A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
“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.” –Deuteronomy 34:4
“We have some unfinished business.” The thought leaves you anxious, doesn’t it? Right up there with, “We need to talk.” Nobody likes unfinished business—that breath-holding sense of incompleteness that begs for closure. In music, it’s like an unresolved dissonance or a chord that just leaves you hanging. The nature of an incomplete past is to make us gazes anxiously upon a murky future.
At the end of Deuteronomy, we have a classic case of unfinished business. Moses, after shepherding his stubborn, stiffnecked, whining people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and through the wilderness, is brought to the tantalizing border of the Promised Land and told, this is as far as you go, friend. Thank you for your service, but you’re done now.
After all Moses did. And put up with. It just doesn’t seem fair.
Actually, we were warned that this would be the end of the line for him. We read in Exodus and in Numbers of Moses being confronted by his people, yet again, at a place that would later be called Meribah (which means, appropriately, “quarreling.”) This time it was because they were thirsty, demanding that Moses fix it. So God told Moses that if he would take his staff in hand and speak to a nearby rock, water would issue forth. So Moses picked up the staff, struck the rock twice, and water flowed. All ended well, right? Nope. Barely before anyone had gotten so much as a sip God expressed extreme displeasure at Moses for his lack of obedience, declaring that as a result, he would not see the Promised Land.
Huh? What in the world did Moses do wrong to earn such a harsh sentence?
It actually took an alert and more careful fellow reader just a few weeks ago to point out that God told Moses to speak to the rock, not strike it. When he struck it instead he was showing a lack of faith in God. And if we have learned nothing else from our reading in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have learned that God requires above all that God’s people be faithful to God.
And so, Moses, this is as far as you go.
The Israelites were not left leaderless. Joshua son of Nun had been made the successor to Moses and they would enter the Promised Land and take possession, often in ways that grieve us today and leave us wrestling with how these accounts speak to us about issues of violence and how we treat the Other in our midst. But that is looking from hindsight. From the point of view of the Israelites in the story, they faced a future filled with question marks. Where are we going? What will we find when we get there?
And this is why this story is so important just as it is, unfinished business and all. Because for those with ears to hear it speaks to our own questioning about the road ahead of us on any given day. Who am I? Where am I going? Who am I going with? What am I called to do? The future is our unfinished business and we, like the Israelites after the death of Moses, are holding our breath to know what will happen next.
So this story invites us to ponder, as individuals and as a community, both the nature of our Wilderness and the possibly mixed blessings of the journey ahead.
The most famous public reference to today’s story occurred on the evening of April 3, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking to sanitation workers in Memphis, his words hopeful, though introspective. You should google the video of the speech and listen to that unmistakable voice:
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Dr. King was assassinated the next morning.
But his words still resonate amid the heartbreak. As he preached that night his vision of Moses gazing upon the Promised Land took on a new dimension; a Gospel dimension of Christian hope and a vision of the Beloved Community nurtured out of the wilderness. It was a vision of the Promised Land transformed into the Kingdom of God.
Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the New Moses, leading his people to the Kingdom. God’s call to the people to be faithful above all else had remained unchanged over centuries, but the landscape of the Wilderness was different—now it was a wilderness of Roman occupation and quarreling among factions of the Jewish community, as we heard last week; Sadducees, Pharisees, etc. And their quarreling has again found its focus in Jesus when a lawyer tests him: Which commandment is the greatest? Jesus’ response does two things: first, it continues to seal his reputation as one who knows his Torah inside and out—he has passed test after test from the Temple authorities, leaving them speechless every time. And this time and this is the second point, the way in which he combines the commandments, two of the most significant passages in Torah, transforms them into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. You shall love the Lord your God,
(found in Deuteronomy) and You shall love your neighbor as yourself (found in Leviticus); these two commandments, up to this point have evolved separately into ways in which the people of Israel have distinguished themselves as a community. And by extension, they have created narrow definitions of who is Neighbor and broad categories of those who were Other.
But Jesus has combined the two commandments in such a way that they become new marching orders for the people of God. Here is what you must do: Love what God loves, (that is, everything and everyone, including taxpayers and sinners), and love how God loves it (that is, prodigiously, abundantly, and with no exceptions.) There is no room for equivocation or qualification.
And he’s not done yet. He adds, “On these two laws hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
The role of the prophets from the beginning was to critique the system; to call it to account and to repentance whenever it strayed. And Jesus’ words here point out that the interpretation of the Law is rightly challenged to refocus from time to time. As Jesus said earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Prophets are part of an ecosystem of faith that includes, God, God’s creation, and God’s call to the people to faithful obedience through the Law.
It’s an ecosystem that endures now. God calls us to faithfulness and to a faithful response to those whom God loves, in the way that God loves them. That’s our unfinished business. Like Moses, like modern prophet Dr. King, we are called to be faithful, even as we may not always be successful. But just because it’s unfinished and we can’t see the end doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the journey. Attending to the unfinished business of the Kingdom means that we keep our focus on God’s promise to what God loves, and how God loves it.
If you look in the Book of Common Prayer, on page 855 you will find the part of the Catechism that pertains to the Church. It says:
- What is the mission of the Church?
- The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
- How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
- Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
Marching orders, right there.
You know, when it comes to the unfinished business of God’s Kingdom, one of the most powerful metaphors is birth. It is a process that is profoundly uncomfortable, and yet immensely hopeful. The future is all tied up in the pain, the anxiety, the anticipation, the promise. But like Moses looking down from the mountain, we need to understand that the nature of the birthing process is that the future it holds doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to that which is being birthed. Ultimately it will leave us behind, perhaps gazing longingly toward what is beyond our ability to see or know. What is being born belongs to its own future. Our role right now is to keep breathing, and pushing, and working and hoping. And loving. Loving what God loves, and how God loves it.
We have some unfinished business. But unlike Moses, our journey isn’t over yet. The saying goes that the God’s Dream for Creation is both already and not yet. May God give us grace to see the Kingdom where it is already among us and to let that excite and empower us for the journey ahead.