Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church,October 26, 2014

The Rubric of Love

[Deut. 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46; I Thessalonians 2:1-8]

Let us pray.  Holy and loving God, as the words of Scripture digest slowly within us, bring to light that which we need to hear and help us let go of the rest. Bring to each one of us a seed of truth… which will take root and grow. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.

The three texts from Deuteronomy, Matthew and I Thessalonians are oozing with love… all different kinds and layers of love. First, let’s look at Deuteronomy 34… the closing words of this long, historic book where Moses painstakingly led the people of Israel through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land.  As a child hearing this story it always bothered me Moses didn’t set foot in the Promised Land. This week I have a completely different understanding of the text. Some suggest it was a kind of punishment. I disagree.

God takes Moses to the top of Mount Nebo opposite the city of Jericho, and shows Moses the whole land the Israelites will inherit.  On this mountaintop – Moses could see Gilead as far as Dan, all of Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.  This is indeed the PROMISED LAND, which God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  To Moses God says: “I have let you see it with your eyes!”  This was a gift for old Moses, not a punishment. God gave Moses a glimpse into the future to show that all of the wandering and heartache of the wilderness was finished! Moses’ role has been fulfilled and God gives him the prize of eternal life. Moses didn’t need to cross over, because his own race & destiny with God was accomplished!  Moses, servant of the Lord, died and was buried at age 120.

Listen to his eulogy:  “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face-to-face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” What a summary of the life of Moses… whose mother put him in a reed basket and floated him down the river, in obedience to God.   A+ Moses!  Well done, thou good and faithful servant.  Let’s pause and breathe deeply as we remember with awe this unique and deeply beloved servant of the living God, who is still remembered and revered today.

Looking at Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees continue to test Jesus.  “A lawyer asks:  ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’  Jesus answers:  ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it:  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus gives the “rubric” for what it means to follow in God’s footsteps. Educators in schools use this word, rubric, a lot. It is supposed to make grading easier, because a teacher seeks specific details to be addressed in an essay. The definition of “rubric” in the dictionary is this:  a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests.

If the Rubric of Love is the over-riding principle of what God expects in our lives, what specific criteria does God look at? First, God looks at our hearts.  If our hearts are the seat of our emotions, does God perceive in us a warm desire for God’s presence? Second God looks at our minds to see what we think about regularly. Third, God looks at our souls to see if we have invited God’s Spirit to dwell within us? 

God wants to be #1, not #6, not even #2 in all of those areas of our lives.  If we flash back to Moses’ life, Moses did please God in that way. His mother gave Moses to God from the time he was a baby floating in a reed basket. He grew up in Pharoah’s home, a rare destiny for a Jewish boy. Although he fled into the desert after killing an Egyptian, God met him in the burning bush and brought him back to lead the Israelites out of Egypt at the right time in just the right way. Moses’ life belonged to God. That doesn’t mean he always agreed with God or understood what God wanted, but he fulfilled his destiny, saw God’s glory, and peered into the Promised Land.

That rubric of loving God 100% is exacting; yet, there’s more.  The second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. This triangle of love looks like this:

GOD in the top corner;
SELF in the bottom left corner;
NEIGHBOR in the bottom right corner.

If God is the “Reader” of our lives, God looks for a healthy balance in this triangle. God woos us into an intimate, loving relationship with our Creator, who is gently shaping us into the divine image, as a potter shapes clay into a priceless work of art.

That’s how God worked with Moses. And Moses also worked with God – by interceding for the unfaithful Israelites and pleading with God not to throw away the clay, but to keep on shaping it.  True love is never one-way or one-dimensional.  We’ve seen in our past few sermons that Moses changed God’s mind: reminding God to be true to God’s own Rubric of Love!  Moses said: “These are YOUR people, God, as unlovable as they look to you right now!”

The second commandment to love the neighbor is tougher than the first. When Jesus uses the word “neighbor” he was not usually referring to the next door neighbor we already know and love, but to the stranger who does not attract us in the least. Often times Jesus expects us to love the “neighbor” who is our enemy, not our friend.  Who can do this consistently?  If this is God’s rubric, does anyone pass?

None of us can say we have graduated from the School of Love where God dwells. However, God gives us the church as our practice field, where we learn to work out our faith and strive to follow God’s Rubric of Love alongside other sinners like us. The church has plenty of people in it with whom we have nothing in common but God’s love.

Most groups in society share a common “interest” (like duck hunting) or a common “hobby” (like gardening) or a common “task” (like the Shriners) – but in the church God is our common denominator.  We love people in church, not because we “like” them or “look like them,” but because God is training us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Paul’s letters were written to regular historic churches, like St. Pauls Presbyterian Church, and in every letter Paul expresses deep love for the people who were once strangers to him.  He writes to the Thessalonians: “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 very dear to us.”

As for Paul, so it is for us. The church is where we prove our love for God and neighbor. We don’t just share the Good News, we also have to share our vulnerable selves.

Rev. Lillian Daniel, the guest we will meet this week on the Animate Faith video, tells the frustrating and beautiful story of a Trustees Meeting at her church. In her book This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, the very first chapter is called “Minute 54.”  At first it’s not clear what the name of this chapter means. Lillian is a young, female minister who doesn’t look old enough to be doing pastoral care at a local hospital, so she says she just swaggers like a doctor, many of whom are younger than she is, and finds that people let her in wherever she needs to go. She walks us through a normal, chaotic day in her life as a pastor which ends at a trustee’s meeting. Listen to her description:

“At this meeting, I am thinking about the woman I visited in the intensive care unit at the beginning of the day, imagining the great hand of God cradling her tiny body as she wafts in and out of this world. I am tuning in and out as the trustees discuss another of their duties: they must take their twice-yearly turn preparing and serving the meal at the homeless shelter.

“Is the discussion about hospitality as a practice of the faith and the theology behind it?  Is the conversation about how we could do more to solve the problems of homelessness as a systemic evil, instead of simply serving food? Alas, no. The heated discussion is about the correct recipe for chili mac, that strange American casserole that dares to cross macaroni and cheese with canned chili and call it food.

“As I consider the nature of the holy imagination, I sit through a 45-minute discussion about chili mac. Do you get the large cans of chili or the small ones? Does anyone have a membership to a discount warehouse? And then there is the particularly contentious issue: should we buy grated cheese or grate it ourselves?

“Someone remembers that they do not have a cheese grater at the shelter. Should we buy one or just spend extra on the grated cheese?  Let’s do a cost comparison, someone suggests, whipping out the calculator. This is the board of trustees, after all.

“Just as we are nearing a decision, a new board member asks, ‘Why do we always make chili mac?  The last time the people said they were tired of it. Besides, some of the homeless are vegetarians.’

“I know what’s coming next and I cringe…

‘How can you be homeless and be vegetarian?’ a veteran of the board inevitably asks.

“The younger members of the board glare at him.

“Now it’s been 50 minutes. On chili mac…I am losing my religion…51 minutes…..

“One of the trustees says: ‘I’d hate to be homeless, on a cold night like this.”  And for a moment the clerk puts down his pen, the calculator is pushed aside, and everyone is silent, and I feel as if I hear God’s pen making a scratchy note in the book of our cherished lives….

“And then the meeting goes on to the church space requests and the broken window panes, but there was that moment when we were all quiet, and we could hear each other breathe, and we could hear who had a cold…and who was choked up….

“Grace had broken in. It carried us into minute 54.”

Lillian Daniel shows the church as a classroom, a learning laboratory, a spiritual fitness center, where we come to study, work out, exasperate one another and also refine one another, using the “Rubric of Love.” In church we strengthen and balance our love for God, self and neighbors, until God decides, as he did with Moses:  “Hey, you’re done! You’re ready for glory!  You’ve run the race; it’s time to receive the prize: life-long communion with God and the saints! Welcome home!”

Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver, This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) 6-7.