2011 February 13
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
or Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Nine days after the last British soldiers left American soil, in December of 1783 George Washington met with his officers for a farewell dinner. He addressed them all with great affection and took his leave of them, saying,
'With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.'
The next day he headed home to his farm.
That is how the victor of the American Revolution said goodbye to the people he had lead, for years, from a beginning as colonial subjects of a faraway king, through a common compact to serve together for the liberation of their country from that ruler, through the establishment of Articles of Confederation and other instruments for unity, and on together through city and wilderness, summer and winter, until they won through to their goal.
Ahead of the people they led was the further goal: the establishment on this continent of a new nation, conceived in liberty.
That is one occasion that echoed today's first reading, from the end of Deuteronomy.
Here is another.
On the night before he died, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had led civil rights marchers since the day Mrs. Parks stayed in her seat on a city bus in Montgomery Alabama, spoke to a congregation in Memphis Tennessee, and he said words that echoed, intentionally, the words of Moses.
Martin Luther King said, "Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there. ...
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so 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!!"
On that occasion, Martin Luther King could think of no grander leave-taking than the one we have before us in the words of Moses on the plain before the Promised Land, as he spoke to the People of God.
Moses and Aaron and Miriam had led the people on their journey out of bondage to freedom, had made with them the covenant with God that bound them together as a people, had received with them the Law - which laid out for them how to be obedient to God in that covenant relationship, had walked with them through the wilderness, and now had brought them to the brink of the Promised Land.
Moses on the plains of Moab, in the final chapters of Deuteronomy (29:1-30:20), gives his farewell address to the people. He reminds them of all this that they had gone through together, all they had been to each other, and all they had compacted together to do. He reminded them of who they were: the people of God, chosen, redeemed, and blessed.
You were chosen. You are saved. You will be blessed.
And then he put before them the choice. As they stood together waiting to go in and claim the land for themselves, he told them - not where they were going, but how to go forward together, how to go forward into the future in a way that would be worthy of all they were and all they were called to be.
He said, I have set before you today a choice: life and prosperity, or death and adversity. To follow the way of the Lord, the way of the One who has brought you out of Egypt, led you in the Wilderness, made covenant agreement with you - "I will be your God and you will be my People" - and given you the words to guide you in following through on that covenant, the One who has sustained you these forty years, the One who has brought you safe thus far - to follow the Lord into LIFE - that is one way to go. The other - that will lead you to death - you may choose that instead. It's up to you.
And then Jesus makes it harder. He tells his disciples, on the mountaintop, there is more to this than keeping the rules - you must keep the faith.
Love the Lord, and hold fast. Through respect and obedience live out your faith in response to love.
It's not about the rules; it's about the relationship.
It's not about which side of a line you're on.
It's not about coloring inside the lines - or slipping across when his back is turned.
It's not about working the system.
It's not about maintaining the system.
You must be more righteous than the best of the rule-keepers.
Only through Christ and in Christ and with Christ is this possible.
With him it is all loving response to a loving God.
Love God, love one another, love your neighbor as yourself. Do as you would be done by.
This is the way to LIFE.
To trust in God.
To keep his commandments - that is a matter of course if you love the Lord.
As a matter of course we fall short. We fail. We let each other down. We even betray.
And then we have to come back, once again, to the feet of the Lord.
Before we can celebrate our achievements, or acknowledge even the blessings we have received, we find we have to confess our faults, our failings, and make peace.
Be reconciled. Be reconciled before God.
There is not much room for false pride - the pride of not acknowledging your true place in the universe. There is not much room for false humility - also the pride of not acknowledging your true place in the universe.
What there is room for is hope - and faith - and love. What there is room for is pride that is true - that is self esteem based on acknowledging your true place in God's creation - as his people, as his children, as the ones he is building into his kingdom.
There is room for true humility - the acknowledgment of God's call to us, God's work in us, God's creation in us of the people he always conceived us to be - his children.
There is a moment of freedom. It is the present moment. The past is over and done with; full of folly and treasure and pride and false hope and true love as it may have been, it is over now. The future is in God's hands. Today, now, this moment, is the moment of freedom.
In this moment we are given a choice. Before us he has put fire and water: it is that distinct a choice.
There on the left is life, waiting to be lived.
On the right, nothing really. Not in the long run. Just false pride, false hope, false humility.
On the left is life. A warning though:
It is real life. It is life full of all that we need God for - all the pain and joy and sorrow and grace and loneliness and crowdedness and humanity and individuality that comes with life. The moments of desolation, the moments of swelling pride.
It is all there - now - choose life.
Choose it in big ways - and small ones.
Go for a walk. Be a friend.
Haven't seen somebody for awhile? Give them a call.
Go see somebody in the hospital. Go watch somebody graduate from high school. Go see a baby take another step - and give that goofy grin like Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon.
Go see a dog chase a ball in the park. Go bring a primrose to someone in prison, or sick, or in the nursing wing.
Go ahead and see if you can't get into that class - the one that leads to the outrageous dream. Try out for 'Pinafore'. Play the bass trombone.
Make your own list.
It's your life - that is, it's in your hands - and God's, if you let it be in his hands.
He gives you the choice.
And know now that it is never about the rules - not really - not ultimately. They are there for you, surely. There is no getting out of it - we have things to do, promises to keep. But they are not the point. The point is the love of the Lord, the living God.
The One who made you, sustains, redeems and sanctifies you, calls you into his service - he calls you to follow him still, over the threshold of the promised land and into his kingdom.
If you seek God's will, love the Lord and keep to his ways, you will be blessed.
What's more - you will bless others.
Blessed One, bless us, in the breaking of the bread, the sharing of the cup, the sharing of our lives, the redeeming of the world. Bless us: Blessed One.
[This is more or less the sermon I gave at the 8 o'clock service. At the 10:30 service I walked away from the script and preached from the open book of the gospels.]
Edmonds, Washington: Saint Alban's Episcopal Church.