“…when the roll is called”
October 29, 2023
“If Haiti still had people like that, this country wouldn’t be the mess that it is now.”
That’s what Yvon said as we drove past the statue known as the Neg Mawon that stands in the middle of downtown Port-au-Prince.
The bulletin this week only allowed for a tiny thumbnail photo of the statue – perhaps you can make it out a bit. Truth be told, it’s difficult to capture the power of this sculpture.
For starters, it’s quite massive. It depicts the figure of a man stretching into a deep lunge.
Since his feet are at eye level, the first thing you notice is the broken chain attached to a leg iron around his ankle. His hand grips a machete lying on the ground – acknowledging that liberty always requires struggle.
As your gaze travels up, the man dramatically arches his back as he lifts a conch shell to his lips, sending a signal to the other slaves to join the fight for freedom.
It is a stunning monument to the slave revolt that made Haiti the first free black republic in the western hemisphere. This work of Art is meant to inspire pride among the Haitian people, but on this particular day some 20 years ago, I couldn’t help but note the deep melancholy in Yvon’s voice as he said “IF Haiti still had people like that…”
That IF feels so familiar, does it not? Have you ever caught yourself thinking the same thing:
“IF we only had politicians like we used to – the kind who could compromise and reach across the aisle – we wouldn’t be in this gridlocked mess we are in now.”
“IF we only had newscasters like we used to, instead of these spin doctors who disregard the facts, peddle bias and fabricate the story they want to hear instead…”
“IF only we had…Preachers like we used to have, then these pews would be filled and the church would be what it used to be.”
I suspect God knew we would be prone to lionizing our ancestors; that we might need a nudge in a different direction; that a little hero worship is okay, but too much can be paralyzing.
Our reading today comes from the final chapter of Deuteronomy, and, with proper context, it might be the Biblical story that is most likely to make you say “COME ON, GOD! That is so unfair!”
With many signs and wonders, Moses had led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.
He wandered with them in the wilderness for forty long years – bearing with them through hangry grumbling, outright rebellion, and an unfortunate episode with a golden calf.
Moses carried the Ten Commandments from God to the people and kept their hope alive, always clinging to this dream of a promised land waiting for them just ahead: a place of respite and rest, a land flowing with milk and honey.
And then…this. A reading from Deuteronomy 34, verses 1-12.
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar.
The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants;’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab…but no one knows his burial place to this day.
Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Technically, All Saints Day is Wednesday. It’s always the day after All Hallow’s Eve (also known as Halloween), but we are going to celebrate it today, though “celebrate” may be the wrong word.
The bulletin contains the names of all those in our midst who have died in the past year. The names are a mixture of those who were members of this church as well as those connected by blood or by bond to somebody in our church family. Which is to say, “celebrating” All Saints Day is really quite tender. We’re talking about loss and grief and sorrow. We’re talking about the people we miss so much that it hurts.
This past week, one of my daughters asked me if I had a photo of Fritz.
Fritz was my childhood dog, a Dachshund who was as fierce as any of the four German Shepherds next door. He also lost part of his ear proving it. Fritz has been gone for over 30 years, though, so I was perplexed by the question.
“Why do you want a picture of Fritz?” I asked. She said that, at school, they were learning about Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and they were invited to bring in a picture of a pet who had died because bringing in pictures of people might be too sad. And then she added, “If we were bringing in pictures of people, I’d bring in a picture of Uncle Chuck.” Meg’s uncle died just last Sunday, so Chuck has been on her mind.
I don’t know whose name is on your lips today. Whether it be a pet or a person, I trust that – when we lift these saints up in prayer later in the service – I trust you will whisper their name with deep gratitude. And I suspect that it might very well make you feel sad.
I look at the list printed in the bulletin and I think about how Shirley Harder arranged flowers to grace this Sanctuary week after week after week.
I think about Steve Scroggs who devoted his life to education and had this way of seeing the best in every student.
I think about Nancy Pfaltzgraff arranging banana bread and rice Krispie treats on platters at Vacation Bible School and how much she loved all the church’s children.
I think about Gail Norwood and her bright smile and her loving care for the memorial garden that now cradles her earthly remains.
I think about Peggy Hollingsworth and how she had this effortless way of making everyone adore her, including and especially the staff at Breadmans where she perhaps ate breakfast more mornings than I’ve been alive.
I think about Alex Coffin telling me tearfully about his career as a journalist; how he happened to be in Atlanta on the evening of April 4, 1968 – so that when the news came in from Memphis that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed, his widow Coretta allowed him to be in their home on that night of deep grief.
Dr. King may be the reason some are familiar with this story about Moses going to the mountaintop – it’s the text he preached on for the last sermon he ever delivered. The night before his assassination, he stood up in the Mason Temple just one mile from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he would fall and he said to a packed congregation: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…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.”
This has to be among the most eerily predictive speeches in history, almost like he knew that his time was short. But Dr. King also laid his hands on what I believe to be the heart of this text: He said “we as a people will get to the Promised land.”
He didn’t say “I will get you to that Promised Land.”
He said “we as a people will get there.”
The future does not hinge on any one of us, but together we get there.
Deuteronomy 34 goes to great lengths to underscore this truth.
It minces no words about the greatness of Moses: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.”
You can imagine the Hebrews saying all the things we say about our heroes:
“God broke the mold with that one.”
“How are we supposed to carry on without him?”
“If only we had people like Moses, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
So yes, according to Deuteronomy, Moses is unparalleled as a leader and a prophet.
And yet, he was not permitted to go into the Promised Land – and not because he wasn’t capable. Not because he wasn’t strong enough.
It says quite plainly that, in spite of being 120 years old, Moses’ eyesight was undimmed and his vigor was unabated. The text instead makes it clear that Moses died “at the Lord’s command.” There’s some sort of intention at work here – as if God is teaching us something.
What’s more is the matter of his burial. The translation you have in the pew Bible will tell you “he was buried.” One gets the sense that his people gathered his body and buried him, but the Hebrew is clear that it is God who buries Moses, without fanfare or ceremony. It’s actually a secret burial – “no one knows his burial place to this day” the text tells us.
I suspect that, too, is very intentional, as if the last thing God wants is for the Hebrews to build a giant statue over his burial site; as if God is already preventing the day when somebody might gaze upon that monument and say “If only we had leaders like Moses…”
After Moses dies, they mourn him for thirty days, and then the period of mourning comes to an end. The story hinges to Joshua; to the next generation who will take up his place.
Today we “celebrate” All Saints Day. It is perfectly normal for us to feel sad about the saints we have lost; to miss these dear ones who brought so much joy and stability and beauty into our lives. There is nothing unfaithful about that grief and we can sit with that sadness and feel it.
AND – at the same time – God does not want these saints to become the statues that make us feel inadequate; the heroes that make us say “If only we had people like them…”
Civil Rights leader Ella Baker said, “Strong people do not need strong leaders.”
Personalities come and go.
Leaders rise and fall.
But if the whole people are strong then the next leader is already waiting in the wings.
When we rode in the back of that truck through Port-au-Prince; when Yvon said “If Haiti still had people like that…” – Amy was riding along with us and she said to him in a stern voice “Yvon, what is keeping you from being a leader like that? What is holding you back from being the person your people need?” The question hung there unanswered but we all let it soak in.
Perhaps the best way we can “celebrate” All Saints Day is by beginning to see ourselves not as those who live in the long shadow of these saints, but rather as those who take our place alongside them.
Your call is to understand that God’s light can shine through you, just as much as anyone else.
Your call is to understand that God’s power can pour out of you for as long as you have life; that it will continue to pour out of you until the day comes when the roll is called and you, too, fall in line as the saints go marching in. Amen.