This week we find ourselves at the end of Moses’ life as the Israelites are set to leave their wilderness wanderings and settle into the Promised Land. We’ve missed some significant stuff – events that are covered by different years of the lectionary…. Such as Moses bargaining with Pharaoh in Egypt, and the story of ten plagues; the passover, and the people’s liberation and exciting escape from Egypt through the sea. In the desert, there is thanksgiving, and then whining and tromping in very large circles (the Sinai Peninsula doesn’t take 40 years to cross on foot). There is manna and quail and more manna and quail – but never a høst fest – there is God’s covenant with the people at Mt Sinai – their mutual agreement that God will be their God and they will be God’s people; there is the gift of the 10 commandments scribed in stone.
I read that, according to the Talmud (which is the compendium of traditional Rabbinic law, tradition, and interpretation,) one tradition says that when God wrote the law with his finger, the carving went through the full thickness of the tablet, and that the stones were not the gray stone tablets we see in pictures, but were made of sapphire or lapis lazuli – the deep blue of God’s throne. Cool. Anyway, this mountain top experience is immediately followed by the people’s rebellion and idolatry – for which they must stay in the wilderness until a new generation comes of age.
In the end, Moses is not allowed to cross into the promised land, but looking down over the Jordan river at the fertile valley beyond the desert, he gives his farewell address. This speech lasts nearly forever, it’s the entire book of Deuteronomy. In it, Moses instructs the people, now a new generation from the one he led out of Egypt, reminding them of all that their parents were commanded and had agreed to in the early days of exodus. It is addressed to this new generation as though it were their story, their actions — they are to remember and retell and relive the exodus in perpetuity to remind them of what God has done for them. In today’s reading, Moses repeats the 10 commandments given 40 years earlier. (and, in case Jeff asks it in Trivia – that is the meaning of the word (duetero-nomy) the second telling of the law.)
Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently.
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. (At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder. Neither shall you commit adultery. Neither shall you steal. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
I got a speeding ticket last Spring at 1:00am on a Thursday night with no else one on the road for miles in either direction in the speed trap coming north into Osceola where the speed limit drops from 55 to 25. In contesting the ticket, I was reminded of the difference between biblical and civil law.
Here is a mini-sermon on the big picture of the 10 commandments: they are constraints for a free people. They are to promote and protect the rights of the vulnerable.
Imagine you’ve got a really big back yard bordered by a deep, dark woods. And you’ve got a lot of kids.
Some of your youngsters are eager to explore and are too curious for their own good. They stray further and further away from your voice. Some are mean-spirited and know how to take advantage of their siblings out where you can’t see what they’re up to. Because you love these explorers and love but are annoyed by the naughty ones, you keep them inside, tie them to your apron strings. Hold the little buggers at bay.
Others of your children are terrified by all of that space, of the unknown of the forest, of taking risks – and so they stay close, remain stuck, afraid of discovery and change.
Because of the wilderness – that deep endless freedom – all of your children are bound.
But, if you put up a fence, if you mark the edges of your holding, if you show them how far they may safely go, then the explorers can explore independently of you and the homebodies are emboldened by knowing that at some point, they can go no further. And the naughty ones know they are within the purview of the eye of justice and will get their just deserts.
There is safety for all of your children in constraint.
That’s what biblical law was meant to do. Just as children with a big backyard benefit from a fence, so a free people benefit from the law. Through it, God establishes basic freedoms and justice and creates a trustworthy world for all.
Creation of the world embodied and coalesced primordial chaos to form a world. The law repeats that process constraining chaos to form a just society for the common weal.
But the law isn’t only for our inter-webbed lives and wilderness. The first three of the 10 commandments are about our relationship with God. God seems to want one… a relationship with us.
Skipping ahead a few verses to Chapter 6:
3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe diligently, so that your days may be long… so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one. 5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you arise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
10 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
There are places in Scripture when I feel so sorry for God. When you just know God has set herself up for a fall, when the plans and dreams and hopes and fears God has for this people are going to drop into the dust. This is one of those times. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart. And all your soul and all your might.” This is the prime commissioning for the people of God. It still is. Love God. Just that. Get that right, and all the rest will fall into place. The laws will not constrain, because you’ll want to live justly, humbly, with an eye out for your neighbor’s need. That’s what love does.
‘When you’re there in the land that I promised your ancestors I’d give to you – (God leans in closer) – you are the promised people – do you get that? —a land with beautiful cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not acquire, water cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant— when you have eaten your fill, unpacked your bags, fed the camels, watered the sheep, gathered the eggs, and sit back on the front porch, stretching out your legs and pop a cool one, when you look out over this gift of land, my beloved, keep your hubris, your self-satisfaction in check. Take care that you do not forget me, says the LORD your God.”
And what do you suppose the odds were? How long did it take before they forgot about Egypt and the enslavement which they hadn’t experienced, and the desert with its miraculous, if boring, manna appearing morning and evening? How long does it take for us to make the move from gratitude, to taking something for granted, to thinking it’s our right?
The people were to re-live the Exodus in the great festival of Passover, to teach the words of salvation to their children and their children’s children.
The Shema, as this passage is known, is as close to a creedal statement as Judaism comes. “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” These words are recited twice a day, morning and evening, as part of a longer prayer. Jesus recites it as the greatest commandment, in Mark, chapter 12, – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these, he said.”
To agree with or abide by the law is not enough; to feel awe in the presence of majesty is insufficient; to ritualize it in worship and practice it week in, week out, is not the same thing; to act boldly for justice is too little. We are to love God: to love God with all that we have and all that we are – to love God with all the powers of care, intelligence, wit and will we might possess.
And in loving God – because love is not an emotion without actions that are called forth or correspond in some way, we will love the neighbor God entrusts to us – the stranger, the sojourner, the migrant, the guy across the street, the nerd in gym class, your weird great aunt Mergatroid. The command to love God is not for God’s sake, but for our sake, and for all those whom God loves.
And, like these ancient Israelites – standing on the edge of the desert with bountiful fields in front of them, a land of milk and honey that will soon replace the endless expanse of thorns and thistles and sand that they have known – we, too, need to be commanded to remember. It’s easier to remember God in the desert or in desert places and times of our lives – trudging along with nothing but sand dunes and camel dung. There are fewer distractions there. But in the Promised Land? With streams and flowers and sheep and fishing opportunities and shopping trips? with land to claim and borders to protect and money to be made? With the distractions of prosperity and our inclination not to see past the end of our nose, not to account for the world we will leave behind, yes, we, too, need the command to love God above all those things. These words, these commands are not another form of enslavement, they form a path to freedom – to be reminded to love the Lord your God who loves you above all those things.
So, how is this great commandment accomplished? The Israelites were to live into it by keeping the law in front of them. Moses told the people to recite the law to their children both at home and when they were away, before they went to bed and first thing when they arose, by carrying a copy with them and placing it prominently in their homes. It was to be the “memo to self” that you write on the bathroom mirror in lipstick or shaving foam so that you see your image through the words.
As Christians, we receive the promise in baptism.
God’s covenantal promise is to accept us as we are, adopt us into God’s family, and forgive us all of our sin.
We believe that God loves us irrationally, as an affair of the heart, as his own particular – and sometimes quite peculiar – people.
I’m guessing, though, that most – all – of us would confess that our baptism doesn’t have enough zing to help us love God with heart and soul and might. It was a one time thing a long time ago – for most of us, before we were even cognizant of the event.
So how do we love God?
In the realm of church, we live among God’s faithful people in a community of faith and in a mystical, mysterious church beyond borders; we hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; we proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, we care for others and the world God made, we work for justice and peace, and we struggle, day in and day out, to trust God.
That’s good. Now what about your personal life, what about the rest of the week? The prophet said we are to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Maybe it is also true, that we love God by walking humbly with our neighbor. I sometimes worry that my leadership here is too soft, that I don’t push you and nag about the world outside our doors, that we don’t do enough loving of those neighbors. We need to have conversations about that. But I also think that we love God by being grateful for the gifts, the goodness, the joy of living, the comfort and camaraderie of this congregation and the family and friends who fill your days. I think loving the place, a bit of land beneath your feet, caring for gardens and animals, appreciating the life-giving beauty of music and carrot dishes is also how we love God.
I might, though, simply be justifying my predilection to love kindness and walk hesitantly with God and my neighbor.
What do you think? How are we to love God with all our heart and soul and strength? I’d love to hear from you. There is a sticky note on your bulletin, you can hand me your ideas.
J. Gerald Janzen is a theologian who wrote this:
“…faith is the willingness (however uncertain) to allow the word of divine hope to enter one’s soul; and it is the willingness (however tentative) to bear that word through time, trusting in God to bring forth a future which is beyond one’s own unaided powers.” “Abraham and All the Families of the Earth”
Maybe loving God is a reciprocal action when, in the memo to self written on the bathroom mirror, you look at your reflection created in the image of God, and believe that you are somebody to the one who is infinity, and that you are loved. Maybe joy is as good as justice, hope the beginning of mercy. I John says to love one another is to fulfill the law. That’s a pretty good place to start.
In this time for reflection I’d like you to write on your sticky note how we are to love God with all our heart and soul and strength. What might that look like?