My First Sermon
Rather long for a blog post, I guess, but hey, my first post was a six page paper, so there's a precedent. Look for the sequel, My Frst Sermon Before a Congregation, sometime between now and Monday.
The Lord said to [Moses], “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. (Deuteronomy 34:4-5)
Can you imagine? Moses is a hundred twenty years old. He’s been walking around, leading a group of about six hundred thousand men, women and children, old and young, strong and weak, courageous and cowardly, at times, straight-up idolatrous, through the desert for forty years. That’s damn near twice as long as most of the people in this room have been alive. His congregation is bigger than any of us could possibly imagine serving. Ours won’t be so badly behaved, either – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a congregation that up and starts worshipping the great cow spirit the minute we go off to talk to God is not the type of problem any of us are likely to face in our vocations, whatever they may be. To put it simply, Moses puts up with more hardship for a longer period and under worse conditions than any of us can possibly imagine. In the bit of today’s Psalm that the lectionary instructs us to omit, scripture laments “The days of our life are seventy years or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble.” (Psalm 90:10) “Eighty years,” I can almost hear Moses saying, “Ha! I didn’t even start on the flight into the wilderness until my eightieth year. You sure got that part about toil and trouble right, though.”
“Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,” we learn in today’s reading. Moses did more for the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, than any figure in scripture, but still, God prevents him from setting foot in the promised land with his people. Why didn’t God let his most faithful servant into the land sworn to the people of Israel? Why didn’t Moses get to finally, after 40 years of sand-filled sandals and a constantly sun-burned scalp, sit down and enjoy the destination toward which he struggled long past the point to which we can reasonably hope to struggle? I bet he would have loved to relax a little bit in “Jericho, the city of Palm Trees.” Sounds almost like Sarasota without the hurricane warnings. One can imagine a nice riverside condo with a view of the sea off in the distance. However, this final satisfaction, God says, is not Moses’ destiny. Are you and I really supposed to imagine ourselves in Moses’ sandals? That doesn’t sound immediately appealing, now, does it? Not to mention the fact that imagining God’s promised land as consisting, for us, of the specific geographical region extending from the southernmost shore of the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee, from the East bank of the Jordan to the Mediterranean has proven to be a rather problematic theological position to assume in light of contemporary international relations. How are we, here, now, to understand this promised land? What might Jesus have to say about all of this?
Well, to begin, this text from Deuteronomy is, as some no doubt recognize immediately, the key reference in Martin Luther King Jr.’s final, and second most famous sermon. In 1968, Dr. King accepted the call to support the striking, largely African-American sanitation workers of Memphis Tennessee in their struggle against unfair labor practices. At this point in Dr. King’s life, resentment over the social and political gains achieved by and for Black Americans, coupled with furor over Dr. Kings increasing calls for radical social and economic change in America and an end to the war in Vietnam, had led to intense hatred toward the preacher in some American circles. Serious threats on Dr. King’s life had been weighing on the movement. Dr. King addresses this at the end of his speech, with the words immediately familiar to many, many Americans:
Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult times ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. 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. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
There are, at the very least, two ways of looking at death and struggle. Our life, today’s psalm cries, is constant struggle until death. Paul Tillich, as many of you, with fading clarity and varying levels of intellectual assent, no doubt remember, calls this perspective “the anxiety of fate and death.” Rather than give in completely to the despair that leads from this anxiety, Dr. King bears witness to a promised land. As he puts it,
I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding – something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same – “We want to be free.”
Rather than give in to the seemingly unmovable forces against him, Martin Luther King sees a Promised Land in the distance, a world where the chains of racism, poverty, and oppression have been cast off. “The last shall be first. Blessed are the meek,” Jesus calls to us from further along in the story. “But when,” we might ask. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King was fond of reminding us. Well, it doesn’t seem like it’s any more bent toward justice than it was in 1968, does it? One would be hard pressed to argue that social and economic freedoms are that much more available for the world’s poor than they were in King’s day. The US did eventually pull out of Vietnam, but, well, look at American foreign policy right now. Almost forty years after his final speech, Dr. King’s Promised Land, sadly, doesn’t seem any closer. It remains incomprehensibly further from us than Sarasota, than Jericho, the cities of palms.
But at the same time, it’s right next to us, maybe even on the last page of the printout of the lectionary readings for today. In today’s reading from Matthew, the Pharisees see that Jesus had stumped the Sadducees and try to trick Jesus, as they are wont to do. “Tell us,” they say, “Of all the commandments of God, handed down by Moses, which is the greatest?” Jesus replies:
You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)
How might we do this loving of God, commanded to us by Jesus? Well, take the Lord’s Prayer – it is, after all, what Jesus says we are to say to God when we initiate the conversation: “Our Father…” we begin. In some sense, we are told that God, like a parent, is partly responsible for our very existence. One of the ways we are to love God is to be grateful for this fact. When Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, in spite of the threats against his life, he refused to submit totally to the anxiety of mortality and fate, even though he seemed to know that he wouldn’t live to see fair treatment for the Black Memphis sanitation workers, let alone the casting off of the chains of the world’s downtrodden. He relates the story of his near death in New York City in 1958 when a disturbed woman stabbed him in the chest. The knife came to rest against Dr. King’s aorta, and, as he tells the audience, “If I’d sneezed, I would have died.”
And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started siting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream… If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.
King is, in effect, thanking God for the opportunities to stand up along side those who were in the process of casting off their chains, standing up straight, overcoming the anxiety of their fate. These opportunities, these moments, built up Dr. King and his audiences in equal measure. This, then, is loving our neighbors as ourselves, as Jesus told us to do. How are we to do this today, forty years after Dr. King and thousands more since the time of Moses? Preach the Gospel of Love, especially to those who seem to lack love, for, as someone on the vestry at my teaching parish said the other day, “The stingy shall always be among us.” We must preach the Gospel of forgiveness to those for whom forgiveness seems impossible. Remember, Moses, our greatest prophet was forbidden from entering the kingdom of heaven, nominally due to his own lack of faith, (Numbers 20:9-12) the lack of faith of his flock, (Deuteronomy 4:21) or else because he grew so violently angry at his Egyptian oppressors that he savagely beat one to death. (Exodus 2:11-12) Finally we, as did Dr. King, must preach the Gospel of hope where there seems to be no hope. Jesus has given us a momentary glimpse of the Promised Land. All who are there are filled with the love of God and are one with Christ in this love. We will not see this in our lifetimes. However, today, we have assurance from a few sources that humankind will someday see it. Our job is to take our flocks as far through the wilderness. We probably won’t be able to do that for 120 years, but we probably won’t be assassinated either. While we are blessed with the chance, we must continue to preach the Gospel of the forgiveness of the unforgiveable. The Gospel of Love where there appears to be none. The Gospel of hope when all hope appears to be lost.