Proper 25A

October 23, 2011
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Reading 2: 
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Reading 3: 
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Reading 4: 
Matthew 22:34-46
By Jeanyne B Slettom

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

I approach these texts not exegetically, but metaphorically. So when I think of God showing Moses the whole of the land, but then telling him he may not set foot on it, I am reminded of other wilderness struggles—ones that took place not just over years, but over generations, and required the perseverance of not just one leader, but many, to keep the vision alive. As an example, one can draw a long line through Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and countless others in between, of people who saw the vision of racial equality, knew it wouldn’t come in their lifetimes, but who worked for it anyway.

There is a tradition that emphasizes the metaphor of “crossing River Jordan” as eschatological, but it is also a powerful symbol of history, signifying the end of slavery, the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and the ongoing struggle against racism and discrimination. These are people who, from the mountaintop, could see the possibility of justice and who, as King himself implied so prophetically, would not set foot in the Promised Land themselves, but nevertheless strove to lead others there.

As an American, this is the example that comes most readily to mind, but wherever a vision of justice requires leaders to pass that vision from one generation to the next, with the faith that though they will not see it, their descendants will, these verses have resonance. They are also pertinent to any struggle for justice that plays out within history. Current examples include human rights struggles and, I would argue, the Occupy Wall Street movement.

For the people of Israel, their faith was that the God who delivered them from Egypt would indeed lead them to a place where they could grow and prosper. From a process perspective, we understand that God is always working transformatively toward a vision of the common good and the flourishing of creation, whether over the course of history or within the course of our own lives. As preachers, we can assure people of the presence of God in the social struggle for justice or our personal struggles to be better people. Progress may be incremental and almost indiscernible, and certainly not linear, but God’s creative power of transformation is always active in our lives and in history.

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

This theme is echoed in the psalm text, which starts as an affirmation of God’s creative and renewing work in creation, and then recognizes the role of human beings in this work. God’s interest in and compassion for creation is ongoing, involving eons. Before this we learn both patience with the necessary scope of history, and determination to participate. The acknowledgement in the opening verse of God as our dwelling place for all generations, and the concluding intercessory verse, “O prosper the work of our hands!” emphasize, in the process understanding, that all of our work contributes to and is received into the consequent nature of God.

In the context of the work of justice, even the contrast between the impermanence of human effort and the endurance of God becomes a lure to hope. We may falter in our efforts to achieve equality and justice, but God endures. And underneath all that comes the recognition that the slow pace of justice is not due to the arbitrariness of God or the slowness of God to act, but because of human frailty. And the past, when it is swept away, is not a loss, as of grandeur, but the banishment of the sorrows of injustice, and thus a new day.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Oh, would that all public voices were motivated not out of deceit or impure motives or trickery! Perhaps in these days of ramped-up electioneering, we would do well to listen critically to discern rhetoric designed to appeal to our vanity or greed. Paul is preaching in a religious context, yes—good news of release from oppression, justice for the poor—but we can still apply these standards to civil discourse, especially in the political arena. Are there public voices that speak “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”? Or are there voices speaking out of “impure motives”? What does that mean in our present context? From a process perspective, God is always opening up new possibilities, new potential trajectories for the well-being of creation—planets, animals, people, the Earth itself. But we, by our choices, can follow more worldly trajectories, and they may or may not create well-being. Paul sets the choice before us—will we be lured by compassion or will we be lured by greed?

Matthew 22:34-46

I’m going to leave aside Matthew’s Trinitarian teaser (“How can a Father call his Son ‘Lord’”?) and plunge right into the giving of these two commandments, that we love God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. Once again, in the context of justice, these two commandments address the necessity for faith—for example, that of Moses—and the importance of human participation and compassion—“like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Love of God is trust in God’s presence, endurance, desire for our well-being, patience with our slowness in addressing injustices, trust in God’s compassionate care for us as we exercise, for good or ill, the freedom of choice with which we were created. Love of neighbor ensures that our choices align with the goodness God envisions for us. And these days, the meaning of “neighbor” is extended to Earth’s creatures and the planet itself, for it is not love of neighbor if our excessive consumption of Earth’s resources results in climatic disaster for the poorer countries of the world.

These two commandments direct us to God and to neighbor: how we relate to the first profoundly influences how we relate to the second. How we relate to both profoundly influences our behavior as dwellers on this Earth. Process theology teaches creation itself and all that is within it is inter-related and inter-dependent, thus our choices have power to direct not only our own lives, but history itself. We can align our choices with God’s aims for beauty, harmony, truth—which then influences our behavior toward our neighbor and this planet—or we can ignore or reject those aims. Bottom line: our choices matter. And since our choices are fashioned out of our hearts and minds and souls, where we direct our love also matters.