hope

rich in hope

When I think of hope, something that often comes to mind is a movie I once heard described as “a romantic movie for dudes,” The Shawshank Redemption.  Maybe that’s true.  What I can say is that it’s a film with great depth.

For those who’ve never seen it, The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of two men, played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, who portray characters locked up in Shawshank Prison in Maine.  Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife.  Freeman plays Red, the man who can get you almost anything.

In one scene, we’re in the cafeteria when Andy, fresh out of solitary confinement, sits down with his friends.[1]  He was put there because he commandeered the public address system and played Mozart at full volume.  (By the way, the warden is a quite unpleasant and lawbreaking man.)  The guys ask Andy how he was—how he was able to keep going.  He speaks to them about music.

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He says to them, “That’s the beauty of music.  They can’t get that from you.  Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica as a younger man.  Lost interest in it though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

Andy pursues the dialogue.  “Here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?”

“Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone.  That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.  That’s yours.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Hope.”

“Hope?  Let me tell you something, my friend,” he says while wagging his spoon at him.  “Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  [That is, prison.]  You’d better get used to that idea.”

“Like Brooks did?”  Andy’s referring to an old man who spent almost his entire life in Shawshank.  When he was released, he was lost.  He was sent from the only home he ever really had.  Fear overwhelmed him, and he committed suicide.  Brooks saw no hope.

Red slams down his spoon and walks away.

That’s not the final word on hope we get in the movie.  Stay tuned for something more “hopeful.”  Still, Red was onto something when he said hope can drive us insane.  Or was he?

In Romans 15, St. Paul does an examination of hope.  He begins by speaking of the so-called “strong” and “weak.”  Very briefly, the strong recognize many things that don’t endanger one’s faith, such as observing ritual dietary laws, or failing to do so.  The weak believe the strong are going astray with their carefree attitudes.  The strong look down on the weak, and the weak judge the strong.

By the way, I wonder which category Paul places himself in?  My guess would be the strong!  Still, here is his directive: “Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.  For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (vv. 2-3).  And here is his basis: “so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (v. 4).  That is our foundation; our hope isn’t subject to the wavering winds that would buffet us around.

Hope can save your life.

2 roThe psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote the book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  In it he speaks of his experiences while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp.  While there, he noticed that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.”  He gives as an example something that the camp’s chief doctor pointed out.  “The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year’s, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience.”[2]

The doctor believed the explanation “was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas.  As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them.  This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.”  Their loss of hope was indeed fatal.

The loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.  It can deadly to others.  Those without hope are easy prey to fear.  Those who are fearful can be deadly to others.  Fear is contagious—much more contagious than Covid, or any other “contagion.”  The fear inside of us is highly transmissible.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to fear and hopelessness.  The apostle Paul says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (v. 7).  He is speaking first of all about Jews and Gentiles, but the power of welcome spreads in all directions and in all ways.  It is impossible to welcome someone if you are afraid of them.  We often wind up putting up walls and erecting fortresses.

Or we just hide behind the curtains and pretend like we’re not at home.

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To his point about Jews and Gentiles welcoming each other, Paul quotes and paraphrases scriptures from the Old Testament.  He wants to demonstrate how Gentiles are encouraged, and indeed called, to worship the God of the Jews.  He shows how all of them (and us) are pointed toward the Messiah.  He alludes to Isaiah in verse 12 and uses this messianic interpretation: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

With verse 13, we come to the end of the passage.  It is Paul’s grand and glorious benediction; he pronounces this blessing.  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  There’s a buffet of tasty treats in that verse.

He speaks of the “God of hope.”  That’s the only place where Paul uses that particular name.  How do we serve the God of hope?  How do we hold on to the God of hope?

Here’s one quick example.  Since March, our church has had signs along South Street and MacDougall Street telling those passing by we’re open every Sunday at 10am.  Every now and then, I’ve wondered if it’s time to take the signs down.  They’ve been up long enough, haven’t they?

Of course, in recent weeks, some churches have taken steps back toward the lockdown we had for so long.

A few minutes ago, when talking about Viktor Frankl, I noted how the prisoners’ loss of hope was fatal.  In this past year and a half, we have learned too much about fatality, courtesy of Covid.  But there has been fatality of a deeper nature.  There has been a fatality to faith.  It goes beyond the extended lockdowns.

A shroud of depression and apprehension has descended upon us.  I spoke of fear and of the fearful.  We’re being fed a diet of fear and anger.

A few days ago, I was watching Zombieland: Double Tap, the sequel to Zombieland (neither of them being the work of art that The Shawshank Redemption is).  Banu and I remarked on how zombies are unable to think (and hope means nothing to them), yet they are ravenous.  They only live—so to speak—to eat.  They spread fear, and yet, they’re not even aware of doing that.

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[A living dead view of Schrodinger's Cat]

I think to myself and wonder, “Yikes!  How often do I imitate a zombie?  (Well, not to the point of devouring human beings, at least not in a literal sense!  It’s about being unthinking and oblivious to hope.)

Let’s get back to our signs.  With so many churches in a semi-lockdown mode, I think they are a statement of a defiant and holy hope.  We take sensible precautions, but we don’t give in to fear.

Here’s the rest of Paul’s benediction.  What is his desire of the God of hope?  What is his humble and confident expectation?  He prays that we are filled with all joy and peace in believing.  Filled with all joy and peace.  Fear is banished.  Despair is given its walking papers.  Hopelessness is sent packing.

However, this doesn’t happen all by itself.  It happens “in believing.”  In other words, we orient ourselves to that same humble and confident expectation the apostle demonstrates.  There are always the voices, both within and without, that would distract and would have us rest and rely on our own strength.  With belief, there is a sense of knowing, a strong awareness of trust.  Still, we might sometimes feel like the man in Mark 9 with a son in need of healing.  He cries to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24).

So what is the result?  Paul’s longing is “that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  The New Jerusalem Bible says, “so that in the power of the Holy Spirit, you may be rich in hope.”

I promised something hopeful from The Shawshank Redemption.  Skipping a lot of important details, Andy escapes from prison, and in the movie’s iconic scene, he raises his hands in the driving rain.  It reminds me of baptism.  Anyway, he has spoken to Red about a town in Mexico where he plans to go.  Years later, Red is released on parole.  He remembers the promise he made to Andy to go see him if and when he left Shawshank.

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We hear Morgan Freeman’s voiceover as Red takes a bus cross country.  “I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.  I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.  I hope I can make it across the border.  I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.  I hope.”

Hope has saved Red.  Hope saves us; hope embraces us, as we welcome the Spirit—as the Spirit welcomes us.  Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us.  What would happen if we welcomed hope and allowed it to grab us?  Are we ready to be transformed by hope?  What would that look like?

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=15pqpVbhs0c

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 4th ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 46.


we are not dead

Ezekiel is one of those prophets with whom most people never become familiar.  He seems too remote, too odd.  What can we say about a book that starts with a vision in which the prophet sees images of creatures flashing like lightning, with wheels all around?  Some people swear he saw a spaceship.

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And he often behaves in ways that are just flat-out weird.  He builds a model of Jerusalem and then smashes it to bits.  He shaves his head and beard and then publicly burns the hairs.  Ezekiel doesn’t lend himself very well to Sunday school.

Still, he does have an admiring audience.  People come to listen to him.  However, as the Lord says, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (33:32).

There isn’t much about this book that is familiar, with the exception of today’s scripture reading.  We’ve been helped by the old spiritual which tells us, “Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones!’”  Do you know this one?  “The toe bone connected to the foot bone / The foot bone connected to the heel bone / The heel bone connected to the ankle bone…”  I think I can stop there; you probably don’t want to hear me connect all the bones.

At the start of chapter 37, Ezekiel has a vision in which he finds himself in a valley filled with bones, and indeed, they are not connected.  They’re strewn all over the place.  He examines them and finds that they’re completely dry.  These folks died a long time ago.  The Lord asks Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  What kind of answer can he give?  It doesn’t look like anything alive could emerge from that dismal scene.  Still, he knows not to limit the power of his God.  All he can say is, “You know, Lord.”

To really understand Ezekiel, we need to take a step back and look at his world.  He lived through one of the true turning points of Biblical and world history.  The Babylonian Empire has become a superpower, and by the year 597 (B.C.), after sweeping through most of the Middle East, the Babylonians are ready to conquer Judah.  People who might be considered a threat are deported.  Ezekiel is part of the first group of exiles.  Thus, Ezekiel comes to live in Babylon.

For about eight years, Jerusalem has been occupied by the Babylonians, but they’ve refrained from destroying the city.  But then the Judahites try teaming up with the Egyptians to fight back.  That doesn’t work, and the Babylonians lose their patience.

As a result, the unthinkable happens.  The temple is destroyed.  It’s difficult for us today to understand the crushing blow that was.  They couldn’t imagine the temple being destroyed.  There’s no way God would allow it.  They had a trust in the building—a superstitious trust, as it turned out.  They trusted in a building, but they didn’t trust God.  They constantly broke the covenant with the Lord.  They served other gods.  They oppressed the poor.  They were corrupt.

And so we arrive in the valley of dry bones.

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There’s a Hebrew word that appears over and over throughout today’s reading: רוּחַ (ruah).  It’s translated by three words that best capture its meaning: breath, wind, or spirit.

We see in Ezekiel’s vision the creative use of the word.  First he’s commanded to prophesy to the bones, as our little song puts it, he’s to say to “dem dry bones…hear the word of the Lord.”  Suddenly the bones reassemble, with sinews, flesh, and skin reappearing.  Still, the bodies are dead.  Then the Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, to call out to the wind, to speak to the spirit.  It’s only then that ruah enters the bodies, and they come to life.

The exiles, defeated and taken captive far from their homeland, truly were dispirited.  They felt they were as dead as those dry bones.  With the news of the temple’s destruction, Ezekiel’s job has changed.  He’s been calling for repentance; now he must offer hope.

When the people felt that all was lost, that their enemies had vanquished them, the prophet came to them and told them of the promise of the ruah of the Lord, of the Spirit of God, which would revive them, which would bring them back to life.

So what does this vision of hope given to a group of exiles 25 centuries ago in Babylon say to us here today?

We might feel like our nation, our world, has become a collection of dry bones.  We might feel that way about ourselves.

Do we need to be brought back to life, like Lazarus?

We’re like the exiles, in a way.  We have been forced; we have been taken to a place we never would have chosen.  We have been exiled to a strange new world.

We’ve all had our own experiences with the virus.  Some have had truly dreadful experiences.  Others—not so much.  I have this feeling that there’s something out there, and it has ill intent.  I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.  Wouldn’t be nice if we could actually see the virus?  That would make things much easier!

Still, we’re here.  The crowds asked John the Baptist after his message of repentance, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10).  What should we do?  Let me ask the question from a different angle.  What opportunities await us?

Remember what I said regarding the news that the temple had been destroyed.  The prophet had been calling for repentance.  Now it was a time for hope.

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[photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

Well, the temple has been destroyed.  We’re in the valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel’s vision is about a promise of return from exile.  It will be a second exodus.  What can these bones do, given a new life?  The breath, the wind, the spirit of God is still blowing.  We have the opportunity—we have the option—of allowing that wind to carry us to a new way of being.  Or maybe it’s a question of regaining what we’ve possibly allowed to lapse.

What are we doing to stay healthy?  What are we doing to stay healthy mentally?  What are we doing to help others stay healthy?  What are we doing to spread the love?  Friends, we are not dead.  As the Song of Solomon puts it, “love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8:6).  Or as Eugene Peterson’s The Message reads, “Love is invincible facing danger and death.  Passion laughs at the terrors of hell.”

Here’s another question.  How will we emerge from this?  Will fear win the day?  So much of what we see in the media, in my opinion, borders on sensationalism.  Sometimes it seems like the goal is to inspire fear, to inspire panic, rather than level-headed caution.  I feel like some people would almost welcome mobs who are setting fires and smashing windows.

So that’s one option.  Here’s another.  Will we learn from this?  Will we work together?  Will we learn to care for each other?  I don’t expect heaven on earth, but maybe some heavenly spirit can take hold.  There is an opening for a deeper and more vibrant faith.

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.  I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (vv. 13-14).


we always give thanks

On a cool, misty morning, I was following a rocky brook that passes under a railroad bridge.  The tree cover deepened the shade of the overcast sky.  I was alone.  The tree-lined creek was adjacent to a park, still empty and quiet.  Not even the municipal park employees had shown up for work yet.  Deciding to get out of the light drizzle, I took shelter in a gazebo and sat at one of the picnic tables inside.  For a while, I listened to the silence.

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Then I took out the pocket-sized Bible that I used to carry everywhere, and I read something from an epistle of St. Paul.  Years later, the image of that peaceful moment remains with me every time I read 1 Thessalonians 1.

I think—I hope—that here’s more to it than some experience I once had.  It seems to me that the message of this chapter has a part to play in that peaceful feeling!

We have an expression of thanks for this young church.  The apostle Paul is truly happy at how the believers in Thessalonica are coming along.  He gives them his familiar greeting:  grace and peace.  As he tells them in chapter 2, “you are our glory and joy!” (v. 20).  In my humble opinion, these are ideas that might easily inspire peaceful reflection!

The people who receive his message live in what was an important city in the Roman Empire.  Thessalonica was the capital of the province of Macedonia.  As such, it was a major commercial center.  Plenty of traffic flowed through it.  And Paul says something that would garner quite a bit of attention.  It concerns the word “lord.”

We need to bear in mind that that is a political term.  By referring to “the Lord Jesus Christ,” he’s staking out new territory.  This letter is probably the earliest writing of the New Testament, in roughly the year 50.  The Lord Jesus Christ—how dare him?  Every patriotic Roman knows that Caesar is our lord!

The city endures to this day.  As Thessaloniki, it’s Greece’s second largest city.  And, as Banu once reminded me, while part of the Ottoman Empire in 1881, it was the birthplace of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey.

2 ThAs we learn from Acts 17, it’s not without a great deal of turmoil that the gospel is brought there.  An angry mob, searching in vain for Paul and Silas, settle for Jason and some other believers.  They drag them before the city officials, who release Jason and his friends after they post bail.  Meanwhile, the church is helping Paul and Silas plan their escape.

As a result, the Thessalonians understand very well what Paul is talking about in verse 6 when he congratulates them for becoming “imitators of us and of the Lord…in spite of persecution.”  From the very founding of the Thessalonian church, they’ve had to endure stern opposition.  But they’ve become, as Paul reminds them, “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia,” the province to the south, where Athens is (v. 7).

What is it that’s enabled the Christians in Thessalonica to become this shining example?  How have they endured this persecution?  Well, it’s not something that happened overnight.  Paul has already given us a clue in verse 3, where he describes what he and his friends remember about the Thessalonians in their prayers to God.

In speaking of their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope,” the apostle uses one of his favorite themes.  In several of his letters, Paul mentions the three virtues of faith, love, and hope (5:8; 1 Co 13:13; Ga 5:5-6; Col 1:4-5).

The Thessalonian church is a strong church precisely because these qualities are present within it.  Faith, love, and hope enable the church to be the thing that is such a source of glory and joy.  But to each of these three virtues, Paul adds another word that helps explain what he means.

For example, it’s not just the “faith” of the Thessalonians, but their “work of faith.”  That may sound strange.  Isn’t this the same guy who says in Romans 3 that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” (v. 28)?  Is he saying that faith itself is a work?  It’s important that Paul speaks of “work of faith,” singular, and not “works of faith,” plural.  In his book, First and Second Thessalonians, Earl J. Richard talks about this.

Paul is impressed, not with the individual deeds inspired by their faith, but the faith itself.  It is the faith that is at work.  The Greek word for “work,” εργον (ergon), besides referring to the deed itself can also refer to the activity, the process of work.  Another way of putting “your work of faith,” then, would be “your faith in action” or “the dynamism of your faith.”  Paul is “thankful not for acts of faith but for the community’s vibrant faith”—the faith that is truly alive.[1]

In the same way, Paul praises, not simply their “love,” but their “labor of love.”  That word “labor” comes from the Greek term κοπος (kopos), which has the sense of “wearisome labor” and “travail.”  It comes from a verb meaning “to beat” or “to cut.”  The Thessalonians have been “wearing themselves out” for each other, even for those outside the church.  They endure all kinds of hardship for the sake of love.

Finally, we have “steadfastness of hope.”  Hope in Christ isn’t something we wish for; it isn’t something we merely long for.  Rather, it’s something assured.  It doesn’t depend on our state of mind; it doesn’t matter how we feel.  That’s why it is steadfast; that’s why it is rock solid.

Our friend Earl, who I just quoted, does something with faith, love, and hope that I especially like: he shows how Paul’s use of them can be applied to time.[2]  I’ve always been fascinated with time.  (I’ve even read what some physicists say about the possibilities of time travel!)

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If “faith” is based on past events (the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus), then “work” shows how the church’s faith is energetic and active.  If “love” shows how they reflect the presence of Christ among them now, then “labor” indicates how deep and costly that love can be.  And if “hope” orients the Thessalonians to the future, then “steadfastness” shows how secure that hope in Christ really is.

Yes, I think it’s safe to say that the apostle finds plenty of reasons for gratitude.  He’s thankful for the Thessalonian church, and he’s thankful for the church universal.

On the matter of gratitude, there’s something about the hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.”  It’s filled with addresses to God, but all of them are praises.  There isn’t a single petition—there are no requests at all—in the song.

In the Handbook to the Hymnal, published by the Presbyterian Church back in the 1930s, we’re told a story.[3]

It’s about “God’s sending out two angels into the earth—the angel of petition and the angel of thanksgiving, each with a basket to bring back what he found.  The two came back presently, the angel of petition loaded down and with an overflowing basket, the angel of thanksgiving with an almost empty basket, grieving that [we are] so much more ready to ask than to return thanks for gifts [already] received.”

Let me ask you a question.  Who or what do you love?  And I don’t mean, “I love cheesecake!”  What’s really in your heart?  For whom or what do you truly thank God?  When you think, “I love……,” what first comes to mind?  Got something?  Let’s think about that again.  I love……  What else comes to mind?  How many things come to mind?  Now, did anyone think, “I love the church!”?  I thank God for the church!

I ask all that, because in our text, Paul doesn’t speak about gratitude in general; he gives thanks for the church.  My sermon title, “We Always Give Thanks,” doesn’t complete his thought.  As important as it is to underline a spirituality of gratitude, he doesn’t stop there.  Verse 2 continues, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers.”  How often do we really pray for the church?  How often do we really pray for each other?

The priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, had some problems with his teachings.  The Vatican took a dim view of some of Teilhard’s ideas.  I imagine he would rank with anyone who’s been misunderstood and criticized by the church.

4 ThStill, despite all of that, in his communication, Teilhard displays immense amounts of love in return.  Speaking of the church, Teilhard says, “It seems that it gives me a great deal of peace…I hope, with God’s help, to never do anything against the Church, apart from which I discern no course of life with a chance to succeed.”[4]  On another occasion, he declares, “Happy are we with the authority of the Church!  Left to ourselves, just how far would we drift away?”[5]  (Having said that, sometimes church authority is responsible for some pretty bad stuff!)

Why speak of love of the church?  Why give thanks to God for the church?  I suppose to put it simply, people can speak of faith, love, and hope, but without Christ—and the body that is his creation, the church—they lack a firm foundation.

Here are some thoughts from the Sacred Space website: “A harvest can be ruined by a lack of workers.  A field full of fruit can go to waste when there are not enough people to pick the fruit.  The world is the harvest of God where his love and his word are sown.  Without the followers of Jesus, the word is unspoken and even the love of God is unrecognized.”[6]

Our choice is between lives of fear and wrath, from which Jesus rescues us, and lives of love and gratitude.  That’s the church the world needs to see today.

 

[1] Earl J. Richard, First and Second Thessalonians (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 1995), 61.

[2] Richard, 62.

[3] Handbook to the Hymnal (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1935), 86.

[4] André Dupleix, 15 Days of Prayer with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Liguori, MO:  Liguori Publications, 1999), 81.

[5] Dupleix, 83.

[6] www.sacredspace.ie/scripture/luke-101-12


eulogize, mourn, and move on

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.

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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!

2 Dt 34All 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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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?

3 Dt 34Whatever the case, having a rotten fish delivered to someone’s doorstep is a fresh approach to an old dispute!

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.”

4 Dt 34

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.[3]  Failing that, one will likely feel “dissatisfied, indeed restless, without any kind of inner peace.”[4]

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.

Thomas Merton, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, speaks about this inner poverty.[5]

“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!

5 Dt 34
“People frequently overlook [the] need for mourning.” (Stefan Kiechle)

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.

6 Dt 34

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.

 

[1] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[2] www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-being-replaced-deuteronomy-341-12

[3] Stefan Kiechle, The Art of Discernment (Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria Press, 2005), 76.

[4] Kiechle, 77.

[5] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image, 1966), Kindle edition, Chapter 3, section 39, paragraph 8.