St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon for October 29, 2017 

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
October 29, 2017
Proper 25 A
Matt. 22:34-46; Deut. 34:1-12
     Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
     For the last few months, we have been journeying with Moses as he has freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea, intervened with God for them, secured bread and water during their journey and now he has brought them to the brink of the Promised Land.
     God brings Moses to the pinnacle of Mount Nebo, and tells him that all the land around him, as far as the eye can see, will be given to his descendants, as God had promised. But even though Moses had brought the Israelites this far, he himself would not be able to enter the Promised Land. He would not even set foot on the land to which he had traveled for so long. Moses' successor would be Joshua, whom Moses had previously laid his hands on.
     Our reading says that, even at 120, Moses was still full of vigor and his eyesight was unimpaired. So why did he die? Why was he not allowed to enter the Promised Land? Scripture says about Moses: "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled 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 the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of Israel." That's a pretty good obituary.
      So why did he die on the brink of entering the Promised Land? He died at the Lord's command. That may mean that he had finished the work that God had asked him to do, and it was time for someone else to take over. Some biblical scholars say that Moses died because he had failed God or disappointed God in some way, but what actually happened is difficult to discern. Perhaps it was because Moses and Aaron did not trust in God during an incident in the Book of Numbers. Whatever the reason, Moses' work on earth is done and he dies, though no one knows where he is buried.
     I think there is an important lesson for us to learn from this story. Building the realm of God and doing the work that God has given us to do is an important part that each of us needs to play, being a part of the Body of Christ. But we may not see our work come to fruition or be completed in our lifetime. The work may be passed along to someone who comes after us, each person playing a part in the larger outcome. It may take several lifetimes and many generations to see the final outcome of our work.
     Moses did not know the final outcome of what God was asking him to do when he led the Israelites out of Egypt. He listened to God and trusted in God, even though results were not always immediately seen. It took a long time of wandering in the wilderness with a bunch of complaining Israelites to get to the goal of the Promised Land.
     Moses did not have any unique abilities or talents. What he accomplished was through the grace and strength of God to bring about God's purposes.
     We may not be called to free an entire population from their captors, but we can each make a contribution to the well being of others. We may feel that we are called to do something we don't feel we can accomplish, just as Moses felt he was not competent enough or articulate enough to speak to the Pharaoh and lead the Israelites to freedom. And he could not have done it on his own. But with God, Moses could do what he was called to do. And so can we. God does not call us to a certain task and then abandon us. God continues to be with us.
     The death of Moses shows us that even if we do not complete the task God has called us to, there is great value in the journey itself. The value lies in the growth, the relationships, the spiritual development that we experience along the way, in addition to the progress we make toward the world that God wants for us. We have done our part, even if we don't make it the whole way.
     In our gospel lesson, Jesus outlines for us the two greatest commands for our journey - love of God and love of neighbor. You can't have one without the other. You cannot love God and then treat your neighbor, or co-worker, or cashier or relative, terribly. And you can't love others without also loving God. Because it is God who taught us to love one another, by sending his Son Jesus to teach us and witness to us about how to do that.
     The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. There are 613 Jewish laws and they are all of equal value. So they ask Jesus which one is the most important. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says these are the two greatest commandments.
     Out of our love of God comes our love of neighbor. That is what is at the center of the Christian faith. That was the center of Jesus' life, of what he taught, of how he lived. Days after saying this, Jesus would be crucified because of God's love for us.
    The Pharisees cannot trap Jesus with words to get him out of the way. Jesus' words and actions were too powerful for that. Because of God's love for us, Jesus came to show us a better way to live, a better way to be, a better way to love each other. And it cost him his life. Jesus died because of his love for us.
     And now it is up to us to continue to spread the gospel of the love of God and love of one another so all might know of God's love and redeeming grace. How will we love our neighbor, which shows our love for God? How will we spread the news of God's kingdom? How will we be a witness that God is at the center of our life? By living out these questions, we will live into the kingdom of God. Amen.
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