With or Without You: Moses and the Highs and Lows of Life in Community

Preaching, Theology

Moses can stand as an archetype for many things, one of which is the individual’s relationship to community. As we’ve listened to his story unfold in increments during our Sunday Hebrew Bible reading for the past ten weeks, we’ve seen Moses with others and we’ve seen Moses alone. Often times, when he is alone, it’s on top of a mountain with God. Eight times, in fact, he climbs up and down Mt. Sinai to be alone with God and then return to his people with news of who God is and what God wants. Sometimes the people he comes back to are eager to hear from him. Sometimes they have forgotten him. Once, they helped realize his visions for an intricately woven bejeweled tent for God to live in. Once, they made him so mad he smashed the only evidence he had of God’s self-revelation to pieces on the ground. Each time he fights, admonishes, instructs, proclaims, and heads back up the mountain to see more. Today we read the final verses of the Torah, where Moses climbs to God for the last time. This time its up Mount Nebo, where he can see entire swaths of land that his people are about to conquer and occupy. God has promised to bring his people to a land of milk and honey through Moses, yet he himself will not enter it. “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,” God says, as Moses gazes out from yet another mountain peak to a land about to be occupied through force and bloodshed by the youth of his own nation, “but you shall not cross over there.”

I wonder if Moses is disappointed. I wonder if Moses regrets choosing to link himself so closely with a people whose faults and failings have ultimately cost him entrance into the land they were destined for. Moses belongs to a whole generation who gets shut out of the promised land, the generation which first crossed the Reed Sea from bondage into liberation. Because that liberation was immediately followed by ungrateful complaining, because they put God to the test, God swore in his wrath that they would not enter into his rest. At least, that’s how Psalm 95 tells it. Israel had been this close to the finish line before but had been forced to go back into the wilderness for another forty years until the first generation had died off and the next was ready to rise up pure from their parents’ complaint. Moses takes his fate with the elders. It isn’t clear how complicit in their sin he may be. Some midrashim say that Moses was guilty of taking credit for God’s miraculous actions through him as if they were his own. But scripture itself is silent. In the text, the only sin Moses seems to be guilty of is association with a people he had hoped to lead, a people who fell short of the standard they were given. Moses’ struggle as an individual in community comes to this: with his people, he has risked being misunderstood, disappointed, but without them, his vision of God would have been an isolated fantasy.

I wonder if you’ve ever found life in community as perplexing as Moses has. When I returned to the Episcopal Church in 2003 after an adolescence and early adulthood of isolated spiritual seeking, one of the major reasons for coming back was because I heard that the Episcopal church had made advances in its inclusion of gay and lesbian people. If the denomination of my childhood was a place where an openly gay partnered man could be made a Bishop, as was in the person of Gene Robinson that year, it was a denomination I wanted to return to. I was delighted in those years that I had found a broader spiritual community which I felt I could belong to with integrity, one in which I had a full and equal claim as a gay man. By 2006, however, the denomination had faced significant pushback for our decisions from our global partners. When the Church met as a whole body that year, we decided to place a moratorium on ordaining any more gay bishops, and rites that had been planned to bless same-sex unions were shelved. The losses were devastating, and I thought about leaving the church to return to my private, personal spirituality. If the Church wasn’t going to treat people like me equally, why would I bother participating? Wouldn’t my participation in such a disappointing, unjust institution be a kind of complicity? Wouldn’t it perpetuate abuse against myself and others? I honestly don’t remember why I stayed. Looking back, I can imagine it had something to do with the empty hunger I feel when I miss communion one week, or something to do with the real people who continued to show up for that communion despite their own broken expectations and hurt feelings.

What I do know is what I would have missed if I had left: I would have missed a promised land where sexual orientation seems to be less and less of a deciding factor in whom we promote for leadership in the church, I would have missed a journey in which I finally got to meet other gay, lesbian and trans* clergy face to face, I would have missed the opportunity to join advocates at the denominational level of our church for producing rites of blessing for all couples, and perhaps worst of all, I would have missed being able to preside over the blessing of marriages myself, ones that have included many different genders and orientations. All this in ten years time. I sometimes dizzy myself imagining my elders who came before, the ones who did not get to enter this new territory of full inclusion. I imagine those faithful Christians who made the life I live possible for sticking with their tribe even when the losses seemed insurmountable.

When we say our highest calling is to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, we are not merely summarizing the law of Moses, we are summarizing his way of life: one that rose and fell with the victories and failures of his people. The friendship Moses enjoys with God, face-to-face, is not for his benefit alone. At each step of the way he struggles to bring his whole people into that encounter as well. When we show up here, when we show up with one another, when we pledge a portion of our livelihood to the livelihood of our life together as the church, we do the same. Not because our money can purchase some desired outcome, but because we depend on our relationship with one another to give God a body among us, to risk vulnerability for the sake of making God’s vision for us real.

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