Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Moses was taken to Mount Nebo
where he was shown the whole of the promised land —
from Gilead to the Negeb.
To see the promised land from this distance
BECAUSE he wasn’t to enter or experience it.
It wasn’t his to lead the people on,
into the long-promised and awaited destination.
The people of God weeped to lose their leader,
to have to leave their beloved in the land of Moab.
But Moses, his reaction to this turn of events,
well, at least as the story is relayed in the Deuteronony,
Moses doesn’t seem to resent or regret or even suffer the end of his own road
is to come on the wrong side of the Jordan River.
It’s almost as if for him, it’s not the wrong side of the river.
I mean, our text says that
his vision wasn’t dimmed
and his vigor was unabated…
Moses seems to have embraced the end of his days
as he had engaged those that had come before.
Church, Moses is on to something we need to understand and figure out.
Now, I’ll fully admit, considering our mortality,
it isn’t without a certain queasiness.
It’s not a topic you’d call light and easy.
So before we go to much further,
let’s remember, from the Paul’s letter to the Church in Thessalonica,
Paul is reminding us, thank God,
that the journey,
— whatever we get done,
even that which we don’t get done–
is not in vain.
Especially, Paul writes,
if, in our time
— wherever the journey takes us —
if we’ve devoted ourselves to the time given us
and shared ourselves with those whom we’ve passed along the way.
That’s a hint, beloved, about what I think Moses could see
beyond those hills and valleys of the promised land.
He could see clearly that though he probably wasn’t getting as far as he’d hoped,
he could see that his living wasn’t in vain.
And that faith and that sight kept him strong and spirited and determined,
even as it was time for him to lie down.
That’s what I want to talk about today.
About how we all only have so long on earth.
And about what can make our finitude more palatable.
How we can face our deaths with a sure assurance that our living wasn’t in vain.
But I’m going to ask you to tackle our tough topic from another angle,
that I hope will let us take a step back,
and consider it with the comfortable distance,
or the objectivity that comes of getting a bit philosophical.
Instead of focusing on the inevitability of our demise,
I want to ask you to focus on something bigger,
community instead of individuals,
to consider how communities outlive us.
It’s funny on Reformation Sunday,
since Luther and the other Reformers
and the re-evaluations and worldviews they initiated
led to more room for respect for or even the sanctity of individuals.
But Reformation thinking is also a source of an individualism
that veers towards theories of self-reliance
that can deny larger contexts and communal responsibilities.
So perhaps, my tack is a good Reformation Day corrective.
Always needing to reform, that’s in the Spirit of the reformers.
The Scripture was clear:
“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses,
whom the Lord knew face to face.
He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders
that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt,
against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land,
and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power
that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”
He’s a giant, church,
and yet, the community is bigger, longer-living and more important than its leader.
The community is where God’s promises rest and wait.
The community keeps moving on,
well beyond and past the distance
even the longest-shadowed individual can travel with them.
Think about it, beloved,
a community’s life is made up of collectively of the distances we are given to walk.
Those who came before us.
and those of us who will go on after us.
We each have a distance to go
and in so doing, we’re playing a part
as this engine that keeps the whole community moving forward.
But the movement is so much bigger than you or me or even all of here together here and now.
I think I’ve shared this before.
The image I got when unexpectedly
one of the oldest members and beloved leaders
of the first congregation I served
She and I were close.
And my time with that congregation was drawing to an end.
In fact, I was already in discussion with the second congregation I was to serve.
And already worried and feeling bad,
“how in the world could I ever break the news to Mercedes, say that I’d be leaving.”
In the midst of these worries,
I went over with a member of the church,
another man in his 20’s,
to help Mercedes in her new apartment.
She had just moved out of her third floor, walk-up tenement
and into a senior residence.
She needed our help unpacking and moving stuff around.
She was expecting us.
But when we knocked, there was no answer.
We stood in the hallway of the new Carlos Rios Senior Living Center not sure what to do.
And sort of against reason,
I guess because we couldn’t think of anything else to do,
we kept knocking. And calling her name.
Eventually, we heard her voice from inside:
it was Mercedes, but garbled.
Hearing us knocking and calling her,
despite the confusion that was suddenly fog in her mind,
something, from somewhere deep inside,
something in her began to respond.
Once the police had come to get us in,
we found Mercedes slumped over in her rocking chair.
She’d had a severe stroke.
A few days later she was gone.
I never had to tell her I’d be leaving Living Hope.
Instead, she left us.
I was left missing her,
and marveling at the mystery of life and death
and the timing of the days we are given on earth.
Linda’s death two weeks ago, when so many of her friends never knew she was sick,
reminded me of all this again.
It was later in the week all those years ago,
as we prepared for Mercedes’ funeral
that I had this image of comfort and reassurance,
a vision really.
It was a scene Frank P. Tillman, the grade school I went to.
It was recess and everyone was running around on the playground.
When one of the teachers would come out of the school building
and blow a whistle.
We knew what that meant.
We were to line up.
in the alcove created between the gym building and the classroom building,
get in a single file line.
not pushing each other but still, and quiet,
as we got ready to go back into the building and to our classrooms.
But it didn’t happen exactly like that.
Some of us were more quick to respond to the whistle than others.
So some where already in line
when the teacher opened up the doors to the school
and we were headed back to our classrooms
while others were still running around on the playground.
Mercedes just ended up ahead of my in line.
And went back in the school before me.
And while I might have a bit more time on the playground,
that line back into the school building was where I’d end up too.
Church, the whistle’s going to blow,
and the only real question is about our place in that line.
Because we’re all going to have to leave the playground
and go back inside.
And, if you think about it,
the difference in time,
the difference between the front of the line and the back,
the first ones back in the building
and those last stragglers on the playground,
it’s really not all that long.
Where you are earlier in that line or later, the difference is negligible.
Sooner or later, we’re all marched back inside.
What’s the difference then?
I think this is what Moses saw and drew his strength from.
It’s not about who’s last, or who gets the furthest.
No, instead, it’s about how you made use of your recess.
Moses had to go back into that proverbial school building
while the community was still in Moab.
Joshua and the survivors stayed out a while longer,
and walked across the Jordan and into the promised land,
before they in turn had to answer that whistle and go back inside.
But Moses surely wasn’t the first to die during 40 years in the wilderness.
In fact, at least a whole generation, probably more,
must have been left behind
in graves near the various encampments
as the people wandered all those years in the wilderness.
And it’s not where they laid down that matters
so much as what they managed to get done,
how they contributed
while they were walking around.
How they pitched tents and collected quail,
and raised children and kept people’s spirits up.
Moses could face his death with equanimity
because he knew he’d done what he could.
I hear that same confidence and acceptance in Dr. King’s sermon
that we know as “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.”
Do you realize what mountaintop that was?
King was in Memphis
to support the garbage collectors in a strike,
the night before he was killed.
It was that same mountaintop
from which Moses
could see the promised land,
but not enter in.
Mount Nebo right there on the banks of the Mississippi.
King’s vision is clear; his vigor unabated.
We hear it in the words of this preaching (though I can’t do it with his intonations):
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.
Longevity has its place.
But I’m not concerned about that now,”
“I’ve seen the promised land.
I may not get there with you.
But I want you to know tonight,
that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Beloved, none of us is gonna make it all the way.
We have to lie down
long before the community
is where it’s supposed to get to.
Our individual races will end long before all the runners stop.
Here’s the insight, almost counterintuitive:
It’s easier to lay your life down when it’s been full and you feel you’ve used it well,
done something important with it, contributed what you could.
It’s when we haven’t gotten much done, that we get sort of desperate
for more time and another chance.
But when we’ve made something of the time given us,
whether short or long,
then our living is not in vain,
when we have used well
the time and distance
we are given.
In the E-pistle this week,
actually I didn’t get it out until just yesterday evening,
so many of you probably haven’t seen it yet,
I used the image of a relay race.
We’re handed a baton,
from someone who has run, carrying it before us.
And that baton, it’s ours for a time,
ours to run forward some distance,
and then it won’t be ours anymore.
Or you might say, it’s ours to give away,
as we pass it on to another runner
to continue the race
for the next leg of the journey.
Beloved, this is true in all the aspects of our lives.
With our families.
Amongst our various groups of friends and communities.
In our work lives.
Also here at church.
And Moses and Martin’s wisdom,
— the promise of our faith really —
isn’t that you or I will make it to the promised land,
But that we have been given lives
that can be used to contribute to a movement greater than our individual lives,
propelling that forward movement,
in which our lives are legs of a much longer journey
of the community that is bigger than us, that outlives us.
Moses and Martin’s understood
that whatever we accomplish
if it’s to matter at all,
it’s got to matter beyond our individual lifetimes.
In fact, it’s sort of an industry standard for pastors,
and any community leader, I suspect,
and parents too, when I think about it —
the value of what we have offered,
the measure of how we have given ourselves
is almost always finally only to be seen
in how our congregations and organizations and communities and families do after us.
How the gifts we were able to share
take root and bear fruit,
most fully years after us.
That’s where one’s life isn’t in vain…