Sunday, August 17, 2014

Phil Kniss: Annual orientation speech

Back to School Sunday 2014
Deuteronomy 6:4-15; Mark 12:28-34

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It is with great excitement, and great dread,
that we come to the time of year called “Back-to-School.”

Students dread the end of sleeping in,
and are excited to connect with old friends and new classes.
Teachers dread the grind of grading and deadlines
and are excited for a new classroom of eager learners.
Those of us with 12-month employment, or not employed,
still notice a shift in the pace of life
when August turns into September,
and we greet that with both dread and excitement.

One important element of this time of year,
especially those in education, is “orientation.”
New teachers and staff start the school year early
for a week of orientation.
New students often get a weekend of orientation.
The first class period, at every school level—
from kindergarten to high school to grad school—
is almost always “orientation,” more than instruction.
It’s a time to go over class expectations,
introduce textbooks and reading material,
learn to know who is in the class, etc. etc.

For the church,
Back-to-School Sunday is our Annual Orientation Sunday.
And this sermon, my Annual Orientation Speech.
Even though we focus on students, teachers, and school staff,
and mark milestones of those beginning
another level in their formal education,
in reality,
this is about the much larger task of life formation,
in which we are all engaged,
no matter our connection to any formal school.

You know, we wouldn’t put time and energy and resources
into our life together as a local body of Christ,
if we did not consider church important for our formation
and for our learning as disciples of Jesus.
Discipleship means learning.
Learning from a master teacher.
Learning skills.
Learning character traits.
Learning values.
Learning truths about life.

So Back-to-School applies to all.
From young to old,
we embark on a new year together of learning
how to be and become better disciples of Jesus.

Hence, my annual orientation speech,
to orient us to this shared  journey
as a community of learners of the Jesus way.

Now, in a school context,
the main reason for a few days of orientation,
is so people don’t get lost.

Literally, as in going over the campus map
so everyone can find classrooms, dining hall, health center.
But orientation also keeps us from getting lost in a deeper sense,
from losing our way as learners.
It helps us learn the basic lay of the land academically,
where the learning paths lie.
Then, when we start down our learning path,
we can tell if we are walking this direction, or that,
if we are making forward progress,
or moving backward into confusion or chaos.

Same is true in our learning journey as disciples.
We need to be oriented to our context,
to our calling,
and to our hoped-for learning outcomes.
We want to know what a maturing disciple of Jesus looks like,
so we can tell if we are moving in that direction.

The scriptures we read this morning,
have been primary orientation texts,
for many thousands of years—
for the Hebrew people,
and for their spiritual descendants, us followers of Jesus.

The Israelites in the time of Deuteronomy,
needed this orientation for a very specific reason.
They were at risk of losing themselves in their new surroundings.

As the children of Israel were entering into the promised land,
God’s #1 concern for them—and thus, Moses’ #1 concern,
was that they not get lost in the land of milk and honey.
Interesting, and a little ironic,
that it was not during their 40-years of wandering
in a desolate wilderness,
that God was worried about them getting lost.
It was after they were settled in the land,
and raising crops, building houses,
driving in stakes, putting up markers—
that God started worrying about them getting lost.

Let’s look again at Deuteronomy 6, if you have your Bibles with you.
The short passage we heard this morning is part of a longer speech,
that takes up almost the whole book of Deuteronomy.
It’s a speech Moses gave to the people of Israel,
as his final instructions to them,
before his death, and
before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Let’s start with the second half of the reading,
beginning in verse 10 of Deuteronomy 6.
Here is God’s and Moses’ concern, spelled out.
For the last 40 years, they roamed the wilderness.
living in tents, scavenging for food,
depending utterly and completely on God for survival.
Now, things would change, radically.

So Moses said, and I’ll paraphrase . . .
“Now look and listen, people.
Up till now you’ve depended on God for everything you needed,
quail, manna, water . . . one day at a time.
Soon you’ll be swimming in milk and honey.
You’re going to live in cities you didn’t build,
houses full of stuff you didn’t buy.
You’ll get water from cisterns you didn’t dig,
wine from vineyards you didn’t prune,
olives from groves you didn’t plant.
You’re going to have it made.”

Then Moses said, “Now, when you kick back,
stomachs full, feet propped up,
don’t forget where you came from!
When you start thinking you can handle life,
when new gods tempt you,
remember the God you belong to, and owe everything to.
Remember the Lord, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt,
and fed you in the desert.
There is only one God
who loves you, delivers you, and calls you ‘my people.’
Only one.”

Which brings us back to verses 4-5 and following.
These are not only the heart of this passage.
They are the heart of the Old Testament.
And they are the heart of the Jewish faith . . . to this day.

“Shema, Israel . . . Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Keep these words.
Recite them to your children.
Talk about them when you are at home,
and when you are away.
When you go to bed at night.
And when you get up in the morning.
Tie them onto your hand, and onto your forehead,
write them on your doorposts and on your gates.”

Safe to say every Jewish man, woman, and child today,
from Orthodox to Liberal,
knows Deuteronomy 6:4 by heart, in Hebrew.
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”

Those words, in English, are on the front of the bulletin,
“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Even non-religious Jews, I suspect,
know the “Shema.”
The same way every Christian man, woman, and child,
with any Bible knowledge at all,
at least knows the phrase,
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son.”

But there’s an interesting difference between
the way practicing Jews live with the “Shema,”
and the way Christians live with the important phrases
of our faith,
whether John 3:16, or the Lord’s Prayer, or what have you.
For our Jewish friends, the “Shema” is part of daily life.
Many of them repeat it, every day.
Some of the more devout, do so many times a day.
The Jewish people—as a community—
immerse themselves in these words,
to the point they are no longer merely words.
This phrase becomes a spiritual home base.
It keeps the Jewish people from getting lost,
just as Moses hoped.

As instructed by Moses, the people did, in fact,
teach these words to their children at night and in the morning,
and tied them onto their own hands and foreheads,
in the form of tefillin, or phylacteries,
and placed them on their doorposts and gates,
in the form of little mezuzahs,
to touch or kiss as they pass by.

These words have become deeply ritualized, and repeated often.
We might think, so often,
that they lose their meaning.
But I wonder, really.
True, the people are not consciously, and emotionally moved,
every time they hear the words,
or touch the mezuzah on their bedroom doorframe.
I’m certain it does become mindless habit, in a way.
But, I wonder,
having these words, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One,”
so deeply embedded, even in their sub-conscious,
when the time comes for conscious reflection,
when they are actively contemplating
the place of God in their daily lives,
I wonder whether these words, in their conscious times,
have more shaping power than they would otherwise,
because they are so deeply embedded in the sub-conscious.

And it makes me wonder whether
we ought to have some words and phrases of our faith,
that become so oft-repeated,
that they become, in a similar way, a spiritual home-base.
So embedded in our subconscious,
that when we have opportunity to make them conscious,
they are right there, in all their power,
to shape our active awareness.

For me, the Lord’s Prayer has become that kind of thing.
I do repeat it daily, and often more than once.
I include it in my daily morning quiet time.
We recite it together as church staff, every day,
in our morning prayers.
We sing it every Sunday morning here in worship.

In my quiet times, when I’m alone,
I even get my body involved in the recitation,
as I break down the prayer into six parts,
each with a slightly different focus,
and a corresponding gesture that I made up
to help express that thought with my body.

Not saying there is anything essential about doing it this way,
but it has helped me to pray not just with words in my head,
but with my physical being.
With words and hands,
a prayer lifting up God’s holy nature and character,
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name...”
Prayer for the kingdom—with word and gesture—
“thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven...”
Prayer for God’s provision, gesturing receptivity,
“Give us this day our daily bread...”
Prayer for God’s forgiveness, gesturing penitence,
“And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us...”
Prayer for God’s guidance,
“And lead us not into temptation...”
with a gesture of resisting that which is anti-kingdom.
Finally, prayer for God’s protection,
“but deliver us from evil,” gesturing freedom.

There is nothing magical about this ritual.
It was just a choice I made,
to take some words that Jesus taught us,
and do more than just memorize and recite them occasionally.
To repeat them so often,
and to accompany the repetition with physical gestures,
that I might somehow embody these words more deeply.
So that even though I often pray them almost unconsciously,
they might inform my conscious thought,
and when I may run out of words to pray,
I still have these at the ready.

In this way,
the Lord’s Prayer becomes a prayer of orientation.
It reminds me who I am, who I belong to,
what is my calling in life,
and what a disciple of Jesus looks like.
As a disciple I actively follow and learn at the feet of our Lord
who ushers in the kingdom, on earth, as in heaven.
As a disciple I am invited to live my life on this earth,
as a citizen first and foremost, of that eternal kingdom,
not the kingdoms of this world that tempt me,
that ask for my allegiance.
The kingdoms of political power, wealth, and pleasure.
As a disciple I place myself in the context of a disciple community
that prays, receives, forgives,
and depends on God for guidance, clarity, protection.
I am embedded in a body of learners and followers,
a school for discipleship.

Maybe this Lord’s Prayer ritual,
like the ritual of reciting the Shema,
or touching the mezuzahs,
will jog my memory every day,
about who I am and to what kingdom I belong.
This is more than a mere mnemonic device.
It’s about more than memorizing the words.
It’s about getting it into the depths of our being.

So that when we move in and among our larger culture,
and rub shoulders daily with other people and groups,
who claim other conflicting identities,
who worship other gods,
gods of wealth, pleasure, power, autonomy . . .
and when we do commerce with them,
when we share common space, in their homes or ours,
when we develop genuine friendships with them,
when we accompany them as they live their lives,
we will be less likely to lose ourselves.

We can, and we must, learn how to differentiate
between living in the world—
and . . . becoming of the world;
between the giving and receiving of true hospitality—
and . . . assimilating cultural values opposed to God’s kingdom;
between being a friend of the world, even loving the world—
and . . . becoming captive to the world.

These are distinctions we can come to know and realize,
only as we are oriented within a community of learning.
In our case, this community
consists of disciples of Jesus,
who continually seek to become better disciples,
better followers,
better learners.

That is my heart-felt orientation appeal for the beginning of this year.
Stay deeply connected to, and accountable to,
a community of Jesus followers.
Get in the habit of praying the Kingdom prayer,
and of repeating the Great Commandments Jesus gave us.

Earlier in the service
we did our annual ritual of giving Bibles or story Bibles,
to our young children, older children, and youth.
It wasn’t mentioned at the time,
but I inserted a bookmark into every book we gave.
It looks like this. [hold up bookmark]

The top of it has the Hebrew words,
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
And below it are the words of Jesus,
in which he repeated those words,
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One . . .”
and continued with the two great commandments
we heard in today’s Gospel reading:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.”
And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And on the back, there are the words to the Lord’s Prayer.

So, I invite you to use that bookmark in some way that you see it often.
If you are reading through your Bible,
keep it there as a marker.
Or put it up somewhere you see it every day,
on your mirror, or dresser.

And I made plenty of extra copies of it,
which will be on small tables as you exit the sanctuary.
Pick one up as you leave, if you want.

Now, let’s respond in song,
as we sing a song of orientation,
STJ 95, I want to walk as a child of the light.

Notice the language of orientation throughout—
I want to walk as a child of the light,
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world,
the star of my life is Jesus.

—Phil Kniss, August 17, 2014

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