Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sermon--October 26, 2008

“Toward the Promised Land”
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
By: David E. MacDonald
October 26, 2008 (Reformation Sunday)
Niles First United Methodist Church

Moses ben Amram, aged 120, formerly of Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, died yesterday somewhere in the mountains just outside the Promised Land. He was the eldest son of Amram of Jochebed, slaves in Egypt. He was a member of the Tribe of Levi, rescued during the days of the Egyptian troubles by his birth mother, and raised in the Palace of Pharaoh, just outside Cairo. After an unfortunate incident, during which an Egyptian guard was killed, Moses wandered in the wilderness for a while, tending the sheep of his father in law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; this experience would serve him well in later years. After returning to Egypt to free the people of Israel, he led them through the wilderness of Zin for 40 years, beseeching God on their behalf, and bringing laws and messages to them on God’s behalf. Moses died after his last encounter with the LORD, and his body was secretly buried somewhere in the valley of Moab. Place of Interment is not known. He was preceded in death by his mother and father, his brother, Aaron, and his sister Miriam. He is survived by Joshua, his chosen successor, and all the people of Israel. Memorial donations may be made to the “Moses ben Amram Settlement of the Promised Land Trust,” care of Joshua ben Nun.

That might be one way to write Moses’ obituary—at least if it had been written today. But here’s what the writers of Deuteronomy chose to put as the last words on the great prophet Moses:

10Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11He 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, 12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

(How’d you like to be the pastor to follow that guy?)

--The mysterious circumstances of his death and burial aside, the story of Moses’ final encounter with God, and his death just before the people of Israel entered the Promised Land is an intriguing story.

--Having said that, it also seems an odd biblical account for Reformation Sunday, the day when we remember our heritage as Protestant Christians.

--But, I think that Moses and the great reformers of our faith are not that dissimilar, save for the fact that we pretty much know where Luther, Wesley, Calvin, and others are buried . . . and none of them had the good fortune to live for one hundred and twenty years!

In Jude, v. 9, the author refers to a battle over Moses’ body between Michael and Satan. (There may have been a book called “The Assumption of Moses” that survived until the 6th century, and then disappeared.)

Just as the legacy of Moses was tangled over and pored over for centuries, so the lives of the Reformers of the faith have been fought over for many a year. Today, we can find ways to use Wesley’s words to “prove” almost any point. (BTW, the same is done with the Bible)

But great reformers and leaders of the faith, like Moses and Martin Luther and John Wesley, provide us with some lessons that are important for us to learn.

God has a plan.

It’s not all about us.

Reformation is about moving forward, not turning back.

Training up those who will follow us in leadership is the most important thing that we can do as church leaders today.

--God has a plan

--God’s plan for Israel began well before the story of Moses. In a way, the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, form a story “arc” that begins with creation, follows the story of Abraham and his descendants, through the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt, and then back out of Egypt and back to the land promised to their ancestors. It is a story about a people who deeply and painfully experienced the loss of intimacy with God (symbolized by the abundance of the Garden of Paradise), and try desperately for generations to get back to something akin to that intimacy of relationship again.

--I believe that God has a plan for all people: that we have all lost that intimate connection to the Divine, and we are all on a quest to somehow get back to Eden, to experience what it means to live as God’s people.

--The story of the Reformation is all about people who wanted to “Get with the Plan,” who tried to steer the people of God back onto the right track.

--Martin Luther (Indulgences, Scripture)
--John Calvin (Preaching, Heaven/Hell)
--William Tyndale (Bringing the Bible to the people in English)
--Count Von Zinzendorf (Moravians; Holiness of Heart and Life)
--Wesley (Care for the poor; Evangelism; Zeal for the whole Gospel)

--God has a plan, and the plan is hard for us to know sometimes. We get sidetracked with our own issues and dilemmas, our own pains and losses, and we forget to keep searching for the Plan. The Plan is not always clear, sometimes God deliberately wants us to wander for a bit, just like the Israelites did, so that we learn some important lessons.

--A word of caution: When I say “WE” here, I’m referring to the General “WE,” not each of us specifically.

(e.g. , the notion that “God has a plan” can apply to every person’s individual situation is not a valid Biblical statement; God has intentions for us, God wants what is best for us, but it is by no means part of God’s plan that some individuals should suffer, and others should have disease, and others should die too young. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the Plan that God has for each of us [as a part of the whole] to be connected with God!)

Perhaps this can be better explained by my second point:

--It’s not all about us. (Individually)

--One reason that some scholars believe Moses’ burial place is not known to us is that God may have wanted to avoid a sort of “spiritual tourism” racket that could have built up around Moses’ remains; a “cult of personality” that might develop as the people of Israel might want to return to the sight of the burial of their founder and chief prophet, perhaps to remember the anniversary of his birth or death. To avoid such quasi-idolatrousness, God chose instead to make the transition into the Promised Land not about Moses, but about the People. So, it came time for Moses to meet his end and go gently into the night, while his people thrived for centuries.

--That’s why I have a problem with preachers who name their ministries after themselves, because my question is, “What happens when you die?” Unless you’ve named your son or daughter after you and have named that person as your successor (which is what Robert Schuler did), you are basically setting yourself (and your ministry) up for immediate crisis and potential failure at the moment of your demise.

--So, nothing against the Lutherans or the Wesleyans, but that’s why I’m glad to be called a “Methodist,” because that is a term that applied to all the people who followed Wesley, not just a few of them. (Explain the term)

--So sometimes we are like Moses: we have to leave everything on the mountain top, and allow another person, perhaps one who is more capable of carrying on what we have begun, to carry on the work.

(Paul struggled with this: “some plant, some water, some tend, some harvest”)

--Recognizing that we may not be the ones to reap the harvest that we sow is perhaps the most difficult lesson for us to grasp today.

But do you imagine that Luther, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517 believed that he would see the end result of all that he had done?

Do you think that John Wesley, preaching the in the fields and coal mines and town squares of England ever though he would see the day when the people called Methodist would number in the millions around the world?

Do you think, even for a moment, that the seasick pilgrims of the Mayflower thought they would see an independent nation on the North American continent, or that the slaves carried over the Atlantic in the bows of ships knew that someday their people would see freedom, and the same opportunities offered to the descendents of their slave owners?

Never! That which we begin may not have an immediate impact. The programs and ministries we start now may take lots of time to come to fruition, but every good thing worth doing has always been this way.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself a kind of Moses figure for the poor and oppressed of El Salvador, once wrote:

It helps now and then, to step back and take the 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 another 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 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 effects far beyond our capability.
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.
(When Moses died, the people mourned for 30 days, and then moved on. This is the story not only of Moses, but of the whole people of God!)
Sometimes we are Moses, and the best thing we can do for the betterment of the world, the improvement of the Church, and the reformation of our society is to plant seeds and then get out of the way and let others reap the benefits.
--On the other hand, sometimes we may be called upon to be Joshua, to take up the mantle of those who have gone before us, and to carry on the good work of God’s plan. Reformation is about moving forward, not turning back.
Image of a ship on the wrong course:
Common response is to “turn the ship around.”
Do we really want to “turn the ship around”? Or, do we want to “correct course”? That’s what Joshua did for the Israelites—he didn’t take them back to the so-called “comforts” of Egypt, but corrected their course (improved their vision) towards the Promised Land.
Perhaps the better image for this Reformation process is that of a train; if it goes off the track, our goal is to get it back on track so that we can reach our destination.
Today, the Church is in need of a new kind of Reformation. We live in a very different world from that of our ancestors in the faith. We live in a time that is beset with fear and misunderstanding—between cultures, governments, and religions.

For some, the answer is to go back—to become Fundamentalists, unmoving and unchanging our beliefs and practices. But this is the very antithesis of Reformation! This is the opposite of what Joshua did when the people lost their beloved leader, Moses. He took them onward, moving toward the goal of getting closer to the plan God had for them. He knew that what lay ahead was infinitely more promising than a return to what was a familiar, but by no means more comfortable position as the slaves of Egypt. Fundamentalism, of any variety, is a dangerous distortion of the Divine plan of getting human beings closer to God.
Psalm 90:1-6; 13-17 (Superscript: “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God”)

--God is constant (“in all generations”; “everlasting”; “a thousand years . . . like yesterday”)

God is constant, but continues to bless. Our best days are not behind us, but before us, and God’s work is not accomplished because of us, but most often in spite of us! So we need to also be like Joshua, and move forward in advancing our knowledge of and connection to the divine.

--But, again, we also need to be like Moses. Training up leaders to follow us is the most important thing we can do as church leaders today.

--And we’re all church leaders! (Just ask the new members’ class. . .spiritual gifts)

--Moses recognized that he wasn’t going to live forever—120 years is a long time, but let’s face it, even the best of us succumb to old age at some point.

--Is the Church facing that today? Are we as a movement facing institutional “old age,” and needing to pass on the mantle to others?

--Majority of students entering seminary now are not training to become Pastors. (Yet, 40% of our active clergy will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, while we take in classes of new ordinands in the single digits.)

Moses’ death was seen as a “turning point in the history of Israel.”
John Wesley was a “turning point” in Anglican/Reformation history.
Are we at a “turning point” today? And what are we going to do about it?

--Start new ministries to reach new generations.
--Hand over responsibility and leadership to others (and accept that they may do things “the wrong way,” translated—differently)
--Be prepared to be mentors and advisors to a new generation of Christians. They are not going to be able to make it on their own. They’ll need experienced folks like we have here to help them understand the basics of the faith, and how to ground yourself enough to do the work that God calls you to do.

--So are you ready for a Reformation? Are you ready to see the Church enter the Promised Land—or at least get a little closer to it?

Rev. Clarence W. Davis is pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and he spoke these very powerful words at the funeral of a faithful member of his congregation not too long ago:

“So then, in this life, the best that we can do is to make a steady, joyful, determined, Godly march to Canaan’s edge. There at Canaan’s edge, we go home to be with God; and God comes to be with those who yet remain here on earth, on their own journey to Canaan’s edge.”

We march on—toward the Promised Land—and we must—we must—take the hands of others to come along with us—Joshua’s and Moses’ alike, so that we will get there someday together.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments: