The Story, Part I: Wandering with the Law
We’re skipping ahead in the scriptures today, as we continue our journey through The Story of the Bible. Last Sunday, as we read from Exodus, the Israelites were on the brink of leaving Egypt, being emancipated from their generations of slavery, and now they’re not far from reaching the Promised Land, this place described as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” It’s a land of abundance, a land that will be their long-term home. But in the interim, between then and now, forty years have passed, and all this time, the Israelites have been wandering through the wilderness, led by Moses. And over these years, besides the grumbling and complaining that they do about their long, meandering journey, and besides the times they really screw things up and forget where they’ve come from and where they’re going, they’ve also been learning about the laws that will guide and shape them as they enter the Promised Land and form a new society. In Exodus, in Leviticus, in Numbers, and in Deuteronomy, we find chapter after chapter of rules and laws about what to eat, what to wear, how to grow and plant, how to worship and pray, how to build, how to be a neighbor, how to deal with crime, how to care for possessions and finances. So many laws. 613 laws or commandments is the traditional count given to the total of all the directives we find in the Torah, the Law, contained in these books of the Bible.
Even as we work on memorizing Bible verses every week this fall, I feel pretty sure that I cannot remember 613 of them, not by heart. But there’s hope. Aside from a system of teaching and guidance that will help the Israelites learn the laws well, we find in our text for today the key to the laws, the heart of the laws. You might say, for the most part, that all of the other laws are able to be understood as expressions of what we read in Deuteronomy 6 today. What we read here is the most important thing, and we studied it a bit least year. It’s called the Shema, from the Hebrew word “hear,” the first word of these key verses. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” There’s just one God to be god in your life, and you should love that God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Eventually Jesus will call this the greatest law. He’ll say that all the teaching of the law and of the prophets really boil down to this, that God is the only god worth putting first in our lives, and we should put God first with everything we’ve got. And Jesus will clarify for us that these laws also include the second greatest commandment, a way that we express the meaning of the first, of loving God fully: by loving our neighbor as if we they were our own self. 613 commandments, important, to be followed, but narrowed down in their essence to this: There’s one God to be worshipped. Worship and love that God with everything you’ve got. And you can demonstrate that love in loving others well. That much we can remember, right?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we try to remember this week, and how we go about remembering them. I remember when I was little and my paternal grandmother would visit, I would watch in astonishment as she took her pills every day. There were so many! I swear she had about 15 pills she took each day. Now though, I’ve managed to work my way up to my own impressive collection of daily medications – iron to combat my anemia, and pills for high blood pressure, and another to boost my “good cholesterol” with a vegan source for Omega 3, and so on. With all these pills, I’ve found myself needing help remembering to take them every day and to take them at the right time. And so I have them all set up in one of those daily pill dispensers, and I have alarms set on my phone – morning and evening every day – so I don’t forget. And as long as I’ve been taking my pills now – if the alarm didn’t go off … I know I would forget, even still!
I also adore Google reminders. I can tell my phone to remind me to do things, or add them on my google calendar, a reminder to do such and such thing at a certain time on a certain day, and at the appropriate time, my phone will ding and tell me what I’m supposed to be remembering. It is one tool that’s helped me become more organized and better at following through on things I’m supposed to be doing, a big help for this not-very-detail-oriented person. My mom wants to remember to read her Upper Room Devotional booklet every day, and remember to use her hand weights to strengthen her arm muscles – so she sets them on her kitchen counter every day, right near her laptop, and she doesn’t move them until she’s completed those tasks each day. There’s no shortage of methods we can use to help us remember things that are important to us. What techniques do you use? How do you remember who has what after-school activity? How do you remember what you need at the grocery store? How do you remember all the details of life?
But I wonder about the most important things. How do we remember the most essential things of all, the kinds of things we can’t just check off of a to-do list? An alarm reminds me to take my pills, and then it’s done for the day, and I don’t have to think about it again. But how do I remember that God loves me, when I need to have it as part of the core of my understanding, and not something I can “complete” on a to-do list? How do I remember, when so many other messages in our culture try and tell us we have to earn love and that it is conditional and temperamental. How do I remember that God loves me even when I think I’m unlovable? How do I remember to treat others with kindness and compassion, to look at them with Jesus’s eyes, to see Jesus in them? That’s not a task I can mark “complete” and just move on. How do we remember the most important things?
We talked last week about the rituals God helps the Israelites enact so that they would remember being slaves in Egypt and how God led them to longed-for freedom, like the Passover meal. God gifts us with many practices to help us remember the most important things, like baptism and communion. And today’s text includes more of God’s plans to help the people remember. After the Shema – the reminder that God is one god, the only god, and after the call to love God with our everything, Deuteronomy tells us that we should take these words and recite them, and tell them to our children, and talk about these words when we’re at home, and when we’re away, and when we go to bed, and when we wake up. And we should bind the words to our hands, and make them into a sign on our foreheads, and put them on the doors of our house, on the gates to our yards. Basically, it sounds like these words about God should be everywhere we are, all the time. They should be as much a part of our day as breathing in and out is. And indeed, the Israelites, and even some Jews today try to follow these directions as literally as possible. We could take that approach too – there’s nothing stopping you from binding these words about God and only God and God with your whole heart to your hands and head and house. But mostly – we don’t really do that, not literally. So what can we do? How do we make these words etched on our hearts and souls so we don’t forget?
For the Israelites, on the brink of entering the Promised Land, God wanted to remind them that they were God’s distinctive people. They were not to be like other peoples, other nations. They followed God. They made God the center of their lives, and they were set apart in their beliefs, practices, and ethical way of being in the world. In the wilderness, they were mostly on their own, isolated from other influences. But in the Promise Land, they’re going to be constantly surrounded by other peoples and cultures with other priorities, other rules, other laws, other gods. They will be constantly tempted to forget who they are and who God is and how they are called by God to live. We’ll see that over the next weeks, how hard it is for them to remain true to God. How can they remember who they are? The Shema, and binding these words to themselves every way they can is one way they stay set apart. They’re wrapped in God’s word, in the law that is a gift to them.
What about us? How are we God’s people? What’s distinctive about our pattern of living and being? Today we’ve had an awesome morning with the Ripathon, and I’ve been thinking about our faith and fitness ministry. We’ve tried to shape it, over the years, to be that – a ministry. It’s a challenge, sometimes, to remember, to ensure that it’s about more than working out. And it’s so hard in our culture to make sure we’re sending the right messages about body image and health and wholeness and being created in God’s image instead of striving for a certain physical ideal so that we fit in somehow.
So, at Ripit, sometimes people work with mentors – others who have worked hard to increase their strength, or endurance, or health. We practice encouraging each other – building each other up with words and deeds of kindness. RipIt folks participate in challenges – trying to push beyond where they are to reach new goals. And that’s another thing – goals. RipIt members often have something they’re working towards – not just a weight goal, but being able to lift a heavier weight, or dance longer during a song, or breathe easier after a workout. Amber has been leading devotional pilates, encouraging folks to read and reflect and meditate on messages from the scripture that remind us of our intrinsic, unshakable value as part of God’s creation. All of these parts of RipIt help make it not just an exercise class, but a community, and a ministry. These practices that are part of the program help people remember why they want to take part, work hard, and push through obstacles.
What practices help us stay grounded in faith? Is your faith growing? Do you have goals that you’ve set for your relationship with God? A direction with God you’re hoping to go? Who are your mentors in faith? Who’s encouraging you, and who are you encouraging in discipleship? What faith challenges are you determined to conquer, and how do you work at them each day? As disciples of Jesus Christ, as those committed to following God, we need to immerse ourselves in the distinctive practices that will help us remember the things that we can’t just check off on a to-do list. In our United Methodist tradition, we’ve summarized some of these practices in our membership vows: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. That might work as a guide for you. Or you may have your own way of setting goals in faith, and intentionally trying to grow with God. But whatever you do, let’s do something on purpose, with purpose. The scriptures attest to the fact that without remembering a purpose, God’s people also forget that God alone is god. They forget to give God their whole hearts every day. We know that we forget, too. So whether you need to bind God’s message on your head and heart, or whether you need to recommit to practices of faith and community that will ground you in God’s word, let’s follow with purpose, and be God’s people. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Amen.