Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:6-20
Given on July 11, 2016 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
If you have ever sat high atop a mountain ride or with your feet buried in the sand along a coastline, or on a blanket spread out in a field of wild flowers and stared up into the night sky, you begin to realize both how immense the universe really is with each twinkling dot representing planets or other solar systems that are millions of light years away. So much so that the image that you are actually seeing is in the past, the time that the light has traveled being so great that that which is happening now will not ever be visible to us in our lifetime. And you also realize how small we each are within the larger scale of the universe. It is possible that using the image of a single grain of sand on a beach that goes for miles and miles in either direction might begin to convey the minute nature of our existence but it might also be more like a single atom on a single grain of sand on a beach that goes for miles and miles. More than that, because of the size of the universe and our microscopic presence within it, we soon see that it is somewhere in the range of exceedingly difficult to impossible to begin to judge where exactly the center of the universe is. We all, each one of us, view the whole of creation from our place within it and by our very nature, we can only truly envision our place as the center of creation. Of course, moral development demands that we seek to not act out of that place of centrality, that we take on the perspective of others in our efforts to increase in kindness and love. But it is a role that we play, a worldview that we take on in an effort to overcome our egos and our base desires to address our own wants and needs over and against the rest of creation. But if we step back, if we try and see the universe from high atop that mountain, or with our toes dug in the sand at the beach, or in that flowering meadow, we see that we each dwell in roughly the same place in a universe that is ever expanding and feels infinite in its size. There is no true and discernible center and so it is that we are always about the same distance from the edge of the universe. Moreover, if we truly believe in the infinite nature of God, in the omnipresence of God, in the universality of God, then we have to conclude that we each are equidistant from God. That if God is truly everywhere as we believe, then all people have equal access to the voice of God, to the presence of God, to the word of God. Taken a step further, all people are then children of God, the beloved of God, loved by God, able to live into the call of God to come home. A reality that the Hebrew people encounter in our scripture reading for this morning.
The Hebrew people had been wandering for a long time. Wandering across the desert in the wilderness between Egypt and Israel. Wandering so long that any memory of the escape from slavery under the rule of the Pharaoh had taken on the quality of an old folk tale tale that older folks tell their grandkids. Wandering so long that Moses, a middle-aged man when this whole Exodus across the Red Sea had occurred, was now 120 years old as he stood on the top of Mount Nebo and looked over into the land that God would soon be giving to the Hebrew Nation. Wandering for so long that even the name of this new land, this promised land, this land flowing with milk and honey started to sound like wishful thinking. The kind of language one might use to describe the greatness of grandma’s house to young children to get them to make it through the last 4 hours of a car ride. And yet after all that time, the soon-to-be nation of Israel stood on the precipice of taking their first steps into this new land. And even as Moses celebrated this moment with the people, even as he laughed as they recounted stories of the journey, even as he danced with those whose happiness and relief were now beginning to wash over the whole of the encampment, even as he enjoyed the fruits of the vine in joyous revery, in the back of his mind, he still knew that he would not be taking those final few steps with the people that he had led for all this way. He knew that his own ego, his own attempt to play God, had long since cost him that opportunity, and so, as any good leader might do when faced both with his own mortality and the reality that he will never fully arrive to the end of the long journey, he begins to address the people of the soon to be new nation, speaking, for one final time, the words of God that he knows that they must hear before traversing any longer. And the language that he embraces at the end of this long speech demonstrates the degree to which God is asking that the people begin to shift their focus, their attention, their faith. For the longest time, God and Moses have been leading the people to their new home. For the longest time, the people have been operating in a system in which God and Moses had been the one’s in charge and like one might do with younger children, God had twice given the Hebrew people a list of instructions to follow, carried by Moses on stone tablets. “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt always honor you God. Thou shalt always honor your mother and father. Thou shalt not bear false witness.” and so on. These were the foundational rules, laws, commandments for the community and those had gone a long way in maintaining relative peace and order within the tribes. But now, as they were about to embark on this new life, were about to become a new nation, were about to cross over into this new place, God, through Moses sees that they are ready to advance beyond the black and white nature of the Ten Commandments. And Moses says to them, you are ready. You are ready to form this new nation, to take all the laws of God into you. To trust your own moral compass, provided that you look deep within you and see that under everything else, under all the muck and the mire, all the trepidation that you might have taking these first few steps as a new nation, if you explore the depths of your being, you will see that the commandments of God by which you have been governed, the law of God by which all of creation is ruled, the word of God by which all things come into being, that word, is in your heart. And God, through Moses goes on to say that in moving forward, this new nation has vast opportunities that will appear before it. This new nation has the chance to have blessings upon blessings upon blessings, it will have that option, but it will also have before it, the threat of curses. Curses that will lead to suffering. Curses that will lead to lose and deprivation. Curses that will cycle on themselves if allowed to and undermined the entirety of the nation. Curses that will ultimately lead to death. And maybe it is that Moses is speaking for himself at the end, perhaps it is that he is adding his own plea to the words of God that have come forth from his mouth. “Choose life and living,” he sad. Choose blessings and to listen to that voice that is deep within you. Cling to the word of God, who is always, always, always calling all Her children home. Choose blessings and the reality of the nation and the long life within this new land will be the fulfilled promise that God made to those who have long come before you. Choose to follow God.
If scripture is, as we have long claimed, a message from God for all the people. If we are truly called to go to all the nations of the world teaching everything that Jesus commanded. If we believe that God’s love is universal in its scope, that is that God does not play favorites, that God does not bless some while cursing others, that God does not move through creation working for the betterment of some and the detriment of others, then we have to take this passage from the end of Moses’s long speech to the Hebrew people, as a message, as a speech for us as well. The word of God is near to our own hearts. But more than that, the word of God dwells in all people’s hearts and all people have the right to hear it, and live into it, and claim it for their own. And we have no right to declare some other community of persons unable to hear it, to live into it, to claim it for their own too. Because in the Reformed Tradition, everyone is a saint and everyone is a sinner, everyone is blessed, and everyone is cursed, everyone is fallen and everyone is a beloved child of God, and we have spent far too long in this country trying to parse that reality out for a great many communities of people.
This week brought news of three more high profile shootings because this is America and this is our new normal. It is more unusual when there is not a mass shooting of one kind or another. In this case, the first two shootings will just inscribe two new names of African American men killed by a system that is sworn to protect them. Philando Castile and Alton Sterling will just take their place alongside Walter Scott, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, and many others whose names will soon be washed away by the sands of time. In these cases, the videos of the actual event and the aftermath of the event will make both of these realities more tangible, more really, less forgettable, but they too will be swept away by the current of time and the next high profile shooting of an African American man and the one after that and the one after that. Because we have never begun to acknowledge the presumption of racial inequality upon which this nation was built, whether it be Christopher Columbus and his genocidal pursuit of wealth in which conservative estimates place the death toll enacted by him, his crew, and those that followed him in the millions, or the manner in which the earliest settlers in North America annihilated the indigenous population, or the institution of chattel slavery that built up the wealth of the nation on the backs of free labor, or the declaration by Chief Justice Roger Taney to Dred Scott that blacks possessed no rights that whites had to respect, or the practice of lynching that emerged as the chief methodology for maintenance of the racial hierarchy of the nation after the end of slavery, or the legacy of unequal school, buses, trains, housing, healthcare, and life that has continued to fester just under the surface of the veneer of the nation. Because we built the nation on the belief that some people are less-than solely because of the color of their skin, the events in St. Paul and Baton Rouge will repeat themselves again and again. But equally troubling are the events of Dallas that signal a new era in the cycles of violence be getting violence that seems to have engulfed our country. Images and videos of the man and his automatic gun firing off round after round at police who have come together with a community in mourning, had come together with a group of people protesting for better training and more peaceful outcomes in routine traffic stops and arrests, images of police laying dead on streets, of police saluting the bodies of their fellow brothers, all these images, these videos should be seared into the collective consciousness of the nation and trouble us, deny us any sort of peace until we come together and demand an end to this long nightmare of gun violence, mixed with racism, mixed with revenge, mixed with hatred. We are told that objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. Violence in any form begets violence. Violence enacted on one segment of the population will eventually bubble over until more violence is begat. And there has never been a more important time for those who follow Jesus Christ to speak with one voice, in terms as crystal clear as humanly possible that we have had enough, that the world has had enough.
God spoke through Moses and said that set before all of us was blessings and curses, life and death, that those that follow the call of God will discover life, and Jesus came later and said life, in abundance. But what we have now isn’t abundant. It isn’t hope-filled, it isn’t peaceful and loving and full of grace. It is a nation faced with the same choices the nascent Hebrew nation also faced. Before us are still all the blessings of creation. Before us is opportunity. Before us is life and life in abundance. But before us is also curses, death, and a life lived in squalor. A life in which fear of the unknown, of the different, of those not like us has created an environment where we hoard what we have, where we only associate with those who look like us, where we have continuously drawn a box around what is acceptable until that box has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. Look around you. Who will be left to put the pin back in the grenade? Who will be the ones who point to life and blessings and peace for all people? Who will declare peace over the drumbeat of revenge? Who will stand in the way the next time we “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war?” Who will do it? Because someone has to. God has set before all of us, all of us, blessings and curses, life and death. Who will call on the church, the nation, the world to choose life, that all may simply live? The word of God is very near to you. It’s in your heart. It’s in your mouth. Who will be courageous enough to say it? Amen.