“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.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.
“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
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:
the willingness to listened
to the needs
and the hopes,
the dreams and the ideas
of those around us
rather than promote our own
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
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