“Receive, Remember, Respond”~ The Final Sunday in Creation
Deut 8:7-18, Ps 65 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 8, 2023 (Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld)
The book of Deuteronomy never ceases to amaze me. It is so ancient, and yet so contemporary, in its expression of faith, God’s love, and confidence in the future. Traditionally, it is the culmination of the Torah, the five books of Jewish law, but there are many ideas about when it was written, and by whom. I’m not going to worry about that today! It begins “these are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness….”. There they are, the chosen ones of God, standing at the edge of the Promised Land after forty years of wandering, of hunger and thirst, of battles and internal spiritual conflicts, of disobedience and blessing, equipped with all the laws that will be needed to form a new society. And Moses, 120 years old, shares with them his final words of wisdom, a last will and testament, before he turns to be taken into God’s presence. He speaks to the gathered assembly, looking out at the faces of the very few left who began the journey into the wilderness, looking out at the faces of all those who were born along the way. This is his final gift to them, to carry over the river into a new way of life.
Sometimes, my brain gets in the way of my faith. I think “what were they doing for forty years in the wilderness? They could have walked three times around the earth! It’s not that much land to cover.“ Or, “Moses wasn’t really 120, was he?” And then I remember that this is not history, it is faith story, it is sacred text, and goes beyond our human limits to bring us into the realm of God’s blessings. So today, we hear a passage that is appropriate for a thanksgiving service. It’s astounding: with just a few changes, like thinking of cranberries instead of pomegranates, or canola oil for olives, this passage could be us, right now, listening to everything Moses has to say.
Here we are, in a good land, a rich and fertile valley - with the Fraser River to the north - a land where corn and other grasses grow, where grape vines, and fruit trees flourish, where bees provide honey, where we have bread without scarcity, where minerals are mined, where we lack nothing for our comfort. We have houses to live in, and herds of cattle, (mostly, instead of sheep) and money for all the necessities of life. The psalm adds in other images, of pastures, of wilderness, of abundant water and meadows and mountains. Maybe we have already arrived in the Promised Land. Or, maybe not. Maybe we have to listen to Moses a little harder. Of course we want to celebrate and give thanks in this harvest season, we want to gather with family and friends, we want to share, sometime in this long weekend, and maybe say grace at meals, and eat a bit too much, and think about the food bank.
And God appreciates our thanks. But what about Tuesday, when everyone has gone back to life as usual, and you’ve eaten the last piece of pumpkin pie, and don’t really feel like anymore leftover turkey? Are you still going to sing the songs, and be thankful? Not really, because we are human beings, and we have a short attention span when it comes to faith. Faith is hard work. Following God’s laws, and commandments, and precepts tends to take second place to the material things in life. And God understands - up to a point. So that’s why Deuteronomy is so important, and so full of grace. We stand in the shadow of Moses, and we are reminded in this passage, of what he wanted the family of God to know three or four thousand years ago.
First of all, he wanted to reassure them that the promise of a good life was ahead because God keeps promises, even if it takes forty years or more. He wanted them to remember, or hear for the first time if they were very young, who they were and where they had come from. We need to tell the stories of our roots, our ancestors, of the hard times as well as the good. We need to treasure the traditions of the past, and make them relevant in the present.
In Deuteronomy, Moses retells the story of the exodus. There are many parallel passages in those two books, so that the people would not forget, so that they would hold the struggles of the past in their hearts, even as they rejoiced. It gives a balance to life, it may bring us closer to those who are elderly, as they tell their stories over and over again.
The suffering in the wilderness, the hunger and thirst, the dangers and the fear, made the people dependent upon God’s gifts. And they were provided for; enough food for each day, little by little, not everything all at once. There was no way to over indulge; they had to renew their trust, their prayers, their gratitude, every morning. Do we do that now? Because the second part of the passage reflects Moses’ concerns. He won’t be there to lead them, to keep them on the straight and narrow, to shepherd them as though they were a bunch of wandering sheep. And so the message he has for them is a warning.
You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statues, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built find houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the lord your God…Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”.: But, remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.
Today, as we gather here, and later, when you go home to enjoy your dinner, when you go back to work or school, or household chores, heed this warning. Pay attention to these ancient words for they are your ticket into the Promised Land. Moses was afraid for his people. As they got closer to the land of Canaan, as they stood on the edge of the river to cross over, as they got further and further away from the oppression of slavery in Egypt, and the difficulties and privations of the wilderness, as they recovered from the long journey and gathered strength, they began to have less need of God’s protection. The further they got from their suffering, the more self-sufficient they became, and their prayers and gratitude became diluted.
They had contact with other people, and strayed from the laws that made them unique and special in God’s eyes. This was the challenge they faced, and it’s a challenge for us, too. Because nothing remains the same in a vibrant, growing society. New ideas bring change, and that is a blessing. It’s the way we are made, hard-wired. The problem is how to use the old laws in a new way, and give them contemporary relevance. How do we keep God in our lives as our worship practices, our music, our prayers, our interpretation of social issues, our use of digital materials, pull us away from tradition, and reverence for the past?
All people, all life, is unique and special in God’s eyes. And that needs to be celebrated. Moses’ fear was that the people of Israel were forgetting this. They were becoming self-absorbed, they lacked humility, they were ignoring that it was through God’s power that they had been saved. They were standing, not on Holy Ground, but on dangerous ground, the place where comfort, prosperity and pride began to close the door on God’s never failing love.
So here we are today. We have the basics of life: food, clothing, a roof over our heads, security from violence, (most of the time), education for our children, a sense of justice in our legal system, (most of the time). And many of us have so much more. This is a church family that shares, that reaches out, that exemplifies God’s laws, in both the Jewish and Christian contexts. You are unique and special in God’s eyes, you are honoured and loved. And for that we give thanks.
But as we look at our communities, our country, our world, we know that there is still so much to do, before we can truly cross into the Promised Land, and make this planet earth a place of grace and safety. And that is why we need to pay attention to Moses and this passage today. If we think about some of the major issues in the news, and our concerns for creation and for humanity, several things may come to mind: food security, housing, and climate change, brought about partly because of our misuse and overuse of fossil fuels and the riches of the earth. Stuff that Moses was worried about, too.
Stuff that we can fix, if we could only get together and agree on a global basis. I don’t subscribe to the idea that all is lost, that we have damaged the earth to the point that it cannot recover. Beautiful Gaia is more resilient than we imagine. The earth has been through cataclysmic events before, only this time, human greed and selfishness play a part and it’s up to us to tackle some of the problem, and restore a balance in creation. I think that this is fixable, if we can accept the idea that change is part of the answer, and that involves the cooperation of everyone. There is a sense of urgency about the challenges that we face today, and we’re not doing much to work together right now.
I watch the news, I read the accounts, and I see that close to home, we are not getting good marks on the report cards. I grieve for the United States, as Congress acts out a replay of some of the most distressing Greek tragedies: the ones in which family members destroy one another. The ancient writers called this hubris, the inevitable fate of humanity because it is flawed and filled with pride. We can only pray for what is going on there, and that common sense and a new investment in the democratic process will prevail. Then I watch some of the news clips of our own Federal government, and I think sometimes that someone in the control room made a mistake, and it’s not parliament, but a scene from Saturday Night Live. Surely we can do better than this! Even leaving aside all the violence, hatred and oppression in other countries, if I were God, I might throw up my hands in despair and say: “That’s it! I’ve had it with you folks. I’m outta here, I’m taking my gifts and going to another planet, maybe another solar system.”
But God won’t do that. God has remained faithful throughout history, God is stuck with us, and thanksgiving is a time to offer our gratitude, our support, our resolve to make things better, to cooperate with one another and work with God to heal, to reconcile, to offer to all life the riches of the earth, the sky, the seas. This is a time to renew our faith, to look to the past for guidance, to look at the present and face its realities, to look to the future as a time of promise and plenty for all. God’s love is the deepest reality, God’s presence is the most permanent comfort we can have, God’s call to compassion and justice is the force that will make Creation whole again. I end with a reading from my favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s Grandeur”
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then not reck his rod? *
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with oil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshens deep down things;
And though the last light off the black West went,
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Let us receive God’s gifts, remember our traditions, and respond in faith to the call of creation and the needs of all God’s people. Amen