This is a sermon/message that I presented at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 27 October 2002. This was also Reformation Sunday. The Scriptures are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 33 -46.
When I first moved to New York some three years ago from the hills of eastern Kentucky, most of the people I knew wondered why. “Why,” they asked, “would I want to leave the hill country for all that concrete and steel?”
So it was that I had to explain that Beacon and the area where I would live was much live the eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains with broad valleys. And that the Hudson River at this point, though deeper, was a lot like the Mississippi River north of Davenport, IA, where I once lived.
We all have preconceived notions about the various parts of this country. And of all the places in this country, the one place that I think defies our notions about what it is like is Texas. Much is made, sometimes in jest, about the size of Texas. Now, Texas is not the biggest state in the Union; Alaska holds that honor. But it is the size of Texas that probably defines what it is. And if the size of Texas defines what it is, can you imagine what that means for Alaska?
From where I lived in Odessa, Texas, which is in the western part of the state just north of the Big Bend country, it is possible to drive over 300 miles and still be in Texas. And in the one direction that you can drive and leave Texas, you end up in another time zone.
For orthinologists, Texas presents a challenge. There are five major flyways, routes birds take during migration. Three of these highways in the sky pass through Texas. Until Roger Tory Peterson wrote “The Birds of Texas” for the Texas Wildlife & Game Commission in the early 60’s, most “birders” had to carry two or more bird books in the field for identification.
The geology of Texas also confounds people. In the 1930’s, the first big oil boom in the country was in the oil fields of east Texas. From a geological standpoint, the rock formations where the oil was found were much like the oil fields of Pennsylvania and it was thought that this type of rock formation was necessary in order to find oil. But at least one geologist looked at the rock formations and felt that there was oil in the Permian layers of rock deep below the stark landscape of west Texas. Most people were of the opinion that the only oil to be found was in east Texas, believing that the barren and stark landscape of west Texas was a reflection of a lack of resources below ground. But this one geologist, whose name escapes me now, urged the state of Texas to buy up the mineral rights to the land in west Texas.
And some seventy years later, his judgement about what was beneath the rocks of west Texas has continued to be correct as the oil pumped from the Permian Basin continues to fund the educational coffers of the University of Texas and Texas A & M systems. In fact, most of the oil in the world today is in the Permian rocks, not in the Pennsylvanian rocks as so many people thought.
Standing on the Edwards Plateau, the dominant geological landform of west central Texas, one cannot see that riches buried beneath the ground. No view from the mountaintop will ever show you what is deep within the valleys below.
It must have been frustrating for Moses in those last days of his life to be standing on the mountain overlooking the land to which he had lead his people. It must have been frustrating to have spent all that time in the wilderness knowing he would never see the Promised Land and that it could have been different.
For some forty years before, the nation of Israel stood poised to enter the Promised Land, just as they did in the Old Testament reading for today. It seemed as if they had learned nothing about trusting the Lord. Throughout the Exodus, the people of Israel continued to show a distinct lack of faith that the Lord would provide and on the verge of entering their ancestral homelands, they could not trust in the Lord. They felt it necessary to send in spies to make sure that it would be safe to enter.
Twelve spies, one for each tribe of Israel, choose a representative to see what promises, what riches were hidden in this land they had just spent forty years to reach. Ten of the spies came back with tales of terror and fears, claiming the inhabitants were superior in strength and incapable of defeat. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, came back with the promises of a land filled with milk and honey, of promises that the inhabitants could be defeated as long as they trusted in the Lord.
But the people of Israel choose to accept the tales of fear and terror from the ten rather the hopes and promises of the two. And the penalty was that the nation of Israel would wander in the wilderness for another forty years, a time when all those over twenty would die and leave the Promised Land for the next generation. Only Joshua and Caleb, because they trusted in the Lord, would live to see the entry into the Promised Land.
I find it interesting that we still use tales of fear and terror even today. We try to take advantage of every situation for our own good. Rather than seek the future and what it holds, we try to stay in the present. Look at the election ads that are running now. Most, if not all, tend to focus on negative things, on why the opponent cannot do the job. And very seldom do you see an ad that focus on the promises of tomorrow, that offers a vision of what can be. There may be fleeting visions or statements but they are quickly removed by attacks on the opponent’s views.
A lawyer comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, seeking to test Jesus’ knowledge of the Law. But the answer he seeks is not one of edification but rather of justification. Does Jesus’ knowledge match his own?
The answer to the lawyer’s question is from the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema. The confession is called this because it begins with the Hebrew word shema meaning “hear”. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” And then Jesus follows this with the statement that one should love others as one loves themselves. Because we want the best for ourselves, we should want the best for others. We look at the Ten Commandments, we are reminded that we need to love God first and then love others second.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is directed toward those who criticized his ministry. Those who felt threatened by his ministry did so because Paul challenged their beliefs. Their criticisms were meant to show that all that Paul did, he did for himself and his own gain. Paul’s rebuttal was that he neither sought nor wanted glory and gain for himself but rather that all glory and honor should go to the Lord. Paul reminded those who would criticize him that God was the witness to his actions and that he was God’s servant.
For the ten spies the entry into the Promised Land was a threat to their own safety, not to the safety of their people. So they were not allowed to enter into the Promised Land. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes all saw Jesus as a threat to their lives, to their way of living. And it should be a threat for they were doing nothing to insure that others gained, only themselves.
Much like Moses, we stand on top of the mountain looking into the Promised Land. It is easy to stand on the mountaintop and not see anything or not be sure what you are seeing. That makes it easy to be fearful, that makes it easy to turn away and keep what you have close to the vest. When Daniel Boone first stood above the Cumberland Gap, the broad passage between North Carolina and Kentucky, the great opening of the west to the people seeking new lands and the promise of a new life, he must have wondered what was out there. The Cumberland Gap is just south of where I lived in Kentucky and there were many days when the valleys of that area were shrouded in clouds, making it impossible to see what lie on the ground below.
But Daniel Boone chose to go forward, leaving a safe established life for a future in Kentucky and later in Missouri. Moses stood on the mountaintop, knowing that there was a promise in the land that lie below his feet and though he would not get the chance to go to do so, those that trusted in the Lord would reap the rewards.
We stand on a mountaintop, perhaps not one as tall as the one Moses stood on, but still one that gives a great vision of the future. Shall we, like the people of Israel some forty years before, not trust in the Lord and only in ourselves or shall we trust in the Lord as the additional years of wandering had taught them to do? If we fail to trust in the Lord, we will die, like the elders of the tribes. But if we trust in the Lord, then the promise of tomorrow will be a good one and one in which we can hold. That choice is ours.