Text: Exodus 34:1-12
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
The poet more often says what the preacher wishes she could say. I must confess to you this day that I am in a reflective mood, not so much a preaching mood. Death came to our community this week and I was not ready. Sunday, Gerald and Lynda Smith’s son, Gerry, died after a short journey with cancer. And although Gerry was not a part of our church, Gerald and Lynda are which made Gerry was a part of us. On Monday, our beloved Deborah Steely died after a nearly two-year journey with cancer. For over three decades, Deborah’s theological thirst, curiosity, and insight inspired others to that same thirst, curiosity, and insight. Possibly never have we known another biblical teacher with her insight and wisdom. Then on Tuesday, our gentle and strong friend Phil Letsinger died after a very short illness. Next Sunday, November 5 Phil would have marked his 50th anniversary of being a member of this church, Pullen Church. There would be no way to calculate the number of hours that Phil Letsinger volunteered at this church. And no instrument on earth could measure the depth of his commitment to care for and maintain the beauty of this sanctuary—this place. Death came this week and took away two of the brightest coins in our community.
The biblical story from the Hebrew scriptures included in the lectionary for this week is that of the death of Moses. His life has spanned the last four biblical books: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. He has been the prominent figure in these books, leading the Israelites for 40 years, out of slavery in Egypt, to Mt. Sinai, through many trials and tribulations and wilderness wanderings, and now they stand at the cusp of the Promised Land, about to enter into the promise God made so many generations ago to Abraham and Sarah. There on Mount Nebo, the Israelites must, too, have felt that one of their brightest coins had been taken from their purse.
The picture painted in the beginning verses of Deuteronomy 34 is one of magnificence. We read that Moses goes up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of the Pisgah. There, God shows him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, and Negab, and the Plain—that is the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. Then God says, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
For most of us it is hard to imagine this picture. We’ve never been to Gilead or Dan, or to the land of Ephraim and Manasseh. We’ve never stood on the top of Mount Nebo and looked out across the landscape. So for a moment I want to channel Clarence Jordan and bring this a little closer home—maybe to some places we can imagine. Consider this translation of Deuteronomy 34. Moses goes up from the plains of Shelby to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains and the highest peak in mainland eastern North America. There God shows him the whole land: the land from Burnsville in Yancey County as far as the hot springs of Madison County, the land of the Black Mountain subrange of the Appalachians to the land of Asheville and the Pisgah National Forest. God said to him, “This is the land of your ancestors which I am entrusting to you and to the future generations of your children and their children and their children. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.
Now consider yet another translation: Deborah journeyed from the lowlands of Arkansas and Phil from the flatland of Indiana into the sacred halls of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Within those halls God shows them the whole land: from Finlator Hall bustling with Roundtable guests on Tuesdays and Thursdays to Wednesday night programs on climate control and white privilege and transgender issues; to the land of Pullenites marching and protesting and going to jail for justice-love; to the land of Exploring the Bible on the 3rd floor all the way down to the first floor and where the three-year-olds learn to share and care for one another; to the land where we worship all the way to the sacred space where our youth build relationships and discover their own faith; and to the lands that stretch far beyond our walls where we engage in meaningful relationships—as far as Matanzas and Tbilisi and Managua. And God said, “This is church which I swore to John T. Pullen and J. A. Baker and L.E. M. Freeman and J. A. Ellis and R. L. McMillan and Mrs. Addie Waite and Mrs. Caviness and Mrs. Mitchener and J. A. Ellis and Edwin McNeil Poteat. Then God said to Deborah and Phil, “I have let you not only see it with your eyes, but have been with you as you have journeyed a portion of the way with your people. And now, with your spirit enfolding them your fellow Pullenites will continue the journey toward the promised land of justice-love for all.”
This story of Moses and that of Deborah and Phil and all the other Pullenites who have gone before us raises the question: “To what are we willing to make an investment in that we very well may not see the full return on?” Moses gave 40 years. He saw but he did not enter. Phil gave 50 years, and the roof leaks less but we’ve not reached the promised land of no more leaks. Deborah gave over three decades of her life, and the seeds of biblical scholarship she planted are still sprouting but not yet mature.
For Moses and all of us, it can be frustrating and even disappointing to not reach the promise land of our hopes and dreams and aspirations, of our labors and commitments and sacrifices. But from the top of Mount Nebo, it’s impossible not to be filled with joy and gratitude.
From Nebo, we are reminded that God sometimes gives us a mission that is bigger than our lifetime.
From Nebo we see that God sometimes gives us dreams that take longer than one generation to germinate.
From Nebo we see that the journey of faith is longer than our path.
From Nebo we see that God is always faithful to God’s promises… even if it takes 400 and 40 years.
(Tom Harris, Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church, Raleigh, NC)
Finding your Nebo is a part of the faith journey—that place where you stand and look at the landscape and decide if you will make an investment even if you don’t get a full return on the promised land. I am humbled by the Nebo that is Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. I know that we will not overcome racism in my lifetime. And I know just as surely as I know the sun will rise that Pullen will continue to fight for racial equality and justice. I know that we will not feed all of the hungry in Raleigh, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we will keep feeding the hungry. I know that I will not live to see the kingdom of God reign on Hillsborough Street, but I know with my whole being that this congregational will keep living into the kingdom vision.
One of the most striking uses of this text, of course, is in the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated. He addressed the crowd in Memphis:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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.
“That great modern-day prophet used the story of Israel’s first great prophet to speak of hope and faith to a people who needed both. That story can continue to speak to people today who, even in the midst of disappointment, live by faith in the God of Moses, the God who does indeed fulfill promises.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker, Working Preacher Commentary)
So what will you invest in this Nebo called Pullen Memorial Baptist Church? How will you/we repay the debt we all owe to those who brought us to this place and time? How will you/we pay forward the grace you have received here? None of us are going to make it to the promised land, but can we rest easy knowing that we are making progress in the desert so that those who follow us can?