On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. In the last few sentences of his Proclamation, Lincoln says this:
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, [that] they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
In 1863, our young nation was still in the throes of a bloody Civil War, a war that had not yet been decided. That same year, in January, President Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in Confederate territories. Later that year, Lincoln instituted the draft affecting men between the ages of 20 to 45. In June and July, we fought at Gettysburg. That year, the war to preserve the Union became the fight to abolish the sin of slavery. And in 1863, the date for our National Thanksgiving Holiday was established.
I mention Lincoln because he is generally regarded as a leader who shepherded his people with courage, grit, steadfastness, and with his eye fixed to the suffering of his fellow human beings—both the slave and the free, the oppressed and the oppressor, the individual state, and the Nation as a whole. He was, in biblical leadership terms, a good shepherd.
Our passage from Jeremiah won’t make much sense today unless you also hear a little bit about why the Lord is so upset with those shepherds who scatter the flock, destroy the sheep, and feel entitled to what actually belongs to the Lord—the pasture and its resources. In the ancient world, a king was likened to a shepherd. Given the agriculture economy, survival depended on shepherds who carefully tended their flocks and protected them from predators and adversaries. It wasn’t long before this metaphor of the shepherd was applied to kings and leaders of all sorts. If you read the chapter just before this one, you will learn the names of the specific kings—the specific shepherds– with whom the Lord was so upset. One of them was so busy building an addition onto the royal palace that the needs and well-being of the people suffered:
Jeremiah writes, “Woe to him who builds palaces, but bullies people, who makes a fine house but destroys lives, who cheats his workers and won’t pay them for their work, who says, ‘I’ll build me an elaborate mansion with spacious rooms and fancy windows…[who says] I’ll bring in rare and expensive woods and the latest in interior design.’” (The Message, Jeremiah 22:13-14).
We don’t have kings, but we do have leaders of all kinds. We don’t have palaces, but we do have the maneuvering on Wall Street and Main Street. We still have bullies—both in the schoolyard and on the Internet; we still have those who cheat workers for personal gain. In short, we still have some of the same problems with personal and communal power that our biblical ancestors had.
So what makes a good leader or rather, a good shepherd? Jeremiah is very clear on this point: “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no harm or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3).
Thus, our bible indicts those who use their power for personal gain, or who to take advantage or bully those at society’s margins. A good person, a good shepherd, and a good nation, uses its power to administer justice for the people on the fringes of society, the poor, the needy, the marginalized—precisely those people who stand to suffer the most at the hands of corrupted power, or unjust or callous decisions.
But what does this have to do with us? None of us are kings or queens in the ancient sense of the word, but each of us exercises considerable personal power. Take something as basic as social media, whether FB, Twitter, Instagram or some other platform. Take, for example, our own emails. The technology that we use can either build up our communities or tear them down. Some social media postings are so full of vitriolic speech and fear mongering that I have to wonder at the folks who originally composed them. What are they trying to accomplish? What is the overall effect of the tone and the language used? Does the message seek to mend or to scatter?
How do we use the technology and media at our disposal? And why should Christians care about this?
Many of us are unaware of, or deny, the personal power that we do have. Our words and actions have tremendous power for good or for irreparable harm. In Jeremiah, those who abuse their power are destined for ruin. It is the prophet’s role to remind the people of their power and to call them to a better understanding and God’s higher truth. And what happens to the scattered sheep, or those who suffer at the hands of the unjust? The Lord promises to gather all his scattered sheep and bring them back to the fold. The Lord says: “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing…” (Jeremiah 23:4)
This Thanksgiving, while your family is gathered around the table, consider not only your blessings, but consider if you are using your personal power to bring about God’s peace and God’s justice for those who suffer at the hands of the powerful and uncaring. Take time to speak a word a peace that will further God’s kingdom, rather than hinder it. Then give thanks for Jesus who teaches us a different Way.
Friends, on this last Sunday of the church year, as we anticipate the Advent of Christ, let’s put our hearts and our power in the right place…under the direction of the one true Shepherd who always welcomed the leper, elevated the poor, and who was, himself, bullied to the point of crucifixion. For as the Apostle Paul says, if we have powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have all faith so as to remove mountains but have not love, we are nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2).