Sometimes people have a conversation on two levels. They will appear to be talking on one level, when their meaning is on another level. They seem to be saying one thing when, in fact, they are saying even something more.
For instance, a husband has been at work all day. He has a panelled office with a great view and a personal secretary who knows how to protect him from interruptions. He has a long leisurely lunch with some of his buddies at a restaurant with soft light and linen tablecloths and stemware. He comes home just in time for supper and he puts his napkin in his lap and says to his wife, “And how was your day, dear?”
Now although she has a master’s degree — in fact, he doesn’t even have a master’s degree — she is taking time out from her career to stay home while the children are small. And it’s been raining off and on all day and she’s been in the house with three preschool children of her own and intermittent visits from other preschool children who live in the neighborhood. And the children have been in and out and in and out, each time tracking a wheelbarrow full of mud across the kitchen floor. And at lunch one of the children pushed a bowl of Spaghetti-O’s on the floor and the children have been listening to the same record on the record player all afternoon, with the volume turned up as high as it would go, and the children have been fighting with such intensity that she thought the One Hundred Hour War had come to her living room.
The husband puts his napkin in his lap and asks, “How has your day been, dear?” With the children sitting at the table where they can hear every word (but now behaving like candidates for the Neighbor of the Year Award), she replies “Fine.” But she says “Fine” in such a way that the husband hears it on two levels.
Now the same kind of two-level conversation is taking place in this text from Deuteronomy. At one level, the story is about Moses and the people of Israel. They are on the edge of the promised land. Moses gathers them together for one final series of sermons before they cross the River Jordan and begin to take the land. (If any of you are ever tempted to complain about the length of your pastor’s sermons, I hope you will remember that Moses preached one sermon in Deuteronomy that lasted over twenty chapters. Not minutes, chapters. Remember and be grateful).
And Moses repeats one theme so often that you think the book of Deuteronomy is just one instant replay after another. Remember. Remember. Remember. Remember God. Remember who God is. Remember God’s overflowing love. Remember that without God, you would still be crying in slavery in Egypt. Remember God’s great power to open the Red Sea and to give manna, made fresh every day in God’s own kitchen. Remember God’s infinite patience when you whined forty years in the wilderness. Remember the commandments which God gave you. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (
If you remember God and live in the way God wants, then you can occupy the land. And if you teach your children to remember God, then they can live in the land generation after generation. “Recite (these things) to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (
Why all this emphasis on remembering and teaching? Because we forget. Why do we worship every seven days? Because we forget. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t take seven days. Sometimes it just takes the blink of an eye. You drive out of the parking lot after church. You’re running late to a Sunday afternoon meeting. And you get behind some dear saint who equates safety with going as slow as possible and stopping long enough to cook a meal at every stoplight. Now I doubt the first thing to come to your mind is “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”
We can’t see God. God can’t whisper in our ears, “Show that you love me with all your heart in the way that you spend your money.” We need to be reminded, or we forget. So at one level, this is a story of Moses and the people of Israel about to enter the promised land.
We can also hear the text on another level. You see, the book of Deuteronomy was not actually written until several hundred years after Moses. Moses lived about 1300 B.C. Deuteronomy was not written until about 550 B.C., about the time of the exile in Babylonia. Babylon invaded Israel and carried the leaders of the Jewish people across 500 miles of desert into exile in Babylonia, modern day Iraq. We can hear this text addressed to people in exile.
I can hear them talking over coffee late at night. “We’re not in Jerusalem any more. We’re a long way from home. Things are not the way they were when we grew up. We hardly know what to believe or to do.”
I’ll bet you understand the experience of exile. Maybe you’ve been an Indiana University fan seated in the Purdue University section of the bleachers. Or maybe you’ve had to make a move from one place to another that you didn’t want to make, and you look out the window and wonder, “Where are my friends? What am I doing here? I’m just so alone.” My wife went into a drug store on her way to the airport. She came out and the back door of the station wagon was open. Someone had taken her suitcase. Instant exile.
And I’ll bet you know many of the feelings of exile: abandonment, uncertainty, bewilderment, perhaps even fear — wondering what you can count and what you can’t.
In the last 20 years, many congregations have come to feel a little exiled. Feeling a little uncertain, a little confused, a little unsure about what to do and be. For some of us, it may be partly a physical thing. Back in the 1950s and 1960s when the churches up and down Central Avenue were booming, people were pretty much the same. But the last 25 years in our neighborhood have been a period of change. Old people move out. New people move in. And it takes a while to grow accustomed to new faces and new cultures. This new situation can be very exciting as we encounter new people and new ways of doing things. But it can also be unsettling.
Someone moves in across the street. You go over to invite them to church, and they tell you they’re Muslim. Did you say Muslim? Yes, Muslim. When I was growing up, nearly everyone in the United States was Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. But today there are more Muslims in the United States than there are Episcopalians. And do you know what the fastest growing religion-affiliated group is? I see several people shaking their heads and they’re right. None. Over the past 20 years, the fastest growing religion-affiliated category is None. So many people get along without any religion at all. Do you ever wonder what’s so important about being a Christian?
Even in the church itself, we’re not always sure what to do or even what to believe anymore. We run a lot of outreach programs — food pantry, youth programs, neighborhood association projects. And they’re all important. But there are times when doing things — even good things — is not enough. Sometimes you’re just not sure what your life counts for. Sometimes you just have this yearning for something more.
Sometimes I want my church to help me sort out what it all means. I don’t need more meetings to go to. I don’t need more opportunities for doing good, charitable work. I need to know God. When it’s 2:00 a.m. and I’m laying awake and I hear a lonesome siren whining its way up the street, what I want more than anything else is God.
This is the point at which exile can be the most poignant and painful. Just what kind of God can we believe in today? Just what does God do for us? And how does our knowledge of God help us make sense of our lives?
The deepest human hunger is to understand the meaning of life. And the oldest function of religion is to help people figure out the meaning of life.
And that’s where we come back to our text. What do exiles need more than anything else? To remember .. to remember .. to remember. Who God is. What God does. To remember that the God who brought us out of slavery in Egypt can lead us out of exile and into a new promised land. So the people who wrote Deuteronomy said, “Keep these (things) that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”
I always try to wait as long as possible before mowing the grass the first time in the spring. The sooner you start mowing, the faster the grass grows and the more of it you must mow. So I waited until the grass had completely hidden the house from the street before I got out the mower. I filled it with gas and pulled the starter cord. Nothing. I pulled, and pulled and pulled. Nothing. And I pulled and pulled and pulled some more. Nothing. Just one more pull; surely it will start this time. Nothing.
A crowd of neighborhood children gathered around. Some of them comforted me with the reminder that their fathers build computers in their basements as hobbies. After I had been pulling for over an hour, and had sweat so much that our driveway was under a flashflood alert, I felt completely powerless and defeated. So, into the car went the mower and I took it to the repair shop, hoping that the health department would not cite us for weed height violations.
The mechanic asked, “Did you fill it with gas?” Did I fill it with gas? All of a sudden I imagined I was George Foreman and the mechanic was a practice bag. Yes, I filled it with gas. “Well, then,” the mechanic asked, “did you open this valve?” He reached down and turned a little valve in the gas line that leads from the tank to the motor. I had forgotten about that little valve. But I will never forget it again, not if I live until the year 3000.
Today we need for the church to be a teaching community. We need to remember to open the valve that gets the gas from the tank to the motor. Whether we are on the edge of the promised land, or whether we are in the depths of exile, we need to remember.