Sunday, August 28, 2005

In Praise of Phylacteries

[Back to School Sunday 2005]
Deuteronomy 6:4-15

Turn to Deuteronomy 6, if you have your Bibles with you.
In my most recent sermon here, a couple weeks ago,
I suggested that maybe a way to revitalize our worship
would be to bring back burnt offerings.
Today I suggest that to revitalize our daily spiritual lives—
we should bring back phylacteries.
I’m talking about the object pictured on the bulletin cover,
tiny boxes with tiny pieces of scripture inside,
that get tied onto your forehead and arm with leather straps.
Many of our children made these at Bible School this summer
at an activity center called the “Phylactery Factory.”

Some of you think I’m starting to lose it.
Two sermons in a row advocating ancient Old Testament rituals.
Rituals nearly every Christian since the early church gave up
as being based on legalism and works righteousness.
Rituals that fly in the face of what the apostle Paul wrote about
in Romans that we spent all summer studying.
You might think I didn’t bother listening to my own sermons.
If you are thinking I’ve gone off the deep end,
I’m not going to argue with you... at least not right now.
I’ll defend myself in a few minutes.
But for the moment, let’s look at today’s scripture.

Deuteronomy 6:4 and following.
These verses are the heart of Jewish faith and identity.
Every Jewish man, woman, and child knows the Hebrew words
printed on the bulletin cover today:
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
Just like every Christian knows the words,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Except, for our Jewish friends, the “Shema” is part of daily life.
They repeat it, many of them, every day.
Some of the more devout do so multiple times a day.
The Jewish people—as a community—
immerse themselves in these words,
to the point they are no longer merely words.
They are a spiritual home base.
The “Shema” is part of their identity.
It has shaped who they are.

These words show up as part of a long speech given by Moses.
Moses was getting up in years,
and before the people entered the promised land,
and he stayed behind to die,
Moses called them all together
and gave them his last words of wisdom.

And at the heart of his speech were these words:
“Shema, Israel... Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Keep these words.
Recite them to your children.
Talk about them when you are at home,
and when you are away.
When you go to bed at night.
And when you get up in the morning.
Tie them onto your hand, and onto your forehead,
write them on your doorposts and on your gates.”

Now, you need to understand,
Moses didn’t call them all together,
just because he had some general words of wisdom to impart.
No, these last words had a practical purpose.
They were precisely for that day and that place.
The Israelites were about to walk into a whole new way of life.
And Moses was afraid they would lose themselves.

For the last 40 years, since their deliverance from Egypt,
they roamed the wilderness.
They lived in tents and scavenged for food.
They depended utterly and completely on God for their survival.

Now, things were about to change, radically.
So Moses said, beginning in Deuteronomy 6:10, and I’ll paraphrase:
“Now look and listen, people.
Up till now you’ve depended on God for everything you needed,
quail, manna, day at a time.
Pretty soon you’ll be swimming in milk and honey—
you’re going to live in cities you didn’t build,
houses full of stuff you didn’t buy,
you’ll get water from cisterns you didn’t dig,
wine from vineyards you didn’t prune,
olives from groves you didn’t plant.
You’re going to have it made... in the shade.”
Then Moses said,
“When your stomachs are full,
and you’re leaning back with your feet propped up,
don’t forget where you came from.
When you start thinking you can handle things by yourself,
when you get tempted by all the gods around you,
remember the God you belong to.
Remember the Lord,
who brought you out of slavery in Egypt,
and fed you in the desert.
There is only one God
who loves you, delivers you, and calls you “my people.”
There is only one.
Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.
Remember who you are.

You see now why these rituals were so important?
It’s easy to remember God
when you need something to eat and drink in a desert.
But when you’re filled with wine and olives,
and you have more in the groves and vineyards out back,
you forget pretty soon.

So the rituals were a tool, a mnemonic device,
something to jog the collective memory, every day.
When the peoples all around you are worshiping their many gods,
and living life for the pursuit of pleasure and power
and self-fulfillment,
it’s easy to get sucked in.
Until you come home at night and walk through your gate,
where there a little box attached to the gate post,
inside of which are the scriptures of your people,
and you see the same box by the front door,
and as you walk by you touch your fingers to your lips,
and then touch the box, in a gesture of affection.
And when you tuck your children into bed at night, you say,
“Shema, Israel. Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.”
and then recite a blessing
that came from the traditions of your community.
And when you get up in the morning to do your prayers,
you pick up two tiny boxes with leather straps,
filled with scripture—the words of the God of your people—
and you tie them carefully and deliberately onto your forehead,
with a particular kind of knot
and onto your upper arm,
wrapping the strap around your lower arm seven times,
each time reciting a certain blessing,
and knowing that at that same time
other members of your community are also
wearing the same little boxes tied on the same way
and reciting the same prayers.

I imagine, you can then walk out your gate into the world,
and not be nearly as likely to lose yourself.
Because those physical rituals have bound you
to your God and to your people.
They have brought you home.
They have reminded you of
who you are...and whose you are.

What a profound and powerful concept.
In the desert, camped out with your own people,
where you need each other just to stay alive day by day,
these rituals would make no sense.
But living in a settled land,
surrounded by powerful temptations to be self-sufficient,
temptations that would draw you out of your community life,
and into yourself,
temptations that would lead you to forget your One God,
your Adonai Echad,
it seems to me these might be precious rituals indeed.

That’s why I say bringing back phylacteries and mezuzahs
could revive our spiritual life.
Mezuzahs are the little boxes on the door posts and gates.
And actually the word “phylacteries” is a Greek translation.
Jews prefer using the Hebrew term, which is tefillin.

Now, for those of you who are genuinely worried about me,
let me quickly add in my defense,
I don’t mean we should all go to the nearest Jewish supply store,
and buy out their stock of mezuzahs and tefillin.
I doubt any of us, myself included, are going to literally
take up the ritual of strapping on little boxes for morning prayers.
Although I think a Christian could, with valid reason,
decide to do that, and it wouldn’t make them any less Christian.
The words of the Shema hold just as much meaning for us.
My former Hebrew professor, Jim Engle, a devoted Christian,
still keeps a mezuzah attached to his office door at the seminary,
as far as I know,
and whenever he goes in and out, he touches it.

I’m not saying we all should start doing that,
but when we live in a self-oriented culture,
why shouldn’t we have some way, some ritual,
to physically and tangibly remind ourselves,
at least several times a day,
that we belong to God and to a people of God?
We call ourselves Christian, because our identity is in Christ,
and in the body of Christ.
So why not use a physical symbol
to stay in touch with that deeper reality?
If not tefillin and mezuzahs, then something else.

Evangelical Christians like ourselves,
have tended to dismiss physical rituals.
And there are some valid reasons.
We’re afraid of them becoming empty and legalistic.
We’re afraid people will confuse symbol with reality,
and act like they’re some magic charm.
And certainly that happens, among Jews and Christians.

But physical religious symbols can also point us toward God,
and point us toward our people.
They can give us moral grounding.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that symbolic ritual has, in itself,
transformative power.
It is only the Spirit of God that can save and transform.
And only as we submit to that Spirit’s work in us,
and to the community of the Spirit,
can we be made into the likeness of Christ.
But let’s not dismiss the influence of physical symbols
to help shape and form us.
I think the Mennonite church was wrong, a generation or two ago.
Because it was concerned about flashy jewelry,
it also forbid wedding rings.
When I’m bombarded by cultural symbols
that glorify self-gratification and personal pleasure,
this is a constant physical reminder of the vows I made,
to give myself in marriage to only one person for life.

The dominant culture we live in is absolutely saturated
with tangible physical symbols of what it values.
We can’t open a newspaper,
turn on the computer or television,
or drive down a road with billboards,
without being bombarded by our culture’s physical symbols,
its tefillin and mezuzahs, if you please.
Symbols that pay tribute to violence, sexual gratification,
and greed for material things.
We are inundated with tangible, physical reminders
that we ought to be looking out for ourselves,
pursuing whatever gives us pleasure, wealth, or power.
How can we compete with that?

Moses was onto something.
Or God was onto something, and Moses was his mouthpiece.
When you are in this settled land,
and full of food and stuff, to the point of saturation,
and surrounded by other gods,
Take these words of mine,
these commandments that form you as my own,
that ground you in the community of my people,
and recite them many times a day to your children,
write them down on your gates and doors,
bind them on your foreheads and arms.
It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
Especially for people living in a land of milk and honey,
whether that’s ancient Canaan,
or twenty-first century Western civilization.

Now, I don’t really think we need to read this as a literal command,
that we must all tie objects to our forehead and arms every morning.
Even Jewish groups differ
on whether Moses is being literal or figurative.
But the principle stands, and it still works today.
The clear command is to put constant reminders in front of you
that you belong to God,
that you belong to a community of God’s people,
and that you are resident aliens.
And to tell that your children, in many different ways,
at many different times throughout every day.

How are we doing on that, I wonder?
I think many of our kids are getting immersed every day
in all the symbols of dominant culture,
with very little thoughtful critique from us grown-ups.
And God’s kingdom and its symbols,
gets a crack at them maybe for a couple hours once a week,
if they’re lucky.

And it’s not just our kids that need it.
We all need it.
I need it.
Even though I work inside a church building everyday,
I’m just as prone as any of us to daily breathe in
the values and symbols of our self-oriented culture,
and not put in front of me symbols that say otherwise.
It gives me new appreciation
for people who wear crosses around their neck all the time.
I’ve had to do some hard thinking.
How am I resisting the symbols of dominant culture?
As I was working on this sermon,
I remembered I had a little wooden cross laying on my desk,
so I stuck it to the computer monitor,
right at eye level.
I think it’s going to stay there.
And I’m going to think of other ways to
re-inhabit my living space and workspace
with symbols that grow out of my faith community.
Don’t be too surprised if someday you see me
wearing something around my neck,
or notice a mezuzah on the door-jamb of my office.

Now to be sure,
the symbols themselves can never be enough.
They have no power at all, in themselves.
We must already be in relationship to God through Christ,
We must be connected to the community of the Spirit
that these symbols grow out of.
Otherwise, the symbols are empty of meaning.
They are only tools to remind us of a larger reality.

The words of God are not burdensome.
The commandments of God are not cold, hard rules that weigh us down.
They are our home.
They give our lives shape and meaning.
And in a culture that doesn’t realize that,
and is chasing instead after the wind,
let us remember who we are,
and let us do everything within our power never to forget.

—Phil Kniss, August 28, 2005

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