The Promised Land

The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25
October 29th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

There are times in this life where we catch glimpses of the future—places where the events and journeys of the past come face to face with new possibilities.

One of my favorite pastimes is hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains around Asheville, NC.

If you have not visited this natural jewel of our world, it bears saying that the area was only sparsely populated until the end of the 19th century, when the famous New York based Vanderbilt family chose to build their grand country house, the Biltmore Estate, in the region.

The mansion sits in middle of a large valley, with views up to several of the nearby peaks, including a prominent one that dominates the surrounding ridgeline.

As times changed, and the family’s fortunes shifted along with them, more and more of the land they had purchased was sold off to the national government, eventually becoming thousands of acres protected land.

What had once been protected private land, which kept development down, soon became accessible to the general public, especially with the completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1966, an engineering feat and swath of national park road that leads from the wide lower valley into the wilderness areas and mountain trails above.

Because of the parkway, a person can now reach what once was far off and seemingly inaccessible.

That peak so prominent on the back porch of the Biltmore Estate, Mt. Pisgah, became suddenly reachable through a 30 minute drive and short hike instead of a multi-day excursion.

I have often made that hike, and stood on the summit of Mt. Pisgah, surveying all the beautiful promised land of the Blue Ridge Mountains that God made, the Vanderbilts purchased, and which is now home to generations of friends and family, unique flora and fauna, and so much wonderful common life.

It is difficult to stand there, surveying the beautiful scene, and not imagine generations of Cherokees and early European settlers, along with Vanderbilt, Olmstead and Hunt gazing over the physical land of promise that was always one part present reality to them and one part “yet to be.”

Likewise, it is difficult to stand atop Mt. Pisgah and not imagine Moses looking over the promised land across the Jordan after 40 years of journeying in the wilderness.

After the whole Exodus saga, the plagues and deliverance from Pharaoh…after the testing and trials of the wilderness including the giving of the law and the various temptations toward idolatry…Moses today stands upon the biblical Mt. Pisgah looking upon a land he’s longed for and prayed for, and yet, a land which he’s suddenly unable to physically enter.

God grants him the grace to see it with his own eyes, but it is a land destined, not for him, but for the people whom he has faithfully shepherded.

Today we find ourselves at the end of the Torah, or Pentateuch…basically the first five books of the Bible that arcs from Creation’s beginning in Genesis until Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy.

In a way, the faithful traveler through these holy books stands atop Mt. Pisgah with Moses, with one eye that reminiscences on just how far the people of God have come, and another on just how far we have yet to go.

It is a moment of transition, not unlike when Jesus went atop the mountain and was transfigured before his closest disciples.

And whether we encounter such moments on the mountain tops of our earthly experience, or in the valleys of the shadow of death, such transitional moments encourage us to decide how to proceed, both personally and as a people.

As Moses sat upon Mt. Pisgah, I wonder if he looked back on his life and saw how God had repeatedly used him as a channel of divine grace, guidance and power.

Though I’m sure his inability to enter the promised land was a source of sadness for him, I also wonder if his years of experience had taught him that the journey itself was the fulfillment of the promise for which he had prayed and labored.

As important as the physical land before him was, I wonder if the true promise of the earthly and heavenly kingdom was given to him and the Israelites in the midst of those hard years of complaint, in the daily gathering of manna, in the refreshing coolness of water from the rock, in the once broken and re-hewn tablets of stone, and in the constant accompanying presence of the pillars of cloud and fire.

Looking back, the way behind Moses was revealed to be filled with promised land.

The way forward was now for others to walk and to discover the promise themselves.

As I imagine Moses on Mt. Pisgah, I see him with a satisfied visage, finally coming to terms with the meaning of his name “one pulled out of the water.”

He was taken from the Nile, saw the waters of the Red Sea part, and struck the hard rock of the wilderness and saw it become a spring of refreshment.

Crossing the Jordan below was for Joshua and a new generation of leaders, while Moses’ destiny was now “the waters above,” the seat of God’s holy throne in the Hebrew imagination.

While I don’t think many of us would imagine ourselves capable of the feats Moses accomplished in God’s name, I do believe that each of us encounters such transitional moments in our lives, and is asked to discern when it is time to go forward and when it is time to let go and bless others in the forward journeying.

Knowing when the time is right is challenging and requires much prayer and discernment.

But, there is a place to which we are called that has little to do with physically going forward or going back, because it has more to do with an internal orientation rather than an exterior compass direction.

The longer I am a part of this holy pilgrimage called the church, the more I become comfortable with the promised land of the ordinary.

Rather than always something that is just out of reach, I see the promised land as part and parcel of the daily lives we lead.

I’m not saying that it is easy to recognize it, nor name it as such, but it is available to us always, regardless of where we are, where we were born or who our parents are, or the contours of the road we have traveled up until now.

When Jesus repeatedly tells the disciples that the kingdom of God is among them, I think this is what he means.

The way to reaching that promised land is through loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and in seeing that love of God as part and parcel of your loving your neighbor as yourself.

It’s not theoretical, but a promise that takes on flesh…becomes incarnate…through the daily pursuit and practice of it…through the step after step walking in that way.

We reach the promised land when we gather together to pray for those who are hurting, when we give of our time and talents to serve those far off and near, and when we praise the God in whom we live move and have our being by sowing seeds of hope and healing along the courses we travel each day.

Such a pilgrim’s way is always but a partial glimpse into the fullness toward which we journey…as St. Paul says, “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

Moses is lauded at the end of his life as one “whom the Lord knew face to face,” and I dare say that each of us gathered here today are striving to know God in such an intimate way, just as we are already so intimately known.

Whether it be on the top of the biblical or Blue Ridge’s Mt. Pisgah, with the land stretched out before us like a tapestry, or in the dark alleys and public squares in the heart of the bustling city, or in the seemingly unimportant and tedious tasks of everyday life, the God of all is among us and longing for a closer walk with us.

Each moment is an opportunity to deepen that relationship, and to draw one step closer to the complete realization of God’s kingdom that we have witnessed in Jesus Christ.

In the realest sense, and I believe especially for Moses as he watched the company go forward while his earthly pilgrimage ended, the journey IS the reward we are seeking.

Perhaps it helps to survey the landscape from the mountain top, taking stock of all that has been and is yet to be, in order to most fully root ourselves in the giftedness of the now.

But mountain or valley, desert or ocean, celebration or mourning…the promised land we seek, and the God who accompanies us, sustains us, and binds us in love and service to each other, is already there.

Walk with each other and with your God this week, and you will surely find that promised land and enter it yourselves.

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