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But You Can See It From Here

October 24, 2011

“But You Can See It From Here” Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Ordinary 30A © 10/23/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s May 3rd, 2101, and Lillie Kate Hathcote sits in the old family home in Smithville, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews and their progeny, all gathered for her 90th birthday. Some are present in person, others by holographic virtual interface using the iPhone 540X, the latest incarnation of the tool invented by the visionary Steve Jobs, who died when Lillie was but a babe in arms. Her cousin Jillian will soon mark the same milestone and in a similar fashion.

The elderly matriarch caresses the latest of her descendants with her long fingers as she tells everyone stories of the old days in the early decades of the 21st century. The youngest ones can’t believe how slow the computers were or that cars actually ran on gas or that groceries and fuel were so cheap or that most people spoke only one language. Still, whatever she tells her family, they delight in, because they love her.

The kinds of stories Lillie Kate or Jillian or any of the children born these days will share with their respective gathered clans on their 90th birthdays depend on us today. We can “send [our] love into the future, send [our] precious love to some distant time,” as the old song put it (Sting, “Send Your Love”) and ensure that the children of Generation Z and beyond live in a better world that we do. Or we can bequeath a planet full of fear, hatred, constant war, economic turmoil, and environmental distress. We can make good on the promise to nurture faith, hope, love, imagination and intelligence in each generation or they can inherit a religious scene devoted not so much to following Jesus as to maintaining its own status and fighting old battles over and over.

The theologian and spiritual guide Bruce Epperly puts it well: “When I held my first grandchild in my arms, my perception of time was transformed. I began to ponder what his life would be like. I reflected on how it would be shaped by our responses to the challenges we are facing today…. I realized that as a grandparent I will have to do my best to ensure that the world will become a safe and healthy place for my grandson and all the other children born in 2010. In an interdependent universe, after all, there are hardly any private actions; everything we do reverberates across the planet. What we do in the present shapes the future and the futures of those who follow us. We are always planting seeds for fruit that we will never harvest” (http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-09/sunday-october-23-2011).

The vision we cast shapes us, but we also shape the vision, the future. And as we survey the land our descendants will possess, the first thing we need to do is come to terms with our own mortality. We must be at peace with not finishing the tasks we have started and handing them on to someone else. As the humorous poster says “I have so many things on my to-do list, I’ll never be able to die.” The choice of if and even when is not up to us, of course, so that to-do list will have to be entrusted to another. We need to make some choices when our “bucket list” is long. In the movie by that name, Jack Nicholson had all kinds of trips he wanted to take, experiences to have, but the most important thing was to reconcile with his family. When we ascend to the peak of Pisgah, what will be the quality, the accomplishment, those left in the valley will remember about us? How would the author of our biography close our story?

Sometimes we are denied entry to the promised land. There are all kinds of reasons. Choice. Circumstance. Personality. Health. My sister wanted to see her daughter graduate from high school. Denied by death. I wanted to get a Ph.D., but I couldn’t pass the Graduate Record Exam. Denied by a lack of understanding in math. My nephew Craig moved with his family out to L.A. to try to make it big with his band “Skeleton Crew.” But the realities of putting food on the table and a baby growing up meant he had to take a day job. So did his band mates, for similar reasons. Eventually they all moved back to the South. Now at 40, Craig has arthritis and playing bass is painful. He still makes music now and then, but he’ll never make it big. He will not enter his promised land.

The church as well as the individual does not see the fulfillment of the promise, does not enter in. The author of Hebrews tells us that the patriarchs and matriarchs “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Hebrews 11:13). We too will not receive what was promised, but like our ancestors, we will surround and encourage the coming generations when we join that great cloud of witnesses looking on from the dimension of heaven.

But if in shaping our vision, we realize we may be denied, we may still get a taste, we can catch a glimpse. There are particular moments that give us a vantage point when we can see from east to west and north to south, surveying the land, and we are confident in tomorrow, in God’s purposes.

On April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded a sermon with these well-known 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 He’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! And so I’m happy, tonight.

“I’m not worried about anything.

“I’m not fearing any man!”

The next day he was assassinated. But he died in faith, having seen the Promised Land.

Other times the clouds obscure the view, and we catch only glimpses of what is to come, signs that the promises of God will indeed come true. Like when people rise up for justice. When kindness is shown. Where love prevails over hate, when strident voices of intolerance and fear are not allowed to drown out those of acceptance and confidence and peace.

There’s a saying when things get rough and the situation is grim: “This ain’t hell, but you can see it from here.” Another version is “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” Well, I would say maybe this isn’t heaven, but you and I can see it from here if we open our eyes to what God is doing. What we look for, we will find.

Perhaps no experience opens our eyes better than prayer and worship. “Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!/May I thy consolation share,/Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,/I view my home and take my flight….” The author of Revelation saw into heaven through a portal opened for him, and even in his exile and concern for persecuted, lapsing churches, he could be sure that at the beginning and the end and every day, Jesus was, will be, and is Lord.

Prayer is much bigger than what we do on a Sunday morning or even in personal devotion, so opportunities to witness God at work, windows that open, abound. Listen to the description of prayer from our Directory for Worship in the Book of Order: “Prayer in personal worship may be expressed in various ways. One may engage in conscious conversation with God, putting into words one’s joys and concerns, fears and hopes, needs and longings in life. One may wait upon God in attentive and expectant silence.

One may meditate upon God’s gifts, God’s actions, God’s Word, and God’s character.

One may contemplate God, moving beyond words and thoughts to communion of one’s spirit with the Spirit of God. One may draw near to God in solitude. One may pray in tongues as a personal and private discipline. One may take on an individual discipline of enacted prayer through dance, physical exercise, music, or other expressive activity

as a response to grace. One may enact prayer as a public witness through keeping a

vigil, through deeds of social responsibility or protest, or through symbolic acts of disciplined service. One may take on the discipline of holding before God the people, transactions, and events of daily life in the world” (W-5.4002).

Every moment, our lives are lived, sometimes on tiptoe, trying to see as far as we can, looking into what yet may be. We are past, and we are future. We live along the line from yesterday into tomorrow, shaped by the past, longing for the future. But all we have is today, with its glimpses of what is to come, its promise of something more, of promises fulfilled, of dreams come true, of potential realized. Some of us, most of us even, will never see what we hoped for, worked for, struggled for, but our children or our grandchildren or our nieces and nephews and friends or their descendants will.

Professor Mark Biddle, in his comments on the text, says: “Leaders come and go. Ancestors succeed or fail. In truth, each generation stands poised to enter into God’s promise, to actualize the call to be God’s people, to live the authentic life described in

the Torah. In truth, every day is suspended between end and beginning.”

Or as the old rock song puts it “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” (Dan Wilson [Semisonic], “Closing Time,” 1998).

The story of the scripture goes forward with each and all of us, as we make it our own in faith, as we survey the land and trust that God’s promise will be fulfilled, even if by others.

And so the next step in shaping our vision is to lay our claim on the future. Moses’ survey of the land was a symbolic possession-taking. The hymn “When I Can Read My Title Clear” by Isaac Watts (1707) conveys the same notion. It’s interesting that the name of the tune to which the hymn is sung is “Pisgah.” “When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies,/ I bid farewell to every fear, and wipe my weeping eyes. Should earth against my soul engage, and hellish darts be hurled,/ Then I can smile at Satan’s rage, and face a frowning world. Let cares, like a wild deluge come, and storms of sorrow fall!/May I but safely reach my home, my God, my heav’n, my All.”

So we come to terms with our mortality. We trust the promise to be fulfilled. We lay claim on tomorrow. But finally, as we shape the vision to hand on, we prepare coming generations. And so we come full circle. Moses ordained Joshua. We pass on values and visions and encourage each new generation to find its own. One day the children who sit on the front pew every Sunday for the children’s word will be our business leaders, government officials, ruling elders, pastors, artists, merchants, and military personnel. And Lillie Kate Hathcote will gather her loved ones around her on that spring day at the beginning of the 22nd century. If we have done our job right, the stories she tells will be of a world that found its way from darkness to light, from war to peace, from hatred and greed and fear to abundant and hopeful life for all.

This isn’t heaven. But if you open your eyes, you can see it from here, the reign of God that is surely coming, when God will be all, in all.

What we look for, we will find.

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One Comment
  1. heather permalink

    great sermon!!! love it!

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