Today’s passage from Deuteronomy marks the end of an epic story. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: these five books make up the Pentateuch, the core narrative of Judaism. Jewish congregations read through these books every year, beginning with Creation and ending with this account of the death of Moses. It’s a bittersweet moment. After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the people are almost home. Nearly all those in the generation who originally left Egypt have died. Moses, too, will die here, while gazing out over the Promised Land. God will fulfill the hope that has inspired Moses. God will make real the vision of the future that has guided him. But Moses will not get to be part of it. He will never touch the soles of his feet to the land, or live beneath the beauty of its skies. He will neither plow its soil nor harvest its abundance.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a sermon on this same passage from Deuteronomy, the night before he was assassinated. As he prepared the people to march the next day in support of striking sanitation workers, he took them up to the mountaintop with Moses, to look out over all of human history. He imagined that God asked him which age he would like to live in. And Dr. King replied that even though “the world is all messed up” and “ the nation is sick,” he was content to live in his own time, because he could see God at work in it. He concluded his sermon with these words:
“Well, 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 God’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.”
According to the biblical account, Moses received a sweeping, far flung view of the entire land that is now Israel/ Palestine. Professor Karla Suomala 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.” (www.workingpreacher.org/
preaching.aspx?commentary_id=170) It is not Moses, but God who acts on the mountaintop to create vision. God shows Moses the land. God lets Moses see the promised future. The vision of faith is a gift of God that allows us to discern, and live toward, a hoped-for world that does not yet exist.
When I was in high school my mom went back to school to get her masters in nursing. As part of her program, she researched and wrote a thesis on the subject of hope. I remember well the long evenings she spent bent over our family’s Apple IIE computer with the glowing green typeface. And I know that she ultimately saved her paper not to one, but two black floppy discs. But I couldn’t recall much about why she chose to study hope or what conclusions she reached in her study. So I called her up to ask her about it. She explained that as a nurse in the ER for many years, she had always wondered about the different outcomes she had seen in patients with very similar medical issues. Why do some people seem to thrive and flourish, while, in the same kind of circumstances, others don’t? She decided to study this question in patients having cardiac bypass surgery. Using instruments developed by other researchers, she measured the patients’ levels of hope both before and after surgery, and the degree to which they made a successful psychosocial adjustment to their illness. (If I understand correctly, she was not so much investigating their physical recovery as their ability to cope with their illness emotionally, spiritually and relationally.) She found a strong correlation between levels of hope and the ability to make a positive adjustment. She also found that a person’s levels of hope tended to be the same both before and after surgery. In other words, our ability to have hope does not seem to depend on our circumstances.
Hope is more about who we are than what happens to us. Hope, in the context of our faith, is a commitment we make a future we will probably not reach in our lifetime, and to a vision that cannot see except through God’s eyes. Moses didn’t make it to the Promised Land; he died at the cusp of his goal. And once the people did enter the land, it was not paradise after all. It was full, full of other people, full of real-life problems. Jesus may have silenced the scorn of his challengers, and even won their respect in today’s lesson, but eventually they would seek his death. Dr. King saw tremendous progress in dismantling racism in his time but 50 years later, we have so much left to do. The hope that our faith gives us is not optimism. It is a single-hearted devotion to God and all whom God loves. Love God, Jesus says, love your neighbor, love yourself, love the world. In our culture, love tends to be equated with strong emotion. But love, in a biblical sense, is less about feeling and more about what we choose to do. It is through concrete acts of love that we can share in God’s future, God’s vision.
Even though this vision is rooted in the future, its promise is for the here and now. In his mountaintop sermon, Dr. King actively resisted the idea that the hope of the Christian faith was in heaven, or for a time after death. He declared:
“It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and God’s children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis. . . . This is what we have to do.”
Dr. King went on to outline his practical strategy for moving toward this vision: non-violent economic resistance. “We don’t have to argue with anybody,” he explained.
“We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, ‘God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating [God’s] children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.’”
Living into God’s vision, according to Dr. King, means making intentional choices about how we use our money. With our money, we can resist greed and fear. With our money, we can withdraw support for violence and undermine oppression. With our money, we can show love. For me, and my spouse Jen, sharing financially is at the heart of faith. It is our way of living toward hope. It brings us joy to set aside a portion of our resources to support the work of a variety of organizations and causes, including the two congregations to which we belong. This year, our pledge for First Church is $5,160, which is about five percent of our income. Gabriel Marcel says: “Hope cannot be achieved alone but takes place in communion with another.” Through our financial giving, we are privileged to take part in this communion of hope we call the church. Will you join me in living your hope by offering to God’s work among us the portion of your resources that is generous for you? Whatever you give, God will bless your generosity to be an expression of God’s loving vision for the world.