Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How not to get lost

Deuteronomy 6:4-15; Mark 12:28-34

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This past week, many of you here started school.
This coming week, more of you will start,
either as a student, or a teacher.
Most of you are at least entering a new, and unfamiliar, classroom.
Some of you are entering a completely new school.
It may look and feel strange.
It may take some time to find your way around the buildings,
without losing your sense of direction.

Well, this morning I have a sermon just for you:
“How not to get lost.”
Let no one say I don’t preach practical sermons.
Except . . . this one may not help you at all
in getting around your hallways or campus.
And it’s actually not just for students
or people in unfamiliar surroundings.
This is a message for all of us,
including those who’ve been in the same job for decades,
have never moved,
and know their neighborhood like the back of their hand.

I include myself when I say, we are all at risk, all the time,
of losing ourselves in our surroundings.
It has been that way from time immemorial.

In fact, not getting lost
was the #1 concern that Moses had for his people
as they were entering the promised land.
Amazing, considering the fact they had just spent 40 years,
wandering to and fro in a desolate wilderness.
You’d think that maybe that would have been the time
that Moses would worry about the people getting lost.
But no.
It’s right at the point they are about to arrive.
It’s when they are on the verge of finally settling down—
throwing away their tents and building houses.
Establishing property, planting crops, constructing barns,
staying put.
It’s at this point in their history,
that Moses is worried about them getting lost.

Let’s take a look at Deuteronomy 6, if you have your Bibles with you.
This short passage we heard this morning is part of a longer speech.
Much longer.
Almost the whole book of Deuteronomy, as a matter of fact,
is presented as a speech, 30-plus chapters long,
that Moses gave to the people of Israel,
as his final instructions to them,
before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land,
and shortly before he died,
never to see the Promised Land himself.

But let’s start with the second half of today’s reading,
beginning in v. 10 of Deut. 6.
Here is Moses’ concern, all spelled out:
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, and I’ll paraphrase . . .
“Now look and listen, people.
Up till now you’ve depended on God for everything you needed,
quail, manna, water . . . one 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 who owns you.
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.”

And that brings us back to vv. 4-5 and following.
These verses are not only the heart of this passage.
They are the heart of the Old Testament.
And they are the heart of the Jewish faith . . . to this day.

“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.”

That’s what it says!
And every Jewish man, woman, and child today,
if they practice any part of their faith at all,
knows Deuteronomy 6:4 by heart, in Hebrew.
The words printed on the bulletin cover today:
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Even non-practicing Jews,
who don’t know any other Hebrew phrase,
I suspect they know the “Shema.”
The same way every Christian man, woman, and child,
if they have any Bible knowledge at all,
at least knows the phrase,
“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.
Many of them repeat it, 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.
They keep the Jewish people from getting lost,
just as Moses hoped.

At the time in their history when they had arrived,
when they could take their ease . . .
these were the words that kept them from getting lost.

If they started feeling self-sufficient,
they had this daily reminder.
They were not their own people.
They had a God who called them, “my people.”
A God who loved them dearly.
A God who delivered from those who enslaved them.
One God . . . and only one.
Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.
The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Whenever they were tempted to think otherwise,
they had constant reminders to bring them back to home base,
to keep them from losing themselves.

As instructed by Moses, the people did, in fact,
teach these words to their children at night and in the morning,
and bound them onto their own hands and foreheads,
and placed them on their doorposts and gates.
These words were deeply ritualized, and repeated often.

When you need something to eat and drink every day in a desert,
it’s easy to remember God
But when you’re at home and comfortable,
filled with wine and olives,
with more in the vineyards and groves out back,
you are likely to forget.

So the rituals were something to jog your memory every day,
a mnemonic device.
When other groups, worshiping other gods, live all around you,
and you do commerce with them,
and you observe their lives,
pursuing pleasure and power,
it’s easy to get sucked in.

Until . . . you come home at night and walk through your gate,
and there’s this little box attached to the gate post,
inside of which are your people’s scriptures,
and you pass the same kind of box by the front door,
and as you walk by you touch the box,
then kiss the fingers that touched it, as 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 to do your morning prayers,
you pick up two leather pouches with straps,
the pouches filled with scripture—
the words of the God of your people—
and you tie them carefully and deliberately
one onto your forehead,
and one onto your upper arm,
wrapping the strap around your lower arm seven times,
each time reciting a certain blessing,
and you know that at that same time
other members of your faith community are also
wearing the same pouches tied on the same way
and reciting the same prayers.

You then walk out your gate into the world,
and are not 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 I just described
was the life of a member of the people of Israel in biblical times,
and it is the life of at least some of the more devout
and orthodox Jewish communities today.
Te-FILL-in and mezuzahs . . .
that’s what those scripture boxes are called,
and they are still used today.

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

I wonder . . .
if we aren’t in a social and religious context
that compares in some way
to the context of the Israelites in the promised land.
1 wonder . . .
if we aren’t also tempted to forget how dependent we are
on the God who claims us, owns us,
and begin to think we are self-made persons,
begin to be drawn in by other gods,
gods of excess wealth, of personal power, of pleasure-seeking.
I wonder . . .
if we wouldn’t benefit from some memory device,
some daily rituals,
to keep us from losing ourselves.

Maybe it’s not exactly the mezuzahs and te-FILL-in that we need.
But how are we, in our daily physical practices,
reminding ourselves of who we are
and who we belong to?
It’s not that a ritual has any power in itself to save or transform us.
That work can only be done by the Spirit of God—
as we submit to the Spirit’s work,
and to the community of the Spirit.
But let’s not take lightly the power of physical symbols
to shape our thinking and our identity, and our behavior.
For example, to be quite blunt, I think the Mennonite church was wrong,
a generation or two ago,
when, because it was concerned about flashy jewelry,
wedding rings were forbidden.
Now there are valid reasons someone might choose not to wear them,
But I’ll tell you, daily I’m bombarded by powerful cultural symbols
that oppose the symbolism of the wedding band,
that extol self-gratification and individual fulfillment at any cost.
It’s a gift, as a married person, to be able to wear, on my person,
a constant physical reminder of vows I made,
to give myself in love and fidelity to only one person for life.

Our culture is saturated with physical symbols of what it values.
We can’t open a newspaper,
turn on the computer or TV,
or drive down the highway,
without being confronted by our culture’s
te-FILL-in and mezuzahs, if you please.

Symbols that pay tribute to violence, sexual gratification,
and greed for material things.
We continually see and handle tangible, physical reminders
that we ought to be looking out for ourselves,
pursuing whatever gives us pleasure, wealth, or power.
How can Christians compete with that?

I think that Moses, speaking in the voice of God,
was on to something.
When you are settled in this land,
surrounded by other gods,
take these words and recite them to your children,
speak them when they go to bed and when they rise up,
bind them—physically—onto your body.

No, I’m not saying we need to
start tying scripture verses onto our head and arms.
Even many Jewish groups don’t take this as a literal command for today.
But the principle is still there.
Do we have any daily physical rituals
that keep us from losing ourselves
in a land full of gods that compete for our loyalty and worship?
That compete directly with the One, and only God,
Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.

Jesus himself reiterated this great commandment,
and pointed the second commandment,
equally important,
in our Gospel reading today.
When asked, he quoted Deut. 6,
saying the greatest commandment is to
“love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
And the second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

I wonder whether it would be wise,
for us as followers of Jesus,
to keep these two essential, core commandments
in front of us continually,
and incorporate them into some daily physical ritual.
These are, in fact,
words that we, as church office staff,
recite together every morning at 9:00 in our morning prayers.

In a moment,
we’re going to do one of this congregation’s annual rituals,
giving Bibles or Bible story books,
to our young children, older children, and youth.
This year, with Ross’ support,
I inserted this bookmark into every book we are giving.
The top of it is decorated with the Hebrew script,
which reads, “Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
And below it are the words of Jesus,
in which he repeated those words,
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One . . .
and continued with the two great commandments I just read.

Children and youth, I encourage you
to keep this bookmark someplace where you see it every day.
I hope your Bible is something you open every day,
and maybe you could make a ritual out of using this bookmark,
and reading these words every time you read the Bible.
Or if you’re too young to read, have your parents read them.

And so that none of us miss out,
we’re going to make these bookmarks available to everyone,
young and old,
after we distribute the Bibles to the young people.

You can use them however you wish,
but I do encourage us to make some daily physical ritual out of it.
If you are a daily Bible reader, keep it in your Bible,
and read it before or after reading your passage of the day.
Or put it on your doorpost, or bathroom mirror,
or someplace you pass by daily,
and make a physical ritual out of it . . .
in whatever way that seems right for you.

Connecting with a ritual is not all we need, of course.
It’s our connection to God through Jesus Christ,
and our connection to the community of the Spirit
that makes rituals and symbols effective.
Without that faith connection, and the communal connection,
the symbols are empty.
They are only tools that remind us of a larger reality,
that by God’s grace we are part of.

—Phil Kniss, August 29, 2010

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