The photo on the cover of your bulletin depicts Dr. King delivering his final sermon, the evening before his assassination. Just as Moses surveyed the promised land from a distant peak, in this sermon, Dr. King imagines taking a sweeping panoramic trip through history. He concludes this thought- journey by saying that if God would allow him to live in any era, he would “turn to the Almighty, and say ‘if you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that’s a strange statement to make,” he admits, “because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, preached April 3, 1968, Mason Temple, Memphis, TN)
From his mountaintop, Dr. King moves on from surveying world history, to a more immediate account of the civil rights movement. But his purpose is not reminiscence. He spends the bulk of the sermon instructing those gathered (who were apparently members of the clergy) about their role in the present campaign for economic justice with the Memphis sanitation workers. Moses knew he would die before entering the promised land. Similarly, Dr. King received constant death threats. That night, he seemed to sense his death was imminent, and yet he stayed focused on the work at hand in the present moment. “Well,” he concludes, “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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!” (see above citation)
The text from Deuteronomy emphasizes the power of sight, vision. God proclaims to Moses, “I have let you see [the land] with your eyes” and the narrator adds: “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated.” Karla Suomala, who teaches at Luther College, explains that it’s unlikely Moses could have seen as far and wide as the story claims. She writes: “The rabbis knew that such a view was probably not possible, even from the top of Pisgah. One commentator suggested that Moses must have in fact been in heaven, or at least pretty close, in order to see all of this. Another commentator thought Moses’ view was such that he was also able to see through time as well as space, being given a glimpse of the future by God.” (commentary from the Working Preacher site, Oct 26, 2008; http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=10/26/2008&tab=2)
Prophets such as Moses and Dr. King model a kind of spiritual sight. They teach us not to view our lives in isolation, but as part of a larger narrative. They show us how to embody the vision of “the promised land” and “the beloved community”, even as we let go of the results and the timing of this work. Because we know how the story ultimately ends we can be fully present in this moment. Because we see beyond the limits of our own efforts, we can be glad to be here, now. Each year, Jewish worshipping communities read through the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible, the books of Moses. They begin with creation and end with the death of Moses, and immediately begin reading again with creation. In other words, the central text of their worship always positions them outside the promised land. They hear the promise, they travel toward the vision, but they do not yet live fully within its borders.
Jesus, of course, re-thinks the whole idea of the promised land. The Kingdom of God is his version of the land of milk and honey. He essentially says that the promised land is not a particular place, It is any place in which you “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … and love your neighbor as yourself.” Some commentators speak about the Kingdom as “the reigning of God.” In other words, God’s Kingdom is an activity, a way of being, that calls to account all earthly rulers and powers. The land of milk and honey, the land of freedom and bounty, is a type of community in which our love for God is so complete and compelling that it rules, it encompasses, every other love.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus is constantly at odds with the religious authorities of his day because he believes they have lost sight of what is at the core of their own faith tradition. The laws, he reminds them, are not rules for the sake of rules, but practices that fashion our love in concrete ways. The prophets are not crazy guys who tell the future, they are critics who call us out when our love is failing, who show us the necessity of loved shaped by justice. Creation, Exodus, wilderness wanderings, promised land, exile and return, at the center of this story of our ancestors, at its beginning and its culmination, is the love of God, out of which flows love for self and neighbor. When Moses gazed out from the peak of Mt. Nebo, that’s the sweeping view he saw. When Dr. King surveyed his own life and death, and the span of the movement he had sparked, that’s the hopeful vision of which he understood himself to be a part.
It might seem unfair that Moses never got to enter the promised land. The biblical authors suggest that Moses can’t go with the people because God is punishing him for some minor sin. It seems to me that it was simply the right moment for this transition, both for Moses and for the people. Moses took his last breath gazing out over the splendor of God’s story with humanity, past, present and future. God’s own hand buried Moses’ body and tended to his spirit. Moses has a good death, a death filled with meaning. The rule of St. Benedict, which shapes the life of Benedictine monks instructs the community to: “Keep death daily before your eyes” All three of our prophets – Moses, Jesus, Dr. King— teach us by dying well what it means to live well.
When we see ourselves as part of God’s larger story, we do not need to struggle against our own fragility and limitation. We know, in an ultimate sense, how the story ends. It’s true that those who stand for love often suffer. Persecution and death are undeniable parts of our journey toward the promised land. The story of Jesus acknowledges the power of the cross but refuses to give it the last word. The rising of the Christ is not a simple resuscitation. It is an affirmation of the Jesus’ vision, a confirmation of that larger narrative of God’s love.
In the book With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen writes about the kind of praying that allows us to see ourselves as part of God’s story. “The resistance to praying” he explains, “is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. This image [of fists] shows the tension, the desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear. The story about an old woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and scaring everyone so much that doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two men to pry open that squeezed hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin… The [person] invited to pray is asked to open tightly clenched fists and give up the last coin. (Nouwen, Henri, With Open Hands, Ave Maria Press, 1972, p. 13-14)
I don’t blame the woman in Nouwen’s story – I think I’d react the same way if someone tried to take my possessions away. Still, the image of her clinging to her last coin reveals the hold our money and possessions have over us. We invest power in those things. They give us security, shape our vision, center our narrative. When we pray, and live, with open hands, then we see the world through new eyes, and hear the stories of our day with different ears.
In this season of our generosity campaign, we ask for your financial support for the church. But we also explore our whole life with our money and possessions. Might we each consider how God is calling us to unclench our fists, to give and share, to live with open hands. Week by week, we come together, to climb that peak, to remind ourselves of our place in the sweeping view of God’s larger narrative of love. With Dr. King, may we proclaim, “I’ve been to the mountaintop” And may that vista shape our life and death, our giving and sharing. Amen.