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Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46 Bigfork Community United Methodist Church October 25, 2020, – Reformation Sunday
It always amazes me to see how profoundly…I don’t say precisely or literally…our lectionary readings follow what’s happening now.
We read thousands of years of the history of Israel. In the past eight months…and longer… what we read each week has reflected in a meaningful way what we are going through here and now.
They had a famine. We have a pandemic. They found themselves in bondage and oppressed. More and more people feel that way today by the way we are limiting ourselves to combat the virus.
We feel out of touch with our rulers. So did they. They took a journey from where they were to the Promised Land. We feel a need to do the same thing, too.
They decided to not be oppressed any more. They had one advantage over us, though. They knew who the oppressor was.
We walk around with a cloud of data in our heads and another one in our mobile phones. We don’t know who sends us the messages we receive or the calls we get.
We have created machines to liberate us, but we have to resist the notion that because we created them we control them. They are now set to distract us from what we are doing so that their manufacturers can produce some revenue.
We read the story of Moses’ death …the end of the Mosaic story… and we see that he fades into pre-history. The prophet who has done more for the cause of equality and freedom…is buried in a place no one knows.
His mortal remains are lost to human history…but his story lights the way for all humanity from bondage into freedom. His people understood that and grieved his passing even as they gave thanks for his life.
We also read this morning about the one who led us all from darkness into light.
Like Moses, he faced adversity. Like Moses, he came to lead all who would follow him, out of bondage into freedom. Like Moses, where his body is…is a mystery…or a matter of faith.
We have listened to his continuing dialogue with the Pharisees and their allies. He speaks clearly, boldly, and in a meaningful way, about how the people in Jerusalem are keeping the faith.
Those who were doing just fine before he arrived in Jerusalem are startled when he criticizes the sacrifices in the Temple. People need to offer sacrifices without blemish if they are to be forgiven.
But only the moneychangers in the Temple sell animals who the priests will find to be without blemish. The animal they brought or bought along the way is not unblemished.
You need to buy another one, at a much higher price. Just step this way, they tell the faithful pilgrims, and we can help you with that.
We are qualifying each other much the same way today. Our priests will tell you whether your offering is without blemish or not.
But here is the great freedom we enjoy today. Whatever you believe …whether it leans this way or that …is right. All opposing views are ill-founded…or foolish…or conspiratorial.
The wonderful thing is that no matter what your outlook, you are right. No matter what your point of view, you can find a 24/7 news network that agrees with you. There is a channel designed just for you… and there is another one for your neighbor who disagrees with you.
Jesus has weathered assaults on his authority…Jesus responds to their question with a question and asks the powers that be by what authority John the Baptist engaged in his ministry.
The powers that be realize… momentarily, at least, that they are not all-powerful. They must have the support of the people.
Our founders understood that, too. We see today, in the middle of a momentous election cycle, that it is even more universally true for us today than it was back then.
Even more power is given to even more people. We no longer want to say that “All men are created equal” so much as we want to say that “All people are created equal.”
Jesus nails this as truly and completely as it can be nailed today. Now the powers that be are sending people to him with a new campaign attack.
“What is the greatest commandment?” the lawyer asks. In code, he is asking, “Are you of Israel or not?” If Jesus does not get this one right, he is done.
But Jesus is a son of Israel and he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Jesus has just spoken the Shema to the powers that be. These are sacred words that were spoken by his ancestors since Moses’ day as they have celebrated their liberation from Egypt.
Deuteronomy 6 is the clearest, oldest statement of their faith, embedded in the instructions for the Passover meal, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Then the Shema imposes a sacred obligation on those who claim to be children of God. “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”
So in our little confrontation we are looking at today…in this little cowboy western shootout on main street we witness this week…who is the good guy here.
He knows the sacred calling of his people as well as anyone, but he also holds the keys to the kingdom. It isn’t just a matter of who you worship. It is a matter of how you live out your faith in your everyday life.
This isn’t just a matter of being nice to other people. It is a matter of being kind to ourselves. You get what you give and you need to love your neighbor as yourself.
We have finally arrived at the time in American history when the good guy does not always wear the white hat or check his guns with the sheriff while he is in town.
We see the self-importance of the Pharisees during every commercial break on TV these days. If you are really lucky you can see one candidate attack the other in one commercial and then see the other candidate attack the one…back to back.
I saw one commercial break this week attacking one candidate at the end of which the candidate who had just been attacked said, “This is so and so and I approve this message.” Then his commercial attacking the other guy aired. Was he approving the other guy’s message or his?”
Jesus saw all of this coming. He does not stop with his recitation of the Shema. He adds, “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.”
Here is the ultimate priest…equal in faith and equal in grace…to God, saying that all people are created equal in God’s sight. What you say about your neighbor, you say about yourself.
How you treat your neighbor says a lot about how you treat yourself. If you hate your neighbor and cannot believe a word they say, you might want to go stand in front of a mirror and ask that neighbor how they are treating you.
You, Pharisees, want to shame me …but you have shamed yourselves with your commitment to worldly power and your lack of commitment to God’s prayers…for this little rock…hurtling through space with all souls aboard.
Who, besides yourselves, are you for? Whose pocket, but your own, do you want to fill?
Jesus is telling them…and us…that the kingdom is at hand…in every body…in every heart…in every mind…and in every soul…and we are all called to release that truth in all we say and do.
I visited one day with a dear lady who had lost her husband recently. He died of multiple causes and finally to treat one was to aggravate the other and he soon passed on.
She was pondering all that had happened and she told me she should have known sooner that he was ill. How would she know that, I asked.
A couple of months before his death he had gotten into a loud argument with someone on Main Street. She didn’t tell me what they were arguing about.
She just asked the question that she had been pondering for days. “Why would he get into an argument with an old drunk like that?” That wasn’t like him. He had been famous for selling something more to people who came to him angry about what they had bought from him a few days before.
He listened. He questioned. He opened himself to their problem, and their relationship was not broken…it was strengthened…by this trouble.
The quarrel with the drunk was a warning sign that he was troubled deep in his soul. She should have known it then.
That woman understood the need to love your neighbor so you can love yourself. She also understood that hating your neighbor hurts you as much as it hurts them.
Paul understands this, too, today. Writing to the Thessalonians for the first time…probably the oldest of Paul’s letters that we have today… he writes,
“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.”
We are many, but we are one…as God is one. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves…not only for the sake of the community …not only for the sake our neighbor…but for our own sakes as well.
Loving our neighbor lets us know how we feel about ourselves. So here is what I have learned to do with negative campaign ads.
I record the programs I want to watch and I fast forward through the commercial breaks. I don’t need any Pharisees telling me I need to hate my neighbor. I need to hear the old, old words of Christ, begging me to love myself with loving words and loving deeds for whoever passes my way.
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…this day? Amen.