Prophets of a Future Not Our Own
A sermon preached on FB Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter
Pentecost XXII - Proper 25 A - October 25, 2020
I do here confess it, here and now: I like to fold towels. And, iron clothes.
Every now and again, I wonder about the ordinary, daily life of the great prophets of our faith. I wonder about Moses and Jesus and what they did when Moses wasn’t parting the Red Sea or Jesus was turning water into wine.
What did Moses do while they were wandering 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness? Did he help Mariam prepare the vegetables for supper? Did he make sure the tablets that contained The Ten Commandments were clean and free of road dust and had a coat of polish?
Did Jesus like making things out of wood? Did he derive a sense of satisfaction from stacking the wood or oiling or polishing it? Maybe he helped his mother prepare the vegetables for supper? Or, ground some wheat for the bread?
This last image of Moses from Deuteronomy always provokes such nostalgia and melancholy in me, which then gives rise to my questions. Let me explain.
The writers of the Book of Deuteronomy paint an amazing picture of the culmination and reward of the work of the life of Moses as to inspire awe. There they are – God and Moses – on the plains of Moab, up on Mount Nebo, to the top of the top of the peak (which is called Pisgah), which is opposite Jericho.
From this vantage point, Moses can see the entire vista of the land which God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – The Promised Land – which, in turn, held the promise of freedom and prosperity for the Israelites. It was the entire valley of Jericho as far as Zoar – an impressive and beautiful sight for eyes that had seen the horrors of slavery and bondage.
This! This is was the reward for the sacrifice. This was the reparation for the centuries of slavery. This land, this promise, this opportunity, was the culmination of the work of freedom and the commencement of the journey – the ending of the time of uncertainty, the beginning of a new way of life and the certainty of God’s favor.
And yet . . . and yet . . . God says to Moses, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
I don’t know about you, but those words take my breath away. It feels cruel, in a way, doesn’t it? After all he has gone through, after all he has sacrificed and given, Moses gets to see the reward but never enjoy it himself. He gets to see it but never live in it. That will be for another leader, Joshua, son of Nun.
Are we surprised that the next thing we are to learn is that Moses died? Right there? In the land of Moab?
I remember clearly the day I spoke with my father after he had had his first heart attack and “minor stroke”. Our family doctor – a kind, gentle, generous man, a faithful Quaker named Dr. Kirkaldy – told my father that he had to cut back on strenuous activity which, among other things, meant that he could no longer have a vegetable garden.
My father loved his garden. Few things in life gave him more pleasure than to have his hands in the dirt, planting seeds, tending to them, watering them, watching them grow and then feeding them to his family and friends and neighbors for their nourishment.
It was about this time of year – the end of October, beginning of November. When I came to the house, he was standing in front of the sink, looking out the window at the bare patch that had been his garden. He didn’t turn to greet me. He just continued to look at his garden as he said, “Doc Kirkaldy says I can’t have a garden anymore.”
“I know, Dad,” I said, softly, “Mom told me.”
“Well,” he sighed, “what’s the point, then? If I can’t get my hands in the dirt and grow things, what’s the point?”
Three months later – in February of the next year and shortly after his 82nd birthday – he was dead.
The story of Moses helps me understand. I am my father’s daughter. I also need to see things in my life – to see the fruits of my labor – as a way to make sense of what this life, this ministry I have chosen, requires of me.
Which is probably why I like to fold clothes. Towels, especially. Folding towels and stacking them in the linen closet can be medicine sometimes for me. There have been days when I have simply opened the linen closet and looked in to see the towels all neatly folded and stacked, one on top of another, just to know that there’s order somewhere in my world and that I helped to create it.
I also like to iron clothing. Blouses and shirts, especially. I love the whole process. There is an order to it, as my mother – the Mill Girl – taught me. First, you start with the collar. Then, the yolk (if it has one); then, the cuffs and then the sleeves. You move onto the front shirt panel - careful around the buttons – to the back panel and then round again to the other front panel.
As you work, your mind focuses on the wrinkle there – and there – pressing the button on the steam to chase it off the face of the fabric. The sound of the iron hissing and the sound of the weight of the iron on the ironing board, begin to sound like a prayerful chant; the whiffs of the smell of laundry detergent and fabric softener reaching your nose begins to feel like incense rising from a thurible.
And then, lo and behold! It is finished. You hang the shirt on a hanger and put it in your closet and there is evidence, prima-fascia, hard core, cold, irrefutable evidence that work has been done. Something has been accomplished.
Which is unlike many areas of ministry in life. So much of ministry is scattering seed, hoping it falls on fertile soil. So much more is planting seeds, watering them, tending to them, nourishing them, sometimes to see them grow and bear fruit.
Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you even get to live into the promise and live in the Promised Land. Other times, like Moses, you only get to glimpse at what is possible but never taste the fruit yourself.
Early on in my ministry, I was frustrated by what I called “The Moses Effect”. I was young and spiritually immature and, besides, patience has never been my strong suit. I wanted to see results. And, who could blame me, really? So do congregational members. And vestries. And wardens. And, truth be told, bishops.
We measure “success” by productivity. We have our own metrics of measuring success. It’s mostly contained in the Parochial Report. What is your ASA (Average Sunday Attendance)? How many baptisms did you perform? How many confirmations? How many new members? Transfers? How many in church school? How many attended the ‘high holy days’ of Christmas and Easter?
The pandemic has obliterated all of our usual metrics. Our 2020 parochial reports will certainly provide an interesting read in 2021. How will we measure ASA? How will it skew our numbers when we can’t do baptisms or funerals or weddings? We weren’t able to celebrate Easter in 2020 and it looks like we won’t be celebrating Christmas in 2020 the way we did in 2019. Indeed, Easer 2021 looks iffy.
How will we know that we are doing the work of the gospel without columns of numbers to add and final yearly totals to compare? I suspect, when we start delving into the stories of our experiences with various forms of online worship and hybrid forms of online and in person services, we will discover things about ourselves that we didn’t know. Important things. Things which measure faith in new ways that will reveal something about our identity in deeper more meaningful ways.
I suspect we’ll learn adaptive ways to measure the work of ministry – and none of it will require us to stare into the linen closet to find some shred of affirmation in the way the towels are stacked up or how neatly our shirts hang in the close closet. I think we just may discover that numbers were never the point of the gospel, anyway.
Which brings me to Jesus and this rather confusing Gospel. It’s important to know that the Sadducees where a group of religious scholars who flatly denied the possibility of resurrection. That’s important because that’s the whole point of the life and ministry of Jesus, right?
Just as Moses came to redeem the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jesus has come to redeem the promise of Life Eternal given in the Garden. Jesus is going to do that through his own death and resurrection and here he is, face to face with and being tested by these Sadducees, these religious scholars who deny even the possibility of resurrection.
When the Pharisees learned how Jesus had handled the Sadducees, they gathered to test him with a more pragmatic question about the greatest commandment. Well, truth be told, I don’t think this is so much about the religious leaders testing Jesus as it is Jesus doing a Jedi-knight trick and luring them into thinking that they can trick him so he can expose their ignorance and hypocrisy and corruption.
The problem, of course, is that the Pharisees take the scripture literally. Jesus is saying that, when David was talking about the Christ, he wasn’t talking about a concept bound by time. Jesus was saying that the Christ, the Messiah, is timeless and universal; Christ has existed before time and in time and beyond time. Christ was with God in the beginning of time. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. And, as such, can’t be treated like an object bound by time and space.
Here’s the thing: Jesus is not just planting seeds. Jesus IS the seed.
And, we who follow Jesus would do well to understand that, when we take on his ministry, we are seeds as well. I think this is why Moses was free to die after he saw The Promised Land. He understood that he was but the seed and that in order for the promise to take root and grow, he, like the seed, must be planted and die and be born into newly resurrected life in a new form.
It is fitting, somehow, that there is no actual burial place for Moses, just as there is but an empty tomb for Jesus. Moses exists in the land and in the air, somewhere on the plains of the Moab. And, he lives on everywhere in the midst of the heart of the story of his life and prophetic ministry. He lives every time his story is told.
Most days, I am comforted by all of this. Knowing that I am but a seed of Christ’s ministry provides me with enormous and deep satisfaction. I hope it helps you to think of the work you do in this way, as well.
Oh, I still love to fold towels and iron clothes, but these days, less out of frustration and more out of an old, faithful habit that helped me through more frustrating times. I think this prayer by Cardinal Dearden in memory of Oscar Romero says it best:
In memory of Oscar Romero (1917–1980)
A Future Not Our Own
It helps now and then to step back and take a
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
We are the seeds of Christ’s ministry.
This prayer was first presented by Cardinal Dearden in 1979 and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015. This reflection is an excerpt from a homily written for Cardinal Dearden by then-Fr. Ken Untener on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests, October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted Cardinal Dearden in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980.