Sermons : Old Testament Texts Every Christian Should Know: 4
Deuteronomy 6:4-12, 20-25
A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
June 27, 2010
There seems always to be a false dichotomy at play in the world... the dichotomy that resides in the tension between the old and the new, between tradition and new ways of thinking. It plays out within corporate boardroom debates and over family dinner table discussions and in the meetings of denominational bodies. And the debate often takes the shape of a battle between old values, traditions and behaviors and new concepts, values and ways of thinking. But it is often a false dichotomy, as I said, for almost always there is much to value in the tradition and much to learn from the new. Whenever we choose one to the exclusion of the other, we are impoverished in mind and spirit.
I am grateful for the motto that has always characterized the larger Presbyterian and Reformed family: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda: "The church reformed and always to be reformed." That motto, rightly understood, challenges both the conservative and the liberal impulses that characterize our diverse church today. It does not bless either preservation for preservation's sake or change for change's sake. Theologian Anna Case Winters notes:
In the 16th-century context the impulse [our motto] reflected was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical, in the sense of returning to the "root." The Reformers believed the church had become corrupt, so change was needed. But it was a change in the interest of preservation and restoration of more authentic faith and life-a church reformed and always to be reformed according to the Word of God.
[Our motto] brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation-either to the past or to the present-and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being "re-formed" according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.
Having acknowledged the value both of new ways of thinking and the traditions passed on to us, I want to say a word today in behalf of tradition. It is not an easy word to speak, because for many people in our culture, "tradition" is a loaded word with many negative connotations. After all, we are, as my friend Ron Byars says, a people with a populist "tradition" of being indifferent or hostile to history, authority, and complexity. In the Hebrew faith, as in ours, however, tradition is crucial to our sense of identity and mission. The remembering of the tradition is essential for us to remember who we are and whence we've come, so that we can better discern where we need to go and what we need to do to be faithful to the God who has been "our help in ages past" and will be "our hope for years to come."
The word "tradition" itself comes from the Latin traditio, which means "to hand on." And no passage speaks more to the importance of "handing on" that tradition in the life of Israel than this passage to which we have turned this morning. It is arguably the most sacred of the Hebrew texts. It is known in Hebrew as the Shema, after the first Hebrew word:
Shema Yisrael: Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.
These are stirring words Moses speaks, and they bear a reminder that commitment to God "cannot simply be [understood] as the performance of certain outward duties... Rather, all knowledge of God becomes a matter of heart-searching." Heart, soul and might. Moses follows the command with a reminder to the people of the importance of passing on these words, of sharing the tradition:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them 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. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, and write them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates. 9
Moses here is thinking of the children of the Exodus, and what he commands is more than the simple placement of a mezuzah outside one's front door. It is essential to the identity of the people that they remember whence they've come and name the One who liberated them and brought them through the wilderness. It is essential that they teach that story and share their heritage with children and grandchildren. And across the centuries, the Hebrew people have done so. One of the things I admire most about Judaism is its unfailing legacy of passing on its tradition to its children.
It is something I admire about this congregation as well. Through its Sunday School and through opportunities such as this week's Vacation Bible School, this church offers some rich resources of memory and tradition to its children. But make no mistake: it is a much harder task today than it was in prior generations, and we have to be ever so much more intentional in doing it. Think about it: The whole "ecology" of institutions engaged in religious instruction when many of us were children has undergone a seismic shift in the decades since.
When I was a child in the town where I was raised, the community-at-large nurtured children within a pervading Judeo-Christian ethos and atmosphere. Neighbors, teachers, and others helped teach me the faith. In those days also, families were essentially secure, extended and stable. There was little mobility; most people were nurtured, and then married, lived and died within a hundred miles of their birthplace. In such an environment, parents and extended family members provided an important contribution to a child's religious education. Additionally, public schools were essentially Protestant parochial schools, complete with Bible reading, prayer and even textbooks with moral (and sometimes overtly religious) lessons. The church was usually a neighborhood congregation where all ages knew one another and interacted regularly, a community of faith that provided the center of family and community life. Religious periodicals like Presbyterian Survey were often found in the home. And finally, the Sunday School completed the continuum of institutions deliberately engaged in passing on the tradition.
Needless to say, today we find ourselves in a radically different environment. Our communities are more heterogeneous, pluralistic and diverse. Much more secular, on the one hand, and yet extravagantly religious on the other, with both extremes posing a threat to biblical faith. Family structures have undergone a significant reshaping and children often grow up at great distance from extended family. The public schools are, for the most part, religiously neutral. The Church itself is rarely at the center of people's social and community life and, in fact, has to compete with organized sports and other activities for parents' and children's time. Technology and media have changed dramatically. And we have been left with church school programs where the stakes are high, a program that struggles to do alone what an entire ecology accomplished just fifty years ago. I'm not saying that earlier environment was a good thing in all respects; indeed, parts of it were not. What I am saying is that if we think the tradition is important and worth passing on to our children, we need to be a lot more intentional now about how we do so. And Moses' instructions to the Hebrew people as they prepared to enter the Promised Land are important reminders to us now of where we need to begin.
We begin with the story. We begin with Scripture. Says Ron Byars,
It is not possible to [pass on] a biblical faith without serious acquaintance with the Bible. It is absolutely crucial not only for our children, but for the integrity of the church, that we form religious commitments out of deep acquaintance with the biblical story, both the parts of it we affirm, and the parts with which we quarrel or struggle. It is, after all, this story ... that frames our vision of the world, its Creator, its origin, and its destiny.
Most Christians have Bibles. Many have more than one. But a great number of those Bibles show little wear. Says Michael Lindvall, "[Our Bibles] decorate bookshelves and nightstands, with birth announcements and marriage licenses tucked in their...pages, where they run no risk of getting lost."
My guess is that [most] Christians have Bibles in excellent condition for [several] reasons: First, they are nervous about what they will actually encounter if they read the book. They know just enough about the contents from Sunday school and sermons to know that it's not your typical self-help book. They guess rightly that reading it will be demanding. Not only will the act of reading it itself be demanding, but the content will doubtless make demands on their lives. There are, they might recall, all those Old Testament prophets with their uncompromising words about justice and the poor. And there is Jesus, who seems to say so much about turning cheeks, giving coats away, and taking up one's cross. 
There are other reasons, of course. Indeed, I've heard many of them: "I find it hard to understand" or "I don't find it relevant" or "I don't know where to start" or "I don't feel well-enough grounded in faith to read it."
Now, we can fix such things. We regularly offer classes and courses designed to make the texts come alive and to offer a foothold in the Biblical narrative to enable you to read and understand, and so be able to share the story, to pass on the tradition to others. It is a truism, but still true that the Church is always only one generation away from extinction. Christian faith is not a solitary journey; it is intended to be and is, in fact, the faith of a community. It is from the community that we have learned it, and it is up to the community to pass it on. Every time a baby is baptized in this sanctuary, you promise to share the good news of faith with her or him. It is a promise we would do well to keep. And we are here to help you do so.
Moses gave the people a command to love God and instruction on the importance of sharing the tradition with generations to come. He then said,
When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?' 21then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.... 22
And he went on to tell the story, to share with them the tradition he exhorted them to pass on.
It is still a story and a tradition worth sharing, even if it is more expansive for us, because we would add to it the tradition shaped by the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is our story, and we have promised to share it. If we want our children to have faith, and their children, too, it is a promise we would do well to keep.
 Anna Case Winters, in an article on the PCUSA website: http://www.pcusa.org/today/believe/past/may04/reformed.htm
 Ronald P. Byars, "Between Text and Sermon: Deuteronomy 6:1-15," Interpretation, July 2006, 195.
 Ronald E. Clements, The Book of Deuteronomy: The New Interpreter's Bible, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998, 346.
 I borrow the term "ecology" from John Westerhoff's landmark book, Will Our Children Have Faith?, New York, Seabury Press, 1976. A revised paperback edition was published in 2000 by Morehouse Publishing.
 Byars, 195.
 Byars, 195.
 Michael L. Lindvall, The Christian Life: A Geography of God, Louisville, Geneva Press, 2001, 61.