(Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46)
Last weekend, those of us who attended had a blessed retreat at Camp Wightman. We gathered in a place of natural beauty that was built to worship God and has done so since 1956. Surrounded by a sense of the holy, we hiked, talked, ate, studied the Bible, worshiped, played games, sang, and prayed. Even a teenager – who shall remain nameless – who didn’t want to go to the retreat had a great time and voted to return next year for two days instead of the one day we did this year! You know, if you can convert a teenager from “no” to “yes,” you’ve had a holy experience!
And, then, on Monday morning, we all woke to news of the Las Vegas massacre. As the death toll mounted and details about the gunman were discovered and revealed, the horror increased. The massacre is the worst in recent American history. There seems to be no motive for the gunman’s actions. The senselessness of the massacre astounds us. Fifty-eight people murdered and over 500 wounded in a matter of minutes for no reason. How does that make you feel? Despairing? Hopeless? Fearful? Angry? Frustrated? Numb?
It’s been a tough week. Of course, as faithful Christians, we turn to God in tough times. The scripture readings for today begin with the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses as the foundation of our religion and as the foundation of the “life that truly is life” (1 Tim 6:19). Jesus summed them up when he named the greatest commandment to be, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and the second greatest to be, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37, 39).
In his summation of the Ten Commandments, Jesus told us to love God first, ourselves second, and everyone else third. (Loving ourselves second does not mean that we become selfish and self-centered. It means that we love and honor God so much that we love and honor what God has created: us. Once we love and honor ourselves, we can love and honor others. We can give to others only what we have. If we don’t love and honor ourselves, then we can’t love and honor others. Get it?) If we could just fulfill these two greatest commandments, we would create heaven on earth.
On our own, however, we’re not able to fulfill the commandments. We sin and miss the mark all the time. We need help! And we have that help in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith and faithfulness. According to Wikipeida, “The cornerstone . . . is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation, important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.” Jesus is righteous. When we allow him to be our foundation, then we become righteous, too, because all other stones are set in reference to the cornerstone. Jesus, as our cornerstone, becomes our reference in all we think, imagine, say, and do. He determines our entire position in life.
If we choose Jesus as our cornerstone, we have fulfilled the greatest commandment to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and minds, and souls. We have chosen God as our cornerstone and put God first! All else in us and our lives will be positioned in relation to God’s will and God’s way. Jesus as cornerstone = greatest commandment fulfilled.
This is important! Any other cornerstone will not position us faithfully in life! What we think, imagine, say, and do will be positioned incorrectly. We will stumble and fall and be broken. We will be crushed. The kingdom of God will be out of reach for us, because our foundation will be faulty. Our ability to fulfill the second greatest commandment will be compromised. Without God as our cornerstone, we are not able to love and honor ourselves nor others. The result: hell on earth. And, sisters and brothers in Christ, that is what we experienced this week as we were exposed to the Las Vegas massacre.
Now, there’s not much we can control in our world. When we get right down to it, all we can really control is ourselves, and we can’t always even do that. However, once we have Jesus Christ as our cornerstone, controlling ourselves gets a lot easier, because we have the light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit working within us to enlighten, inspire, and empower us. With Jesus as our cornerstone, we can pay attention to what we think, imagine, say, and do, and we can notice when those things are not in alignment with God and God’s commandments. We can ask God to prick our conscience, assail our arrogance, and keep us humble so that we consistently and constantly rely on God to guide us.
I am asking you to do that today and every day. The state of our country and our world relies on us fulfilling the two greatest commandments. Do we love God and God’s way and will more than anything else? And do we love others as we love ourselves? In other words, is Jesus our cornerstone, the one on which we can build heaven on earth? Whatever you think, imagine, say, and do, ask yourself if it fulfills the two greatest commandments. Ask yourself what it will produce down the road. Are your thoughts, imaginings, words, and actions producing fruit that nourishes or weeds that strangle? And I’m asking this not only about your personal lives, but also about your professional lives, your communal lives, your civic lives . . . about all the lives you live. Like Paul, we must desire to know Christ above all things. Paul stated, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . .” (Phil 3:8-9).
We experienced hell on earth this week, but even in hell there were signs of heaven. People put themselves at risk in the midst of the shooting to help the wounded. People waited in line for hours to give blood for the wounded. Doctors, nurses, custodians and other hospital personnel worked around the clock to save the wounded. Chaplains, counselors, and social workers were on hand to give spiritual and emotional support to the wounded, whether wounded in body, mind, or soul. Minds and hearts were opened, again, to the madness and sinfulness of the gun violence in our country, our country that has become a war zone, with Americans killing other Americans. I pray that we will be proactive in reclaiming our public spaces from the insanity of this war, that we will seek answers that will stem the violence and the methods used to inflict that violence on others. May the light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit work in us to enlighten, inspire, and empower us to do so, for we are weary of the war zone in which we live – bone weary.
Signs of heaven on earth were there in Las Vegas and are always present, because love conquers all, in the end. Hold fast to that truth as you seek to know Christ above all things. Hold fast to that truth as you press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Hold fast to that truth as you remember that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11). Amen.
Sermon preached at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, October 8, 2017, the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost.