Sometimes when I have a chance to preach, I feel like I have a big point to get across. At other times, like this week, when the whole thing feels quieter—more of an observation or a remembrance than a proclamation. I followed Moses up the mountain to his death in Deuteronomy 34:1-12 and here’s what I came away with.
If I were to say the words, “Once upon a time,” you would know I was beginning a story. Those words have pulled us in since we were children. Beginnings are wide open doors, whether we are being invited to explore the great outdoors or to come inside the house for a more intimate tale. Endings, on the other hand, are harder to deal with, or to do well. Life is a lot like a Saturday Night Live skit: it starts with a good premise but most of the time the ending never really pays off—and we have a lot riding on how a story ends.
I read an article in the Washington Post this week that asked, “What book has the most disappointing ending?” It was written by a book reviewer who made a point of saying they never give away the ending when they write about a book, but endings are what most readers want to talk about. It’s true for both books and movies: how everything wraps up has a huge impact on how we feel about the story. Though it is considered great literature, Romeo and Juliet isn’t the feel-good play of the summer. And we are still willing to sit through all the hard boxing scenes to see the triumph of Rocky enduring the fight and believing in himself, even though he didn’t win.
Yesterday was a big day at our house because the Hallmark Channel started showing their Christmas movies. Though it is still way too early for me to start watching them, I will admit I enjoy watching them. Part of the comfort they offer is you can see the ending coming from a mile away. About fifteen or twenty minutes before the movie is over, the couple that seemed destined to be together face something that pulls them apart. Then, with about ten minutes left, and after the last commercial break, they realize the mistake they made and find their way back to each other–the very thing we wanted Romeo and Juliet to do. There are lights and snow and love and, well, Merry Christmas. Imagine how the ratings would go if, after two hours of drawing the two people together, the credits started rolling right when they walked away from each other.
One of the observations that we make about the Bible is that it is more of a library–an anthology–than a single book. Or perhaps we would do better to call it a book of stories, some more connected than others, but all of them telling the Big Story of the relationship between God and Creation and how we keep trying to learn how to be human.
The Christian New Testament is interesting because Paul wrote most all of his letters before the gospels were put on parchment. Though the Gospels come first in the way we read the Bible now, they were the last to be written. Paul started by writing down ideas, but the early Christians realized what mattered most were the stories of Jesus.
The Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, is pretty much stories from beginning to end. The Torah, or the Books of Moses, where we have been camped out for a couple of weeks, are a five-part set that starts with Creation and ends with the Hebrew people on the verge of entering the land God had promised to them.
Today’s passage is the last chapter of the five books–the Big Finish–and it gives an account of the death of Moses. It’s quite a scene. The preceding chapter holds Moses’ final blessing to the people and then God takes him back up the mountain. Once again, it’s just the two: God and Moses. It seems Moses knew he was playing the closing scene. He had said what he had to say and then he started climbing. He already knew he was not going to get to cross over into the promised land. God had made that clear. The narrator says God “let him see” the land in every direction, which is not physically possible from the top of Mount Pisgah, so something deeply mystical is going on, not unlike the burning bush.
Why Moses couldn’t go into Canaan is unclear. Commentators offer many different explanations, but what matters most is that he wasn’t going to cross over. He had to live and die with that. For all that he had done and had seen God do, he was going to die before the story was finished. He got to make his big speech and bless the nation, but then he died alone on the mountain with God and was buried in an unmarked grave so the spot would not be remembered. The narrator closes the story by saying there never was another one like Moses.
I have to say one of the things that came to mind for me as I read Moses’ final scene was Martin Luther King’s speech to the sanitation workers in Memphis on the night before he was killed. Though he didn’t know he was going to be murdered the next day, he seemed to know the ending was always at hand. He said,
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.
He was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorrraine Motel the next morning.
Both Moses and Dr. King knew life had to be about more than checking off everything on our bucket lists. Moses lived a long life and King a relatively short one; neither were finished with what they hoped to do, and they both knew the story of their lives was a part of a larger, more epic tale. They are gone and we keep telling their stories because they are still a part of the larger story that has continued beyond their deaths—the story of what it means to be human.
The writer Anais Nin, in a quote she attributed to the Talmud, wrote, “We do not tell stories as they are, we tell stories as we are.” Poet and theologian Pádraig ÓTuama says that telling stories is the only way for life to become a verb. I recently published a book about the way grief connects us to one another called The Color of Together. One of the paragraphs I wrote says, “My father is dead, but my story with him is not over. I am still turning periods into commas and, sometimes, vice versa. I am still remembering our life together and revising how I think of him and of us as new insights arise.” The story of our lives is not over yet; we are still adding pages.
We are a week away from All Saints Day when we will be particularly mindful of those who died this year–and I know those losses are significant for this congregation. We know what it is like to keep telling the story or our lives after some of our most beloved characters are gone. The Hebrew people did, too. They buried Moses in an unmarked grave and went on to the Promised Land carrying his memory and adding to the story. Listen to Pádraig ÓTuama once again:
To live well is to see wisely and to see wisely is to tell stories and to tell stories is to tell of things that are always changing because even if the stories don’t change, the teller does, and so the story always moves.
I have two people in my life whose parents died this week, one from COVID-19 and the other from finally running out of gas at ninety-five. Death comes. Life ends. Things change. And through it all we keep telling the story of our lives to remember who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming . . . once upon a time. Amen.
Since I am leading remote worship for the United Churches of Durham, Connecticut for the next three months, I have video of the sermon. The song that follows was a favorite my father and I shared:
I love to tell the story
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest
Milton, you caught me completely off guard by finishing with “I Love to Tell the Story.” Such a perfect punctuation to your story. And so many beautiful things IN this story. Among many other more profound things, my mom lives on in her pies, which my daughter and I bake.
Thank you Milton for sharing this wonderful sermon. Having recently lost my baby brother to Covid-19 and dealing with the grief of his loss this sermon reminded me my brother lives on in our memories.