This week we’re continuing a series we started last Sunday; for the next several weeks we are following the lead of our children as we worship; specifically, the Scriptures they are learning in their Sunday School curriculum are the same ones we’re studying in worship. The month of September is dedicated to Christ’s invitation to “Follow Me,” and this week’s focus is what it means to follow, not just as an individual, but as part of a community who follow together. Our culture, and the way it tends to talk about faith, often treats faith as an individual matter; but the roots of our faith indicate that it has always been meant to a journey we share together. As it has been said: “If you think you are privately saved or enlightened, you are probably neither saved nor enlightened.” So today we are talking about following Christ together.
The first reading comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, and I’m really glad for that because while Deuteronomy may not be the most familiar book of the Bible for many of us, this passage is absolutely fundamental to the Jewish tradition, the tradition Jesus claimed as his own; the tradition we inherited from another that came before us. Most Sunday School children learn that one day Jesus is asked, “What is the Greatest Commandment?” and he answers, “Love God and Love your neighbor.” But today, our Sunday School children are learning where that lesson came from: Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy means “second law,” It tells the story of Moses and the Hebrews after the Exodus from Egypt. After they cross the Red Sea, the Hebrews wander in the wilderness for 40 years in search of the Promised Land. The Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt for so long, and are so impossibly tethered to that enslaved way of life, that they need a sort of buffer between their former life in order to embrace the freedom God wants for them. It’s kind of like being in an abusive relationship that you know you need to escape but you just keep on going back. So they will wander in the wilderness for 40 years trying to forget slavery; the generation that left Egypt will pass away, and a new generation will be born and inherit the Promised Land. It is an expansive example of the often talked about idea that we want a better life for our children.
The core message of the story of Deuteronomy is how God’s way of life—God’s law, God’s way of freedom and not slavery—gets passed on from the first generation to the next. The summary of that message is this morning’s reading: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” These words that are foundational to Jewish life. The words are a mantra, meant to be carried with God’s people everyplace they go in life. So the next words of the scripture are just as important as the command itself: “Keep these words 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 upon your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
This idea of carrying the mantra with you everywhere you go is embedded in Jewish life and reinforced in the Law in countless ways—none of which are that big a deal all on their own, but collectively, they can shape a life of faith. Many of you, I am sure, have visited the home of a Jewish friend who has kept this commandment by affixing a small Torah scroll to the doorpost of their home; perhaps you’ve seen them touch it with their hand as they enter or leave the home. It’s a reminder of God’s presence, and that it is foundational to life, and follows them everywhere they go. And all the practices of Jewish life, from teaching children the stories in Hebrew School to Shabbat dinners on Friday and Seder’s at Passover are ways of keeping the mantra present and teaching it to the next generation.
Christians do many of the same things, which is an important reminder, because we lose sight of the power of our own familiar traditions, but our routine traditions are important too. What are the ways God is present and obvious in life you live, and the words you say to the people around you? Do you read Bible stories to your children at night, or say a blessing when you sit down at the dinner table? Are those same traditions observed at family gatherings and grandparents’ houses? Are there comments made in your home, like rising in the morning and asking out loud, “I wonder what blessings God has in store for us today?” “Son, do you realize how blessed we are that God has given us this full refrigerator and a roof over our head?” Do you invite and remind your family to pray for victims of the earthquake in Morocco and the floods in Libya, and that car accident we just passed on the road.” Is the Bible visible in your home; do you open and read it; do your children or grandchildren know that you meet with other Christians for study or prayer or service, to mourn at funerals and celebrate at weddings and baptisms? None of these things are monumental tasks on their own, and each of us must engage in our own ways; but do not miss the power of the collective whole: taken together, these are the kind of practices that shape a Christian life; they are the ways that by repetition and ritual we teach our children and write on our doorposts what we believe.
The New Testament passage adds an important dimension to how we think about carrying God’s Word with us through the day. In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds his followers that we are not all alike! There are countless different ways to follow Jesus, and that we each do it differently depending on the gifts and skills with which we’ve been blessed. Paul uses the language that in a Christian community, some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers…and then goes on to say that the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Its easy to dismiss this as archaic Bible talk that has little to do with many of us, but what Paul is saying here is that every one of us is gifted with a distinctive life and a set of gifts that can be expressive of God’s love in the world:
So some of us connect with God’s love most readily through sharing the gifts of music, while others find it in communing with and caring for nature. Some of you find that the academic study of the Bible helps you grow in faith, and others grow when they are out beyond the walls of this place serving the poor or working for systemic social change. Some of you grow in your own faith by sharing it with someone else and inviting them to church; others by participating in care and grief ministries, as you help one another navigate pain and loss in life. As Paul said: apostles—were sent out to serve; prophets—worked to change the systems and structures that harmed the vulnerable; evangelists—brought new people to the church; pastors cared for those who were struggling; teachers—passed on the traditions of worship and music. These are the things Paul was talking about. Every one of us has a gift, he says. You don’t have to have all the gifts; but you’d each better get busy using yours.
Additionally, I love Paul’s use of the word ligaments as he talks about how the body of Christ is tied together. The word “religion” may conjure up for many of us a series of strict laws or rituals, but the word itself is different than that. The Latin root ‘religio’ is like a re-ligament, or re-connection of us… with God, with one another, and with the world God has made. The church of the Ephesians was a diverse community; Ephesus was an active port with people from all over the region; and through that word “ligament,” Paul says they are to be about building up the whole body—we’re here altogether, trying to grow in faith in a way that none of us can do all on our own. None of us is likely to have all of the gifts this community needs; all of us brings something. And none of us can do it alone.
I hear other parents talk a lot at school and on the sidelines, about the importance of team sports in shaping young lives. When kids play soccer or basketball, even swimming or cross country, they learn about the importance of every teammate in working for a win, they learn to encourage one another, and are corrected when they blame someone else for a loss. Music and theatre and plenty of other disciplines teach our young people the same lessons. But sometimes, in our individualistic, spiritual-but-not-religious, “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior” world, we forget that church is supposed to work the same way. Here we celebrate all kinds of gifts, and accept all kinds of imperfections, and learn to be gracious toward one another because Christ has been gracious and accepting toward us.
Last week, I spent a good amount of the sermon treating the children’s lesson as a simple one, and then layering it with the more challenging questions often asked by adults. This week’s adult challenge is different. I think the lessons we hope to teach our children are frequently forgotten among adults. Whether the model is sports, or orchestra, or church; whether we’re talking about encouragement, or varieties of gifts, or the importance of saying thank you—these things are often forgotten by adults—I am as guilty as anyone. And maybe the only way to get better is by practice—all the time and everyday—which is the point of the Deuteronomy lesson. You have to give yourself little reminders everywhere you go and all the time to love God and love your neighbor. You have to write those words on the doorposts of your house, or on your refrigerator or your bathroom mirror or as a reminder from your cell phone calendar. You have to teach them to your children at sunrise and at meals and at bedtime, invoking the name of God every chance you get. We have to do these things not just as a lesson for our children but as reminders for ourselves. You have to talk about them with each other at home and at church and as you learn and study and serve together. You have to find ways, all kinds of little ways, ways that fit your life and your particular gifts, and also ways that challenge you, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind. This is the task for both children and adults. Love the Lord your God. Keep these words in your heart. Recite them and talk about them to your children. Write them on the doorposts of your life. Amen.