The Adventurous Lectionary – October 29, 2017 – Pentecost 21
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Today’s readings point us beyond the individual self – and our individual life histories – to identification with God’s Self and the well-being of others long after we have left the scene. Our lives are not only lived in the moment, but participate in the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes as “objective immortality,” the impact of our lives on the future world and in God’s ever-expanding memory. Letting go of the small ego and its interests awakens us to the grandeur of the universe. Surpassing self-interest is the gateway to peace and to adventure in companionship with God. These scriptures challenge us to move from individual and national self-interest to world loyalty.
“I have been to the mountaintop; I have seen the Promised Land.” These words proclaimed by Martin Luther King could easily echo Moses’ sentiments as he looked toward Canaan. He had shepherded an emerging nation; he brought them from no people to the verge of their new homeland, but he will be unable to set foot on the ground that inspired his dreams. Centuries later, Martin Luther was asked, “If the world was to end tomorrow, what would you do?” He responded, “I would plant a tree.” All of us are creating the future by our actions today. We may never enjoy or see the fruits of our actions, but still we claim our ability to shape the future, and that is the point. Hope enables us to trust that God will use our finite lives as contributors to an everlasting adventure. On the day after his mountaintop speech, King was gunned down in Memphis; yet this “mahatma” or great soul, still lives on, inspiring us to justice and encouraging us to commit ourselves to a transformed America as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s March next year.
Today’s passages take us beyond instant gratification and self-interest. They remind us that our lives share in God’s immortality. What we do truly matters and shapes a future we may never see. This is the spirit of Reformation Sunday, celebrated in many churches on October 29. The saints let go of the small self and its short time span to embrace values beyond the self. We let go of self-interest to embrace the well-being of future generations. We do something beautiful for God that will outlast our small projects and even our lifetimes.
The Genesis passage invites us to be the saints of our time, leaving a legacy of time, talent, and treasure. Our legacy of time well-spent lives on in our children and grandchildren, in the achievements of students and congregants, in the values embraced by those we touch. Our legacy of talent involves the immortality of our creative work. Each sermon or text leaves a mark that can transform lives. Living out our vocations brings healing and beauty to the world. We leave a legacy of treasure as well, sharing our largesse for the well-being of future generations. I am somewhat suspicious of the bumper sticker saying, “We are spending our children’s inheritance.” Yes, we must take care of ourselves and this may mean using our largesse for purely joyful experiences that neither toil nor spin. Yet, our largesse lives on in the stewardship of our finances: the inheritances my wife and I received from our respective parents enabled us to make a significant contribution of our son and daughter-in-law’s first down payment on a home and to support our church and other charities. Our largesse is not our own but lives on in supporting what we valued in this lifetime.
In the letter to Thessalonians, Paul speaks of “pleasing God” rather than humans. His words suggest that when we love God and let our love for God determine our behavior and values, everything else falls into place. In Paul’s relationship with the Thessalonians, his devotion to God is made manifest. In going beyond his ego, he is doing something beautiful for God, something that will endure from generation to generation. In pleasing God, we help create a world that mirrors God’s values: we enable God to be more active in our lives and in the world. The passage concludes with the apostle speaking of sharing ourselves, that is, making our lives a gift to others, making our mission a contribution to the beauty of the earth, giving and receiving love in every encounter, and healing the world one moment at a time.
Jesus’ response to the Jewish teachers reveals the dynamic symbiosis of loving God, others, and self. These cannot be separated, but are interdependent and support one another. Loving God is world affirmation. When we love God, all of our other loves are rightly ordered. Loving God turns us toward our neighbor and her or his physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. It also turns us toward the non-human world, so beloved by God. Loving our neighbor brings beauty to God’s experience of the world: in a very real way, we love the Creator by loving the creatures. In Luther’s language, our opening to God’s grace enables this grace to flow to our neighbor, and for us to become little Christs committed to the well-being of neighbors and strangers.
Finally, authentic and healthy self-love gives us energy and Eros for the long haul. If we do not love ourselves, that is, feel at home in our skin and affirm our very existence in its uniqueness, our behaviors will often be motivated by the need to be loved rather than bringing joy to ourselves and others.
We are called to love ourselves as much as God loves us, and to love others with the same spirit that God loves them. Jesus would feel quite comfortable with Rabbi Hillel’s wise statement: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
True love expands self-interest and invests in futures we will never experience and love children we will never meet, whether in other lands or future generations. The love that takes us beyond ourselves and invests in God’s vision gives us a peace that passes all understanding; a peace that can never be threatened by loss, aging, or death. (For more on the theology underlying this commentary, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,” published by Energion and T.T. Clark/Continuum, respectively.)