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Sermon for September 20, 2015

The Summons
Deuteronomy 1:1-33

From where you are right now, if you could look back on the arc of your life and address your younger self, what advice would you give? I resonate with a blogger who says, “I would grab my younger self by the neck, and I'd say ‘listen to me carefully you fool:
  1. Forget the fear of looking ridiculous when attempting something. Just do it! If it turns out well, you won. If not, nobody cares, just go on.
  2. Some opportunities come only once in your life. Don't let them pass.
  3. Failure is just one step closer to success. Just learn and do it better next time.
  4. It's better to try and fail, than spending the rest of your life wondering, ‘What if...’
  5.  The future never comes like you planned. Seize the day. Enjoy every minute.”
I would also add, “"When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind."

A 70 year old man said he would offer his younger self the following advice:
Keep a diary, organize your life, don't get into debt, don't assume you will ever have time to do anything you can't do now, don't involve yourself with people who intend to use you, don't use other people, learn to trust those who accept your trust, value people for their true worth, learn to talk to your parents, learn to believe in yourself, learn to be tolerant of others, learn to think before you speak, learn to think before you answer, learn to appreciate the moment, learn to share your thoughts, and learn to respond according to the situation.

What strikes me is that none of this advice is innovative or unusual. We’ve heard it all before. When it comes to living a good life, these lists are time-honored counsel. 

Now imagine another scene about giving advice. Moses, the greatest prophet in all of Jewish history, stands on the brink of entering the Promised Land with the people of Israel.  Moses, who led his people out of slavery, Moses who stood up to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go,” Moses who talks with God and gave Israel God’s law, Moses who has forged and guided  his community for 40 years in the desert,  readies the people to enter the land of Canaan.  Did you hear me say 40 years? A journey from Egypt to Canaan that was supposed to take 11 days, two weeks tops, has lasted 40 years. All of the years of struggle and promise are about to be fulfilled. And Moses, now a timeworn man, knows he will not go with them; he is destined to die in the desert.  So he speaks. The entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell message. He’s going to remind them about why a two week journey took 40 years. He will tell the story of Pharaoh and the crossing of the Red Sea. He will repeat the 10 commandments and the important points of the law he received on Mount Sinai. Here, in the opening chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, THE central human character in all of Hebrew Scripture, speaks to the people about their past, present and future. Moses will leaving them with everything they need to become the people God wants them to be. Standing on the brink of the Promised Land, will Israel be faithful to the Lord and the Law? Will they live as a renewed humanity? The answer is up in the air – to be determined.

The word Deuteronomy actually means “Second Law.” Older Moses, knowing he will soon die, looks back on the arc of his life give some advice by remembering the past and imparting commandments. His words summons the people to faithful living. The summons comes with both kiss and commandment: that’s the pattern of how laws are given in the Bible. Remember the Ten Commandments? Before God thunders down the commandments from the mountain, God says, “I brought you out of Egypt. You were slaves, and I saved you.” Moses wants people to remember that kiss. Then comes the commandment, expectation that God’s people must be distinctive in their faithfulness.

I think one of the reasons the book of Deuteronomy was written was to help people hold kiss and commandment, grace and law together. Tradition says that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, but that tradition does not make sense when you read through the book. Imagine another scenario. Many centuries later, the people of Israel are looking at conquest and demise by foreign armies. They’ve been living in the Promised Land and have not been distinctive in their faithfulness to God. We estimate Moses lived around 1450 B.C. Let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC, a group of wise teachers face a fractured political system in which the rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor, worship of God has been forgotten, and Israel is about to be evicted from the Promised Land.  The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel, beginning with Moses in a book called Devarim, or “Words” – it’s called Deuteronomy in our Bibles. Their stories call on a fractured nation to remember their history, to remember the promises of God, to remember the promises Israel made, and to remember what God has done for them. That’s the kiss. And then these writers indict the current system by taking Moses, a hero from the past, and using his story as a way to comment on current crises. The writers are saying, “Like Israel of old, disobedience to God will bring calamity. The only way to find restoration is through the commandment.”

Kiss and commandment. Grace and obedience. Good religious people like us usually want one without the other. Some would say the kiss is enough, and nothing else is necessary. After all, the heart of the good news is that God cherishes us, particularly in our own divided and dangerous world. So why not bask in God’s eternal mercy and do whatever we want?

I’ll never forget that fateful day, as a fifth-grader, when I closed my bedroom door and blurted out a few cuss words. I thought I’d try it out, see how it sounded coming from my mouth. I got away with that awful crime, and felt good that I got away with it. In fact, I felt so free that when my father told me to clean my room a few days later, a few of those words rolled right off my tongue. I was exiled to spend the rest of that evening in that very same messy room. Never a quick learner, I tried out my newfound freedom again at Scout Camp. I remember trying to console my bunk mate who had been yelled at by the scoutmaster. I said ,”Yeah, the scoutmaster is such a ________” (fill in your favorite expletive). As I spoke, I saw a shadow looming over me. There stood my scoutmaster who heard every word I said. I took me a few embarrassing moments like that to realize that freedom comes with some tremendous consequences.

On the other hand, you probably know someone who keeps all the commandments and ignores the kiss. “All that gushy grace?” they say. “It’s a distraction from our duty.” For some people, duty is what life is all about: do the right thing, live the right way, walk and talk in truth. Living within those boundaries can be a great comfort. I can understand that. I don’t like it, but I can understand it. Legalism is the most comforting religion of all. It makes life certain and clear.

In Judaism, there is a well-known teaching about commandments and freedom. It is written: “Greater is the one who is commanded and does it, than one who is not commanded and still does it.” In other words, "It is better to do something under command than by choice." This seems counter intuitive. We might think it is better to do good willingly and voluntarily, out of the pure intentions of our hearts. Jewish sages talked about the yoke of the commandment. Like a beast of burden, we need to feel the weight of the commandments on our shoulders, and carry them because God has expectations of us.

You would think that personal initiative to do good would be most honorable. What’s going on here? The sages said that humans have an inclination we can’t shake. We have a desire to resist external demands. We want to act independently – nobody is going to tell us what to do. The challenge is that we decide to do good – to help another, serve another, and forge just communities – but our decision may be wrapped up in a personal agenda. Our desire to do good may have some ego-centric motivation. For the Sages, it was better to act out of obedience. That way, we can set aside own personal agenda and own self-interests and do good with the pure intent of serving God.

This all causes me wonder.
I wonder if we have lost some of the pure intent of serving God.
I wonder if we get distracted by our own sense of goodness.
I wonder if we are living in divisive times, standing on the brink of a promised future, needing voice of wisdom to remind us of who we are and what we are called to do.
I wonder if it is time for us to review and remember our covenants and hear God’s summons to obedience.
  • The summons to seek a deeper relationship with God through prayer, study and service;
  • The summons to honor our cherished traditions as life-giving witnesses to us and to future generations;
  • The summons to encourage hospitality, extending a generous welcome to all our members, friends, and visitors;
  • The summons to grow a church family that embraces diversity within a safe, positive, and nurturing environment;
  • The summons to move beyond simple tolerance toward genuine understanding – to listen attentively, to seek others’ opinions, and to understand that differing values do exist within our church family;
  • The summons to deal with disagreements constructively, communicating with others in a direct, caring, and responsible manner;
  • The summons to recognize that children and youth are a vital part of our church family and to welcome them into all aspects of church life;
  • The summons to extend God’s love, through service and outreach, to those in the community and the world, as best as we are able.
In other words, a summons to be a distinctive people, a faith community that provides a healing, transforming alternative to what we see in the world around us.

Sources:
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thompson (WJKP, 2014)
http://www.reformjudaism.org/commanded-ness
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/eichah-where-are-we-now/
http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/YishuvHaAretz_GadolHaMetzeveh.pdf
https://www.quora.com/What-would-you-like-to-do-in-your-life-1

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