by the Rev. James B. Craven III
Holy Scripture is full of larger than life characters, and Moses is maybe as larger than life as they come. Now remember what I told you a month ago, that when you hear myth, don’t think fairy tale, think truth. That’s particularly so today. I think it is safe to say that we have no factual knowledge of Moses, but there is a lot of myth. I discovered that when I was very young. In the King James Bible of 1611, the most modern cutting edge translation of the time, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are called the First Five Books of Moses. It was thought and assumed then, 409 years ago, that Moses was the author of the five books, the Pentateuch. But wait, in Deuteronomy the death and burial of Moses are described. You say Moses wrote this? Well pardon my skepticism.
Moses was among those relative few to whom the Lord spoke directly. I have never experienced that and am envious of those who have. My dear friend Lex Matthews felt the same way. Lex said that for him the Lord was more like Old Man River. He must know something but don’t say nothing. Now I do speak to the Lord, in my own limited way. I try not to be like the Mississippi bishop, who began a pastoral prayer once “Paradoxical as it may seem to thee, O Lord.” I don’t remember their names, but prominent clergymen gave lengthy invocations at both the Democratic and Republican conventions on TV in August. We can hope God was listening up, or maybe tuning out, because both invocation prayers were chock full of instruction to God, as though the good Lord hadn’t been keeping up on American politics this year.
Prayer is hard to define. Communication with God is about the best I can do. Maybe communication with God on behalf of others. With rare exception I don’t pray for myself. Enough people are kind enough to tell me they pray for me, and I feel so incredibly fortunate and happy that I have to assume my friends must know what they are doing. I have prayed hard for myself when seriously ill and before surgery. Probably at other times too, I just can’t remember. It’s more interesting to pray for others anyway. We have to be careful though lest we think too highly of ourselves, a real danger. It’s called pride. But, you pray for me and I’ll pray for you. That’ll work.
In Moses’ conversation with God we heard today, from Leviticus, we see the concept of neighbor love for the first time in Holy Scripture. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Think about that though. We have to love and value ourselves, accepting ourselves for who we are and what we are. Self loathing and love of neighbor is a difficult pairing. The Lord God said to Moses:
You shall not render an unjust judgment, you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great. With justice you shall judge your neighbor.
That is mirrored in the oath taken since 1789 by the federal judiciary:
…I will administer justice without respect
to persons, and do equal right to the poor
and to the rich…
Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, the Chief Justice appointed by President Washington and who preceded John Marshall, wrote that lovely oath. Notice there is nothing in it about combating all enemies, foreign and domestic. That is the business of the armed forces and the police. Oliver Ellsworth was surely familiar with Leviticus, and the command to do equal justice to the poor and to the rich.
Back in the seventies I taught at the UNC Law School in Chapel Hill. There were times when I would be studying for Divinity School exams part of the evening, then grading law school exams. It was burning the candle at both ends, but I was young. My dean at the law school asked me once if it was true that I told my impressionable students that they all had to read for my class was Leviticus and the Merchant of Venice. He was relieved when I told him No, but that I had told them that no one could really be a lawyer without a nodding acquaintance with both Leviticus and the Merchant of Venice.
A friend of ours recently lost her mother at 97. In a lovely tribute she sent out by email, she ended with the words of Mother Jones, the labor organizer of the late 19th and early 20th century:
Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.
Well I do pray for the dead and I don’t really know why, because I suspect about all that can be done for them has long since been done by God. But that’s too pragmatic an analysis. I think I pray for the dead for me, to remind me of them and their goodness, in the sure and certain hope and the faith that I may see them again, in my soul and in my mind’s eye, in the heaven we know as the Kingdom of God here on this earth, now in the time of this mortal life. We draw an enormous amount of strength from those who have gone before us. My father died 43 years ago, but I encounter him often in my prayers. I can see him and I can hear his voice now. My grandmother died 25 years ago, but I not only hear her voice today in my heart, I can even smell the dusting powder she used. I think of so many who have gone before us, I can see in my heart and my mind’s eye all those who, in Binyon’s words, will not grow old as we who are left grow old, age will not weary them nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. I see them now. I see my ten classmates and other friends and shipmates who were killed in action so long ago. They are still young and they will always be young, young and invincible. And I pray for them and hold them in my heart, just as I loved them when we were all young.
I remember in prayer those I have baptized over the past 35 years, including some of you here at St. Luke’s, where I have been now 28 years. I remember baptizing my two grandchildren and I remember a Blackfoot Indian from Idaho who I baptized in prison. I remember in prayer those whose weddings I have done, and I am glad to say that most of those marriages are still intact. There are two folks, brother and sister, I baptized as babies, then did their weddings, and baptized their children. Don’t be fooled by my youthful appearance. I particularly remember in prayer those I have buried and those with whom I have shared their last Communion and to whom I have given the last rites of the Church. Many believe that the liturgy for the dying and the dead is what the Church does best, and heaven knows it comes at a time of deep personal and emotional need. I have long thought there is a remarkable similarity to baptisms, weddings, and funerals. There is a celebratory aspect to all three. We see lots of family and friends. There is a religious service as the centerpiece, and there is an abundance of food. It was said of Theodore Roosevelt, by his niece Eleanor, that he wanted to be the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral. Funerals are meaningful and emotional experiences for clergy too, I assure you, and we do ask in prayer for divine help and blessing. For years I have said at the end of the homily, or sometimes at the commendation, “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” At least a half dozen times I have been asked where in the Bible that comes from, and if you too are curious, it’s in the Book of Hamlet. Preaching at funerals is a heavy experience. I can’t say it is easier with prayer because I cannot imagine doing it without prayer, for the need is so great, and the stakes so high. I do remember though when a man told me he really appreciated what I said at his wife’s funeral but he was disappointed that I hadn’t mentioned baseball. I told him that she well knew that baseball was always close to my heart.
Prayer is important too for those who are sick, in the hospital or otherwise. As a patient recipient, from my week in the hospital back in May, I can tell you that prayer is tangible. You may, I hope you do, sense that in our intercessory prayer, the prayers of the people, where we name those for whom we pray. And remember, we pray not only for those we like, but for those we find, for whatsoever reason, distrustful, even those who may wish us harm. Our enemies. And forgiveness is a big part of this equation. We pray for our enemies and are better able to forgive them. And once we have forgiven them we are freed ourselves. It can be uplifting and redemptive. That’s why we pray for healing, for healing of body, healing of mind, healing of spirit, healing of broken relationships, healing among nations, and healing in this holy place. Christ was in the healing business and we must be in the healing business as well. And folks on their death bed can and do acknowledge that they are healed.
Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, asked in a recent message to clergy that:
We pray for the reconciliation of all
people, and for the Church throughout
the world, that it may be an
instrument of your healing love.
Many of the psalms, the hymns of ancient Israel, are written in the form of prayer. Jerry Denton, who had received a Jesuit education, was a Vietnam POW for over seven years, and later a Senator from Alabama. He had memorized all 150 psalms in school, and said that the psalms were an enormous part of his being able to survive all the torture and depression of the POW experience. He also taught the psalms to his Hanoi Hilton fellow guests through the tap code.
Jesus himself taught his followers how to pray, saying Our Father who art in heaven, down through deliver us from evil. Hollywood long ago figured out there was money to be made in Biblical pictures, the Ten Commandments, Daniel & Bathsheba, and the all those bathrobe classics. Sam Goldwyn of MGM was very big on such movies. Once he was pushing for more and more of them when a colleague said “Sam, I bet you don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. “ Goldwyn’s response, “I do too, Now I lay me down to sleep.”
And finally, Christ himself, in the Gospel today from Matthew, gives us the reason for all of this:
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.