FINISHING AMIDST INCOMPLETENESS
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock 2023.1029.A.Pr25 [Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46]
There comes a time in every life and in every circumstance when, having done your work, having done your job, having run the race (as St. Paul puts it), a person must stop and let go. Parents experience this when the reality of the “empty nest” requires sober acknowledgment and change. Teachers experience this at graduation; certainly parish priests encounter this confusing experience of finishing in the midst of incompleteness. Questions emerge. “Did I do enough?” The “if only-lies” surface: “… if only there was a bit more time; if only there was another opportunity.” These questions have the capacity to echo within us all -- sometimes to a haunting level that breaks sleep. Nonetheless, the reality is that each of us has our place and our time in which to express what the Collect of the Day poses as the “trinity of virtues”: faith, hope, and charity (i.e., compassionate love).
Yet, in spite of having done our best to live this way, there comes a time when we must stop. The ongoing scene does not include us as it once did. The clock has run out, even though there is more to be done by us., In the end, I suppose there is solace in realizing that even the Son of God could not avoid this necessary point of letting go, in his case this point from the cross of having to admit and accept: “It is finished.” This pointed reality speaks to the unavoidable incompleteness of our lives: having to stop before we are ready; having to let go before the job is done; having to relinquish our place before our work’s purpose is realized. These are the inevitable times when we are required to step back, to move aside, to pass the torch – the one that we have been carrying -- on to another, who may -- but most likely will not – necessarily follow in our exact footsteps. I am struck by the issue of finishing amidst incompleteness: a theme that is reflected both in our reading from Deuteronomy and from Matthew’s gospel. In our Old Testament lesson, we visit Moses at the conclusion of his forty-year leadership of the people of Israel. And in Matthew’s gospel, we witness yet again another confrontation between Jesus’ enemies and the issue of his being the Messiah of God. In both cases, there is a sense of incompleteness to the life and ministry of Moses and the life and ministry of Jesus. And this sense of incompleteness leaves many – if not most of us -- with an uneasy wonderment about following God as the Holy One’s people and the cost of letting go in order to have God finish what God alone can finish. So, this sermon is about our parts in finishing what God has begun, what God continues, and what God alone will complete. To do so, I want to focus mostly on the example and experience of Moses in his last dramatic encounter with God. Specifically, I want to ask: How does this scene sit with you? To have Moses finally reaching the end of forty years wanderings, having led a stubborn “herd of cats” to the point of finally arriving at the longed for promised land – how does it sit with you for Moses to be in this position and then have God tell him: “I have let you see with your own eyes [the land that I promised long ago], but you shall not cross over [to it].” How does this sit with you? Moreover, to what extent does this scene affect your own sense of faith in doing what God has asked of you and what you expect the results of your work to be? My point is to say that when we experience the gnawing “incompleteness” of our life’s purpose and meaning, that very well may be the precise point at which our deepest faith is called for. Letting go when there is more to be done, when we want to do more, is an act of trust that requires us to allow God to be God – both for us and for the untamed future. The Deuteronomist writer is sparse in conveying any dramatic, emotional details of this encounter between Moses and God. In fact, I find the matter-of-factness of the text a bit annoying. In my experience, letting go in order that the larger work may be finished – by another -- at another time – is a highly emotional thing. In the spirit of baseball’s Playoff & World Series season, the experience of the incompleteness of our life (especially our life and work with God) can feel like being pinched hit for in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line. Who among us willingly resigns ourselves to sitting quietly on the bench while our replacement steps up to the plate at such a crucial moment? Who among us would take such a wrenching retirement quietly, letting go of all those childhood dreams of seeing ourselves precisely in that most dramatic spot? Or to shift Moses’ position from batter to pitcher, I wonder what transpired between Moses and God on that ridgeline, overlooking the Promised Land. Moses, after all he had been through for forty years, now standing in awe of seeing the fruit of a realized promise, spies God strolling to the mound to take the ball from his star and fabled pitcher in order to bring in a reliever. What a moment! But the Deuteronomist presents not a word about this unexpected and personally painful transition. All the sparse text says is that God allowed Moses to see the goal, the prize of the Promised Land, but God would not allow Moses to cross over to it, to place his feet on that anticipated soil. Rather, all the text says at this point is that with the interrupting news from God, Moses died. I guess so! The Plains of Moab were the last stop on Israel’s forty-year trek to the Promised Land. No one had done more to facilitate this moment than Moses. Yet, Moses was not allowed to enter the land. The next thing we learn is that Moses died and that no one recalled where he was buried: an added point in the letting go so that no one would be distracted in honoring Moses’ grave as a competitive destination to the Promised Land itself. So, here’s the question: Why was Moses prevented from entering the Promised Land? Why did God forbid him to keep his job? The rabbinic and Jewish scholarly traditions have written reams in response to this question. They often speak about the “sin of Moses”, which is to say that Moses did something to break with God; and such “sin” – such “separation” from the Holy One is no small thing. There are consequences – but to this degree? Generally speaking, Moses being taken out of the “game” in the ninth inning is regarded as the penalty he had to pay. Yet, with humble respect, I think this perspective is far too narrow, much too small. Without getting into the “weeds” concerning the “sin of Moses”, I think there is much more edifying traction gained from seeing Moses being excluded from entering the Promised Land in terms of his time, his place, his work having come to a point where in God’s hands, it was enough. Standing on the ridgeline, above the Plains of Moab, it was time for a change in order that something even larger and more important than Moses might be introduced and put in play. The text we have read already hints at such an expansive, transcendent outlook in that it quietly says that Moses himself had already appointed Joshua as his successor. Joshua would come into the “game” because the “game” needed to have free people freely choosing to be God’s people and not simply because they had been led to this threshold moment. It was a matter of God deciding that the big picture that God holds would play out, as opposed to being limited to what Moses had in mind or what Moses could do. The same dynamic, I think, is at play in the gospel, where Jesus and the Pharisees spar yet again. Seeking once more to entrap Jesus for their own malicious purposes, Jesus again turns the tables on his enemies, first by offering an answer to a question that the Pharisees could not contest (that is, Jesus’ identifying what all Jews knew as the greatest commandment). And second, in a riposting shift, Jesus raises a question the strict Pharisees had never considered, a situation that precluded offering an answer: namely, is the Messiah David’s son or master? Similar to Moses on the ridgeline above the revealing Plains of Moab, Jesus’s next and last encounter with his opponents will be from the cross, where they finally find the bold courage to mock him and publicly dismiss him. Yet, from the height of the cross, a greater thing is to be seen. For it is on the cross that Jesus gasps, “It is finished”, meaning (I think) that love has paid the ultimately vulnerable cost; but also (in three days) love will rise above this ending to provide a new life and new beginnings in a new way. It is into the transforming reality of the Cross of Christ that we also place our life and our work and our trusting expectations: that standing as steadfastly with Jesus and his cross, we may not only see the redeeming power and life with God but also cross over into that life with the Risen One. So, toward that end, we do our jobs now, trusting now that God will take what we offer in our own time and circumstance and then give to us the Christ and life we need and cannot provide for ourselves. This makes the letting go not necessarily easier but much more purposeful, namely, letting God be God. Amen.