Sermon Seeds: God’s Story, Our Stories/Endings and Beginnings
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
(Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 25)
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.
God’s Story, Our Stories/Endings and Beginnings
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Today’s passage is only one small piece of a conversation we’re overhearing, between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. It’s a little bit like listening in on a family argument, with higher stakes. The displeased leaders uncomfortably recognize Jesus’ parables as “speaking about them”: “They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (Matt. 21:45-46). Feeling offended and “disrespected” and perhaps threatened, they fight back with the only weapons they have: their learning, and their way with words.
Like our modern presidential debates, these exchanges appear polite on the surface, but the tension underneath is hard to miss. In Matthew’s descriptive account in chapter 22, the authorities “plotted to entrap him” (v.15), and “Jesus, aware of their malice,” calls them “hypocrites” (v. 18) and tells them that they “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (v. 29). Perhaps we might understand Jesus’ hostility if we (as always) consider the setting: after his triumphal procession into Jerusalem, he immediately “cleansed” the temple and confronted the religious leaders who then questioned his authority to teach on their turf. Clearly, they’re not fans.
Jesus hasn’t applied for a license to preach or passed their test of orthodoxy, and yet his answer today to a question about the heart of the law, the heart of his people’s tradition, shows that he is an utterly faithful Jew. On round three of theological questions, the Pharisees have sent in their “big gun,” as Beverly Zink-Sawyer describes this legal expert (New Proclamation Year A 2008), to get to that heart of the matter. Richard Swanson continues the image: “The Pharisees take their best shot and it misfires. Jesus fires back, and no one bothers to reload.” The lawyer has asked a “Do-You-Have-A-Clue-About-Being-Jewish? question,” Swanson says, and “Jesus clearly has a clue about being a Jew” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
If we turn to a baseball metaphor instead, we might say that the Pharisees throw Jesus an easy pitch and he hits it out of the park. After all, even though the Pharisees want to trap Jesus in heresy (i.e., saying the other 612 laws are less important), scholars seem to agree that Jesus isn’t the first to put together these two laws about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). But as always there’s a twist in the way Jesus interprets the tradition, a twist that turns our perspective around today just as much as it “confounds” his listeners long ago. (Isn’t that one of the most important roles, and gifts, of a good teacher: to turn around the perspective of their listeners?)
Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, he paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that “hangs together.” Even more, Thomas Long tells us that Jesus sees the law very differently than its experts do, and his response “undermine[s] the whole notion of the law as rules and regulations. What Jesus claims is that the whole law is about love, not rules, about really loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
We might begin our closer look at these two commandments by asking how humans can indeed be “commanded” to love. (Some might ask what kind of love it is if it’s forced.) And then we might look more closely at how we define love mostly as a feeling that then causes us to behave in a certain way. When we don’t feel love, it influences and even justifies our behavior, or our lack of right behavior. We claim that no one can force us to feel something we just don’t feel, but Douglas Hare notes that Jesus is talking about “biblical love,” a love that is marked not by “warm feelings” of gratitude but by “rather stubborn, unwavering commitment” (Matthew, Interpretation). And commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two.
An example during this stewardship season in many churches: several years ago, inspired by the witness of two older women, longtime and faithful members of the church who told me their stories of tithing, I decided to take the step of increasing my own giving to the church I loved. Increasing to a tithe was a challenge but it surprised me that my feelings followed after the action, or after the commitment, if you will. I found that I loved my church more when I gave more to it, much as we love our children more after giving of ourselves to them over many years. So it seems that when we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward. The laws of giving and Sabbath and loving, I believe, are God’s way of getting us to do what we need to do, what’s good for us; these laws give us the direction for setting our hearts. Again, it’s a thing of mystery.
The great scholar Marcus Borg has famously called these two commandments the “great relationships,” and he even ends his excellent book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, with this “remarkably simple vision of the Christian life. It is not complicated, though it is challenging.” It’s as if it all comes to this, for “at the center of a life grounded in the Bible is the twofold focus of the great relationship.”
So at the heart of being a faithful Jew, and at the heart of being a faithful Christian, we have these two great relationships, intertwined in yet another mysterious mingling for people of faith. Beginning with the second, we know that we’re called to love one another, not just the people we feel love for, but all of God’s children, which is where justice comes in, what Borg calls “the social form of love” in the Bible (The Heart of Christianity). As Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” The tradition in which Jesus taught and lived called the people of Israel (as we are called today) to “justice, mercy, and faithfulness,” Douglas Hare writes, “forms of behavior demanded by the prophets but beyond legal regulation” (Matthew, Interpretation). We know that Jesus interpreted this law of love to cross boundaries in place in his own culture, beyond family or group loyalties, and he ran into trouble for doing so.
We might also ask what boundaries we have placed around our own commitment to love our neighbor, which of God’s children live on the other side of those boundaries, and how comfortably we live on this side of them, all the while thinking that we too are faithful to the two great commandment/relationships. God didn’t mean for us to love those people, right? And yet Jesus made clear the reason we love even the stranger, even the “least” among us: later in Matthew’s Gospel (the well-known Chapter 25), he said that we will be judged by whether we were able to see him, to see Jesus, to see God, in every single person we encounter, and he describes that love in what we do, not what we feel.
Turning then to the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we once again consider the orientation, or setting, of the very center of our being: “Within ancient Jewish psychology,” Borg writes, “the character of the heart depended upon its orientation, what it was pointed toward or centered in…what mattered was the orientation of the self at its deepest level, its ‘center’ or fundamental loyalty” (Jesus: A New Vision). Jesus was a radical, Borg says, in teaching that we are to be centered in the Spirit, and not in the many other things that call for our loyalties, “rival centers” like “family, wealth, honor, and religion.”
Two thousand years later, it might be obvious to ask if nationalism, for example, has demanded our loyalty in ways that displace the primary importance of God, and if God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives. But Borg’s list pushes us to consider values and loyalties that are, so to speak, closer to home, especially family and religion, both of which are certainly good, but isn’t it possible for them to take on more fundamental importance in our lives even than God? In light of our world situation and the tensions around religious interpretation of both texts and law, that last “rival center” strikes me as especially pertinent. In response, we should be prepared to follow in the way of Jesus, to be called a radical, and to bear the price as well.
Two writers (among many) have provided exquisite reflections on these two great commandments. Stephen J. Patterson describes the “basic reality” of God as love, for “to love God is to love love itself.” We have Jesus himself as a role model in that “radical” (perhaps even shocking) way of loving: “He loved prostitutes. He loved sinners, traitors, tax collectors. He treated the shamed with honor and declared the unclean clean. He loved the unlovable. He loved his enemies.” That was Jesus’ “fundamental” orientation (to combine Borg and Patterson’s language): from the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met. When we’re trying to figure out the meaning of life, when we’re trying to make sense of everything, Patterson points us toward this “reality that can give life its richness and ultimate meaning….beckons us to live better than we live….[and] exists as already present, an Empire ‘within you,’ that can be as powerful in the shaping of human life and relationships as we want it to be” (The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning). (I find his use of the word “empire” here so challenging: if we wrestle with whether “reign of God” conveys the same meaning as “kingdom of God,” how does “empire” of God sound to our theological ears?)
We’re not surprised that a mystic like Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hiddenness of God: “Love,” he wrote, “is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God” (A Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, editor).
The long and contentious debate between Jesus and the religious experts ends, fittingly, with a question about the Messiah, a question that is really about Jesus himself. Thomas C. Long writes, “Jesus challenges the completeness of the Pharisees’ answer,” for “He is David’s true son, but he is more. He is Messiah and Lord” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Perhaps this reminds us of the incompleteness of all of our understanding, and the human limitations of our ability to love. But Patterson explores the mysterious power of love that comes from God: Jesus, he writes, “embraced that power, lived it, spoke of it, storied it into existence, and surrendered to it, finally accepting its limitations and succumbing to the powers of fear and hatred that crucified him. This is how, even in death, Jesus could become an experience of God to others” (The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning). As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ in the world today (the world that God so loves), how can we each day become “an experience of God to others”?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
C. S. Lewis, 20th century
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.”
J. C. Ryle, 19th century
“All heaven and earth resound with that subtle and delicately balanced truth that the old paths are the best paths after all.”
John of the Cross, 16th century
“In the evening, we will be judged on love.”
Henri Nouwen, 20th century
“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing….The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.”
Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
I woke up this morning to news reports of the Ebola crisis striking close to home in Cleveland. A health worker in Texas who had cared for a man with the Ebola virus visited family in Ohio during the unknowing incubation time, before becoming sick with the virus herself. I am struck by the almost frantic and certainly, fearful tone of the reporting and subsequent grocery store and social media conversations. Schools closed. Airports are on alert. It is amazing how many lives one person comes into contact with during a week. Monitoring and containment are important parts of prevention.
While still drinking my first cup of coffee, I touch my phone screen to open email with updates from a variety of church partners around the globe working on care, containment and prevention of this deadly disease – particularly in communities of western African nations. I currently serve as the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) team leader for national staff with responsibility for work in disaster response, sustainable development and refugee ministries through the One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS) offering and special funds. With that function, I along with these other staff, have the opportunity to ensure that the UCC is well-connected to be part of actions that respond effectively and faithfully to immediate crises, root causes and long-term solutions to situations of chronic poverty, disaster, violence or emergency around the globe.
I have learned that it is no wonder that the Ebola virus has created wide-spread fear and hopelessness among people in western African nations. Health systems are disrupted. Health workers do not have proper personal protective equipment or training. People in these nations have never faced this virus before. And it is personal. Lives are at stake.
I also have had reinforced for me the reality that systems and actions are possible to combat that despair. Communities of faith are present in affected areas, with people committed to care for the sick no matter the personal risk. People of faith are comforting those who grieve the 4500 people who already have died and communities now permeated by fear of the unknown. And a global community with the potential to accompany affected communities and people in ways that make a difference does exist. We just need the public will and distribution of resources to make this happen. As the UCC, we are acting through long-time relationships of Global Ministries with local and national councils of churches in western Africa; and also acting through global organizations with expertise and connections to address this particular Ebola crisis.
Ebola is not a new virus. It was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Since then there have been at least 10 outbreaks, each one contained relatively quickly. Staff of IMA World Health, a global faith-based development organization of which the United Church of Christ is part, tells of a 1995 outbreak in the DRC in which IMA took the logistical lead for quickly mobilizing care and containment through already established connections and on-the-ground contacts in place. “Ebola is manageable if we get out in front of it.”
And so I pray this day for all the individuals and communities affected by the Ebola virus “that they may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (Thessalonians 4:13). I pray that in the midst of this very real global health crisis we will draw together as a global community and not further isolate ourselves from one another. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (I Corinthians 12:26). And I give thanks for the privilege to be part of the global church working together, so that I am not just sitting in front of the TV wringing my hands over morning coffee, but am active in solutions far beyond what is possible by any single group or individual. I thank God this day to be part of the UCC that, in mutual relationship with people around the world, acts toward the well-being for all that God intends.
To date, UCC Disaster Ministries has dispersed One Great Hour of Sharing offering and designated funds to Global Ministries’ bi-lateral partners in Sierra Leone and Liberia and to ACT Alliance church partners working in Liberia. The UCC also will be a significant part of the work of IMA World Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader and Executive for Volunteer Ministries with Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8:
This passage from Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica turns our attention to the courage it requires to live as Christians and to preach the gospel. The temptation is to strive to live safely, comfortably, even quietly, and to think that this is living not only as a “peaceful” people but as true Christians. And yet, we know from the example of Jesus and of Paul that preaching the good news will often provoke a negative, perhaps even violent, reaction. Paul speaks of the suffering he has endured for the sake of the gospel, but he speaks without regret. He sees his reward in the faith of the people of the church of Philippi.
Paul’s words about motive remind us of Kierkegaard’s definition of being “pure of heart” as “to want one thing.” If Paul’s preaching and our own as well have no motive apart from wanting to please God, we will be pure of heart in our words and in our goals. Paul does not come across as powerful and strong in this passage, in the sense of being overbearing, but his authority is rooted in tender care and generous sharing of his own life. He clearly cares about this little flock in Philippi, and we can imagine that he would care about our own little flock today, wherever we are the church. What are the oppositions that your church faces today in preaching the gospel? When are the moments of tender care, not only for the children but for each and every member of the church, and for those who come through your doors, in need of sanctuary and good news? In what ways are they embraced? In what ways does your church need to grow in its embrace of those in need?
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled 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 all Israel.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
O God, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting
you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
Turn, O God! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Sovereign our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Happy are those who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight
is in the law of the God,
and on God’s law
they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do,
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff
that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand
in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation
of the righteous;
for God watches over the way
of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle 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.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “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.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”‘?
“If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.