Remembering the Way

Journey of the Magi (1435), Stefano di Giovanni

Pentecost +15
Rev. Doug Floyd
Deuteronomy 4:1-9, Psalm 15, Ephesians 6:10-20, Mark 7:1-23

In the novel Fahrenheit 451, the world has grown tired of reading. In fact, most books are outlawed. People spend their free time watching wall to wall entertainment or listening to music and stories with their ear buds. Written in 1951, the story anticipates a variety of modern technologies as well as books. The world Ray Bradbury describes sounds similar to the world Neil Postman would describe in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

In a world where people no longer read and no longer choose to think difficult thoughts and do difficult deeds, we meet people dying under the tyranny of leisure and self-indulgence. People have forgotten their own stories let alone the stories of their history and their culture.

As the Guy Montag leaves the clutter of the city, he meets with a group of people hiding out in the country and living near the railroad tracks. He meets former professors and ministers and scientists who have memorized books of the Bible and other the writings from the past. By remembering the old ways and thoughts, they hope to build civilization again.

This made me think of a group of Germans who met at the home of Helmuth James Graf Von Moltke in 1940 to begin laying for rebuilding Germany and Europe after World War 2. They were from all different backgrounds including Catholics and Protestants, men and women, socialists and conservatives. The common opposition to Hitler and the fear that his rule was crushing the future of Germany united them.

This group met formally and secretly a few times during the war. Moltke himself was eventually arrested and executed by the Nazis. Many of the others played key roles in helping rebuild the nation after the war. Together they preserved a common memory while also looked with hope toward the future.

The act of remembering rightly is revolutionary for it is the act of returning to the origins while also turning toward the future. We see this kind of movement of looking back and looking forward in journey stories. These tales often involve preserving or recovering lost memories. In the film Australia, Lady Sarah seeks to drive a herd of cattle across the Never Never desert with the help of an Aboriginal guide. He can only remember the way by singing a song. So he sings them through the wasteland to the other side.

We might think about today’s Scripture readings in light of journey stories. Psalm 15 sings a song about traveling to the city of God. The Psalmist asks, “Lord who may dwell in your holy hill?” Then answers, “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right” (Ps 15:2). As he journeys to the city of God, the Psalmist considers rightly how to treat his neighbor, the innocent and the enemies of God. He is remembering the ancient path of Torah, of the commandments.

Just as Moses tells the people in the Deuteronomy 4 passage, “Take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” They are being called to remember both the way God has led them from the slavery of Egypt and through the wilderness even as they also remember the way God has taught, that is the way of holiness, the way of heeding God’s instruction as revealed in the Ten Commandments and throughout the law.

This is a way of holiness that is characterized by love of God and love of neighbor. This way of remembering is a way of obedience, a way of trusting God’s guidance and obeying God’s command. Psalm 15 makes it clear that the one who draws near to the dwelling of the Lord must “walk blamelessly and do what is right and speaks truth in his heart.”

In the Gospels, we discover that dwelling in the presence of the Lord begins by trusting and following Jesus the Christ. He is the way, the truth and the life, and he promises that He will  “keep us from stumbling and to present us blameless before the presence of God’s glory with great joy” (Jude 24). Through we may pass through times of suffering and sadness, we are walking on the way of joy, deep joy and peace that cannot be shaken by the anguish of this life.

As we follow in the way of the Lord, there is always a tendency to forget the memory: to forget God’s hand of deliverance and to introduce new ways that turn out to be dead ends. Just as the people in Fahrenheit 451 chose to forget their past and banish books, we live in a time when people can be so overcome with the wonders of the new, that they forget this ancient, well trod path.

And worse yet, they abandon the way of the Lord. At first, this seems to be the way of freedom from restraint. It seems to usher in a new season of libertine delights, but quickly new and harsher restraints will replace the wisdom revealed in the ancient path of the righteousness as revealed in Scripture.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see a pattern of reform movements that call Israel back to the way, the ancient pattern of remembering God’s deliverance and obeying God’s call to rightly ordered love. The Pharisees start out as a reform movement, but they tend to substitute some of their own traditions over the basic expectations of Torah. 

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for following the traditions of men while abandoning the commandments of God. He is not rebuking tradition but the traditions of men. They have failed the ancient traditions handed down from Moses. Specifically, Jesus rebukes them for their failure to honor and care for mother and father while following traditions and rules they created that will give them glory and prestige in the culture around them.

They are upset that the disciples failed to follow their hand cleansing rituals, but later in the story Jesus points out that this outer cleansing cannot touch the real defilement that comes from the heart: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk 7:20–23).

These Pharisees were unfaithful to follow the Ten Commandments while demanding others follow the cultural restrictions imposed by their order. This makes me think of the tendency in our culture to cast off the restraints of the past while creating new and harder restraints that do not open the way to love. As G.K. Chesterton used to say, There are only Ten Commandments, but if you break the ten commandments, you end up creating lots of little laws to make up for the loss. In his little book “True Believer,” Eric Hoffer points out that every tyrant starts out promising freedom from the last tyrant.

In many ways, the life of faith is life of learning to walk into God’s ancient path of trust, of obedience, of submission. Obviously, it does look different for each of us at times, but it always will mean dethroning our stubborn self-righteousness and looking to a righteousness not made by hands but by the grace of God. Thus, it begins with the absolute recognition of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. He called me out of darkness into his glorious light.

In his grace, we follow the ancient way of discipleship. Throughout the ages, Israel and the church have looked to the Ten Commandments as the summary of obedience. These words train our hearts and minds in the way of love. Martin Luther suggested using the commandments in prayer and worship. First offering thanks for God leading us in his way. Then repenting of ways I had failed to love God and others, and finally reflecting on how these commands might shape our steps this day and in the days ahead as we serve the world around us.

This path of obedience is not a path of instant transformation but slow submission to God through all the seasons of life. It is way of trust that he is and will change us into a holy people. It is a way of looking back and looking forward even as I walk in the present moment.

Jesus makes us holy even as he calls us to follow in the way of holiness. This will mean facing our tendencies like the Pharisees to abandon to the true patterns of loving God and loving one another for minor disputes that only serve to increase our own sense of self-righteousness.  Rather, we humble ourselves under the might hand of God, we submit and serve one another in the love of Christ, and we return to the ancient stories handed down to us in Scripture as we remember and rehearse the way to the city of God.

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