An Open Table where Love knows no borders

If a thing’s worth doing, we won’t see the result

A sermon on Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 and Matthew 22: 34-40 by Alison Sampson

Tonight, we heard about the end of Moses’ life. But before we dig into the story, let’s recap. Despite his anxiety, his reluctance, and his stutter, Moses performed great signs and wonders. At long last, his prophecies persuaded the Pharaoh to set the people free, and Moses led the people out of Egypt. Even after Pharaoh changed his mind, and sent the army in pursuit, Moses saw the people protected. He led them through the towering waters; he watched the army drown. He guided the people through years of wandering. And through it all, Moses coaxed and cajoled, bullied and bossed, pestered and pleaded with, the people. And finally, finally, they drew within cooee of the Promised Land.

And did Moses enter the Promised Land to great blasts of the trumpet, riding on an elephant? Did he come galloping down on a white mare, and seat himself on a jewelled throne? Did he even just wander down the mountain into that land of milk and honey, and there take his rest?

No, he did not. ‘Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land… And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.’

All those years, all that effort, heading towards the Promised Land and then… death. Death, and an unmarked grave.

There it was, laid out before him. But Moses, the greatest prophet of them all, Moses, the performer of unequalled deeds of power, never got there. He led his people so far, but then it was Joshua’s turn.

We are not the Hebrews in the story, heading towards the land of Canaan. We are Christians, following in the footsteps of Jesus. As Jesus’ followers, we heard tonight what our priorities are to be: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

We know from the stories of Jesus, and from the words of the prophets, just how material that love is to be. From Isaiah, from Micah, from Joel, from others, we learn that we love when we push for fair work and labour laws. We love when we lobby for adequate housing for all. We love when children do not die from water-borne diseases or starvation. We love when we offer the single mum, the foster kid, and the refugee a safe place to live, with full access to the wealth and opportunities of our society. The love of the God of the Hebrews is deeply practical. It is found in fair legal systems; it is expressed through social justice; it is experienced in the day-to-day relationships between men and women and children.

Throughout history, this living out of God’s love has been expressed in many ways. Sometimes it has been seen in big causes, such as when Christians rally to end slavery, build hospitals, care for women and children, or welcome asylum seekers. Other times it is seen in a cup of tea, a listening ear, or a small act of kindness in a supermarket line.

These great themes of the Scriptures, loving God and loving our neighbour, are expressed in action, in doing. But they are not about finishing the job. To think we can begin the job, or do the job, or finish the job, is to forget our history.

And so here we turn back to Moses and the Israelites. We may not be heading towards the land of Canaan. But we are walking towards a Promised Land, a reign of God, an economy of justice. And if we pay attention to the Scriptures, we see that the story of God’s liberating action and invitation into love is a long, long story. It was being written in the time of Moses, when a ragtag bunch of slaves was set free. It was being written in the time of Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, when they and others campaigned for religious freedom. It was being written in the time of Martin Luther King, through the Civil Rights movement. And it is being written now, in our time, and in our lives, in ways both ancient and new.

And we can all work towards it. Together, we perform the restoring act of the worship service, which centres us in love and fuels us to live out God’s vision during the week. Separately, we are called to different expressions of that vision, through our work, our acts of service, and our relationships. So what might that vision look like, in this day and age?

A church where love is the order of the day, where abuse is unthinkable, truth is told, and all forms of healing are encouraged.

A society in which asylum seekers are welcomed with open arms.

A country where indigenous Australians have the same life expectancy and the same opportunities as other Australians.

A system of trade where workers are paid fairly for their labours, and have regular opportunities to rest.

A world in which Muslims, Christians and Jews can sit down together at the table, break bread and share stories.

{and other ways}

And we are all players in the story. None of us are the writers; none of us the directors; none of us will see the end. But this is no cause for despair. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.” (Quoted here and alluded to below: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” Reinhold Niebuhr (1952). The Irony of American History.)

And hope we have in abundance. We hold fast to the visions of the ancient prophets, who condemned the rich and the grasping, and held out a hand to those on the edges. We hold fast to the visions of modern prophets, Dorothy Day and Athol Gill and Oscar Romero and all those who hold up mirrors to our society and invite us to walk in the way of love. We hold fast to our hope for an end to violence, an end to injustice, an end to poverty; and we eagerly await the day when the wolf and the lamb, and the corporate directors and the casual workers, and the Packers and the pokie players, and Mr Abbott and the children in immigration detention, shall eat together, and weeping and mourning shall be no more.

That day is yet to come. Like Moses, and Thomas Helwys, and John Smyth, and Martin Luther King, and everyone else, we will not see it. We will not see a full expression of love in our lifetime; we will not reach the Promised Land. For we cannot fix everything, or heal everything, or solve everything. We cannot even begin to try. Only God can do that. Our calling is only to follow the prophets humbly, to listen to those men and women through the ages and who live among us now, who point us towards the Promised Land and ask us to discern where it lies in this day and age, for this people, for our neighbours, for those who we are called to love.

And we have the view from the mountaintop, the vision how the world could look under God’s reign. We catch glimpses in church, in prayer, in history, in the Scriptures, in the lives of friends and in the actions of strangers, in unlikely moments when it seems that justice might one day be possible and loving our neighbour could be more than an ancient prophet’s pipe dream.

All of us are invited to work towards these and other visions of God’s reign. And none of us will ever be entirely successful, or virtuous, or helpful in our efforts – but with God’s help, we can try. Because we can imagine the possibilities.

There will be times when our journey through the desert will be gruelling. It may be thankless, and the vultures may circle overhead. There will be times when we are thirsty, tired, and frustrated as we realise we have been walking, like this sermon, in slow circles. But this life is not without reward. We will be nourished by moments of connection with unlikely people. There will be days when clarity of purpose and sense of meaning descend like manna from heaven. And the wilderness is never empty; for there, we will find each other, and there, as we know from so many stories, we will also encounter God.

And because we don’t have to live out the whole story; because this is not our story, but God’s story; then we can accept the gifts of humility and grace. We can do what we can, and rest when we need to. We can let others pick up where we leave off, knowing that just as we fumbled our way through, so too will they muddle along.

And the good news is this: in keeping to this dry and ancient track, walking side by side, living in love, humbly listening for God’s call, working together to live out the view from the mountaintop, and resting when we need to, then how we experience the wilderness will begin to change. It will never be perfect, and there will always be further to go, whether by us or by others. Yet from time to time we will climb a mountain, or turn a corner, and be refreshed once again by a vision of a land of milk and honey, where justice rolls down like a river, and we are transformed by love. Ω


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