A Prophetic Vision’s Power

Sunday, October 25, 2020
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 25)
Reformation Sunday

Focus Theme:
A Prophetic Vision’s Power

Focus Prayer:
Almighty God, your Son has shown us how to love one another. May our love for you overflow into joyous service and be a healing witness to our neighbors through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain–that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees–as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” 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. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun 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.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

All readings for this Sunday:
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 with Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 or
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 with Psalm 1 and
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

Focus Questions:

1. What does “freedom” mean to you in the context of faith?

2. What do you think Moses thought as he gazed upon the Promised Land?

3. Does it matter that Moses never actually reached the Promised Land?

4. What limits in your life make you think more deeply about your faith?

5. Where is your true “dwelling place”?

by Kate Matthews

Back in ancient times, long, long ago–when I was in high school–that was when I first heard of something called “Existentialism,” a big word for an important kind of philosophy that I’ve struggled to understand for more than fifty years. There are, of course, different kinds of Existentialism, and it turns out that the differences are very important.

On the one hand, you have atheistic Existentialism, which seems to describe the human person as a lonely, solitary but free decision-maker–in an indifferent, uncaring universe. No meaning, no eternity, no God.

My dictionary, for example, says that Existentialism claims that the universe is absurd, and human life full of anxiety and alienation. This is a very depressing kind of Existentialism, which might explain why so many churches have condemned it. People of faith tend to be people of hope, of community, of promise.

Existentialism and faith?

On the other hand, there is also such a thing as religious Existentialism, even Christian Existentialism, which many trace to the brilliant 19th-century Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. These philosophers and theologians talk a lot about the individual human person, too, and that person’s freedom, but in a very different way.

In this way of thinking, each human being is valuable, and each person’s individual conscience is important, as well as every person’s freedom to make authentic decisions. There is a God, and there is meaning in the universe after all.

Looking at the Promised Land

Our readings this week from the lectionary have something of an existentialist flavor: there’s Moses, standing on the mountaintop, just as God commanded him, looking at the future home of the Hebrew people, the Promised Land. “The Lord showed him the whole land,” the text says. The land, and freedom: what this long and perilous journey has been all about.

We might wonder what Moses, the solitary leader but just one person in a great multitude, felt, looking out on that sweeping, majestic horizon of hope and promise. Satisfaction? Gratitude? Triumph? Accomplishment and glory, too, perhaps–and yet, and yet…a sense of limits, a sense of longing, a sense, perhaps, of loss.

What Moses is denied

Indeed, Moses, as we read more than once in the Bible, was denied the experience of actually entering the Promised Land, of realizing in his own lifetime the promises made to his ancestors.

Here, in this final chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, the story of Moses comes to an end: Moses, the greatest prophet of all, unequaled in all of Israel because of the way God worked through him, the way that God was made known through Moses’ “mighty deeds” and “terrifying displays of power.” Moses dies, and is gathered to his people, just as God had promised.

God as a dwelling place

This week, we also read Psalm 90. What a mix of feelings there is in this psalm, and such beauty, too: “God, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God…a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night…”

It’s interesting to note that Psalm 90 is the only one with a heading claiming Moses as its author, so we might reflect on this psalm in light of Moses’ experience there, on the mountaintop, as well as our own experience, thousands of years later, in our own lives.

Eternal and everlasting God

We can imagine Moses, like us, remembering, and holding fast to the memory of, God’s help in ages past. “The mountains and the earth” stand for continuity and endurance, and yet, before the mountains and the earth ever existed, God was.

The eternal, everlasting God: in contrast with the brief, fragile, almost momentary existence of humankind, swept away, like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning, flourishes and then, in the evening, fades and withers away.

Sin, and God’s anger, too

The middle part of this psalm, which is often omitted, speaks of human sinfulness, and God’s anger at human unfaithfulness to the covenant that had been established between God and the people. Then, in its ending, it moves into a prayer of petition, asking God for help and compassion: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days…prosper for us the work of our hands.”

Let our lives, then, no matter how brief, no matter how difficult, have meaning. Let there be meaning, and everlasting value, in our having lived.

Looking back, and looking forward

I hope, and I suspect, that Moses must have looked back as well as forward, that day on the mountain. He must have looked back on the incredible journey he had finally completed, since his earliest adventures in Egypt, rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, raised in privilege, then called by God to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in what we call the Exodus.

It was all just the beginning of even more adventures and struggles and moments of glory, another mountaintop, and being given the Law, standing on holy ground and speaking with God. And there was desert time, too, the wandering and the doubt, and the wrenching back to God’s path, and to God’s ways.

Forty years of desert wandering

Forty years of wandering, and now, here, on the mountaintop, a vision. The text says that Moses was 120 years old, but his sight was unimpaired. I think that means not just his eyesight, as he gazed on the Promised Land. I think it also meant that Moses could see things as they are, that Moses knew that it mattered less whether he actually, physically entered a geographical place that people of faith have called “The Promised Land.”

Moses, I suspect, knew that, when he was an infant in a basket, floating in the reeds, or a prince in the palace, or a lonely prophet on a mountaintop, or a frustrated, wandering leader in the desert–in all those times, he knew that the place where he lived, his true “dwelling place,” was God.

More than his mighty deeds and terrifying works of power, it is the assurance that Moses had of God as his dwelling place that moves us today and touches us “where we live.” From everlasting to everlasting, God is our dwelling place. That means that it is God who holds us, now and forever, no matter who we are, solitary individual or community of faith.

God holds us in love

I remember once, many years ago, when I was all worked up about some situation in my life, and a good and trusted friend of mine called me on the phone to tell me that he knew, in everything I was going through, that I was being held by God. Hearing those words–that reminder–brought me great peace, for we are each, it is true, alone in this world at different times and moments of our lives.

I remember his words of reassurance, that no matter what situation I found myself in, the everlasting God was holding me in love. And today, in the midst of everything, we too are anxious and worried–of course we are, in the midst of Covid 19 and economic recession and turmoil in our society, and through it all, God is holding us in love.

No matter what we’re going through

We may be worried about our jobs, our security, our future, our health–certainly our health, and the health and safety of our loved ones, our teachers, our health care professionals–we are worried and anxious, and still, God is holding us in love. God is our dwelling place, full of mercy and grace, peace and love.

We may actually be sick, or tested positive, or awaiting tests, or unable to get tested; we may be receiving treatment, or unable to get treatment in a society of uneven care and concern; we may have sudden or chronic illness, or be experiencing injury, physical pain, fatigue, diminished abilities…and through it all, God holds us in love.

Fearful and burdened, but held by God

Whatever fear we live in, in our homes, our workplace, our neighborhoods, still, God is our dwelling place, and God is holding us in love. If we’re loaded down with more work than we think we can handle, more responsibilities, more people who are counting on us than we think we can manage, still, God is holding us, always, in love.

If we are grieving, and so many of us are, if we are aching with loss and disappointment and disillusionment, wrestling with betrayal and hurt from ones we have loved, God holds us in love. And if we are depressed, lonely, struggling, uncertain, filled with doubt, needing to forgive when we feel like we can’t, and even if we think we are lost, no – God is holding us all the while, in love.

God holds us in joy and peace

And more: if we are happy today, if this is a day of relief from worry, of celebration, of accomplishment, of hope, of love and sharing and quiet joy, or even if this day only brings moments of such joy and hope, we know, too, that God is holding us in love.

What does it mean, then, to live our lives, like Moses, held by God, with God as our dwelling place, the God who made promises to our ancestors, the God who is faithful, the God who is from everlasting to everlasting?

For one thing, it means living in utter and radical dependence on that God, not on our own will or power, satisfied with and sustained by God’s steadfast love each morning, rejoicing and being glad, all of our days, that we are each, individually, a precious child of God.

A frame around our existence

That seems obvious, but there is more. The psalm is true, of course: our days are brief, even fleeting, when you take the long view of thousands and millions of years gone by.

However, taking a page from the existentialists, at least the Christian ones–it is death that sets a kind of frame around human existence. Death is a horizon of hope for people of faith, but it is a limit nevertheless, and it brings a measure of sadness when we think of it.

Still, those very limits that we know are there, at the end of our life on this earth, invite us to live with a sense of urgency and responsibility and gratitude, to think of all the possibilities that lie on this side of death, and to exercise our own freedom, and to form our consciences, so that we might live authentic lives of faithfulness, lives of meaning, lives of justice, openness and joy.

Held by God

Experiencing ourselves as held by God also means gathering–God willing, one day soon in person again–as people of faith who recognize God as the source of our existence, as the One who sustains and satisfies us. We are a people who recognize that our dwelling place, our true home, is in the heart of God.

Our faith then calls us to welcome each individual as a child of God, and as a gift. We do this when we baptize babies, for example. The tiniest, newest members of our community, so lately come from God, remind us in their loveliness just how precious every single individual is, just as Moses, on that mountaintop, reminds us that all of life, and all the earth, the universe and all that is within it, belong to God.

Not only does the Promised Land belong to God, but the whole universe and all that is within it. It is there, in God, that we all find our meaning, and our home. Fear not. We are held by God, in love.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflection) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments son our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 20th century
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Richard P. Feynman, 20th century
“Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream, 21st century
“‘Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view,’ [Emerson] says, and suddenly that elite mystical practice seems clearer than ever before, and possible to each of us.”

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, 21st century
“What we call doubt is often simply dullness of mind and spirit, not the absence of faith at all, but faith latent with the lives we are not quite living, God dormant in the world to which we are not quite giving our best selves.”

Job 12:7-10
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you…in God’s hand is the life of every living thing.”

Thomas Merton, 20th century
“I will no longer wound myself with the thoughts and questions that have surrounded me like thorns: that is a penance You do not ask of me.”

Catherine of Siena, 14th century
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

Hafiz, 14th century
“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being.”

Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.