1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4 The LORD said to him, “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.”
And it terrified Moses beyond belief. To stand on top of that mountain and see the Promised Land lay out in front of him like that was a terrifying moment. It reminded him of the taller mountain which he stood atop: a mountain of shame.
There was the shame of the last forty years . Forced to wander in the wilderness because Moses and ten of the spies were too chicken to enter the Promised Land when God said it was there for them.
The shame of the failure at the rock. God had told him to speak words of faith and water would come forth, but Moses needed to show the people his power, his authority, that it was his staff that made the difference, and so he struck it…and now because of his lack of faith, he was to be kept out of the Promised Land, too.
There was the shame that had never quite left him since that first moment that God had called from the bush – the fear of not being strong enough, brave enough, well-spoken enough, not being the right person for God to speak through. It was a deep shame and it never quite went away.
And there was the shame he had in the people down the mountain. For as he looked across the land they were about to enter, Moses knew only of the whining, weak, small extended family that stood waiting at the bottom of the hill. And deep down he feared that they were just not up to the task.
And so, now on top of the mountain, looking from one end of his failing eyesight to the other, that shame seemed even greater than the mountain upon which he stood.
So, Moses did what many of us do when our shame surges over us. We run. Moses hobbled down the mountain, his age hunching and slowing his gait. But he had enough strength left to command his people once more: “Pack up. We’re going back to the desert.” There were too many giants in those hills. Too many dangers that awaited. Too much failure in his past and upon his shoulders. So he commanded Reuben and Judah and Benjamin and Dan and all of the twelve tribes to pack up again to move. As far away from the Promised Land as they could.
And run they did. From their past and their fear of the future, they ran. Back into the wilderness. Back into the desert. Back into the relative safety of a noncommittal wandering. And in that safety, Moses lived out his last days.
Until the morning that his servants went into find his lifeless body in his bed. And so they grieved. They grieved their leader. They grieved what might have been. And there in that desert, they wasted away. They never again left the site of Moses’ death, but made it a shrine to their lost memories. The good old days. They worshiped God on that site as they died in the desert. Wasting away in the sand, until the twelve tribes became eight. Became three. Became one.
And then an old and lonely Joshua sat alone in the sand. No David had been born. No Solomon. No Temple had been built. There was no Promised Land. And alone sat Joshua, looking vaguely toward the West. And thought he remembered a story from his youth about a land flowing with milk and honey.
Or so the story could have ended. If Moses had indeed allowed the power of shame and guilt and fear to overcome him, the story of the people of God might have been very different. For the story of shame and its power to overwhelm us is not new. Nor is it ancient history. It is the story of every time and every generation.
Brene Brown writes about the mountain of shame that we all stand atop. Brown is a researcher in Houston in the area of Social Work. She is a self-proclaimed numbers cruncher, and has taken it upon herself to take topics that tend to be considered vague or difficult-to-quantify or “touchy-feely” and turned them into data and clear numbers. And so, this spreadsheet-loving researcher has spent a great deal of her time interviewing and researching and quantifying things like vulnerability. And shame. And creativity. And brought her skills as a researcher to some fascinating conclusions about the power of shame.
A sentence from her book Daring Greatly that sticks out: “We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it. We have to be vulnerable if we want more courage; if we want to dare greatly.” She explains that all of us live with shame at some level, as she highlights twelve “shame categories” in her book. Among them are money; Physical health and body image; family history; the ways that we parent or whether or not we are a parent; aging and growing older. The list is long. But it is not new. Shame is as old as Moses and as new as you and me looking in the mirror this morning.
And so Brown tells us that those who react in healthy ways to this dynamic realize that we simply cannot avoid or resist shame. What her research tells her instead is that we must learn what she calls “shame resilience.” We must learn to become resilient in the face of shame. Instead of masking or shielding our shame, with common practices such as perfectionism or cynical fear or numbing ourselves with alcohol or drugs or sports or whatever, we must learn to be resilient.
Again, Brown’s research proves what has been at the heart of our faith for generations. I think back to the ministry of Jesus and the number of times that he encountered those who had been overwhelmed by shame. The woman at the well. Levi the tax collector. The prostitute who annointed Jesus. And what was his message, in the face of their shame? “Do not be afraid.” “You are loved.” “You are forgiven.” For each of us, on the individual level, there is hope in the power of the Gospel to overcome our shame and move beyond that which seeks to bury us. The pain of a lost job or a failed relationship or a child raised in our home who ended up making decisions that we didn’t approve of. Christ invites us to take that shame and that pain and that fear and release it. To be resilient in the face of shame. It will not overwhelm us like it could have Moses. God is greater than our shame!
But Brown goes onto say that shame is not only an individual dynamic. She says shame is something that can grip an organization, as well. She quotes Peter Shehan, who works with organizations to map and cultivate their creativity and innovation. He says “The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea…you can be sure shame played a part….Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.”
I would suggest that this is relevant for religious organizations, as well. Such as a congregation. Or a denomination. Or even something as large as the Church universal. What powerful words for the church today, even as we face our own giants! I read even more troubling statistics this week. About congregations closing their doors. Millennials leaving the church. The Center for Healthy Churches wrote this week that congregational giving and attendance is down in 90% of churches in the United States. It’s downright depressing. And a little terrifying.
But Shehan’s words remind us that it’s not time to redouble our efforts toward the sand of our past. It’s time to ask what God is doing now and where God is taking us in the future. As we at FBC look to the future, pledge for a new ministry budget year, plan for our leadership, and make goals for 2015, it’s time to ask again how we are to be a church of the Four W’s – Welcome, Worship, Work, and Wonder – and how this is a new thing that God is doing.
• Let us welcome in innovative and radical ways, to be a base camp to reach out to the community and those who are on our doorstep and in our neighborhood.
• Let us worship in innovative and radical ways…recognizing that we don’t fit a lot of molds or stereotypes in peoples’ minds, but that it is okay to be Baptist and still wear pulpit robes and light a Christ candle.
• Let us work in innovative and radical ways…partnering with Dezo, leading the charge against injustice in Lawrence, and opening our doors to the needs of our neighbors.
• Let us wonder in innovative and radical ways…developing our “teaching church” model and leading the way for other congregations and institutions to follow.
The statistics we face are tough. But they aren’t that different than the statistics that Moses faced. I’m sure someone was pointing out “100% of our attempts to enter the Promised Land have failed. There is a 1 in 1000 chance that we will enter the Promised Land without any challenge or danger. 99% of the people at the bottom of this mountain would rather escape back into the desert than die in the Promised Land…some of them are still saying that life was better in Egypt and are currently forming the committee to take them back now.”
Yet, Moses did not turn back.
The story did not end as I imagined it a few minutes ago.
Instead, this happened:
5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.
10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Moses’ sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. He was not overwhelmed by shame and fear, as he easily could have been. But instead, he told the people God would lead them into the land. He blessed the people. He blessed Joshua as their leader. He blessed them and their new lives and new land that was to come. He did not let shame become fear…become risk aversion…become the death of innovation and the new thing that God had planned for them.
He did not return to the desert. Instead, the people of God turned toward their challenges and faced them head on. Yet, they did not forget or belittle the efforts of those who have brought us here. Look again to what the Israelites did upon Moses’ death. They wept in the plains of Moab for 30 days. They found a way to both grieve the past and look to the future. They held both in their hands. They grieved the loss of their leader Moses, yet they turned toward the future that he had led them into. They walked through the door that Moses had opened. They didn’t die in the desert, but entered into a new land. For the people of God, the choice was simple. Run and hide in the desert until the sands blow them away. Or face challenges that accompany a new and glorious future.
Today, may our sight be unimpaired and our vigor unabated. May we enter into the newness that God has prepared for us, not overwhelmed by shame and fear, but overwhelmed with hope and anticipation! May we grieve the loss of that which is no more, yet open our eyes to new and creative and innovative ways to do ministry, as God leads us into a new land of promise!