The View from Mt. Nebo

Proper 22A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mt. Sinai was wrapped in smoke. Thunder and lightning and a thick cloud covered the mountain. A blast of a trumpet so loud it made all the people tremble. (Exodus 19:16). The people were afraid and stood at a distance when God handed down the Ten Commandments to Moses. They are rules to live by, wise guidance for life, an extravagant promise, a simple covenant built on trust. Love God. Love people. Love people in order to love God. Love God in order to love people. The view from Mt. Sinai must have been breath taking.

Fast-forward twelve hundred years to Jesus. The plan that began with Abraham and Sarah continuing through Moses on Mt. Sinai had run aground. We hear Jesus explain to the temple elders, “Listen to another parable!” he told them. The nation of Israel is like a well-appointed vineyard. God provided them with all they needed and more. God placed the whole enterprise into their hands. They are a privileged people. Their whole life, therefore, is really about just one thing: the call to tend and nurture the vineyard, cultivating and caring for God’s people so they might flourish and bloom and become a blessing to themselves, and to others, and to God, a light to the nations revealing God’s grace to the world. Yet the religious leaders exploited and mistreated God’s people — the people of Israel, God’s “vineyard.”

Jesus’ parable exposes the corruption of the religious elite and condemns their obsessions with privilege and power. The chief priests and elders are like the wicked tenants. They abuse their authority, dishonor God’s house, and mistreat God’s messengers. They killed the prophets and now would kill God’s son. Likewise, the wicked tenants in Jesus’ parable meant to put an end to our whole story. But the cross of Christ proved to be a new beginning.

This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk whose values of nonviolence, simplicity, and care for creation become more important with each passing year. In honor of St. Francis we bless our pets and pray for all God’s animals in worship this morning. His graceful, animal loving image adorns many of our homes, including my own. I read that Francis has become of the most popular lawn ornaments sold in America today. And yet it is hard to think of a more radical Christian witness.

The joyful beggar who so famously loved animals and nature, chose simplicity and poverty over status and comfort. He lived in a simple, shared, and non-violent way that shouted good news and joy to the world. Jesus accused the religious leaders of his day of yielding wild, sour grapes. What harvest are we gathering from the collective vineyard of our lives, our community?
We stand at a crossroads. Which way will we go? Like the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, or the disciples at the foot of the cross, we look to the future with fear and trembling.

“In April of this year, National Geographic published a “flip” issue of their magazine — basically, two issues in one — to explore two starkly different futures for our planet. One half of the magazine presented the worst-case scenario: what Planet Earth will look like in fifty years if we do nothing substantive about climate change.
The writer described a grim, dangerous world of mass extinctions, searing forest fires, deadly heat waves, fierce storms, and widespread suffering for the human race.
The other half portrayed a more hopeful, verdant vision: what Planet Earth could look like in fifty years if we harness our time, ingenuity, resources, and technology now to undo at least some of the damage we have already done. In this scenario, we would find sustainable ways to feed ourselves. We’d clean up our oceans, rivers, and lakes. We’d provide carbon-neutral energy for all. We’d reimagine our homes, streets, cities, and corporations in light of the most pressing needs of the environment. We’d begin to reverse climate change, and prevent many, if not most extinctions. ‘It’s impossible to know who is right,’ Susan Goldberg wrote about the two contrasting visions in her Editor’s Note for the issue. Everything will depend on the decisions we make in the coming days, weeks, months, years, and decades.” (Debi Thomas A Lament for the Vineyard, Journey with Jesus, 9/27/20)

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child” (I Corinthians 13:11). I admit, I used to think we had things pretty well figured out. There is a great awakening today at how much our lives could be better and how urgently we need change. Not only for the planet, but also for gender equality among all our siblings in Christ and justice for all God’s children of color.

Sometimes I feel this generation is like Moses on top of Mt. Nebo—that other mountain. There God showed him the whole promised land while knowing he would never be allowed to walk there. (Deuteronomy 34:1). It feels as if on January 20th we will either be in one world or entirely in another. Once the thunder, cloud, smoke, and trumpet blasts of the election season are finally over we shall we whether the promised land will be for us a reality or remain just a dream. The decisions we face are rarely so urgent and consequential as they are now. It is understandable how we might confuse the question about our future with the outcome of the election. We forget how long has been at this. The moral arc of the universe is very, very long but it bends towards justice. The children of Israel crossed over Jordan as a people. It didn’t matter about Moses. God raised up new leaders from the people, by the people, for the people. It was the people’s work to enter the promised land, to cultivate it, and sustain it. It is our work, regardless of who sits in the oval office, to extend the promise of God’s grace to all people now.

In fact, we already have one leader, one lord, one God of all. God’s money is on the human race. God is heavily invested in you. Who–or what—is your money, your time, your talents riding on? We heard Jesus say that we are stewards. We are privileged and most richly blessed. Let us join hands and welcome the future, as full partners with God. Look, together we enter into a new land of promise where the lives of all, including and every creature, may flourish through the abundance of God’s amazing grace.