A Harvest of Thankful People

The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer, Kalamazoo First Presbyterian Church

November 19, 2023 – 25,  Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 4:1-5; 5:21-24; Matthew 25:31-40


Come, thankful people, come. Raise the song of harvest home. I like Thanksgiving, one of our better holidays. I’m comforted and inspired by the legend of Pilgrim and Wampanoag people feasting together not fighting. And there’s minimal commercialization about the holiday itself, beyond Lions football with Black Friday ads. It’s a bit ironic in that the Mayflower was sent by wealthy businessmen as a commercial venture on which poor religious Pilgrims hitched a ride. I’m glad we’re gathering in whatever ways we are this week in a spirit of gratitude. It’s the beginning and enduring center of living faith—gratitude for grace received. So much is right about this human and holy impulse fed by turkey and stuffing or whatever potluck treats Cameroonian, Asian or anything else to fill our tables. I like Thanksgiving. And as our holiday aligns with scripture today, what I’ve heard some of us say also moves my heart. 400 years later, if we get beyond the vision of innocence however real or mythic it actually was, however much we restate in prayer blessings at our meals, we also rightly lament later colonial conquest, wars, illness, death, eventual destruction of a whole society inaugurated by those first settlers. You see, for all the celebrating togetherness, colonizing practices ultimately fueled disconnection, dehumanization, exploitation.

That’s abuse Amos laments amid which he longs for hope. Ostensibly, he’s forecasting Assyrian conquest and destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel centered in Samaria. Whether he really wrote before as if looking in a crystal ball or after as if making sense of what happened, he centers on inequitable disconnects between people and classes in society. Truth is, it’s much like Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and other books I read back in college asserted. Great nations and empires consistently rot from inside because of social inequities that stifle common life, long before some outside enemy invades. In Amos’ time, Powerful leaders, privileged influencers like their ceremonies but don’t seem to care about justice, equity, righteousness in society for people more vulnerable and insecure. It’s not that religious rituals and cultural celebrations – maybe like Thanksgiving in their day – are inherently bad or wrong. Quite the opposite for Amos. They can be truly inspiring especially when they touch our hearts, connect to real circumstances, and move us to seek God’s justice—Holy Love ordering the world as God wants it so all people and creation flourish by ever-flowing streams of grace. Because more than self-interest, that’s what the Hebrew Law and prophets and what Jesus and Paul and early Christians tell us time and again living faith is really all about. Embodying God’s way in the world as we build life with other people.

You know, after Assyrians colonized the Northern Kingdom of Israel, people made a life together. That’s what led to such antipathy first century Jews felt for Samaritans, which the Bible tells us Jesus resisted in parables, healings and conversations at a well. They’re all close cousins. Maybe like the relative relationship of Israelis and Palestinians today – historically all Semitic cousins. I read an update this week from Doug Dicks, our Presbyterian Church mission co-worker in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Against the backdrop of recent horrors from Gaza, he offered a retrospective of the Oslo Peace process at 30 years old. Before Oslo there’d been organic, grass-roots dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. But those efforts got devalued as irrelevant, insignificant in favor of high-level negotiation. Then violent extremists on both sides assassinated leaders and bombed buses. Checkpoints were erected, then the wall / separation barrier.[i] And now, over 20 years later … of course, it’s overly simplified to reduce this conflict to: people just need to connect and talk. Still, it sure could help us all get beyond religious and political silos of bias, get real about life rehumanized, maybe share a little gratitude, and thereby glean true hope and imagination for another way.

Come, thankful people, come. Raise the song of harvest home. Whether Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday or more troubled history for us. However and with whomever we gather this week or not. Friends, I hope we can live in a way that celebrates gratefully our blessings of life and relates our lives for better and worse with others as alike or dissimilar as the Pilgrims and Wampanoag must have seemed. Trying to feast together far more than fight. Jesus constantly tries to get people to connect with others far more than condemn … all as if we’re God’s big family. When did we see and serve you, Jesus? In those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, in prison … those most vulnerable not most venerable. Poor wayfaring strangers maybe like we meet on our own steps – credit to Aaron Van Heest for opening our eyes to see on our bulletin cover.

Maybe Gregory Boyle helped open the eyes of our hearts to see as he tells about his ministry among gangs and felons in his book Tattoos on the Heart. In a sequel called Barking to the Choir, he shares a story from the Homegirl Café. Women with felonies, young ladies from rival gangs, and waitresses with attitude gladly take your order, Boyle writes. At lunch, the place can be packed with celebs, elected officials, and a powerful “who’s who” of Los Angeles. Nearly all the Dodgers came one day for lunch—pandemonium. Jim Carrey has dined several times and it’s always a manicomio—a madhouse. Joe Biden (and a motorcade) unexpectedly landed for lunch. I was out of town, Boyle says. Afterward, a homie debriefed me. “While you were gone, we were visited by an MVP.” “Do you mean,” I ask, “a VIP?” “Yeah, dat one.” Then he adds, “Imagine G: here at Homeboy, we were visited by the Vice President of the United States … MICK ROMNEY!” (File this under “All white guys look alike.”) We may need to add some current-affairs classes to our curriculum, Boyle jokes.

Diane Keaton came in for lunch one day with a regular, weekly customer. The Oscar-winning Keaton is greeted by her waitress, Glenda, who just spent a long stint in California state prison. Glenda is tattooed, a felon, a gang member, and on parole. She has no clue who Diane Keaton is. She hands the movie star her menu, and Keaton asks, “What do you recommend?” Glenda rattles off three dishes … Diane picks the second one. Suddenly something dawns, “Wait a minute,” Glenda says, bouncing her finger in Diane Keaton’s direction. “I feel like I know you. Like … maybe we’ve met.” The actress quickly and humbly seeks to deflect … “O, I suppose … I have one of those faces … people think they’ve seen before.” Glenda ignites with recognition. “No … wait … now I know … WE WERE LOCKED UP TOGETHER!” Oscar-winning actress. Attitudinal waitress. Boyle concludes: Exactly what God had in mind.[ii]

Matthew concludes his gospel stressing that’s what God has in mind in Jesus. It’s just before his Last Supper and arrest. It’s the culmination of all the teachings and healings and meals shared that show what the reign of Holy Love among us looks like. Shortly after his Palm Sunday entrance in Jerusalem, Jesus summarized it all with the Great Commandment—love God and love neighbor. Religious leaders press and contest, while for his faithful friends, Jesus channels a little Amos lamenting destruction of Jerusalem. That’s when he teaches his final lesson—let’s call it the Great Clarification.

Here’s the real history. 30 years after Jesus’ death Jews in Palestine revolted against Rome. The army came in and leveled their beloved Temple, much of the city, essentially what Matthew has Jesus foretell. A basic question facing Jews and early Christians in that time was much like ancient Israelites when conquered by Assyrians. We thought God’s kingdom was all us powerful and secure in our own land. If not, then what do we believe? To what promise / hope do we give our heart? Matthew answers them. When the Son of Humanity comes in all God’s glory, all nations will be gathered together. No separation. No division and enemy demonization. And those who know the central promise of all scripture—God is with us—those who’ve lived it, will be those who served Sacred Grace—giving food and drink, welcome, clothing, care for those sick or in prison. Jew or Gentile, across all categories, those who have seen and genuinely connected with others who are most vulnerable. I want to stop at the pleasant, positive, good bits of Jesus’ Great Clarification. Still, he does live in the long line of biblical prophets, or at least that’s how gospel writers portray him. And in this case, according to Matthew, he uses an apocalyptic literary style to accent a point. More than threat, scholars tell us it’s really intended to encourage and comfort as much as Matthew’s people already lived with such grace and gratitude and generosity. The glory of God that is human beings fully alive even amid the rubble of their stone walls, fears and uncertainty.

So, we read this text and maybe we get to thinking about ourselves: at the final harvest home of heaven, I sure want to be amid thankful people who’ve lived right—faithful sheep and not a goat. It’s not a bad desire. Still, scripture followed by saints over the ages tell us that’s not enough. Matthew’s Great Clarification affirms what the Bible says time and again. God cares about our ordinary lives and stays connected with us through all personal joys and struggles, all the cultural beauties and inequities. As thankful people, God calls us to be so connected, too—to care about what happens in this world, to add current-affairs classes to our lives, and engage our realities not try to escape. As we do so, Holy Love works through our human lives. We become the body of the Risen Christ. We find the throne of his glory in our living rooms and board rooms and classrooms and businesses and all the places we play. And resurrection, new life becomes real. All we do in this sanctuary—our songs, prayers, sermons, silence … friends, it’s all meaningful. Seeding loving intent. Growing compassion and commitment. So that then we go bear fruit in the ways we branch and reach out to others as Jesus clarifies and summons us to do. Not to prove we’re good enough and get a pass beyond the Pearly Gates. Rather, we’re so thankful for what we’ve received, we can’t help sharing it … and so a holy harvest abounds—as in and even more than 5,000 pounds of vegetables from our Pine Island garden.

Several years ago our national Presbyterian Church launched an initiative to foster congregational vitality by centering in this vision of service. Our church signed on with a commitment, though in truth friends, credit to saints gone before, we’ve been doing it already for many decades. Loaves and Fishes, Ministry with Community, Habitat, Free Health Clinic, Celebrate the Vision, tutoring at Edison and for adults upstairs, and so many other individual efforts to clothe and give financial help and visit in prison. And amid all the details of being a deacon or elder, that’s the ongoing effort we’re electing people today to lead among us. A harvest of thankful people.

Friends, as we recall the Thanksgiving legend in our worship and gatherings this week, here’s a Thanksgiving blessing. May our grateful hearts connect our religious rituals and cultural celebrations with others who need to be so welcomed and nurtured. People here and now as vulnerable as were the Pilgrims that first year, and as Native Americans became over all the years since. Among people seemingly so different, across all categories of culture may we dream and desire feasting as kin more than fighting. After a week when public discourse has been laced with dehumanizing opponents as vermin and threats to Jews and Muslims continue increased, amid the all too common hyper-partisan rancor, may we resolve to look at others—friends and supposed foes or failures alike—and see the face of Christ. Because, you see, dear friends, as gratitude is the beginning of faith and generosity our way to express it, then according to Jesus there’s one gauge of faithfulness—whether we give ourselves through loving service in his name.

As we celebrate this holiday, may we seek true liberty and justice for all in society more than just ceremony alone. May we get beyond us and them to all peoples gathered before the throne of God’s glory. For to serve love is to live salvation. We have no mission but to care without reserve for all who are vulnerable. For there and then, we’ll see the face of our most venerable Christ, clothed in humanity. Come, thankful people, come. Raise the song of harvest home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Douglas Dicks, Mission Connections, September 2023.

[ii] Quoted and abridged from Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2017), 11-12.