Fearlessness takes three things: practice, practice, practice. Our lesson this morning from Deuteronomy takes place two generations after Moses led the Israelites out of their Egyptian enslavement. On the plain of Moab, on the Eastern shore of the Jordan River, Moses is giving what turns out to be a series of farewell addresses. In our reading today, Moses recounts the Ten Commandments delivered at Mount Sinai and what we might call a summary statement, a few short verses that act as a call to action for remembering their covenant with God.
In some ways, the Ten Commandments act as a recipe for faithful living. Follow these and you will live faithful lives: don’t put anyone or anything in the place of God but God. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, envy. Do Sabbath. All in all, it’s not a bad list. If we took care to do these things, we would do well.
But we don’t, do we? I don’t know about you, but I might break a couple just in the span of a morning commute. We can’t do it! And I’m convinced that the reason we can’t is…fear.
There is no differentiation in the list between those commandments that are more or less serious. But we do treat them that way, don’t we?
The commandments we might think of as weightier – killing, adultery, theft – are all, I believe, rooted in fear. We think far less of ourselves than God thinks of us. We are convinced that what we have is what we are – and so, fearing that we are not enough, we want more so that we will be more.
We might do well at avoiding these; but there are others that we take more as suggestions than commandments. “Remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy.” How many of us actually set aside time – serious time – each and every week for Sabbath? Do we really hold a day, or even a portion of a day, sacred for remembering God and restoring our souls? If not, why not? Is it that we think of the idea as “quaint”? Or that the stricter Sabbath observances we are aware of seem antiquated to our 21st century sensibilities – no lights on, no cooking, no driving?
I think it’s fear. If the boss asks us for seven days worth of work, we fear losing our job – and that trumps Sabbath. Maybe there’s no boss to pin it on: it’s work and family and everything in between that keep us running. Some of us have convinced ourselves that if we stop, we fear that the world will, too. We can’t not be in charge – because if we aren’t, then we fear the abject chaos the world descends into – and that not only violates Sabbath, it also puts us in the place of God.
Or maybe our unwillingness to keep Sabbath is driven by fear of what the stillness will stir up for us: those demons of self-doubt or deep-seeded anger or shame, demons we can outpace much of the time, will catch up with us if we stop to rest.
Commandment by commandment, one after the other, if we fail to keep it, I am convinced that it is because fear, not faith, has taken hold.
And that’s where Moses’ summary statement comes in. Because if the Ten Commandments are the recipe for faithfulness, then these six short verses in chapter six are the recipe for fearlessness: practice, practice, practice.
These verses are known as the “Shema” after the Hebrew word that begins them. “Shema” – listen, or hear. Hear, O Israel – Listen, O people of God: the Lord, the one who delivers and saves us, is our God – the Lord, and no one else. And you shall worship this same God with your whole being: all your heart, your soul, your strength.
How, you ask? By reciting these words over and over and over and over and over again! Teach them to your children. Pass them along as a precious inheritance to the next generation. Talk about them when you are home and when you are away – in other words, all the time. Think about them when you are awake and even when you are asleep – in other words, all of the time.
These words are so central to the Hebrew Bible, so crucial to the understanding of the Torah and God’s covenant with God’s people, that you’ve probably seen them and weren’t even aware of it. They are often contained in a small scroll, rolled up into a small, decorative case, and attached to the doorframes of Jewish homes. The letter “shin”, for “Shema”, which looks kind of like an English letter “W”, marks the outside of the case.
And if you’ve ever seen Orthodox Jews in fervent prayer, with leather straps bound around their arms, and a small black box bound to their forehead, then you have seen the Shema in action. All of this is a very literal understanding of the rest of the Shema: bind these promises as a sign on your hands. Fix them as an emblem on your foreheads. Write them on your doorposts; attach them to your gates.
In other words, keep them always, always, always with you, wherever you go.
Some history and distance has happened between Moses’ words and October 11, 2015. While the Shema still stands as a precious inheritance for us, we also have Jeremiah’s words about God’s new covenant, written on hearts and not on stone. We have Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well that worship of God is about spirit and truth, not specificity of place.
The commandments have not lessened in their importance. And yet, in some ways, we treat them as though they matter less.
There is always a risk in purely outward signs of observance, that they will be nothing more than superficial shows for the rest of society. We need look no further than any of the public failings of our political or religious figures, most of whom have been championing against the very thing they fall prey to in their once-shrouded, private lives.
At the same time, there is just as much of a risk when we move from these physical manifestations of God’s commands, of holy bindings on our heads and arms, of sacred decorations on doorposts and gates. In some ways, we have privatized faith to the point that it doesn’t matter anymore.
So what would it look like to be fearless people of faith with integrity, inside and out? More importantly, what would it take to get there?
As we talked about last week, fear is not a bad thing! It’s a necessary part of our built-in, God-given survival mechanism. Fear is part of what teaches us that food is good and fire is bad. However, there are places where those survival mechanisms trip us up. Our human society has evolved faster than our biology, and our brains have not kept up. And yet, there is a kind of shortcut: practice.
Our brains are remarkable things. Even when they are damaged, they are remarkably elastic and can be retrofitted, in a sense – they can rewire, create new neural pathways. And what does it take to do this? Practice. Practice. Practice.
We practice new ways of behaving, responding, reacting; and our brains adapt, so that our natural reaction in fear and brokenness is replaced by a new natural reaction in hope and health. This is why faith is a discipline, that it takes practice.
As many of you know, we are in the midst of our Stewardship Season. In one month, on Sunday, November 15, we are asking each of you to make some kind of commitment to God’s work here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church for 2016. We will be asking you, to the best of your ability, to make a promise regarding how you will spend your time, how you will use your talents, and how you will use your money for the sake of what it is that God is doing.
In many ways, what we do is very, very private. We don’t have “levels” of giving that we publish. We don’t charge a membership fee – after all, if we believe God’s grace is a gift that is freely received, how can we turn around and charge for it? All we ask about your financial gift is that you pray about it. Be absolutely transparent with God about what it is that gives you hope and what it is that gives you fear. And…listen. Listen to what it is that God is saying to you – not anyone else, just you – about your gift.
And here’s where that recipe for fearlessness comes in: I want to suggest that each of us, each and every day between now and November 15, read these words from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 daily. Let them be a part of your daily prayer and reflection.
Just like last week, I’m passing out cards, and I encourage you to take one. Put it in your wallet, or on your mirror so that you read it each and every day. They will become, more and more, a practice that leads to fearlessness; and a fearlessness that leads to faithfulness.
May it be so, now and always.