Weekly Preaching: Reformation Sunday

October 24th, 2017

We’ll observe Reformation Sunday on October 29th and two of our lectionary texts, Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and Matthew 22:34-40, speak well to the day. 

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I preached on Deuteronomy 34 three years ago; it’s on YouTube. It's one of the most poignant texts in Scripture: Moses has been in a long filibuster-like speech to the people with lots of commands and even threats on how they should behave once they finally — finally! — enter the promised land.

Then Moses withdraws to a moment alone with God, the God he’d met eighty years earlier on another mountain. A breathtaking panorama (on a clear day, that is; I’ve taken tour groups to Mt. Nebo only to be met with thick clouds…), Moses like a surveyor sizing it all up. His eyes zigzag south to north (Gilead to Dan), zigging back down Jordan valley, zagging west through the southern Negeb up to Jericho, crazily zagging back south to Zoar. His heart must have soared; surely he gasped at this wide-lens view of his life’s purpose.

But then the punch in the gut: Moses will die there, then. Heartbreaking, crushing. Why did Moses have to die? For the sins of people (Deut 1:37, 4:21)? For striking the rock (Num 20:12)? Bible students seize on this, but they don’t consider how petty it makes God seem; God, who was unfailingly patient with so many other and worse sins. How are we privy to this private moment anyhow? Did Moses write of it prophetically? Ibn Ezra attributed it to Joshua, who might have tagged along.

Maybe Franz Kafka was right: “Moses fails to enter Canaan, not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.” After decades of arduous labor, having finally gotten a glimpse of the broad expanse of the land from his viewpoint atop Mt. Nebo, Moses died. He wasn’t there to see or enjoy the fruit of his life’s work.

Isn’t this always the way? We are all part of something bigger than ourselves — at least we hope we are. Reformation won't happen today or even in my lifetime; it's unending, which could be frustrating but should instead be viewed as a privilege to be a part of.

Who can picture Moses’ final day without recalling Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final hours? In Memphis, campaigning on behalf of garbage workers, he spoke eerily of his possible impending death (and it's well worth watching/listening to again and again): 

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight… Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

Just one of many memorable Reformers in the wake of the one he was named for, Martin Luther.  

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Spoiler alert: in the new War for the Planet of the Apes film (which is surprisingly moving and way more outstanding than I'd have guessed), Caesar (the lead ape) somehow manages to get his people released from imprisoned service to a cruel taskmaster, leads them through the desert to a beautiful land... and then dies as soon as they get there. Original plot??
We might also ponder Reinhold Niebuhr’s pithy wisdom: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”
Isn’t it interesting that the Torah, the primal Scripture in Judaism, ends here, just short of the climax? It is as if each generation has the same choice: will you enter God’s rest? And if you will, then how will you live? This is pertinent for Reformation: the church that feels it has arrived in Canaan is the corrupted church; the one outside looking in, pledging fresh commitment and passion, is the living church.
The mummies of pharaohs have been studied; Aaron’s tomb, near Petra, is visitable. But Moses’ tomb? Many rabbis believed Moses didn’t die at all, but was translated directly into heaven. He appears, of course, in Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 17), toting his commandments if Raphael got it right. The NRSV translates “He was buried” — but by whom? The text quite straightforwardly says “He buried him.” He who? Is the Lord the implied subject? The Pseudepigrapha includes the Testament of Moses in which Joshua, bidding Moses farewell, declares “All the world is your sepulcher.”

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1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 has some promise, but leaves me with a bit of a yawn when I've got Deuteronomy 34 and Matthew 22 staring me in the face. I did a little preaching commentary on this for Christian Century nine years ago, if you're interested. But for now, on to the Gospel!

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This Sunday will be just two days before the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg door to spark the Reformation. It's a long story of course, well worth pondering as we see today’s church in crisis/demise. I would commend Martin Marty’s short book, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World, or his similarly short biography.

A lot can be said about the original Reformation or the one required today. I suspect we would be wise to fix our attention on Jesus’ greatest commandments, as Church, reformed or malformed, means nothing apart from loving God and loving neighbor (our text, Matthew 22:34-40). More on how to preach about this “love” in a few moments. For now, let's think of ways to process what’s wrong with the church. It’s not that many in church life disagree with my pet biases or preferred versions of how the universe should be arranged. It is all about ways we are not yet (or not much) conformed to Christ, which is the same as how we have not yet (or not much) been transformed by Christ. Love needs reforming, and that reformed love is what will reform the church; the reformation of the church's love is similarly what will reform love.

Two great quotes occur to me:

“The tools we are given to taste the beauty of the divine — scripture, the church, religion, theology — cease to be windows to God and become mirrors that reflect back our own stupidity and cruelty.” (Wendy Farley, in her magnificent Tragic Vision & Divine Compassion)

And, “The church is the cross on which Christ is crucified. And yet Christ is never far from his cross.” (Romano Guardini)  

These ideas matter, as the Church’s misdirection crucifies Christ all over, repeatedly — and yet Christ is there. It really is about beauty and looking through a window to that beauty, instead of into the mirror of our own vapid knuckleheadedness.

To speak of love with respect to church can mislead. I love (!) the great song by Beth Nielson Chapman, “All that Matters in the End is How we Love.” But love can easily become society’s mushed down, trivialized, moody, sentimental thing that is kin to but far from the love Jesus spoke of, embodied, and died in consummation of. Matthew 22:34-40 only makes sense in the light of creation, the Fall, Abraham’s call, the deliverance from Egypt, Mt. Sinai, the prophets, Jesus’ incarnation, his teaching and healing, and then his crucifixion. All of that is what love is. We absorb this as best we’re able, and then try to love God and neighbor.  
I am likely to say something about the controversy in the church related to love — namely whom people love and the church's blessing. Do I dare suggest (as many have, and not wisely) that "Love wins," so whatever claims to be love is championed by the church? Jesus is pro-love, but it's deadly serious business, isn't it? Do I suggest (which I do wonder) if the reform the church is called to today is precisely on this issue of love (whichever way you're persuaded it must go...) and get there in an embracing, hospitable way — together?
How wise of Jesus to give his dual reply. Two loves, which are really one. It is mandatory for you, preacher, to pull out your parallel Gospels and compare Matthew (where Jesus uses heart, soul and mind) with Mark and Luke, and then also to go back to Deuteronomy 6 (and Leviticus 19). This is the premier text in Judaism, apart from Jesus. Call a rabbi friend — or make a rabbi into a friend by calling and asking, Tell me about Deuteronomy 6. When Jesus said the main thing is to love God with heart, soul, and strength, he wasn’t making it up out of thin air. He was a Jew, raised by Jewish parents, the descendant of generations of Jews, all of whom began and ended every day with those very words: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.
These words are called the “Shema,” a Hebrew word meaning “Hear!” Deuteronomy 6:4 begins, “Hear (Shema!) O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God…” Moses was repeating what God had taught him to say, and the setting is intriguing. The people of Israel had wandered through the land for decades. Finally they were on the brink of the promised land, gazing across the river, about to realize the promise when Moses stopped them and said “Hear!” Listen! The beginning of love is always listening.
What are the people of God to do to live into God’s promises? They are to love God with every fiber of their being, not casually, not when it’s convenient, or just when there’s trouble. To be sure they understood God wishes to be loved all day long, every day, in everything, Moses added, “Talk of these words when you sit in your house, when you’re walking around, when you lie down and when you wake up. Bind them on your hand, and as frontlets between your eyes. Write them on the doorposts of your house.” On the door jamb of Jewish homes you’ll find a mezuzah, a little container with a tiny scroll of Scripture, looking something like a doorbell. (Christians too, can have them! I have one at home, and one on my office door, just one more little reminder...)

You may have seen pious Jews with a little black box on the forehead, or straps on the wrists. They are taking literally what Moses intended — and what I find I need to stand any chance of being godly. I stick little cards and hang tags all over my world, in the shower, in my desk drawer, on the dashboard, to remind me to love and think about and ponder God throughout my day. My book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is an attempt to help us Christians think about how to think about our love for the Lord all the time. It's a challenge for me; I should attach something to my head, I think. If I hear myself thinking You shall love the Lord over and over, I actually shall love the Lord.
Jesus grew up with this kind of disciplined love for God. He’d lived it, and he understood the benefits of a constant attentiveness to God, repetitious reminders to love God. Scot McKnight calls You shall love the Lord with heart, soul and strength “the Jesus Creed.” Christians would do well to memorize this creed (Jesus mercifully kept it short so we could) and then to repeat it on waking and before sleeping, and to recall it throughout the day.  
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Our church did an entire series called “You Shall Love.”  A sermon series, and email series, and little cards we printed up for people to carry in their pockets and stick in their desk drawers and by the bedside. I even shot a video of me trying to explore how everything we do in church life — not just worship but also a finance meeting, what trustees do, personnel decision, etc. — must revolve around Jesus’ dual directive that we love God and neighbor. I commend it to you, but more importantly, I would commend you having this conversation with your church leaders. Can we make our budgeting, mowing the lawn, how we think about policies, all intimately linked to this touchstone of love?
Here are links to the sermon series: five of them, so more than just Matthew… You shall loveWith all your HeartWith all your SoulWith all your MindWith all your Strength (and then more on neighbor). I would urge you to think about doing such a series yourself.  It helped our church tremendously, and I hope permanently. I tried to dissect each aspect (What is your heart... or what was it in Bible times? etc.), and you can find this in any handy commentary, but I wonder if the texts are suggesting a comprehensive “with all you’ve got, with all you are” instead of “love in these three ways,” as if those can be distinguished, or worse, checked off a list.
A few thoughts on love: How wonderful is it that, when Jesus wanted to zero in on what really matters, he said “You shall love the Lord.” Not “You must obey,” or “You must be perfect,” but instead, “You shall love.” I know it’s a command, and it’s worth pondering that love can be commanded. Love isn’t a fleeting emotion you feel or don’t feel; it’s something you really are able to do! But there is the future nuance in “You shall love.” Maybe you don’t think you love God just now, but ultimately you will. I believe this for each of us reading right now: eventually, you will love God.
God had a choice when God created everything. God could have insisted on God’s will always being done. We could have been marionettes, unable to do anything except God’s bidding. But God isn’t a God of control. God chose not to be in control because God decided to seek our love, and you can’t control love. You have to wait and let the other love you — or not. God constantly isn’t loved. But God risks the heartbreak. God invites us and pleads with us to love God and each other.
The reason? The very marrow of God’s being isn’t power or law or even greatness. The core heart of God is love, unfathomable love, unending love, unlimited love. It is this love that fashioned the universe with all its grandeur and beauty, and it is this love that wove you together in your mother’s womb and has been behind, beneath, above and before you for every breath you have taken. The only conceivable reply to such love is… love.
Evidence of God’s love is all around you, and inside you. God’s need for your love is inside you, too. All your life you’ve needed, sought, and been downright desperate for love. God made you this way as an echo of God’s own heart. You are your loves; your identity is that you are beloved — by God and others.  
Love doesn’t shield us from suffering, but love can and will take it. God suffers over our broken world, and God suffers our busy, presumptuous taking God for granted. But God can bear this, because God loves. When we get the mercy, we will love God.
If you recall falling in love: love is reckless, and love doesn’t count the cost or the passing of time. Love loves with every fiber of our being. Deuteronomy 6:4 says we are to love God with heart, soul and strength. Jesus added a fourth: mind. If he’d lived longer he might have added a fifth, sixth and seventh. How do we love God? Let us count the ways.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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