Planting Trees at the End of the World

Today we reach the end of Moses’ life, but what an end it is! Here’s Moses at the top of Mt. Nebo with a grand view of the entire Promised Land, and God telling him that this was indeed the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Moses looks on Gilead and Dan and Judah as far as the sea. He could see the Negeb and the Plain out to Zoar. He sees all of it stretched out before him, and for all the people of Israel.

And then, the writer of the Book of Deuteronomy tells us, Moses died at the Lord’s command. God—for reasons that include Moses showing his own anger and frustration with God over the past 40 years—isn’t able to enter the Promised Land. Nearly an entire generation has died out, the ones who were primarily adults in Egypt before the Exodus. They did not trust that God would be with them fully, and thought that they would need to go it alone. God tries to show them again and again that they are not alone, but it’s to no avail. So Moses is the last of that generation to die before the entry into the Promised Land.

Yet in the verses that follow what’s fascinating is that this is not a disappointing thing in the scripture—they honor Moses’ death with a 30 day mourning period, and the writer tells us how connected he was to God. Yet one commentator reflects by writing this: “Moses did indeed see the promised land, as we are shown in this poignant closing to Deuteronomy, but it has always seemed supremely unjust that he did not get to enter it and live at least a few years in relative comfort and peace. However, given Moses’ steadfastness and determination to lead the Israelites to a better life, I suspect that he would have undertaken the wilderness journey with them even if he had known that he himself would not participate in the homecoming.” Which is perhaps the question we should ask ourselves: would we? Would we undertake work for a better life for others even if we ourselves might not see the finished product, the promised land?

Can we take the long view?

The German Reformer Martin Luther is purported to have said, “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!” I wonder if I would join ol’ Martin outside with a shovel of my own, or if I would sit inside, doom-scrolling on Twitter. 

See, here’s the thing, we are called to be “people who build up rather than tear down” as theologian Leslie Klingensmith put it. We are called to be those who always choose life and hope over fear and despair. We are the ones who should whistle in the dark, to keep choosing the possibility of a future that may seem outlandish at best because of our trust in the way of God. It’s a certainty described by the writer of the book of Hebrews who wrote,  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Are you assured of those things—of that world—you hope for? Do you have a deep conviction of things that you have not seen? Are you willing to pursue it, even if you won’t see it come to fruition in your lifetime?

There’s a prayer attributed to Oscar Romero, the late Archbishop of San Salvador, about this very idea that I know I’ve shared before. While Romero himself did not write it—someone penned it for a memorial service for Romero—the words are a reminder of how we are called to live.

“It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

“This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

+We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”

I wonder sometimes about our forebears Joseph and Josephine Burnett who gave the land and the money to help build our church. They’re buried here behind me—could they have envisioned us living out that message of hope that they gave us at our founding to be a church free and open to all regardless of wealth or race or color or station? Did they imagine what our prayers would be like or have an inkling to the ways this congregation would give to the needy or the desire we have to be a people of faith living as disciples of Jesus? Did they look on our church building–whose corner stone they laid nearly 130 years ago—and contemplate their hope for a continuance of the grace of God that they started on this very spot?

I hope so. I hope that they could imagine just a few of the ways that we have lived into that kingdom that still lies beyond us. Like the 1860s, our country is still politically divided. Like their time, some feel welcome to join a church and some do not.  Like their days, we hope too for a better future when all will know of the grace of God and experience the beloved kingdom where all will gather together around a table and share a meal beyond compare. And that kingdom is still beyond us.

But that does not mean that we should ever lose hope. That we should ever stop working for the kingdom. Or give up planting apple trees. We may not experience the fullness of that kingdom in our day, but that’s not to say we cannot see it in the distance if we look hard enough. Friends, let us never give up that hope in the kingdom. Let’s keep engaging in that work, even if it’s just a tiny fraction of that magnificent enterprise that is God’s vision. Let us delight in the call to be workers for the master builder whose vision far exceeds what we could ever imagine. Let us live always as people whose hope is in the Lord.

Photo Credit: enneafive Flickr via Compfight cc

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