Eyewitness to Our Past

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

October 6, 2019

Deuteronomy 6:1-12


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 this morning is after the second telling of the 10 Commandments. The first account is in the Book of Exodus. We heard both accounts this summer. 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.

Deuteronomy was written to people who were not eyewitnesses to the Exodus with the intention of connecting them to that event. Hebrew scholar Robert Alter writes that “Deuteronomy is the most sustained deployment of rhetoric in the Bible”, meaning the entire book is told to persuade and convince people of their place in the story.

Even if they weren’t eyewitnesses then, they are now.

In chapter 5, 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.”

Not with our ancestors. But with us.

We do something similar when we make a claim about our nation that we want to be true for us today, and we connect it to what the Founders meant. There are all sorts of books out there, written to convince you that the founding fathers were either conservative evangelical Christians, or were secular humanists, that they were in favor of guns for all or were in favor of limits to gun ownerships.

There is a lot of rhetoric still being written, with the intention to connect us to the founding of our country to persuade our beliefs today.

On one level, it doesn’t really matter what our ancestors did one hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. We have to make the right faith and civic decisions for who we are today. On another level, we still are connected to the decisions our ancestors made. And if we aren’t aware of our history, and our connection to it, people can use it against us.

Many of us live in this country, or in this corner of our country, because our ancestors left Ireland, Germany, Korea, Iowa, Minnesota, or California to move here.
There were indigenous people living here before our ancestors came. The story they tell is different than the one we tell. Do we know their story? The Presbyterian Church has confessed our complicity in and repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery–are we telling that story?

Some people in our country had ancestors who were forced into the holds of slave ships, and came here against their will, to be treated like property. We like to say that slavery was a long time ago, but we’re only a few generations removed from it. And Jim Crow laws were in effect in my lifetime. If you haven’t seen the 1619 Project, it is worth your time. It’s a project that speaks about the experience of slaves in our country, and the way slavery and racism were written into the very fabric of our early nation.

Are we listening to the stories of black Americans today, to hear how slavery still impacts their lives in ways we couldn’t begin to understand?

Some of us, or our ancestors, inherited land or homes other ancestors were able to purchase, giving us a head start on the American dream. Some of us didn’t inherit any land or wealth. Some people in our country were not able to purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, because of the color of their skin, or because they practiced a different religion. Do you know the story of redlining?

The stories we tell about inheritance are going to be different, depending on the stories we are told and live. Did you grow up being told that America is a land of opportunity, and anyone can succeed, if they work hard enough? That’s what I heard. And it never occurred to me there might be other stories being told, by other people, with different experiences.

We come from a particular tradition, each from particular families and faith traditions. These stories shape us, whether we are aware of the way they shape us or not.

This re-telling of the Exodus story in Deuteronomy is inviting the Hebrew people, descendants of the Exodus, to claim and own their story. It invites people to examine their past, and to claim a particular story about it. It invites us to join the cast of eyewitnesses across history too.

The verses at the start of today’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 our God, the Lord is one.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your being, and with all your might.

It continues:
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.

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, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

The author of Deuteronomy is asking us to rehearse our stories, to tell our stories to each other, both so we will know them better and so the next generation will know them. 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?

Are they stories that address the whole of our past, acknowledging the sins as well as the successes of our ancestors, so we can do what we can to right the wrongs today?

A new album by the Avett Brothers came out this week, and one of the songs is We Americans. And it speaks to this challenge of knowing our past so we can build a better future. It’s what the author wanted for the Hebrew people as they came out of exile too.

In the song they sing :
….Accountability is hard to impose
On ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience
But the path of grace and goodwill is still here
For those of us who may be considered among the living

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. Communion is another place where we are called to remember an event we weren’t eyewitness to, but which we need to witness again, and again. In communion, God’s love broke all the limits and set a Table big enough for all of us to feast together.

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


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