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Goodbye Moses!

I have a confession to make. Saying goodbye is one of the things in life I dread. I just hate to say goodbye! I’d much rather say “see you later alligator” or “look forward to seeing you again soon!” or simply, “later!” I find saying goodbye awkward, painful and difficult to say and I can’t remember a time I didn’t feel that way.

This Sunday, after a long and difficult trek through Biblical wilderness, we say goodbye to the loyal and steadfast Moses. He had done so much for so many people and, according to this reading of today, task was finished. God gave him a permanent vacation in the sky, which Moses so well deserves because of his enormous service to his people. After leading them through blood, sweat and tears, the scripture tells us, “The Lord said to him, I have let you see (this land) with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.” That sounds rather grim doesn’t it, but it isn’t really. Listen to this; “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.” He had a great life and was still robust until the moment he passed away. Can you imagine feeling that healthy and good at 120 years old? What a gift! Moses was in very good shape on the day of his death. His sight was still good and he was energized and fit after the long journey.

The scripture sounds as if God just made him go to sleep and that was it. He wasn’t in pain, he did not linger and there was no medication to ease his transition as we so often see these days with prolonged health care. He just “phfft!” and was gone. I like that - sign me up. That is the way to go. Then the text gets very serious; “The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.” So sad! Moses worked hard for God and indeed for all of our faith ancestors but he was not able to go on to the promised land with them. Nevertheless, we continue to believe his passing was rewarded by God and he forever dwelt in a better place. It’s good too that Moses’ people had a distinct and loving way of dealing with this death. Scripture informs us they observed exactly 30 days to grieve his death.

Afterward, the text says, “then the period of mourning ended.” As we all know, grieving and mourning have their own timeline. I have experienced mourning for someone many months, even years after they died, especially if I had not fully grieved at the time they actually died. It gets back to that “saying goodbye” thing which I avoid. Sometimes I just don’t want to let a friend or family member go. It is almost as if the child in me feels if I just avoid thinking about it, my loved one will still be there. It isn’t true and I know it, but you can’t always tell that to a brain that is functioning in a childlike or magical thinking way. It’s quite beautiful that Moses’ people paid a sincere and loving tribute to him by grieving as a community.

As a pastor, I have seen the passing of a loved one bring people together, even if those people have been separated or at war with each other. Moses was so smart too, picking a successor ahead of time by the laying on of hands to Joshua, which is basically ordination. That ordination gave him the authority to manage and lead the Israelites. Moses has gone down in history as one of the great leaders of all time. Patient, kind, so very accessible and a very good distance walker! During a 40-year trek, the Israelites must have walked thousands of miles! Because of his steadfast nature, his tenacity, his willingness to lead people even when they were cranky and irascible, he was not only rewarded by God but also acclaimed and honored by his peers. The Bible says, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses… He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt.” What a blessing he was to his people!

As inheritors of the Hebrew Scriptures, we are so fortunate to have the eternal teachings of Moses from which we can learn so much about trust, love and how people behave and benefit from relationships, most especially through the tough times.

This morning, let’s take a minute to remember a time when you had to say goodbye to a leader or a friend. With your eyes open or closed, whichever way is comfortable for you, get that person you are thinking of fully fixed in your mind’s eye. (pause)

- Now think - were you able to say goodbye to this person face to face? If so, what did you say to each other? - If not, what would you have liked to have said, if you could have?

- Say that in silence or quietly to this person now. You are among friends and safe so, just speak to this person silently in your mind.

- If you were the person leaving, what would you want to hear from people as you said goodbye? Just sit in silence with that for a minute.

- Okay, anybody want to share something of what they were thinking or seeing?

It is good to reflect on people who were important to us from the past. These people whom we loved (or maybe we didn’t love so much) hold the key to parts of our character and how we interact with people in the present. It’s also good to do like the Israelites did by marking a distinct period of official or ceremonial mourning and then moving on to living our lives in the present. We can never bring back the past. We can never fully see the truth of what occurred in the past, nor recall the full nature of the people we miss. Our memories and sense of loss are all bundled up with myth, misgiving and sadness and so we do not see the past clearly. And you know what? That’s okay. We sometimes make things up or forget unpleasant things in order to live a happy life. An exercise like the one we did this morning helps us to stop just for a minute, to experience the past and then, by choice, move on to right now, the present where it’s all really happening.

Next week, we will be observing “All Saints Sunday” here at church. We will light candles and ring a bell for those who have gone before us this year. We do this not to belabor the past but to honor those people and to give our feelings for them a name. Following that ritual, we move forward to greet the spiritual new year with a fresh sense of perspective. I hope you will be here with us to honor our loved ones in this way.

A clergy friend gave me the most beautiful poem or prayer the other day when we were together. In closing, I want to it share with you because it seemed appropriate. It is called “Midday Meditation” written by Joyce Rupp.

Blessed are you, autumn

chalice of transformation,

you lift a cup of death to our lips

and we taste new life.

Blessed are you, autumn,

season of the heart’s yearning,

you usher us into places of mystery

and, like the leaves, we fall trustingly

into eternal, unseen hands.

Blessed are you, autumn,

with your flair for drama

you call to the poet in our hearts,

“return to the earth, become good soil;

wait for new seeds.”

Blessed are you, autumn,

you turn our faces toward the west.

Prayerfully reflecting on life’s transitory nature

we sense all things moving toward life-giving death.

Blessed are you, autumn

you draw us away from summer’s hot breath.

As you air becomes frosty and cool

You lead us to inner reflection

Blessed are you, autumn,

season of so much bounty.

You invite us to imitate your generosity

in giving freely from the goodness of our lives,

holding nothing back.

Blessed are you, autumn

your harvesting time has come.

as we gather your riches into our barns,

Reveal to us our own inner riches

waiting to be harvested.

Blessed are you, autumn,

Season of surrender,

you teach us the wisdom of letting go

as you draw us into new ways of living.

Blessed are you, autumn,

season of unpredictability.

You inspire us to be flexible

to learn from our shifting moods.

Blessed are you, autumn,

feast of thanksgiving.

You change our hearts into fountains of gratitude

as we receive your gracious gifts.

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