October 23, 2011

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90

Psalm 90 is the only psalm in the bible that is attributed to Moses. Many of the psalms are attributed to King David, the harp-playing songwriter. Others have no attribution and their authors remain a mystery.

But the tradition is that Psalm 90 came from Moses, and it’s not hard to imagine him composing this poem near the end of his long and eventful life – near the end of his 40-year journey leading God’s people through the wilderness towards the Promised Land that God had prepared for them.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations,” Moses’ prayer begins. A couple of generations had already gone by while Moses and the Hebrew People were wandering in the wilderness, and God had been with them along the way – providing food when they were hungry, providing water when they were thirsty, and giving direction for their lives in relationship with each other.

And even before the Exodus from Egypt, God had been their God. God had called and directed Abraham and Sarah. God had blessed and helped Isaac and Rebekah. God had raised up Jacob and guarded Joseph, and been present to hear the cries of the Hebrew People when they became enslaved by the Egyptians.

Moses’ psalm celebrates the God of wisdom and compassion who had been their dwelling place in all generations, who had existed from the beginning, and would continue forever and ever.

And then Moses acknowledges that we humans are nothing compared to this God. While God “was, and is, and is to come,” our lives are comparatively temporary. They seem fleeting… they seem so brief compared to the vastness of God. Moses talks about the fact that God “turns us back to dust,” and our lives are swept away like a dream, or like grass that fades and withers in the evening.

At the age of 118 or thereabouts, we might expect Moses to feel grateful for his long life, and pleased with all the things that he was able to accomplish. But at least in this moment, Moses doesn’t seem to be feeling very good about the end of his life that is coming.

It sounds to me like he has some doubts as to whether his life held meaning – whether his years made a difference. He writes, “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

I wonder… if, for some reason, your life were to come to an end today, would you feel like Moses did? Would you think, “Oh… it wasn’t enough time! It went by too quickly!” Would you have some regrets about how you spent your brief span of life? Would you do it differently if you could do it again?

I was talking to a friend the other day who has to write a paper for a religious studies class that she’s taking, and the topic of her paper is tombstones. And so we got talking about the meaning and significance of tombstones, cemetery markers, columbariums, and practices around scattering the ashes of our loved ones.

And during the conversation, someone brought up the dates that are normally engraved on the stone. She said, “There’s a birth date, and then there’s a death date. And those dates are obviously pretty important to the person and to their loved ones. But the only thing that really matters is the DASH.” The DASH that separates our birth date from our death date… the DASH that is our life… the days, months, and years, however many or few they may be.

“So teach us to count our days,” Moses prays, “that we may gain a wise heart.”

This weekend our congregation is saddened by the death of one of our long-time members. Ron Bremner has been an active member of St. Andrew’s since 1956 and he served as a ruling elder for the last approximately 53 years. Ron was relatively healthy and active until just a few months ago. But his health deteriorated rapidly over the last few months, and he spent the last several weeks in hospital.

In our recent conversations, it was clear that he was preparing for his death. For example, he wrote his own obituary just a few weeks ago. And he was talking about a memorial service and possible hymns to include, and that sort of thing. Not that Ron had given up on life. He was still hoping to recover. But he was preparing for what he knew would ultimately happen, whether sooner or later.

One of the things that Ron wanted to talk to me about a few weeks ago was the Session Benevolence Fund at St. Andrew’s. Ron was the treasurer for the Session Fund for over 30 years – since it was set up, I believe.

If you don’t know about the Session Fund, it’s a discretionary fund that can be used by the minister to help when members of the church or people in the community have an urgent financial need. We use it regularly to provide food for people who are hungry, and it is often a very practical expression of God’s grace and love when people are struggling with the circumstances of life.

Members of the congregation can make donations to the Session Fund at any time by designating an offering for that purpose. And I would certainly encourage you to do that because the need is great. But the time of year when we receive the most income to the Session Fund is at Christmas.

Every year (for I don’t know how many years) the entire Christmas Eve offering has been directed to the Session Fund. And every year (for I don’t know how many years) Ron Bremner, the Session Fund treasurer, has taken responsibility for receiving, counting, and depositing that offering. It has been a Christmas Eve tradition for Ron that he has always taken so seriously and done with such diligence. And Ron wanted to talk to me about the Session Fund because he wanted to make sure that someone would take up his responsibility and take care of those precious, precious offerings.

When Ron died this weekend, I couldn’t help but make the comparison in my mind to the death of Moses that we read about this morning from Deuteronomy. Both men had faithfully served God throughout their long lives. And both men likely felt like it was too soon for life to end – that there was more that they would have wanted to do, to accomplish, and to be a part of.

Moses, of course, went up on Mount Nebo just before he died, and looked out over the land. The Lord showed him “Gilead as far as Dan, all of Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and 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.” God’s people would go on to inhabit that land, but Moses would not be with them. He would die on that mountain and be buried there, while the rest of God’s people would go on with the leadership of Joshua.

I wonder what that must have felt like. Was he totally devastated by that news, or did he take it in stride? Did he want to cling to life just a little bit longer so that his mission could be completed? Or was he able to let go, trusting that his mission was God’s mission, and that God would eventually make it happen.

One commentator on this psalm points out that Moses’ death before they entered the Promised Land is an important reminder. It’s a reminder that God, not Moses, would lead the people into the land. It’s a reminder that our time is not all there is to measure. God’s time is primary, and God’s time is from everlasting to everlasting.

The book of Deuteronomy eulogizes Moses with these words: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh… and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”

When Moses died, the Israelites wept for him in the plains of Moab for thirty days. But then, when the period of mourning was over, they accepted the leadership of Joshua, and they continued their journey into the land promised by God.

Today, we pause to give thanks to God for the faithfulness, and love, and generosity, and wisdom that Ron brought into the world and into our church here at St. Andrew’s. And over the coming days, we will also shed some tears for Ron, and for the loss of his presence among us. But our lives together and our ministry in this place will continue with the help and direction of God.

I want to end this morning by drawing our attention to the final part of Moses’ prayer in Psalm 90. Moses writes: “Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!”

It’s a wonderful prayer in many ways… asking God to bless us and help us in our work, asking God to make the work we do accomplish something, asking God to make our efforts worth something. I think I could pray that prayer every day in my ministry. Maybe it would remind me that the ministry is not really mine, but it belongs to God.

But remember that this prayer is attributed to Moses, perhaps written near the very end of his life, as he prepared to let go of his great mission, and to trust God to finish the job. “Prosper the work of my hands,” Moses prayed. “Let all of this work I have done for you accomplish something good for your people. Please, God, let my life’s work make a difference.”

We give thanks today that God did prosper the work of Moses’ hands as he brought the people into that good land. And we pray that God will prosper the work of Ron Bremner’s hands through the Session Benevolence Fund and so many other ministries in the church and in the community. And we pray that God will prosper the work of all our hands, today, and tomorrow, and far into the future, that we may serve God’s good purposes faithfully and continue the mission of Jesus our Lord. Amen.