Twenty years ago I went on retreat to St Oswald’s Priory at Sleights. I was looking forward to the talks by the spiritual writer Martin Israel – I had been to one of his retreats before. As time got nearer, however, Martin Israel was ill and he wasn’t going to be able to lead the retreat. The nuns at St Oswald’s asked their chaplain to step in, and so the retreat was led by Fr Edmund Wheat SSM. So, given the timescale, I guess he picked out a set off addresses he had used previously. The retreat turned out to be about ministry through the experience of Moses. It was once of those examples of God-coincidences. I had been booked on the retreat for some time, long before I knew that I would be exploring my vocation to ministry and that the selection conference would take place a month later. And then the subject of the retreat was about ministry – it was exactly the right thing at the right time.
The retreat took us through the life of Moses, just as we have been doing over the last 8 weeks, step by step from the burning bush to the liberation of the Israelites and the long slow perilous journey through the wilderness, incident by incident. And this, Fr Edmund said, is what ministry is like, representing God to the people and the people to God, walking alongside them, praying for them, anguishing over them. Moses was not perfect, not by any means – he was full of flaws, but God used him anyway. I burst into tears. It was as if God was telling me directly that ministry for me would be walking with the people into the wilderness. And so it has been. I accepted the calling in the full knowledge that it would be hard. For all that, it is a great privilege.
The story of Moses, therefore, has shaped me as a priest, an important part of my calling to walk alongside, to serve, to take on difficult challenges. I have enjoyed doing a special study of Moses over these last few weeks so that I could bring him to you and make connections for you, just as Edmund Wheat did for me in June 1997.
Today, we come to the end of the story of Moses. He is an old man now. He climbs up to the top of Mount Nebo, and from there he can see Jericho and all the world around, and if it had been a clear day, he might have seen as far as Jerusalem. This is the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey, the homeland promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land to which the Israelites have been travelling these many years. Moses can see it all. But Moses himself cannot go there. God has forbidden it. He has walked with the people through all their trials and tribulations, but there is no fulfilment for him, no reward of reaching the final goal. His job was done. He had brought them so far, but he could go no further.
Moses could see the future for Israel, he could see where they would all be going, but this was as far as he himself went. He had to let go of the future, and let the people go without him into the future. There is something that feels just so sad in that! Moses dies and is buried in the valley, and the way the story is told, it is almost as if God himself arranges the dying and the laying to rest. There was no monument, no place where people could come at the anniversaries to lay flowers or pebbles. The people have to let Moses go, just as much as he has to let them go, and they have to let go of him entirely. And as Fr Edmund said, that is what the ending of ministry is like. When a priest goes, the people have to let her go, they can’t keep calling her back for this or that special occasion. And the priest needs to let the people go and move on to the next stage of life. Moses’ memorial is the future for his people.
The important thing was that the Israelites had a future. They knew where they were going. They were on the verge of the next stage of their life as the people of God. They had a new leader: Moses had commissioned Joshua to take over and lead the people from now on. Different leaders are needed at different stages of a nation’s life.
Though it was sad that Moses couldn’t go with them, he had given them that future. They had a way ahead, and that was a tremendous gift. And he had also given them a history, a story about where they had come from and how they were God’s chosen people and how God had liberated them from oppression and violence. They had an identity as a people with a shared story, an identity as God’s people, and a shared vision of the future. However flawed Moses was, God had used him to give them that.
Well, I’m not going just yet. You’ve still got me for a few years more, God willing. But the story of Moses gives us a sense of what we need to do together before I do move on. We need to develop a vision for the future. I want to be able to stand at the top of Bensham Bank, look down and see your promised land. The ministry of Moses wasn’t just about him; it was what he did with the people. Ministry isn’t what the vicar does, it’s what the church does in the name of Christ. Where are we going as the people of God in this place?