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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-2 AND Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 OR Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 AND Psalm 1:1-6, I Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Today’s political sniping at Mormonism has brought attention to the question of whether we human beings are meant to achieve Godhood or not. Whatever the answer to that question, our eulogies sometimes make something akin to gods of those who have died. Witness the praise heaped upon Steve Jobs. His life certainly deserved to be praised, and his impact on modern culture has been huge. Whether he ranks up there with some of those to whom he is compared is another question. I doubt that we need to consider him part of a divine pantheon.

Some of this week’s readings can become the occasion for asking what kind of life is worthy of praise—and how God may be at work in and through human lives and relationships.

The reading from Deuteronomy places us at the end of Moses’ life. He is allowed to look into the “Promised Land,” but must pass over leadership to Joshua, the one who will get to the other side of the Jordan. (Deuteronomy 34:1-3 & 9) We are given the picture of a vigorous Moses, whose “sight was unimpaired and vigor “not abated” at 120 years of age. (vs. 7) The reading ends with a eulogy to Moses. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses . . . He was unequaled . . .” (vss. 10-12) Although the passage begins with God in charge (vs. 4), it ends with praise for one who is able to do “signs and wonders . . . mighty deeds . . . terrifying deeds of power . . .” (vss. 11-12) In remembering Moses, as in our remembering of Steve Jobs, he becomes almost Godlike. The things worthy of praise are magnificent achievements of leadership.

The Psalm that opens the collection of Psalms makes a sharp distinction between the “wicked” and the “righteous.” (Psalm 1:1-2 & 5-6) In the real world, I tend to see people (including myself) who are much more a mix of “wickedness” and “righteousness.” In most of our living, we find ourselves moving along a continuum of shadows and light. Wherever we are on that continuum, though, it is righteousness that is worthy of praise. I particularly find strength in the image of “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season . . .” (vs. 3) What a eulogy it would be to be remembered as a tree “planted by streams of water,” yielding the fruit of righteousness.

Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonika has a little different take on leadership. Paul describes the way he has related to the people there, the people for whom he deeply cares. He is not exactly seeking praise—although he does not always seem to have an excess of humility. In this case, he argues that, in his dealing with these people, he has not been trying to “please mortals, but to please God.” He has not dealt with them “from deceit or impure motives or trickery . . . we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed . . . we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children . . . we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves . . .” (I Thessalonians 2:3-8) What is worthy of praise is giving ourselves to one another.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus identifies two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets. The second of these is loving our neighbor as ourself. The measure of a person is whether they love God and love their neighbor (are servants to one another in the manner described by Paul).

We could probe the Gospel lesson more deeply, noting, for example, that these two commandments stand side by side. Loving God and loving neighbor are so linked that they cannot be separated. If God is worthy of love so is our neighbor. Piety (loving God?) and service (loving one’s neighbor) are equally worthy of praise.

The reading from Leviticus is included this week, I am sure, to remind us that the injunction to love our neighbor has been around for a long time. Leviticus spends much time calling us to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2) Is there an implication here that we are not so far off when we eulogize someone in a way that makes them seem almost godlike? Holiness is surely an attribute we associate with God, but here we too are to partake of that holiness, in some way to reflect the very nature of God, God’s image. Note, however, the behavior associated with holiness here: not rendering “an unjust judgment,” “justice” in relation to one’s neighbor, not hating, not seeking vengeance or bearing a grudge, etc., culminating with the emphasis upon loving our neighbor. (vss. 15-18)

We could think about the phrase, “as yourself.” It is a leveling phrase. Those who would serve one another in love meet as equals. Relationships based on that kind of holiness are worthy of praise.

The remainder of the Gospel lesson seems like a distraction and some argue, effectively, that it is something added to the story by the early church. It is another instance, I believe, of Jesus trying to stretch some of the religious leadership of his day. He asks them whose son they think the Messiah is. “The son of David,” they say, following the tradition which said the Messiah would come from the lineage of David. But David, Jesus says, calls the Messiah “Lord.” How then can he be David’s son? (Matthew 22:41-45) The exchange is even more puzzling to us than it was to those Pharisees. Perhaps Jesus was doing nothing more than trying to shake them out of their complacency, their sense that they had all the answers, had God and God’s doings all wrapped up in a neat package with a pretty bow on top. In terms of the theme of this blog, perhaps he was also trying to get them to see that greatness is something much bigger than they imagined. If they were going to eulogize the Messiah, let them realize that whatever they might think or say about the Messiah would not be big enough. Even when we consider the greatest of eulogies we have heard or spoken it is well to remember that what is worthy of praise may be much more, or quite different, than we imagine.

We are left with the other Psalm. While it begins as a Psalm of praise, it seems more a pleading for blessing and fair treatment. “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us . . . Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands . . .” Psalm 90:15 & 17) It calls upon God to live up to God’s covenant—God’s “steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 14) It is almost a conditional praise. “We will consider you worthy if you bless us and treat us fairly.” Although coming to God in this way can seem rather crude, it does remind us again that one of the things worthy of praise is fairness. We don’t always get it. We can’t always expect it, but when it happens, it is certainly worthy of praise, whether it comes from God or those around us.

So, what will the eulogies spoken of us sound like? It may seem a little awkward, perhaps even self-centered, to ask whether we will be worthy. In the end, biblical truth and the testimony of the Holy Spirit remind us that God considers us worthy of abundant love—love beyond measure bestowed upon us without measuring our every step. In the meantime, perhaps these verses (not from this week’s readings) can guide us. Colossians 1:10 speaks of leading “lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.” Ephesians 4:13 and following calls us “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Sounds a little like the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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