19 February 2017
UCC La Jolla – The Rev. Bear Ride
We’re closing in on the final weeks of the Season of the Epiphany – our time in the Church year in which we give special attention to the appearance or manifestation of Jesus … and specifically to his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. So — as we move on through this season towards the next – the Season of Lent – why now does our lectionary take a detour to … Moses?
An excellent question! Moses was the father of the Law which established the manner of life of the Hebrew people. Jesus reflected on this (his own heritage) by saying: “behold! I have come NOT to abolish the law and the prophets, but rather to fulfill them.” We’ve woven the prophets in and out of the cloth of Jesus’ teachings from the mount, so that part makes sense. But … the Law?
Moses. We know Moses. His story has been used even throughout American history at nearly every defining moment we’ve had – from the time of the colonies through today. In his book “Moses and the American Story”
Bruce Feiler says of Moses’ story that it’s a “universal story that transcends time.” He says, “Republicans use it, Democrats use it, Communists and capitalists use it, Jews and Christians use it.” The story of Moses is “the story of freedom
defined and redefined.” For us, our march out of the wilderness towards a more perfect union has taken us through the revolution, the battle to end slavery, the long-lasting march for civil rights, the freedom to vote and the freedom to marry. So many of the advances we as a nation have made over the centuries have come – not from philosophical principles – but rather from the ancient story of “a people delivered by God from bondage to freedom.”
So much so, that on July 4, 1776 “immediately after passing the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress asked Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to design a seal for the new United States. Six weeks later they made their recommendation: Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea.”
Harriet Tubman – the most widely recognized symbol of the Underground Railroad – was nicknamed “Moses.” As she ferried people from slavery to freedom, she mused, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the courage, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Words fit for the lips of the “original” Moses, if you ask me.
So, yes. Moses Matters. Even to us today, in 2017, La Jolla, California, Moses Matters.
This morning’s text from the OT Book of Deuteronomy is a portion of the last sermon that Moses preached. He knew he was about to die. And his farewell address to his fellow pilgrims is 30 chapters long. It’s safe to say that Moses got the last word. He reminded his flock what they have been through: slavery in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, receiving the 10 commandments, wandering in the wilderness. Then, on the very edge of the promised land, Moses made his final pitch: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days…”
THAT means Life to you!
What means life to you? …loving God, obeying God, and holding fast to God. Loving, obeying, hanging in.
Obedience means more than doing what you’re told. The word “obedience” springs from the word that also means “to listen.” It implies a discernment which involves the mind, the heart and the will. Moses said: “listen with all your heart” – listen with your inner self and then live out the word that you hear. And by doing so, he says, you choose Life.
Now remember, this farewell address of Moses takes up 30 chapters in the book of Deuteronomy. His appeal to “Choose Life” comes towards the end of this very, very long sermon. Earlier in that same sermon, Moses gave the where’s and whatfor’s involved in choosing life, so that his people wouldn’t be left there on the edge of the Promised Land with words draped in mystery. Just a few of these choosing life precepts which are part what has come to be known as the Mosaic Law are as follows:
Push government to guard against excessive wealth (16:18-20)
Pay employees fairly (24:14-15)
Leave part of your harvest for those who need it (24:19-22)
Limit punishment to protect human dignity (19:1-7)
Cancel the debts of the poor (15:1-11)
Offer hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15-16)
Keep these commandments and more, said Moses, and you will live, joyfully, and blessed by God.
Walter Bruggemann writes of those who are “joyful people of integrity,” pointing us to the book of Psalms for a glimpse of how “to populate our world with the character of God.” Where God governs, “the world is transformed and transformable. It becomes a place of joy and duty – of joyous duty – a place of buoyancy and risk. Even so,” he says, “some still itch” – like people of old, to live in a joyless world…”
The Common Lectionary which appoints the scripture lessons of the day – used by churches all around the world – assigned the first eight verses of Psalm 119 to partner with Moses’ farewell sermon. Psalm 119 is massive. It’s the longest chapter in the Bible. Our choir joked that if they sang the entire Psalm as this morning’s anthem, we would have no need for a sermon.
There are 176 verses in this Psalm 119 – and it basically says the same thing over and over and over again with only slight modifications throughout. And it goes like this: “O God, how I love your law.” If you read the entire Psalm, you’ll note that there’s not a word about the content of the law. It just goes on and on about how wonderful the law is, but never tells us what the law is. If this was the only chapter in the Bible, we wouldn’t be able to reconstruct one of the 10 commandments, let alone the remaining 600 or so that make up the entire law.
So where does this leave us? Simply this: the Psalm is an attitude adjustment, an ecstatic song sung by a lover; it is not a content dump. It brings to mind the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah – which is the celebration of the giving of the law – where worshippers take turns dancing with the Torah. They delight in it.
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD.
Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart…
In other words, blessed are those who choose life.
It’s a gift and a blessing to make choices. Much of the stuff of living is not open to choices we are able to make. We had no say over where we were born, or to whom, or under what circumstances. It is not up to us to decide if our hearts will continue to beat in the next hour, day, week or year. And when we try to make choices for others, more often than not, we find that it is simply not our prerogative.
But we do have to decide for ourselves whether our lives belong to the One whose offer is life. To choose death is to choose not just an evil way, but also a way of aimlessness, giving ourselves over to that which simply doesn’t matter or isn’t helpful. But, with Moses, with Jesus, with Sojourner Truth and all the saints and friends of the saints, we know that to choose life is to choose to love God with singleness of heart, mind, soul and strength, to care for the hurting, treat others fairly, share food with the hungry, fight for justice. “And the simple things too: laugh often, cry when it’s time, be patient with the imperfections of others and with your own, quit doing what isn’t worth your time, forgive someone, even if they don’t deserve it, have patience. Stop having patience when it’s time to tell the truth. Figure out what you hope for and live with that hope. Pray genuinely. Believe God loves you. See Jesus in the people around you. Delight in God’s good gifts. Choose life” (Feasting on the Word p 343)
There are times I regret that we can’t open up the Bible again to make additions to it (and perhaps some deletions as well, but that’s for a different sermon). I’d add the words of Harriet Tubman, the Moses of a different day. She saw the blessing of the unchangeable law of God’s unconditional love as a law to write on her own heart, a law that bound her conscience, a law that gave her courage, the law that was (and is) in itself, the ultimate freedom. Sadly, we can’t add her words to the Bible, but we can at least end this sermon with her wise words on the choice of life:
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the courage, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” May it be so. Amen.
—©2017 The Rev. Dr. Bear Ride
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of God.
Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong, but walk in the divine way.
You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances.
I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that God swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac, and to Jacob.