St. Paul’s – Proper 25 – 10/29/2023
How many of you knew that the The United Nations celebrates its 78th birthday this past week while the world wonders if we’re ever going to give peace a chance.
Today we have a chance to reflect on the UN, the PL and the KG.
The United Nations, the Promised Land and the Kingdom of God.
October 24th is United Nations Day and this year it marks the 78th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Charter. Seventy-eight years ago the world was emerging from the latest war to end all wars — World War II — and representatives of 50 countries met to formulate a vision of a world that would no longer be scarred by war and the disregard for the basic rights of all human beings.
It was a vision with an optimistic view of the future and especially challenging given the recent past. The League of Nations had been formed for a similar purpose after World War I under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security. It was just a little over 20 years before that vision dissolved in the face of another even broader worldwide conflict. The framers of the UN Charter were faced with a similar reality as they met in San Francisco. While the current war had ended, another was just beginning — the Cold War. A vision of peace and prosperity for all peoples would surely be challenged in the nuclear age.
Seveny-eight years later we know that the achievement of this vision is still a long way off. The United Nations are more aptly called the Divided Nations. The UN has endured scandal and crisis, changes in leadership, conflict and controversy all through its history. War is still prevalent in the world, as are abuses of human rights and economic injustice. In many ways the UN has been helpful and in others not so helpful in achieving justice and peace for all people.
Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on whether or not that particular organization is effective or necessary. For while human institutions are often limited by human frailty and failure, vision is something altogether different.
Vision is usually unpopular. People with a vision are regarded with faint, if not outright, suspicion. People with a vision are put in institutions, killed and constantly threatened.
Before us are three visions: those of the United Nations, the Promised Land and the Kingdom of God.
• to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
• to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
• to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and
• to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and
• to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
• to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
• to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.
In short, the UN Charter invites us to envision a world that looks a lot like Moses’ “promised land” or Isaiah’s “peaceable kingdom” or what Jesus would have called “the kingdom of God.”
Parts even sound like the Baptismal Covenant in our Book of Common Prayer.
But the truth is this: A vision worth having always comes with a price, and that price is usually paid by those who would lead people forward in that vision. The status quo consists of a constant mix of power, politics and pervasive conflict. Challenging the way things are with a vision of what can be is usually countered with a lot of resistance.
Visions like the UN Charter or Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom or, thinking about this week’s text, the covenant between God and Israel are never quick fixes. To lead people in such a vision is to be in it for the long haul and, very often, to realize that you may not see it come to pass in your lifetime.
The UN’s has had 60 years and it will probably take at least 60 or 600 or 6,000 more before their vision becomes a worldwide reality. World leaders have and will continue to come and go, conflicts will emerge and cease, human institutions will continue to both expand and exploit the rights of people.
Visionaries will also continue to emerge — people like Jesus, like Moses, like Gandhi, like Martin Luther King Jr. like Malala Yousafsi, Erma Thornburg, William Barber— people who are willing to challenge the status quo. People who, in every age, are forced to give their lives in order to move the vision forward.
But the good news is this: While humans die, the vision doesn’t — especially when that vision comes from God.
Moses had been leading the people of Israel for some 40 years toward a similar vision of the future — a promised land, a place where they could be and become all that God had called them to be. The journey toward achieving that vision had been a rocky one, full of desert wanderings and disasters, famine and failure, miracles and mistakes and a lot of grumbling. The years had taken their toll on the people and on their leader who, you’ll remember, hadn’t really wanted the job in the first place. A generation had passed since the beginning of the journey, and what they began, their descendants would now carry forward.
Now Moses was standing there on Mount Nebo looking out over the land that had been promised by God — a vision given to Abraham centuries before, a vision that had survived generations of human failure and God’s infinite patience. What had been merely a concept or an idea for so long, Moses was now able to see with [his own] eyes (Deuteronomy 34:4). Moses was 120 years old — ancient by our standards, especially remembering that he was 80 when he started the journey but, as Deuteronomy tells us, his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated (34:7).
Moses was still strong in body, but it was his spirit that had weakened. Awhile back on the journey and faced with a people once again complaining about having no water and pining for Egypt, Moses and his brother Aaron had circumvented God’s provision and made themselves look good by striking a rock and bringing forth water (Numbers 20:1-13). Moses had allowed himself to embrace the quick fix while God was trying to teach the people the long-term nature of God’s own vision and provision. For that, God would allow Moses only to see the promised land but not enter it himself. The vision and leadership would be passed to Joshua and to another generation. It would not be easy for them either, for they learned quickly that promise comes with a price. But despite it all – battles, apostasy, exile — God’s vision would prevail.
We need to believe that promise, too. Despite all current evidence to the contrary, God’s vision for our future will prevail. Despite our human weakness and the one step forward, two steps back pace of human progress and peace, we continue to look forward to a promised land, a vision of God’s in-breaking kingdom.
While the chances are slim to none that humans will ever figure out how to establish peace on earth, it can happen — here and there. It can happen as we personally embrace Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God and determine to make it work in our own little acre of God’s creation.
Too often, we’re trying to get people into heaven, without also trying to get heaven to the people.
Jesus taught us to pray, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
What was Moses thinking as he surveyed the scene laid out before him there on Mount Nebo? We can imagine he looked both forward and backward with a powerful mix of hope and regret — hope for his people and, maybe, regret at his own failure. But maybe there was something else — a realization that his life had not been wasted because he had helped advance God’s vision for God’s people. Moses had, like no one else, known God face to face (Deuteronomy 34:10). God had not failed him and would not fail God’s people despite their shortcomings.
It’s interesting that wherever a mountain appears in Scripture it’s a place where God’s revelation takes place. It was on a mountain where Moses had first met God face to face and on a mountain where he saw God’s future laid out before him.
Vision takes us to those mountaintops. Like the UN we may not, in our own efforts, be able to fully realize the promised land. But we can make sure that our lives at least advance the vision — God’s vision for a renewed world.
Let us pray:
O God of fire and freedom,
deliver us from our bondage
to what can be counted
and go with us in a new exodus
toward what counts,
but can only be measured
in bread shared
and swords become plowshares;
in bodies healed,
and minds liberated;
in songs sung,
and justice done;
in laughter in the night,
and joy in the morning;
in love through all seasons
and great gladness of heart;
in all people coming together
and a kingdom coming in glory;
Give us hope, Lord,
and remind us these days
of your steady power
and gracious purposes
that we and all of your creation may live fully.
Renew our faith
that the earth is not destined
for death and darkness,
but for frolicking life
and deep joy
that being set free
from our anxiety for the future,
we may take risks of love
in your name being praised
and our becoming alleluias
through Jesus the Christ.