Proper 25A

October 20, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:34-46

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Deuteronomy 34:1-12

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments and Observations

    The psalmist’s words may seem terribly depressing: You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning – though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered (5-6)Worshipers may be even more depressed to remember that the poet isn’t just talking about west African victims of Ebola, Middle Eastern victims of war or the Horn of Africa’s victims of famine.  He’s talking about all who join him in worshiping the Lord.

                Few people want to be reminded that life is so temporary, so fragile.  However, such reminders are most honest and highly relevant to the human situation.  Augustine once said we’re like the very sick person over whom the doctor leans, shakes her head and says, “He is dying.  He won’t make it out of this alive.”  He added that someone might look over into a baby’s bed on the first day of life and also say, “She’s dying.  She won’t make it out of this alive.”

    So we can see why the psalmist sings that life is short.  We can see why she compares people to the grass of the Middle East.  It flourishes in the morning, but then fades and withers by evening.  Our days pass, before God’s eyes, she adds, like a sigh.

    While even Christians try to hide our aging, our fragility, as Will Willimon notes, neither oceans of Grecian Formula nor hours of face-lifts and tummy tucks will make the grass that is our lives survive any longer.  A healthy lifestyle, including good eating and exercise, may prolong our lives a bit.  So we care for God’s temple that is our bodies.  Our lives, however, remain very, very short.

    Of course, we prefer not to think about life’s brevity.  Think, after all, of movies and TV shows that depict dead people coming back for “encore performances.”  In Ghost Patrick Swayze returns from the dead to warn his wife, Demi Moore, about the dangers lurking around her.  Even Titanic, a movie that took three hours to sink, ends with Jack and Rose happy, even after Jack has drowned, because they’re reunited on the grand staircase.

    But it’s all a lie.  Only God is eternal.  We are very temporary.  God is “from everlasting to everlasting.”  Our lives are very short.  Before God created grass, mountains or anything else, God was.  Our lives are like grass God created that flourishes in the morning but withers and dies by evening.  Time, even as much as a thousand years, is like yesterday to God. “Time like an ever-rolling stream,” we sing, “soon bears us all away.”

    Each and every one of us will die, unless Jesus Christ comes back first.  So how do we respond to this finitude, to this quick passing of our days?  Author Paul Ramsey mentions two possible responses.  He talks about “play persons” who cram all the fun and pleasure they can into their lives.  “Play persons” know they won’t live forever, so they live as close to the edge as they’re able, willing to try almost anything.  “Play persons’” only yardstick for life is enjoyment and adventure.

    However, Ramsey also mentions a quite different response to our knowledge that our lives are short.  It’s the response of the psalmist.  After reciting a fairly depressing litany about life’s fragility and hardship, he offers a most memorable prayer.  Teach us to number our days aright, he prays in verse 12, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

    It’s regrettable that the Lectionary omits verse 12 from its appointed text for this Sunday.  That verse, after all, teaches the proper response to our awareness of life’s brevity.  Teach us, O God, we pray there, that our days are relatively short.  Remind us that we are finite, that even now we’re, in one sense, dying.  Help us, O Lord, get used to the fact that we’re so fragile.

    The Buddha advised people to think of always carrying a little bird on their shoulder.  That bird periodically would whisper in their ear, “Is this the day?  Is this the last day of your days?”  The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  God challenges us to face what our culture so vehemently denies, our God-given limits.  For then alone do we gain “a heart of wisdom.”

    Once upon a time, first-rate colleges and universities tried to give their students wisdom.  That is, they tried to instill knowledge about how to live a good and prudent life.  Now, however, they seem to mostly teach data, endless facts.  Wisdom, in the biblical sense, is far more precious and dear.  Wisdom, suggests the poet in our psalm, comes from honestly looking at life, especially its limits.  Wisdom comes from taking stock and living creatively in the light of those limits.

    So much forces us to look ahead.  We’re almost always thinking about tomorrow, next week and next year.  We’ve got lunches and lesson plans to make tonight.  People have deadlines and meetings tomorrow.  We have people to see, things to do and, games, hopefully, to play and places to go this week.  We have college and retirement to plan for.

    Willimon suggests that biblical wisdom helps us to, rather than always looking ahead instead savor the moment. Wisdom teaches us to treasure cool fall evenings, the changing of the leaves and the onset of winter.  Wisdom teaches us to cherish our times of singing, praying and listening to God’s Word together.  It teaches us to cherish apparently little things like rides home from church and meals with family and friends.

    Yet only God knows what these few moments really mean.  Only God knows the ultimate significance of what we do.  Only God, finally, lends any lasting value to what we say and do.  So the poet ends our psalm by praying, in verse 17, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.”

    The poet ends by praying to God because he understands that it’s finally all up to God.  During our short lives, we may work hard.  People may even hope that work amounts to something that will last longer than we do.  Yet truly wise people remember that it’s up to God to gather up that work and make it mean something.

    Perhaps, however, it’s wise for us also to take a step back.  Maybe it would be wise for worshipers to take stock before stepping up and stepping out into a new week.  Life, as God graciously gives us to us, can be beautiful, perhaps particularly because of its fragility and brevity.  So wise people learn to live with our limits rather than deny or grieve them.  Having wisely numbered our days, Christians go to enjoy the gifts God has graciously given us.

    We say our thanks and praise to the people whom God has put in our lives today, for tomorrow may never come.  You and I forgive and seek forgiveness today, for tomorrow may never come.  Christians show people mercy and compassion, kindness and gentleness today, for tomorrow may never come.  People, after all, including you and I are, are so fragile.  So as we move forward into all the tomorrows God gives us, we leave with this prayer on our lips and in our hearts.  “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands.”

    Illustration Idea

    I had a cousin who meant a great deal to me when I was a child.  We did a lot of things together that made me feel very welcome and accepted.  As we grew older, we slowly drifted apart.  Yet I never forgot his kindness to me.  Often I’d tell myself, “I need to tell David thanks for all the things he did for me when we were kids.”  But David died very suddenly in a farming accident.  I never got a chance to tell him how much I appreciated what he’d done for me.

    Those who preach and teach Psalm 90 may want to reflect on their own missed opportunities to say important things to people who died.  They may want to reflect on life’s brevity that spurs us, whose lives are short and unpredictable, to say thanks now to people whose lives are also short and unpredictable.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

    Author: Stan Mast