October 26, 2014
- Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
- Donna Joy
- Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
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. Any human life, no matter how noble or helpful or wise, is terminal. This message seriously challenges the culture in which we live where people will go to great lengths to deny the inevitable 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. Instead he prays that in this lifetime, we will gain the wisdom to value the days we have and the fact that God is with us in them. 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 is 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.
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 shows him the whole land. 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 indeed it did endure from generation, to the next, 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 Gospel 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 hundreds of 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.
This past week, first in Montreal, and then a couple of days later on Parliament Hill we had a terrible and terrifying opportunity to see how fragile life can be. On Tuesday Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent died a day after becoming the victim of a hit and run incident which is believed to have been strategically planned and carried out. On Wednesday, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo died as the result of what appears to have been a random shooting.
Apparently a woman named Barbara Winters was on her way to a meeting that morning when she passed the National War Memorial, stopping to snap a few pictures of the two honour guards standing soberly at attention. I read in a newspaper article that it was just a short time later after she had carried on walking to her meeting that she heard four shots. Recognizing the sound as gun shots she quickly ran back to where she had just spent that brief time snapping some quick photos, only to discover four people bending over a fallen soldier; and of course we now know this soldier by the name Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. She immediately dropped her purse and briefcase on the steps and began to join the others who were offering help.
Another soldier was bent over Cpl. Cirillo's head, talking to him, offering him words of love and encouragement and hope. The people who surrounded him took care of his every need: elevating his feet; loosening his tie... Barbara Winters began to pray, reciting the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name. Thy Kingdom come.... She also told him that he is a good man; a brave man; that he is loved; and that everyone is trying to help him. She told him to think about what he was doing - that he had been standing guard at the National War Memorial. She told him what a good man he was for carrying out his duty in this way. But Cirillo died in the arms of the people working so hard to keep him alive.
This tragedy, along with the hit-and-run incident outside of Montreal earlier in the week, has shaken our Canadian society, right through to the very core of our being. It has left not only police and security agencies on high alert but it has also de-stabilized the assumed stability of our Canadian way of life. And in the midst of all this chaos, we ask ourselves the question that we often tend to ask at such times, which is, "where is God in all of this?"
Well, I - for one - was relieved to find some clues in our readings for this morning. First and foremost, I believe that God weeps with all who weep. As a parent and - now - grandparent, I know how my heart breaks whenever my children or grandchildren experience pain, and disappointment, and sadness, and loss... And I have this profound sense that the God we worship aches for us with this depth of compassion and love.
And yet, as our Psalm reminds us, life is fragile. But the Good News is that God is always with us in those fragile moments, and even when that moment comes when we breathe our last breath.
Just as God was with Moses as he breathed his last, offering him loving words of hope and promise, I believe that God was present with Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Those who helped him, prayed with him, offered him words of love and encouragement were channels through which God was present. Also, the greatest of all the commandments "Love God fully and your neighbour as yourself" was lived in full... Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was neighbour to all those who rallied to help.
These readings this morning also challenge each of us as we process the events of this past week. As we are reminded through our Psalm that life is fragile, we are encouraged to not be afraid of this. Instead, we are called to remember that while life is fragile, God always endures from one generation, to the next, to the next. In the midst of all the high points, and particularly the low points, God's story continues to unfold. While it is impossible to understand the devastating events of the past week, we are called to trust that God is with us, breathing new wisdom into our midst, offering new possibilities out of the ashes of disappointment and even death.
Also, as we reflect on our Gospel reading this morning where Jesus identifies which commandment is the greatest, we are being challenged to find love in our hearts, even for those who pursued such violent acts this past week. What they chose to do was wrong; dreadfully wrong. No question about that. But, my hope and prayer is that we will resist any temptation to allow these acts to increase what seems to be a growing level of fear and suspicion of those who we may identify as different. Let us resist the temptation to respond with prejudice or hate. Let us embody Jesus' command to "Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbour as ourselves."
In the aftermath of one of these incidents this past week a local mosque in Cold Lake Alberta was targeted with hurtful, nasty graffiti which suggested that this faith community has no right to even be there. Soon afterwards a group of people including military personnel in uniform arrived to clean up the graffiti and replace it with posters that said they are home, and they are welcome.
Let us resist the temptation to respond with prejudice or hate. Let us always remember that the actions of individual extremists, or individuals who suffer from mental illness and/or drug addiction, do not give us licence to put labels on those whom they may be trying to represent. Let us embody Jesus’ command to Love.
In his letter to the Canadian Church our Primate, Fred Hiltz writes:
I ask your prayers for these men, for their loved ones stricken with grief, and for the Canadian Armed Forces chaplains who are ministering to them.
Pray also for the perpetrators of these awful attacks and for their families as well.
With the whole world our country is on high security alert. Pray for all men and women in uniform whose vocation is to defend Canada and work for peace among all nations. Pray also for all who hold public office. Let us pray especially for the safety of our Prime Minister, all members of Parliament, and all in the public service. And pray for peace and reconciliation among all peoples.
Now is a moment when the refrain of our national anthem, "O Canada, we stand on guard for thee" must echo in every heart. Let our guarding be in the diligence of our prayer:
- Lord, Keep this nation under your care,
- and guide us in the way of justice and truth.
- Let your way be known upon earth,
- your saving health among all nations. Amen.