A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
Oct 23, 2011
(Please watch this short clip before you read the rest of the sermon.)
Those were Martin Luther King Jr’s final words from the sermon he preached the night before he was assassinated in Memphis.
I have seen the Promised Land.
For him, it wasn’t about standing on Mt Nebo and looking across the Jordan River Valley in to the Promised land. For Martin Luther King, Jr, it was about standing with people in the midst of Civil Rights struggles, fighting to be treated as human beings. The fight had not been won on April 3, 1968 when he said those words. But he had seen the Promised Land by watching people come together to work together for change, even when that change seemed too far away.
I heard a story on the radio this week about a man named AP Tureaud, who in the days of school integration, was the first and only African American student at LSU. He was miserable. His professors wouldn’t touch his papers. The people who roomed next to him made a campaign to make him leave, playing music all night long and making noise so he couldn’t sleep. One day, on campus, a pick up truck drove up to him and an African American man in workers overalls got out of the truck and asked him if he was AP Tureaud. “Yes”.
The man went back to his truck and brought out his seven year old son and said, “I want my son to meet you because I want him to know that this is possible for him, to come to this school, thanks to you.”
In that moment, despite the misery he was living in, AP Tureaud knew what it meant to see the Promised Land. At 17 years old, by being a symbol of integration, he understood that good things were going to come out of the painful experiences he was enduring. He had seen the Promised Land.
Moses knew that. He knew the 40 year-long road to the Promised Land was not easy. It wasn’t a walk through the park. It was people complaining in the wilderness that he had brought them there to die. It was disobedience. It was being bitten by snakes. It was knowing that you were wandering and not moving forward. It was eating manna, manna, more manna, and quails.
And then God takes him to Mt Nebo, which is in modern day Jordan.
And from there he can look down across the Jordan hillside, across the giant river and over to what is today Southern Israel.
That was all I could see, at least, when I was in the Middle East. But according to the text, Moses had better vision. God showed him the land from the south to the north of Israel, a panoramic sweep of the land for each of the tribes.
What is it like, do you think? To be so close that you can see what you’ve wanted for your whole life?
And to know that you aren’t going to make the rest of the journey?
Because of the Hebrew people’s disobedience, and Moses failure as a leader to obey, the original generation of Hebrew people who left Israel died before they reached the promised land. It was only the next generation who made it across the river. The first generation, other than Caleb and Joshua, died in the wilderness. Granted, it is still better than dying in slavery, but they never crossed over to the Promised Land.
But they didn’t stop when they knew that justice was out of reach for them. They kept on the journey to make a better future for their children.
And the Promised Land sometimes seems like it is so far away that it isn’t even worth the trouble of heading that direction. It can be hard to seek the Promised Land when the milk and honey will be flowing for someone else.
But Moses kept on leading the people toward a goal he knew he would never reach.
And so I suspect that as Moses looked across the river, and saw the land God had promised to his ancestors, that God had led them out of slavery for, and must have felt some relief. Some sense of, “we made it. Even if I won’t get there with them, I see the path clearly now. It will be okay.”
I keep thinking of Martin Luther King’s final words. He, of course, did not know that assassin’s bullets would claim his life the next day. But I would suspect that had he known, his final words would not have been much different.
Moses did know that the end of his life was approaching. And the 33rd chapter of Deuteronomy is his final sermon to the Israelites, giving each of the tribes instruction and encouragement.
What would you say to people if you knew you were at the end, if you knew the Promised Land was in reach? How would you want to be remembered? What would you want people to know about your Faith?
I would tell the people I love that I love them and if there were things between us that got in the way, I would apologize and tell them not to remember those, which are only obstacles. But to remember what brought us together.
I would tell people that life is too short to worry about the question, “does this make me look fat?” As one of the writer Anne Lamott’s friends would tell her when she would start worrying about such things, “Annie, you don’t have that kind of time”.
I would talk about the life saving grace of God that carried me through difficulty and loss and would encourage people to be in relationship with that God, not because they are afraid of going to Hell if they don’t. But to be in a relationship with God because life is so much better, here and now, when the light of the Divine is allowed to filter down, casting beautiful shadows on the brokenness of human life.
I would talk about the Scriptural imperative for being in community. Despite the American Myth of the Individual, nobody succeeds alone. It is only when we come together that life has meaning and we have what it takes to be the best versions of ourselves. Which means we have a responsibility to BE community, for each other and for the people around us we don’t even know.
And I would tell people about Jesus. About the way he spent time with all of the “wrong” people and called all of the “right” people to reconsider their preconceptions, calling us all to new understandings of justice. About the way he reached out and touched the people society called unclean. About the way he challenged authority and reminded people that the Divine purpose cannot be co-opted by human kingdoms. And I would tell people that Jesus’ sacrificial living, to the point of death, calls us to live with gratitude, with purpose, and with love.
I invite each of you to think about this question now. What do you want people to know about your faith and belief?
On the back of the prayer insert in the bulletin is space where you can write down your answers.
Does anybody want to share? (Here are some of the responses that were shared. I will add more.)
“We are not alone.”
“Love is what matters
Change is possible
Compassion is necessary
My voice was heard.”
“I am a servant of the Most High God and I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“All will be well and God is in control.”
“We have an everlasting Hope.”
“My grandfather said, shortly before he died at 101, “looking back at my life, when I was opposed to change, I was usually on the wrong side of the issue. When I supported change, I was usually on the right side.”
“I want to be remembered for having a thankful heart.”
We might not be as fortunate as Moses, who got to write his own obituary in Deuteronomy 34. But we can tell the people we love about the things that are important to us. I invite you to take that paper with you today, to think about it some more, and to share it with the ones you love.
Moses lived until he was 120 years old. His “sight was undimmed and his vigor unabated”, or, in other words, he led what we would call a good and long life.
Whether you still have 40 or more years of wilderness wandering ahead of you, or whether the Promised Land is just around the corner, Moses knew that life is too short to not continue the journey to the Promised Land. The journey still mattered, even when the destination wasn’t his to control.
So, keep on with the journey. Support your fellow travelers. The Promised Land is in sight.
PS–People were asking where I got the lego pictures of Moses. They can be found at www.bricktestament.com.