Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

Epiphany 6A

February 16, 2020

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

It was almost exactly 5 years ago that my family and I adopted Chief, our mutt of a part-Rottweiler, part-lab dog. At the time we were told he was 2 years old and weighed 90 pounds. Well, that was 10 pounds over our limit, but we thought - being 2 years old - he wasn’t likely to grow much more.

But, as many have heard me cry over this later, shortly after Chief’s introduction to Winslea family life he made his first trip to the vet where the very kindly man, just a mere 10 months away from his retirement, looked at me and said, “Well, first off, your dog is weighing in at 100 pounds. And secondly, he is no more than a year old.” My eyes grew wide and he responded thoughtfully, “Don’t worry, he’s not likely to put on much more weight in his second year.”

Don’t worry! We were well past that stage. At 100 pounds I should hope he wouldn’t gain more (a mere 20 more in his second year)! Needless to say, there was a lot to be managed in a 100 pound one year old! Who was tall enough to stand on all fours and reach things off the dining room table.

My oh my, did we have our work cut out for us. Chief had spent his previous five or six months on a mini-farm, over five acres to run around on, with a whole pack of canine friends. It was organized chaos at best, as far as I can tell. And such a lifestyle was never going to work for us.

If our family of four was going to manage becoming a family of five, we were going to need some dog training lessons, and stat! Fortunately, we found an amazing couple who (for a small fortune!) came to our home and gave us individualized training - and by us, I mean both dog and humans needed training. Thanks to Chris and Katie and the  maturity which time brings, I can say that generally Chief’s tendencies toward unacceptable behavior has dropped significantly. (Although he still requires greeting us upon each arrival home with something in his mouth - shoe, glove, paper, coaster, and occasionally dog toy.)

Thank heavens we had training. And let’s be honest, we continue to have training.

Reminding Chief over and again what it takes to live in the Winslea household. Reminding Chief over and again that it best suits him to listen to the humans of that family and trust that they are in charge. Reminding Chief over and again that (even when it isn’t his favorite option) the best option for him, the one that ultimately will bring him the most hugs, treats and play time, the option that brings him the most from life is the one which we human family members endorse, support and encourage.

On some level, Chief has learned this truth. And our training was and continues to be about encouraging him to believe in this and believe in our relationship.

Obedience. It’s not really something we like to think about. Not in terms of our faith practice. Too many of us have memories of training a dog to sit and wait, or training a child to use the potty, that obedience seems like such a strong, such a dictatorial way to paint our relationship with God.

We are not really ready to sign on to a God that states commands that require us to follow like a well-behaved canine or even a human toddler. It rubs wrong against our 21st century ideas of who our Creator is and what we have been created to be in this world.

So when Moses stands before the people in this passage from Deuteronomy and tells this fledgling band of Hebrews to obey the commandments that I am commanding to you to today . . . well, let’s admit that we can nod with our heads. But with our hearts? Perhaps we have a bit harder time. Harder time believing that obeying is what we are really meant for.

I mean sure, we should be sure to follow the moral code that is set against murder, theft, lying, adultery, slander. Sure, that seems straight forward enough. But to really lay down our independent thought, our sense of personal will and freedom,

so that we might obey God’s commands throughout our days? . . . well that seems like maybe going a bit too far.  ***

Biblical Hebrew is clocked at about six and half thousand words (after you remove about 2,000 names - no wonder scripture reading can feel so tricky at times!) And the current English lexicon is at about 170,000 words. Even if you account that most people have a working vocabulary of about 30,000 words - we’re still looking in Hebrew at a language that is five times smaller than what we are accustomed to today.

This means, as one person wrote, that “each [Hebrew word] is like an over-stuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe reality. Unpacking each word is a delightful exercise in seeing how the ancient authors organized ideas, sometimes grouping concepts together in very different ways than we do.”[1]

And that is exactly what we have with this word obey. Shema.

Two weeks ago, the reading for worship was also from Deuteronomy, and I briefly shared with you that it included the Shema.

In Jewish tradition, the Shema is kind of like the most basic, most primary religious education lesson, “Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad: "Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.” This passage goes on in Deuteronomy to tell the Israelites to essentially memorize it and put it up everywhere to remind themselves - on their hands, their foreheads, their doorposts. Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of their prayer service. It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

Shema, Israel, Hear O Israel. Remember these words. Remember your God is one.

Twenty-four chapters later, Shema reappears in our reading today, as Moses - giving his last sermon to the people he led out of captivity, through the wilderness and to the edge of their promised land - Moses reminds his people to obey God’s commandments.

Shema. Hear, obey - how do these two words work together to help us understand what is meant when we are reminded, with the Israelites, to obey all of God’s commandments?

There’s a step between hearing and obeying that perhaps might help us. And that is listening. We all know that hearing is not the same thing as listening. Hearing is the physical occurrence of sound hitting an ear drum and reverberating. Listening is about making sense of that sound.

Listening is about taking in what is being said and turning it into meaning that helps us discern choices, decide behavior, and engage in relationships. Listening helps us know whether to laugh or cry. Listening helps us to figure out whether we are standing up in protest or offering a word of comfort.Listening is about reaching through the ear and the mind to reach the heart. So that each of us might have a deeper sense of grounding in any moment.

Moses is reminding his people and us today that we are to listen to God. We are to listen so deeply that it makes sense for us to find vocation in the life of Spirit. We are to listen so deeply that obeying becomes not something we are commanded to do, but something that we want to do because it rings out from our own souls and brings us life.

Listen people, Moses says, “choose life so that you might have it abundantly.”

God doesn’t bark out commands at us in order to make us into the next circus act. God invites us to hear and to listen and to follow, into life choices that bring us greater depth, meaning, sustenance.

Part of the reason we gather here and part of the reason we practice spiritual disciplines, is that we are training ourselves over and again. We too need reinforcement, reinforcement to believe that listening for God and following God is what brings us life. How do we believe that? How do we grow to trust that? Through practice over and again. Through seeing others in such practice and letting that imprint upon our souls over and again.

Listening is about taking in what is being said and turning it into meaning. Our training, our practice of listening, our efforts at spiritual disciplines was and continues to be about encouraging us to believe in our relationship with God.

Shema, Lincoln Street - hear, listen, follow - obey - with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength.

Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on February 16, 2020, at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.


[1]  Lois Tverberg, https://ourrabbijesus.com/articles/shema-to-hear-is-to-obey/