The Promise is Bigger Than Us

Deuteronomy  34:1-12          

A good obituary has a line that jumps off the page and helps you understand the meaning of a person’s lifespan. Here are some of the best lines I found online:

Singer Lou Reed’s (Take a Walk on the Wild Side) obit said, “Lou was a prince and a fighter, and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life.”

“We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink Mulaney during her 85 years: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, or hang Christmas ornaments.”

Jeanne recently composed an obituary for her mother. She summarized Anne’s irrepressible nature in pushing back against convention and pursuing justice with a line from her High School yearbook, “Turns any dull moment into an uproar.”

Deuteronomy 34:12 is the final word of the Pentateuch, the original five biblical books. It ends the story of Moses with this line:

No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of Israel.

These words leave no doubt that Moses was the greatest-of-all-time, the GOAT. He delivered a generation from slavery to freedom and established the foundational laws for society. We still teach the Ten Commandments today. When Jesus was born over 1300 years later, he taught in a climate where every moral decision begins with the law of Moses. Some factions of Judaism end their scripture with this line as if all light and truth have already been uttered.

This ending about Moses’ mighty deeds would fit on Moses’s tombstone. Except Moses doesn’t have a tombstone. No one knows where he is buried. The scripture suggests God personally laid Moses to rest. Let that sink in. Moses does not have a fanfare memorial service nor a giant Pyramid for his tomb, such as the Hebrew slaves built for the Pharaohs of Egypt. He is not buried in a Holy City or a Cathedral where pilgrims can come and pray. Moses’s final place of rest is a mystery known only to God. Of course, Jesus has no tomb, either. Rome tried to put him in one, and we know how that turned out.

Moses does not complete his dream. He dies with only a distant glimpse of the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo, but he doesn’t cross into it, even though he asked God for permission. God tells Moses four times he is not to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy leaves the reasons vague, but in the Book of Numbers, God punished Moses for being disobedient. When the people were thirsty, and Moses struck the rock at Meribah, he struck twice and did so in anger, so God denied him entry into the Promised Land. That doesn’t seem fair for the man who performed the mightiest deeds of all time. But who said life was fair?

Why have these later books of the Bible, Numbers and Deuteronomy, made this point that Moses couldn’t enter the Promised Land despite his greatness? The subtle message is that God’s story with humanity is much bigger than even Moses’. We may look back at the great stories of faith for inspiration and wisdom, but we must live fully in the present. The story is bigger than any of us, any church, or any generation because God is still speaking. Stories have chapters, and then you turn the page and start a new chapter. The Exodus story of freedom from slavery and living in the wilderness is over. The next chapter is unknown and needs new leadership and ways of being in a new land.

I identify with Moses only getting a glimpse of what is next because I know ministry is always transitional. I hope to serve at least ten years here, but that’s a very short time in the life of this congregation. I will walk with you from one place to the next, but I think the Promised Land will be beyond me. Like Moses, my work is to prepare and equip you to live in a new land and reality. Most of us in this sanctuary will not make it to that place because of our age. But as a wise proverb says,

“A society grows great when the old plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”

Last Saturday we did some brainstorming about the spiritual trees we might plant.  The group gathered was surprisingly optimistic even as they acknowledged that the post-COVID church is smaller and older than before. This congregation has hope. You trust in leadership. You can talk to each other without rancor or blame. You are learning to be more welcoming on different levels. And because of your generosity, you have financial resources to take advantage of opportunities.

This congregation is like an excellent lobster boat. You have all the resources and skills to catch lobsters, but that might not be enough to succeed. Forces greater than us are at play as climate change is forcing lobsters to colder waters. The southern part of the Gulf of Maine is less hospitable to lobsters. A 2018 study found that in the next 30 years, the gulf’s lobster population could fall to 40-62%. But that research is five years old. Our gulf is now the fastest-warming part of the ocean. The warm waters are lowering the survival rate of lobster eggs, and the number of young lobsters is down 40 percent over the last three years. Some lobstermen will still survive going into deeper waters. Others are looking into farming seaweed, oysters, or other aquiculture, but many will drop out and do something else. A way of life is changing for many people. Being the best lobsterman will not save them.

This dynamic is also true of the church. Being the best church of the boomer generation won’t save us. Doubling down on what has been successful may not get us where we want to go. In the 20th century, most churches followed the model of finding a good preacher, building a Sunday School, inviting friends, and volunteering in the local community. This model led to the most remarkable church attendance in history after World War II. But it was already breaking down at the turn of the century, leading to 25 years of decline. Fewer people are interested in a church model with classic hymns, organ music, sitting in pews, and being on a committee. You have been good at this, but like the lobstermen, we are chasing fewer lobsters.

To understand the tectonic shift that is taking place, here is a comparison of surveys about the values that have defined the nation’s character.  Over the past 25 years:

·      Those who ranked religion as very important dropped from 62% to 39%.

·      Patriotism as very important dropped from 70% to 38%.

·      Having children as very important dropped from 59% to 30%.

·      Community involvement, as very important, went from 47% to 27%.

·      Meanwhile, interestingly – and perhaps unsurprisingly – the perception of money as “very important” rose from 31% to 43%.

·      More striking, tolerance for others, deemed very important by 80% of Americans just four years ago, is now deemed very important by only 58%.

People have lost trust in most institutions, including Congress, the government, public schools, the military, parenting, and Scouts. We are politically polarized and worried that the planet itself is collapsing. No wonder many people feel alienated, anxious, angry, and lonely. Meaning itself is fragmented, and we don’t know where we belong.

Last year, many of you read “Canoeing the Mountains,” which stated that this is a time of adaptive change, not technical change. Technical changes focus on tangibles like hiring more staff, improving technology, better marketing, fundraising, getting a new hymnal, or adding drums and guitars. We can ask an expert, and they will tell us the best practice. (We have done technical change well. As I said, we run a successful lobster boat. But what happens in 10 years?).

Adaptive change requires new learning, awareness, and creativity. What these times need from us is new research and experimentation in how to be spiritual and follow God’s call in a new environment. That sounds daunting, but isn’t it worth it? One of the best lines at the end of our brainstorming was, “What new adventure is God calling us to live?”

Here is a promising statistic. Gallup has surveyed the percentage of people who believe in God since 1944. Until 2011, that number has been over 90 percent. We are down to 81 percent, but given the collapse of trust in everything else, that sounds remarkably high. Think about this: only one-third of people attend a religious service, but 81 percent have some belief in God. The adaptive challenge for us is to stop thinking about what is wrong with them or what is wrong with us. As with climate change, the nature of reality is shifting, and our way of life will be altered. It’s bigger than us.

But the God that 81 percent of us still believe in offers a promise that is bigger than us. The past is still a resource to us. Like Moses, we may only glimpse the future promise, but this gives us the hope.  Faith will continue even as all things change.  What Ron Heifitz is telling us about the need for adaptive change that requires learning and new awareness would not surprise the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  So what’s your next adventure?

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