Deuteronomy, Sermons

With All Your Heart

When my kids were little, our collective best friends were the Tinkle family. Amy, the mom, was my best friend and confidante. Adam, the oldest, was just a few weeks older than my oldest, Edward. His younger brother, Seth, was just a few months younger than my son, Peter. Their sister came in between and ours came later, but all the children were special to each other. They had similar interests: drama, music and books, for starters. Amy and I both took our faith lives seriously, and our kids spent a lot of time trailing after us to worship and other activities. The difference? We went to the Congregational church, and they went to Temple.

Our tightly woven friendship meant Amy’s kids had a place to exercise their curiosity about Christian holidays. Her daughter Shana made Sculpie ornaments for our tree. We baked Christmas cookies together annually, once constructed a hilariously disastrous gingerbread house.

My kids enjoyed their holidays, too, maybe even more. We ate in the Sukkah – an outdoor shelter constructed on their deck to celebrate Sukkoth. We shared matzoh during Passover and hamantaschen to celebrate Purim. We lit their menorah at Chanukah, and one year, I made the potato latkes at our house.

It wasn’t lost on me that the holidays they shared with us had a religious significance going back thousands of years, while the ones they wanted to experience at our house were mostly the secular aspects of Christmas. It made me sad that Christianity, in the eyes of non-Christian children, boiled down to the cultural components. And I’m not sure it was all that different for most Christian children.

Mezuzah - NL Year 2, Week 5 - Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:4-9
MezuzahNarrative Lectionary Year 2, Week 5 – Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:4-9

I admired not just the way the Tinkle family practiced their faith but also the traditions available to them. It was at their house I first saw a mezuzah hanging at an angle on the door frame — actually, on every door frame in their house. You might think, as I did at first, that the mezuzah is the decorative item hanging there, but it’s actually a small piece of parchment inscribed in part with some of the verses we just heard from Deuteronomy.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite 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 rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Rather than write them on the doorposts, the verses, on the mezuzah, are tucked inside the case to keep them safe, to mark them as a treasured word. The intention is to touch the case as you walk by, reminding yourself of the commandment Jesus described as the Greatest, although he elaborated just a little bit.

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Just like the Tinkle children, Jesus learned the Sh’ma, as it is called in Hebrew, when he was a young child.

Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

The name of the prayer alone reminds the hearer of the whole commandment:

  • Love God
  • Make sure your children know you love God
  • Make that love visible in the world
  • Make your life a testimony

Make your life a mezuzah – a visible reminder of the most important commandment: to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Make your love for God something other people can touch as a reminder.

The Israelites in Deuteronomy have almost reached the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments will not be the rules only while they are in the wilderness. When they settle into more permanent homes, God’s law will still matter.

They will still be called into a relationship with God: called to honor God, to avoid idolizing other people and things as gods, to respect God’s name, and to observe God’s sabbath with worship and rest from everyday tasks.

They will still be called into relationship with one another: called to respect their parents and their neighbors by observing boundaries of relationship and property, with a caution against being driven by envy.

This reframe of the Ten Commandments imagines a time when they will have resident aliens among them – immigrants and refugees who come from other places to live among them – and demands they be treated with respect, too.

The Sh’ma synthesizes – love God whole-heartedly. Out of love for God expressed in your life comes right treatment of your neighbor.

Make your life a mezuzah, so others can see and be reminded to love God.

Amy Tinkle was the friend who was always there for me, no matter the turns my life took. We met when I was 26 and she was 30. We spent long days together with our toddlers, and as years went by, drove each others’ children to activities and met for walks after they started school. She encouraged me in my seminary classes, and I listened to her practice the Hebrew scriptures when she studied for the bat mitzvah she never had as a young person.

We celebrated and commiserated as life’s occasions demanded.

At 35, I was living alone with my three children, separated from their father with a divorce underway. When we all came down with Hand, Foot and Mouth, no one got sicker than I did. I ran a fever that quite possibly qualified me as delirious. The children went off to safety with their father, and I was left alone in the house with two cats and a bottle of Advil. And a fever that did not get better.

I managed to call the doctor’s office, and the nurse said, “Oh, no! Don’t take Advil. You need Tylenol!”

She said this to a woman who couldn’t get off the couch to refresh her glass of water, much less drive to the CVS for a bottle of Tylenol.

I made another call, and then I fell into a fitful sleep. Some time later, I heard a familiar voice and saw a kind face and a bottle of Tylenol so big it lasted me for years.

“I got it with the arthritis lid, so it wouldn’t be hard to open,” said Amy.

Out of love for God expressed in your life comes right treatment of your neighbor.

We may not hang a mezuzah on the door frames of our houses, but we are no less called to live out the commandment given in Deuteronomy. Jesus named it and elaborated on it.

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The spirit of the Ten Commandments and the spirit of the Sh’ma apply to us today as we strive to be faithful followers of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We can make our lives a mezuzah. We can show our faith in a way that makes it real to others. We can do it by showing respect and care for our neighbors, whether they look like us or not, whether they grew up in the same neighborhood or came from far away, whether they worship God in a church, a synagogue or a mosque. We can show it in great acts of courage and in gestures so small we may forget we have made them because they come as second nature.

We can do it when we love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind and with all our strength.

Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

Deuteronomy, Ministry, Thinking Out Loud

Words from the Wise

(Thinking about Deuteronomy 18:15-20)

"The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from
among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet." (Deuteronomy 18:15)

How do you know who to listen to?

Okay, that's a bad sentence from a member of P.O.E.M.* Perhaps the question should be phrased thusly: "How do you know to whom to listen?"

Anyway, it's 2009. How do you know who to listen to?

I've just started watching the new season of "Big Love" on HBO, that salacious delight about suburban polygamy among none-too-believable FLDS beautiful people. The sect in which the lead male character grew up revolves around an aging prophet played by Harry Dean Stanton. In the midst of machinations and manipulations, he reigns over the compound, pronouncing prophecies and making matches and counseling couples, blessing those who wish to have more children and cannot conceive.

How do you know who to listen to? Who do you trust?

I'm not sure why I find this show so fascinating. Is it the interaction between the three wives? It's not their husband, whose attractive qualities escape me. "Our heavenly Father has a plan," he says, and he experiences various revelations that affect everyone else's lives but seem to me more like expressions of his desire.

So how do you know who to listen to?

I have certain ideas about the future of my ministry, just as I have certain ideas about what I hope for the church I'm serving and had for the other ones, too. Those ideas come from impulse and intuition and, I hope, inspiration.

"I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will
put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I
command." (Deuteronomy 18:18)

Being a prophet sounds scary. And yet I would like someone else to be one, for me, to let me know I'm on the right road, to let me know whether I have the right ideas.

"We're both trying to maintain a sacred life in the midst of a culture that has forgotten what is holy." Those are the words of Big Love's Bill to the Native American he hopes to partner with on, get this, a Mormon-friendly Casino on tribal land.

You can see how complicated this gets. I find the whole notion laughable, using a gambling resort to maintain what's holy, but I get what Bill is saying. I try to maintain something sacred, too, in my family. I try to be faithful to God. But the ways in which this faithfulness and this sacred trust ought to play out are not always immediately apparent.

How do *you* know who to listen to?

"Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I
myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in
my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak–that prophet shall
die." (Deuteronomy 18:19-20)

The stakes are high for prophets. God threatens the false ones, and people threaten the real ones. I wonder who will tell me what I need to know, but would I really listen?

*Professional Organization of English Majors


You Shall Not Cross Over There

MosesThen Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the
top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead
as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as
the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees
— as far as Zoar.

The LORD said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to
Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it
with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."

(Deuteronomy 34:1-4, NRSV, part of a reading for Proper 25)

The year I did Field Education, no one died. Well, a prominent merchant in the small town died, and my supervising pastor participated in an ecumenical service, but we had no deaths in the congregation. I never had the chance to see him get ready for a memorial service or a graveside service or a spring burial (common in this land of hard winter freezes). About four months after I began serving at Small Church, a parishioner asked me visit her stepfather in the hospital, and I began my first walk toward death in my role as pastor.

Over many visits in the hospital, I got to know her step-dad, married to her mom for many years. I learned how much he loved his golden retriever and how much it meant that the hospital allowed her to visit in the Special Care Unit, saw the devotion of his children and his step-children, heard stories of his romantic nature and the seriousness with which he took his retirement job as a school bus driver.

And it unfolded, over time, that having the children, all the children, at his bedside, would have been an unimaginable joy. There were eight of them, and the five from his first marriage had been estranged from him, while to his three step-children he was "Dad." They moved gingerly around each other at the hospital, and there was never a time that they all entered his room. But at the graveside service, on a muddy March morning, they stood together, all eight of them.

I wonder about Moses, 120 years old and in good health according to the scriptures, who heard this word from God and then died. He always had so many questions for God, so many needs and demands. Had he reached a place of understanding? Of calm? Of acceptance? Was the proof of God's glory more important than taking the next steps? Was the view enough?

You shall not cross over there. That's sad, isn't it? But now I am thinking of the first phrase in the sentence: I will let you see it with your eyes.

I like to think that, like Moses, the bus-driving dad and step-dad and dog-loving grandfather could see his promised land in the faces of all his children gathered under the tree on that early Spring day.