Our God is a god of life. Our God is a god of creation. Our God is a god who is always working toward the perfection—the completion—of this great Creation. This work is not only something which God does to and for Creation, but work in which Creation participates. For our part, as humanity, we remind ourselves through scripture and the stories of our faith about the many times and ways where God has invited us to participate in this work.
God calls to people, sometimes individuals and sometimes whole tribes and nations, with the revelation of some piece of the great plan and invites them to cooperate in its execution. God creates the garden and asks the first two humans if they will assist in keeping the garden and its other inhabitants. God approaches Abraham and invites him into a covenant that will persist for millennia. God calls Moses to lead the people of Israel from slavery to freedom. God invites a young woman named Mary into a plan that will change humanity forever. God is always working toward the perfection of Creation and the fullness of the Kingdom and God always wants humanity’s cooperation in doing that work.
Today the psalmist gives us a helpful summary of this relationship between humanity and God and our participation in God’s work. I have heard this psalm summed up into three short points: God is always faithful; our lives are short; we have work to do. The work is sometimes for ourselves, our own personal labour, but so often in scripture we find concern for the work of the community as a whole. Certainly there are individuals within the group moving from Egypt, through the wilderness, toward the promised land who have high profiles and particular work to do, Moses chief among them. But even Moses’s work is a reflection of the work of the whole people of Israel.
There is much to discuss in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. It is the death of Moses and the end of the Torah, after all, and we don’t have time to cover nearly all of it. What I think is important, however, is the context in which Moses has this final conversation of his living days with God. Moses and his people have both been toiling for years now, since planning their escape from Egypt right to this day, yearning for the promised land. And here, in these verses, they stand right at the gate to that place that they have longed for so many years. But in the earlier chapters we have heard God be very clear that the generation who left Israel will not be the generation to enter the promised land.
God called the people of Israel to freedom and did many miracles and gave many blessings to make it real, but this nation was not as faithful as their God. They followed their own desires, their own hearts, and ignored and disobeyed God’s commandments again and again. They have excluded themselves from the promised land by ignoring the work to which they were called, thinking they knew better than God. (Deuteronomy 1.19-45) In today’s reading, even Moses, greatest among the prophets given to Israel, is shown the promised land and, in spite of all the signs of perfect health, he dies before he might set foot in it. God’s promise of a new place, a new Creation, if you will, cannot be found by these people because they have not only not participated as God asked, but worked against God’s requests.
These stories would inform the culture and thinking of the people of Israel for generations after Moses’s death and into the first century of our era. Maintaining the covenant with God was of deep concern to the people of Israel, for they had these living stories in scripture of what happened when their ancestors had not been so inclined. Different groups appeared—Herodians, Sadducees, Pharisees, and many smaller groups within each larger camp, and so on—all with different ideas about how the covenant could best be lived out.
Around the year 30, rumours begin to spread about a man, a teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. Some claim he is a prophet, some say he is the Messiah; there are differing views on the righteousness of his teaching, but all agree that he has some new ideas they’ve not heard before. His ideas about how to live out a covenant with God are not what they’ve been hearing for years and this causes concern among the religious and political leaders of the day.
Today’s gospel reading is the final exchange in a series of duels between Jesus and these other groups of teachers and thinkers in Jewish society. Each has come to him with questions, hoping to trip him up or work him into a philosophical corner which will shake his authority, but none have succeeded. In today’s passage, a legal expert from among the Pharisees seeks to trick him by asking an important, but wide-open question: What is the greatest commandment in the law?
Jesus gives an answer that some of the onlookers may have known. A rabbi of the generation prior to Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, is attributed as the first to connect the She’ma—the call to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and strength—and this passage from Leviticus about love of neighbour. It makes a statement to his contemporaries about where he falls in the philosophical debates about the law, but is also an authoritative statement about the interpretation of how best to live out the law.
To uphold the law and its commandments, or to use the language from the first part of this homily, to cooperate with God in the work to which humanity is called, according to Jesus, is to love God, to love neighbour, and to love one’s self. We understand that these are related activities. Love of God will be seen as love of one’s self and as love of one’s neighbour. If any of these are impeded by the others then something in the balance has been upset. For example, if love of God is the reason we give for why we cannot love our neighbour, we’re missing the forest for the trees.
This love of neighbour is not just being a nice person on the sidewalk. Leviticus is very clear that this includes care for widows and orphans, for immigrants and refugees. Love of one’s neighbour means looking for those who cannot care for themselves, who have had their voice and agency taken from them, and to intentionally extend the hand of aid, of welcome, of love.
This congregation finds itself at a moment of important discernment. The Spirit moves among us and calls us to holy, Godly work in this parish. We have important decisions to make about our future. About this building, which has served the people of God in this place for 136 years. About how we wish to make preparation to love God, love ourselves, and love our neighbour for the next 100 years.
We stand at this critical moment where the proverbial trees are questions about individual ministries, about repairs and renovations, about new ideas and developments. But the forest, the bigger picture, is a question about how God is calling us to be the Church, to be the Body of Christ, how God is calling us to love. Like the people of Israel, we are called to a great journey which will not be easy, there will be disagreements along the way, and some who toil hard may not be here to see all of the benefits of their work. But the opportunity to participate in God’s work, to bring nearer the Kingdom, to live out the promised potential of our baptisms, to be the Body of Christ, to be known as God’s love in this city… I can think of no work more fitting.
The question before us today, as a community, is not “What is the greatest commandment,” the question is “How is God calling us to love?”
This sermon was originally preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Winnipeg.