Let’s go back to the beginning; all the way back; back to Genesis: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” What follows is the story of creation: water, land, sun, moon, animals, plants,
and, of course, Adam and Eve. This is not just any beginning. This is our beginning.
Like any good story, there is a twist. Something goes wrong and nothing is ever the same. From the moment Eve and Adam eat of that fruit, creation presses onward yearning for God.
So the story, our story, grows. We tell stories of our ancestors surviving floods and raising buildings to reach to God. We remember how the Israelites wandered in the desert and the Law given to Moses. We listen as the prophets and the people struggle with the call to follow the law, to love God. It is all one story: the story of God’s people.
The people of Israel are central to this story. Indeed, their story takes up the majority of the Hebrew Scriptures. Their story begins in Exodus. There they escape captivity in Egypt and wander the desert for forty years. Along the way, a lot of things happen, a lot of things. And Moses is a central character.
Moses is so important he gets his own book: Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is 34 chapters long and it is Moses’ last speech.
The people of Israel stand at the edge of the Promised Land and Moses is dying. Here he tells the story, at least three times, of Israel’s relationship with YHWH. (It is akin to listening to your grandfather tell you the same story three times in a row: you feel compelled to listen despite the high potential for boredom.)
(I know, right now you’re thinking, “Wait. Did we read from Deuteronomy?
What did I miss?” Trust me, it’ll all come together…I hope.)
In chapter six, Moses says to the people,
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 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.
These are perhaps some of my favorite pieces of scripture; they are the reason that we still find tiny scrolls, mezuzahs, attached to the doorways of houses: they contain the first verse of what I just read. This is the shema y’israel prayer and is centerpiece of morning and evening Jewish services. The tradition is to touch the scroll as you pass the doorpost. It is a reminder of the first commandment, the great commandment. This is the core of Israel’s life: follow this commandment and you find YHWH.
Last week, I had the pleasure of being with Brother Curtis Almquist. He is the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal Order in Massachusetts. It is my privilege to say I’ve known Curtis a long time; I’ve learned a lot from him. His lectures were on failure, disappointment, silence and solitude.
Curtis began his talk on failure and disappointment with these verses from Deuteronomy. He wondered the impact of placing the Torah, the shema, on our hearts. He said, “The Torah is laid on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God will fall in and we will remember.” And it is the re-membering, the rediscovery of whose and who we are, that heals the broken heart.
Failure and disappointment, then, are not the end, they are invitations to experience God in our lives.
I mentioned last week that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a letter of friendship. Paul had a special relationship with the community in Philippi. While establishing The Church in Philippi, Paul experienced dramatic persecution.
Acts 16 tells us that the authorities dragged Paul, along with Silas, into the marketplace. There they were attacked, flogged and imprisoned. Of course, this is not the end of Paul’s story. Instead, the jailer is converted, Paul and Silas are set free, and many came to believe in Christ. After Paul leaves Philippi, an extraordinary thing happens: the people begin supporting him financially and he accepts their support. The Philippians community was extremely poor and it is uncommon for Paul to accept financial support. His acceptance of their gifts indicates a particular relationship: they appear to be the fruits of their friendship.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians, then, is a deeply personal and letter. Paul speaks frankly about his own life and faith. He writes,
For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…
Before his conversion, Paul was the ultimate Jew. He followed every word of the law; his belief in the law as the path to salvation was so strong, he persecuted those who did not believe. Then, something happened, and everything changed. Paul became zealous for Christ: he gives his entire life, empties himself, on behalf of Christ.
Chapter 9 of Acts tells the story of how Paul’s life changed. The moment, though, that stays with me,
is the moment when Paul is relieved of his blindness,
And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
This is one of those moments in life, one of those dramatic shifts, when nothing is ever the same. Somewhere along the way, Paul’s enthusiasm for the law was corrupted. His passion was fueled, not by God’s way, but by Paul’s way: his confidence and self-righteousness. Then, during those three days of blindness, Paul’s heart breaks and God falls in. He begins to remember who and whose he is.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart...”
Who are you? Who am I?
We are children of God, created by God with vision and purpose.
Along the way, our lives will twist and turn, every life does. Scripture tells a story of a God who never leaves us, no matter what. God consistently remains actively at work in our world and our lives. In the words of Brother Almquist, “God is very frugal and wastes nothing.” We are part of God’s story and our hearts will break. The good news is that when they break God will fall in; we will remember who and whose we are. We will return and find new life through the grace and mercy of God.
Thanks be to God!