No Shrine Required: The Denial of Death and the Legacy of Moses (Deut 34)

This is the message I gave during meeting for worship at Camas Friends Church Sunday 11.6.2011.

Terrified by death_

In his book “the denial of death” Earnest Becker opens with this line, “The prospect of death wonderfully concentrates the mind.” And that “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for [humanity]” (Becker xvii).And in the book called “Book of the Dead Philosophers” the author said that our culture is not just afraid, but overwhelming terrified by annihilation (xv). Isn’t it the case that much of life is, even if subconsciously, about fearing death, trying to push the other way, avoid it at all costs, live as though we don’t notice the effects of aging, until at once we cannot ignore it any longer, and then we feel ashamed of the fact that we too are aging? This is part of what seems to happen in our mid-life crises too. A realization that our bodies, and maybe our minds, we begin to take stock of the past and realize that things are not as glorious as they once were or that we had hoped, couple this with the realization of the possibility of death, and it really scares us. Instead of throwing everything out, and trying to swing the car around and go back, what if we embraced death, or at least the idea of it, as an opportunity or invitation to again wake-up to ourselves, others and the movements of God all around us. Consider that Moses was 80 when he stood up to Pharaoh and risked his life, and 120 when he died. Many great things happen later in life. As Richard Rohr says, the first half is just preparation for the second half.

How many of you are familiar with the death of the great philosopher Socrates? “There were (at least) two charges leveled against him: corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to revere the city’s gods.” Now what all this means is interesting in itself, but we won’t delve into that, but trust me when I say the clearest way to get yourself killed in any culture is to be guilty of “corruption of youth” and rejecting the gods of whatever state you find yourself in, whether it is fame, money, power, some form of religion or politics.
As the story goes: Socrates was found guilty of both accounts and sentenced to drink a mixture of poison hemlock. “After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his legs felt numb. After he lay down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart.”

In learning of his condemnation Socrates says “Now it is time that we were going, to die and you to live; but which of us has the prospect is unknown to anyone but God.”

For Socrates, death was nothing to be feared. Death is the setting of which life must be lived. For us to live a happy and healthy life, we need a healthy understanding of who we are, and what direction we are headed. For Socrates, this was the usefulness of philosophy, it is learning how to die, and in the process, learning how to live. If this is the role of philosophy, it is, or at least should be, the role of Christian theology even more. We are not consumed with fear of the prospect of death, instead, we recognize that everything that all stages of life are opportunities for us to be re-opened to God’s graces, new opportunities to experience grace and forgiveness, to expand our “interior landscapes” and take the opportunities to make right those things we have disrupted.

Birth, life and death names the basic destination we are on, and isn’t knowing what kind of destination we’re on essential to knowing how to pack and be ready for it?

Our Destinations_

I remember my parents throwing me and three of my siblings into our Oldsmobile station-wagon and heading south. We were on the road headed from Ohio to Alabama to visit our cousins. My parents were, at the time, considering whether or not to move down to Montgomery. As a kid this was an incredible adventure, we packed very little, after all there was six of us packed in a station wagon. We left a lot behind. And we didn’t really know what we’d find when we got there or how long we would stay. And while even as a third-grader there wasn’t a whole lot about Alabama I found attractive, the road trip was very memorable. (How about for you? Family journeys?) Looking back on it now, I am convinced, more than ever, my parents were insane. But, I have to assume, the destination and the purpose of the journey was what helped them stay focused and kept them on track. We never did end up moving to Alabama, but the trip was well worth it, at least if the goal was discerning whether or not to move there. Within a short period of time we knew the answer.

To know where we are headed, why we are going there, and what we’ll need for the journey is important to the whole trip.

I remember the first time we flew home with L. to Ohio from Pasadena, sitting down on the airplane, breathing a sigh of relief for the miracle of getting to the gate on time and having that shocking realization that “I’m ill-equipped for traveling with this little one.” I, for one, underestimated the challenge of our journey. Have you ever felt like that in life? Things pop-up along the way and you realize (probably after the fact that), “I didn’t really pack appropriately for this.”

Take this idea of destinations as a metaphor for our lives.

If we were to look at each other’s lives what “destinations” would we find we’re headed towards? What have we invested our time, money and energy into? Where do we expect to end up? What do we expect to find when we get there? What kind of journey are we on?

How about for our children? How do we help our kids understand the kind of journey they are on and the destination they’re headed towards (or even the ones they should want to head towards)? Our society has certain kinds of “destinations” it values over others, this is what we call, by at least one name, the “American Dream.” A good-paying job, a house on the hill (maybe by the lake?), a good education, hopefully enough money to be able to “do what you want” and to offer your kids “a better life than the one I had,” are all a part of this story’s destination. And while none of this is necessarily bad in itself, doesn’t it betray a certain kind of destination?

We are called to a different road, a different destination, and journey. John Woolman puts it like this:

Dwell in humility; and take heed that no views of outward gain get too deep hold of you, that so, your eyes being single to the Lord, you may be preserved in the way of safety. Where people let loose their minds after the love of outward things, and are more engaged in pursuing the profits and seeking the friendships of this world, than to be inwardly acquainted with the way of true peace, they walk in a vain shadow, while the true comfort of life is wanting. Their examples are often hurtful to others; and their treasures thus collected do many times prove dangerous snares to their children….

 

What Woolman is talking about is the kind of life we live, the choices we make, and the death we die. That “your eyes being single to the Lord…” that you may be “inwardly acquainted with the way of true peace”

For us, it is about being on a different road altogether.  The journey of the Christian life, our destination, is a journey toward a life of the cross, which bids us to come and die, and yes, experience resurrection too. Am I ready for this? Do I even see the value in this journey towards the cross? How do I help teach my kids to value this kind of life over the other rival stories they’ll be taught all through life? Knowing what journey we are on and where we are headed, with our “eyes being single,” will help us travel much better.

No Shrine Required_

And so in closing let’s turn to Moses. As one writer put it, “Death remains an autobiographical event, a self-involving event, a self-destroying event.” And we sit here today reading Moses’ own biographical account of his passing away. This is the falling of what we can safely say is one of the greatest prophets of all time, and yet Even Moses is laid to rest.

And while there is much to be said about this short text in Deuteronomy what I want to bring to you attention is something very simple. In Moses’ passing, he is allowed to see the promise land but he is refused entrance. When he reaches his destination, he learns that what was of most importance was what was behind him, not what was in front of him. God disallows Moses the final blessing of attaining his dream, what he is allowed to savor is the victory of the past, the promise is for someone else.

We might say in our contemporary world was that Moses left a good legacy behind him. But we cannot confuse this idea of legacy with leaving behind a shrine in his honor.

It is important to note, Moses dies alone and receives a private burial, no one except for God was with Moses when he was laid to rest as the say in Hebrew tradition “by the kiss of his dear friend YHWH.” This private burial ensures that Moses or his place of death will be venerated. We already know Israel is prone to idolatry. It wouldn’t have been hard for them to make a golden image of Moses too. This was common in those days, as it seems common in our own times. Isn’t this the urge we have with all our heroes? To fixate on their lives, rather than to set out on the same journey they did.

In fact, the very purpose of Deuteronomy 34 is at some level meant to remind all of us that Moses was a mortal man and Moses too have to face death. And so, there is to be no shrine for Moses, no celebration at his funeral, no holiday in his honor:

For all his greatness, Moses is no more and no less than the servant of the Lord (C. Wright 313).

A humbling statement. Especially for those of us tempted to live our lives in a way where we not only hope there will be a shrine after we’re gone, but we go ahead and start building the shrine to ourselves now. Isn’t this what the meaning of modern life seems to be about? Rising to a place of celebrity, of great wealth, of great comfort, living in a way that we are defined by what we own, by our toys, by who we know, by how many books we’ve published, or how well reputed we are in the community. If we don’t have some shrine to show for our accomplishments before we die, is it all just meaningless?
Consider instead Moses who climbs up to the top of the mountain, overlooks his dream, and in an instant lets it go. He leaves behind a beautiful legacy of freedom, of faithfulness, and of friendship with God. And he dies as gracefully and simply as anyone can, in the presence of his friend. What Moses left behind was more valuable than anything that could have been built in his honor or experienced in the promise land.

Concerning legacy, here’s a quote I found that’s worth reading at length:

[Joan Chittister “The Gift of Years”…216-217]

This is why there is no shrine to Moses, he lived a life that left a different kind of legacy, because he lived in a way that wasn’t supported by the kinds of things shrines are built upon. Liberation, Intercession, and Sanctuary define Moses’ life.

And so we too are invited to stand on the mountaintop,  not with hands full, but to empty ourselves…to leave behind the things that last and to let go of the dreams we did not have. This is how we die, and this is how we should live.

Open Worship

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.