October 20, 2011

Proper 25

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 4:15 pm

This week’s lectionary gives us three very different stories of leadership and longing.

First, Moses. He is taken to the top of a mountain where he can see out an incredible distance—he sees with his own undimmed eyes that God’s promise is true and his own hard work is about to pay off. He dies at peace, satisfied that he has been true to a calling that he made every excuse not to hear or embrace.

This summer I re-read James Michener’s novel The Source, his highly fictionalized account of the history of the Holy Land. In my absolute favorite section of the story, an Israeli Ashkenazim uses the Book of Deuteronomy to explain the deepest core of Judaism to the young Roman Catholic archeologist from Chicago.

“If you really want to know who we are,” the elder gentleman instructs, “you must read Deuteronomy straight through four times, without pausing.” When the younger man has completed the assignment, he approaches his mentor—only to be told that the one part that’s worth discussing is the death of Moses.

The elder becomes animated, “Don’t you see? That Moses lived to be 120 is unimportant—it’s a number that represents an unimaginably long life. The important thing is that he was unimaginably old, yet his sight was not unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”

Moses lived—right up to the moment that he died. And he died knowing that he had been the fierce, faithful, imperfect steward of the chosen people of Israel. He died knowing that his people were safe in the hand of the God who had never left them through those long, awful years in the wilderness.

Even today, in colloquial Judaism, if you were to ask me my age I might answer, “I am 47 from 120”—I have lived the first 47 years of my eternity as a child of God. Moses’ age, and the story of his death, remains a sign of fortitude and of God’s absolute covenant with Israel.

Then we hear from Paul. When I first read this passage I thought, “Oh, no; here we go again. Paul is feeling ill-used.” Quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone ever loves and appreciates Paul to Paul’s satisfaction.

As I looked into the background of this passage, however, my attitude toward Paul softened. I grew to appreciate why Paul is troubled: The early church at Thessalonica is among Paul’s earliest outposts of “church planting.” It is a congregation made up of both Jews and Gentiles, and thus vulnerable to the differences in background and tradition among its members. It is also located in a busy seaport, and thus vulnerable to all sorts of influences that I doubt Paul would approve.

He is worried about them.

And because theology of community is very much a theology of solidarity—we live in Christ, we die in Christ, we are one in Christ—what troubles or afflicts one, troubles and afflicts all.

It makes sense that Paul would fret about this nascent community of faith, that their persecution would pain him. In fact, just a few short verses later, he won’t be able to stand it any longer and will send Timothy to check on them in person.

And finally Jesus. The Great Commandment: To love one another; to love our neighbors as ourselves. Not just to love, but to love fully, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind. To love each other on the same level that we love God and that God loves us.

Sound familiar? Seek and serve Christ in all persons? Strive for justice and peace? Respect the dignity of every human being?

Each of these readings, each of these examples of steadfast stewardship of one’s call to live as the person God asked each to be, come down to this: Moses, Paul, and Jesus have each placed his heart in the community he treasures.

Each has named the people of God—the chosen ones of Israel, the new faith community at Thessalonica, the gathered listeners—as treasures that are worth everything.

These stories are the antecedents of Laurence the Deacon, martyred in Rome in the year 258. As part of the persecution initiated under the Emperor Valerian, all properties used by the Roman Church were confiscated. According to tradition, when Pope Sixtus the Second and his seven deacons were arrested in the Roman catacombs, the Roman prefect demanded information from Laurence about the Church’s treasures. As his reply, Laurence assembled the sick and the poor to whom he, as archdeacon, had distributed the church’s relief funds. He presented them to the prefect, saying, “These are the treasures of the church.”

By the grace of God, we are the treasures of the church today. We are God’s promise to Abraham in our communities. This is where our hearts are, in covenant with our God and in communion with our neighbors.

If they haven’t done so already, your congregation’s Stewardship Committee will likely be sending you an invitation in the coming weeks. In their invitation to prayer and the discernment of your annual commitment, they ask nothing less of you than God asked of Moses; than Paul asked of the early church; than Jesus asked of his followers. That is, to live faithfully and abundantly as imperfect stewards of a common ministry.

The Lord has, indeed, been our dwelling place in all generations. Now let the favor of the Lord our God be upon each of us in this time of prayerful response. And may the Lord prosper for us the work of our hands and the treasure of our hearts.



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