Sermon on the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 25, 2020
Well friends, we are near the end of the church year. Four Sundays, only 4, lie between now and the first Sunday of Advent. I don’t say this to remind you to start your Christmas shopping—heaven forbid! My family will tell you, I don’t even like shopping.
No, I remind us that we are near the end of the year so that we will use this time wisely. We need to pause, to look back and see where we’ve journeyed this year, and to realize what we have been about. At the close of the Christian year, we enter a time of reflection. Next week’s feast day of All Saints is part of this reflective time, as we remember all the saints who’ve gone on to glory, leaving the world a little better for their time here. The saints are the heroes of our faith. Remembering their lives inspires us to be a little more bold, courageous, and adventuresome in this life. “You can’t test courage cautiously,” Annie Dillard wrote, knowing that bravery implies taking risks.
Before we turn the page of our church calendars and begin preparing anew for the nativity of our Lord, we are called to take time in our scripture reading and prayers to recognize our endings, our mortality, and in doing this deep work of self-reflection, we begin to understand the grace of this life.
Right on cue, today we hear the story of the death of Moses. After speaking his peace to each of the tribes of Israel, Moses travels up from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah. He climbs Mount Nebo and looks out over the Promised Land.
God shows Moses the whole land before him. From the top of that mountain you can see the ancient city of Jericho and the surrounding green landscape of the Jordan River. So starkly contrasting the sandy desert where the Hebrew people had been traveling for 40 long years, the green trees below in the distance are laden with dates and figs. The land Moses sees, fed by the Jordan River, bespeaks life.
Moses looks out upon the future of Israel…there it is. But Moses knew he would not be going with them. I imagine he stands there looking over the valley, with bittersweet emotions. Moses’ part was played. He died there in the land of Moab, just outside the promised land.
When my father was dying in the winter of 2002, his sister had been planning a big family reunion in Bloomington, Illinois for later that summer. Aunt Ellen had already purchased all the railroad engineer hats we’d wear, to honor our family patriarch. My great grandfather John Coupe, who’d come to this country seeking work, had landed a job with the Railroad in Illinois—his seven brothers later followed him. For the reunion, my aunt had already given the caterer our deposit and the park pavilion was reserved. Aunt Ellen has always been a planner! For this celebration, she had gone above and beyond, even making preparations for us to celebrate the Eucharist using Grandmother’s tablecloth as an altar covering. My dad was to preach. But Dad knew he was dying; he would not be there to help us celebrate. He would miss telling the old family stories once again and sharing the bountiful table of Midwestern delights with those he loved so dearly. Dad could envision the future celebrations—not only in this reunion. He knew he wouldn’t see his grandkids grow up or his oldest son get married. He’d never meet his namesake. Dad shared his lament with me as he lay dying. So happy he was to have been given this incredible gift of life, and so sure of his life in the world to come. Yet still, it was a Moses’- like bittersweet moment.
Life is full of these moments, as we have endings throughout our lives. Yet the good news is that a good ending is never the end. I’m sure you’ve heard this—it is as true in novels and movies as it is in real life. A good life lives on. With faith in God, Moses led the children of God through the wilderness and now they will go forward to build a future.
No longer were they slaves.
No longer need they wander in a desert land.
No longer were they followers of Moses.
No, they are followers of God.
When I stood atop Mount Nebo, I’ll admit I first marveled at the astonishing panorama. My companions and I took photos of one another by the remarkably tall serpentine sculpture and we admired the church built atop that spot in the 4th century…then slowly, each of us walked to the brow, to have some time alone. I needed to look out where Moses once stood and try to sense the moment as he must have felt it. Here stood the great prophet, the one who followed God into the unknown and beckoned, sometimes lugging others to come along. Moses’ life was one long act of great love—not a perfect life, by any means, but a journeying life, reliant upon and strengthened by his relationship with God.
After that trip, I went back and reread The Prophet, an incredible fable written by the Lebanese-American poet, Kahlil Gibran. The story is not about Moses, it is about all of us. It is about a man going home, after a long time away from home. The man discovers, like Moses, that love is no sentimental emotion. No. Love is a force that hones and shapes us. Gibran brilliantly writes this into his poem. He personifies love, calling it “he” as you can hear in this short piece from his work. “Even as [LOVE] is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth…” Love is for your growth and for your pruning.
‘What is the greatest commandment?’ folks asked Jesus. “Love” Jesus says. Love is the first commandment. And the second. Love asks the most of us and love gives the most to us. Resist not the work of love in your life, even if it means growing pains, even it means bittersweet goodbyes. If I didn’t know Gibran’s work was influenced by his Christian upbringing, I believe I would have guessed it anyway. Not many have captured love’s likeness so beautifully. “Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself. But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires: To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness. To be wounded by your own understanding of love; And to bleed willingly and joyfully.”
This is what the practice of reflection brings us: An understanding that our journeys in life are about beginnings and endings—of dying to self so that we might live more fully. One does not need to be a prophet or a saint to live a life worthy of love. I believe the life we are called to in Christ is the same as the life we desire to look back on one day. Whether it is atop a mountain or on our own bed, our good endings depend upon our willingness to give in to love.