21st Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
You know there is something wrong with the story from Exodus this week, right? In spite of its splendor we can’t help feeling a bit down about it all. Moses is led by God up to the top of Mt. Pisgah. God shows Moses all the lands that will be possessed by the Israelites, from the “Great Western Sea” to the eastern Jordan valley, up to what is now Syria and down to the Negeb (the southern desert); all will belong to the 12 tribes, the Land of promise. And God reminds Moses that he sees it but he shall not go there. The one who is greater than any who came after him in OT lore and law – Moses, the deliverer, the Lawgiver; Moses who brought the people up out of Egypt and lead them for 40 years in the desert – that Moses is not allowed into the land of Canaan. His crime seems small: he took, perhaps, too much credit for bringing water from the rock at Meribah and quenching Israel’s thirst. Seems small potatoes compared to things we sometimes do, to what Israel did but … Moses, still vigorous (how can he be at 120, right?) and strong, is commanded, pretty much, to die and he passes away, as the Psalms tell us, like the dust.
I have to confess that Moses being shut out of the Promised Land seems patently unfair and wrong. Yet, this past week, I had a wonderful little writing on this that helped me see God’s working in a new way. Moses did much in his life, yes? Rejected his privileged life in Egypt, killed an Egyptian who was hurting a Hebrew slave; he fled and became a shepherd, husband and father in another land but was led back, by God’s own hand, to deliver the enslaved Jewish people. He led them in the wilderness, was given the commandments by God; intervened, led, strengthened and taught the people even when they didn’t want to listen. He may have complained a little himself but in all, he was faithful and useful to God. But God teaches us that we are all like dust, and to dust shall we return. The Psalmist reminds us that to God, a thousand years are like a day, and we are mown down like the grass of the field. Each of us, important for us to remember, has a vocation, and our vocation channels our lives. Moses completed his vocational work and now, it was time for someone else (Joshua) to continue living out that vocation with God and the people.
Vocation, I know, sounds like a churchy word but is not, necessarily, so. A vocation is “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action.” We have work to do in this life and, when our life is over, we are done with that work. But, in our vocational life as followers of God in Christ, we have been entrusted with the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. We share the Gospel as best we may and then entrust that others will pick up that vocation and move forward with it. We may think of our vocation as doctor, teacher, lawyer, priest, editor, banker, advisor, etc. and they are in the broadest sense. But, if we look at vocation as, “a summons,” then it is something very different, indeed. Moses was summoned by God to go to the people and to lead them out of bondage and guide them as they were wandering. Moses did his best, gave his all, and then his time passed and now Joshua would do the planting of the people, the new life in Palestine. You see, Jesus actually gives us our vocation, as he is questioned by the lawyer in Matthew’s Gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.” Christ has given us our vocation, our meaning, our purpose: to love God with all we have, and to love our neighbor. And we serve God by following Christ who leads us – in His perfection – down the path of loving God and neighbor. We are entrusted by God to love and to share that love with our neighbor.
We are not “summoned” by God to love Him through Jesus so that we may do everything. We will leave things in this life “undone.” We are one person, one community, and we can accomplish much in this life but we can’t do it all. We plant the seeds of Christ’s love in this life in many ways, depending on our skill, the needs of the people we are serving, and our resources. We plant, God waters, and another person or community may, in the end, be the one who reaps what we have planted, sown, and God has tended. We may never see the actual fruits of our vocational work.
There is a film from 2000 called Pay It Forward and, sorry, I’m giving it all away here. Young Trevor is in 5th grade, I think. His mother has made some challenging choices and his father occasionally shows up long enough to inflict violence and he is gone again. But Trevor, in spite of it all, is a sensitive, compassionate and bright boy. His teacher gives them an assignment: to change the world. Trevor struggles but eventually comes up with a project called Pay It Forward. He will help three people. Then those three people will help three more, and so on, until the world is truly transformed.
One of the people Trevor wants to help is his little friend who is the constant target of bullies. They attack his friend, but Trevor is too afraid to do anything. He beats himself up about that. Toward the end of the film, the bullies are beating his friend again, and this time he rides his bike into the fray, knocks one bully down and begins to grapple with another. One of the bullies’ friends stabs Trevor and Trevor dies. I know. Later, when his mom and teacher are in their living room, mourning Trevor, candles appear as people who have been transformed by Trevor’s planting of compassion have begun to gather. Trevor will not see it, but others will reap what he has sown.
We have only this one life to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to show compassion to those who need it, love those who don’t know love, to feed and clothe the poor, and to include the marginalized. We cannot fix the world, nor should we try, that will be God’s doing. We do the work to which we have been called, which is to love our God with all we have, a love that permeates every relationship we are a part of, and to be Christ to the world. The Gospel has been entrusted to us. We are summoned to do the work of loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbors as ourselves; to pay forward the Gospel of Christ so that another generation of believers can pick up that life – that Good News – and move forward with it.