Summer’s back. Even though fall is on the doorstep. It’s gotten warm again and going to get warmer. Like summer doesn’t want to let go just yet, a last gasp before the season changes. Not that I want to complain about the weather. We’ve been blessed here in Indiana. Yeah, it’s a little drier than we would like. Yeah, we would prefer the cooler fall breezes to the hot muggy summer stillness. But given the story elsewhere in this country, and the world, it seems churlish to complain. And yet we do.
Maybe it’s the tone of the times. We’re quick to find what’s wrong. Quick to point out a lack, a brokenness, a failing, instead of a promise or a hope. We grumble about a lack of some unnamed and indefinable greatness, instead of celebrating the blessings that surround us with every breath. It’s like we all live angry these days. Thinking someone else has the easy life, the best choices, and we’re left with the remnants. We want to take our country back, is a line I’ve heard quoted by too many people in too many settings with undertones of violence and hatred lurking in the background. Back from whom? Back from where? Just back. Back in my favor. Back to when I was on top. Back to when the ones suffering weren’t me and mine.
Maybe there is a better way to live. Maybe there is a better chip to carry on one’s shoulder. Something tied to one’s forehead.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 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. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
We’re still here. Standing with the people of God on the threshold of the promised land. Getting last minute instructions from the one who led us here. Slowly, but we’re here. About to become a nation. A settled people. Building houses and communities. Drawing lines, fences and neighborhoods and allegiances. Getting jobs and making a living and grinding through whatever life decided to throw at us. That’s us, that’s where we’re about to go. Home. Or what will become home.
Except Moses wants us to remember we’ve already been home. All through this wilderness we call life, we are home. Because we are in the arms of the loving God. And to help us remember that, to hold on to that he gives us a prayer. An affirmation of faith, and a call to living in hope and in joy. Hear O Israel. The shema. The most precious words of the people of God. Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Or the Lord is one. Or the Lord is the only One. And then because of that, we love only God. Only God? Yes, only God and that which brings us closer to loving God. Only God and that which glorifies God at work in us and through us. Only God and that which reminds us what a blessing it is to live encompassed by God’s grace. Only God.
But, Moses warned, we’ll forget. We’ll forget if we don’t pay attention. If we don’t stay focused. So, he told us to talk about this command to love and to live in love. And he told us to tie it to ourselves. And he told us to write it on our doorposts.
Wait. Tie it to us? Like ... tie it? With rope? Like we’re lassoed? God’s on a horse and we’re a runaway steer? Tie it to us? I know, kind of odd. And there was debate about this, as you might suspect. There were those who were sure that what was meant was that we take it seriously. Tie it to your hand meant that every time you do something with that hand - and what do we do without our hands, think about it - we’re to remember that those hands are meant for doing God’s work, for doing loving acts for God. Tie it to our foreheads meant that whenever we think, we think first about God and what God would have us do. Tie it to our heads meant to be bound by the decision to love God and to act out of that love first and only. It was a metaphor, some argued. A way of impressing on the hearer the importance of remembering.
But as with most metaphors, someone decided that maybe it should be taken literally. Somewhere along the line they decided that maybe Moses was serious. Maybe we ought to get some rope. Well, it wasn’t rope. It was leather. Leather straps and a little leather box. It was called a phylactery. And it was tied around the head and around the arm or the wrist. Moses said hand, so there was debate about that, as you might suspect. A little leather box that held a treasure inside. On a little bit of vellum, or sheepskin made into paper, was written “shema yisrael, adonai elohenu, adonai ehad.” Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
At first that was all that was written. It was enough. It was the Word. The reminder. Later on more words were added. The shema got rather complex, actually. Verses and stanzas. A poem, really. A litany or prayer. But a way of remembering who they were and whose they were. Words and words and more words. And it should have worked. Should have. But didn’t. They forgot. We forgot.
There’s a story in Second Kings about forgetting and then remembering. King Josiah found the book of the law, tucked away in an attic of the temple. A closet no one went into any more. He didn’t find it, but it was found and brought to him. He read it and he wept. And then he read it to his people and they wept. They wept because they had forgotten. Forgotten that they belonged to God. Forgotten that they were called to live a life that honors God in all things. Forgotten that the country they grumbled about because it wasn’t serving them the way they thought it should, wasn’t really theirs anyway. It belonged to God, as they belonged to God. And the life of emptiness, of striving after the things that don’t satisfy isn’t their life anyway. The good life they saw on their TV commercials and slick magazines wasn’t the life they were supposed to aspire to, to strive for. They wept because they didn’t need to make their country great again, it was already great because God had made it that way. And they lost it, or turned away from it, or let it slip through their fingers while they were chasing after something different. They wept because all they ever really wanted was already theirs. The affirmation and the blessing they longed for was already theirs. The peace and contentment and love, the love their hearts ached for, was already theirs. And they forgot.
The wisdom literature of the people of God tries to help us remember. To help them remember. In pithy little statements, it says remember. Hold on. Stay close. Cling to God. Over and over it tells us. In a variety of ways. Like this one:
Proverbs 3:1-6 My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; 2 for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. 3 Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Get some rope. There are just some things that matter. Some things that you ought to tie to yourself. Maybe literally. Loyalty and faithfulness, says the writer of wisdom. The commandments of God, says Moses. Some things just need to be woven into the fabric of our existence. They need to be the essential elements of our story. The identifiers of who we are. We need to write them on the tablets of our hearts. Carve them into our souls. And then, because even then we will forget, we learn to live in a community of who knows our story, who lives in the story that defines us. So you can tell me my story when I forget, and I can tell you yours when you forget. Then maybe together we can remember who we are for longer than a breath or two.
I’ve got a rope. It’s a lifeline. It’s my story. It’s in your hands. Hold on. We’ve written it on our hearts.