Texts: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6; Matt. 22: 34-40
The writer Christian Wiman includes this provocative little snippet in the story of his conversion: “If that’s what he means,” says the student to the poetry teacher, “why doesn’t he just say it?” “If God is real,” says the parishioner to the preacher, “why doesn’t he simply storm into our lives and convince us?”
Today I’d like you to take my sermon as an invitation, or maybe a provocation, to have big conversations. Some of you might have teenagers in your household. You might not need this. The rest of us, however, are pretty shy about having big conversations.
What do I mean by ‘big conversations’? Well, I’m not talking about relational-emotional conversations. Don’t worry, you’re off the hook from those this week. You can even drop my name if you need to. “Anthony says we’re overdoing it with these emotional-relational conversations. Let’s talk about something else.” That might be the opposite of what you need, so don’t use this excuse for more than a week.
No, the big conversations I have in mind are the ones about big questions: God—death—meaning. If “meaning” is too abstract, just think about what is or is not worth your time. Many of us don’t have much space for these big conversations. So if you want the preacher to tell you what to do (he said with a laugh), then I’m suggesting you find a way to talk with someone about these things this week.
Today we’ll take our three biblical passages as prompts for these conversations. The usual advice to preachers is to address just one text. Don’t worry, I know that—I’m just feeling a little crazy. (Yes, I know, very bold.)
So, big conversations, some biblical prompts. Let me begin by underlining parts of the texts we just heard read to us:
In our Torah reading, Deuteronomy 34, we found Moses on top of a mountain overlooking territory that this people were about to enter. It is land that God had promised to give to Moses’s people. Now that promise is about to be fulfilled. Moses had spent virtually his entire life on a journey to that point. To get there he had confronted slave-holders and negotiated with an emperor. He had herded a collection of people through the wilderness where every turn seemed to hold a new threat or a new cause for complaint.
Moses looked out over the land, and we can imagine a building sense of excitement and satisfaction. God said, “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.”
Moses died. He reached the ripe old age of 120, but he was not able to achieve the hope of his ancestors. The people mourned his death for 30 days. The scribes reflected: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” Moses was died.
That’s our first text. The second, Psalm 90, is linked to it. Most of our Bibles describe this psalm as a prayer of Moses. Here are the first four verses again, notice the way the mortal is enveloped by the everlasting:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past . . . .
Our third reading is linked to Moses as well, even though the main character is Jesus. As a teacher, one of Jesus’ key roles was to interpret and apply the law of Moses. It’s in this capacity that Jesus was approached by a lawyer and asked to identify the “greatest” commandment.
The people had inherited a lot of commandments from Moses. The questioner was asking Jesus to sort them out, to put his finger on the most fundamental, to identify the legal trunk from which the others branched. And you know how Jesus responded: First, love God with everything you have, and second, love your neighbour just as you love yourself. Those two commandments are welded together in the New Testament: love God and love your neighbour.
Here is how I think these texts might prompt big questions. Moses died with a legacy of accomplishments, but his life fell short of reaching one of the most important. The prayer from Psalm 90 is a reminder that all that our lives are a passing thing, that even centuries come and goes like grass. At the core of our gospel reading lies the matter of what is worth doing, what is the most important.
I imagine there are moments when each of us have had thoughts like these. Maybe you passed by a graveyard and it occurred to you that each one of those people was known by others, may have even been the center of someone else’s world, and now they’re gone. Or maybe, for one reason or another, it occurred to you that most people don’t care about the accomplishments of your heroes, those whom you emulate.
Or maybe at the end of last year you looked back over your calendar and realized that all the stress and busyness produced mostly . . . stress and busyness.
We’re approaching the time of year when we remember the saints, or more likely we look for ways to scare ourselves. (Those are both good reasons we celebrate Mennonite heritage Sunday.) Here’s my suggestion, let’s take these Halloween decorations as a reminder to have big conversations.
Who or what is God? When Moses met God, who or what was that? Is God like a super-ghost? Is God a person out there somewhere? How is God different from a giant spaghetti monster? If we have doubts about God, what exactly are we doubting?
For all his success, Moses died with important things left undone. Have we come to terms with our mortality? The temptation is to ignore the fact that our lives will end or to pretend our accomplishments will make our death irrelevant. But we are creatures in skin.
Skin is not a very permanent medium of existence. We have these moments in time, these moments of awareness, but eventually we fade. The novelist and theologian Marilynne Robinson likes to note that our brains are the most complex things ever discovered in the universe. We’ve each been given one. And yet, I would add, this amazing gift is contained only in skin. To be alive is a bit like trying to carry heavy groceries in a wet paper bag.
We share this collection of seasons with others, with those we love and with those we loath. Yet eventually we will return to dust. This doesn’t need to cause depression or anxiety. But maybe it is best to “number our days” as the psalm goes not to say.
I imagine most of us have had the experience of browsing the internet for an hour or two and then realizing that all we got out of it was tension and a literal pain in our neck. Regardless of how we rationalized it, when we closed our web browser there was no lasting sense of satisfaction. There may have been a few flittering moments of interest, but they easily drifted away with a slight shift in our attention. Wouldn’t it be horrible to look back on years or decades and have that same feeling?
How should we spend our time, these numbered days, these seasons slipping through the paper bag of mortality? What does God have to do with it?
I don’t think there is one specific way in which we must all respond to these kinds of questions. How precisely can creatures of dust know the everlasting? Yet I think we would all agree that there are better and worse ways of responding. So take now, and throughout the week to come, this invitation: think, converse, reflect. Have big conversations.
Everlasting God, you who are Holy Wisdom, you do not often storm our lives, but we pray that you would be or guide. Amen.