Sermon Seeds: A Prophetic Vision’s Power
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (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
Worship resources for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost Year A, 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25) are at Worship Ways
Special resources for ministry during the Coronavirus Pandemic:
Digital Pastoral Care & Grief:
Living psalms are here, scroll down:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Psalm 90
Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46: “Is Love Still the Answer?” by Brooks Berndt
A Prophetic Vision’s Power
by Kathryn Matthews
Back in ancient times, long, long ago–when I was in high school–that was when I first heard of something called “Existentialism,” a big word for an important kind of philosophy that I’ve struggled to understand for more than fifty years. There are, of course, different kinds of Existentialism, and it turns out that the differences are very important.
On the one hand, you have atheistic Existentialism, which seems to describe the human person as a lonely, solitary but free decision-maker–in an indifferent, uncaring universe. No meaning, no eternity, no God.
My dictionary, for example, says that Existentialism claims that the universe is absurd, and human life full of anxiety and alienation. This is a very depressing kind of Existentialism, which might explain why so many churches have condemned it. People of faith tend to be people of hope, of community, of promise.
Existentialism and faith?
On the other hand, there is also such a thing as religious Existentialism, even Christian Existentialism (which many trace to the brilliant 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard). These philosophers and theologians talk a lot about the individual human person, too, and that person’s freedom, but in a very different way.
In this way of thinking, each human being is valuable, and each person’s individual conscience is important, as well as every person’s freedom to make authentic decisions. There is a God, and there is meaning in the universe after all.
Looking at the Promised Land
Our readings this week from the lectionary have something of an existentialist flavor: there’s Moses, standing on the mountaintop, just as God commanded him, looking at the future home of the Hebrew people, the Promised Land. “The Lord showed him the whole land,” the text says. The land, and freedom: what this long and perilous journey has been all about.
We might wonder what Moses, the solitary leader but just one person in a great multitude, felt, looking out on that sweeping, majestic horizon of hope and promise. Satisfaction? Gratitude? Triumph? Accomplishment and glory, too, perhaps–and yet, and yet…a sense of limits, a sense of longing, a sense, perhaps, of loss.
What Moses is denied
Indeed, Moses, as we read more than once in the Bible, was denied the experience of actually entering the Promised Land, of realizing in his own lifetime the promises made to his ancestors.
Here, in this final chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, the story of Moses comes to an end: Moses, the greatest prophet of all, unequaled in all of Israel because of the way God worked through him, the way that God was made known through Moses’ “mighty deeds” and “terrifying displays of power.” Moses dies, and is gathered to his people, just as God had promised.
God as a dwelling place
This week, we also read Psalm 90. What a mix of feelings there is in this psalm, and such beauty, too: “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…a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night…”
It’s interesting to note that Psalm 90 is the only one with a heading claiming Moses as its author, so we might reflect on this psalm in light of Moses’ experience there, on the mountaintop, as well as our own experience, thousands of years later, in our own lives.
Eternal and everlasting God
We can imagine Moses, like us, remembering, and holding fast to the memory of, God’s help in ages past. “The mountains and the earth” stand for continuity and endurance, and yet, before the mountains and the earth ever existed, God was.
The eternal, everlasting God: in contrast with the brief, fragile, almost momentary existence of humankind, swept away, like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning, flourishes and then, in the evening, fades and withers away.
Sin, and God’s anger, too
The middle part of this psalm, which is often omitted, speaks of human sinfulness, and God’s anger at human unfaithfulness to the covenant that had been established between God and the people. Then, in its ending, it moves into a prayer of petition, asking God for help and compassion: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days…prosper for us the work of our hands.”
Let our lives, then, no matter how brief, no matter how difficult, have meaning. Let there be meaning, and everlasting value, in our having lived.
Looking back, and looking forward
I hope, and I suspect, that Moses must have looked back as well as forward, that day on the mountain. He must have looked back on the incredible journey he had finally completed, since his earliest adventures in Egypt, rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, raised in privilege, then called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in what we call the Exodus.
It was all just the beginning of even more adventures and struggles and moments of glory, another mountaintop, and being given the Law, standing on holy ground and speaking with God. And there was desert time, too, the wandering and the doubt, and the wrenching back to God’s path, and to God’s ways.
Forty years of desert wandering
Forty years of wandering, and now, here, on the mountaintop, a vision. The text says that Moses was 120 years old, but his sight was unimpaired. I think that means not just his eyesight, as he gazed on the Promised Land. I think it also meant that Moses could see things as they are, that Moses knew that it mattered less whether he actually, physically entered a geographical place that people of faith have called “The Promised Land.”
Moses, I suspect, knew that, when he was an infant in a basket, floating in the reeds, or a prince in the palace, or a lonely prophet on a mountaintop, or a frustrated, wandering leader in the desert–in all those times, he knew that the place where he lived, his true “dwelling place,” was God.
More than his mighty deeds and terrifying works of power, it is the assurance that Moses had of God as his dwelling place that moves us today and touches us “where we live.” From everlasting to everlasting, God is our dwelling place. That means that it is God who holds us, now and forever, no matter who we are, solitary individual or community of faith.
God holds us in love
I remember once, many years ago, when I was all worked up about some situation in my life, and a good and trusted friend of mine called me on the phone to tell me that he knew, in everything I was going through, that I was being held by God. Hearing those words–that reminder–brought me great peace, for we are each, it is true, alone in this world at different times and moments of our lives.
I remember his words of reassurance, that no matter what situation I found myself in, the everlasting God was holding me in love. And today, in the midst of everything, we too are anxious and worried–of course we are, in the midst of Covid 19 and economic recession and turmoil in our society, and through it all, God is holding us in love.
No matter what we’re going through
We may be worried about our jobs, our security, our future, our health–certainly our health, and the health and safety of our loved ones, our teachers, our health care professionals–we are worried and anxious, and still, God is holding us in love. God is our dwelling place, full of mercy and grace, peace and love.
We may actually be sick, or tested positive, or awaiting tests, or unable to get tested; we may be receiving treatment, or unable to get treatment in a society of uneven care and concern; we may have sudden or chronic illness, or be experiencing injury, physical pain, fatigue, diminished abilities…and through it all, God holds us in love.
Fearful and burdened, but held by God
Whatever fear we live in, in our homes, our workplace, our neighborhoods, still, God is our dwelling place, and God is holding us in love. If we’re loaded down with more work than we think we can handle, more responsibilities, more people who are counting on us than we think we can manage, still, God is holding us, always, in love.
If we are grieving, and so many of us are, if we are aching with loss and disappointment and disillusionment, wrestling with betrayal and hurt from ones we have loved, God holds us in love. And if we are depressed, lonely, struggling, uncertain, filled with doubt, needing to forgive when we feel like we can’t, and even if we think we are lost, no – God is holding us all the while, in love.
God holds us in joy and peace
And more: if we are happy today, if this is a day of relief from worry, of celebration, of accomplishment, of hope, of love and sharing and quiet joy, or even if this day only brings moments of such joy and hope, we know, too, that God is holding us in love.
What does it mean, then, to live our lives, like Moses, held by God, with God as our dwelling place, the God who made promises to our ancestors, the God who is faithful, the God who is from everlasting to everlasting?
For one thing, it means living in utter and radical dependence on that God, not on our own will or power, satisfied with and sustained by God’s steadfast love each morning, rejoicing and being glad, all of our days, that we are each, individually, a precious child of God.
A frame around our existence
That seems obvious, but there is more. The psalm is true, of course: our days are brief, even fleeting, when you take the long view of thousands and millions of years gone by.
However, taking a page from the existentialists, at least the Christian ones–it is death that sets a kind of frame around human existence. Death is a horizon of hope for people of faith, but it is a limit nevertheless, and it brings a measure of sadness when we think of it.
Still, those very limits that we know are there, at the end of our life on this earth, invite us to live with a sense of urgency and responsibility and gratitude, to think of all the possibilities that lie on this side of death, and to exercise our own freedom, and to form our consciences, so that we might live authentic lives of faithfulness, lives of meaning, lives of justice, openness and joy.
Held by God
Experiencing ourselves as held by God also means gathering–God willing, one day soon in person again–as people of faith who recognize God as the source of our existence, as the One who sustains and satisfies us. We are a people who recognize that our dwelling place, our true home, is in the heart of God.
Our faith then calls us to welcome each individual as a child of God, and as a gift. We do this when we baptize babies, for example. The tiniest, newest members of our community, so lately come from God, remind us in their loveliness just how precious every single individual is, just as Moses, on that mountaintop, reminds us that all of life, and all the earth, the universe and all that is within it, belong to God.
Not only does the Promised Land belong to God, but the whole universe and all that is within it. It is there, in God, that we all find our meaning, and our home. Fear not. We are held by God, in love.
The Reverend Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Mary Oliver, Upstream, 21st century
“‘Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view,’ [Emerson] says, and suddenly that elite mystical practice seems clearer than ever before, and possible to each of us.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 21st century
“What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent with the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.”
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you…in God’s hand is the life of every living thing.”
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“I will no longer wound myself with the thoughts and questions that have surrounded me like thorns: that is a penance You do not ask of me.”
Catherine of Siena, 14th century
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
Hafiz, 14th century
“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being.”
Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46:
by Kathryn Matthews
Our passage from the Gospel of Matthew 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, but with much 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” (Matthew 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.
Tension below the surface
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 knows what he’s talking about
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).
Trying to set a trap
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. 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).
However, 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?)
What the Law is about
Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, Jesus 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, rather than understanding the law “as rules and regulations,” emphasizes “love”; the law is “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 of us might ask what kind of love it is if it’s forced. And then we might look more closely at how we tend to 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.
Love as a setting of the heart
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.
This kind of love, a “setting of the heart,” a decision to act that then affects how we feel, may involve giving generously to support our church (and finding that we then love it more), or faithfully prioritizing the needs of our spouse or children, no matter our mood or inclination at the time (and finding those relationships deepened), or perhaps learning to forgive as a spiritual practice that makes us more forgiving people.
A thing of mystery
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 all comes to this, for “at the center of a life grounded in the Bible is the twofold focus of the great relationship.”
Two great relationships
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 has said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
A law crossing boundaries
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 that were in place in his own culture, beyond family or group loyalties, and he ran into trouble for doing so.
What boundaries do we draw?
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, what kinds of walls we have built to “defend” ourselves from having to love them, and how comfortably we live on this side of those walls, 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.
Feeling unworthy of love
We might also consider how it feels to be on the other side of that wall, when others judge or reject us, or find us unworthy of God’s love and grace, and therefore unworthy of theirs. What is most tragically ironic–and a sin–is the mis-use of religion to justify these walls, this judgment rooted in hatred and bigotry.
There is no way to reconcile the two Great Commandments with such abuse. And we wonder why young people, among others, are “turned off” by religion, when it exercises power and “authority” to create and justify those walls and that judgment, that exclusion. How well, for example, has the church addressed its long-time role in reinforcing the misogyny that thrives in too many settings of our lives?
Jesus was a radical
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.” (I have a feeling an entire Bible study discussion could be held on these sentences alone.)
Demands on our loyalty
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. If God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives, that would be evident in the way we live our lives, personally and communally, as people of love and justice, not simply of symbols.
However, Borg’s list pushes us to consider values and loyalties that are, so to speak, closer to home, especially family and religion. Both of these values (family and religion) are certainly good, but isn’t it possible for them, and our definition of them, to take on more fundamental importance even than God in our lives?
Imposing our beliefs
For example, religious wars/violence are the tragic but perhaps logical outcome of deciding that our loyalties and convictions require us to make others submit to our belief system. In light of our world situation and the tensions around religious interpretation of both texts and law, that particular “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.
God as love
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.” (We should all be so radical.)
That was Jesus’ “fundamental” orientation (to combine Borg and Patterson’s language): from the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met.
The meaning of life
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?)
The mystery of God
We’re not surprised, then, 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.”
Merton continues, “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: I highly recommend this book!).
The end of the debate
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.
The power of love
However, 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….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”?
For further reflection:
C. S. Lewis, 20th century
“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, 20th century
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 20th century
“I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?”
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 20th century
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”
Additional reflection on Matthew 22:34-46: “Is Love Still the Answer?”
by Brooks Berndt
With a lawyer on the attack, Jesus answers by returning to his core message: love. The lawyer wanted to ensnare Jesus in a legal and rhetorical trap. By asking him to elevate one law above all the others, he was forcing Jesus to disavow the established view that all commandments should be ranked as equals because no human can presume to know the mind of God.
Jesus’ response was at once simple and radical: first, love God, and second, love your neighbor. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (v. 40). While love as a guiding principle may still seem simple, is it still radical or even helpful in the face of matters as serious and as huge as white supremacy or climate change?
Not the answer?
Recently, as I scrolled through various Facebook posts, an article shared by a friend caught my eye. It had the provocative title, “Ibram Kendi, One of the Nation’s Leading Scholars of Racism, Says Education and Love Are Not the Answer.” I saved the article to read later. It would seem that as a minister of the gospel I had a lot riding on whether Kendi’s argument was true. If love isn’t the answer, then that means God and Jesus aren’t the answer either.
To be honest, part of me agreed with Kendi before I even read the article. The word “love” gets tossed around so much as the answer to everything that the word can easily be associated with countless clichés and simplistic prescriptions.
Indeed, upon reading the article, I liked Kendi’s core argument that racism is not about ignorance and hate. It is about policies driven by self-interest cloaked underneath racial rationalizations. Kendi’s mission is thus to strategize about policies that could ultimately eliminate racism.
The importance of faith
But why strategize in the first place? Are debates over policy simply a matter of pitting the self-interest of some against the self-interest of others? Maybe. Or, perhaps, this is where faith becomes important for some of us.
I certainly believe self-interest is a powerful factor driving the actions of many, but if life was all about self-interest, I wouldn’t be interested in living it. I prefer to believe that life is made meaningful by something else, and that is love. Ultimately, this is why I choose to have faith in God, even in the face of seemingly intractable societal ills.
The struggle for justice
For such reasons, I find myself returning again and again to love in the struggle for justice. Specifically, I find myself focused over and over on the Three Great Loves: love of neighbor, love of children, and love of creation. I believe these comprise the heart of what will fundamentally motivate people to seek the policy level changes our society so desperately needs.
In this way, I find that love is still indeed the answer as simple and as radical as that might sound.
The Rev. Brooks Berndt serves as Minister for Environmental Justice at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8:
by Kathryn Matthews
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.
Preaching without regret
Paul speaks here 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. His 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.
Authority rooted in care
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,
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
Turn, O God!
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
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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”