Stories have come down through the ages about the deaths of heroes and champions. It is the stuff of legends and sagas. Tales would be told, and songs would be sung, of their courageous exploits, their daring deeds. Everyone in the land would be in a state of mourning. As the time of burial approached, a detachment of servants or soldiers would be selected. They would be instructed to travel a great distance into the wilderness and bury their departed leader.
Upon their return, they would immediately be slain! No one was to know the place of burial!
Nothing could be allowed to desecrate the grave, and even more, the memory of the Great One. It would be solemnly intoned that his like (or on rare occasions, her like) would never be seen again.
In Deuteronomy 34, Moses climbs the mountain, where he sees the Promised Land. The Lord tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4). That seems pretty harsh! It sounds like Moses is being tantalized. Look, but don’t touch! It’s like a thirsty dog tied to a leash, with its tongue hanging out, and there’s a bowl of water just out of reach.
There is a reason why Moses is forbidden to enter the land, and we’ll look at that in a moment.
Continuing the idea of the great leader, we’re told in verses 5 and 6: “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.”
No one is allowed to turn his final resting place into a shrine; it is not to be a place of worship. After all, that would be out of character for Moses. In another place, the scripture says, “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Nu 12:3). You can’t claim to be humble; that has to be said about you. If you say, “I pride myself on my humility; in fact, I am the humblest person you will ever meet,” then clearly you are not!
All of this speaks as to why Moses isn’t allowed to enter the land. Soon after leaving Egypt, the people complain of thirst in the wilderness (Ex 17:1-7). The Lord tells Moses to strike the rock with a stick, and water will flow out. Later on, the same thing happens; there’s no water, but there is grumbling (Nu 20:2-13). This time he’s supposed to speak to the rock, but instead he again whacks it with a club, and water flows out.
This act of disobedience might not seem like a big deal to us, but it does point to a greater concern. One writer says, “Nobody is irreplaceable… The message to the community…is that there will be no freelancing in positions of authority. Leaders are to work within their prescribed roles and not beyond.” That’s some sage advice for all of us.
To be clear, it’s not like God is smacking Moses down. God isn’t saying, “You blew it, bub! Hit the road, Jack!” After all, verse 10 says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” That’s some very high praise indeed!
I want to focus on Moses and his role when it comes to transition. Timothy Simpson, who is a political theologian, says, “Before the end, God takes Moses up for a panoramic view, not of where he had been and of what he had accomplished, but where the people were going and where he would not follow.”
As intentional interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires at least two weeks of specialized training. Our first week was in Montreat, North Carolina. Our second week was in Pittsburgh. One of the themes at the training was the BFP—beloved former pastor. This would usually be someone with a long tenure. His or her pastorate is often considered to be one of the highlights in the history of the congregation. And I suppose, different people might have different BFPs.
Before I go any farther, I should say, as you know, memories of the past in a congregation are not always good ones! There are some people who go the other way: folks who are not so enamored with days gone by and with the pastor who is held in such high esteem.
At the training, a story was told of a pastor who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country. However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down. To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him. Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan. They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.
To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test. Or perhaps there’s another explanation. Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?
Moses could be thought of as a BFP, a beloved former pastor. Just as we see in today’s scripture, it is important to do three things: to eulogize, to mourn, and to move on.
A quick word about eulogizing: the word “eulogy” comes from two Greek words which mean “good words.” To eulogize someone is to “speak well” of them, to praise them. It is possible to eulogize someone who is still alive; we just don’t often use the word that way.
When remembering a beloved leader, or a beloved former pastor, it is entirely appropriate and necessary to eulogize, to celebrate the wonderful things he or she has done. It is entirely appropriate and necessary to celebrate who the person himself or herself has been.
Look at the way Moses is eulogized. “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7). Now that’s what I call aging well! He’s like those folks in AARP commercials! At the time of death, Moses apparently has the sight and stamina of a young man, or so the tale is told.
But that’s not all. “He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…” And if that’s not enough, “for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (vv. 11-12). The memory of Moses inspires even more praise, even legendary praise.
If it is important to eulogize, it is also important to mourn. Mourning is not simply a feeling or an emotion associated with loss. It is an action; it’s something we actually do. As you see in the scripture, the people mourned for Moses for thirty days. That doesn’t mean they were constantly crying, but that they had certain rituals.
We also have rituals of mourning. Something we do at the national or state level is flying the flag at half-mast. And of course, a very familiar ritual is the funeral service.
Rituals of mourning can be very personal: going to a certain place with special meaning, listening to a particular song or piece of music, preparing a certain dish—the possibilities are endless!
The Jesuit writer Stefan Kiechle speaks about mourning in the context of making decisions. That is, mourn the possibilities and opportunities you did not choose. They’re gone; you can’t turn back the clock. It’s what Robert Frost says in his poem, “The Road not Taken.” While walking in the forest, he comes upon a fork in the road. He makes his choice, but wonders where the other road would have taken him. Still, he says, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”
But this also applies when someone beloved has left. “People frequently overlook this need for mourning. In the absence of mourning, there will be a tendency to cling for too long” to the departed one. Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”
We must be able to say goodbye.
Mourning, even if it’s for someone still alive, implies we ourselves have suffered a kind of death. We have to acknowledge we have suffered a death in order for life to go on—and for a life that, in some mysterious way, can lead to joy. And perhaps, it can be a joy we have never known.
In John 12, Jesus says “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24). It is necessary, so to speak, for the grain to suffer a kind of death in order to keep living. And it is a life that is fruitful, “it bears much fruit.”
To mourn well means to embrace our inner poverty.
“At the center of our being,” he says, “is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God… This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak [God’s] name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.”
Giving the gift of a good goodbye is a key part of moving on. That’s the third part of my sermon title: eulogize, mourn, and move on.
It may seem heartless to say to someone who’s been mourning, “Okay, it’s time to move on. Life goes on.” And it’s possible that somebody who offers that advice might not want to deal with a person in mourning. To say the least, it can feel uncomfortable.
Still, remember what I said earlier. Mourning is not just an emotion. Of course, we will miss someone beloved who is no longer in our life. It would be heartless not to!
Mourning is more than emotion; it is action. That’s one reason why the church, in its liturgy each year, relives the life of Jesus. We relive the passion of the Christ. We relive the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the agony of Good Friday, the abandonment of Holy Saturday, and the joy of Easter Sunday. And we relive the Ascension, when Jesus is no longer present in bodily form, but now as the Christ, as Ephesians 1 puts it, “who fills all in all” (v. 23).
So we do indeed move on. Jesus also says in John 12, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25). If we cling to things that are passing away, then we’re clinging to an illusion. But if we reject that impulse, we find new life. That’s why after eulogizing and mourning, there’s the need to move on.
Again, think of Moses as a transitional figure. Look at what verse 9 says. After the time of mourning for Moses ended, we read “Joshua…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.” The Israelites know it is time to move on.
Moving on doesn’t only apply to the people, to the community. I mentioned a few moments ago about “giving the gift of a good goodbye.” This involves the leader, especially a beloved leader. Failing to give the gift of a good goodbye indicates a refusal to let go. It means the leader is staying in the system.
Despite whatever good intentions might be present, it almost always has a harmful and toxic effect. If a leader whose time to move on remains involved in the system, the people are left in a kind of limbo; they are denied the chance to properly mourn.
In our scripture, it is time for Moses to move on. (Please understand, moving on doesn’t always mean somebody has to die!) But Moses moves on, and now it’s time for Joshua. This obviously doesn’t diminish what Moses has done. He is remembered as the great liberator and lawgiver. Still, the people have new challenges; a new chapter is being written. This transition means Joshua steps onto the stage.
I think it’s safe to say life itself is always transition. Everything passes away—even the earth and sky. Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who orchestrates transition, in the eternal God of Moses and of Jesus and of the church, throughout all the ages.
Our sure and unchanging hope is in the one who leads us in eulogizing, mourning, and moving on.
 Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.
 Kiechle, 77.
 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.