October 29, 2017
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Donna G. Joy
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46
Some of you may be aware of the work of Wendell Berry who is an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and local farmer, committed to a quiet, simple (uncomplicated) way of life. He has been and continues to be a keen observer of the shifts in agricultural practices in the U.S., and the disappearance of traditional agrarian life. He has led the way in raising public awareness regarding the current practices of multi national corporations getting rich while local farmers struggle. So, this provides the subtext for much of his fictional work which establishes a chronicle of the small fictional Kentucky town of Port William over a period of about 100 years, mostly spanning throughout the 20th century. His readers are able to see the impact that wars throughout the 20th century have had on that small town, and his readers are able to get a real sense of how these shifts in agricultural practices and the disappearance of traditional agrarian life have impacted the people, from one generation to the next…
Over the years, I have fallen in love with the characters in these stories, and I have appreciated the opportunity to see how the decisions of one generation impact on those who follow. Wendell Berry’s readers are able to observe the positive impact on future generations when forgiveness is given and received, rather than retaliation; and, of course, we are able to observe the long term impact of the less than positive behaviours as well. And, abundantly clear throughout these rich and beautiful stories is the author’s quiet, understated conviction that God’s presence is like a golden thread that is woven throughout the unfolding history of that small town. As the town becomes increasingly fragile as a result of shifts in agricultural practices and the disappearance of traditional agrarian life, God’s Presence rises through this weakness and endures from one generation to the next.
With this in mind, then, I recognize that today's readings speak of how fragile life is, and how God's Presence rises through weakness and death and endures from one generation to the next. Our Psalm this morning is a prayer, expressing gratitude for God's abiding Presence in the face of the transient and frail nature of human life. All human life, no matter how noble or helpful or wise, is terminal.
The people in Wendell Berry’s small town of Port William were only too familiar with the reality of pain and death. But this message of the inevitability of death seriously challenges the culture in which we live where people will go to great lengths to deny the inescapable process of aging. In a sense it says, "You can have as many face lifts, tummy tucks - as many cosmetic surgeries as you wish... you may purchase the most expensive anti aging creams... but at the end of the day, you are going to die. Time marches on, tragic circumstances end the lives of men, women and children while they are far too young, and generations come and go. Some people have more years than others but none have life unending - not in this existence, anyway.
The psalmist does not bemoan that fact, and the people in Wendell Berry’s Port William know this because they lived in a time and place where cosmetic surgeries weren’t anywhere on their radar; they lived in a time and place when sickness and death were an intimate part of everyday life, rather than the more institutionalized model that we often experience today. Instead the psalmist prays that in this lifetime, we will gain the wisdom to value the days we have, knowing that life is fragile, and remaining mindful that God is with us always.
The wisdom the psalmist prayed for is the clarity to see ourselves in right relationship with the eternal Creator: to trust God, to praise God, to seek God's will. This Psalm is a profound reminder that life - indeed - is fragile, but that is not something to be feared because our own individual lives are not nearly so much about US as we might like to think. Our own individual lives are more about how they are informed, empowered, and sustained by the God who creates us, remains with us throughout this life, and embraces us as we enter into whatever it is that follows this life on earth. In other words, our individual lives - our own individual stories - only truly make sense when seen within the context of the greater, continuous story of God - moving through one generation to the next, to the next. And to a large degree, this is what I love and appreciate about W.B.’s Port William stories: his readers fall in love with the individual people, and at the same time the reader is able to see how each individual is simply one small part in God’s unfolding work.
Our reading from the Book of Deuteronomy also speaks of the transient and frail nature of human life as it tells the story of Moses' death. He goes up to the top of a mountain which is located across from Jericho - the Land of Promise toward which he has been travelling for such a long time - leading the Israelite people through every kind of pain and hardship - and he looks down into this Land of Promise - the goal of so many years journey. Moses knows that after all the years of sacrifice and service, he will not - himself - enter this land. But God has mercy on him, and allows him to catch a glimpse of this land to which they have been travelling.
The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." This is a wonderful reminder that God was present with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and will continue to be present from one generation, to the next, to the next... And... Just as God was with Moses and the people every step of that long and painful journey through the wilderness, God is with Moses as he breathes his last, offering him love and mercy, comfort and hope.
But at the end of the day, although Moses is the greatest leader the Israelite people had known, this story is NOT primarily about Moses... It is about God's Presence enduring from one generation to the next, to the next. As the story of Moses' death is told, it is interesting to note that it immediately moves on to the continuation of God's plan... "The Israelites wept for Moses... then the period of mourning was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid hands on him..." In other words, Moses has faithfully carried out God's plan for the Israelite people, now Joshua is to carry Moses' work into the next chapter. Again, life indeed is fragile, and God's Presence rises through weakness and death and endures from one generation to the next.
Also, as we reflect on Moses life and death, we can acknowledge that his enduring achievement was that he received the revelation of God's law, and made every effort to record it, teach it and establish it for future generations. And – in fact - it did endure from one generation to the next, and our Gospel this morning - in some real sense - speaks of the fulfillment of this law, because as a Christian people we believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law.
In this morning's reading The Pharisees ask Jesus which of these commandments handed down from Moses is the greatest. This is a frequent point of discussion among Jewish teachers, because there are so many commandments included in the law. They are continually trying to figure out the central thread that runs through these numerous regulations.
Jesus answers by twinning two of the commandments together: 'Love the Lord your God' (Deuteronomy 6:5) and 'Love your neighbour as yourself' (Leviticus 19:18). The point he is making here is that all the other commandments depend on these two. They are also the heart of the message of the prophets. Love is expressed in action. We are called to love God first and foremost and always, and to show our love for our neighbours by treating them as we would like to be treated ourselves.
Jesus himself has shown us the quality of sacrifice that comes with this brand of love; he has shown this through his death on the cross. As he has made that sacrifice for us, we are called to make sacrifices for others. And through his resurrection, God continues to breathe new life / new possibilities into those who are left to follow... from generation, to generation, to generation . . . Again, life is fragile, and God's Presence rises through weakness and death and endures from one generation to the next, and this gift is fulfilled in Jesus.
Today, as we reflect on these readings, we might want to think: If we are fortunate enough to have sufficient knowledge of our own family history, or Winnipeg history, or St. Peter’s history, or whatever history we may be considering, where might we see the presence of God throughout these former generations? And, since – through our baptism - we are disciples of Jesus and – therefore - called to make faithful sacrifices in His name: What are the sacrifices we are called to make that will positively impact on generations yet to come? Yesterday afternoon when I was here at the church preparing this sermon, I was aware that Betty Currie was here for the entire afternoon, developing materials for a new atrium presentation. And I know that this work did not begin yesterday, and that there is still more yet to do. That is a sacrifice of time that will benefit generations yet to come. And that is just one example among many that I could share from my observations of so many people and ministries in and through St. Peter’s.
I began this morning with talking about Wendell Berry’s small fictional town of Port William, where sacrifices are often made to contribute toward the greater good, just as the author himself has spent, and continues to spend his life making sacrifices so that the North American mindset might better appreciate and support the work and contributions of local farmers; so that the North American mindset might better value the beauty of creation and therefore take better care of the environment. Wendell Berry’s life and work will, indeed, carry on from this generation to the next, and beyond.
Here at St. Peter’s we’ve been talking about sharing our gifts in ministry; being good stewards of our time and talents, our spiritual growth and Christian formation, as well as our financial resources. Every time we make these kinds of sacrifices to help build strong ministries in and through the church, strong families, strong communities (locally and globally)… every time we make these sacrifices we are building a better future for generations yet to come. Together, let us be the channels through which God’s presence endures.