Pentecost 19 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 Matthew 22:34-46
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I love reading long, epic historical novels that span generations and are filled with colourful, multi-dimensional characters. I also hate them. I hate them because eventually there is a last chapter. I don’t want them to end. I want to know what comes next. A mild depression sets in – a grief reaction of sorts. Perhaps, at some level, I am aware that the narrative of my life also has a last chapter somewhere ahead. I can accept that. What I find difficult to accept is the not knowing what will happen next in this epic novel we call life after I’m gone.
This Sunday we come to the last chapter of Moses’ life. We have been following it for some time now on Sundays from his being saved from the bulrushes to live a pampered life in the palace to being on the lam for murder to living a shepherd’s life until reluctantly accepting a call to leadership to confront Pharaoh and lead his people into freedom to trying to manage his cantankerous and rebellious flock to reaching the frontier of the Promised Land. There his story ends. From the height of Mount Nebo he can see the panorama of the Promised Land but ironically he is to die without reaching it. His burial site unknown and unmarked.
I wonder what his thoughts were. Was he disappointed? Relieved? Dying with curiosity? Perhaps, like Martin Luther King on the night before he died, it was enough to have had the vision. Hours before his assassination he spoke these words to a room full of sanitation workers striking for human dignity:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to 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.”
I guess we will never know what Moses’ state of mind was, nor our own until our time comes. But it does strike me that the other irony in this story is that the human instrument in the creation of the nation of Israel has no burial site. No tomb. No place of memorial. At least it seemed ironic until I read this challenging quote by Rene Girard, “There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture; in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol. The above ground tomb does not have to be invented. It is the pile of stones in which the victim of unanimous stoning is buried. It is the first pyramid.”
There is a lot to think about in it. After a week of reflection let me attempt to unpack it a little. Girard seems to suggest that those who told the story of Moses understood that a tomb and entering a Promised Land couldn’t be in the same story. You can’t get to the Promised Land from a tomb.
I remember vividly the first time I really thought about a tomb as a metaphor. I was in my 30’s – still feeling immortal – attending to the bedside of a dying parishioner. He happened to own most of the car dealerships in Detroit (no small feat). In the course of our conversations he told me that after his death and cremation he wanted me to take his remains and bury them secretly and then forget where I did it. He wanted no one to know his resting place, not even his family. It seemed an odd request so I asked him why. He said, “Look around town. Most of the cars have my name on the licence plate frame advertising my dealerships. The people in those cars are busy going on with their lives not even thinking about whose name is on the car. That is enough of a memorial to me.” As I fulfilled his wishes alone in a lovely wooded glen, I remember not where, I thanked him for his insight. The world doesn’t need more tombs. It needs more life.
When Moses looked out on the Promised Land did he foresee what was going to happen after he was gone? Did he have an inkling of the genocide of the Canaanite people that was about to take place under the leadership of his successor, Joshua? Did he foresee the river of blood that would be shed from that day to this over who possesses that land? Did he grieve that the blood to be shed was let in the name of the God he gave to his people, whether that god now be called Yahweh or Allah or Christ? I hope he didn’t, but I admire that he did not add his tomb to the many that would follow. If he had many more may have died. For tombs let us deny our own complicity in violence. They perpetuate death.
Here are a couple of examples from countless choices:
The July 8, 1992, edition of the New York Times, carried a story about the fierce ethnic fighting in an enclave of Azerbaijan during the Serbo-Croatian Wars. The story begins by quoting a notice posted in a building in Armenia where assistance for the Serbian partisans was being organized. The notice read:
“All those who hold dear the graves of our ancestors, our churches and our holies, must sow terror on the foe. By day and by night, they must perish.”
“Whether one is living in the ancient world or the modern one, in order to "sow terror on the foe" night and day one must go mad. If the terror can be sanctified, if the violence can be experienced as holy, and if the esprit de corps of those sowing the terror can achieve religious intensity, then the madness can pass for [sanity] itself. The tomb is where murders become memories and memories become beautiful obligations.” [i]
A graphic instance of this was when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic came to a field in Kosovo called the Field of Black Birds, on the anniversary of the defeat there of a Serbian commander. "They'll never do this to you again," he pleaded to the crowd. "Never again will anyone defeat you." That was the moment when the Serbian revolt against the Yugoslav federation began. The defeat commemorated on that field took place in 1389.
A year later, the 600 year old coffin of the defeated Serb commander began a yearlong pilgrimage through every village in Serbia, followed by multitudes of sobbing mourners dressed in black in each town. For many in Serbia, the year 1989 marked not the fall of communism, but the 600th anniversary of the defeat of their leader at the Field of Blackbirds. It became the justification for genocide.
It was against this symbol of a culture of violence that Jesus stood. He had no use for tombs. He would not stay in one. In one of his many altercations with the Scribes and Pharisees he called them hypocrites, “For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matt 23:29-31)
For Jesus, our denial of being part of the culture of violence is what entombs us. He would rather have us be brought up short by the crowing of the cock with Peter than build a tomb. The crowing reminds us that we cannot stand against violence unless we acknowledge our part in it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives us look at the Promised Land. It is that place where we love God and our neighbour as ourselves. However, we cannot enter it from a tomb of our own making.
The next chapter of our common life together seems to be entitled #Occupy Wall Street. This movement that has now reached even the Antipodes may be the crowing we need to hear right now. It is a reminder of how we participate in and yet are victimised by our culture of violence. Listen to those in the street crying out for economic justice, for a more caring response to our neighbour and the environment we share; a more peaceful world. It does not offer many specific solutions. It calls for transformation of the heart and the will to stand with Jesus in opposition. It invites us to ponder the ways we knowingly or unwittingly support a world where a child can die of hunger in a land of plenty. Where wars are perpetuated in the name of peace and security. Where our natural resources can be plundered for the benefit of a few. Where people are deprived of meaningful employment or children work in sweatshops so we can buy the latest electronic toy or trainers at the lowest price. It does not happen without our consent and participation. It will not change as long as we deny our part.
If there must be violence let it be ritualised on the rugby paddock. As the All Blacks today ponder whether or not this year they will enter the Promised Land, let us commit to leaving the tombs we have created for ourselves and dig out those we have buried by our complicity so that in the last chapter we might enter the Promised Land together.
[i] Excerpt from Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroads, 1995), pp. 228-233.