Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 25, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Deuteronomy 34:1-12+Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 1:1-8+Matthew 22:34-46

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land![1]

I imagine that most of us sitting here this morning can identify who spoke these words and when they were spoken and where and what happened the next day. Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3, 1968. Memphis, Tennessee. The night before he was assassinated.

He may have been a Civil Rights icon, but first of all, King was a preacher, a man of faith, and he knew how to grasp the images of scripture to stir hope and encouragement for those who were tired and weary and beaten down.

The image he drew on in that speech during the sanitation workers’ strike comes from our story from the Hebrew scriptures today. God shows Moses the Promised Land from the heights of Mt. Pisgah on the far side of the Jordan River, the land to which the people had longed for and journeyed toward for forty years. Close your eyes and imagine what forty years looks like. If it’s close to your age, imagine what it would have been like to have been traveling through the wilderness for your entire life.  If you’re a lot younger than that, it must already seem like an eternity. If you’re much older, think about what your first forty years on this planet looked like and all that unfolded during them. Even Martin Luther King. Jr didn’t live for 40 years. All of that spent journeying through the desert.

And now you are almost to the end, and Moses is told he doesn’t get to go over with you. Actually, he already knew that. Back in the 20th chapter of Numbers, Moses and Aaron struck a rock from which water sprang, but that was not what God asked them to do, and in that moment, as unfair as it seems, God told them right then that they would not enter. Aaron died not long after. I can’t help wondering if Moses might have preferred to die before reaching the destination, too. To travel all that way, to be given a glimpse, and then to die.

It seems so unfair, yet God’s ways are not our ways. Maybe the death of Moses was necessary so that the people of Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, could enter the land and stand up to those who were already there, to claim the land as their inheritance. Who knows?

It seems equally unfair that Dr. King did not live to see full equity for Black Americans and an end to poverty for all people. But we all know that, even if Dr. King had lived to now, he would be 91 years old…and still waiting.

You see, we still have not gotten the law handed down through Moses quite right. “Love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) is taken directly from the shema, the “hear, O Israel” of Deuteronomy (6:5): “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The next part is straight out of Leviticus (19:18): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  You can’t choose one over the other. They are inextricably linked, the vertical relationship between God and us, and the horizontal relationship between us and everyone else. And if we got it right, we wouldn’t have such poverty and inequality and hate and violence in our world.

But, you say, but how can we love all those people who perpetrate violence and hate and vote the wrong way and hoard all the wealth so there isn’t enough to go around?

I would say that we – and I include myself here – we all have an incomplete understanding of what kind of love Jesus is talking about. The kind of love God spoke into law in the Hebrew scriptures.

The love Jesus is talking about is, in Greek, agape. This kind of love has nothing to do with whether or not you like someone. It has nothing to do with making friends with someone. That’s not what love of neighbor is. Love of neighbor looks like working for the good of the other, of praying that God will work things for the benefit of our neighbor, no matter what our personal feelings are. It just isn’t about us. It’s about God. And we have seen over and over that God loves all that God has created.

Sister Helen Prejean is probably the best known Roman Catholic nun in America because of her activist opposition to the death penalty. The film “Dead Man Walking” made her famous, as Susan Sarandon portrayed her accompanying a man on death row through appeals and up to the point of his execution.

She drew the ire of Bostonians and others when she appealed for mercy at the sentencing of Dzhokar Tzarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, back in 2015. She has never claimed to approve of or support the actions of the people she speaks out for. She simply believes that everyone has human dignity and is beloved of God and therefore the death penalty is wrong.

After the Tsarnaev hearing, an attorney who has argued death penalty cases was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Their cross-examination was to point out what was obvious: She’s against the death penalty, and she’d be up there arguing against it even if it were Adolf Hitler.”[2]

When Sister Helen gets to know these people convicted of heinous crimes, she listens to them, urges them to repentance, but even if they don’t, she holds them before God and prays for them. She doesn’t have to like them in order to love them as her neighbor, just like Jesus said. Just like God said.

But there is one more piece of this. Love your neighbor as yourself, or maybe it would be better to say that we have to love ourselves as well as we love our neighbor. So many of us are walking through life wounded and hurting, feeling unloved and unlovable, with negative messages about our worth running through our heads. You can’t truly love your neighbor if you can’t really show your full self to the world. If you are so filled with shame or doubt that you bend over backwards to do good for everyone but yourself.

This greatest commandment is the antidote to a lot of what is wrong in this world. If we fully love God with all of our heart then it follows that we will love our neighbor and we will love ourselves. Nobody said it was easy. Nobody said wandering through the desert for 40 years with no reward at the end was easy. But Moses wasn’t alone. Not ever. God was always with him.

And that’s why it’s not entirely up to us.

Not sure about how to go about loving God? Let God have that.

Can’t love your neighbor? Let God have that.

Can’t love yourself? Let God have that, too.

Spend some time telling God about all the things you aren’t sure about or are struggling with, even if it is God’s very self that’s the problem. Praying to God, confessing to God, exposing our most vulnerable parts to God can give us life.

Once you’ve done this for a little while, maybe then you’ll know how Dr. King, even with the expectation that his life would be short,  could say with such confidence:

But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.


[1] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/ive-been-mountaintop

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/us/sister-helen-prejean-says-tsarnaev-shows-remorse-for-boston-bombing.html

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 25, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas