FAITHFUL TO THE DREAM!
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 26, 2014
How would you like to write your own epitaph? Cemeteries today tend to require that all headstones be the same size and shape, and none of them with epitaphs. How boring! Whatever their reasons for such dullness, we and those who follow us have lost something when they do away with epitaphs.
Epitaphs are a gift to future generations. Most of us are familiar with variations of this often used and somewhat smug epitaph found in multiple cemeteries around the world:
Come, blooming youths, as you walk by,
And on these lines do cast an eye.
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so shall you be.
Remember this and follow me.
To which someone at a cemetery in Waynesville, NC replied by writing on the tombstone:
To follow you I am not content,
How do I know which way you went?
Then there is the wonderful epitaph of Mel Blanc, who was the voice of Porky Pig. It simply reads, “That’s all, folks!” Also in Hollywood, there is the epitaph of Jackie Gleason: “And away we go!”
In Uniontown, Pennsylvania, is the epitaph of a man named Jonathan Blake:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake,
Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.
Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona has some wonderful epitaphs:
Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a 44
No less, no more.
OK—one more: this one is from Albany, NY:
Harry Edsel Smith
Born 1903-Died 1942
Looked up the elevator shaft
To see if the car
Was on the way down.
This stuff is priceless: like the gravestone of the hypochondriac in Georgia that says, “I told you I was sick!”
There is an extraordinary epitaph in the story of the death of Moses. It was written by someone who was obviously struck by the fact that the shining star of Israel’s history had no monument, not even a gravesite for people to visit. No one knew where he was buried. So in a postscript to the book of Deuteronomy, some unknown author gave Moses an epitaph: Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.
That is quite an epitaph! Who among us would not like to have something like that said about us? Never since has there arisen a golfer in New England like me…. Never since has there arisen a soccer mom in Providence like me…. You know, we could let our imaginations go wild on this!
But Moses was assigned this spectacular epitaph. There appears to be some wistfulness in this epitaph. After all, Moses had a hard life. The very people who revered him when he died gave him hell while he was living! And finally, when they reached the very edge of the Promised Land, Moses climbs Mount Pisgah and looks out over the land of his dreams.
Ah, the land of his dreams, the land for which he had been yearning all those years, the land toward which all his work and struggle had been directed for a lifetime. And now, at long last, he stands on top of Mount Pisgah looking out over that land, and he will never step foot on it. The biblical text says almost pathetically: Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab…. The fulfillment of his lifetime dream would be left to someone else.
The unspoken message of this story is that many great dreams are greater than one lifetime can fulfill. In fact, the great dreams are constructed on a scale too large to fulfill in one lifetime. When we hear a resonate baritone voice singing a spiritual like, Deep river, my home is over Jordan…, a spiritual inspired by this very biblical story, we imagine all the generations of slaves who dreamed of freedom but never got there. They died and were buried, often in unmarked graves, while their children and their children’s children were left to cross over into freedom.
It is, of course, very good to experience the fruits of our labor and to know the fulfillment of dreams come true. But it is also true that some dreams are greater than the scope of our lifetimes. We need those mega-dreams, those dreams that are bigger than we can fulfill in one generation. We all need a place that holds up the standard of great dreams…dreams like the hope of “a beloved community,” the dreams of the prophets like a time when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, dreams of Jesus when he spoke of the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart and the peacemakers and the salt of the earth. We need a place where we can grapple with difficult dreams like loving our enemies and who is our neighbor and praying for those who persecute you. We need a community where the dream of love becomes flesh-and-blood real.
Church is just such a place! Church holds up dreams greater than one lifetime can fulfill. Providence was founded on a dream that was oh so fragile at the time: a dream of soul liberty and separation of church and state. In 1638, who could have imagined that a whole nation would adopt that dream? That dream was bigger than the lifetime of Roger Williams.
When we gather as a church, we are working together to fulfill a dream, a dream that is bigger than one person, bigger than one congregation, bigger than one lifetime can fulfill. We constantly work together on this dream; we teach it to our children; we pass on to the next generation that gleam in the eye, that hope for a better world, that Way of living which Jesus taught us. Being faithful to that mega-dream takes a lifetime and more.
Why anyone would ever imagine that working for that dream is not worth our greatest investment, our deepest commitment, and our most fervent prayers is beyond me. Society goes through trends when church is more or less important. We endure periods when scandal rocks parts of the church, when attendance rises or falls, and the quality of church programming varies over the years. But the dream remains. It is as real today as it was in the golden glow of yesteryear when this church, along with most Protestant churches, was filled with people.
When we announced today that the theme for this year’s stewardship emphasis is “Choices That Matter,” we were thinking not just of political choices. We will, I hope, all make choices and vote on Election Day. Those are important choices. But there is also our choice to invest in the church’s dream, a dream greater than the budgetary needs for one year. Sure, a church budget pays for the heat…it pays for the salaries of staff members…it pays all the bills an institution like ours accumulates in order to function. And, it pays out generous checks to ministries in this community and around the world to keep the larger dream alive.
The function of a church budget is not so much to keep the lights on in the building as it is to keep the dream alive in our hearts! That dream is greater than the sum of all our bills. It is the dream that we fund, and it calls for faithfulness.
Moses died and is buried on Mount Pisgah. Joshua steps into his place, and he in turn eventually dies and is buried. New circumstances require new leaders, and generation after generation does its part and passes the leadership on. Yet through all those generations, the one dream, inspired by the divine Spirit, remains constant.
Some of you are familiar with the mountain near Asheville, NC called Mount Pisgah. You can understand why it was named Mount Pisgah. It is a 360 degree view. On a clear day you can see 100 miles over some of the most beautiful land in America.
On a good day, this church is our Mount Pisgah. When we worship together we are casting our eyes over a dream of a world that is just and peaceful, a world in which wars are no more and hatred is vanquished, a world in which there is enough for everyone, and a world in which compassion prevails. It is dream articulated so eloquently by Martin Luther King in August of 1963: a dream “when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…Free at last….” Our generation now carries this dream, and we will pass it on to the next.
That dream sustains us; it inspires us; it compels us. And like Moses, there will come a day when we will say to those we love, “This is a dream that I now leave for you, but be assured that you are not alone.” May it be said of this generation that we were faithful to the dream, faithful to the hope, and faithful to the reality of living that dream in the community of faith that we know as the First Baptist Church in America.