This is not the sermon I planned to preach today. Many of you have already heard that a heart condition has rendered me unable to fulfill my responsibilities as your interim pastor. I have gone through anger, denial, deal-making (can’t I just make it through November?), and now acceptance of my need to return home to Bend, Oregon to continue the treatment there. Please understand that I am not leaving because of better treatment Outside; there are few places in the world that are better than the Heart Institute in Anchorage. I am leaving so I can be at home for the convalescence that will be required.
Our Superintendent, Rachel Lieder Simeon, has arranged for preachers in the next few weeks before an interim arrives on November 11 who will stay until your permanent pastor is appointed in June.
Since this is my last Sunday with you, I decided not to preach the sermon I had prepared on the sixth commandment. I have been asked to complete the series of sermons on the Ten Commandments and post them on my blog. I will do my best to prepare and post one a week over these next five weeks. You will find the sermon on “no murder” already posted. Like a TV soap I wouldn’t want to leave you without finding out what happens when you get to the tenth commandment. I hope you will continue to talk back to me through the comments.
While we are not going to talk about the commandments today, we are going to begin not far in time and space from where the people received the commandments at Mt. Sinai. We don’t know how long it was after Moses presented the people with the Ten Commandments, but the time came when the wandering in the wilderness neared an end and the Promised Land was not far away.
As I thought about my leaving, my mind was drawn to the story of Moses in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy. I tried to imagine what it was like for him. He must have been exhausted. In his earlier years this climb would have been nothing for a man of his strength and endurance. But he was not the man he once was. He was dying and he knew it. But something—God!—beckoned him up to the top of the mountain, a mountaintop from whose peak he could see over to the other side of the Jordan River to “the land of milk and honey,” the land toward which he had spent most of his life leading people.
I wonder if this old man—the text says Moses was 120 years old—protested this indignity to God. Why couldn’t he have used his last energy to go from the Plains of Moab on over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land? It was not to be. Moses was led up the mountain to see the land, but not to enter it. Having seen the Promised Land from the top of the mountain the old man lay down and died without finishing what he began.
We too shall die without finishing what we begin. Moses lived for one hundred and twenty years. He was strong and vigorous. More to the point is that he was God-sensitive and God-led. Even that was not enough to enable him to finish what he had begun. And many do not have a full lifetime to get done what they long to accomplish.
I wonder if that occurred to Jesus as he made his way to Jerusalem. The journey had begun just days before when he himself had been up on the top of a mountain. Now, he had to come down. He was at the peak of his “career.” People all over the country had heard about him: how he called plain people as his disciples, how he healed sick people, how he taught and proclaimed a message of a God of love, and how his ministry seemed to move toward a cavalier disregard of the accepted patterns of discrimination that made some people “insiders” and others “outsiders.” He couldn’t go anywhere without large crowds pursuing him, hanging on his every word. But Jesus knew it couldn’t last. He knew he wouldn’t have seventy years, let alone Moses’ one hundred and twenty. He knew that he would do well to have thirty-five. I wonder if he thought about that as he walked the dusty road to Jerusalem.
Years later, when the writer of the Gospel of John looked back on Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem, he remembered his words: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” It sounds to me like Jesus understood that he wasn’t going to finish everything, but that what he had done would “bear fruit” after his death.
We can never accomplish what we begin in a lifetime, whether in 18, 35, 69, or 120 years. If Thomas Cahill is right the deepest of all Hebrew insights may well be that “accomplishment is intergenerational.” In his book, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Cahill recalls the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. The Centering Words in today’s bulletin are his. Will you read them aloud with me? "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love." Moses and Jesus both knew that. Please do not mistake what I am saying to be a message that accomplishing all we can for good in our lifetime is not important. Our best efforts are critical! What I am saying is that there are no quick and easy fixes for accomplishing what is truly worth doing.
For several years I lived on a small farm southeast of Atlanta, Georgia. There were a few acres of orchard and a few acres for vegetables. Around the house there were eight or nine large pecan trees. Once I discovered what a “pecan-picker-upper” was and got one, my back recovered from the stooping to harvest the trees’ abundant crops. The pecans were a paper-shell variety and a delight to eat.
One of the spiritual giants of the twentieth century was Howard Thurman. Born in 1900 of parents who had been slaves, Thurman was Dean of Chapel at Boston University in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He retired the year before I arrived at the university for graduate study. You will understand that when I heard this story by him, it had special meaning for me and my pecan trees.
Thurman said, “I watched him for a long time. He was so busily engaged in his task that he did not notice my approach until he heard my voice, then he raised himself erect with all the slow dignity of a man who had exhausted the cup of haste to the very dregs. He was an old man as I discovered before our conversation was over, a full 81 years. Further talk between us revealed that he was planting a small grove of pecan trees; the little treelets were not more than two-and-a-half or three feet in height. My curiosity was unbounded. ‘Why did you not select larger trees so as to increase the possibility of your living to see them bear at least one crop of nuts?’ [Pecan trees take from 10 to 20 years to bear fruit.]
“He fixed his eyes directly on my face with no particular point of focus, but with a gaze that took in the totality of my features. Finally, he said, ‘These small trees are cheaper and I have very little money.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘you do not expect to live to see the trees reach sufficient maturity to bear fruit?’”
“No, but is that important? All my life I have eaten fruit from trees that I did not plant. Why should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after I am gone? Besides the person who plants only to reap the harvest has no faith in life.”
How many pecans had I picked up, given away, and sold? How many had I roasted in the oven with honey and curry? I was able to do that because someone long before me on that piece of property in Georgia had planted the trees, and perhaps had not lived long enough to enjoy the fruit. It is not just so with pecans. We are always standing on others shoulders, benefiting from the labors of those who have gone before us. The important question for us today is not whether we will live long enough to see the results of our earnest endeavors, but whether or not we are planting trees to bear fruit for those who come after us.
The old pecan farmer understood what makes accomplishment possible—something Moses and Jesus also understood: the past is gone and the future is a mystery. All we really have is today.
In the churches I served in Juneau and Fairbanks, I was surprised to discover that much of the leadership came from Coast Guard, Army, and Air Force families, who were stationed there for two or three year assignments. What I observed was that often when a new military family arrived at the church, they would be ready to join and be put to work within just a couple of weeks. I asked one of them about it and this is what he said “If we waited around to get acquainted we would be on the down side of our tour before we got to work. We don’t have that luxury.” Truth is, none of us has that luxury. They understood what is true for all of us, whether we’ve been here fourteen weeks or fifty years. What we do with the “present” will determine what we accomplish within and beyond our lifetimes. That will be true for me as I return to Bend, as it will be true for you here at Chugiak.
With visiting preachers here for the next few weeks and another interim, you may be tempted to take it easy and simply coast until you receive your regularly appointed pastor in July, sort of like what we did when we had a substitute teacher in school. I hope you won’t do that; none of us has the luxury to waste the “presents” God gives us. In these next weeks, BE the Church God has called you to be: healing, teaching, nurturing, and reaching out. And if you are new, don’t wait. Jump right in and get to work. There is much to be accomplished.
I am honored to have been among you as we planted trees together, and I give thanks for you. Keep on planting!
 New York: Anchor Books, 1998. pp. 170 -171.