“Moses stood with his toes hanging over the precipice. Behind him stood a dying and empty world. Before him stood promise. With a smile in his eyes, he opened his mouth to speak.”
So begins what has been called the best sermon in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 29 to 34 looks like a history lesson about Moses and the people of God. It looks like a historical chronicle about the moment in which the Israelites stop their 40 years of wandering and begin their entrance into the Holy Land.
What it really is is a masterful and inspirational sermon written some hundreds of years later. It is a narrative sermon, using Moses as an example for the preacher’s current situation. In the same way that I stand up here and talk about Moses and use his story as a way to relate to our world, the writer of Deuteronomy was doing the same thing. Most scholars believe that the book was actually written much, much later than the life of Moses. Most likely, it was written about 600 BCE, several hundred years after Moses had lived and died. Like a sermon that I or Pastor Meredith preach on any given Sunday, the writer of Deuteronomy (creatively called by scholars “The Deuteronomist”) saw Moses as a way to deliver a sermon of hope and promise in his own world.
The Deuteronomist delivers a sermon in three parts. Now, you thought that was new, right? Three points and a poem, right? That that was an invention of seminaries within the last few years. But I crack open a commentary this week, and what do I read? The sermon at the end of Deuteronomy? 2600 years ago? Three points and a poem.
Point one. Life is hard. Interestingly enough, The Deuteronomist stood on the edge of a precipice as well. His world was much like Moses’. He (or she) stood at the end of a difficult an empty time in the life of Israel known as the Exile. They had been exiled by the Babylonians, and now they were just getting ready to come back to the Promised Land. They had lived through the chaos of God apparently leaving them out to dry. The Temple had been destroyed. Jerusalem had been sacked. Their leaders were either killed or taken away to exile. Everything they knew had been disrupted.
It was much like the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, the preacher reminded them. Remember those days? Remember how hard it was? Kind of like what we have been through, right? Like the Exile. Like today. Life is hard.
But then, I can imagine a wry smile coming across the preacher’s face. “Yes, life is hard. But God is good.”
The next part of the sermon launches into a reminder of what God had done for them. His message is that God has saved them before and God will save them again. That they are the recipients of God’s good grace and God’s faithful love again and again. They have more reason to trust God than anything or anyone else. He points back at the story of the Israelites through history. Saving them from the Egyptians. Protecting them in the wilderness. Bringing them to the Promised Land. God is good.
Life is hard. God is good. Part three: do your part. Most of the sermon of the Deuteronomist is about this one. He speaks of the renewal of the covenant, of the reality that God wants our faithfulness, in addition to God’s own. We have a role to play in the covenant of God with God’s people.
But our part is more than empty actions and behavior. It is about the relationship. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul,” he pleads. “The commandment is not all the way in heaven. It is not all the way across the sea. It is here, in your mouth and in your heart.” “Choose life!” It made sense in the context of the Deuteronomist, right? Everything that they could once count on was gone – Temple, homes, communities. Yet, the covenant was still there. In their mouths and in their hearts. Love God. Follow the commandments. Join in covenant with God and God’s people. Do your part.
With that, the three points delivered with style and rhetorical presence, the Deuteronomist delivers the final poem – actually a song of Moses in poetic form – and walks away from the pulpit. Point made.
First Baptist Church, you know what’s coming, don’t you? We stand together today, on the precipice. Behind us stands a dying and empty world. Before us stands promise. Let me explain. With three points.
Point one. Life is hard.
A few weeks ago, I stood up at the American Baptist Mission Summit and the folks gathered there that I have grown up in a Church that will no longer exist by the time I retire. If you missed the sermon, don’t worry, I’ve said most of that stuff to you guys first. They just got the re-runs. In the sermon, I talked about a changing world, changing authority, and a changing Church. It was all very big and universal. But it is just as true in the microcosm of the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas. Life is hard.
Let’s be honest with ourselves this morning. We don’t have nearly the same participation that we used to be able to count on. Worship numbers are lower than they were ten years ago. Giving is lower than it was ten years ago. It is harder and harder to get people to agree to accept leadership positions. Several of our positions remain unfilled, or filled by gracious folks who didn’t walk away when they had the right to. And the folks who are working are doing more. Covering more bases. From the nursery workers, all the way to the professional staff, there are less of us having to do more.
I said all of that to the Biennial crowd, because they have seen similar stories in their own churches. All that stuff that I named about us is kind of the norm. Diana Butler Bass calls the first ten years of our century the “Great Religious Recession.” If anything, are numbers are happier than most. Our worship numbers have stabilized or gone up over the last couple of years. We are able to tackle some needed capital projects. We have stability in the staff. Yet, the realities are there, aren’t they?
And so we grieve what is lost. There is a great quotation in your bulletins by Hiefitz and Linsky: “People do not resist change. They resist loss.” I think that this is spot on. Change by itself is not the thing that we resist. It is what we have to give up in order to get something new. It is what we lose. It is what we grieve. And we grieve the things that feel comfortable for us. We resist what will happen if our worship service looks different, or our Sunday school class, or our building. We resist loss. So we grieve what we have lost. We grieve what is different.
But we can’t just go back to doing things the way that we did before, and expect the same results that we did before. It would be like Moses marching the Israelites back into the desert. Or the Deuteronomist running back to the Babylonians. Instead, they stood on that precipice and said, “there is nothing back there for you.”
But then, with that wry smile on their lips they said, “But look ahead of you.” Moses told them about the beauty of the Promised Land in front of them, the land flowing with milk and honey. A land of promise and peace. The Deuteronomist told them about a renewed covenant, a renewed promise, and renewed land.
Point number two is this: God is good.
Look what God has done over the last 158 years with this church. And at the end of the day, our hope will be in a God who is bigger than this decade or this lifetime or this current struggle of the church. It will be hope in a God who has been faithful for 158 years to this congregation. The God who was faithful after Quantrill’s Raid 150 years ago. The God who was faithful in the middle of the Great Depression. The God who was faithful when some of you walked up the steps to the building on 8th and Kentucky and saw that it had been condemned since you worshipped there the week before. That God, who was faithful for 158 years, will be faithful to us now! God is good.
Yet, the sermon continued, for the Deuteronomist and for us today. Life is hard. God is good. But, also, we are asked, commanded even: Do your part!
Get creative. Figure out ways to do more with less. Figure out how we can accomplish the goals of the program, without assuming that we have to do things exactly how we have always done it. Get creative. Do your part.
Get to know each other more. To rely on each other more. To talk to each other more. It is easy to stay in our little cones, our bubbles, talking to only the people that we know. But the power of community and diversity don’t accomplish much if we don’t get to know each other. So join a meet and eat group. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Sit in a new part of the sanctuary for worship. Get to know each other more. Do your part!
Get quiet. I think that if we are going to transform this world through our church, we are going to have to start praying more. Asking for wisdom. Asking for patience. Asking for strength and endurance and hope. The answer is not that far from us, the Deuteronomist says. But we have to be willing to be quiet long enough to listen. We cannot do it ourselves.
Get to work. For this church to make it, some of us are going to have to give up a little more time, a little more Facebook, make our priorities a little different, because we want to see God’s work come to fruition in this place and among this people. On August 11, we will all have the opportunity to learn more about ways to get involved and get to work at the Ministry Fair….. Get to work. Do your part.
One more thing. Sorry, I had this great poem ready to go, but I thought I’d do something else instead….
So, I preached this sermon at the Biennial, and all of a sudden, everyone starts getting all jittery. Starts talking about how many other churches saw me preach. Starts thinking I’m going to jump ship.
First of all, none of its true. I’m not talking to any search committees. I’m not talking to any other churches. I am going on vacation to visit family – not to visit some other church!
Second of all, give yourself a little credit. I’m the lucky one in this relationship! I love this church and I love being here. I love working with John and the SLT, and am excited about what we have done and where we are going. I love working with Pastor Meredith and Jenny and Nathan and the staff that we have here. This is a strong and creative and dynamic place. I don’t want to go anywhere. So, as long as it’s okay with you, I’d love to stick around a while. I’d love to do my part. And I am going to press you to do yours.
So, I’m going to ask you to do something for me. With me. Stand up…
Together, we stand with our toes on the precipice. Behind us lies a dying and empty world. Procedures and programs and old ideas that aren’t going to work anymore. But before us lies promise. And hope. And transformation. And the very Spirit of God, at work in our future.
Peek over the edge with me into that future. Look to see what God is doing right now. What God will do. And grab a hand of someone next to you…