Election Sermon #6: The Promised Land
Homily Preached by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
October 25, 2020
Texts: Deut. 34:1-12, Matt. 22:34-46
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I had always thought that today’s reading from Deuteronomy is one of the saddest in the whole Bible. Think of all that brought Moses to this moment, the moment of his death: as a newborn he was pushed out onto the Nile River in a basket into danger, amidst snakes and crocodiles. Found and adopted by the Pharaoh’s sister, he lived his childhood and adolescence as an Egyptian prince, but then was stripped of everything when he was forced to flee as a fugitive into the desert, where he built an entirely new life as a shepherd, husband and father in a Midianite family. After forty years in the desert, he was beckoned by an angel to the Burning Bush, where God tells him that he is the liberator chosen to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery, which meant returning to Egypt, repeatedly calling down plagues, then, finally, leading the freed nation of Israel on incomprehensibly difficult journey that lasts another forty years. Now, at the end of that epic life’s journey, on the doorstep of the Promised Land, Moses is taken by God to the summit of Mount Nebo, where he is shown the Promised Land, and God tells Moses that not only will he never enter it, but that he will die right there on that mountain top, in sight of his goal.
Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine Moses’ pain, his disappointment. For all of us who believe in happy endings, in rewards, or even in “closure,” we are shown here that there are no Hollywood endings in this life. Even in actual Hollywood, Cecil B. DeMille shied away from Moses’ death in sight of the Promised Land – his epic, “The Ten Commandments” ends with Moses watching the rest of the nation enter the Land while he watches from the mountain top as triumphant music swells. His death is not shown, his deep private pain unaddressed.
Moses’ death can teach us a great deal not just about disappointment, but about history: the difference between the long-view perspective that God has on human history as against our own, which tends to center on accomplishments within our own lifetimes. The life of every person as well as the life of every civilization, even every country, is a journey that, like Moses’ life, is sure to have many ups and downs, dead-ends and restarts, mistakes and good choices, perhaps punctuated by periods of stability for a time. But the uncomfortable truth is that nothing and no one stays anywhere for good, even if you reach the Promised Land. It was only a few hundred years after they settled there before Israel was first exiled out of the Land, and you know that for thousands of years, up until this present day, the Holy Land has been tossed, usually violently, from one ruling regime to another. That’s not only true of the peoples in the Middle East. Tribes and nations are constantly warring with each other, remaking borders, and people are ceaselessly moving about, fleeing, immigrating or emigrating, pushed to relocation by, among other reasons, wars, natural disasters, and political pressures.
Now all of this can seem depressing, making our efforts towards any goal seem doomed to failure sooner or later, but that it not true: there are permanent gains that can be made, and ironically, it is also history that can help us see that. But to be able to see it, we must reconsider the nature of our goals. Here’s a hint: the dream is not the goal; the dream is only the means to the goal, and the journey is the real objective.
Today’s lessons can show us God’s objective for our lives. Let’s begin at the end of our reading from Deuteronomy, which tells us that, far from stopping just short of completing his mission, Moses fully attained it: Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. Moses’ death is a cause for celebration for his success, not sadness at this failure.
Here’s the key: Moses’ life’s value was not in what he did, great as his accomplishments were, rather his life’s value was in who he became. In fact, Deuteronomy tells us that what he did was important only in the light of who he had become by the end of his life: all of “the signs and wonders,” and “the mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power ” were the outward signs of his inward process of becoming that prophet, not only benefitting him but for the benefit of Israel, which became a nation under his leadership.
In other words, we have it exactly backwards – we think that accomplishments are our goals and that they define us, but God is telling us that who we become and how we benefit others are the reasons for us being given those dreams, goals and opportunities in the first place. Moses was an unequalled prophet who knew God face-to-face; that was his goal, not setting foot in the Promised Land. That is why he didn’t get in – if he did, we would be tempted to confuse his becoming with his actions.
The Bible is filled end to end with people who struggle to align their behavior with their mission to become who God wants them to be. Take Abraham, who after God tells him that he will become the father of many nations, does a series of extraordinarily dumb things as he stumbles his way to the fulfillment of that promise, like trying to pass off his wife as his sister, which gets her kidnapped by a foreign ruler, and marrying his wife’s maid in a misguided attempt have a son before the time was right. Abraham’s behavior was often appalling, yet he was in process. By the end of his life, Abraham not only fulfilled his mission to sire Isaac through Sarah, but he had become the revered father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, through his struggles, not despite them.
There’s even more extreme examples of bad behavior in the Bible. If you’re looking for someone who didn’t just break commandments but smashed them, look no further than King David, who not only committed adultery with Bathsheba but orchestrated the murder of her husband. David suffered consequences, to be sure, but he repented, went on to rule over the United Kingdom of Israel, founded the dynasty that was eventually led to Jesus, and was referred to by God as “a man after My own heart.”
This leads us to another revelation that can be particularly uncomfortable to us in our day and age – that behavior is never the best indicator of someone’s value, or of their future. We love destroying people for behavioral lapses, but the Bible never does. Take Paul, who as the Pharisee Saul arrested, tormented, even killed many followers of “the Way” – yet Paul became “the Apostle,” who wrote over a third of the New Testament. Would someone like him even have a shot at being accepted in our world? My bet is “no” – because, unlike God, we confuse behavior with potential. We would not recognize that Paul’s past as a terrorist could actually position and qualify Paul as the ideal evangelist to the gentiles.
To apply this to our own lives, we must see history as God does, as the unfolding of God’s eons-long plan, the overarching vision that God has for our world, in which each of us have a small role to play within the short days of our lives. Unfortunately, our time has no patience or even the attention span for anything but current events and their instant implications. Our days now are spent in constant agitation over the latest outrage, trigger, or, more rarely, fleeting glimpse of hope; the very meaning of the word “history” has been reduced to what happened last week, last night, or even earlier this morning. It’s as if we are under a spell, in thrall to the stimuli of “breaking news”. We barely reflect on the past, except to bemoan its seeming passing. We have become addicted to the adrenalin rush of immediacy, and have no use for history’s lessons.
Today’s gospel can help us break this addiction. Like last week, Jesus faces a questioning from a Pharisee who this time is also a lawyer (the frustrated Pharisees are evidently resorting to bringing in the heavy artillery, the lawyers). This time, the question has to do with commandments: Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest? In response, Jesus doesn’t invent something new – that’s the misapprehension of many of us today, that Jesus himself came up with: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
He didn’t; the first half of what we call the “Great Commandment” is from the Deuteronomy, the second half from Leviticus; they were both familiar to Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ genius was pulling these two commandments out of hundreds of others, joining them together, and distilling them down to a simple message of who to become, and how to behave to get there: be a source of love with your entire heart, soul, mind, and other gospels add, strength, and behave with love – to yourself and your neighbors. The Great Commandment is all about behavior and becoming, process and action.
So how can this influence us in our election season? There are indeed ways to make a profound change in the way we view this election using what we have just learned. First, take the long view – the spasms we are going through now are not unknown in history. From time to time convulsions have rocked the world and forced a society to decide who they want to become – this is the choice that has led to revolutions, both non-violent and not; this is the moment that we are in right now. Remember, these decisions never are made in moments of comfort, but rather in times of stress and crisis. Next, don’t make the mistake of thinking that our election is about that policy or this abuse, horrific as it may be, or even whether a particular Supreme Court nominee gets confirmed, but instead allow all those factors feed into how we answer the core question of who we want to be. Do we want to be a nation filled with people who love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and who love our neighbors as ourselves? Or are we a nation who chooses fear over faith, ignorance over learning, lies over truth, hatred over love?
Moses of course has a modern-day counterpart, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King lived a life filled with danger, agony, and struggle, dedicated to the draining and immensely difficult work of the Civil Rights Movement, the quest to liberate Black people. King did not call down plagues, but he did call for boycotts and marches, and he too saw progress, as Moses did, yet he, like Moses, never attained his life’s goal but was taken to the mountain top by God and given a vision of the glory of the Promised Land. But in his striving, King became the leader, the martyr, and the saint whose light we still navigate by as we struggle to reach the Promised Land.
We have seen and now know that our value is not in accomplishing that dream, but rather in who we become while pursuing it. King understood this, and he knew that the practice of building God’s Beloved Community is what fulfills our purpose. He famously said, along with Martin Luther, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice,” which is the ultimate statement of confidence in God’s long-term plan to liberate and redeem all of his people. What is left unsaid in that statement is that the progress is not steady: unlike technological progress which gets passed down from generation to generation, building steadily through history, moral progress does not advance in the same way – it needs to be renewed, rechosen, and reinvigorated by each successive generation. This makes the graphic representation of moral progress not a straight line heading upwards, but more of an erratic sine wave, lifting slowly towards justice but with many rises and steep dips along the way.
We are in a moment of decision: Will this country and this generation choose or reject the legacy given to us by even our recent past, or not? Will we choose moral progression or regression? Who do we want to become? Let’s keep our eyes on that prize, striving upwards towards God’s kingdom, and the world will take shape around us, as we love the Lord our God with all we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Like Moses and Martin Luther King Jr, we too won’t reach the Promised Land in our lifetimes, but we can and will bend the moral arc of the universe in the right direction, towards justice.