Sunday, August 27, 2023

Phil Kniss: Orientation Day

Getting our Bearings
Deuteronomy 6:4-13; Mark 12:28-31

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Back-to-School season is a time of year people get reoriented.
That’s most obvious to students, teachers, and other educators,
as new school years begin.
Many of you here likely already attended
an “Orientation Day” of some kind at your school.

As we begin a new church year at Park View,
we mark milestones for children and youth
moving into a new grade level,
a new worship year starts up in two weeks,
a new Congregational Council is forming,
a new Congregational Chair and other roles are just beginning,
and a brand new Nurture Team is being put into place.
Many are getting oriented to something new in this church.

But you know,
it’s important for the spiritual lives and practices of all of us,
to regularly get reoriented in faith, in community,
and in our covenant with each other and with God.

Our tradition is not always as intentional and focused
in our orientation practices,
as compared to other faith traditions.

The Deuteronomy text we read this morning
is the primary orientation text,
and has been for thousands of years—
for the Jewish people.

In the time of Moses, the Israelites
needed orientation for a very specific reason.
They were at risk of losing themselves in new surroundings.

As the children of Israel were entering into the promised land,
God’s main concern for them—and therefore, Moses’ main concern,
was that they not get lost in the land of milk and honey.
Which is ironic, when you think about it.
During 40 years of wandering around in a desolate wilderness,
God was not terribly worried about them getting lost.
It was only after they settled in the promised land,
and started raising crops, building houses,
driving in stakes, and putting up markers—
that God started worrying about them getting lost.

So let’s see how God addressed that worry, in  Deuteronomy 6.
It’s in your bulletin.
But if you have your Bible, even better to look at it there.
Because you’ll see that this short passage
is part of a longer speech—
a speech that takes up almost all of Deuteronomy.
It’s a speech Moses gave to Israel—
his final instructions before his death—
before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Let’s start with the second part of the reading,
beginning in verse 10 of Deuteronomy 6.
Here God and Moses explicitly state their worry.
For the last 40 years, the Israelites 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 . . .
“Look and listen, people.
Until now you depended on God for everything you need,
quail, manna, water . . . one day at a time.
Soon you’ll be swimming in milk and honey.
You will live in cities you didn’t build,
in houses full of stuff you didn’t buy.
You’ll get water from wells you didn’t dig,
wine from vineyards you didn’t prune,
olives from groves you didn’t plant.”

Then he said, “So, when you kick back,
stomachs full, feet propped up,
don’t forget where you came from!
Whenever you start thinking you can handle life,
new gods will tempt you.
Remember the God you depend on, and owe everything to.
Remember Yahweh, 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.”

That is the context for the most famous verses in the Hebrew Bible.
Deut. 6:4-5.
These are the heart of this passage,
the heart of Hebrew scriptures,
and 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.”
There it is!
Keep those 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.

It’s safe to say that all Jewish adults and children today,
from Orthodox to Liberal, and probably even secular Jews,
have Deuteronomy 6:4 memorized, in Hebrew.
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

We Christians have a few scriptures that come close,
in terms of wide recognition,
but nothing quite like the Shema for Jews.

Most Christian adults and children,
if they have any Bible knowledge at all,
know the phrase from John 3:16,
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Or they could recognize and recite at least some of
the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.

But there’s a big difference between
the way practicing Jews live with the “Shema,”
and the way practicing Christians
live with our important phrases of faith.
For Jews, 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—
fully immerse themselves in these words,
to the point they are no longer merely words.
They are a spiritual home base.
They keep the Jewish people from getting lost,
just as Moses hoped.

Many of them do as Moses said.
They teach the words to their children at night and in the morning.
They tie them onto their hands and foreheads,
in little leather boxes called tefillin.
They place them on doorframes and gate posts,
inside tiny mezuzahs,
that they touch or kiss as they walk by.

These words have become deeply ritualized, and repeated often.
True, the practice becomes rote.
They do it by pure muscle memory, without even thinking.
But, I’ll bet you anything, having these words—
“The Lord our God, the Lord is One”—
so deeply embedded in their sub-conscious,
when time comes for active thought and contemplation,
these words have profound power to shape their thinking,
and their actions.

And don’t forget—these words were the spiritual home base for Jesus.
Like other Jews, he gravitated to these verses in Deuteronomy.
And when asked what the greatest commandment was,
he went right to that text, no hesitation.
He was formed by that text.

I think we, too, should have words and phrases of faith formation
that are so often repeated,
that they become a spiritual home-base for us,
embedded in our subconscious,
until we have a need to make them rise to the surface,
and shape our conscious thought,
in all their power.

For me, the Lord’s Prayer has become that kind of thing.
I repeat it privately almost daily, if not daily.
And we recite it every Tuesday morning, as staff,
in our morning prayers.
We sing it every Sunday here in worship.

When I’m alone, I even let my body participate in the prayer—
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
forever. Amen.”

There is nothing at all magical or mystical about this ritual of mine.
It’s just a choice I made,
to take some words that Jesus taught us,
and do more than use my brain to say them once in a while.
But rather, repeat them often,
and pray them with my body as well.
It embeds them more deeply in me, I think.
So when I may run out of words to pray,
I still have these at the ready.
With very little effort.
These words have become a prayer of orientation.

They keep me from getting lost,
in this land of milk and honey.
They help me remember who I am, where I came from,
and on whom I depend every day.

No matter who we are—students, teachers, pastors, laborers,
merchants, retirees—
we all need to periodically get reoriented.
Make this your Orientation Day.
Live life on purpose.
Know what grounds you, and keep returning to that.

Perhaps you, too, can find these Hebrew words of the Shema
meaningful to you.
Or the words of Jesus where he quoted the Shema,
and added “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Or perhaps the Lord’s Prayer could become that to you.

I made up bookmarks a while ago,
and I just reprinted a bunch of them this week.
On one side is the Shema, in Hebrew,
and the words of Jesus where he quoted it.
And on the other side is the Lord’s Prayer.
I have them on stacks on the round tables at the exit doors.
Feel free to pick one up as you leave.

Put it somewhere that you will see it often,
and be intentional about reciting it,
in whatever way works best for you.
Do it at least daily.
As you see it, and are reminded of it.
You may be surprised at the power of these words
to orient you.

As a confession, let us sing VT 388.
This song is likely inspired by Jesus words,
where he quoted the Shema,
then quickly added some other words of Torah.
Love the Lord your God with everything in you,
and love your neighbor as yourself.
You can’t have one without the other.

—Phil Kniss, August 27, 2023

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