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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 19 – Year A

I heard a story the other day about the son of a minister who had just passed his driving test and asked of his dad when they could talk about buying an old car for him to drive. His father said he’d by happy to talk with his son about that but first he needed to see him working on the two great commandments – loving God with all his heart, mind and soul, and his neighbor as himself. If he made some progress on that spiritual responsibility then he would talk with him about a car. A little puzzled the young man asked his father, “How should I go about loving God and my neighbor?” “Well,” the father said, “I want you to go to church, read your Bible, work harder in school, give some of your time to work in the homeless shelter and for goodness sake please go and get a haircut, your hair is much to long and straggly.” The boy thought about that for a moment and they agreed on it.
After about six weeks his father said, “Son, you’ve brought your grades up, I’ve observed that you have been studying your Bible and been regular at church, and I know you’ve been working weekends at the shelter. But I’m disappointed you haven’t gotten your hair cut.” The boy said, “You know, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve noticed in my studies of the Bible that Samson had long hair, John the Baptist had long hair, Moses had long hair…and there’s even strong evidence that Jesus had long hair.” His father paused for a moment and said, “You are right but did you also notice that they walked everywhere they went?”
To love God and our neighbor – these are the two greatest commandments in all of scripture. For Jesus, when the Pharisees questioned him, all 613 laws found in the Torah could be summarized in these two inextricably intertwined commandments. But what does it mean to love God and neighbor? How do we do it?
First, I cannot help but think about Moses as one of the Bible’s great examples of what it means to love God and neighbor. In our lesson for this morning Moses dies on the top of Mount Nebo in sight of the promised land but unable to reach it. Moses, God’s prophet and leader, who accepted a calling he never asked for and undertook a job he never wanted. He stood up to Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the ancient world, and freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He led them across the Red Sea and then safely guided them in the wilderness for 40 years. He gave his entire life to serve God. If you remember the story of Moses, he was born an Israelite but raised as Egyptian royalty. After his encounter with God at the burning bush he gave up all his claims to wealth and position and became the leader of a slave revolt. For the rest of his life he would do everything in his power to fulfill God’s dream to see his chosen people set free. And yet, at the end of his life’s journey he could see the promised land, he was so close to this land of milk and honey that he could smell it, but he would never get there himself. His people would get there but faithful Moses, who loved God and his neighbor, would never reach it.
Second, when I think about our Moses reading for today I can’t help but think about Martin Luther King especially since his memorial was just dedicated a week ago today in Washington, D.C. In particular, I am haunted by that great speech King made the night before he was assassinated. It was 1968 and he had traveled from Atlanta to Memphis to march in support of a sanitation workers strike. King was exhausted, worn out by the constant stress of the movement and all that was expected of him. There had been threats against his life and at least one failed assassination attempt when a deranged woman stabbed him. That night in Memphis he had a premonition that he would die soon, a premonition that he would die before his work was done. Little did he know it would be the very next day. At the end of the speech he talked about this premonition, comparing himself to Moses on the top of Mount Nebo and the very passage we read today. “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! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Moses and Martin were two men who dedicated their lives to loving God and their neighbor. Neither of them lived to see the fulfillment of their life’s work and yet both were willing to give their lives to that work because it was God’s work. Both took on seemingly impossible tasks to secure freedom for their people. They did it because God had given them a dream, a vision of a better life. Moses had a dream that his people could live free in a land of hope and promise. Martin had a dream that his people could live free from prejudice where one day they could reside in a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Through their struggle to make this divine vision a reality they loved God with all their heart, mind and soul. They gave their lives to make God’s dream their dream and in the process they showed deep love for their neighbor.
My friends, over 175 years ago a relatively small number of people had a dream to build the third Episcopal Church in the City of Richmond. They wanted a place where people could worship and serve God. From the very beginning they placed across the top of the sanctuary these words from James’ Epistle. They were the community’s guiding principle then and they remain so today. Many generations have come and gone in those 175 years but the dream remains. You and I sit here today the beneficiaries of the work and sacrifice many have made to love God and neighbor. We are the beneficiaries of the money, time, and effort thousands have given over the years to live out God’s Word in the world. Like Moses and Martin they died before the dream could be fulfilled. Our city is still in need of so much – as we all know. But part of what it means to love God with all your heart, soul and mind is to make God’s dream your dream. It means to set your sights on the Promised Land and do all that you can to move toward it. That’s why every year we ask you to contribute your time, your energy and your money to the work of the church. Certainly we have an institution to sustain and programs to run. We have staff members who deserve to be fairly compensated and buildings to maintain. But all of these necessary and perhaps mundane things are part of a larger vision – God’s vision. God’s dream for this world that his Kingdom may come and his will be done. At our best we are agents of God’s Kingdom, standing on the shoulders of all those who have come before us who have struggled to be doers of the word and not hearers only.
Moses and Martin were an inspiration to the people they served. They lifted them up beyond any place they thought they could go. They led their people through times in the desert, through times of strife and struggle. They raised their hopes, their faith, their aspirations to see a common vision of the world made better – God’s vision. I hope you will come to the feast of St. James’s next week. I hope you will come and celebrate the life of this parish and its long history. Moreover, when your pledge card arrives in the mail a few days later, I hope you will take the time to fill it out and make the largest gift you can to the work of this church. Ask yourself if God has blessed you this year. Then give back in thanksgiving for all those blessings. Because the dream continues, the vision lies before us, and there is much work yet to be done.

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