Sunday, October 15, 2023

Phil Kniss: Between cloud and ground

Search for solid ground
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-31

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Reading the book of Deuteronomy
can give you a sense of deja vu.
“Ah . . . we’ve been here before!”
Stories get retold in this book,
stories we heard in the four books before this one—
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
Repetition is even embedded in the name.
Deuteronomy means “second law,” or “copy of the law.”

But it’s not repetition for its own sake.
Stories are retold with a purpose.
The content has different origins and authors,
but this book is intentionally framed a certain way.
It’s framed as a series of sermons by Moses—
the one who led them out of slavery in Egypt,
and who then helped them endure
40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
These sermons come near the end of the 40 years.
Soon they will be crossing over into the promised land.
These long speeches retell the stories of the Exodus,
in order to reinforce the people’s identity—
an identity that’s still in its infancy.
They barely know who they are, and who their God is.
Therefore, they need to hear it again. And again and again.

Moses retells the first leg of their journey,
when they followed a pillar of cloud during the day,
and a pillar of fire at night,
as God, Yahweh, moved on ahead, showing the way.
He reminds them of their episodes of rebellion,
and God’s forgiveness and restoration.
Most importantly, he reminds them of their time at Mt. Sinai,
where Yahweh graciously gave them
what they needed most for life—the Law. The Torah.

And this brings me to the title of my sermon—
“Between cloud and ground.”
A full and meaningful life of faith,
needs both cloud and ground.
Especially when wandering in a wilderness,
we need cloud and ground.
And here’s what I mean.

Ground is mostly solid and predictable and, well, grounding.
Cloud is kind of the opposite of ground.
A cloud, by nature, is temporal.
It is shape-shifting.
It is always on the move.
It is impossible to capture and control.
While the people were wandering in the wilderness,
God came to them in a cloud, by day.
And by night, a cloud of fire, you might say.
Or a “pillar” of cloud and fire.
What was most needed at that point in time,
in the life of the people of Israel,
was to keep them on the move, and in the right direction.
See, there was this strong magnetic force,
trying to pull them back to Egypt.
Yes, there was oppression and slavery there.
But there was also a reliable source
of food and water and shelter.
And if you’re hungry and thirsty and exposed to the elements,
that kind of predictability can pull pretty hard.

So God saw . . . and gave them what they most needed.
God came as a cloud, and led them forward, instead of backward.

But after a long while of wandering, of pulling up stakes,
and moving on to the next place, time after time after time,
they were in need of some solid ground.

So God saw . . . and gave them what they needed then,
the Law, to ground them.

We misread the NT words of Jesus, and the words of Paul—
as being entirely negative toward the law.
As if the law is bad, but grace is good.
But neither Jesus nor Paul threw out the Law.
They only put it in perspective.

For Jesus and Paul then,
and for Jews everywhere, to this day,
the Law has always been a gift, a gracious provision of God.
It’s a reminder of who we are.
It helps us never lose sight of home.
It keeps our feet from slipping out from under us,
whenever the earth is shaking.

We live in the space between cloud and ground.
We need God coming to us as cloud,
whenever we are tempted to go back to a life
that is less than what God made us for.
And we need God coming to us as ground,
in gracious words that ground us, center us, locate us,
whenever we find ourselves unmoored, adrift,
wondering if the future holds anything life-giving.

The “10 Commandments” is just another example
of why we need to read our Bible in its context.
It’s just way too easy to pull something out of scripture,
and make it a plaque on the wall.
A motto.
A saying.
Something to argue about and take people to court over.
The way some have taken the Ten Commandments to court,
and sued over whether they belong on government property
or not.
I really don’t care much where they get publicly displayed.
I care more about whether the people whose scripture this is,
take to heart the whole story,
and promote the kind of relationship with God,
and with other people,
that the commandments speak of.

I suppose you know, that the Hebrew Bible—
scripture for Jews and for Christians—
includes, twice, what we call the Ten Commandments.
Earlier, in Exodus 20, and again here, in Deuteronomy 5.
And there’s another list in Exodus 34,
also called Ten Commandments,
but that list has more to do with ritual law and worship.
But did you know that the Koran also refers
to Moses and the Ten Commandments in a positive light?
and restates most of these commandments
in various places throughout the Koran?

In other words, there is some consistency here,
across religious traditions,
that value these words as grounding words.
These words deserve our respectful engagement, and obedience.

But let’s not forget—they are not just a cold list of rules to follow.
They came from a God who saw . . .
who saw a people who were in danger of becoming
untethered, unmoored, adrift in a wilderness.
So God came to them and gave them what they needed.
This law is grace.

Instead of reading them as rules,
let’s read them as the gracious gift they are,
given by a God who sees our need, and who responds in love.
“You shall have no other gods before me . . . ” and
“You shall not make for yourself an idol,”
means that God frees us from a life
of being pulled in opposite directions.
“You shall not make wrongful use
of the name of the Lord your God”
means we need not be bogged down by the trivial and profane,
but get to bask in the beauty of the sacred.
“Observe the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
means we don’t have to be bound by compulsive busyness
and constant work, and anxious accumulation, thank God!
“Honor your father and your mother,”
means we get to stay connected to our roots,
and draw deep nourishment from them.
“You shall not murder,”
means—thank God—we don’t have to be caught
in the death-trap of escalating violence,
that’s getting played out all over the world.
“You shall not commit adultery,”
means we can have security and commitment
in our most intimate human relationships.
“You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
all mean that God liberates us from a lonely and bankrupt life,
where feeding our personal desires takes precedence over
having a rich relational life of mutuality in community.

These Ten Words, or Ten Commandments,
came from a God who saw a people
that needed the kind of grounding these words provide—
words that help us live well
in this space between cloud and ground.

Yes, we are a people open to change, to new direction,
to the wind of the Spirit,
to the next place God wishes to take us.
And we are people who nevertheless have our feet on the ground,
who know who we are,
who we belong to,
and where, ultimately, we are headed.

Join me in these words of confession . . .
one From all our fears that burden and paralyze us,
  all God of cloud and fire, free us and nudge us forward.
one From all that keeps us from moving forward with you,
  all God of cloud and fire, liberate us, and lead us.
one But when we find ourselves unmoored and adrift,
  all God of the Covenant, ground us by your grace.
one When we have lost sight of home,
  all God of the Covenant, remind us of who we are.
one The God of cloud and fire, of grace and grounding,
Loves us unconditionally, and promises to be with us 
always, to the end of the age.

—Phil Kniss, October 15, 2023

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