What do you do when you get to the end of long trip? Do you run around doing loads of laundry, or do you sink into a comfortable chair and leave your unpacking for another day?
The reading from Deuteronomy is about what happened when Moses got to the end of his long journey. Forty years of zig-zagging across the desert was finally over. If anyone deserved a comfortable chair and a glass of iced tea it was Moses, but he wasn’t ready to take a well-deserved rest. Instead, he gathered the Israelites who had lived long enough to finish the trip from Egypt and the many children and young adults who had been born along the way, and he had a serious talk with them about the future. The journey started with the escape from slavery enforced by Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, and now it was almost over as a large crowd stood on a hilltop within sight of the Promised Land.
The people didn’t know it yet, but their political reality was about to change once again. For too long, they had been ruled by the Pharaoh who targeted them for mistreatment on the basis of their religion. They were forced to make bricks, and then they were forced to make bricks without the important ingredient of straw. Conditions deteriorated, and they began a resistance movement under the leadership of Moses. A formal request for change was rejected by Pharoah. A protest followed that involved plagues of frogs and hail and locusts and the angel of death. With that kind of pressure, Pharaoh ultimately bowed to the will of the people and let them go.
Moses emerged at that time as a genuine and strong leader who guided an ever-changing and not-always-grateful crowd of thousands of people across the desert. After four decades, the Promised Land was finally before them and the next stage of their journey was about to begin. Although the people didn’t realize it yet, Moses knew that he would die right there and another leader, Joshua, would take them forward. So this speech was his swan song, and he used it to talk about the importance choices people needed to make while moving forward.
Leadership transition is always tricky. Years ago, I wrote my doctor of ministry thesis on the dynamics of pastoral change, using Moses and Joshua as a model for successful transition. A less successful example of leadership change in the Hebrew Scripture is the transition from wise King Solomon to his less-wise son Rehoboam. In his inauguration speech, Rehoboam threatened the Israelites by boasting that his little finger was thicker than his father’s waist. The result of his arrogance and quest for power was chaos, followed by rebellion and the weakening of Israel as it divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Sometimes it seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same. I think our political leaders today could learn a great deal by studying history.
Back to Moses. He was apparently part of the school of thought that said “You can lead a camel to water, but you can’t make it drink.” In other words, just physically walking across the desert to a new land does not mean that you are going to experience the full benefit of the journey. It’s just a change of geography from point A to point B if critical choices aren’t made along the way. Perhaps Moses knew that the most important journey is the one that takes place inside the human heart as we zig zag through all of the experiences of our lives.
Moses talked a lot that day about choices: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose life.” And he instructed the people to love God through obedient action. Repeatedly Moses says in Deuteronomy, “Love the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways.” Earlier he talked about loving God and then added the words “and love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus picked up and shared with his listeners as the most important of the Commandments.
It’s a good weekend to talk about love.
The St. Valentine of St. Valentine’s Day is believed to be an early Christian leader who was martyred under the Emperor Claudius. His crime was assisting Christian believers in various ways and especially officiating at their marriages, which was illegal. There is something rather poignant if not romantic about sealing the forbidden love of young Christians in the candlelit catacombs beneath the city. Valentine was arrested and dragged to Rome for trial where the order was to beat him to death with clubs and cut his head off. Legend has it that he had befriended the jailer’s daughter during his imprisonment. On the day of his execution, February 14 in the year 269, he left her a note thanking her for her friendship and loyalty and signed it “From your Valentine.” Think about that if you receive a valentine this Tuesday!
Valentine made the choice to love and obey God by protecting and serving those who were treated unjustly. To not bow to the powers of this world when they diminish or oppress human beings is to express love in its purest form.
It is often said about human relationships that “love is a choice” That sounds so very unromantic, and yet there is an important truth there. Love and making good decisions to benefit others go together.
Do you remember the old days when marriage vows included the words “I promise to love, honor, and obey?” And that was the part for the woman but not the man?! I have probably officiated at about a hundred and twenty-five weddings in the past thirty-four years. No one has asked for the word “obey” to appear in their vows. One of the more recent weddings included this question: “will to take this woman to be your wife, that you may live together as equal partners sharing all that life has to offer?"
Loving relationships between adult partners are based on an understanding of equality: equal worth and equal say in a relationship.
While the creator of the universe loves us, it is a truism that God is not our equal. God is, after all, God, and we are not. That is what the writers of scripture understood when they communicated the importance of obedience as a necessary way to express our love for God.
Obeying God is not about being controlled by one who is all-powerful, but it is a love relationship where the one who loves us first wants to be known by us and wants us to walk every day in the ways that are right and good. Our love and our obedience mean life for those who are unjustly treated, whether they are Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt or persecuted Christians in catacombs or today’s refugees or immigrants who have fled poverty and violence.
Our church is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity. The Center has identified eight points that summarize the beliefs of progressive Christians. Point number five says this: “We find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty.” It’s as though we are slowly finding our way across the desert to a Promised Land and are learning new things every day. As we read the stories that began as oral traditions and eventually were written down in the Torah, we see what the Israelites learned when bread came down from heaven and water bubbled up from a rock and God spoke from a burning bush. Moses didn’t know what to expect when he climbed Mt. Sinai and approached a mysterious God surrounded by clouds. The people longed for certainty. They lost their patience when Moses was on the mountain, and they created their own idol out of gold – a baby cow they could worship. The golden calf made by their own hands was more certain than the cloud God on the mountain. But an idol couldn’t help them. And so they kept wandering and learning as God showed them what they needed to understand.
The Israelites made the choice to keep moving forward, despite the obstacles in the desert. I recently read the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance grew up in Ohio in an extended family that migrated there from the Appalachian Mountains in search of sustainable employment. He describes a culture that is in perpetual crisis and how his family members and their peers have struggled with abuse, alcoholism, and poverty. Relocation from the hollows of Kentucky didn’t remove deep-rooted patters of trauma, and even with better jobs, family members found that they were part of a deteriorating middle class. Vance write about choices quite a bit, and describes many in that environment as believing deep within themselves that they have no choices; that opportunity and hope for something better will always elude them. It’s helpful to read his words to better understand those that we may feel politically at odds with. And it’s a reminder that when we do make choices for good, they can transform families and ultimately our world.
Moses stood by the Jordan River and reminded the people that the choices they made were the difference between living a life that matters and a life of just getting by. He urged them not to stop there at the river. The journey wasn’t over, and they still had much to learn. We’re moving forward, too, and the choices we make to live with purpose and excellence and to increase our experience and our understanding of truth will make all the difference for us. Knowledge and experience are never just for our own benefit, though. They are to be passed on to other generations, just as the Israelites shared their hard-won wisdom with their children and their grandchildren.
Moses was about to die. He never got to experience life in the Promised Land, but that should not be considered a tragedy. Instead, it’s a reminder that the real value does come in the journey, not just in arriving. That’s our story, too. May we find goodness each day as we zig zag and wander and find our bearings along the way.