Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Wouldn't Take Nothing for the Journey
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Deuteronomy 8:1-20, 34:1-12
Today we come to the end of our journey with Moses. Moses life span was 120 years. Our journey with him has only been 6 weeks, but it has been a very full 6 weeks for us. In that time, school resumed for the students among us and Sunday School started up again. Some of us have attended important conferences or heard significant speakers. Some of us have celebrated birthdays. Some of us have faced new health challenges and a few of us were even in the hospital. As a faith community, we welcomed new member Johnson Din and prayed for several places in the world coping with earthquake, hurricane, flooding, fire and famine. Our life with God goes on from day to day, week to week, just as it did for Moses. Just as it has done for generations since.
We picked up the story in Deuteronomy 8, which anticipates the end of this generation and their time in the wilderness. It has been 40 years. No one who set out on the journey will be alive to enter Canaan. From now on, the firsthand accounts of the suffering in Egypt will be distant memories, the stuff of history. The stories of the dramatic crossing of the sea just in front of the enemy will be told in the future, not by those who were there, but by those who heard it from their parents and grandparents.
Anticipating that time, Moses warns them to be careful, to be intentional about remembering their story. “Don’t forget that you could still be slaves in Egypt,” he says. “Don’t forget that God provided a way out for you and cared for you in the desert. Don’t take what you have for granted. And mostly, don’t begin to think you got this on your own.”
The temptation that Moses foresees is that as each successive generation is further and further removed from the harshness of Egypt, the less they will recognize their need for God. As they settle into this fertile land, where they can live in houses instead of tents, where they can harvest abundant crops and their flocks can multiply, they may start to forget how God brought them together as a people. They may be tempted to rewrite history, almost thinking that it was their courage which had them standing up to Pharaoh, almost remembering that it was their army that defeated the Egyptians, their creativity and persistence that led them to survive in the wilderness with no complaints. (As if.) They might even come to believe that they had earned the right to this land and could handle their own destiny. It is this kind of dangerous self-sufficiency that Moses is warning them against.
Moses wants life to be better for the next generations, not worse. And so, he implores them to remember. To remember their story and their covenant with the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt.
We heard the end of the story in Deuteronomy 34. Moses does not get to complete the journey, to cross over into the Promised Land, but he does get to take a look at it. He climbs Mt. Nebo and looks across the river and sees a long list of places that will come to be prominent in the land of Israel. What Moses sees is not actually visible to the human eye. Even on a clear day, you just can’t see all that. What Moses sees, he sees with the eyes of faith – the fullness of the promise God made generations earlier to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob and Rachel and Leah.
This is apparently a great text to preach when you are on the verge of retirement. There are a number of those sermons out there. But your pastor is not retiring and, as a congregation, we are not in any other kind of major transition. None of us are 120, but some individuals among us may feel some kinship with Moses, anticipating a future that we will not all share. So where might, as a congregation, find kinship with the people of Israel in this text?
I heard a marvelous interview this week, with a woman named Klara. Klara married her husband Phillippe when she was 20. A year later, they were both arrested by the Nazis. They were taken to a holding camp in Belgium, where they were reunited with Klara’s father who had been arrested separately. Sometime after that, they learned that they were going to be taken by train from Belgium to Germany to Poland to Auschwitz.
They began to plan to jump from the train. Their only hope was to jump while the train was still in Belgium. Two days before they were put on the train, Klara’s father became seriously ill. By the time they were on the train, he had lost consciousness.
As the train rolled along, Phillippe was telling her that they had to jump, but she did not want to leave her father. She knew that if they stayed on the train and it reached Auschwitz, they would be separated anyway, but leaving him was still wrenching. Finally, she made herself climb up and through the narrow window in the cattle car and jump from the moving train. She said “It was so painful. I abandoned my father in such terrible conditions.” She never saw him again.
At first, she thought that Philippe had not been able to jump, but then she saw him coming from a long way down the tracks. They were hidden by people in Belgium for the rest of the war.
Then, in 1962, she visited Israel. She was walking down the street one evening, when someone tapped her on the shoulder. When she turned around, the woman said, “Klara?”
“Klara, I have been looking for you for over 20 years.”
“You’ve been looking for me? But you don’t know me.”
“I do know you. I was there when your father opened his eyes in the train car. And I have a message for you.”
Her father had woken up and called for her. This woman told him, “Klara is not here. She jumped.”
In what Klara calls an extraordinary moment of lucidity, her father said, “Listen, if you ever meet my daughter again, tell her that I’m the happiest father. I am so glad she jumped.”
That’s how Klara found out, decades later, that her father died before ever reaching Auschwitz. That was a comfort to her, but even more amazing was the gift of his final message, his reassurance that she had done the right thing. She called it a gift from God.
In this interview, at age 92, Klara said, “I love life. I always look for new things in life. It is such a joy to be alive and such a terrible journey to get here.”
Can we find ourselves in such a story? For most of us, life has not been such a traumatic journey, but surely, we can share the hope that the next generation will know joy and love and freedom, all gifts from a liberating God. And we can be sure to tell the truth about who we have been and to tell the truth that God is a God of justice, who cares for the oppressed. We can pay it forward so that the future peoples may be spared the suffering of learning those lessons directly.
I go back to the story of Moses. And what I notice now is the name of Joshua. Joshua, son of Nun, who will succeed Moses and be the next leader. What I remember is that long before now, Joshua has been on the scene. Back in the wilderness, when Moses used to meet with God outside the camp, in the tent of meeting, Joshua was just a youth. Exodus 33 says that when Moses went to the tent of meeting, Joshua would attend him. And when Moses returned to camp, Joshua would stay at the tent. As the Hebrew people came closer to Canaan, some advance scouts were sent to check it out. You will remember that Joshua was one of them. He and Caleb were the only two who came back with a positive report.
What this suggests to me is that there is a planned transition. Joshua does not spring forth out of nowhere when Moses dies. Joshua is equipped to lead because he has been learning from Moses for years. That is where I find Emmanuel in this story. We are in the midst of those middle years, those perhaps more ordinary years. I think of some of the cathedrals of Europe, built over hundreds of years, by faithful people who never enjoyed their finished work. I think of people who plant trees or nurture children. That kind of important work is multigenerational. Emmanuel does that in many ways, but today we are deliberately engaging in a conversation about how to organize ourselves into the future. We are taking stock of what will enable faithful leadership in the next generation. It is as serious an undertaking as when Joshua was being trained by Moses. I hope that you will stay after worship and be part of that discussion.
The Rev. Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel for more than 30 years, once said, “Few of us can orchestrate the conclusions of our lives and all of us will die with our work yet undone, our dreams yet unachieved. . .. We may not be able to make an end, but by God's grace we are enabled to make a beginning, and that is no small thing.”
Most of us cannot read Deuteronomy 34 without hearing the echoes of Dr. King’s voice in Memphis, “We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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.”
Dr. King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. The day after this speech, an assassin’s bullet took his life at age 39. Some of you may remember the grief and fear and rioting that erupted in cities across the country. What happened in Memphis four days later was particularly significant. There, thousands of people, black and white, marched through downtown, peacefully, in silence. They marched in support of the strike and in honor of Dr. King. With great courage and perseverance, before the next leader could take charge, they stepped up to carry on, to live into the future which Dr. King had anticipated.
Again, our story may or may not be as dramatic as that, but our task is similar: To do the work which is ours, alongside those who share our calling, remembering the journey and being grateful for God’s open future and our opportunity to contribute faithfully for a people yet unborn.
We called ourselves to worship with words from Psalm 90 “Teach us to number our days.” May that be our prayer this week and this season.
“Teach us, O Lord, to number our days.
Teach us, O Lord, not to put off our dreams and hopes.
Teach us live each day as the gift from you that it is.
Teach us to live each day with eyes open to the beauty of your world, ears open to the sounds of music,
and hearts open to those who need us.
Teach us, O Lord, to tell the people we love how much we love them.
And teach us, finally, the depth and length and breadth of your love we have seen in Jesus Christ our Lord, that love from which nothing can separate us.” 
O Lord, prosper for us the work of our hands. Amen.
 Dennis Bratcher, in his commentary “Underdogs and Earthen Vessels” http://www.crivoice.org/S-underdog.html
 Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998) p. 158.
 Martin Luther King Jr, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Memphis,
 These ending words are from a sermon by Rev. John Buchanan,
The Gift of a Wise Heart, preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, on October 23, 2011.