Proper 18, Year C, Church of St. Joseph of Arimathea, Hendersonville

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19).

For the last twelve years or so I’ve been involved in the Downtown Rotary Club of Nashville, which means that on Mondays I often travel to the weekly meeting for lunch and a program. I didn’t have any experience of Rotary before moving to Nashville, but I joined because a diocesan leader thought it would be a good thing for me to do. Rotary is like a lot of other civic organizations, in sponsoring good works and providing information, fellowship, and connection.

I mention this because the standard practice at the weekly gathering is to say the Four Way Test and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Test is a short summary of the values of Rotary, a formula by which actions can be judged. The Pledge, of course, is the pledge to the flag, which I haven’t said much since I graduated from high school, but which (along with the Four Way Test) is a part of each meeting. After twelve years even I have been able to internalize the Test. Every week that the Rotary gathers, the members are put in mind of the values of the organization, and their identity as citizens of the Republic. These brief formulae conjure up a larger history and encapsulate a bigger story that doesn’t really need to be told in full at every meeting, but instead is evoked by the short repetition of the formula, week by week.

Our first reading, from Deuteronomy, is a case in point; an illustration of the same principle. The book is in the form of a farewell speech by Moses to the People of Israel. Moses has brought the People out of slavery in Egypt, through the desert, to the very borders of the Promised Land. On the plains of Moab, he gives the People his valedictory address, “the mother of all sermons,” and then ascends to the top of Mount Pisgah where he can see the Land of Canaan. It’s the end of the journey for Moses, because he cannot enter; but it is only the end of the beginning for the People as they move out and enter the Promised Land.

At this point of transition, Moses wants to put the People in mind of who God is. He wants to remind them of all that God has done for them in the past, and of the laws that he’s given them. It’s in Deuteronomy that we find the words, “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. Keep these words… recite them to your children…” (Deut. 6:5-6). He also tells them, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:14). In other words, keep in the forefront of your minds and constantly on your lips the word of what God has done for you.

Deuteronomy is all about remembering the Covenant that God made with the People, choosing them to be his own People; giving them a Law to live by and a Land to live in. In the ancient world, covenants were drawn up when issues arose between people that needed to be mediated. A covenant outlined the terms of agreement; the gods in heaven were called to witness; the premiums for performance were outlined and the penalties for non-compliance set forth.

Of course, the Covenant that Deuteronomy is talking about is a different matter. God cannot witness it because he’s a party to the Covenant, but heaven and earth are called to witness. The history of Israel is recounted and the patriarchs are invoked. In the Covenant, God binds himself to its terms and calls the People to take up the responsibilities of relationship. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess” (Deut. 30:17). In the Covenant, God teaches them how they are to live.

Here in this short section of Deuteronomy we find all the elements of the Covenant that God made with his People. It’s in the form of a sermon but at the heart of it are ritual formulae, and an invitation to repeat them. We find the ritual evocation of blessing and curse, of life and death; the witness of heaven and earth; the remembrance of the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not too different from the Four Way Test or the Pledge in its method, after all, but of much greater significance.

Of course, this same pattern is at the heart of what we do each week as we gather for the Eucharist. This is the new Covenant in his blood, as Jesus called it. God has brought us into new relationship with him through Jesus Christ our Lord, through his death and resurrection, and each week we do this in remembrance of him. Simple, memorable, and repeatable: the recipe for success. Christians have done this and continue to do this, to gather and to pray; to remind ourselves of who God is, and what he has done, and how we are to live. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live (Deut. 30:19).

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee