Deuteronomy 3:23-29; 34:1-8 Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-16
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost July 12, 2015
“I long ago decided that anything that could be finished in my lifetime was necessarily too small an affair to engross my full interest.” — Ernest DeWitt Burton, President of University of Chicago, 1923-1925
From the founding of the [Chicago Art] Institute [in 1882] to his death in 1924, Charles L. Hutchinson served as its president. On his deathbed, he told a friend, “I love to lie here and think of it — of all it will do for the people in the years to come!”
In the funeral eulogy, President Burton described Hutchinson as a man with the vision “to build for a long future.”
My mother had a vision of a better life – a longing for hopes fulfilled: for adequate money, for good harvest weather, no cattle out of the pasture, and for no packing up to move every time the irresistible ideals of my father’s day-job profession (he was a schoolteacher) met the impenetrable objects perched atop the school boards’ shoulders.
We were not poor – he always got another job, though once it was in the next state over – but each of his two careers (he was also a farmer) was filled with uncertainty. In farming that goes with the territory; in teaching he put himself in the crossfire between his vision and the daily world.
And Mother went with him. That went with the territory, too.
Life in the Dust Bowl had taught everybody not to spend money easily, and not to waste anything ever, so my mother did not expect champagne and caviar, wouldn’t have spent money on such things even if she had it, and even if they suited her taste – which they did not. But she had a vision of a “good life” that was worth hoping for, And she got a taste of it in her upright freezer, her automatic washing machine, and a feeling of the Promise one glorious summer when she had time to refinish her dining room table, advised by her friend, Mrs. Cunningham, who taught sixth grade across the hall from Mother’s classroom. Her vision for “someday” included time to cook without hurry, time to sew, time to travel a bit – to Carlsbad Caverns, maybe, or shopping in Oklahoma City – without bills or a broken tractor hanging over the project.
She got some of those things. In the last few years of her life (I am now six years older than she ever got to be) she retired and moved to be near her doctors; she sipped Folgers coffee, watched “General Hospital” with her sisters-in-law (she had always wished she had had a sister, and a daughter, I think), and she took a few trips to Texas with Aunt Eunice and Uncle Ralph. It was “silly” to spend time and money that way, she said – souvenirs and TV and eating out – but she enjoyed it.
She had a vision of the promise, an appetizer of milk and honey, but not a whole meal in Canaan, and the passage from Hebrews seemed to fit her life, and was included in her funeral: “all these died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it from a long way off.” (Heb.11:13a, my translation)
I feel sad about that, sometimes – the unrealized hopes – but in fact she did not lead a sad life. There was an aura of wistfulness about her, a kind of sigh waiting to be sighed, but she was not unhappy. She appreciated what she had, and she recognized the reality of life – the reality of the lives of those saints, the reality of Moses looking over Jordan: nobody can have everything. We work for things across the river.
She had two sons who had gone to college, and who were successfully married – at least at that time; in the years after my father’s death she managed the farm (with some long distance help from my brother) and made it pay. She managed for the first time to include capital depreciation in the income-tax calculations. She filed amended returns for the previous three years. She faced down an IRS auditor and breast cancer. She died with some promises still at a distance, but she saw and greeted them in the things she had. She died in faith.
I think that faith – the faith in what’s coming – slips away from us sometimes, we lose sight of the promise across the river.
Michelle Obama talked about that in her Oberlin commencement speech:
“We want everything right away, whether it’s an Uber or your favorite TV show – and we want it tailored to our exact preferences and beliefs. We fill our Twitter feed with voices that confirm, rather than challenge, our views. If we dislike someone’s Facebook post, we just un-follow them, we un-friend them.”
She wasn’t talking about “consumerism” or “materialists” or “those people” in Washington or South Carolina or someplace else. Like any good prophet, she was talking to and about us and our expectations.
She re-cast our understanding of our place in the coming Reign of God: “of all the [two hundred] women at the Seneca Falls women’s suffrage convention in 1848, just one lived to see women cast their votes.”
Of all the Israelites Moses led out of Egypt, just two crossed into the Promised Land. The life of hope is lived toward goals larger than ourselves, larger than our lifetime.
Those of us in what we are pleased to call the “progressive” church have adopted James 2:17 as a kind of credo: “Faith without works is dead.”
Good for us.
In fact, we have so energetically embraced our responsibility to work for the realm of God that we sometimes regard ourselves as the contractors, if not the architects of the heavenly city. The promise is no longer seen as a gift, but as a blueprint: it’s no longer our promise, it’s our project.
As often happens when preparing a sermon, I noticed something I had never noticed before in a lifetime of familiarity with a passage: it does not say what I thought it said. Hebrews 11:13 does not say, “not having received what was promised to them.” Nobody promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “you will be alive when this happens.” Their blessing was to perceive what their descendants would receive.
My mother never expected all the joys in her vision of “the good life” to be hers. If she had expected that, she would have died in despair. She saw me living out that Promise, saw her grandchildren there, saw the friends and families and stability we enjoy – that was the hope she had, and saw from afar. Her blessing was to see what was promised, and prepare us to receive it.
Mrs. Obama’s observation was that we strive for fulfillment in our lifetime: “What do we Want?” … some of us want Freedom, some want a Mercedes, but we’re all alike in what follows – “When do we want it?” – “NOW!!” We think “faith without works is dead” means “hopes unrealized by me are empty” – “don’t show me the promise, show me the money!”
So we do strive for a just and inclusive world, a world of harmony and reconciliation – good for us; it won’t happen unless we work for it. We strive as Moses strove and drove his motley crew through the desert, cajoling and exhorting and extorting, sometimes – smiting rocks and serving as judge over the people, to get them to the Promised Land.
And where did it get him?
To the brink.
Close, but no cigar.
Moses couldn’t make it happen. It was God’s promise, and God kept it, as Winston Churchill said, “in God’s good time.”
That doesn’t mean we can lay down our picket signs and pocket books and voter registration cards and wait for Jesus to come again to finish the job, but it does mean God is the architect and builder of the City of Promise, and it will be completed when God says so. We can get close enough to keep it in sight, close enough to taste it, to hunger for it, to believe in it; we can lay the foundations and prepare the future, but if we think it’s not true unless we finish it, then we will die thinking we have failed.
The writer of Deuteronomy thought Moses didn’t get to the Promised Land because God was angry at him. I don’t think so – that’s just an attitude that “there’s somebody to blame if things aren’t exactly my way on my schedule.” I think the barrier was not God’s anger or Moses’ weakness – it was not some punishment or some failure – the hindrance is in the nature of life: “Nobody can have everything.” None of us lives long enough to meet every need, balance every injustice, heal every injury. What we can do is follow the vision, and get ourselves close enough to see and know that the dream is true.
We lose faith if we set about our tasks as though success depends solely on us. We’re fond of saying, “God has no hands but our hands.” St. Teresa didn’t mean it this way, but our thirst for instant gratification lets us believe fulfillment rests on our powers, and the promise is within our grasp.
So we earnestly and energetically go about doing what we should do, being letter-perfect and irreproachable and gender-neutral and shade grown, organic, politically-correct Calvinist Pharisees, unrelenting in our work and unforgiving in our righteousness, and that lets us hide from the fact we too depend upon the grace of powers beyond our control, to succeed at tasks we are not strong enough to do, in achieving results we do not live long enough to see. When we focus on our mountain to climb, our desert to cross, our evil to overcome, our election to win, we lose sight of the promise across the river, lose sight of the grace that illuminates the vision.
Faith without works is dead; we are called to work. Works without faith are just as dead – and a lot more depressing. Our works bring us to the brink: the brink of exhaustion; the brink of despair; the brink of the Jordan. The summit of Mount Pisgah.
We sang “Sweet Hour of Prayer” earlier in the service. All three hymnals I have at home omit verse four of that hymn, but I want to include it in our thinking:
Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise
To seize the everlasting prize,
And shout, while passing through the air,
“Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”
– William W. Walford, 1845
There is no Mt. Pisgah in modern hymnals; it’s a funny word, an unfamiliar image, and an important loss from our vocabulary of faith. Mt. Pisgah is not the Promised Land; it is not what Moses saw, but it is where Moses was. It was Moses’ destination, and it’s ours.
It’s where Moses looked over Jordan; it’s “the mountaintop” where Martin Luther King saw the Promised Land: “I may not get there with you, but … we as a people will get [there]… Mine eyes have seen the glory.”
It’s the place where my mother saw the promise for her children and grandchildren, and she died there, in the company of those saints, blessed by the promise made for her descendants, which she saw and greeted from a long way off.
0ur works bring us to the brink; but only faithful vision lets us see the glory across the River, in the Long Future.