October 29, 2023

The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

October 29, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-36

     From St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, “We are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves,” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    Earlier this past week, a message appeared on social media that really caught my attention not only because of what it said, but because so many of my friends and colleagues copied and shared it with others. The message offered a vision for the Christian Church: a vision that set aside the often stuffy or uptight atmosphere of congregations caught up in their own sense of holiness, of what is proper, and who is welcome and, instead, urged that the church be a safe place for any who are struggling: the addicted, the worried and grieving, the sinful, the lonely, and the outcast of society. The church should be a welcome place for all God’s people regardless of whatever is going on in their lives or whomever they are.

     As I meditated on today’s scripture readings, I couldn’t get that message out of my mind. And the more I studied our lessons, the more that message became not only clearer, but urgently so.

See, I find that the war that is tearing Israel, Gaza, and whole communities and nations apart, as well as the cries from those seeking relief from famine and disease in many, many lands, share a deep connection with that message of inclusion posted online, and our reading from Deuteronomy. There, in lamenting the death of Moses the writer reveals the deep longing within the Hebrew people for a new prophet, a new Moses who will deliver them forever. Theirs is very much like that holy longing for wholeness, healing, and redemption that echoes throughout the Season of Advent, and echoes still today throughout the world. And that longing reveals just how deeply people throughout human history including today, have needed to not only feel that they are a part of something, part of a community, but know they are a valued and welcomed part of that community, and thereby, find that wholeness, peace, healing and redemption they desperately seek.

     Our gospel lesson unfolds as a lawyer, a Pharisee, asks Jesus a question. Earlier, Jesus had a similar exchange with a group of Sadducees. Sadducees were a powerful political bloc within Israel who upheld a literal interpretation of scripture and, therefore, espoused strict adherence to the Law of Moses exactly as it was written. For them, there was no room for new understandings of those ancient texts in light of contemporary moral issues. No, for them, “Moses said it. I believe it. That settles it” was their approach. Jesus showed them that in their zeal to uphold the letter of the law, they often missed the intent of the law.

Now the Pharisees step forward. A powerful religious bloc within Israel, they were open to new understandings of how scripture could address contemporary situations. But they took exception not so much to Jesus’ interpretation of the law, but rather, his claim to have the authority to forgive sins, to heal on the Sabbath, and so on. Such authority belonged to God alone. Thus, they believed Jesus was a misguided heretic who needed to be silenced because he was stirring things up and people were starting to question the authority of both the political and religious establishments.

The lawyer asks, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus’ response is mind-bending. After affirming that the greatest and first commandment is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…” he then adds, “‘and a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  In other words, at the core, at the heart, of every law in scripture and every word of the prophets is love: love for God and love for neighbor. What we need to understand is that by saying the second commandment is like the first, Jesus was not suggesting it is similar, but rather, that it is equal to, or the same as, the first. Jesus is trying to get these religious and political leaders to understand that we cannot love God without loving our neighbor and in loving our neighbor, we love God. You cannot do one without the other. It’s both or it’s nothing. And Jesus demonstrates over and again throughout the gospels that loving in such a way requires a changed heart, a changed mind, and a changed soul.

     See, for Jesus, there is no room for hate or uncaring for one’s neighbor in God’s kingdom. Loving God and all that God loves is the only way to keep, honor, and obey these two greatest commandments. And keeping both of them is always a choice: a decision that should affect our relationship with God and neighbor. It is a choice, a decision, which should change how we see the world around us. It should change us as individuals and should change the Church today because we are the body of Christ.

     Paul, in today’s reading from Thessalonians, shares how loving God and all that God loves should impact the body of Christ, the Church. In fact, it should birth in us a desire to adopt and embrace a whole new way of living. Paul says, “We are determined to share … not only the gospel, but also our own selves.” Now, there is a tendency to think that “sharing our own selves” is about giving of our time, talent and treasure in order to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and all those other wonderful ministries that this parish embraces. And that is part of it. But there is an even deeper meaning to this text.

See, Paul envisioned the Church as a place of evangelism and caring for the wounded of society whether physical wounds, or wounds tied to economics or justice, race or gender, or hunger and homelessness and so on. For Paul, responding to those needs is tied to evangelism: to how one lives the gospel. Yet Paul also envisioned the church as a place that cares for the wounded within these walls: those who silently and secretly carry burdens and worries and griefs deep within them. Sharing our own selves means creating a safe place to speak frankly from the heart and mind, and honestly bare one’s soul about what’s going on in their lives and the lives of those care about, and in so doing, still be warmly embraced by God’s love embodied in and through us.

Paul believes the church exists not only for the spread of the gospel, but just as important, as like it, the church exists to share our own selves – all that we are and have. And that includes our joys and our struggles. Sadly, for far too many people today, the church is the last place they would ever acknowledge that the smile on their face masks a deep and anguished cry for help, let alone ask for help. In my own experience, while growing up in the Church, I was reluctant to share about my struggles because I feared judgment or that someone might snicker, or that I’d discover that my Church, a community very important to me, really didn’t care after all. And so I remained silent. And by my silence, I robbed myself and my neighbor of experiencing a new and deeper intimacy with God and with one another: of knowing what it means to love God and all that God loves with all our heart and soul; of knowing that I was welcome and loved regardless of myself.

     See, when we are unafraid to share our own selves, we discover new ways to demonstrate to the world that the first and second commandments really do matter to us and influence how we choose to live even if such living is a struggle. When we share our own selves with God and one another, like our text from Deuteronomy, our holy longings often find fulfillment and redemption. When we share and open our own selves – our very hearts and souls - like St. Paul, we discover a renewed sense of mission and purpose: a mission and purpose that at its core, Jesus says, is about loving God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul; and truly loving our neighbor as our own selves.

     Our scripture lessons today begin, like all scripture, with our relationship with God and conclude with an offer of a new and deeper relationship not only with God but with each other in and through Christ if we will so choose it. And that is always the challenge because loving God and neighbor, sharing our own selves, is always a choice: our choice to ensure that this parish is a safe and welcome place for those who struggle, especially one another. And, friends, I believe that choice can change and birth new life not just within our parish or the whole Christian Church today, but the entire world.

     St. Paul said, “We are determined to share not only the gospel of God but also, our own selves.” May God grant us – you and me - the courage and determination so to do. Amen.