A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved
21st Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 25, 2020
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 • Matthew 22:34-46
“Winter is coming.” That opening theme from the “Game of Thrones” appeared so obvious when I first read it that I was puzzled. I’m a northern boy; I’ve lived through 68 winters and the falls that preceded them. Fall to me means occasional harsh storms like the one that brought down a tree big enough to cover the entire backyard at the parsonage. It meant raking leaves and, when I was growing up, the smell of burning as piles of fire happened throughout my neighborhood. Summer was fun, fall wasn’t fun; it was a depressing end. Then I married Jacquelyn. She didn’t grow up with fall, so to her fall was an ever opening series of wonderful surprises. She loves the changing colors and I introduced her to cider mills and crisp days with a cup of sweet apple and a doughnut. Winter is coming meant something dark to me; to her, it means doughnuts and colors. How do you see winter coming?
A Spiritual Winter
A spiritual winter is coming in the story we read from Matthew about Jesus. The gospels remember that when he began to move toward Jerusalem, it was with the knowledge that there would be an end not only of a journey but of his life. At the beginning of the journey,
…Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.Matthew 16:21
Again, along the way,
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.Matthew 17-21-23
So the journey is a spiritual fall, a time preparing for the spiritual winter of the cross.
The Great Commandment
Today’s reading is part of a series of controversy stories. We read one last week about taxes. Now a group of Pharisees confront him and ask which is the greatest commandment. What do you think? One of the Ten Commandments? A particular rule in Torah? Something your mother told you?. “Which is the greatest commandment?” It’s a preacher’s challenge: summarize all the teaching you’ve brought, Jesus, tell us, what you think. How strange to hear him teach something very old, something from Torah, something they should have known: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Deuteronomy 6:5. And then: Leviticus 18:19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There it is, the whole program of Jesus, the whole preaching of Jesus, the whole treasure of Jesus and they had it all along, just as we do: love God, love your neighbor. It’s what has led him to preach, what has led him to heal, what will lead him to the cross.
Do Bad to Do Good?
Winter is coming. We are living through a moment when to many it seems that the only way to do good is to do bad. This summer we watched as protests of police killings left cities on fire. Just recently, we heard how a group of men plotted to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan and then from Wisconsin the terrible story of a young man, a man too young to vote, who used an assault rifle to shoot protesters. We are on the doorstep of a division elections seem unlikely to dispel; already, hundreds of lawsuits are filed, already there is talk of how to overturn its results.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been here. I watched a movie the other night that had a profound impact on me because it reminded me of the the late 1960’s. “Chicago 7,” is a movie about the trial of New Left leaders after the police riot in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Some of you will remember that time; for others, it’s vague history. So let me remind you it was a moment of shattering violence. Frustration was leading many to question the strategy of non-violence and democratic change. Over a hundred thousand of our troops were in Vietnam; thousands protested the war at home. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated were assassinated. In the movie, Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party, is leaving to speak in Chicago and A friend reminds him about the power of nonviolence and Martin Luther King; he responds, “Dr. King is dead.”
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”
Just like Jesus, King was killed for daring to preach this one Great Commandment: “Love God, love your neighbor.” And he did not go blindly to his death. On the last night of his life, he closed his speech with these words.
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. 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. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop
He walked on, he loved on, until he couldn’t walk anymore. But his vision went on and still does today.
That mountain top is just where we found Moses in the portion read today. Winter is coming there too. Think of his story. Rescued as a child, brought up in the luxury and safety of Pharaoh’s household while his people were enslaved and used to build up the wealth and power of others. When he finally found his true identity and became angry, he killed a man and had to run for his life: no more luxury, no more power. A fugitive from justice, he was taken in by another people, made another life with a wife and a family. Called by God, he went back to that same power structure, that same household he had fled, with God’s word that they should let God’s people go. Ten times he watched the plagues of Egypt stun that nation until the Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.
Moses led them out into the wilderness and then, as power always does, the powerful couldn’t let go, and used violence to enslave. So Moses and God’s people faced the armored might of the greatest military in the world at that time. But God was greater, and God’s people fond a way through the muddy Reed Sea when the wind of God blew the water away for a moment, and the army of Pharaoh perished in the marshes. Moses might have thought they were safe and all was well.
But when we read the story of the Exodus, all is not well. Time after time, Moses is challenged. People argue, people complain. When he stays on the mountain receiving the commandments of God, his brother and the others build up an idol out of gold so that once again there is a terrible reckoning. For 40 years he leads them through the wilderness. For 40 years he listens to them complain. For 40 years he bears the terrible burden of believing God, of loving God with his whole heart and mind and self. Now, winter is coming; his winter, his death is coming.
We Have a Destination
So he goes up on a mountain to see the way forward. Now, you know that in the Bible, geography is always theology. So what he sees isn’t just a place, it is God’s performance of a promise. Long ago, Abraham and Sarah were promised a place to live and raise generations of God’s people so they might be a blessing to the whole world. Long ago, Moses set out with God’s people to see this place. Now, he sees it. Like King, he might have said, “…as a people, will get to the promised land…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” For 40 years, we read they wandered in the wilderness. But that’s not right; they didn’t wander, they had a destination.
So do we. Ursula Le Guin wove through many of her stories a theme that speaks to our purpose. She imagined a man who grew up as a person of integrity, strong and intelligent, owning slaves, living in a culture that devalued women. When he is forced to live in a world where the slaves have been freed, where women have become equals, he hates it at first but then falls in love with a woman who teaches him how wonderful sharing with equals can be. He becomes her husband and love animates their life. Learning to love his neighbor, he has learned to love God. When he is near his end, he says, “I have given my love to what is worthy of love.”
The Unperishing Spring
Are you giving your love to what is worthy of love? This is the question of Jesus’ commandment. For surely the ultimate one worthy of love is God. Le Guin goes on to say that this is “the unperishing spring”: to give your love to what is worth of love.
Winter is coming; but so is spring. Good Friday is coming, but so is Easter. Faith is not hoping for some particular election result; faith is giving your love to what is worth of love, faith is loving God with all your heart and mind and soul until finally, in God’s time, you too can say, “I have been to the mountain top.” Faith is what leads to hope and hope leads to the unperishing spring.
Walk on, Love on
I remember the hope of 1969 and how it was dashed in later events. I remember the hope of other times and how they sometimes didn’t come true. But I don’t remember the unperishing spring; I’m living for it, I’m grateful for it, because I have seen the glory of the Lord and I know that no matter how great the armies of the night, God is more powerful; no matter how many times winters comes, there is an unperishing spring. Just wait, just walk on, just love and you will live in the unperishing spring.