This is a sermon/message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 24 October 1999. The Scriptures are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 33 -46.
There are moments in each person’s life that always stick in your memories. July of 1973 and June of 1976 are such times for me because that is when my two daughters were born. The summer of 1999, when I married Ann and came here to Walker Valley, is another such time.
But the spring of 1968 will also be one of those times, although not necessarily for the good things that happened. The spring of 1968 was the time of my graduation from high school in Memphis. Such was a good time because it marked the end of my high school education and meant that I could return to Kirksville and finish my freshman year of college at Truman State University, then known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College, something I had started some two summers before.
But it was also the spring when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Now, a little over thirty years later, I admit I paid little attention to the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis. We didn’t live in Memphis proper and so the strike was of little to concern to my family or I; besides my mind was on senior things and getting back to Kirksville. But I realize know the profound indifference that we showed a group of men who did work that no one else would do and for which the hours were long, the pay low, and benefits non-existent.
And though it was 1968, for all one could tell back then, it might as well have been 1868 for all the concern the white government showed its black employees.
Dr. King came to Memphis to help publicize the strike and point out the inequities that existed not just between workers of different races in that city, something hardly unique to Memphis back then and perhaps even now, but between rich and poor throughout the country.
And on the night he was killed, Dr. King borrowed from the Old Testament reading for today to say that he too had been to the mountaintop and he had seen the Promised Land. He, like Moses, said that he might not get there and I have never known where he was being prophetic or not with that comment coming less than 24 hours before he would be shot.
But Dr. King’s presence that spring did a lot to change Memphis. I cannot say if it was the good of all or not. But Memphis is no long the sleepy little Delta river town it was before he came.
Today, like Moses, we stand at the mountaintop and see the Promised Land. But, unlike Moses, we have a chance not just to see the Promised Land but to enter it as well.
Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land because of what had happened to the Israelite people some forty years before. Still, for all he had done, God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land before he died.
But this was not the first time that the Israelites had prepared to enter the Promised Land. In the Book of Numbers, chapter2 12 through 14, we can read about their arrival at that edge of the Promised Land and how they sent spies into the Land to see what was there. In Numbers 13: 26 – 29, we read that the first part of the spies’ report was truthful (the land was rich and flowing with milk and honey) but the goodness of the land was offset in their fearful eyes by the power peoples who lived there. In verse 30, only Caleb and Joshua gave a report prompted by faith in God.
In verses 32 and 33, the other spies quickly distort what they have found, showing a lack in faith in the power of God. God punishes the Israelites, in 14: 34 by having them continue their wanderings in the desert for forty years; one year of every one of the 40 days of the travels of the spies became the numerical pattern for their suffering. For 40 years they would recount their misjudgment, and for 40 years the people 20 years old or more would be dying, so that only the young generation might enter the land. Significantly, Israel’s refusal to carry out the Lord’s commission to conquer his land is the climactic act of rebellion for which God condemns Israel to die in the desert.
Because they refused to trust in the Lord, the same Lord who had brought them out of Egypt and destroyed the Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, the same Lord who fed them every day of their journey and gave them water to drink when it seemed that there was none; they were punished.
Now, today we stand on the mountaintop looking into the Promised Land but our vision is not so clear. The mists of time cover the valley and make the future fuzzy and unclear. What can we do to make it clearer?
In the Gospel reading for today, we read
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
When we love God with the total commitment of heart and soul and mind, as Jesus said, we put God first in our lives. The writer and theologian, C. S. Lewis, wrote
All our merely natural activities will be accepted, if they are offered to God, even the humblest: and all of them, even the noblest, will be sinful if they are not. Christianity does not simply replace our natural life and substitute a new one: it is rather a new organization which exploits, its own supernatural ends, these natural materials. No doubt, in a given situation, it demands the surrender of some, or all, our merely human pursuits: it is better to be saved with one eye, than having two, to be cast into Gehenna. But it does this, in a sense, per accidens – because, in those special circumstances, it has ceased to be possible to practice this or that activity to the glory of God. There is no essential quarrel between the spiritual life and the human activities as such. Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian’s life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of him are in different parts of space, excluding other objects from them. Yet he is everywhere – totally present at every point of space – according to good theologians. (From From the The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis)
If we love God with all our soul, our heart, and our mind, then all that we have gets put to use in a better way than were we to try to do it ourselves. Jesus also said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. For whatever the future may be, we will not be able to survive in it if we treat others with hatred and mistrust.
I know that one reason that I feel the way that I do and why I see the church as an agency for change in the coming years is because I saw church leaders involved in the changes of society in the 60’s. It is interesting to note how the involvement of the church in today’s society is met with cynicism and distrust. Yet, what church leaders and members did in the 60’s wasn’t met with overwhelming acceptance either. Many of the pastors who I knew in Kirksville who fought for social justice in that sleepy Missouri farm town paid the price for their actions, both professionally and socially.
Those who opposed the actions of the church then, and perhaps now, see the church as something done on Sundays only with the rest of the week devoted to other things. When you leave God at the door of the church on Sunday, you are not trusting God to help guide you through the week, and a faith such as that will die. A church whose actions stop on Sunday with Sunday School and worship service will not live long.
But the opposite will not work either. The world that Jesus came into was a world of laws and regulations, so strict and encumbering that one could not breathe. It was impossible to relate to God personally. I do not want a future where my relationship with Jesus is one dictated by rules and regulations. Jesus pointed out that out when he said that the two commandments summed up the law and the prophets. Our relationship with God, through Jesus, is an individual one, not dictated by what others tell us.
By our actions, and they can be the simple actions of daily life, we can show others what Christ means to us. Not everyone is capable of preaching a sermon but then not everyone is asked to preach a sermon. We are asked to work for the church as a group, not as individuals.
There are some that work for the church and want to quit. Remember what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians
You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We are not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.
As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
Paul understood and tried to tell others that the work of presenting the Gospel message was not an easy one to do. But he also pointed out that the reasons why the message is presented must come from God, not from our own motives. If your work is true in that sense, then you have nothing to fear.
There are some that will not work for the church, saying that they do not wish to endure the hardship and trouble that will surely come if they do. For them, they need to remember why the Israelites saw the Promised Land for the second time.
So we stand at the mountaintop, looking into the future that is the Promised Land. We can fear the future but this only means that will continue wandering in the wilderness. Or we can choose to open our hearts and hear the Gospel message of the grace of God and salvation through Christ. Doing so doesn’t mean that we give up our talents; it means that we can use our talents to better ends. What’s next?