A Contradictory Life

A sermon for Proper 25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. Yes, we jumped from Exodus 33, over last 7 chapters of Exodus, the entire book of Leviticus, the entire books of Numbers, and the first 33 chapters Deuteronomy. Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. This is the story of Moses seeing the promised land but not being allowed to cross into it. We hear about Moses’ death, his unknown, unknowable burial place, and the thirty days of mourning by Israel for her sometimes scorned and sometimes beloved leader. We hear about the anointing of Joshua. We hear the praise of Moses as God’s unique prophet, who knew the LORD face to face and to whom there is no equal.

This is a story of ending: the end of Moses’ story, the end of Moses giving the Torah, the LAW as defined in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is the end of Moses’ leadership, the end of Israel’s wilderness journey, the end of Israel as a nomadic people.

This is a story of beginnings: Joshua begins his leadership of Israel, Israel’s beginning residence in the promised land the beginning of cosmopolitan Israel, of Israel as a nation of cities the beginning of Israel’s Temple-centered relationship with God.

This is a continuing story, Moses’ story is over, Joshua’s story is beginning, God’s story with Israel, God’s story with all creation continues (Gaventa, and Petersen).

This is a story of contradictions. Moses was God’s faithful servant. He left a life of luxury in the Egyptian Royal House to return to his people, to God’s people. He left the burning bush to lead Israel out of captivity in Egypt. He stood between Israel’s rebellious nature and God’s fierce anger. Moses was also a less than a faithful servant. The first thing he does on his arrival among the Hebrew slaves is to kill an Egyptian overlord and flees to Midian. He continually questions God’s decision by asking “Who am I?” He threatens to quit “What am I to do with your people?” At Meribah, he does not follow God’s instruction to speak to the rock to give water to the people of Israel. On his own, he strikes the rock with the staff God gave him (Exodus 17:1-7). On the surface, this is not a big deal; however, it questions the power of speaking, as if giving voice to God’s word is not enough. There is the possible implication that Moses believes the staff has some sort of power, which diminishes the power of God’s presence. So yes, Moses disobeys God, and is a less than a perfect servant; at the same time, he is also the unparalleled servant of the Lord. This contradictory relationship is seen in Moses relationship with Israel. Israel frequently rejected Moses’ leadership, “You have brought into the desert to die!” But, at his death, they are deeply grieved (Bratt).

When I read this lesson I immediately started thinking about the lessons of transitions it has to offer us. St. Stephen’s is in a big transition as I move to part-time, and some divine guidance is certainly welcome. However, the divine muse was strangely silent. What eventually emerged is the contradictions surrounding Moses, we have just explored. I want to explore a couple thoughts about contradictions, within the context of transition.

As a nation, we are in a time of change. The political upheaval we are witnessing is a sign of changes in our economic traditions, our relationships with other nations, our internal relations along lines of race, sex and gender, our relations along class lines. Another manifestation of these transitions is what to do with all the statues and memorials to controversial leaders from our past. I want to take a very brief look at two.

Robert E Lee did lead the army of Northern Virginia in rebellious action against the United States. It was possibly an act of treason. He did own slaves. That was an unquestionable moral wrong. Like Moses, and rebellious Israel, there is more to his story. Prior to assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia Lee faithfully served the US Army as a general, including service as the Superintendent of West Point, where he likely taught officers he probably fought against. After the end of the Civil War , e was asked to lead Washington College, named after George Washington (Virginia Historical Society). The college was in dire straits. And he did restore it to a successful path. Washing College is now known as Washington and Lee University a preeminent school in our country. As you know some statues of Gen. Lee have been removed, and an Episcopal church named in his honor, has been renamed.

The other person I wish to explore this morning is Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864 (Wikipedia). At the time, he was the longest serving Chief Justice. His term was very productive. However, what he is known for the Dread Scott decision which includes the infamous line that

current or former slaves and their descendants had “No rights which the white man was bound to respect” (thisdayinquotes).

Driving home from Little Rock Wednesday I heard that earlier this year descendants of the Scott and Taney families meet in Baltimore for a reconciliation (NPR). A joint statement in part says:

The Scotts and the Taneys believe that Americans should learn from their history, not bury their history,” they have said in a joint statement.

They hope to raise money for a permanent educational exhibit on the site that would contextualize the Dred Scott decision and explore its ramifications in American history. If possible, they said they also hope a statue of the Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass can be added (Pitts).

Their task is complicated by the removal of a statue of Taney.

The Scott-Taney families’ reconciliation effort has a lot to teach us as a nation, as a church and as a congregation as we seek to find our way through this time of emergent change (Tickle).

One lesson is that to successfully navigate times of transition we also have to navigate the complexities of our contradictions. It is rare that any group or any person is all evil, or all good; most all of us, like Israel, and like Moses, are a mixture of contradictions. The Scott and Taney families are right, we should learn from our history, which means knowing it in all its contradictory complexity. It also means, as scripture commands us to do to teach it to our children and our children’s children (Deut. 6:7). Deuteronomy 34 shows us how Israel, and Moses accepted their contradictory relationship. It also shows us how God honors such relationships. God never abandons Moses, or any other contradictory biblical figure, and there are plenty, like most all of them. Moses undisclosed burial place and his epitaph Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut. 34:10). signify divine honor.

As a nation this is the time to reconcile with those with whom we have deep differences and between whom there are deep hurts. The prevailing expectation of unquestioned loyalty to a president or a party is perilously close to following other gods and idolatry. If we start here, we cannot follow the remaining 8 points of God’s plan for our lives. If we cannot follow the ten-point divine plan of life, we cannot reconcile, and if we cannot reconcile we cannot make successful transitions that are a part of life.

As a congregation this is a time to name and accept our contradictions. If we fail to name our contradictions, we will not be able to see the changes that are necessary for successful transition.

As both a nation, and a congregation, this is a time to trust that God will not abandon us for our many rebellions. Our hope is in the knowledge that God is right here, right now and will be, till the end of the ages.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 25 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 . 29 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 10 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Logue, Frank. “Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after.” 29 10 20107. Sermons that Work.

NPR. “Soctt Taney Reconcilation.” NPR, n.d. APP. 25 10 2017.

Pitts, Johathan. “Roger Taney, Dred Scott families reconcile 160 years after infamous Supreme Court decision.” 18 10 2017. baltimoresun.com. 27 10 2017. <http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-scott-taney-reconciliation-20170306-story.html&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

thisdayinquotes. No rights which the white man was bound to respect. n.d. 27 10 2017. <http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/03/no-rights-which-white-man-was-bound-to.html&gt;.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Virginia Historical Society. Robert E. Lee after the War. 27 10 2017. <http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/robert-e-lee-after-war&gt;.

Wikipedia. Roger B. Taney. 27 10 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_B._Taney.&gt;.