Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Sixth Sunday of Epiphany: The Ten Best Ways

In Godly Play, we call them the 10 best ways. It is a desert story, so we get to use the desert box (always a treat - because y’know sand…). The tray holds a small mountain, a basket of people, and a heart shaped box. The story begins with Moses and the people crossing the desert, and coming to a great mountain. The mountain is covered in fire and smoke, and anyone who touches the mountain might die. It is a scary proposition. Moses is the only one to climb the mountain. When he gets to the top a cloud covers him: God comes very close to Moses and Moses comes very close to God. When Moses comes down the mountain, he has a story for the people. It is a story of how to live, of God’s way of life for them. Then, the heart shaped box is opened, like a gift, and the ten best ways are read.
Love God. Love People. God Loves Us.
Don’t serve other gods. Make no idols to worship. 
Be serious when you say my name. Keep the Sabbath holy.
Honor your mother and father. Don’t kill. Don’t break your marriage. 
               Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t even want what others have.
“I know,” the storyteller says, “These are all hard. God did not say these are the ‘ten easy things to do.’ They are the Ten Best Ways to Live…They are hard, perhaps even impossible, but we are supposed to try.”  Then we wonder together: which one of these ways is your favorite; which one is the most important; which one is especially for you; are there any we could leave out and still have all we need? 

The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch or Torah: the Jewish written law. Deuteronomy uses Moses’ voice to tell the story of Israel’s sojourn in the desert. The book centers around three speeches from Moses. These speeches tell the history of the people, present and explain The Law, and remind the people of their loyalty to YHWH.   The book ends with Moses’ death; he never enters The Promised Land. These speeches are his last chance to instill God’s covenant into the hearts of God’s people: love and serve God and God’s way will be a blessing to you.

Since then, people have studied and interpreted The Torah. It is a holy book that tells the story of God’s people. It has come to mean many things to many people. It is creation. It is a family story. It is The Covenant. It is The Law. 

And sometimes we overthink things; or, at least, I over think things. And I suppose I imagine that I’m not the only one. I imagine that anyone willing to devote themselves to study of The Law may, on occasion, find themselves “in the weeds.” In other words, they may wonder (as the kids and I sometimes do) what does “be serious when you say my name” really mean? Perhaps Moses knew people well enough to know we would over-think The Law, which is why, in Deuteronomy, he continually reminds the people the heart of the law: Love God; Love People; God Loves Us. For Moses, The Law is best way of life: follow God and you will have life in God. 

I wonder: what defines our way of life? What are our core values? What do we believe makes us the people of God? What do we believe are the ways that lead us to life?

I have a feeling that we might all agree “in theory” about what the best ways are. We might even all agree that The 10 Best Ways are the best ways. And, if we dig a little deeper, really commit to them, in real life, we might find places where we diverge. For example: none of us wants to serve two gods, and sometimes we find ourselves torn between God’s way and our own desires; none of us may want what our neighbors have, until all of a sudden they have something we want. 

There are times when we try to shape the ten best ways into practices that suit our purposes, our way of life. Yet, their intention is to shape us, who we are, and how we live.

The good news is that the choice Moses presents to Israel is not a one-time choice. The Israelites stray from the covenant many times. And they start over many times. They worship Baal, then return to YHWH. They turn from love of God and neighbor, then re-turn to love God and their neighbor. They turn their lives away from God, then they turn back. Again and again, God embraces them, renews the covenant, and starts over with the people. 

Over the last few months, I have watched and listened. I know that we do not all agree: about politics, about righteousness, about justice. I have listened to the scriptures: to Isaiah, Amos, the Apostle Paul, Matthew and John. I have wondered and prayed about what to say and what to do. I am on my own spiritual journey wrestling with the scriptures, in prayer, and working hard to practice my faith. I went to seminary to lead congregations on their journey of faith as they wrestle with the scriptures, pray together, and practice their faith. Sometimes the people I serve want to know what I think or how I feel. Most of the time, the people I serve want me to listen. I believe that all of the time the people I serve want to know who God is, where and how God acts in the world. If you are here on a Sunday morning, if you’ve made the effort, then I’m assuming you’ve come for more than the coffee. Over the last few months, I have watched and listened; and I believe you’ve come to hear the word of God, say your prayers, meet God at this table - and to do all of these things together, as a community.

What I have found to be true, for me, is that the scriptures are a solid ground where I can root myself. When I am searching for Jesus, I turn to the Gospels. When I am grieving or lost, I turn to the Psalms. When I am looking for a way through life, I can go to Job, or Ruth, or Romans, or Deuteronomy. There I find deep reminders about God. In these places, I find Jesus digging deep into the law and demanding I do hard things like forgiveness, faithfulness, and living a life of integrity.  I find Paul reminding us that we belong to God, our Creator, and no one else. I hear the words of Moses: choose life, choose God, choose the ways of God. These words give me hope: they remind me there is a way, a way better than any other way, the best way. If you are searching for a way, I commend to you the stories of our people, God’s people. They will help you find your way.

And the good news is that when we lose our way, we can start again. When idols have more power in our lives than God, we can turn back to God. When we turn from love of God and neighbor, we can re-turn to love God and our neighbor. When we begin to try and shape the practices to suit our needs, we can return to the originals and try again. Again and again, God will embrace us, welcome us home, and start over with us.

The worlds offers us so many different ways. We can be whoever we want, worship whoever we want, live however we want. 

God invites us to live a particular way in the world. It is the way that Loves God. It is the way that Loves People. It is the way of God’s love for us - all of us. It is the hard work of faithfulness (to God and one another). It is the hard work of honoring one another, living with integrity, and being pure of heart. It is the hard work of choosing life, for ourselves and our neighbor. These are God’s ways. They are the best ways. They are not easy ways. God’s way is hard, perhaps even impossible, and we are supposed to try. 

May God give us the courage and strength we need to try - for our sake and for the world.