*a sermon preached at a local Bremen church*
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar.
The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.
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.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled 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.
As I’ve been carrying this scripture around with me this week, I keep wondering what Moses was thinking and feeling. The scripture – Moses’ final days on earth – has been my companion in the midst of attending two quite different but very beautiful funerals for two quite different but very lovely 90-year-olds.
My work as chaplain at Signature calls me to sit with elders as they come to the ends of their lives, listening to them, laughing with them, crying with them, accompanying them in confusion and frustration, gleaning pearls of wisdom and shimmers of wit.
Some of them have many years yet to live.
Some of them are in their last few months or days.
Some of them have many visitors, much family, much vim and vigor (or spit and vinegar, as the case may be).
Others have few visitors, broken family situations, or many physical, emotional, or cognitive tribulations.
None of them are 120 years old, but when I read of Moses, several of them come to mind – at the place in their lives when they sense they are nearing the end, looking back on a full life, and longing for a particular kind of future for their family, a certain kind of legacy.
What did Moses feel, I wonder, looking back on his leadership of the Israelites, and looking ahead to a promised land he knew he would never enter?
Moses’s whole life had been about leading the Israelites out of bondage and to the promised land, from his birth to a Hebrew slave and raising by an Egyptian princess, to the revelation in the burning bush while tending sheep; from the miracles God had him do, to the laws God had him set forth. The Israelites had come close to the promised land once before, but they were too afraid to enter it, so they ended up wandering in the desert for another 40 years. In all that wandering, the people grumbled and strayed. When Moses got fed up with the people, God would provide direction and nourishment to keep them going. When God got fed up with the people, Moses would plead with him on their behalf, turning God’s wrath aside and reminding him of the covenant.
Maybe the time went quickly and Moses couldn’t believe he was 120 already. Or maybe the time seemed like it would never end – like they would never have a home, never see the fruits of their wandering and their faith, the outpouring of God’s promised abundance. The babies who were in their mothers’ arms when they left Egypt and crossed the red sea – those “babies” were now 40 years old and knew of Egypt and the promised land only in songs and stories. Their entire lives had been lived in the wilderness. That’s a long time to wait for a promise to be fulfilled. But 40 years at the end of a life, some of my residents would tell you, can go by much more quickly.
So what did Moses feel, I wonder, when he saw those lands at the top of that mountain? This promise he had dedicated his life to leading his people toward – it was just a stone’s throw away.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 “The Song of Moses” – As you hear these words, listen to them as though Moses were speaking them…
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
Turn, O LORD! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands — O prosper the work of our hands!
God’s view is a long view. Christ’s kingdom is always coming closer, perhaps even a taste of it is sometimes here among us, but his dream spans millennia. God’s faithfulness is everlasting.
God invites us humans to be a part of making manifest those kingdom purposes – in fact, God seems to have set it up so that we are a central part of working his will in the world, discerning and following Christ’s call, spreading Gospel seeds as we go.
But we are, at the same time, always a part of something much larger, connected through the generations by the arc of God’s love and covenant.
The world’s powers and principalities come and go but God’s faithfulness is for all eternity. Our worldly journeys involve a stunning amount of transition and change, but the Lord is our dwelling place for generations.
We forget that sometimes, don’t we?
Our culture often encourages us to value the quick, the new, the easy, the flashy. This is not a bad thing – much of our technological and social progress is built on these values. But working with elders as much as I do, I wonder sometimes if we are missing out on something really important.
I have been so blessed by being surrounded by some of the elders of this community because I am being reminded that each of us has a piece of God’s work to do, but none of us can do it without the others. I am able to have the ministry I have because of the many who came before me paving the road. I am able to quilt and sing and learn and know God because others have handed that down to me. Even now, I daily glean wisdom and courage from my interactions with those who have been learning from the ups and downs of life since the 1920s – who have been practicing prayer and forgiveness and faith for nearly three times as long as I have been alive. And they have wisdom they pass down from their parents and grandparents.
As I watch some of them bravely and faithfully face the end of their lives, I sometimes think I see in them what Moses perhaps felt as he looked over the promised land:
I see in them a profound sense of connection to the grand sweep of God’s story,
a longing for the ones they leave behind to carry forward the vision they have caught,
a desire for forgiveness and rest,
I sometimes see in them a hope that those who come after them will grow beyond their own mistakes,
a sadness that they cannot step into the promised land on this side of eternity,
but a faith that they will step into the promised land hand in hand with God on the other side of eternity.
I sometimes see in them, also, moments of fear, doubt, despair, regret and anger – and I can imagine those in Moses, too:
I have dedicated my life to this, and now that we are inches away, I cannot finish the race?!
If I had been a better leader, could I have experienced the promised land?
What will happen to my people if I am not there to plead with God on their behalf, to lead them in the right path?
Have I taught Joshua well enough to get him through what he will face?
But God shows a broad and wonderful land to those who are willing to see – a future that we contribute to but cannot control or even imagine – a future whose seeds we have sown, but whose fruit we will not taste in our lifetime. And I sense that there can be fullness of joy and peace in surrendering and trusting ourselves to God in face of that vast plan.
A Poem written in honor of Oscar Romero:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
(Bishop Ken Untener)
We in this room are at many different stages of this story. Some of us are more like Joshua, ready to take up the mantle, receive the blessing and lead into a future our elders could only glimpse. Some of us are more like Moses, called to see the fullness of God’s plan and let go of the particular direction of our own ministry – called to bless others to catch and carry out the vision. Most of us are a little like both.
One of the things that touched me this week as I attended the funerals and carried this scripture with me, is this – after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, with the promised land in sight, probably chomping at the bit… the Israelites did not crash swiftly on into the blessing of their new home. When Moses died, they stopped for 30 days to mourn before they moved forward. As systems are collapsing around us, even here in the church – as old ways of doing things are coming to an end and new leaders emerge to take us into new possibilities – it is right for us to take time to be grateful for the gifts and foundations of the old systems and ways. As things change around us, as God calls us onward, it is right to give thanks, to slow down and honor the things that are passing away and the people who made our future possible.
And then, carrying with us the blessing of what has come before, but stepping confidently out into a new and broad land, we continue surrendering ourselves to the sweep of God’s story by finding our place in the new. And maybe, just maybe, when we are standing at the end of our lives, like Moses on the top of the mountain, we will find joy and peace, grateful for those who will carry God’s vision forward, as we take our rest in God’s arms.