Surely there are few more poignant stories in the whole of the Bible than the one we just heard about the death of Moses. For 40 years the children of Israel had wandered in the wilderness. 40 years, that is, “as long as it took.” Now the Promised Land was in sight, but Moses would not be going in with them. This story is the end of the Exodus story, though here at the end of Deuteronomy, it is also the end of the Pentateuch, the 5 books of the law, Torah. And it is the end of the journey for Moses, known as the Law-Giver, the towering figure of Judaism, whom we first met as a baby hidden by his mother in a basket made of bullrushes.
Of course, it’s not The End of The Story. The rest of the story is just beginning, with the crossing of the Jordan River and moving into – really, taking by force of – the Promised Land. The children of Israel becoming a nation with a king, King David being the one they thought of most fondly, David’s grandmother Ruth having come from Moab, the very place where Moses died and was buried. Then the nation splitting into two kingdoms, north and south, Israel and Judah, and the exile into Babylon, with all the great prophets writing the soundtrack. The return and rebuilding. The occupations by one warrior nation after another. And then in the midst of one of those occupations, the birth of another baby, whose great-great-great-many-greats grandmother was Ruth, the Moabite. Journeys ended, journeys begun.
This story, this ending and beginning, is our story as well on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther supposedly nailed those 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg – these sorts of stories are the stuff of legends, so who knows if there were actual nails and parchment involved? Luther declared the journey of lies and twisting of doctrine and misuse of power ended, demanding a return to the authority only of Scripture, not church hierarchy, –Sola Scriptura–, which meant that people needed to be able to know and read Scripture for themselves, in their own language. And Luther declared that the Gospels and New Testament taught that we are saved by grace, by our faith or trust in God, not by our works – Sola Fides. He had hoped the Church would come back to those truths, would be reformed itself, but as we know, that was not to be, and alas, Luther also became an articulate spokesperson for anti-Semitism. The Journey into Protestantism had begun, as reformers all over Europe led move-ments away from the Roman Catholic Church, and some people escaping that bloody, violent upheaval fled to the shores of this continent. And it was bloody and violent. Our Associate Conference Minister Pam Lucas objects to Phyllis Tickle’s image of the every-500-year “rummage sale” that the church goes through. “That is way too tame,” Pam says. It was a horrible, violent time, she said, as she’s been listening to a history of the Reformation on tape.
The same can be said about the journey begun across the River Jordan, as the children of Israel came in and slaughtered the inhabitants of Canaan and the lands beyond the Jordan. All in the name of God. It is a story as contemporary as today’s news.
Which doesn’t mean that either the Journeys Ended or the Journeys Begun were a waste of time and merely the tales of a bloody, vengeful God. It means, in part, that the stories have been told through the eyes of flawed and fragile human beings, products of their time and place, who have at best only caught glimpses of the True God working in the midst of their histories. The Bible was not dictated by God, word for word, but rather the Unfathomable God who chooses to enter our flesh is always only partially perceived by human beings who attempt to capture the Glory in the texts that we come to call Scripture.
So here we are in this last chapter of Deuteronomy on the plains of Moab, with Moses making his last journey up a mountain, up Mt. Nebo and onto Pisgah, the ridge overlooking the Promised Land. He is 120 years old, “his eyesight unimpaired and his vigor not abated,” a description that those of us half his age can only wish could be said about us. Because of some incident vaguely described in the book of Numbers, when Moses and Aaron apparently tried to claim and use God’s power to get water without authorization, neither Moses nor Aaron are permitted to enter the Promised Land themselves. Aaron died a few chapters back, but here, after drinking in the sight of the land promised over all these years, we read, “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, buried in a valley in the land of Moab. It was God who buried Moses, the man whom God knew “face to face.” The place of burial is unknown, there is no monument, no Presidential Library, no Courthouse or Temple erected as a place of pilgrimage.
“The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Journeys ended, journeys begun.
On a much less grand scale, we here at Second Congregational Church are in the midst of a “journeys ended, journeys begun” moment. These 23 years may have felt like 40 to some of you, but it is as long as it took for me to know that the time has come for a new leader, or, I should say, a new pastor for this congregation, for there are many strong, wise leaders here already. The story of Moses and his death on top of Mt. Pisgah teaches us a number of things, as one commentator points out [Timothy Simpson, politicaltheology.com, 10/20/14]– first, that no one is irreplaceable. It teaches us that “the community’s future is more important than the leader’s.” Yes, there needs to be a time of grieving–for the people of Israel, it was 30 days, but there is no prescription for the right amount of time–and then we have to move on. It teaches the importance of cultivating the next generation of leadership, not only calling a new pastor, in our case, but also making sure that all this wisdom and knowledge and know-how that resides in the current generation gets passed on or handed over to others who will follow us and who must then discern how to do things in new times. The story of Moses on top of Mt. Pisgah, looking out on all those lands with names that may be hard to pronounce, reminds us, as this writer says, that there are “no innocent references” to geography in the Bible–all those names of places were already inhabited by other people, and to this day, the children of those inhabitants and the people of the nation of Israel claim the right to live there. 95 theses nailed on a church door can become matters of life and death. What we do here can literally change or save someone’s life. Time and place matters.
This story reminds us that each of our individual lives takes on their full meaning when they become part of God’s greater story, when we can see that our individual lives do in fact impact others. While we live in this moment, what we do impacts the future. Moses’ mountaintop vision inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to declare, on the day before he was assassinated, “I have been to the mountaintop; I have seen the Promised Land.” We know that his work still goes on; we have not yet reached the promised land of racial equality and justice. His namesake, Martin Luther, when asked, “If the world was to end tomorrow, what would you do?” responded, “I would plant a tree.” That is a Reformation value worth keeping, and we give thanks to our Eaarth and Climate Advocates for their witness on behalf of this future.
In reviewing and recommending Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss, O. Benjamin Sparks gives a number of reasons why pastors should read this book, written by a young man and poet who was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and who refers to God as his “bright abyss.” Sparks recalls a conversation which, he says, he “cannot shake.”
A friend, pastor of a large and faithful congregation, told me that he often struggled with ‘what’s next?’–not for himself, but for his congregation: urban, large, socially engaged, liturgically rich, educationally sound and powerful, homiletically grounded, a church that unflinchingly faces the issues of the city in which it worships and to which it ministers. My friend seemed to be asking, ‘Where are we going; what is the next faithful witness to which God is calling us?’
None of us knows, [Sparks says] but Wiman’s little book suggests that it’s depth of faith and groundedness we need, not just we preachers, but preachers and congregational leaders together. Without it we will not withstand the depredations of our current political crisis, which is a crisis of language, of truth (human and revealed), and of the foundations of this republic.
[reviewed in Journal of Preachers, Advent 2017]
Depth of faith and groundedness. “Away from superficial expressions of Christianity and opening our hearts and eyes of faith to what is true, good, beautiful–and everlasting,”
The saints whom we celebrate this week on All Saints Day were those who allowed their individual lives to be caught up in the life of God, who let their “small selves” and their short time span be transformed by God’s Self and eternity. We do not live to ourselves, and so we trust that our stewardship of the many resources entrusted to us in this church, our stewardship of the planet, our stewardship of our future will be used by God, even as we come to this place of ending and beginning…into the “bright abyss,” as Christian Wiman puts it.
I can think of no better way to end these weeks of our readings about Moses than with the beautiful portrait of him that Frederick Buechner wrote in his book Peculiar Treasures–
Whenever Hollywood cranks out a movie about him, they always give the part to somebody like Charlton Heston with some fake whiskers glued on. The truth of it is he probably looked a lot more like Tevye the milkman after ten rounds with Mohammed Ali.
Forty years of tramping around the wilderness with the Israelites was enough to take it out of anybody. When they weren’t raising hell about running out of food, they were raising it about running out of water. They were always hankering after the fleshpots of Egypt and making bitter remarks about how they should have stayed home and let well enough alone. As soon as his back was turned, they started whooping it up around the Golden Calf, and when somebody stood up and said he ought to be thrown out, the motion was seconded by thousands. Any spare time he had left after taking care of things like that he spent trying to persuade God not to wipe them out altogether as they deserved.
And then, of course, there was the hardest blow of all. When he finally had it all but made and got them as far as the top of Mt. Pisgah, where the whole Promised Land stretched out before them as far as the eye could see, god spoke up and said this was the place all right, but for reasons which were never made entirely clear, Moses was not to enter it with them. So he died there in his one hundred and twentieth year, and after a month of hanging around and wishing they’d treated him better, the Israelites went on in without him.
Like Abraham before him and Noah before that, not to mention like a lot of others since, the figure of Moses breathing his last up there in the hills with his sore feet and aching back serves as a good example of the fact that when God puts the finger on people, their troubles have just begun.
And yet there’s not a doubt in the world that in the last analysis Moses, like the rest of those tough old birds, wouldn’t have had it any different. Hunkered down in the cleft of a rock once, with God’s hand over him for added protection, he had been allowed to see the Glory itself passing by, and although all God let him see was the back part, it was something to hold on to for the rest of his life. And then there was one other thing that was even better than that.
Way back when he was just getting started and when out of the burning bush God had collared him for the first time, he had asked god what his name was, and God had told him so that form the on he could get in touch with him any time he wanted. Nobody had ever known God’s name before Moses did, and nobody would ever have known it afterwards except for his having passed it on; and with that thought in his heart up there on Pisgah, and with that name on his lips, and with the sunset in his whiskers, he became in the end a kind of burning bush himself. [Buechner, Peculiar Treasures,, pp110-112– Just one of many beautiful portraits in this book, which can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Peculiar-Treasures-Frederick-Buechner/dp/0060611413/ref=sr_1_15?ie=UTF8&qid=1509460553&sr=8-15&keywords=frederick+buechner]
Oh, that we too, in our time, might become burning bushes ourselves, and continue on our journeys in faith. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark