“Parting Words” February 12/17

Parting Words

Deuteronomy 30:11 – 20

Matthew 5:21-26

Chilmark Community Church

February 12, 2017

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

We are starting out in the Book of Deuteronomy this morning. It is the 5th and final book of Torah in the Jewish tradition. Biblical tradition considers the entire book to be written from Moses’ perspective as a farewell address to the Israelites. Moses is nearing the end of his life and he is doing what modern hospice work encourages people to do as they approach their death – he does a “life review” – – he goes back in time and looks again at all the events that have transpired since he led the people out of slavery in Egypt into a 40 year trek with God in the wilderness. His parting words to the people recapitulate all the events and struggles and encounters with God that the people experienced from the time they left Egypt until they reached the mountains overlooking the Jordan River – the last river to cross before entering the land of Canaan. Moses already knows that he will not cross the Jordan with them. In his final address he exhorts them, blesses them, encourages them, warns them, teaches them and reminds them. He reminds them of the overwhelming events at Mt. Sinai when the law that would govern them was given to them in the midst of fire and thunder. He reminds them of the first time they broke God’s law – – of their transgression and the lack of faith that led to the creating of a Golden Calf that they could worship in place of an invisible God. He reminds them of how God provided water and manna for them in the wilderness so they would not die of hunger and thirst. He reminds them of all the complaining they did – wishing to be back in Egypt where things were bad, but at least they were predictable. Over and over again Moses calls Israel to remember the system of law that sustained them and that would continue to sustain them and keep them functioning as a cohesive people as they faced the challenges of the future. Over and over again, his final words to the people are that they must keep the law ever before them – – that being mindful of what God commands will allow them to live full and abundant lives – and he warns of the dire consequences if they forget or abandon the law.

Close to the end point of the story in this 30th chapter of Deuteronomy we hear Moses saying to the people: Surely, all that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us that we may hear and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:11 – 14)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the following anecdote:

When I was a student at university in the late 1960s – the era of student protests, psychedelic drugs, and the Beatles meditating with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – a story went the rounds. An American Jewish woman in her sixties travelled to north India to see a celebrated guru. There were huge crowds waiting to see the holy man, but she pushed through, saying that she needed to see him urgently. Eventually, after weaving through the swaying throng, she entered the tent and stood in the presence of the master himself. What she said that day has entered the realm of legend. She said, “Marvin, listen to your mother. Enough already. Come home.”1

We are living in a time when we are watching the mainline churches decline in membership. Even though there are large and thriving congregations spotted here and there around the country, the trend is toward smaller and aging congregations who wonder what their future will be. There are innumerable reasons for this. Some point to the overarching reality that we live in a secular culture and that secular values supercede religious values. Others point to the notion that the church is no longer relevant for the times in which we live. Still others find that religion as they have experienced it or as they have inherited it does not meet their spiritual yearnings. This last group may identify as “spiritual but not religious” – – a whole population searching for spiritual meaning and not finding it in the structures of “organized religion.”

I wonder if Moses was anticipating the same kinds of concerns and searching on the part of Israel as they sat at the borders of Canaan – not knowing what they would encounter as they crossed the Jordan River – – the challenges of coping with a culture that was strange to them – – figuring out how to maintain their sense of unity and identity in the midst of their own tribal factions – – encountering other attractive religious options that would lead away from the covenant they were called to fulfill. I wonder if Moses had concerns about relevancy and secularism and spiritual seeking that might lead the people away from the dynamic relationship they had known with the elusive and invisible Presence that accompanied them during their wilderness years.

Like Marvin’s mom, Moses seems to be challenging Israel to look close to home to maintain their integrity as the people of God – – reminding them that the strength they need is not in the heavens or across some enticing sea – but rather is already in their hearts and in their mouths – – ready to be appropriated for their life as they move forward. They have lived for 40 years with the guidance of this God through the commandments that have given shape and structure to their lives – – a holy law that morphed them from a rag tag group of escaping slaves into an organized society whose life in community was based not on revenge and violence and killing, but on the rule of law.

In his parting words, Moses reminds the people of the laws under which they have lived. Laws about honoring the elders – the mothers and fathers; keeping the sabbath; not creating idols to worship; not taking what does not belong to you; laws about not lying or being dishonest in business; not stripping a field or a vineyard bare and leaving part of the crop behind for the poor; laws about not withholding wages from the poor; about paying a person a living wage; laws about not going around as a slanderer among the people; not rendering unjust judgments; not being partial to either the poor or the rich when making a judgment; adhering to one law for all – whether a citizen or a stranger within your gates. These are just a sampling of the law from the scriptures for living in covenant with God and with one another. Surely, this commandment that has been given to us is not too hard for us, nor is it too far away – – nor is it irrelevant. In truth, the commands challenge us to live in the highest spiritual commitment possible.

Matthew’s Jesus reinforces the law – – drives it even deeper into our hearts. HIs words are not easy to embrace at every moment. He says , in effect “Never mind about murder – most of you would never do that- your challenge is to keep from being angry with one another. Your challenge is not to shame one another by diminishing one another in any way. For Jesus, these are as serious an infringement of the law as is murder. Jesus brings the law directly into our human relationships – – so much so that he teaches that the worship of God can only be authentic if we come to worship and prayer having done the work of reconciliation with our neighbors, our family and our friends.

Near the end of his long review of Israel’s history in the wilderness, Moses refers to all that he has reminded them about. And referring to all that history, all that journeying, all that commitment on the part of God to the people, Moses says: See! I have set before you today [the possibility] of life and prosperity [and the possibility of] death and adversity……If you choose to enter the land and to live by the commands I have given you – you shall live and become numerous – – I will bless you…..but if you turn away….don’t listen……follow other gods….you will perish. There are logical consequences to be endured when the choice is made to turn away from the gift of order that makes life worth living. Sometimes those consequences can feel like a death is happening.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live – loving God – living in harmony with the wisdom that is set before you.

Our ability to choose life and blessing is challenged in some way every day. But the commands for life are not far from us. We don’t have to go searching all over for what we need in order to live with care in this world. Whether we struggle with secularism, or irrelevance, or we search for meaning beyond what the organizational structure of a church can give, we can always listen to Marvin’s mom. We can always “come home” to the original blueprint for life in community and in covenant with each other and with God. It is not far from us – – it is in our mouths and in our hearts – we live with it everyday. To trust it or not – to own it or not – to live it or not – – that’s our choice. Moses parting words to Israel on the eve of his own death are poignant and powerful They come from the mouth of one who has made a choice for life at every bend in the road. We might hear him saying one last time to this difficult people with whom he has lived and traveled for 40 years: My dear children – – Choose life so that you and your children may truly live.

Jesus said: “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Elsewhere he says: I am the resurrection and the life…” From the very beginning of the great saga of God’s journeying with us, abundant Life in relationship with God is what matters. Both Moses and Jesus whisper to us down through the ages to stay grounded and centered in the law of God who makes the Divine Presence known through prophets like Moses and in the Person of Jesus – – Today – they may even be shouting to us across eternity: Dear children of God – – Choose Life! So that you and your children may live.

1 “Not in Heaven” teaching on Deuteronomy 30:11-14