Bind Them As a Sign

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

October 10, 2015

Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:4-9

Here’s the video we used to open worship.

Last week, we heard of Moses’ being claimed by God and called by God to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.
And he does. The Hebrew people then have some wandering to do. They spend 40 years in the wilderness, learning to trust in God’s promise and to believe the God who has already delivered them once will continue to deliver them.

The story we heard tonight is the second telling of the 10 Commandments. The first account is in the Book of Exodus. This account presumes you’ve already heard the first account. Deuteronomy is told from the perspective of Moses, a memoir, as it were. Although in Deuteronomy, Moses also describes his own death and burial, so consider it a literary device.

Here, Moses tells the people:

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.”

And then he re-tells the 10 commandments.

This is a reflective, at the end of a particular journey, kind of telling. “Remember that time when….” And not just the “remember when we ran out of gas and had to hitchhike into Jackpot” kind of story.

It is a foundational remembering. Like when I was a little girl and asked where I came from and my parents would get out the adoption paperwork when and tell me, “Remember when we told you that we were praying to God for a baby and then we got a call that you had been born and we went to pick you up on a cold day in December after 5 feet of snow had fallen? That’s how you became a part of our family. God gave you to our family.

That is the story that has, more than any other, shaped my life. I’ve always known of God’s provision and care in my life through the act of adoption. God has never seemed an abstract concept to me. God’s care was real and tangible.

This is what the author of Deuteronomy is doing here. Sitting around a campfire with the other people who were the children of the Exodus, and reminding them of their foundational story, the one that mattered so much they couldn’t afford to see it as only History. They had to know it, to see it, to absorb it, to make it their story, not just the story of their ancestors.

The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.

Not with our ancestors. But with us.

Our faith is like that too. Whatever God and our ancestors did was great, I’m sure. But what matters now is what God does with us.

Isn’t that always the tension in which we live?

We come from a particular tradition, each from particular families and faith traditions. They shape us. We are inheritors of so much.

And until it becomes ours, it is just a story, it is just information about the past.

What marks you? What events in your life define who you are on a foundational level?

Is it the story of how your family settled in Boise during the Depression as you fled the dust bowl? Is it the story of how your family overcame a disease or tragedy? Is it the story about how your grandmother taught you the traditions of her home country, connecting you to a land you’ve never visited?

This re-telling of the 10 Commandments is inviting the Hebrew people, descendants of the Exodus, to claim and own their story.

The verses at the end of tonight’s reading are called the “Shema”. In Judaism, the first word of the passage is “shema”, meaning “hear”. It is the central prayer in Jewish prayer life, often recited both at the beginning and the end of the day. It is said to be the prayer on your lips as you die.

Hear it in English:
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. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

And here it is in my amateur Hebrew:
Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed. V’ahav’ta eit Adonai Elohekha b’khol l’vav’kha uv’khol naf’sh’kha uv’khol m’odekha.

In English, it continues:
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. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

And this image of binding these words of promise to your body suggests these instructions are more than just intellectual ideas. They physically mark and claim us.

This man is wearing tefilin, leather straps which have verses of the Torah enclosed in the box that is on his forehead. Tefilin are laid on during morning and evening prayer.

A literal reminder of:
Bind them as a sign on your hand. Fix them as an emblem on your forehead.

Leviticus 19:28 has a prohibition against tattoos, so they weren’t thinking of tattoos when they wrote those verses in Deuteronomy. But I thought of tattoos when I read them and think of fixing emblems on your foreheads.
And I guess this particular tattoo must be ironic?

leviticus tattoo
Tattoos seem to be one way people make permanent marks on their bodies today. I have friends whose son died in a car accident 11 years ago. The father got a tattoo after his son’s death. He said he had been permanently marked by the death. A tattoo was a reminder to him that he was forever different because of what they had been through. He would never be who he was before his son died. He would always be marked by this.

I have another friend who has a tattoo on his ring finger where his wedding ring would be. He said you can take off a ring. You can’t take off a tattoo as easily.

A woman here in Boise, Amy Pence-Brown, recently stood blindfolded in the middle of the Boise farmer’s market with a sign inviting people to write on her body. The sign read “I’m standing for anyone who has struggled with a self esteem issue like me, because all bodies are valuable. To support self-acceptance, draw a heart on my body.”

Photo by Melanie Flitton Folwell.

Photo by Melanie Flitton Folwell.

The video she and my friend Melanie Folwell made has been viewed over 100 million times. And it is beautiful. People drew hearts on her and wrote messages of encouragement. A few people gave her a hug.

She said she has started drawing small hearts on her kid’s bodies each day. She says something to them while they eat their cheerios, something like “I believe in you” or “you are valuable”, “when you make a mistake you are still beautiful”. “trust your instincts”, etc.
She wrote that it is “something for them to look at while they are away from me, growing and leaning in to their own separate worlds from mine, and remember that they are good and strong and there is no wrong way to have a body.”

She said her children have started returning the gesture, drawing hearts on Amy and on her husband.

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 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. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The author of Deuteronomy is asking us to do what my friend does with her family. It doesn’t have to be with sharpies or tattoos. It doesn’t have to be tefilin or prayer shawls. We are called, however, to take these words into our very selves so that we are changed by them.

These words that God is commanding us today, keep them in your hearts, recite them to your children, and bind them as a sign.

Often, in American Christianity, people seem to very publicly bind signs and symbols of their faith in ways that we can’t help but see. For many of us, for many years, I think, we’ve been afraid to be associated with that more bombastic expression of faith. And so we have erased any signs of our faith from our public life. We haven’t recited God’s stories to our children. If we’ve kept them in our hearts, it has been done very privately.

I  understand that tendency. We want to leave room for people to have different experiences with God than we have had. We want people to know of God’s love, but that phrase is too often used as an excuse for discrimination or exclusion, and so we don’t know what to say to our children or to anyone else.

The challenge in this text for me is that if we cede the message of God’s love, the stories of our ancestors, to others, then that is all people will know of God. And if the stories we’re binding to our lives don’t include the story of God’s deliverance and love, then we’re binding something else, some other story, to our lives.

What words are we binding as a sign on our hands, and fixing as emblems on our foreheads?
Are they words of life and love and blessing, encouraging people to live more wholly?

We will be coming forward for communion in a few minutes, where we remember the ultimate illustration of God’s love bound to a human body. You are invited, as you return to your seat, to stop at one of the tables and bind God’s love to you. There are ribbons and leather strips if you want to tie one around your wrist or ankle. There are markers if you want to put an emblem on your own body or if people want to, with permission, write on each other’s bodies.

These words that God gives us today, keep them in your hearts, recite them to your children, and bind them as a sign.

10 thoughts on “Bind Them As a Sign

  1. Pingback: » Bind Them As a Sign

      • This question of ‘as to our ancestors, so to us’ is really a fundamental theme of Judaism — it shows up in the Passover Haggadah as well — the idea that we are supposed to think of the Exodus as having happened to us as well, not just to our ancestors — and in the idea that every piece of Torah that has been or will be revealed, both written and oral, was already given at Sinai. So much of Judaism is story and this sermon really picks up on that.

        Liked by 2 people

      • You’ll have another opportunity when your lectionary rolls over, no? 🙂

        I would find it hard to preach on the 10 Commandments, for various reasons, not least the familiarity of the audience with them.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s true. I’ve been wondering a lot lately (in the wake of Ashley Madison) about why people preach “thou shalt not commit adultery” and then engage in it anyway (or take steps in that direction). I think one reason is that the concept is too big and people learn it too young to internalize it meaningfully. I memorized that when I was five and the catechism explanation when I was seven — so I’d say, well, of course, I won’t commit adultery! It wasn’t an operative problem. Then later when you’re actually confronted with the problem of temptation toward infidelity, somehow it seems like a separate category. What I’m doing or want to do isn’t THAT, it’s some other, less horrible, thing.

        But then again, there are places where learning the Commandments with the Catechism has really influenced how I see the world — I’m thinking of “Thou shalt not bear false witness”. (I’m not claiming I’m blameless, just noting that this is one that has really stuck with me over the years. Maybe because tattling is a problem every six year old can identify with?)

        Still, the very fact of their “idol” quality makes it harder to say anything meaningful.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful! I spent the whole sermon on 5:2-3 (not with our ancestors/ fathers, but with us). I had new members and a baptism, so that seemed appropriate.

    This is truly lovely. I was so moved by the story of Amy Pence-Brown. WOW. That’s a message for Coming Out Day!

    Liked by 2 people

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