Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Unfinished Work of Love

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Lyndhurst NJ
October 23, 2011

Year A: Proper 25 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The Unfinished Work of Love

In this morning’s Old Testament lesson, we heard the story of the death of Moses. For the past few weeks we’ve been following the story of Moses – this reluctant leader who was called by God to shepherd his people out of Egyptian slavery and into the freedom of the promised land.

The Exodus story is filled with testing and quarreling but through it all Moses remained steadfast in his determination to do the work that God had given him to do.

That’s why there’s a deep poignancy to today’s story of Moses’ death. He is undiminished even in his great age. It’s not old age or illness or battle that end his life. Instead, God’s command brings his life to a close.

The story of Moses’ death brings the story of the exodus to a close and marks the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.

There’s one last element of this story that is particularly moving.

Despite his steadfastness and patience and courage and stamina, Moses is unable to complete the work God has given him to do.

Moses is given the chance to glimpse the promised land but he doesn’t live long enough to see his people return to their homeland. Moses leaves behind unfinished work. His unfinished work is handed off to Joshua and the next generation.

I guess that we can all relate to leaving things – both important and not so important – unfinished.

How many of us have started a home improvement project only to abandon it when we’ve gotten tired or bored or overwhelmed?

How many of us have taken up a hobby or a musical instrument only to set it aside long before we’ve gotten all our stamps into albums or been able to play a piece of music all the way through?

How many of us have started keeping a journal, only to call it quits after a few days or maybe weeks?

And then there are some more important things that we leave unfinished.

Before I became a priest I was a high school history teacher. At the end of every school year I would scramble to cover all the material that I thought was important. And every May and June I’d realize there was no way that I could get the job done to my satisfaction.

Maybe you’ve had the same kind of experience at work. Maybe you’ve had that experience at the end of the day or the week. Or maybe you’ve had that experience at the end of a career. Maybe when you’ve retired you realized there were lots of things you wanted to achieve that would remain forever unfinished.

Maybe you’ve had that experience with your children or grandchildren. There are all sorts of things you wanted to teach them, all kinds of experiences you wanted to share with them. But, before you know it, they’re all grown up and you realize that the work of parenting will forever remain unfinished.

It’s really important for us Christians to realize and remember that our work will always be unfinished.

And just what is our work as Christians?

Often it feels like our work as Christians is struggling to keep the church doors open – to make sure that our community of faith remains alive to meet our spiritual needs and the needs of the world around us.

So, we spend lots of time trying to balance the budget, to keep the roof from leaking, to keep the furnace going, to arrange for supply clergy, to…well, most of you know the drill better than I do.

And that’s good work and it’s important work.

But, in today’s gospel lesson Jesus reminds us of our most important work.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been hearing excerpts from the Gospel of Matthew describing Jesus’ activities in Jerusalem. This teacher and healer from sticks arrived in the capital city on what we call Palm Sunday and then immediately made quite an impression by chasing the money changers out of the Temple.

Then he taught using parables – parables that suggested that God was not so pleased with the religious leaders – people who were so, so proud of their careful religious observance.

The way Matthew tells the story, the religious leaders – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – are understandably angered by Jesus’ criticism.

Which brings us to today’s spiritual debate between the Pharisees and Jesus.

The Pharisees ask him out of the 613 laws in the Torah, which one is the greatest?

Matthew claims that the Pharisees asked this question to “test” Jesus. I’m sure that’s true, but maybe they also sincerely wanted to know what this infuriating and mysterious rabbi from Galilee really thought was the greatest commandment.

There’s a story that the great Jewish teacher Rabbi Hillel (who lived just a little bit before Jesus) was asked by a Gentile to have the entire Law explained to him while he stood on one foot.

The great rabbi replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Jesus’ answer is similar – though stated more positively.

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy about loving God with all that we have and all that we are.

And Jesus quotes Leviticus about loving our neighbor as our self.

This is our most important work: to love God and to love one another.

In our world broken by sin and suffering, loving God and loving one another is the hardest work of all. And it’s work that, no matter how loving we are, will always remain unfinished.

St. Paul understood and embraced our unfinished work of love.

After his conversion he spent the rest of his life sharing the Good News of Christ all around the Mediterranean world, setting up little Christian communities in place like Thessalonica, an important Greek trading city.

Paul went there and did the work of a Christian, the work of love.

In today’s second lesson we heard how Paul recalls his work of love among the Thessalonians:

“But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become dear to us.”

Paul moved on to other places, accepting that his work of love among the Thessalonians would remain unfinished. Instead, it was up to people there – the next generation – to take up the work of love – a work that would forever remain unfinished.

Our work of love remains forever unfinished. And maybe that’s discouraging. After all, most of us really like to cross items off our to-do list.

But, I think the unfinished nature of our work should comfort us.

The martyred Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, once wrote:

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

Long ago God chose Moses to take on the important work of leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Despite the years of testing and quarreling, Moses remained steadfast in his determination to do the work that God had given him to do. And in the end, although Moses had glimpsed the promised land, he had to leave his work unfinished.

Today in a world broken by sin and suffering, God chooses us to take on the most important work of all – the work of love.

Every once in a while, like Moses, we may glimpse the promised land. But, like Moses, we too will leave our work unfinished.

And that’s OK.

All God the master builder asked of Moses and Paul and all God asks of us is to be workers – to do the work of love, right here and right now.