Taking a Long Look (Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46)
Today we’ll have our third quarterly luncheon and meeting, even though we’re now almost a month into the fourth quarter of 2017. Hard to believe. It always seems to me that we start moving more and more quickly toward the next year by the time we get to the fourth quarter. As we have gone on together, I have realized that no one predicts the future very well. What will 2018 bring? How will we, as a community of faith, meet the new year with a vision of mission to our communities? I hope that some things will stay the same because continuity is important to congregations. As the Christian educator Sarah Little once remarked, quoting Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision the people perish,” but, she went on, “where there is nothing but vision, the people have nervous breakdowns.” Continuity is important, and I hope we can keep many things the same, if only to avoid those nervous breakdowns.
On the other hand, I hope that our congregational life will continue to be shaped by a vision of what kind of congregation we are convinced God wants us to be and how we see our mandate to share what God has given us with our community. To put it another way, what is it about First Baptist that our larger community can’t do without and would miss most if we were gone? For example, a few years ago, if it hadn’t been for First Baptist, there wouldn’t have been a La Crosse Warming Centre. I remember that line of people waiting to get into the door each night of the winter and how many phone calls I got at first from people who were upset that they (or their children) had to see the previously invisible homeless standing there. It made them uncomfortable. Slowly, the perception changed and more people came to see it as something they could do something about. That was then, what is now? It’s important, that our mission in 2018 be guided predominantly by our faithfulness to our vision and church values rather than by how much money we can raise. If we discover something that needs doing, we need to be creative to develop partnerships that can make it happen. This applies to such as Centro Latino, the Legal Clinic and so on.
Well, maybe that’s a little pep-talk for our meeting after lunch. But, having said that, now for something different. Some weeks ago, as I began re-reading our scripture lessons for today, the Old Testament Lesson struck me in a deep way. Deuteronomy 34 is a brief and sympathetically told story about the end of Moses’ life, and concludes a crucial chapter in Israel’s spiritual history (and ours). In a way, this chapter takes up the story where Numbers chapter 27 left off. In Numbers 27 Moses entrusted Joshua – at least in theory – with the on-going leadership of the Hebrew people. All the material that looks ahead to the inheritance of the Land of Canaan in Numbers 28-36 as well as Moses’ three sermons and attached material in the Book of Deuteronomy have interrupted that story. It’s almost as if it’s taken Israel until Deuteronomy 34 to get its head, heart and vision around the fact that things are about to change for it. Although they will still be God’s people, they will have to be God’s people in new ways, because they’ll be in a new land, and, have new human leadership…Joshua.
Israel had just finished up this long learning curve of forty years in the wilderness on a trip between Mt. Sinai and Canaan that should have taken between two weeks and two months because of their unwillingness to listen and work together. All through this difficult time Moses was trying to craft these people into what they would be when they did come into that land flowing with milk and honey – the land into which only a very few who came out of Egypt would go. Moses himself was not one of the “few.” No, he would not go into the land of promise, although some of his often stubborn “children” would go there.
According to the story, God led Moses up from the Plains of Moab just opposite Jericho where he’d preached the sermons of Deuteronomy “to Mount Nebo, to the top of, literally, the Pisgah” (and always so in the Bible). It may be that Pisgah is an alternate name for Mt. Nebo, or, perhaps, simply a nearby peak. Mt. Nebo is only about 2700 feet in elevation, so that, for Moses to see the land as described here, we must assume a kind of spiritual vision here. At least in this vision, God showed Moses the whole of the land from north to south, and back to the Plains of Moab facing Jericho, which will hold the first encounters in the new land for Joshua and the people. Moses took a long look and saw a future for God’s people. What would happen there? I asked much this same question about our future in 2018.
I told you that I have read this text with different eyes. The text became personal to me, because, though I’m not as long in the tooth as Moses, I’m getting there, and I personally identified with his taking a long look. It is a joy to me that we do have infants and children here among us, and we value them highly. I often wonder what they will make of their lives – for all that will happen after my time. This Lesson reminded me that not seeing what the children would make of their heritage was one of the things that Moses faced as he stood on the overlook of Mt. Nebo at Pisgah’s height. It also occurred to me that, actually, this is always so in the Church for all of us. We all complete our parts of the journey differently and at different times. For us, the promised land comes in many ways and forms. Just this last week I read another newspaper story that told how few people, of either younger or older generations, are optimistic about how life will be for them or their children. We cannot count on victory if we just keep the rules, in spite of noisy, but bland assurances to the contrary from some who claim to speak for God. We cannot count on endless prosperity, no matter how faithful to God we are. We cannot count on health, we cannot count on unabated happiness. Over 1000 congregations close annually now in the U.S., and, the rate is higher in many European countries. And, in spite of what some tell us, most of these have been perfectly faithful to God. Life is uncertain, and, in reality, always has been. We can whistle in the dark and spend our time predicting the second coming of Jesus to bail us out (as has also been done for centuries), but none of us has any guarantee that we, personally, are going to get as far as we’d like to. Every community faces challenges, and, eventually comes to the place beyond which it cannot go. We do not know what the future holds for any of us. Reading this text in this world should be a dose of reality in that regard for us all, no matter what the congregation, no matter what its size or wealth. The future is unknown no matter how long we look.
It’s not my intention to plunge us into deepest gloom about the future here. But this text is a reality check: No one goes on forever, so, in the light of the real world in which we live, this text encourages us to ask again “What is it about us without which our neighbours outside the doors would be impoverished? What kind of community do we think we need to be and what do we need to be and do until we can’t anymore?
If our Old Testament Lesson is this kind of reality check for us this morning, the others, though aware of the reality, give us some pointers.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked where the centre of gravity for his Hebrew tradition was to be found? In a way he was asked what kind of a people the Hebrews ought to be. Was it about purity, was it about politics? was it about justice? was it about…what? Interestingly, Jesus went back to the story of Israel’s past at Sinai and the wilderness and took a long look at that era and said that the most basic and crucial matters for God’s people are found in two pieces from the Hebrew Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, (two places where we don’t often look for relevance today). These passages talk about “love,” which, in the Bible is not about feelings, but about action on behalf of and in the interest of the one who is “loved.” The first passage says the bedrock foundation of everything else is an all-consuming active love for God. Jesus twins it with the passage from Leviticus 19:18 that holds an equally passionate, all-consuming active love for neighbours that cares for them with the same zeal with which we tend our own self-interest. He, then, said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (he meant his Bible).
The Torah was never intended to get people in good with God, but to show that they were already living in a covenant community with God and one another, where we are not alone, and where we, therefore, care a great deal about one another. By saying that both the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments Jesus meant to cause his hearers to remember how many times Israel’s prophets had spoken up for the love of God as seen through the lens of the love of neighbour in acts, not feelings, of devotion, love, justice, mercy and wholeness. We show our love of God by our love of our neighbour, and we define our “neighbour” by seeing the universal care and concern in action that God has for all people. Indeed, the Old Testament Torah says no less than 52 times that God’s people take care not just of neighbours like us, but of aliens, outsiders, refugees, strangers, pick your word. Fifty-two times. The Bible hardly says anything 52 times. It must be central. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus illustrated the whole matter of loving God by loving neighbour by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is the only kind of love in action that made any sense to Jesus. He says that, “you don’t need special teaching on this, the old Torah was perfectly plain about it. Loving acts on behalf of your neighbour are the way in which love for God shows up.
If we ask Jesus what kind of a community First Baptist ought to be, might we not hear him saying: “How about one where the twin loves of God and neighbour drive everything you do”? Let every single thing you plan express that love in actions. In fact, the other injunctions and commands in the Bible simply make love of God and neighbour specific. Now, since we don’t live in Bible times or even the times in which many of us grew up, we need to continue to think how we live out love for God and neighbour today and tomorrow. To do that we need to study and reflect on the scriptures and our experience of God. How do we make the scriptures “real” in our day, rather than just repeat the words our parents or grandparents used and carry out programs that were old when they were young? Jesus’ values will be at the core of Jesus’ community, his person will be at the head of it and be the beating heart of what it accomplishes, but we must think it through again and again.
Then, we come to the example of Paul in First Thessalonians. This letter is probably Paul’s earliest published writing (51 or 52 CE). Paul had less ministry experience than he would gain, but would have been full of energy. He says that his ministry in the church community of Thessalonica had not been easy. He was accused of all kinds of things. Being the Apostle to the Outsiders, the Misfits, the Come-from Away’s, the Gentiles was a tough thing. At that point in his ministry Paul didn’t make a big deal about being an apostle (as he would in Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence), but had an interesting way of putting his method of ministry among these Thessalonians. He wrote:
…Though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ…we were among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. (2:7-8)
This is a wonderful statement that ministry together with others isn’t just kind of “putting on a ministry hat,” but, for Paul, was rather “being among them” as one who cared for them and shared himself with them. Through the years I have pointed these words out to students as worthy of emulation. It was to demonstrate the validity of these words that we left theological education to come here and engage in ministry (so here’s another personal text). And I point them out to us today, too, because they really have to do with the way we all relate to one another, as those who care deeply for one another and care for one another without the expectation that the other, then, has to repay us with becoming just like us. So, we become “very dear” to each other.
As we take a long look at the future, these lessons can give us some clues to the very deepest basics of who we are and how we work as a community. We serve one another and the world as a way of loving God with all that is in us, and we care for one another deeply, sharing not just our faith but ourselves together. If we plant those kinds of trees of love, care and service among us and in the world, then we will be the kind of community of faith that is true to Jesus’ values and Jesus’ person, even if we don’t all get to the Promised Land at once, and are only able to give it a long look.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. AMEN.