew 12:47-50 we hear: “Someone told [Jesus], ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus had said, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day may will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? Then I will declare to them, I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”
So what is the will of the Father? What is the will of the Father? Psalm 40:8 says, “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart." The psalmist knows that keeping God’s commandments is what it means to do the will of God. And the whole law, as Jesus said, is summed up in loving God and neighbor as yourself. It is as if God’s very kingdom is constructed out of righteousness, justice, and compassion.
All this makes me think about how we feel about this coming holiday. What if, instead of allowing ourselves to feel closed down and limited, it becomes for us a way to explore new possibilities? Maybe it’s a time to identify what we can share, rather than to sorrow over what we cannot have in the present moment. And right now the need grows exponentially every day.
I have a friend who is the chair of her congregation’s stewardship committee. She’s very creative and has devised a game for everyone in the congregation. Each week she gives a challenge to find a certain thing in your house and count it. For example, it might be spoons. Allowing one spoon for each member of the household, count all the extra ones and for each one donate a dollar to a food pantry. Her hope is that people will see their blessings more clearly and be inspired to greater generosity toward others.
God’s family is known not deeds of power, but by acts of humble service. And every time we reach out and touch someone with love and compassion, we are also touching our brother Jesus. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.