Mount Nebo & Mount Vernon

Mount Nebo & Mount Vernon

Rev. Christian Iosso – June 6, 2021

Texts: Deuteronomy 34: 1-9. (Proverbs 29: 18.) I Corinthians 3: 10-15.

Mount Nebo is that place from which you can see the Promised Land, but not enter it.
Mount Vernon is a Promised Land that has forgotten what it was promised for.

Mount Nebo is a place of clear vision from the outside.
Mount Vernon is a place of much fulfillment, new kinds of longing, and unclear vision.

Mount Nebo is a mythic location, the end point of Moses’ journey.
Mount Vernon is a monumental location, a high point of Baltimore culture.

Mount Nebo is part of the wilderness where the Israelites wandered, rebelled, and were transformed over 40 years.
Mount Vernon is a place our church moved 162 years ago to minister to a rising city, to be part of and guide an establishment that no longer exists. (Today’s established wealth and power do not include religious bodies or much vision of civic uplift and common good).

Mount Nebo celebrates a heroic leader who can never be replaced, Moses, God’s instrument for freeing people from Pharoah’s yoke. Because Moses’ grave was unmarked, Nebo was not to be a shrine to the past. Instead, it underlined the mission ahead.

Mount Vernon celebrates the heroic Washington, who led the Revolution from British yoke. For us, we celebrate the heroic Patrick Allison, John Backus, notable pastors and leaders in this church. But Mount Vernon today—we along with others–are not sure what journey we are on, and hence not sure what kind of leadership is called for.

Some of you may remember Mount Nebo from one of the most prophetic sermons in US history: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life… But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. He’s allowed me to go 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 …that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. James M. Washington, Ed. (San Francisco: Harper, 1986), p. 286.]

Martin Luther King, Jr, preached that sermon the day before his death. His Mount Nebo was the Poor Peoples Campaign in Memphis, April 3, 1968. Let us be clear—even in sensing that he would not see the end of racism—he gave his all for that future of hope.

Some of you may know the phrase, “Joshua Generation,” named for the ordained successor to Moses who is pictured leading the people into the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. Barack Obama invoked it to affirm his presidency as a partial fulfillment of the civil rights movement, but the idea has been around for a long time. A younger generation is the beneficiary of previous efforts—assuming they “keep the faith.”

The Joshua Generation idea can be misleading in two respects. One is that Joshua’s job is very different than that of Moses. Moses was guide, lawgiver and judge of the people based on his closeness to God. The book of Deuteronomy (second giving of the law) shows Joshua selected “decently and in order” as Moses’ successor (at a great congregational meeting in chapter 31), but Joshua’s chief assignment is to vanquish the Canaanites and take their land.

The earliest written and oral background to the stories in the book of Joshua, however, suggest that the so-called conquest of Canaan was an “inside job” (This is Norman Gottwald’s term; his book, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 BCE Pp. xxv + 916. (Maryknoll: Orbis Press/London: SCM Press, 1980) makes an irrefutable case.) That is, the archeology and place names do not suggest that people were driven out, but rather that Israel was a combination of groups that revolted or fled from the yoke of more developed Canaanite, Syrian and Hittite cities. The tribal lands the Moses looks out over were a mixture of native and immigrant groups, united around a God who promised freedom.

This is actually a great relief in that we do not need to defend the stories about the holy war slaughter of the Canaanites. Much of the narrative, as of the battle of Jericho, marching 3 x around the city, actually echoes religious practices. Thus the Deuteronomy-thru-Joshua and Judges story is not the Fall of Canaan but its religious and cultural conversion.

The situation of Mount Vernon as a whole is not the situation of First & Franklin, but it suggests that the task of the church is also changing. To the extent our Mount Vernon is shaped by educational, medical, cultural and state institutions, our buildings alone put us more on the institution-managing rather than people-gathering side of things. And we want to be where people, well, congregate!

On the other hand, the hollowing out of Baltimore and its decline in population suggest that Mount Vernon—and our church—need to oppose the danger of a Fall of Baltimore. I don’t think I am being dramatic here. We need to be a rallying point—like our founders were—in resisting the economic decline of our city. (Our first elders were almost all members of the Baltimore Committee of Correspondence during the Revolutionary War).

Our lesson as church, going back to the Fall of Rome, is to be as far-sighted and responsible as possible. Way back then, the growing Christian minority in Europe maintained much of the social fabric despite the political collapse, (so much so that the early medieval church came to take on many functions of the state.) In our case, church/state boundaries frame how we work with the city per se, but our church’s roles may change to serve the people around us.

Mount Nebo is a challenge to every long-time member of this church who has seen grander days: can you still see a promise ahead? Can you hang in one more time? I would say, yes, I wave a pledge from 21 of you who include the church in your wills. Robin and I will be joining this number.

Mount Vernon is a challenge to every more recent member who senses something is missing in the city around us: can you be part God’s promise ahead? It will not be the same assignment as longer term members have had, but it is the same faith, hope, and love attached to this tenacious, beautiful, and quirky community of people.

Our situation is trickier than my earlier invoking King and Obama would suggest. The idea of a liberation struggle, for this church, is as Christian as Hebrew Bible pie. Whether it be for racial justice, gender equality, and fairness across orientations—same pie, same principle. But our mission as a people of faith today may be more cultural than political. It is about humanization and hope, about the inner struggle of our species to re-green the world rather than conquer it.

Our mission is still about following Jesus, “mirror of our humanity and window to divinity,” as William Sloane Coffin said. It is about showing solidarity through creativity and vitality as well as advocacy. It means mapping what we see around us as if we were high up. At the same time, we have to get the low-down on how those kept-down are doing. We must connect more, invite others in.

One challenge for this church right now is that we have two parts of the age spectrum. Alongside the people in my ballpark—and we have a lot of energy—alongside us we have younger people who are stepping up into organizational roles while structuring their own lives, finances, relationships and possibly having children. As I am sure the Nominating Committee well knows, we have experienced people who have kept the faith and newer folks stepping into big shoes— we need you both.

The New Testament lesson from Paul gives us a way forward. This is a time of testing, which he calls going through fire. Paul throws the question to us more as individuals than as a church. We are the buildings that face either fiery destruction or the refiner’s fire, when we find whether or not we are really built the foundation of Jesus Christ.

The idea that we are building things here is helpful to me, but we have to be clear that it is a metaphor. The building materials, whether they are straw or brick or gold or wood, are in fact ways of reaching out, using parts of the culture, growing in our own faith and maturity, inventing new ways of being a community for each other. Paul has just before compared those Corinthians to young children, still nursing, and to God’s vineyard, planted for harvests long into the future.

Let us remember Mount Nebo—let us celebrate our journey. But in this part of Mount Vernon, let us not be a monument to past glory, but a promise that we are going lift ourselves up and help all of our city be lifted up along with us, that God still has a purpose for this people, and that God gives us the moral power, the wisdom and the joy to accomplish that purpose.
In the name of the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer; Holy God, Divine Sophia, Living Christ, Amen.