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Pentecost 19 Proper 25, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19  Proper 25A  RCL October 23, 2011

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

This morning, we join Moses in a poignant moment. He goes to the top of Mt. Nebo and looks out on the promised land, but he is not going to be able to go there.  He dies, and the people mourn for thirty days. He has laid his hands on Joshua, and Joshua has been filled with the spirit of wisdom. He will lead the people into the land of milk and honey.

Moses is extolled as the greatest prophet who has ever lived. He has met  God face to face and has led the people on their long journey of liberation.

Often we begin a task, especially a large and important task, knowing that we may not be there for its completion. The building of the shalom of God is like that. We make our choices for the shalom of God every day. We try, with God’s help, to be people of compassion. And we know that, little by little, God’s peace will fill the whole wide earth. Or, on a much more immediate and local level, we do our little bits to help the folks who have been so devastated by the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene. Each individual bit seems so tiny, but, when we put them all together, much gets done.

Then we join Paul as he writes to his beloved Thessalonians. Apparently, some people have been trying to discredit Paul and his work by saying that he is operating from false motives and is tricking the people in order to achieve personal gain. Paul says that he is trying to please God, not people, and that he is sincere in everything he says. Then he gives this tender description of himself as a nurse caring for her own children. He says he cares for the people that deeply because they have become very dear to him. Paul shares himself with the people to whom and with whom he ministers. That is a powerful example for us as we carry out our ministries.

In our gospel, once again people are trying to trap Jesus. A lawyer asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment. Jesus responds in the words we know so well,  the summary of the law from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “  ‘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.’ ”

This summary of the law had been formulated years before by the learned rabbis. It was not original with Jesus, who was also considered a rabbi. Fred Craddock translates this summary as, “Love God totally, and the love of God will be expressed as love of neighbor.” Not a new idea. But a principle which is most difficult to put into practice.

It is crucial that we are called to love God totally first, because, if we love God, and, perhaps more importantly, if we accept God’s love for us, amazing things happen. God loves you. God loves me. With all our foibles and flaws and faults and mistakes, all our pet peeves, all our sins of commission and omission, God loves us with a love that we cannot possibly fathom. But we are called to try to fathom that love. Each of us is the apple of God’s eye. God came among us as fully human in order to communicate that love to us.

I’m reading a wonderful book right now, called Made for Goodness. It was written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho, who is an Episcopal priest. In various ways, these deeply faithful people are telling us that we are drawn to goodness. We are drawn irresistibly to God. The more profoundly we realize how much God loves us, the more powerfully we are drawn to be close to God, to return God’s love, and to love other people. This is the kind of love Paul is talking about, I think, when he speaks of how gentle he is with the Thessalonians.   St. Francis de Sales once said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

Archbishop Tutu is one of my great heroes, and I think probably one of yours as well. From his experience with Apartheid, his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and his reconciling ministry all over the world, he calls us to “see with the eyes of God,” that is, to see all other people as fellow humans to be respected and loved, to know that God dwells in every person.

Archbishop Tutu tells of his visit to the Holy Cross School in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  For five months, the girls who attended this Roman Catholic school had had to have an armed escort in order to walk to school. They had to run the gauntlet of a protest staged by Protestant adults who, according to Archbishop Tutu, “used the most vile and abusive language. They swore at the children. They assailed the children by throwing urine-filled balloons at them.” (P. 96.)

Yet, Archbishop Tutu tells us, when these girls arrived at school, they did not act like children of trauma. They acted like normal little girls. Archbishop Tutu writes, “Even after the assaults of the morning, they were in touch with the joy of being little girls. There was much nudging, giggling, and squirming. They had prepared a song for me. They sang ‘Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.’  The adults suffered from an acute lack of vision They could not see God in the little girls. The girls, on the other hand, were blessed with God-sight. They did not answer hate with hate. They could see beyond the unspeakably ugly behavior they faced to the essential goodness hidden behind the adult fear.” Because of the support and teaching that they received, these girls were able to not only survive, but flourish in the face of this trauma. And, as Archbishop Tutu says, they were able to see these misguided adults as God sees them.

As Archbishop Tutu says, “God dwells in every person.”  That truth is at the heart of following the two great commandments. Years later, he visited  Ireland and saw a great change.  One of the most amazing things he experienced was seeing the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Protestant factions actually sitting at the same negotiating table. Not only that, they actually shared a joke.

Tutu writes, “The image of those two men laughing together reminded me that even a failure of vision is not final. Because God always dwells in us—in all of us—there is always hope. There is always hope that the scales will fall from our eyes and we will see as God sees. Prayer makes the scales fall off faster.

May we love God totally.  May we see God in all people. May we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen.

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