First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kate Dalton
November 11, 2018
Scripture: Numbers 1:1-16, 44-54; John 15:9-7
In this morning’s reading from Numbers, a census is being taken to determine how many men are available for military service as the Israelites prepare to make their way to the Promised Land. God has promised them that they will be able to conquer the land of Canaan – but they would need an army to do so. And so, every tribe of Israel is counted with the exception of one, the Levites. The Levites are given a special assignment. Their job is to protect the tabernacle. The tabernacle is the tent where God dwells and the Levites are responsible for moving it and caring for it as the Israelites travel through the desert.
As I thought about this reading, I couldn’t help but think about the world we live in today. It feels like we are surrounded by conflict and that much of the world is geared up to fight (be it literally or figuratively) on behalf of its own interests. I wonder about the role of the Christian Church in this world. Could it be somewhat like that of the Levites – to faithfully serve the tabernacle? Of course, Christianity has evolved from the time of the Levites – there is no belief that God physically dwells in any one place. But the essence of the Levites role was to care for the people’s relationship to God. In a world enveloped in conflict, I wonder if that’s the role of the Christian Church today – to care for the people’s relationship to God.
You might say, well of course, the Church is a place that encourages faith and nurtures people’s relationships with God – and you would be correct. But I’m wondering how the world might be different if Christians focused on bringing the importance of our relationship to God to the world. If we understood the Church not just as a place that develops our personal faith – but as a place that obligates us to be the keepers of God in the world, like the Levites.
So, what does it mean to be the keepers of God in the world? The New Testament reading gives us a clue. The NRSV says this
15:2 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
The NIV translates John 15:17 even more clearly, Jesus says: 17 This is my command: Love each other.
These verses contain some important hints about how to be the Christian Church in the world today. First, we are reminded that the Bible is full of commands. The word commands often has a negative connotation. But it’s important to remember that the commands recorded in the Bible serve the specific purpose of teaching us how to live in the ways of God of Israel. We’ve talked about this before – there are many gods in Biblical times and so the scriptures are focused on teaching people how to follow the God of Israel specifically.
These verses offer a concise summary of the point of the commands in the Bible. The commands teach us to love one another. Loving one another is how we love God. And the utmost expression of love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Laying down one’s life for one’s friends. This statement stands out to me as I look at election returns. It seems like all across the country there is deep division. So many races were determined by just a few percentage points – indicating a deep split. A split that has unfortunately manifested in acts of hate and violence across our country as we try to figure out if there’s a way to bridge divides.
The world needs the witness of the Christian Church. Love each other. In one of the commentaries, the Rev. Dr. John Fairless reminds us, Laying down one’s life doesn’t have to mean that you are going to die for someone but rather could mean setting aside your own priorities to act in the best interest of someone else.
In another commentary, Bruce Epperly suggests that laying one’s life down for another can be enacted as the willingness to go beyond self-interest. Epperly says that when we expand beyond our own self-interest we open ourselves to the larger selfhood of Christ. He notes that: this is the foundation of peace, according to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, in which our self-concern is identified with the well-being of larger and larger circles of reality. Delivered from the prison of the small self, we encounter and bring forth the divine in every situation.
And so, I wonder, how can we deliver the world from the prison of the small self. How can be the keepers of God in the world today?
Last Sunday, the deacons sponsored a service of Thanksgiving, Gratitude and Centering. During the service, people were invited to write down their vision for the world.
Here are a few of the responses:
• My vision for tomorrow is true justice, true compassion, true understanding – a place where my son only has to think about what good he can do in the world – where love truly is the answer.
• That we may seek to practice compassion – slow down and understand each other…
• A time when differences are celebrated – hate disappears, and all are recognized as beloved children of God.
• A world where God’s love and grace are played out in loving one another, in loving God and in world peace.
• Vision: People begin to act (win or lose) with kindness and empathy for those who are different thinking, looking, oriented, geographically, …
Our world is yearning for healing and for love. We have been entrusted with the Tabernacle. We are the keepers of God’s ways. May we lay down our lives for others and show the world the way of love. Amen.