Deuteronomy 34:1-12

There’s something about being up high, the way the thin air feels. I know some of you have hiked up Lookout Mountain in Montreat, and you get to the top, about 3600 feet, and you can see everything. You look to the north, and you can follow the ridge above the Trestle road toward Greybeard, the peaks beyond turning greyish blue as you look toward Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. You look down into the valley, back into the town of Montreat, highlighted by the auditorium, and the lake, and the stone inn. The Seven Sisters peaks frame that side of the valley, but you can also see out farther to the west, out into Black Mountain and beyond, Interstate 40 stretching toward Asheville. Or you can look south, then back to the east and the edges of Ridgecrest. From up high the land opens before you.

This text is a crucial transition in the life of the people. From Abraham to Isaac, the promise was secured through lineage, family to family, then Joseph, those 430 years of slavery in Egypt. God then called Moses from a burning bush to lead them out of slavery, equip them with the law, and get them to the land promised. And here, at the end of all of it, Moses hikes up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and God shows him the whole land. You can see everything, from Gilead up to Dan, over to the edge of the sea, down the coast, back to the valley with Jericho on the other side.[1] God speaks to Moses. Here is the land I promised to Abraham and to Isaac, to those who have gone before. I want you to see it. You won’t go in, but I wanted you to see it.

The moment is bittersweet. God and Moses have been in this awhile together, and this season is coming to an end. Jill Duffield of the Presbyterian Outlook writes, “…now I see God’s granting of the vision of the finish line as nothing but grace. God’s ‘I have let you see it, but you shall not cross over’ seems benedictory-like. It echoes with ‘well done good and faithful servant.’ Rest in your work knowing the story of these stiff-necked, mumbling, beloved people will continue.”[2] The people of the promise have been given what they need. With the leadership of Moses – never since has there arisen a prophet like him, the text says – unequaled for the signs and wonders, mighty deeds of power. Through Moses, God gave the people the Torah, the law, to shape their life together. Here the break occurs: “Joshua and the books that follow will tell what happened with this people who have Torah,” Patrick Miller writes, “that is, promise and instruction.” “Deuteronomy, however,” he continues, “not only stands at the end of an era. It opens up the next one, for by its canons, the instruction God gave to Moses, the people are to live and are judged. That story is still going on.”[3]

Phyllis Tickle in her 2010 book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, articulates the idea that around every 500 years comes a period of tremendous upheaval in the church. For Western Christianity, the Protestant, or Great Reformation was five hundred years ago – we’ll talk more about that in a minute. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. Five hundred years earlier you have Pope Gregory the Great, who helped bring the church out of the dark ages. During these 500-year episodes the church has what Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale—it takes a look at its old stuff and decides to sell what it no longer needs. We are going through this kind of giant sale today, Tickle argues.[4] In each of these seasons the church takes everything out, sorts out what works and what doesn’t, and finds a way to re-envision itself, Tickle says, coming out in each season different, but stronger, than before.

As Tickle and others argue, we are at another crucial transition. 500 years ago this week we remember a German monk and professor named Martin Luther who took a hammer and nailed a list of 95 theses, ideas the church needed to contend with, on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. 500 years ago. He didn’t fully intend to spark a movement, but he did, which led to a series of reformations across all parts of Europe, later spread to all corners of the world. And we are – before that, and since – always being re-formed by the Spirit of the Living God, the resurrected Christ. Luther sought reforms both in the way the church did business, but even more so in its understanding of itself, as a community, a covenant people, founded in response to God’s grace come to us in Jesus Christ.

Regardless of whether Tickle’s “every 500 years” thesis holds water, we live in a season of overwhelming change. Our world continues to flatten, the globe’s ethnic and religious diversity at our doorstep. Faith in institutions erodes, and we all feel a bit unsteady in our 24-hour-news-cycle, crisis of the moment, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat technological maelstrom. It is easy to be unsure, easy to be afraid. Yet we, you and me, continue to be invited into this ongoing project of always being re-formed by the Holy Spirit. In seasons of uncertainty it is particularly tempting to pull back, hunker down, build walls, push back at the change that swirls around. We prefer our own little enclaves with people who look like us and think like us.

Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us, now, to move toward this world, God’s world that God created and loves and continues, even now, to sustain in power. We are called to move toward this world with open hands and a generous heart, not afraid of the change, not shutting town and finding someone to blame, but moving out in grace. This Spirit that inspired the Reformation continues to work on us, to make each of us more kind, more thoughtful, more gracious, more generous. The Spirit works on us as a larger church, those of us in the family called the Presbyterian Church, and here at Westminster. At times in our history when we proclaimed the gospel with boldness, when we build institutions, educated extraordinary numbers of people here and around the world, built hospitals. And at times when we were silent in the face of slavery or other injustice, justified it to protect ourselves. Our history is always glorious and disappointing; full of stirrings of hope and times when we have been too afraid.

Each generation has its opportunity to find their place in the line of God-claimed and God-gifted people. The Spirit was at work among those in sister churches in town who worked to start a church that met at the old Hope Valley School. As the Council family offered this land, as the group laid a foundation – and some of you were so important to this – of leadership and generosity. The Spirit worked through worship and service, and the choir sang and folks sat on the whoopee-cushion chairs in the Fellowship Hall until this Sanctuary was built in 1987. As you served, as you invited friends, as you all started half the helping agencies in town, as we worked together to speak words of hope. As we wrestled in the past and will continue to wrestle through, difficult issues in the church and in the world, as we work to be a church that truly welcomes all people, transcending barriers of race – we saw another white supremacist rally in Tennessee yesterday and the church must be clear – and class and orientation and identity…in a way that tries to embody something of the kingdom of God. That we might be, in Church School classrooms, here at this font, at Montreat, in clinics in Port-au-Prince, at Hope Valley Elementary, at Families Moving Forward and Camp New Hope, in your neighborhoods and where you work, a people inspired, driven, shoved out into the world by Jesus Christ, as we work to be faithful in these days of violence and conflict and anger and division. As we give and work and study and show up and read and sing and pray and pray and pray.

Moses’ work is done, the text tells us. But ours is not. The story is still unfolding among us, and Christ our Lord invites us to do our part. Might we be given the faith to do our part.

All praise be to God. Amen.

[1] See Mount Nebo. I found this narration helpful.

[2] From her “Looking into the Lectionary for October 29,” sent on October 23, 2017.

[3] Patrick Miller, Interpretation: Deuteronomy, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1990), p 245.

[4] The summary here comes from an interview found here on The Vancouver Sun. I also found this interview from Faith & Leadership and this article from Patheos helpful.