Saturday, May 4, 2013
Here We Have No Lasting City
RCL Easter 6C
5 May 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Focus Text: Deuteronomy 34.1-12
In 1954 my father’s tour of duty in England was coming to an end. He was asked where he would like to be re-assigned. Since he had been raised in upstate New York, my father requested to be assigned at one of three Air Force bases located in New Hampshire and Maine, close to where my grandparents lived in the Hudson Valley. When the orders arrived, my father must have had a moment of shock to discover that he, my mother and I were to travel to Colorado Springs, Colorado, a fair distance away from the northeastern United States.
So off we went to Colorado where, in 1955, we were joined by my sister. As my sister and I were growing up, our contact with grandparents, aunts and uncles was quite limited, but we were fortunate to be ‘adopted’ by older people with whom my mother and father worked, including a good number of folk from our parish church.
One couple, Uncle Bill and Aunt Lil, as we called them, had a place in the old mining town of Cripple Creek, some thirty miles to the west as the crow flies, but a longer distance by mountain roads. Cripple Creek had been the heart of the gold rush of the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. By the 1890’s Cripple Creek was a bustling town, but by the time I was growing up, it had become a sleepy mountain town with a rough side and a genteel side. When it rained, the dirt streets were littered with pieces of soft turquoise, not gem-quality but of immense value to a nine-year-old boy and his sister.
Just outside of town stands Mt Pisgah. In the days of my youth it had two claims to fame: a famous graveyard containing the graves of many pioneers and prospectors and a magnificent view of the mountains of central and southern Colorado. From its summit you can see the sharp profile of the Sangre de Christo mountains in the south and the Continental Divide further west. But if you turn and look east, you see the pockmarks that are all that remain of the many gold mines dug by the prospectors. These are the graves of the hopes of so many who thought that they were going to make a fortune and did not. For some of the prospectors the holes they dug in the ground are the only legacy, the only sign that these men ever existed.
I searched in vain this week to find out why this mountain was called ‘Mt Pisgah’, the same name that is sometimes used for the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land he was not permitted to enter. Did my Mt Pisgah earn its name during the heyday of the gold rush when hopes were high and Cripple Creek seemed to be a ‘promised land’? Perhaps it was only called Mt Pisgah as the boom went bust and people came to realize that they were not to enter the land of promise. Of course, it could be both at once, but the mystery continues.
Of the many stories in the Bible, this story has always had an effect on me. Here is Moses, liberator of the people of Israel, giver of the law, leader in the wilderness, cut off from the promise towards which he has been working for forty years if the chronology of the Bible is to be relieved. There is the land, flowing with milk and honey, just within his reach, but he is denied entry. When he dies, there will be no grave, no monument to which people may travel to honour his memory. Or is there a legacy we do not readily recognize?
Moses’ legacy is found in the Torah and in the people to whom God has entrusted the Torah. In generations to come the land will be lost, regained, occupied, lost and restored again. In generations to come the Temple will be built, destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed once again. But one thing remains constant, even in the midst of the successes and failures, the victories and defeats, the moments of greatness and the moments of persecution --- the Torah as God’s revealed word to the people and the people as the agents of that word in time and space. Moses’ legacy is less a sacred place than it is a way of walking with God through the chances and changes of human history.
For the early apostolic community, the only legacy worth creating was the legacy to be found in a people committed to following Jesus as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. We hear in today’s reading from Acts the story of Paul’s call to cross the waters that divided Asia from Europe and to begin the Christian mission that led eventually to the first missionaries crossing the English Channel. We are Paul’s legacy, not some monument in stone, not even a tomb. We live in the spirit of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who penned these words to his community: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13.14). As much as each one of us seeks a legacy, a lasting sign that we have lived, loved and mattered, the truth is that our only legacy as Christians is a movement not a place.
This does not mean that we treat our places of worship with contempt nor does it mean that we do not need bases from which we strike out to take care of our neighbours and neighbourhoods, from which we offer care for those in any need or trouble. It does mean, however, that we must always be prepared to leave these beloved places behind if we find ourselves called to move on, to travel towards that city that is to come, as followers of Christ, our way, our truth and our life.
For just a moment let us think of our dear friend, Sally Baker, who died on Friday at the age of 92. When she was born in 1921, women had only just been recognized as ‘persons’ in Canadian law and granted the vote. When she was born in 1921, Anglicans could still speak about ministry among ‘savage’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples, a ministry to be led by young university-educated white males. But Sally knew how to travel and follow the way, the truth and the life. She embraced the many changes that our Christian community has undergone; I dare say, she reveled in them. What will be her legacy among us? We shall be her legacy, a people who are not afraid to journey on towards the promised land of God’s future.
Each one of us will face our own moment on Mt Pisgah. We shall look from its heights and may experience a moment of sadness as we realize that we have not arrived at the destination towards which we thought we had been striving all our lives. Perhaps we may feel like the miners of Cripple Creek who looked down upon the graves in which their hopes of riches lie buried. But I hope that when that time comes for me and for each one of us, we shall be like Moses. We shall look upon the promised land of God’s future and rejoice to see God’s people continuing their journey towards it, sustained by all that each one of us has contributed to that journey and guided by the Spirit who leads us ever onwards. And we shall rest secure, knowing that God will come and find us to bring us to that promised land in the fullness of time. Amen.