Weekly Preaching: October 25, 2020

October 21st, 2020

Three years ago, I commented at length on the marvelous Deuteronomy 34:1-12, with help from Martin Luther King Jr., Franz Kafka, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Reinhold Niebuhr. You’ll find plenty there, although now I would add what I’ve read recently from a pair of rabbis.

First this, from David Wolpe, in his wonderful The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God: “Moses fasted, put on sackcloth, drew a small circle, refused to move until decree reversed. ‘Master of the universe, you know how hard I strived to teach the people your words and will. I journeyed with them. They are to enter the land without me?’ God answered, ‘The time of your death has come.’ Moses continued to pray, ‘Master of the universe, remember the day you called me from the burning bush. Remember the days and nights we were together. Do not now hand me over to death.’ God calmed Moses’ fears saying ‘Do not be afraid. The time comes to all mortals to die. I myself will attend to your burial.’ Upon hearing these words, Moses stood up, and sanctified himself. God came down from the very heights of heaven to take away the soul of Moses. And God took away the soul of his servant Moses with a kiss. And God wept.”

I’ve used this at a couple of funerals. It also picks up on some themes Jonathan Sacks explores. Focused not on Moses’ death as punishment, but on the fact that he’s simply mortal — and what that means for all of us: “For each of us there is a Jordan we will not cross, a journey we will not finish, a paradise we will not reach this side of the grave.” Moses is human, and shows us how to be human. Here’s the mission for us humans — in Sacks’s reflection on that Moses’ “eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated.” These aren’t just two things. The first explains the second. Why was his strength unabated? “Because his eyes were undimmed — because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, right, the good and the holy.”

“No one knows his burial place” isn’t a clue that God swooped him up into heaven, but rather that God didn’t want this great one’s grave to be a place of pilgrimage. Moses was no demigod. He shows us how to be human. His leadership has, in many ways, been one failure after another: the recalcitrance of the people, Moses’ own bitterness and fatigue. Sacks asks “Can a life of failures be a success? In worldly terms, no. In spiritual terms, emphatically yes.” I need to ponder this.

And finally: how odd that the entire Pentateuch ends with a death, a not-yet-ness. A good story should have a happier, more complete ending. But for Israel, there’s always this sense that we’re not there yet. We’re always on the brink. “Judaism is the only civilization to have set its golden age not in the past but in the future.” I wonder if Sacks might agree with me that Christianity shares in this not-yet-ness.

I like to think of one text each week as one for me. Not to preach on, but to speak to me as a preacher. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 stirs me to courage, and resilience. Verse 7: Paul says “We were gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her children.” Do I love my people in this way? Verse 5: Paul never used “flattering words.” Do I seek flattery? Do I flatter them? Aristotle said the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. Notice how tender is Paul’s affection! Verse 8’s “You are dear to us” is translated by Abraham Malherbe as “We have come to love you.” I come to my people to love them, always and particularly in preaching.

Matthew 22:34-46. How lovely that Jesus cut to the heart of the Torah by lifting up the two love verses from Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 6! Not that the others don’t matter. Rather, all of God’s will, everything God has ever said (or will ever say) to us is Love. God created because of love. Ours is to love – to love God, others. Pastors need to talk about love all the time. We love our people. We tell them they love God with us (aspirational, maybe).

Our church did a whole series on these twin commandments that are really one, for love of neighbor is love of God since neighbor is the image of God. People dig saying “God is in control.” But love doesn’t control. How risky of God, to love and crave our love in return. I picture God singing along with Bonnie Raitt when she unintentionally spoke for God: "I can't make you love me." Or in the Don Schlitz country song, when the man asks his Lord "How much do I owe you for giving me this day, and every day that's gone before? Shall I build a temple? Make a sacrifice? Tell me Lord, and I will pay the price" - and the Lord said, "I won't take less than your love."

Sure, love gets watered down, trivialized and twisted inside out. But knowing it’s misconceived means there’s a real thing, and it matters. Jesus fingers Deuteronomy 6, the Shema, recited twice daily by Jews. Call a rabbi friend — or make a rabbi into a friend by calling and asking, Tell me about Deuteronomy 6.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, always insightful, explores that this Shema means "Hear" — with the surprising revelation that "there is no verb in biblical Hebrew that means to obey," all the more surprising since there are hundreds of commandments. Instead, Israel (including Jesus and his friends) is to "hear," which means to listen, to pay focused attention, to understand, to internalise, to reflect on its meaning, and to respond in action. Israel's is not a faith that values blind, unthinking, unquestioning obedience. We hear, we ask questions, we wrestle, it goes deep within.

Heart, soul, mind, strength. These aren’t four distinct things. God is just pivoting around you, asking you to love God with every fiber of your being, not casually, not when it’s convenient, or just when there’s trouble. To be sure they understood God wishes to be loved all day long, every day, in everything, Moses added “Talk of these words when you sit in your house, when you’re walking around, when you lie down and when you wake up. Bind them on your hand, and as frontlets between your eyes. You may have seen pious Jews with a little black box on the forehead, or straps on the wrists. Talk about taking the Bible literally! 

“Write them on the doorposts of your house.” On the doorjamb of Jewish homes you’ll find a mezuzah, a little container with a tiny scroll of Scripture, looking something like a doorbell. (Christians too, can have them! I have one at home and also one on my office door, just one more little reminder...).

They are taking literally what Moses intended — and what I find I need to stand any chance of being godly. I stick little cards and hang tags all over my world, in the shower, in my desk drawer, on the dashboard, to remind me to love and think about and ponder God throughout my day. 

My book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is an attempt to help us Christians think about how to think about our love for the Lord all the time. A challenge for me: I should attach something to my head, I think. If I hear myself thinking You shall love the Lord over and over, I actually shall love the Lord.

If you recall falling in love: love is reckless, love doesn’t count the cost or the passing of time. Love loves with every fiber of our being. Deuteronomy 6:4 says we are to love God with heart, soul and strength. Jesus added a fourth: mind. If he’d lived longer he might have added a fifth, sixth and seventh. How do we love God? Let us count the ways.

A couple of useful “love” quotes. Mystics can guide us into this love for God. I greatly admire Thérèse of Lisieux, whose short life was all about intimacy with Jesus:

Ah, how sweet was that first kiss of Jesus! 

It was a kiss of love, I felt that I was loved,

and I said: ‘I love you, and I give myself to you forever!’ 

My heaven is to smile at this God I adore.

To die of love is what I hope for,

on fire with his love I want to be,

to see him, be one with him forever,

that is my heaven – that’s my destiny:

by love to live.

Thomas Merton, always helpful, prayed, “Let this be my consolation, that wherever I am, you are loved.” And speaking of prayer — which is love! — Madeleine L’Engle, over a long weekend waiting on biopsy results for her husband, kept praying “Don’t let it be cancer.” Some friend told her, “You can’t pray that; it already is or isn’t cancer.” Her thoughts on this? “I can’t live with that. I think the heart overrides the intellect and insists on praying. If we don’t pray according to the needs of the heart, we repress our deepest longings. And so I pray as my heart needs to pray.” Later, after the cancer was pronounced terminal, she wondered if her prayers had been wasted. But she concluded, rightly: “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted. Surely the prayers have sustained me, are sustaining me. Perhaps there will be unexpected answers to these prayers, answers I may not even be aware of for years. But they are not wasted. They are not lost. I do not know where they have gone, but I believe that God holds them, hands outstretched to receive them, like precious pearls.”


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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