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The View from Mount Mo

San Williams

April 12, 2015
Deuteronomy 34: 1-8

A reading from Deuteronomy:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it 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. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

In this concluding chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses’ long journey with the people of Israel has gone as far as it will go. After some 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites came within sight of the Promised Land. Moses scaled Mt. Nebo, all the way to the top, and from that vantage point he could see across the Jordan to the land toward which they had journeyed for all those years.

Now, Mt. Nebo is located near the Dead Sea, just east of Jericho. John Leedy and I visited Jericho only a couple of months ago. Unless the topography has changed drastically between Moses’ day and ours, his view from Mt. Nebo was less than spectacular. That’s about as hot, dry, and barren a landscape as I can imagine. God may have promised a land “flowing with milk and honey,” but from what John and I and our group saw around Jericho, not much of anything was flowing. Still, from the top of Mt. Nebo Moses had a grand panoramic view of the land to the west of the Jordan, the land the Israelites would soon enter.

I’m probably prejudiced, but I’d contend that our view from Mt. Mo is superior to Moses’ view from Mt. Nebo. In my opinion, the Guadalupe River Valley is one of the most beautiful spots in Texas. True, it’s disconcerting that each year when we look out from Mt. Mo we see a few more rooftops dotting the landscape, as more of the nearby large ranches are sold off and parceled into ranchettes. Still, the view from Mt. Mo is a very special one for me.

For one thing, it brings back so many memories. Years ago I remember conducting a wedding at the chapel on Mt. Mo. The wind was blowing so hard that the bride’s veil blew off, and the sound of the stringed instruments was totally silenced by the roar of the wind.

My parents loved Mo Ranch, and we had many happy family reunions and Thanksgivings at the ranch. For a number of years, my dad and I attended the Synod Men’s Conference here. After my father’s death, the family gathered at the chapel on the hill, as my father had requested. After sharing memories of my father and saying a prayer, we scattered his ashes, which were quickly picked up by the wind and blown into the valley below. (We also scattered the ashes of Lee Helms’s dad here a few years ago).

This must be my 19th or 20th visit to Mo Ranch with the UPC family. I remember the first retreat we attended here. At one point, the speaker broke us up into family groups and sent us out with some discussion questions. Our son Edward was having none of it. As I was trying to wrest him out of a tree, Jan and I looked over and saw the Bridge family sitting in a circle, politely discussing the questions. Jan and I both thought: Why can’t we be like the Bridges?

Of course, the passage of time has brought changes to our congregation. The children who were in Mary Ann’s Sound of Angels Choir twenty years ago are now young adults. Those of us who were young(ish) twenty years ago are no longer quite so young. Some of our faithful members have died. Others are no longer physically able to join us.

But our scripture this morning invites us to take in more than just a visual sweep of the landscape. Nor is the view from Mt. Nebo, or, in our case, Mt. Mo, simply an opportunity to call up remembrances of past experiences. The book of Deuteronomy concludes by depicting Moses standing on the brink of the Promised Land, yet not able to cross over. God said to Moses: “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

Just think: Moses had led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, guided them through the wilderness, managed numerous squabbles and difficult circumstances. He had instructed them in the Law that the Lord revealed to him, and interceded for them when they did not keep the commandments. Now there was nothing more for him to do, except to lead the people across the river and into the land. Yet Moses was not allowed to do this. In the book of Numbers, it is suggested that Moses wasn’t allowed to enter the Land because he had demonstrated a lack of trust in God when the people thirsted for water at Meribah. But in today’s account, no reason is given. It is simply states that when the people entered the Land, Moses would not be with them.

While Moses’ experience is significant because of its importance in biblical history, it is not unique. In fact, we all have our Mt. Nebos. That is, we all reach a point in life, or probably many points, beyond which we cannot go. Others will go on, the future will continue, but we ourselves cannot be part of it.

I suppose that death is the most obvious Mt. Nebo rising on the horizon of every human life. There does come a time when life will go on for others, when the earth will continue its journey around the sun and the seasons will come and go as they always have–but we will not be part of it. Many a grandparent has looked wistfully into the future of a grandchild and imagined graduations, weddings, births—and known that they would not be present for these passages.

For me, and also for the UPC congregation, my retirement is a kind of Mt. Nebo experience. We’ve had a remarkable journey together. Sure, there have been challenges along the way, but the relationships we’ve enjoyed, the ministries we’ve been a part of, and the friendships we’ve formed have enriched and blessed our lives in ways we will never forget.

And now we can look out from Mt. Nebo—or more precisely Mt. Mo—and we see the future of this congregation stretching out before us. From here we can see new challenges, new opportunities for service, new people who will join the congregation and new pastoral leadership. As I said in my Easter sermon last Sunday:   “Many resurrections await you.” Yet Jan and I will not experience them with you–at least not in the same way.

Three years ago I attended a seminar for pastors who were contemplating retirement. One of our assignments at that seminar was to write a letter to our future selves, to address ourselves two years after our retirement date. This week, I looked at the letter I wrote at that time. I revised it a bit, so that it’s addressed to the congregation, to be received two years from now:

Dear UPC friends,

It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years now since I retired. Jan and I have dearly missed the congregation, but at the same time these past two years have opened up a new and creative time in our lives. As to UPC, I know your path to new senior pastoral leadership was sometimes challenging, but, just as I expected, you moved forward with grace, good faith, and typical UPC let’s-get-it-done efficiency—and today a renewed vision and excitement is stirring under your new pastoral leadership.

You were able to move through the pastoral transition process in such a healthy, confident way because you acknowledged the grief, named the anxiety, and moved through it with faith and confidence in God’s future for the congregation.

Friends, you will always be in our prayers, and Jan and I will always remember our years at UPC as a profoundly blessed time in our lives.

And that, dearest congregation, is the view from Mt. Mo.