Reflection for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Peace Sabbath, October 26, 2014
Based on Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 “Moses dies and is buried in Moab”
Matthew 22: 34-46 “Love God, love your neighbour as yourself”
Offered by: Liz Bowyer
Opening Prayer: Holy, gracious, and amazing God, may the words on my lips, and the thoughts and feelings in our hearts, and in our minds, and in our bodies, may all of it be acceptable in your sight this day. Amen.
“Spirit of God, descend upon my heart. Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move; stoop to my weakness, strength to me impart, and make me love you as I ought to love.” So goes the opening phrase of this morning’s anthem which for me dovetails nicely into this morning’s readings from scripture.
Learning to love others begins with learning to love God and learning to love God requires us to come face to face with our own shortcomings and our own limits.
Shortcomings and limits are words often foreign to our ears as educated, capable, responsible, and law abiding citizens of this great nation we call Canada, our “home and native land”.
Even so, we do have shortcomings and limits which call us into community with our families and with our church family seeking a sense of belonging, support and nurture, and blessing and challenge also.
Surely the recent shootings in our nation’s capital are enough to remind us that we are not alone, we need God, and we need one another. Surely, these almost unfathomable incidents remind us, too, that the “times they are a’ changin”….
These are the themes underlying our readings from scripture this week: We are not alone, we need God, and we need each other, and of course, last but never least, “the times they are a’ changin’”.
To begin with our reading from Deuteronomy this morning, we encounter Moses and his faithful ones, along with God, poised on the cusp of a new day.
The culmination of their forty year journey in the wilderness is about to end, finally! Standing together on the Plains of Moab, they can actually see the Promised Land. That, for them, is the good news.
God’s promise to their ancestors, Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, that they will be as numerous as grains of sand, God’s promise to bring them out of bondage and slavery in Egypt, bringing them home once again has been fulfilled.
The bad news? Moses, now 120 years old, will not be crossing over the river Jordan with them. Moses’ long leadership of the ancient Israelites as God’s faithful servant has reached its conclusion and we are told, the people are deeply grieved.
Still, human nature being as resilient as it is, the people mourn this loss of leadership appropriately for 30 days and 30 nights; the leadership baton is passed to Joshua, son of Nun and full of the spirit of wisdom, and life for those first followers carries on under new leadership.
We will hear more about Joshua’s leadership skills in the coming weeks leading up to the end of the season of Pentecost; but for today, its enough to rest in the knowledge that the saga of Moses has been fulfilled. The law has been given and the people of Israel have been formed anew. After forty years in the wilderness, the times they are a’changin’ for the ancient Israelites.
Similarly, in our reading from Matthew’s gospel today, we come upon Jesus again deeply mired in conflict with the Pharisees, the religious leaders in the Temple, located at the Holy City of Jerusalem.
This morning’s reading picks up the threads of a conversation between him and the Pharisees that has been ongoing for several weeks now in our cycle of readings. Finally, Jesus answers the question posed back in Matthew 21: “By what authority are you doing this things?”
“These things” Jesus has been doing refer to his healings and his teachings both outside and inside the walls of the Temple.
The Pharisees have become rattled by Jesus’s behaviour. Set in the context of the honour/shame culture predominant in first Century Jewish life, Jesus has stepped well beyond the bounds or limits of his “status” as a Galilean peasant, come to the Temple at Jerusalem, home turf of the religious elite.
Jesus’ responses to the religious leaders’ questions has consistently set their teeth on edge since then and so it is, today, by no surprise, they bring their “BIG GUN”, their top religious law maker to the Temple arena. Though politely asked, the lawyer’s question is a loaded one and the tension in the air is palpable.
“Teacher”, he asks Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
To begin with, Jesus responds by quoting the well-known words from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And, then he quotes a second commandment about loving our neighbour as ourself, bringing me back to our anthem from this morning which speaks to the need to accept our shortcomings and limits. Our shortcomings and limits, aka our “weaknesses” remind us that we need God to help us learn to love God first and from there, our neighbour as ourself.
The passage concludes with Jesus posing just one more provocative question for his listeners about his authority for healing and teaching inside the Temple walls. Jesus, naming himself the longed for Messiah, the son of David, will soon pay the price of this fulfillment.
This, in itself, is a sufficiently large topic for an entire sermon unto itself. But, for today, it is enough for us to reflect on what the blessing and the challenge of living out the two simplest and yet most profound of the 613 laws originally crafted in Deuteronomy looked like for the lives of those first listeners in Matthew’s time and what it might look like for us, sitting here, as well.
Returning to the context of the story for this morning, we remember that Jesus will shortly be arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. Embodying God’s love for
God, for God’s self, and for neighbour was a dangerous business in Jesus’ time and would seem to be so in our time as well.
Lifting up “neighbours” such as the Samaritan woman, tax collectors, and sinners, speaking truth to power in the context of the Holy Roman Empire, flying in the face of those who were and were not allowed to interpret the “law”, and then simplifying them into just “two” will cost Jesus dearly.
Ironically, without that risk taking, without that speaking truth to power, without that turning the world upside down, without that embodiment of Love, of God’s vision of Shalom made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we would have no reason to gather here this morning.
As educated, capable, responsible, and law abiding citizens offset over and against our desire to be faithful followers in the way of Jesus, we, too, are called to be a part of that vision of Shalom.
We, too, are called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our minds, and we, too, are called to love our neighbour as ourselves.
For me, there are really only two big questions we face in the church in this time and in this place.
- How ready are we to accept our own shortcomings and limits so that we might open ourselves to God’s will for our lives?
- From there, how might we learn to love our neighbours in a way that pays more than lip service to the task?
The times they are a’ changin’ much more rapidly than we choose to realize, especially as the church becomes more and more relegated to the sidelines of our culture.
We, like Moses and the ancient Israelites and like the faithful ones trying to come to grips with Jesus’ embodiment of God’s love in first century Palestine, are poised on the cusp of a new day.
We, like they, have everything we need to cross over, we have God’s love, we have each other, and we have neighbours yet to be discovered and loved.
In a very concrete way, we will have a chance to live out the love Jesus talks about by getting to know new neighbours here this afternoon in our sanctuary as we celebrate a new day for the people at Knox. With our covenanting service at 2pm there will be people in attendance from nearby churches and clergy new to Vancouver South Presbytery. It’s a real opportunity for us to walk the talk of faith together by offering hospitality to those we have little chance otherwise of getting to know.
As the search committee is disbanded and as new promises of relationship are made, we will have a chance to see God’s glory shine through, between, and among us.
In other words, we will have a great opportunity to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, our souls, and our minds and we will have an opportunity to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The covenanting service is also a sign of a new beginning of leadership in our midst, between, you, me, Vancouver South Presbytery, and B.C.Conference.
The times they are a’ changin’ indeed.
On a more somber note, and in light of more recent events in Ottawa, I am aware that our work as faithful followers in the way of Jesus, as lovers of Jesus’ commandment to love one another, we have another task before us and it will be a difficult one .
We live in challenging times and sometimes are overwhelmed by worries and concerns ranging from issues such as global hunger, the spread of the ebola virus to increased security issues in response to acts of terrorism to wanton and unpredictable violence. We, as faithful ones have much to pray on. To begin then, I want to read to you this pastoral letter from the Rev. Karen Medland, Executive President of B.C. Conference of the United Church of Canada.
It’s a letter addressed to all of us.
“Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The shootings on Parliament Hill on October 22nd have left many of us fearful and in shock. We pray for those who are grieving for the loss of a loved one, friend, colleague, and give thanks for those who are willing to put themselves in places of danger so that we may be safe.
This week’s text from Matthew will be hard to preach on as we gather with our communities of faith on Sunday since it stands in stark contrast to the violence we witnessed in these events.
God of all mercy and compassion, help us find the strength to be peacemakers and peacekeepers, to remember those who grieve and suffer because of the violence of others, and give us courage to seek love. Lead us not into temptation of retribution and deliver us from evil. Through the love of Christ let your kingdom of peace reign now and forever. Amen.
Blessings from the Rev. Karen Medland,
First United Church, Kelowna.
May it be so, amen.