I am going to tell a story first told
in Deuteronomy 34:1-12
and continued in Matthew 22:34-46.
In a long forgotten, overgrown unmarked grave
on a barren hillside overlooking
a landscape of promises
there lies one of the most compelling, melancholy images
in all the Bible…maybe in all of literature.
Moses was orphaned
by the arbitrary whims of state power
only to be adopted by Pharaoh
who, ironically, was the author
of that original murderous chaos.
Moses was raised
in Pharaoh’s household
to love the state
and all things powerful and Egyptian.
disturbed deep inside by a genetic awakening,
he suddenly perceives
the suffering of his own people
who are slaves to power
and powerless slaves.
at the beginning of the Bible
the suffering of Hebrew slaves,
a light switch of compassion
is turned on inside Moses.
and he hears
and he knows
he lashes out with fury, killing one of his own –
an Egyptian task-master.
Or no, not one of his own.
But wait – his identity and loyalty
Like an American Taliban
Moses turns on those who raised him
and who gave him everything,
and murders an Egyptian officer
that was only doing his duty
to Pharaoh and the gods.
So Moses must run,
run for his life.
He flees the long arm of Egyptian power
abandoning his soft, rich, affluent life,
which to that point was all he had known.
Moses: Fugitive from justice,
man Most Wanted by state power,
a turncoat and ingrate.
The Moses odyssey goes on and on,
twisting and turning corners
we have long forgotten
and may have never really known.
has there arisen a prophet in Israel
whom the LORD knew face to face,”
so concludes the narrator of Deuteronomy.
no one before or since
ever looked on God’s face and lived.
Moses, from before the burning bush
to the top of Mount Pisgah,
was the one who God knew
and who knew God.
They walked arm in arm,
hand in hand,
argued and made-up like quarreling lovers,
and passed through fury together
bonded by bloody war.
Then…God left him to die.
On Mount Pisgah
God held Moses back from joy.
all those who Moses has led out of slavery
would enter the Promise Land
but not Moses.
God punished him.
After all Moses did right
through blood, sweat and tears;
through arduous suffering and pain;
through God’s demands
and the people’s resistance;
God’s “yeses” and the people’s “no’s” –
through all of that
the one thing he did wrong
becomes the period at the end of his life.
And do you remember what that one thing was,
that Moses did wrong?
It was something that you and I do every day,
and something that probably every human being
has done at least once
of his or her life.
Moses acted as if,
perhaps even imagined it in his own mind,
that he was the master of his own destiny.
Yep, in front of all the escaped slaves,
Moses spoke as if
he were the agent of delivery,
as if the power he wielded
was his power.
That one time
who he was
and whose he was,
and instead he imagines
that he is a self-made man.
He did what you and I do all the time –
act as if the man or woman we are
is a person of our own making
and a power unto ourselves.
because of that one infraction
the Moses odyssey ends with tragedy.
Moses dies on Mount Pisgah
overlooking the Promise Land
that he had been inching toward
for forty years
Everyone else will get there
and enter without him.
He will die on the mountain
and be buried in obscurity.
That was his punishment
for a single count of hubris.
I cannot shake the melancholy
of that lonely, bony old Moses
sitting atop Mount Pisgah,
gazing wistfully down upon the Promise Land.
Something about that image,
and God saying “no”
instead of “yes,”
after all Moses had done and endured,
stands in harsh contrast to the Jesus love-lingo.
I know this will seem a lot like
Harold and His Purple Crayon,
but I want to think
the storytellers got it wrong.
My self-interest screams
for the storytellers
to have gotten it wrong.
If Moses gets left on Pisgah
because of his one act of hubris and rebellion,
my ending looks pretty dismal –
how about yours?
But that is the thing about storytelling,
there is not only one story
nor is there even one version of each story.
Written more than four hundred years after
the actual Moses would have lived,
the Deuteronomist asked him or herself
why Moses would be left behind to die?
That ancient editor
saw a morality play, a tragedy,
in which Moses
had to be punished
in order for the moral drama
to be reconciled.
But I am afraid we live in an age
in which morality plays
It is difficult
if not impossible
for us to draw straight lines of cause and effect
between moral and immoral behavior –
between good and bad outcomes.
I say that
even though millions of people
keep reaching for the crime and punishment scenario – otherwise known as the prosperity gospel.
With its preachers making so much money
there must be a willing audience.
But like I said, there are lots of storytellers.
Still, for most of us,
testify against life as a morality play
and so the world no longer looks the same to us
as it did to the Deuteronomist.
We live in an age of psycho-analyzing
when we look inside
and in an age of biolog-izing
when we look inside for genetic explanations;
and in an age of measur-izing
when we make our determinations based upon
measurements and data.
So I might tell the story a little slant,
as the poet says.
I can see Moses up there
sitting all by himself on Mount Pisgah
feeling that he doesn’t deserve to go on.
He can’t forgive himself.
He can’t accept himself.
He can’t love himself.
Surely with a simply nod
any number of the people who Moses
pulled out of slavery
and prodded through the wilderness,
would hoist his hundred-and-twenty-year-old-body
up on their shoulders
and carry him into that land of milk and honey.
All he would need to do
is make one small gesture
if not thousands
would come running.
But instead he sits down to die.
He just can’t forgive himself.
He just can’t hold the affirmation
given by the people who love him so much.
He cannot say “Yes” to love
and so he says “No” to life.
That is how I would tell the story.
It would not be with a God
who was so stingy with forgiveness
but with a Moses who took so many
to the Promise Land
but just could not take himself there.
Of course that is projection pure and simple.
Such a story tells the struggles I have,
and also for many other people I have known well.
Which takes us to Jesus’ wisdom.
The sparseness of Jesus’ words,
and the seeming simplicity of his summary
belies the deep complexity of that wisdom.
Jesus’ summary of Torah
is a jelly holding dozens
if not hundreds
of gnarly interconnected questions.
One leads into another
without ever answering the first.
Is it possible to love God
or to love a neighbor
or anybody else,
if we have not accepted
our own lovability?
If we have not done the work of self-acceptance,
and we have not entered into the wounds
or injuries that bark judgments
and condemnations inside us,
can we truly love someone else?
Can we truly love God?
I do not actually know the answer
to that question, by the way.
I assume there is a deep
and pervasive connection
and our capacity to love well,
but I do not know for sure.
Perhaps there is no single answer,
and instead, endless questions
to lead us through the wilderness
toward the Promise Land.
But just like you,
I am the storyteller
and I get to edit the narrative.
In my version,
the way I understand it,
loving God and loving one another
begins with believing – no,
more than believing, with accepting
deep down in my bones –
that God loves
In those twenty-eight little words
Jesus weaves together the more than 800,000 words
that fill the Bible.
(Yes, I looked up “How many words in the Bible?”)
Jesus’ spare synopsis of ageless wisdom
is like a painting you look at for hours:
at the image as a whole,
then allowing yourself to descend
into a complexity of detail,
until finally becoming completely absorbed
within the confines of its frame.
To love God,
to love neighbor,
to love self – somehow they are connected
with a thin filament of spider silk
stronger than blood.
It is like a Zen Koan
that leads the open mind to bliss
rather than a satisfactory answer.
my acceptance of my own lovability
is inextricably connected and dependent
upon my loving you –
and loving a God
I do not get to know with the same intimacy
that Moses did.
It is a very strange religion we have –
but very much worth
climbing into the story
and continuing to tell it.