1549: Who Will Finish Our Journey?
How do you think Moses felt when he realized that he would not get to enter the Promised Land?
What heartbreaking and crushing moment!
He has poured out over forty years of tough, uphill leadership of the people of Israel, and God is now telling him that the goal will be forever out of his reach. He will die without entering the Promised Land.
It seems even more cruel that he will actually see it, but not enter it.
In our lesson from Deuteronomy today, Moses is led up to the top of a mountain, “and the Lord showed him the whole land…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.”
At first it seems like a pretty poor reward for such long and dedicated service.
But like so many things in the Bible, we realize that it is meticulously faithful to the way things happen in real life.
Many times we have a dearly held and longed-for goal for ourselves, our family, or our community, and despite the years of work we put into it, we never see it accomplished.
That’s in fact almost guaranteed for the biggest and most important goals of transformation.
Consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech—he said it explicitly, that he had seen the Promised Land, but he did not know if he would enter it.
But he did not speak those words with despair.
His voice rang with hope and even joy.
This is the difference between people who have been transformed by God’s work in their lives and those who haven’t.
People who have had greatness enter their souls no longer need to see final, concrete results of the great causes they espouse.
They do not need to cross the finish line themselves.
They sacrifice their own personal satisfaction and success by giving of themselves relentlessly on behalf of the community.
They don’t have to enter the Promised Land themselves, because they have a deep and abiding faith that the community will enter it, in part because of the work they have done.
Today is our last Sunday of our historic liturgies project, and we are using the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, compiled by Thomas Cranmer, our flawed and noble founder.
This is the first and original prayerbook, the watershed text of vernacular English reformed common worship.
It was Cranmer’s literary and liturgical masterpiece and his vision for the spiritual heart of the Church of England going forward.
But Cranmer himself didn’t get to see the full flowering of the liturgy he had so painstakingly crafted.
The dream of his heart was to see the common people worshipping God with what he called a “true and lively faith,” theologically articulate and spiritually mature.
He put that dream within reach of the English people for the first time in their religious history, but he never saw it achieved.
When he was martyred, the pendulum was violently swinging back toward Roman Catholicism under Mary I, and Cranmer died not knowing that his beautiful legacy would endure all the way into the twenty-first century, influencing worship worldwide in the Anglican diaspora.
But Cranmer didn’t give up.
He knew he would die without seeing the Promised Land and yet he still poured out all his heart and all his skill into building the new church.
He was willing to give his life to see the people keep moving forward, even if he was left behind.
So was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr., and so was the case for Moses in our text today.
So where does that leave us?
We aren’t great souls like Moses and Cranmer and MLK.
Or are we?
If we’re not, why not?
What I try to explain to people over and over as we study the saints is that the saints all started out as normal, everyday people.
They skinned their knees as children, they embarrassed themselves in front of crushes in adolescence, they stumbled through early adulthood trying to find purpose and direction.
They had faults and flaws and heartbreaks and joys.
They were just like us.
But when the Holy Spirit spoke within them, they listened.
They had the courage and radical faith to believe that the Promised Land, however they conceived of it, was a place their community needed to go, and they would do anything they could to help make that happen.
So the question arises: what Promised Land does our community need to enter?
And what are we doing to make that happen?
The Promised Land is a place of freedom and liberation, and of harmony and well-being.
The Promised Land is where the Beloved Community knows itself so deeply to be loved by God that it can welcome in all people and pour itself out for those in need.
The Promised Land is where, as the psalmist says, “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
It does sound lofty and unattainable, doesn’t it?
When we think about our church or our town or our workplace entering the Promised Land as we’ve just described it, we realize that as of now, we feel much more like we’re wandering in the desert for forty years with very little hope of ever arriving.
But here’s the deal: we’re jolly well not going to arrive if there aren’t some among us who are willing to give everything to get us there without demanding that they enter it themselves.
Do we have enough love within us to be those people?
Can we stand with Moses on that promontory, seeing the beauty of the Promised Land laid out before us, know we’ll not enter ourselves, and joyfully speed forward our descendants into it?
This question matters. It matters a lot.
Because the saints before us said yes to that question.
That’s why we have so many of the blessings we do have in community today, everything from the story of the faith written down in the Bible to our traditions of worship and Holy Communion to the work of civil rights and social justice.
They passed the torch to us.
But I think we’re at risk of just holding the torch and looking at it, either simply enjoying its light or fumbling around fearing we’ll drop it.
We’re not meant to hold onto it for ourselves or drop it and lose it. We’re meant to pass it on to the next generation.
That means working and journeying and struggling toward and believing in the Promised Land, and doing that knowing that the ones who come after us will carry the faith onward into it.
I honestly think that in our pragmatic, results-oriented society today we have completely lost track of the value of giant, transformative, ridiculously unattainable goals.
What would it be like to eliminate hunger, poverty, war, or racism?
We don’t even entertain the question, because it seems like the Promised Land, an impossible fantasy.
We’re being called by the Holy Spirit in the inspiring examples of our ancestors and the imagined but very real need of our descendants to work for something we won’t achieve.
Because that work has value. God is in that effort and that striving.
We are living in the Promised Land that our ancestors dreamed of, and it’s up to us to work for the Promised Land that our children’s children will inhabit.
Then just as we say of Moses, of Cranmer, of MLK, our descendants will say of us the words of Hebrews: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
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