Monday, October 26, 2015

Sermon for October 25, 2015

In Plenty, Do Not Forget

“Keep and live out the entire commandment that I’m commanding you today so that you’ll live and prosper and enter and own the land that God promised to your ancestors. Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that God would know what you were made of, whether you would keep the commandments or not. God put you through hard times. God made you go hungry. Then God fed you … so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread alone; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth … It’s paramount that you keep the commandments of God, your God. God is about to bring you into a good land, a land with brooks and rivers, springs and lakes, streams out of the hills and through the valleys. It’s a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs and pomegranates, of olives, oil, and honey. It’s a land where you’ll never go hungry … It’s a land where you’ll get iron out of rocks and mine copper from the hills. After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land God has given you. Make sure you don’t forget God, your God … Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget God, your God”
Deuteronomy 8, selected verses

I have to admit a guilty pleasure: I love junk mail. And I love those live demos at the home show where they sell overpriced vegetable peelers and miracle window cleaning fluid. And I love NPR fundraising. Actually it’s worse than that. I love the infomercials that air during the late night hours when sleepless television watchers are most vulnerable to being talked into buying questionable goods from the friendly-looking hucksters. I want to be as excited as the customers on the infomercial who are about to find out all the versatile uses for the No!No! Home Hair Removal System instead of sleeping peacefully (Or Magic Bullet. Or Shake Weight. Or Pajama Jeans). The hosts of infomercials are hilarious … and terrifying … due to their Silly Putty grins and their desperation to unleash the shoddiest products in the universe upon the compromised late-night consumers of the world.

A read a story of a Seattle mom who has spent thousands of dollars buying more than 50 infomercial products in the last year alone. Her stash includes the Ninja Blender, the George Foreman Grill, and the Snuggie. Her infomercial infatuation began while working the overnight shift as a home care aide. Watching infomercials helped her stay awake. They promised a better and easier life. Trapped in a tough job, she was hungry to buy in to that dream, always wondering if the product could match its promise.

There is actually a term for people who cannot stop buying stuff. It’s called Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD and it affects 15-30 million people in the United States.  Like any addictive behavior, it can be so easy for us to pursue and accumulate more of what we don't really want. Whether it’s infomercials, alcohol, drugs, sex, food, prestige, career achievement, power, wealth – whatever – as long as we are never satisfied, we will continue to seek more, while our real needs are never fully met.

I think addiction, in one form or another, characterizes every aspect of our society. And, I think consumerism is a bit of an addiction. The desire to accumulate and use reflects a culture that does not always support deeper forms of meaning and purpose in our lives. We fill our empty, lonely, vulnerable places by consuming more. Consuming puts a buffer between us and the awareness of our emotions. Consuming numbs us so that we are out of touch with what we feel. The evidence is overwhelming that people who are characterized by materialistic attitudes and values actually experience lower well-being, lower happiness, more depression, more anxiety, and more anger than people who aren't materialistic.

By the way, our country’s market economy backs up our tendency to numb life through consumption. Market Ideology is dead set against the practice of transformation. Market Ideology insists on stinginess towards others (no free lunch); self-centeredness (you are entitled); vengeance against those who disrupt our privilege; anxiety over scarcity; and the compulsion to hoard resources. Market ideology can cause us to treat other people as competitors, or threats, or rivals.

From the spiritual side, there is one glaring issue with consumerism: where abundance prevails, when faced with the intoxicating allure of economic prosperity, we may forget God. It’s hard to be grateful when we are tempted to create classes of haves and have-nots through building warehouses of abundance at the expense of those who suffer.

Consider the warnings in our reading from Deuteronomy. Centuries after the death of Moses, let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC, a group of wise teachers see that the people of Israel have not been distinctive in their faithfulness.  The people of Israel face conquest and demise by foreign armies. The political system is corrupt. The rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor. Resources have been plundered. The people are about to be banished from the Promised Land. The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel. They indict the current political and social order by pointing to Moses and using his story as a way to comment on current crises. Their history book calls a fractured nation to remember their past, to remember the promises of God, and to remember the promises Israel made.

The teachers want people to remember what it was like for their ancestors who stood on the brink of the Promised Land. It was a land rich with resources. There was plenty of food for everyone. No one was be hungry. Everyone had a roof over their families’ heads. Everyone was satisfied. It was a time to give thanks. In today’s story from Deuteronomy, Moses says, “After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land God has given you.” In a place of plenty, do not forget.

If you say a table blessing at your home, when do you do it? In our home, we say grace before the meal. Here, Moses says to give thanks after eating. Why? Because it is often easier to turn to God when we are hungry rather than after finishing an abundant meal. In many ways, we have a much greater need for a reminder about God after eating than before the meal.  In a place of plenty, do not forget.

The ancient Sages knew that life in covenant with God alters one’s heart, mind, and spirit. Let’s call it Covenantal Economics. Covenantal Economics wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, sharing our resources, and living for more than just ourselves. It’s a system that contradicts the Market Ideology, which encourage self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good.  One of the most dangerous times for us to ignore our covenants is when we live in times of plenty. Do you know what makes it worse? When we live in times of plenty and privilege and feel like we are the have-nots; when we have so much, but feel upset because we don’t have so much more; when we see what others have and fail to be grateful because we envy them. In a place of plenty, do not forget.

Covenantal Economics provides a vantage point for critiquing every system of this world that falls short of what God intends. God stands in judgment of human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, and gross economic exploitation. When we keep resources to ourselves, when we hoard, when we take at the expense of another’s survival, we keep from God. And what we give to the least of those among us, we give to God.

I get restless when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world.  As people of faith, we realize that what human beings want is not necessarily what they need for the sake of life.

Covenant Economics acknowledges that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for our neighbor.

Covenant Economics recognizes that consumerism can destroy relationships and work against the mutual support God desires among people.

Covenant Economics affirms that God promises a world where there is enough for everyone, if only we would learn how to use and share what God has given for the sake of all.

Covenant Economics is based on the idea that in plenty, we do not forget. We provide counsel, food, clothing, shelter, and money for people in need. We respect human dignity. We advocate for public and private policies that address the causes of poverty. And we support organizations that help low-income people to obtain more sufficient, sustainable livelihoods.

Self absorption can really get in the way of gratitude. When we fill our emptiness and loneliness by consuming more, we can become preoccupied with meeting our personal needs. When people feel grateful, they begin to focus at least some of their attention on the needs of other people.

I think about this when it comes to our life together at CCC. As some of you know, we are in a period of financial concern. Our income is down. We have run deficit budgets for years, and it’s caught up to us. Our Trustees have asked Boards to cut their spending, which also affects our mission giving to the UCC. I am glad the Trustees take our budget seriously, and I really appreciate their prayerful work. They are being good Trustees.  And I want to remind us, we are also a rich church. I was at the Potomac Association Fall meeting yesterday and I saw the annual budgets and giving levels of all of the UCC churches in the D.C. Metro area. Let me just say, 4/5 of those churches would love to have our budget. There are faithful congregations doing God’s work with a lot, lot less than what we have. CCC has a robust budget, sound investments, a great building, generous givers, dedicated volunteers, a loving community, and a committed staff of ministers and professionals. Thank God! Praise God! In a place of plenty, do not forget!

We have so much to be grateful for. Gratitude is a response to joy. We have a God who loves us enough to send us a Savior. We are nurtured by God and given a place in God’s family. We give thanks because no purchase from an infomercial will ever be as good as what God has already given.

If you don’t know how to be grateful, here are a few ideas: Give thanks for your parents – for giving birth to you, because if there is no them, there would not be you. Give thanks for your family, your friends, and your companions in this life. Give thanks when you are able to see the colors of life, for each time you can hear the trickle of rain, for the voices of your loved ones, for the harmonious chords of music. Give thanks each time you can feel the texture of your clothes, the breeze of the wind, and the hands of your loved ones. Give thanks when you smell scented candles and beautiful flowers in your garden. Give thanks when you can savor the sweetness of fruits, the saltiness of seawater, the bitterness of a lemon, or the spiciness of chili. Give thanks for your heart that pumps blood to all the parts of your body every second since you were born. Give thanks for the ability to think, to store memories, and to create new solutions. Give thanks for the teachers in your life who passed down knowledge and wisdom to you. Give thanks for the tears that help express your deepest emotions. Give thanks for the disappointment that help you know the things that matter to you most. Give thanks for your fears that expose opportunities for growth. Give thanks for certain pains that help you become stronger. Give thanks for sadness that helps you appreciate the spectrum of human emotions. Give thanks for happiness when you can soak in the beauty of life. Give thanks for the sunrise. Give thanks for rain that waters and nurtures the earth. Give thanks for pets who love us unconditionally. Give thanks for the Internet – for connecting you and others despite the physical space between you. Give thanks for D.C. traffic, because you still have an easy commute compared to others in our world. Give thanks for mobile phones, and computers, and blogs, and iTunes.  Give thanks for your home, and your bed, and your soul mate who understands everything you are going through right now. Give thanks for your best friends for being there whenever you need them, and your enemies for helping you uncover your growing edges so you can become a better person. Give thanks for your mistakes, and your heartbreaks, for your laughter and for love, for life’s challenges, and for life itself – for giving you the chance to experience all that you’re experiencing, and will be experiencing in times to come.

And last but not least don’t forget to give thanks for the most important thing.

Give thanks for … you.

Give thanks because God loves you with an everlasting love and promises to never leave you and never forsake you.

Give thanks because absolutely nothing, not even death itself, can keep you from the love of God.

Give thanks.

In a place of plenty, do not forget.

The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 1, by Walter Brueggemann, p. 322.
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thompson.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sermon for October 11, 2015

Let’s Review
I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of slaves.

No other gods, only me.

No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God. I hold parents responsible for any sins they pass on to their children to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation. But I’m lovingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments.

No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.

No working on the Sabbath; keep it holy just as God, your God, commanded you. Work six days, doing everything you have to do, but the seventh day is a Sabbath, a Rest Day—no work: not you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey (or any of your animals), and not even the foreigner visiting your town. That way your servants and maids will get the same rest as you. Don’t ever forget that you were slaves in Egypt and God, your God, got you out of there in a powerful show of strength. That’s why God, your God, commands you to observe the day of Sabbath rest.

Respect your father and mother—God, your God, commands it! You’ll have a long life; the land that God is giving you will treat you well.

No murder.

No adultery.

No stealing.

No lies about your neighbor.

No coveting your neighbor’s wife. And no lusting for his house, field, servant, maid, ox, or donkey either—nothing that belongs to your neighbor! ~ Deuteronomy 5:6-21
Judge Roy Moore is often known as the “10 Commandments Judge.” He’s become known as a devout Christian who relies on biblical scripture in his rulings. Judge Moore began his judicial career as an Alabama circuit court judge in the 1990s. He placed a hand-carved tablet of the 10 Commandments behind his courtroom bench and began jury selection with prayer. Soon enough, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Moore for violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In 1996, an Alabama circuit judge ruled that prayer in the courtroom was unconstitutional and later ordered that the 10 Commandments display either be removed or placed alongside secular documents like the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Moore responded, saying: “I will not surround the 10 Commandments with other items to secularize them. That’s putting man above God.” Moore eventually won out. In 1998, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuits, and the commandments stayed. Judge Moore’s popularity, thanks to his defiance, skyrocketed. Two years later, he was elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Moore resurrected the debate when he commissioned a 5,200-lb. granite 10 Commandments monument and placed it inside the Alabama State Judicial Building. By August 2003, a federal judge ordered the monument removed. Again, Moore refused, forcing his fellow justices to remove it instead and sparking thousands of protesters to rally in support of Moore outside the state judicial building. But they weren’t able to save his job. Later that year, a state judicial panel removed Moore from his post as chief justice. In 2012, Moore won election back to the office of Alabama Chief Justice.

In the latest round of debate over the 10 Commandments, just last week, a granite monument of the 10 Commandments installed on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds was removed and transported to a private conservative think tank for storage. The Oklahoma Supreme ruled that the display violates a state constitutional prohibition on the use of public property to support, "any sect, church, denomination or system of religion." In other cases, the City of Bloomfield, NM has been ordered to remove a 10 Commandments statue in front of City Hall. Meanwhile, a circuit court agreed that a 10 Commandments monument on the Civic Plaza in Fargo, ND could remain.

Some would think that 10 Commandments would not create such a storm. Telling people not to kill and steal seems like a moral code that almost all civilized people can embrace. To some, the 10 Commandments seem to be as much a part of America as baseball and apple pie. Disputes over the 10 Commandments are nothing new. Today, the challenges to posting them government facilities and public schools focus on the church-state issue. However, our Christian and Jewish family trees had their own challenges with the 10 Commandments over many hundreds of years. In the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the 10 Commandments were always proclaimed in worship. However, outside the Temple, the recitation was banned. Some ancient Rabbis taught that too much emphasis on just 10 statements might lead people to believe that these were the only commandments, or the most important commandments of the 613 commandments that were given to Moses. Christians debate their use in worship, too. The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both insisted on the public reading of the 10 Commandments. They thought that keeping God’s commandments showed gratitude for our salvation. Other Christians claim there’s no need for the commandments anymore, because if we are in Christ we have a new law to follow.

Let’s think about the 10 Commandments as Ancient Israel’s mission statement. God and Moses both knew that the people of Israel needed a document pointed them toward their destiny. It had to be a statement broad enough to encompass a variety of interpretations, yet compelling enough to be shared by everyone. The 10 Commandments formed the Israelite people into a unified nation with a shared purpose.

I’ve been reminding us, as we work our way through the book of Deuteronomy, that it wasn’t actually written by Moses. Let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC,  many centuries after the death of Moses, 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, calling on a fractured nation to remember their history, to remember the promises of God, and to remember what God has done for them. The writers are saying, “Like Israel of old, disobedience to God will bring calamity. The only way to find renewal is through the commandment.” In other words, they remind the people of their mission, their covenant, their reason for existence.

Having a shared purpose defines community. In today’s reading, Moses reminds generations of Israelites, bonded together over centuries, of their shared mission: to learn and to do God’s will. As they stand on the brink of the Promised Land, they need to be review of their shared purpose so that they become one nation.

In Hebrew, the 10 commandments are not actually called commandments at all. They are called the 10 Sayings, the 10 Statements, the 10 Words, even the 10 Things, but not the 10 Commandments. I like that. What if we thought of the 10 commandments more as 10 sayings? Instead of trying to get us to walk in line to receive God’s favor, what if the Sayings are really teaching people how to live in covenantal relationship with God and community? What if, instead of prohibitions, these 10 Words convey positive aspirations about how to respect one another deeply? What if instead of laws of the court, they become laws of the heart, intended to lead to fullness of life and freedom within the bounds of faithfulness to a liberating God?

I agree with Luther and Calvin on this point: simply obeying commandments will not save you or make God love you more. God already loves you. But what impoverished people we would be if we never took the opportunities to behave in ways which are intended to please our beloved. The enjoyment of our relationships would be tragically weakened if we had no idea how to express your love in return. And for that, these 10 Words are a precious and positive gift. Israel sustains one side of the covenant by loving God and by not putting any other value in place of God.

It takes a lot of trust, doesn’t it? The fundamental condition that Israel had to meet in order to enjoy God's blessing was trust in God’s best intentions for the people. The only way to receive forgiveness is by trusting the forgiver. And the only way to benefit from the promises is to trust the promiser.

The act of placing trust in someone or something else is a basic human experience. Without trust, fear rules. Every day we make choices about whom and how much to trust, and sometimes we are more willing to trust than at other times. That’s a good thing; a total lack of mistrust would indicate a serious psychological problem. Judgments about when and whom to trust help keep us safe and alive!

During the 1930s, 250 men were holding the ropes to a dirigible (an airship similar to a blimp) to keep it from floating away. Suddenly a gust of wind caught one end of the dirigible, lifting it high off the ground. Some of the men immediately let go of their ropes and fell safely to the ground. Others panicked, clinging firmly to the end of their ropes as the nose of the dirigible rose to greater heights. Several men who couldn’t keep holding on fell and were seriously injured. One man, however, continued to dangle high in the air for forty-five minutes until he was rescued. Reporters later asked him how he was able to hold on to the rope for so long.  “I didn’t hold on to the rope,” he replied. “I just tied it around my waist, and the rope held on to me.”

Some people think that commandments tie them down or put them in a bind. But, what if the ropes of God’s Words are there to hold on to us when life is tough, and dangerous, and scary? Trust means seeing, and hearing, and feeling sure signs of God’s presence during life’s pain.

What would it means for Christ Congregational Church to cultivate a place of trust in a perilous world?

What would it mean for us to encourage a place of faith where we are reminded that God can be trusted?

What would it mean for us to foster a place of refuge where we feel safe with each other?

What would it mean for us to support an open place where we freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength?

What would it mean for us to sustain a forbearing place where we recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys?

What would it mean for us to nurture a responsible place where we hold one another accountable for our individual acts while we promote justice, inclusion and peace as a community?

What would it mean for us to provide an honest place where we deal with disagreements constructively, and communicate with others in direct, caring, supportive, and responsible ways?

What would it mean for us to continue on as an inspiring place where the quality of our worship and the deepness of our caring renew our trust?

At CCC, we’ve been talking about reconciliation over the past few months.  Our Congregational Support Team reminded us that there are times when we all fail one another, often unintentionally. We all have shortcomings and failures, and nowhere is that more apparent than when we disappoint each other in our church home. Each and every one of us is called to repentance and forgiveness – to support each other with open minds and loving hearts.

Churches use the reconciliation a lot. I don’t think you can have reconciliation without two ingredients: covenant and trust. First, the community has to establish some new norms. Like Moses and the people of Israel on the brink of the promise, we review the covenant expectations that brought it together in the first place. After times of conflict, sometimes we move to quickly to the forgive-and-make-up phase, but we skip a step. As a conflict ends, we need structures in place that can help those who feel wounded to deal with the new realities of living together. We rehearse and review our covenant all the time. It helps remind us of the values and visions that nurture our community and form our identity.

We also learn to trust those structures. Good structures are like the rope on that blimp – they hold us safely when we need help. We need to live with our structures for a while, we talk about how they are working for us, and we make sure they are not oppressive or manipulative. We learn to trust the good intentions of others. We remember that most people want peace and forgiveness. We trust that life together in God can give us a sense of newness, a strengthened mission, and the assurance that we can heal together.

In this spirit, we are trying something new here at CCC.  All church-sponsored events that happen off site will have an opportunity to rehearse our covenant together. At each event, like Beach Weekend, or the Homecoming Day at the Retreat House, we are carving out intentional time to review who we are and who God calls us to be. We remind ourselves that we are all valuable, worthy, loveable people. We remind ourselves that our love and care for one another is made known in how we treat each other. We remind ourselves that we are committed to following community rules in order to make a safe, nurturing space for people of all races, colors, ages, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities. We review the values and visions that nurture the community and give it identity. And we commit to holding each other accountable. It’s OK to let people know when we are not meeting the expectations we agreed to. It’s OK to have conversations about how we can propel each other to behave better. It’s hard, but it’s OK.

I believe this is our time. It is time for us at CCC to reclaim our place as the church known for its compassionate, prayerful response to the world around us. It’s time to move forward with trust and faithfulness, humility and hope, engaging in the urgent tasks of support and transformation, both within our own lives and in the life of our congregation. It’s time to review the covenant the brought us together and, again, be pointed towards our destiny.


Sermon for September 27, 2015

The God of Exodus and Exile

“And now, Israel, listen carefully to these decrees and regulations that I am about to teach you. Obey them so that you may live, so you may enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you. You saw for yourself what the Lord did to you at Baal-peor. There the Lord your God destroyed everyone who had worshiped Baal, the god of Peor. But all of you who were faithful to the Lord your God are still alive today—every one of you.

“Look, I now teach you these decrees and regulations just as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy. Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations. When they hear all these decrees, they will exclaim, ‘How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!’ For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?

“But watch out! Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren. Never forget the day when you stood before the Lord your God at Mount Sinai, where he told me, ‘Summon the people before me, and I will personally instruct them. Then they will learn to fear me as long as they live, and they will teach their children to fear me also.’ You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while flames from the mountain shot into the sky. The mountain was shrouded in black clouds and deep darkness. And the Lord spoke to you from the heart of the fire. You heard the sound of his words but didn’t see his form; there was only a voice. He proclaimed his covenant—the Ten Commandments—which he commanded you to keep, and which he wrote on two stone tablets. It was at that time that the Lord commanded me to teach you his decrees and regulations so you would obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy.”
~ Deuteronomy 4:1-14
On the walls of the Chambers of the U.S. Congress are 23 marble reliefs of famous lawgivers of history. Eleven profiles in the Eastern half of the chamber face to the left and eleven profiles in the western half of the chamber face to the right. They all look towards the full-face relief of the greatest lawgiver in history. When Pope Francis addressed Congress, he began by pointing to that central relief in the middle of the north wall – the image that all the others face – it’s the face of Moses. Pope Francis said, “The patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation.” Moses reminds Congress to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

People have been pointing to Moses as a symbol of loving justice for millennia. Much as Pope Francis invoked Moses as a reminder of Congress’ sworn duties to protect the common good, I think the book of Deuteronomy was written for the same purpose.  While tradition says that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, it does not make sense when you read through the book. Last week I offered another scenario. Many centuries after the death of Moses, the people of Israel face conquest and demise by foreign armies. Let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC, a group of wise teachers see that the people if Israel have not been distinctive in their faithfulness.  The political system is corrupt. The rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor. Worship of God has been forgotten. Israel is about to be expelled from the Promised Land, which will ignite an enormous refugee and prisoner crises. The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel. They indict the current political and social order by pointing to Moses and using his story as a way to comment on current crises. Their history book calls a fractured nation to remember their past, to remember the promises of God, and to remember the promises Israel made. The writers say, “Like Israel of old, disobedience to God will bring calamity. The only way to find restoration is through obedience to God.”

The word “obey” is mentioned five times in today’s reading alone. Obeying God is a constant buzzword throughout the book of Deuteronomy. The basic message of Deuteronomy could be summed up in one sentence: “Listen carefully and obey so that you may live.” Listen and Obey. Obey and listen. The same message reverberates throughout the New Testament, like when Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Many of us get tense when we hear the word obedience. Maybe it’s because we tend to associate obedience with pressure, punishment, following rules, and even words like “shame” and “belittling.” In the American experience, obedience can mean a loss of liberty. Consider Thoreau, who said, ““Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” Obedience can go bad when people are asked to trust and obey without engaging the systematic thought and critical thinking skills. So, it makes sense many of us struggle with obeying God.

When the Bible talks about obedience, it has a different flavor. We tend to think about obedience as following a person in order to make the other happy, or to win the approval of another. We obey because compliance means safety. I obey the law because I don’t want to go to jail. An element of compliance and threat certainly exists in biblical law. But, I think biblical obedience says, “We obey God not to be loved. We obey because God loves us.” We obey God because we trust that following God’s prophetic call to compassionate justice makes love abound. Obedience is a way to claim that we belong to God and want God’s love to be known in the ways we relate to one another.

Obey literally means “to hear.” The English words “obey” and “obedience” come from two Latin words that mean “to hear thoroughly.” Notice how the word hear or listen is mentioned 3 times in today’s text. Those who heard the text proclaimed would not have missed the connection between the Hebrew words for obey and hear. They have the same root letters and sounds.

The words obey and hear or listen are actually related in a lot of languages. Lorrie Anderson, a New Testament translator in Peru, searched for months to find a word for “believe” in the Candoshi language. No direct equivalent existed for that all-important term in Bible translation. What she finally discovered was that the word “hear” in that language also can mean “believe” and also “obey.” Anderson writes, “The question, ‘Don’t you hear [God’s] Word?’ in Candoshi means ‘Don’t you believe/obey [God’s] Word?’ In their way of thinking, if you ‘hear,’ you believe what you hear, and if you believe, you obey.”

The connection between obeying and hearing God’s law goes back to the people of Israel standing at Mount Sinai. Moses reminds people of their experience in our reading for today: You heard the sound of God’s words but didn’t see God’s form; there was only a voice. God proclaimed the covenant — the Ten Commandments — which he commanded you to keep, and which were written on two stone tablets.

The original story comes from the book of Exodus. In that version of the story, the people of Israel signal their acceptance of the law with the words “na’aseh v’nishma” (נעשה ונשמה)–“We will do and we will hear/understand,” or “we will obey and we will listen.” The word order is important. They did not listen first and then act. Action came first, then listening. That’s why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Judaism not so much as a leap of faith but as a “leap of action.” He was convinced that one should first obey all the commandments that are possible. The understanding and meaning come later.  As he put it, a person is asked to “do more than he [or she] understands in order to understand more than [she] or he does.”

Obey and listen carefully and you will live. If you were here in August and listened carefully to Bob Tiller preach, he talked about faithing – faith as a verb. He said faithing means trying to find God in the daily activities of life and to giving thanks for the love of God in our lives. Faithing means living each day by embracing the goodness and holiness of all creation. Faithing means pursuing peace, justice and love for all creation – and sensing God’s spirit joining us in that pursuit. Faithing means seeing God’s face and God’s presence in every person on the planet. In other words, if I may take liberties with his words, we act and we hear. We do and we believe. When we live out our most loving and generous understandings of the word of God, that’s when we truly hear it.

How will we obey and hear God in the world around us? Can we obey and hear God in the lives of our sisters and brothers across the globe in the global refugee crisis? Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.  An estimated 60 million people across the globe are displaced from their homes because of war and persecution. Those who flee violence in their homelands become targets for robbery, boat smuggling, human trafficking, and mistreatment from border guards. The stories of refugees invite us to find God through obedience and listening. Our path to obedience, as individuals, faith communities, and nations is the path of welcome; receiving others with gladness and delight. In order to do so we must recognize the face of God in all people. As Pope Francis reminded Congress, “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”

Can we obey and hear God in the voice of the earth? As we honor Climate in the Pulpit Sunday, I wonder what Earth would say if Earth could speak?  Would she would groan loudly in pain? Would make people ask for forgiveness?  If we listened, we might hear Earth say, “I give you food and drink and I keep you warm. Why burn me down? For what do you blow me up? I've been dreaming of rest for centuries." If we listened, we might hear Earth say, "Enough of feuding! Our fate has bound us together forever."

Can we obey and hear God in our relationships at CCC? I like the dream that Sister Joan Chittister offers us – a human community in which everyone exists to support the others. She calls it “mutual obedience.” She says:
Mutual obedience--
the willingness to listened
to the needs
and the hopes,
the dreams and the ideas
of those around us
rather than promote our own
by ignoring
everyone else's--
is surely the foundation …

It is what we need
to be able to think newly
because we think
with the others
about their ideas
rather than simply
about our own.

It is the way we come to learn
respect and reverence,
for the insights of others
are meant to become
the foundation
of the next step
on our own path …

“Obedience to one another”
is the strength of community,
the brilliance of community,
the voice of community
in the midst of which
we can now hear
the voice of God.

Can we do it? Can we learn to obey and listen carefully, so that we may live?

Likrat Shabbat Prayerbook by Jack Reimer.
Music, Madness, and the Unworking of Language by John T Hamilton.
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thompson
“Oh, if the Earth could speak,” lyrics by Lyudmila Zykina

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...