31 January 2021
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Moses stands on a vast plain. Rugged mountains rise in the distance behind him. Before him is spread out the whole congregation of Israel—or what is left of them…the remnants of the long, fearful trek through the howling wilderness. They are emotionally drained…physically exhausted…having spent years being simultaneously challenged by and graced with God’s abiding presence. And here on the plains of Moab they stop. They rest. They reflect. They review and renew the covenant before moving on—before the final push into the promised land.
The next part of the journey will be different, but no easier than the one they’ve just concluded. The land they are going to may be flowing with milk and honey, but getting there will require blood and tears, toil and sweat. In the desert there was only howling winds and themselves and Moses and God to complain about. In Canaan there will be more direct confrontations…with people who do not believe the same things they do…who see the world very differently…who are not easy to live with.
Deuteronomy is not a book we spend a lot of time with generally. And it’s inclusion today may seem somewhat arbitrary. We don’t get a lot of continuity with our Old Testament readings in Epiphany—first Genesis, then Samuel, then Jonah, Deuteronomy, next week we get Isaiah, then a story about Elijah and Elisha from Kings, and back to Genesis for the beginning of Lent. It’s hard to keep track of where we are.
But Deuteronomy is a very appropriate selection for today, because the whole book is this moment of pause…it’s a break in the narrative…it’s a time in-between…it’s not even quite clear if Deuteronomy is really the end of the Torah, (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers)…the end of the desert wandering…or if it’s more the beginning of the histories…(Joshua, Judges, Kings)…the beginning of being settled in the land. It lies in-between both of those…at a point when they are not quite finished with their wilderness journey…nor have they yet reached the promised land. Moses is on the verge of death, and knows he will not enter the land with them, and so he pauses the trek and speaks to them, in three long valedictory addresses. He reviews their history, he expounds upon the law given at Horeb (which is another term for Sinai), and he reminds them to be loyal to God…and to uphold the covenant. The book we call Deuteronomy (which means “second law”, because Moses reviews the law a second time in it), in Hebrew is simply called “Devarim” or The Words…because “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan,” (Deut 1:1, Jewish Study Bible).
I am not Moses, but I stand before you today, in a still almost empty church, with the whole congregations spread out before me, in your own homes…a vast virtual plain. And today we pause…to rest…to review…and to remember our recently renewed covenant…to prepare ourselves for the next phase of our journey.
It’s not been an easy year. It has been a year of grief, and exhaustion…a year of upheaval…and year of creativity…a year of unimaginable loss…and a year of incomparable generosity. Our last year has not been anywhere near what the Israelites experienced in their forty year trek in the wilderness…an experience that, in the words of one scholar, “tried the soul of the nation.” (Alter, R. 5 Books, p. 871), but history doesn’t have to exactly repeat for it to rhyme. The soul of our nation has been tried…will continue to be tried…
This past year we learned how deeply and inextricably woven together the fabric of all life is…we learned how much we rely on, and miss our families, our friends, our church communities…our eyes were opened to how deeply we rely on people we rarely gave a thought to before…those who stock shelves, and clean buildings, who hold up devices so that sick or elderly relatives can have video chats with us…and that’s not even to mention those who create and distribute vaccines.
We also learned how threadbare and tattered our communities really are…we saw afresh the hard realities of racial injustice, economic disparity, and political polarization as they became overt, painful, and impossible to ignore. In our desert of 2020 we began to reckon with how truly complicated and deeply wounded our world is.
It has also been a year of rediscovering a greater portion of God’s grace…our ears rang with God’s call to “do justice, and love goodness and walk humbly,” (Micah 6:8)…our hearts and hands reached out to take part in God’s work…feeding the hungry…being peacemakers and repairers of the breach (Isaiah 58:12), being healers and clearly marking the path through the wilderness…marking the way of love…so that others can follow.
We are not the ancient Israelites, but we have been forged in our own wilderness crucible…forged to be a people dedicated to God and a blessing to our communities.
As we pause today, and look back over where we have been…we also look to the future…And we look forward with hope, knowing that we will likely be gathering together before long, and with eyes better trained to see the new things God is doing in our midst. We look forward with courage, knowing that our faith in God and our connections with one another have been tempered and strengthened. We look forward with gratitude knowing that God’s abundance and our shared generosity continues to provide resources to meet challenges and to continue God’s work. There will continue to be challenges…we all know that…there are legions of unclean spirits around that must be repeatedly named (mendacity, racism, sexism, every kind of phobia), named and exorcised…and we know there are plentiful opportunities for repentance, and for making reparations…there is a lot of work to be done.
But with God leading us…and with this community at our sides and having our backs…I am ready to move forward into this new land…and further into God’s promise…aren’t you?