Pentecost XXIV, Proper 25 (A)
October 26, 2008
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-36
Let us pray. “Ever-present God, You call us on a journey to a place we do not know. We are not where we started. We have not reached our destination. We are not sure where we are or who we are. This is not a comfortable place. Be among us, we pray. Calm our fears, save us from discouragement, and help us to stay on course. Open our hearts to your guidance so that our journey to this unknown place continues as a journey of trust. Amen.
I came across that particular prayer, titled “A Prayer for Transition” in a book that I use frequently, titled Women’s Uncommon Prayers: Our Lives Revealed Nurtured and Restored. The Reverend Canon Kristi Philip composed it and she writes that it was “…inspired by many search committees.” I suspect that it is similar in intent to the prayers that were carried in the hearts and minds of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness. Since the Day of Pentecost, we have been traveling with Moses and the people of Israel on their desert wanderings. Today in our reading from the book of Deuteronomy, those wanderings have come to an end. It is not just the end of the journey for the Israelites; it is the final journey’s end for Moses, for this is where he dies, but not before the Lord shows him “…the land of which I swore to your forebears, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
This had to be one of the most bittersweet moments for any people in all of history. To at last have reached the Promised Land…and at the same time to have their leader of the last 40 years taken from them. Those of us who have grieved the loss a parent, partner, mentor or long-time friend know something of the collected grief of which I am speaking, that the Israelites must have been feeling. The story also relates the passing of the mantle of leadership of the nation to Joshua, whom after thirty days of mourning assumed his designated role as chief steward of the Nation of Israel. In the passage we heard from the Old Testament, the writer gives us what is in effect, Moses’ epitaph, praising Moses as the ultimate example of God’s faithful steward. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face…unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34: 10-12). Taken all together, the story of Moses and his shepherding of the people Israel is in fact and in deed a story about one person’s public and private stewardship.
What Moses gives us is in fact the gold standard of stewardship, which is reiterated for us in Matthew’s gospel lesson this morning. When asked by one of the lawyers of the Pharisees, “’Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” But God said these words first to Moses up on the mountain, which is where it all began. Moses relayed that message to the people of Israel when he came down off of the mountain on their journey from slavery to the Promised Land. These words from God to Israel by way of Moses are in fact a roadmap, if you will, from slavery to freedom. It is possible for individuals and congregations to remain slaves to “people, programs and properties” in their hearts and in their actions and dealings with one another unless they learn to “love the Lord their God” with everything that they have, heart, soul and mind.
Centuries after Moses had died, the author of the Book of Deuteronomy, recognizing the importance of these simple words, wrote them down so that they would never be forgotten, so that the Hebrew people could physically carry them with them wherever they traveled. And as they traveled, they carried these words in tefillin, small, cube-shaped black boxes containing these words from Deuteronomy. Prior to the recitation of morning prayers, these boxes are strapped to foreheads or tied on arms so that the wearer would not forget, but remember the command, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The Deuteronomist recorded the words in order that we could read them and burn them into our memories and our collective consciousness.
After the first destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, it was the scrolls on which the words were written that became the meeting place with God. In synagogue, the reading of scripture was and is today the central act of worship and in Hebrew schools the study of scripture was the course of instruction. One of our favorite stories of the young boy Jesus is of him seated in the Temple among the elders, opening the scroll of the Torah and reading those same words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus as the interpreter of the scriptures in Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem where he is asked. “Rabbi, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And you all know the response. Tradition tells us that this story was first told to St. Mark (Mark 12:29-31), who heard it on his travels with the Apostle Peter. Continuing in that oral tradition, Mark having heard those words from Peter who heard it from Jesus and down to us this morning, we too hear the words that Moses first said to the people of Israel at the foot of Mr. Horeb: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
These words are so familiar to us that we might conclude that no matter where we look, the idea of loving God and our neighbor is to be found on every page of the Bible. Yet just the opposite is true. Only here in the Gospel of Matthew and in a handful of variations on these words do we actually hear anything about “loving” God. We hear a whole lot about fearing God, praising God and obeying God, but rarely do we find anything written about “loving” God. The notion of loving God is rarely found in the Old Testament. It is Jesus who makes loving God the center, the heart and soul of our faith, that great commandment on which depend all of the other commandments as well as the teachings of the prophets and the Law itself.
Contrary to what some will tell you about the Bible, it is not a rulebook with every verse bearing equal value or truth. It is my belief that all of scripture revolves around these verses about loving your God and loving your neighbor like planets around a sun, and every verse of the Bible can be judged by its location and proximity to that single, simple, central, great commandment. There is nothing greater says Jesus…says Moses…says God.
In the small farming community in Central Illinois where I was raised, this commandment was part of the air we breathed and the water that we drank. It was the ethical foundation on which I was raised and as a result one of the core principles of not just my immediate family, but that of the community in which we lived. One example that has always stood out in my mind occurred when I was in seventh grade. A neighboring farmer was seriously hurt in an accident. It was about this time of the year and time for the corn to be harvested. Before dawn one Saturday the entire community came together and harvested that family’s crops for them. While the men and those of us who were old enough worked in the fields and barns, wives and mothers gathered in the church kitchen cooking so that when the work in the fields was completed, everyone was fed. The entire community working together accomplished in a few hours what would normally have taken that farmer and his sons a couple of weeks to do.
What we might find strange today about this example is that this was not something special or out of the ordinary. It is just what was done. It happened all of the time in a variety of ways. That is how we lived then. That is how in that farming community in Central Illinois most people still live. It has formed how I try to live now, whether in my work here in the Church or the other ministries that I am called to in the larger island community, the deanery or the diocese. And it is not just me; it is not about me, it is never about me, because many of you live your lives the same way. We used to call it the “Golden Rule.” Still do for that matter! Love God and love your neighbor. Living out our personal stewardship in and with the community. As individuals we might not be able to accomplish very much, but together the whole will always exceed the sum of the parts and we can and will achieve dreams that were to this point only imagined.
In order for us to live as God’s people we need a standard, a rule, by which we can measure our words and our deeds. We need directions and instruction, visions and pictures of what faithfulness looks like. Scripture provides this “first and greatest commandment” as the standard by which all that we do is to be measured. “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 and first commandment. The second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’ own words, borrowed from Deuteronomy and Leviticus are in fact the scripture by which all of scripture is measured.
Augustine wrote that scripture can at times be confusing and that preachers and teachers can make mistakes. However, if we preach and teach in such a way that we are in fact promoting love of God and neighbor, we have got the basics right. (Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I: 40, Edmund Hill, trans.)
Today at the heart of our worship, we have read and heard the words that God gave to Moses, that were repeated in Deuteronomy, that Jesus learned as a child and that we hope we may also learn. Patrick Wilson states that, “It is essential that we use this as our starting place for worship, for it is said that if we do not use this as our core truth, then everything that we learn following will be in some way incorrect.” (Patrick Wilson, That’ll Preach). This must be the measure of everything that we say and do.
It has also been said that the nature of worship is, that it is in fact, pointless, that it does not aim at some effect other than itself, that it is at its truest sense, a holy waste of time. However when asked what we are about in our worship, the answer should be that “We are going about the business of loving God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and our neighbors as ourselves.” That is why we sing our hymns and pray our prayers and celebrate the Eucharist. They have everything to do with love of God and neighbor.
This is also what drives and motivates our stewardship and our church finances. If you look at the church budget, you will note that it is organized around the various ministries of the church. It could just as easily be organized around the over-arching theme of loving God and loving our neighbor, because that is what the budget is really about. All that we spend on music and worship is about love of God. All that we do for the community, both the immediate community and the community of God around the world is about loving God and loving our neighbor, and providing the financial resources that we need to get that done as best we can.
It is true that people can love God and worship God in almost any circumstances, but people are more inclined to love their neighbors if they aren’t shivering during the prayers, so we turn on the heat. We need to keep the roof from leaking and we need light to see. And it is essential, as we know all to well from past experiences, that we keep the bathrooms and the basement from flooding. I know it is easy to understand these things merely as building maintenance, but they are in fact much, much more. We do them because Jesus said that we are to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.
In addition beyond this, we open our doors to the community in the evening and leave the lights on late because some of our neighbors that we care for are not comfortable in our worship, but we pray that they will find God’s healing presence through our hospitality to the AA, Al-Anon, OA and other community-based groups. We open our doors on Friday evenings during the winter so that we can reach members of the community who are in need of food and fellowship. We budget for our Church school, Preschool and Adult forums so that our children can learn along with the rest of us, what it is that really counts for something. And what is it in the end that really counts? That we love God with our hearts and souls and minds, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Those are the words by which we measure everything. That’s also why there are unusual things in the budget like line items for clergy so that there are people who can stand here and remind us what it is that Matthew and Mark and the author of Deuteronomy and Jesus and Moses and God have all said.
That is also why next month on the Feast of Christ the King, the Last Sunday of Pentecost, the last Sunday of our church year at the threshold of Advent, all of us will be invited to come forward and own this statement of faith for ourselves as we make our pledges of time, talent and treasure for the support of this parish and our ministries. To the unskilled eye it may look as if it is just a piece of paper or a token gesture. But those who remember and understand know that it is in fact a declaration of our solidarity with the central standard of our faith: our love of God and our love of neighbor. And that is precisely what it is that God invites all of us to give, not just once a year on Stewardship Sunday but on all 52 Sundays and each and every day of the year and of our lives: All your heart, all your soul and all your mind, to the glory of God and the love of your neighbor. Amen.