You know the story – how Moses was born a Jew when the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, and the Hebrew people were getting ‘too strong,’ the Pharaoh said, so he told the midwives to kill the male children when they were born; how his mother put him in a basket and floated it toward the Pharaoh’s house and the Pharaoh’s daughter saw him and took the basket from the river. (The name Moses means: ‘from the water.’)
The story says that Moses’ sister asked the Pharaoh’s daughter if she wanted to find a woman to nurse the baby, so Moses’ mother was hired to be the wet nurse; Moses was raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter, believing he was an Egyptian, not realizing his true identity until he was an adult…how he defended a Jewish slave against the Pharaoh’s soldier – presumably intuiting his true identity as a Hebrew.
He had to leave town because the word was out that he killed the soldier, and he left in a hurry, and in the land of Midian he helped Jethro’s daughters get their turn at the well when they had been prevented from doing so by some shepherds – he helped them to get water for their sheep, and their father, Jethro, gave one of his daughters to Moses as his wife, so Moses settled down, had a child, and when he was tending his father-in-law’s flock he saw a burning bush and a voice from the bush called to him and told him to ‘take off your shoes for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,’ and the voice told him to go back to Egypt and liberate the captive Israelites.
When Moses hesitated the voice said, ‘I will be with you.’ Moses said, “Then who should I say has sent me?” and the voice answered, “I am that I am, tell them I am has sent you,” which makes God a verb, meaning, “I Am Becoming.” The Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go until God sent the angel of death, taking the firstborn son in all the Egyptian families. They left – all 600,000 of them, and they crossed the Red Sea, trying to reach the Promised Land and spent forty years in the wilderness, wandering; Moses was given the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, but when he returned with the tablets he saw his people worshipping a golden calf, fashioned by his brother Aaron to please the people when they were getting impatient. So Moses smashed the tablets, telling them that they were ‘not ready.’
They wandered in the desert for forty years – Moses spent his entire adult life trying to ‘get to the Promised Land.’
That’s the Exodus story celebrated at Passover.
The book of Deuteronomy, chapter 34, is about the death of Moses. In part the story says:
“Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo…which is across from Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land. This was God’s sweet grace to Moses. Though he could not set foot in the Promised Land, God allowed him to see it.”
“Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have caused you to see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”
Moses stood at the summit of Mount Nebo and as he “looked westward he saw the Promised Land.”
Here we’re reminded of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon the night before he was assassinated, when he said, “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Life is filled with promise – which is to say, it is filled with hope for a better life…it is filled with expectations of improvement…or, as my mother said, “Better times are ahead.”
With Martin Luther King, Jr. we share the promise, or the hope, for a better world – a safer, saner world, a more just and equitable society. That’s what the folks occupying Wall Street want us to remember – a fair and equitable society is Central Square in the Promised Land!
Some disappointment is inevitable, of course. That’s the risk of being an optimist!
Someone said that the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist says “things couldn’t be any worse than they are now!” The optimist responds, “oh yes they could!”
The idea of the Promised Land in the Hebrew Bible and is used to describe the land promised by God to the Israelites, the descendents of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The promise is first made to Abraham in Genesis 15: “At that time the LORD made a promise to Abram. He said, “I will give this land to your descendants. This is the land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.”
The promise is renewed, or repeated to Abraham’s son Isaac, and then again to Isaac’s son, Jacob. The Promised Land in the Bible is described as geography – a piece of land — territory.
I’m not Jewish, and I’m not a believer – I don’t believe the stories in the Bible are meant to be taken literally…I believe the Bible is a collection of writings by a variety of people over hundreds of years. The first five books (Torah) is attributed to Moses, but scholars tell us that they were written over a long period of time by many people.
Indeed, Moses himself is a composite character, made from the lives of many leaders who emerged to form the people of Israel. I do not believe that Moses existed as a separate individual historical person, nor is there any evidence that the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt and were ‘liberated.’
Bondage, in this case, is a metaphor for the lack of inner freedom – and inner freedom is central to the life of the spirit.
Though the Bible contains some history, most of the stories, including the story of Moses and the Promised Land, are not true stories…they are truth stories.
They are not about things that happened there and then – they are about things that are happening here and now.
Moses, then, was not a historical character who had tablets given to him by a God who carved out the Ten Commandments, but a composite of men and women who contributed to the long process of carving out a code to live by, both as a community and as separate individuals in search of a good life, a moral and ethical life.
To live is to be in the life-long process of ‘getting to the Promised Land,’ which is to say, learning your way around, coming to understand yourself and others…getting closer to the truth about what it means to live a good life – a life filled with promise.
The story says that the Hebrew people who were in bondage in Egypt were reluctant to leave…at least they knew where their next meal was coming from…at least they had a sense of security, in spite of the hardships they endured.
The story says that Moses got his assignment from God – to free the captives and lead them to the Promised Land. God, in this metaphor, is the inner force leading toward freedom. It takes a lifetime.
Moses’s journey, you will note, took his entire adult life. That’s what it takes to get a glimpse of the Promised Land…not to arrive, but to be engaged in the process.
Moses never set foot in the Promised Land, but he got a glimpse and the Biblical writers called it ‘God’s sweet gift to Moses.’
Getting to the Promised Land is the story of Everyperson, which Moses represents. To take that journey you have to leave the place you’ve been and to be in transition, to take the risk of leaving the known and to go toward the unknown, leaving the certain and going toward the uncertain.
It’s not about arriving. It’s about the journey, and the tribe – in the story there were 600,000 Hebrew captives who left Egypt and headed to the Promised Land.
(The Book of Mormon says that the United States of America is the Promised Land, that Christ visited and prepared the way.)
One of my favorite stories about ‘getting to the Promised Land’ is from Mahayana Buddhism, about the role of the Bodhisattva.
Huston Smith, in his book on world religions, describes the Bodhisattva:
“The Mahayana (Buddhist) ideal…was the Bodhisattva, ‘one whose essence (sattva) is perfected wisdom (bodhis)’ a being who having brought himself to the brink of Nirvana voluntarily renounces his prize that he may return to the world to make it accessible to others. He deliberately sentences himself to age-long servitude, that others, drawing on his acts of supererogation, (going beyond the call of duty) may enter Nirvana before him…(as) illustrated in the story of the journey of four men who, journeying across an immense desert, come upon a compound surrounded with high walls. One of the four determines to find out what is inside. He scales the wall and on reaching the top gives a whoop of delight and jumps over. The second and third men do likewise. When the fourth man gets to the top of the wall, he sees below him an enchanted garden with sparkling streams, pleasant groves, and delicious fruit. Though longing to jump over, he resists the impulse. Remembering other wayfarers who are trudging the burning deserts, he climbs back down and devotes himself to directing them to the oasis. (the fourth man) was a Bodhisattva, one who vows not to desert this world ‘until the grass itself be enlightened.’ ”
The story of the Bodhisattva is the story of human Compassion, the theme that runs through all religions.
In Mahayana Buddhism it’s the Bodhisattva, in Judaism it‘s Moses, in Christianity it’s Jesus. In our Unitarian Universalist faith it is you…and me. In a metaphoric sense we carry a part of Moses, and Jesus, and the Buddha – the Bodhsattva.
Julius Gordon asks, “How do we know that Moses was grown up? Because he went out unto his brethren, and was ready to bear the burdens and share the plight of his people. Maturity is sensitivity to human suffering.”
While I appreciate religious mythology, I am more attracted to the poets…to Miller Williams who says:
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
Getting to the Promised Land is the story of finding and feeling that place of compassion in one’s own heart.
Getting to the Promised Land is about being present to the moment…paying attention, and feeling a deep sense of gratitude for Life and for the companions on the journey with whom that gratitude is shared.
Getting to the Promised Land is about the process of transition – of letting go of old ideas and beliefs and discovering the freedom, the liberation from inner bondage that is possible.
As a congregation we are beginning a transition process.
Last Monday evening we had a gathering of more than 70 of us (which, by the way, was the number of Hebrews that the story says came with Jacob to settle in Egypt, eventually growing to 600,000 when they were liberated) to begin what Jim, Pat and Tom called a ‘resiliency’ exercise in which we were asked to respond in writing to three questions:
“How do you feel about the current level of change taking place within our congregation?”
“What do you need to do to move forward in a positive manner?”
“What do we need from others to support a positive forward movement within our congregation?”
There will be more of those gatherings. There will be one on Friday, December 2, sponsored by Perry and the Religious Education team…featuring pizza for the early arrivers!
There will be one before that…on Tuesday the 29th at 10 a.m. to noon for folks who prefer a day-time meeting. You bring a brown-bag lunch and we’ll provide coffee, tea and dessert!
In the story of Moses getting to the Promised Land the people do a lot of complaining so Moses tells them to stop complaining and come to a resiliency meeting!
Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging onto a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments, I’m hurtling across space in between bars.
Most of the time I’m hanging on for dear life to my trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while as I’m merrily swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and I see another bar swinging towards me. It’s empty and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart-of- hearts, I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the new one.
Each time it happens, I hope and pray that I won’t have to grab the new trapeze bar. But in my knowing place I realize that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and for sometime I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss — that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what the mystics call the faith experience. No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging onto that old bar is no longer an alternative.
And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It is called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.
I have noticed that in our culture this transition zone is looked upon as a nothing – a no-place between places. Surely the old trapeze bar was real and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real, too. But the void in between? That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible. What a waste! I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and that the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void where the real change, the real growth, occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored – even savored. Even with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that can accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth filled, most passionate, most expansive moments in our lives.
And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar…any bar…is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void –we just may learn how to fly. –Anonymous