Year A — The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 26, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
What can you say about Moses? We don’t suppose that Moses actually wrote his own epitaph here in Deuteronomy, and the accolades are obvious and well-deserved: mighty deeds, terrifying displays of power, unequaled as a prophet and servant of God.

No wonder that, when Jesus meets two characters from Israel’s ancient past on the mountain of transfiguration, Moses is included (alongside Elijah — a fairly significant personage in his own right!) Moses is and should be famous for so many reasons.

But, his real claim to fame lies in v. 10, I believe; “Never has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” 

The vitality of our ministries — our very quality of living — is most likely quite proportional to the closeness with which we dwell in relationship with God. 

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Grasping eternity is not something that we are able to do easily, if at all. Eternity is a very long thing to try to imagine. Especially when you consider that eternity stretches to infinity in at least two directions (from our temporal perspectives, anyway) — eternity past and eternity future. 

Psalm 90:2 says, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Before time was, God is; when time shall be no more, God still is. God never was; there is never a time when Godwill be. God simply is. And, of course, that goes for all of the time and times in-between. There is never a time or place that you or I will be that we cannot stop to pray, “Lord, I thank you that you are….”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Here we have the setting for Jesus’ “second greatest commandment” — while loving God with heart, soul and strength, we are to work on loving neighbor as self. Out of all the great commandments given by God and upheld by centuries of religious tradition and teaching, it is these two that are singled out as the magnum opera of spiritual significance.

Like, pay attention, dude!

Psalm 1
Hebrew wisdom literature is known for its propensity for taking two things, sitting them side by side, and asking, in some form or the other, “so which of these do you think it is best to choose?” Psalm 1 is a classic example. 

There is the way of the righteous, characterized as a tree planted by an ever-flowing stream of water. (Consider what such a stream must have connoted to a people who lived most of their lives in the desert!)

The way of the wicked, however, is like so much dry wheat chaff — the by-product of the reaping process. When the grain is thrashed, the heavier kernels fall to the ground and are gathered. The chaff is the clinging, choking, worthless dust that comes off the shock. It just blows away and is good for — well, nothing really, except to be dust.

So, which of these do you think it is best to choose?

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Ever known any well-meaning Christians who practice what I call, “evangelism by hook or crook?” Bringing people into the kingdom of God is held to be such an important value that an “all means necessary” approach becomes carte blanche to make promises, enticements, or offer rewards that may or may not have anything at all to do with the righteousness and grace of God.

(I once heard of a church that offered pony rides to children — but wanted them all to decide to “accept Jesus” first. I’m still trying to understand that linkage!)

We do not want to be homiletically guilty of any such manipulation or misrepresentation with our own claims concerning the gospel. It must have been something of an issue for first-century apostles and preachers, as well, since Paul goes to such great lengths to avoid doing so with the Thessalonian church.

We do what we do because of the love of God in us, and the love of God for the “dear children” of whom we have been given charge. 

Matthew 22:34-46
“Give me the bottom line.” 
“What’s the takeaway?”
“Let’s cut to the chase.”

All of these catch-phrases indicate the value our culture places on brief, direct communication. They may all be subtle stand-ins for the ever popular, “What’s in it for me?”

At any rate, Jesus gives us the “great bottom line” — there are two things that matter most in this life. Those are loving God and loving others (with the necessary corollary, loving yourself — I’m thinking that for some folks who will listen to us on Sunday, that third one is actually the toughest one to accomplish!)

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

There has been a lot of talk recently about people who say they are “Spiritual, just not religious.”  That is, they have an interest in God and holiness and amorphous mystery on a personal, individual basis; but they are not at all interested in communities of people with similar interests because that would require them to take these other people and their opinions and problems seriously, and really, who has time for that? Put another way, they are happy to love the God whom they cannot see but they do not wish to get too involved with the neighbors whom they can see.

This is, unsurprisingly, not a new problem in the history of humankind.  We have always had a self-justifying desire to decide exactly who it is we are obliged by God to be nice to; and how nice, exactly, we have to be to get credit. In today’s Gospel lesson, we read the end of a long section in Matthew where the Pharisees and Sadducees conspire to trip Jesus up and get him in trouble with the Romans.

Politics certainly makes strange bedfellows; the Pharisees and Sadducees cooperating makes about as much sense as the Tea Party and the Re-elect Obama Committee working together; but these folks are determined to keep Jesus from upsetting their very settled and profitable way of life. In the few verses prior to our text the Sadducees had tried a silly question about the Resurrection which Jesus easily rebuffed and now the Pharisees take their turn with a poser about the commandments.

This is not a question about the Ten Commandments; they are talking about the ongoing Hebrew theological tradition that numbers the commandments in the hundreds, some say 613, and then argues about which is the most important or most pivotal commandment.  In response, Jesus does two things.  First he answers their question with a very serious theological opinion, siting Deuteronomy 6:5 and our lesson from Leviticus, 19:18, tying them together as the greatest commandment. Then he politely shuts them up with a riddle from Psalm 110.  “If the Messiah is David’s son (descendant), how can he also be David’s master?” is an unanswerable question, somewhat akin to “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” The crowd is delighted with Jesus’ wit, realizing he has just told the Pharisees, “Look, two can play at this game, and this time, I win.”

G.K. Chesterton once joked: Jesus commanded us to love both our neighbors and our enemies because they are generally the same folk – this is not at all easy. It is not simply a matter of being nice and getting along.  It is hard work.  It involves getting beyond our likes and dislikes, it involves hanging in with individuals and communities when the going gets tough, it involves self-sacrifice and devotion even  you’re not “getting anything out of,” the relationship.  It involves taking the neighbor seriously as a child of God who deserves our respect and care.  It involves being religious as well as spiritual.

This is why Jesus hangs loving God together with loving the neighbor.  Loving God can be easy.  God is away off there somewhere.  We can define God in such a way that God is not responsible for any of the pain of discomfort we experience in life.  That way, we don’t ever have to be angry with or resentful of God.

We can love God with an easy conscience because we don’t expect anything from God and God doesn’t expect anything from us and such a spiritual love will never intrude upon the very earthly, confusing messiness of our lives.

But if, as Jesus says, loving God and loving our neighborly enemies are tightly bound and inseparably linked co-commandments; then we are forced to deal with love in the real world of people who are imperfect and incomplete, people who are at times undeserving of our affection or unresponsive to it; people who are sometimes incapable of loving us back. And, we have to live out our love for God in a world of people who also sometimes care about us when we don’t really care to be cared about.  It is, as I said, a bit confusing and messy.

The people who say they are spiritual but not religious have spoken more truth than they realize.  “Spirit” is formless, wispy, barely there.  It is so indistinct and disembodied that one doesn’t really have to deal with it.  It is more feeling and impression than anything else. On the other hand, the root of “religious” is ligare which is also the French root of ligament.  You can’t get much more earthy than that.  Ligare mean to tie to or to tie back.  Ligaments connect muscle to the bone; religion ties us to God and one another.

Those who seek to be spiritual without being religious believe they can float free of the ties that bind, feel good about God and be confident that God feels good about them.    A willingness to be religious indicates an awareness that an amorphous, spiritual Godlikeness would not have plunged interferingly into the midst of our pain and suffering.  Rather, it took a God of compassion to, quite mysteriously and inexplicably, give up whatever it means to be divine and plunge headlong into the muck of our lives.

God in Christ took on ligaments and sinews and walked among us and suffered among us and died among us and with us and for us. God in Christ was raised from the dead and draws us together, ties us together, as the Body of Christ, held together by ligaments of love and sinews of service. And we, the tied together Body of Christ in the world, are called to the task loving God, most especially by loving our neighbors and enemies in God’s stead and in God’s name.

Amen and amen

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