These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
I did not grow up in a liturgical congregation, so sometimes the histories of the church and her celebrations are lost on me. But in recent years I have enjoyed studying the history of the church and the church holidays. For instance, today is “All Saints’ Day.” All Saints’ Day is traditionally celebrated on the first of November and it is meant to be a day to remember the faithful who have gone on before us.
We do not venerate the saints in the Mennonite Church in the same way some other traditions do, but I think that at its core, this is a very good practice. It is good for us to think back about the people in our lives, in our traditions, and in our religion who have either shaped us personally or indirectly. The author of the biblical book of Hebrews calls these people our “great cloud of witnesses.”
So today I am thankful for the witness of my paternal grandmother, who remained faithful until her last breath, when she passed away in her early 60’s from cancer. What an example she was to her husband, son, and grandchildren!
Today I am thankful for our Anabaptist forbearers, those who were persecuted for their faith, some of whom were burned at the stake for teaching doctrine that did not line up with the traditional teachings of the church. I’m thankful for the Conrad Grebels, the Felix Mantzes, the George Blaurocks, and the Dirk Willemses who stayed strong in their faith, even to the point of death.
Today I am thankful for the witnesses people in the Christian religion, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth. These Christians who have since passed away have been influential in my life, even though they are a part of a different Christian tradition and we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. I hope you can think of more than one or two people who have influenced you in your Christian walk as well on this All Saints’ Day.
Today being All Saints’ Day means that yesterday was an important day in Christian history as well. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg which set the church on a trajectory that eventually led to what we call the Protestant Reformation. So depending on which church tradition you want to follow, one of these Sundays is also recognized as Reformation Sunday.
So what does all of this history have to do with our scripture for today? I’m going to use a number of common phrases today, we call them “adages,” and I’m going to want you to help me complete them. As we walk through these adages I hope we will begin to understand why Deuteronomy 6 is a perfect text for All Saints’ Day.
There is an old saying that those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. Essentially this phrase is saying that we as human beings make mistakes. This has been true since the beginning of time and it is true today. We are going to make mistakes. The thing that sets some people apart is that some people learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others. While some people just keep making the same mistakes over and over, generation after generation.
The name “Deuteronomy” simply means “second law.” The Law, or the Torah, was teaching from God given to Moses in the book of Exodus. We find some good ethical and theological teaching there, such as what we commonly call the Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy we find the Israelites right after wandering in the wilderness for forty years, ready to enter the Promised Land. And before they do, God gives them the Law again. So technically, Deuteronomy is misnamed. It isn’t a second Law as much as it is a second giving of the Law. Just the chapter before the one we are looking at today we find the Ten Commandments.
This text is really about remembering. Remember what God has done for us and what God has called us to do. Verses 4-5 remind us just who God is and what God wants from us, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
If you have never read the Old Testament but are familiar with the New Testament, you probably have heard this before. Jesus quotes this passage when he is asked which of the 613 Old Testament laws are the most important. Love the Lord your God with all of the heart, soul, and strength.
But he goes on. In case you can’t remember to do this, let’s try some reinforcement. First, make sure your children know these teachings and the history behind them. Verse 7 says very simply, “Impress them on your children.” Obviously, this means that we are to get some kind of raised stamp and push it against our children’s skin. No, teach your children these things that God has done and that God is calling his followers to do.
Many in this congregation either are teachers, were trained as teachers, or were teachers at some point in their lives. Even many of us who have never been traditional teachers still teach. Sunday school, sermons, mentoring, and raising children are all forms of teaching.
Education theorists say that one of the surest signs of a person’s understanding of a concept is that they are able to teach it to someone else. Take for instance working on cars and engines. I can get by fixing a few things on my car if I need to, but I’m pretty much just trying to figure it out as I go. So if you come to me with a question about your car, I probably won’t be of much help. Even if I am standing right next to you while you are under the hood of your car and you ask me what you should do next, I probably won’t be able to tell you.
Let’s take this example into the church or the classroom. If you have ever taught you know that if you don’t understand a lesson, you are going to have a pretty difficult time teaching others. So before class the teacher reads their lessons, they go to other sources, to journals, magazines, books, and online resources. Because to be an effective teacher you need to know more about a subject than you plan to actually teach. Especially if people are allowed to ask questions! I hope that you all realize that teachers, Sunday school or academic, put a lot of effort in outside of the classroom just so they can get to know the material better before they try to present it to someone else.
So the instructions that Moses gives the Israelites to teach their children is really beneficial for the children as they hear these lessons. But it is also beneficial for the parents and instructors as they teach the next generation. As I’ve said a number of times, I learn more from writing a sermon than you do from hearing one.
Those who fail to learn from history are destined to repeat it. I believe that to some extent this old saying is true.
The next adage that I wish to consider is the old saying, Practice makes perfect. I don’t know about you, but I have practiced a lot of things in my life, and there are few things that I do perfectly.
When I was in middle school, I practiced shooting free throws every day. When I finished my chores outside, I would go in the barn, pick up my old, trusted basketball, stand fifteen feet from the backboard, and shoot. I would not go in the house until I made five shots straight. It didn’t matter if it was the middle of winter, with temperatures below freezing, or the peak of the summer, with the heat inside the barn topping 100 degrees. I shot and shot and shot until I made five straight.
I never reached “perfection,” and I don’t think that I ever really could. But what is clear is that I got better. Practice does not make perfect in all cases, but it can help you make improvements.
Let’s look at the rest of verse 7 through verse 8: “Talk about [these teachings] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”
Talk about these teachings when you are at home, and when you are away. When you go to sleep, and when you wake up. I don’t know if this is intended to be literal or metaphorical, but consider this. When you are not at home, you are away from home or “on the road.” So talk about these teachings all of the time. When you go to bed and when you wake up. Start your day and end it by thinking about these things.
If you need a reminder, write them on your hands. This is a challenging teaching, because I’m struggling to get my children to not write on their skin. But how many of us have ever written a note to ourselves on our hands? Get milk, pick up dry cleaning. Technically, the text says to bind these teachings to your hands. Have you ever tied a string around your finger to remember something? Me neither, but I think it would work.
Your hand is a really good place to write reminders because you always see them. You look at your hands when you tie your shoes, when you pick up your coffee cup, and when you shake hands with another. The reminder of God’s teachings are always right in front of you.
But what about this binding them to your forehead thing? I don’t know about you, but I can’t see my own face. That’s why I can walk around all day with something in my nose or in my teeth without even knowing it. If I have something in my teeth, I won’t see it unless I look in a mirror and smile. I need someone else to tell me that it is there.
This tying the teachings of God on your forehead isn’t for you. It is for others to see. Orthodox Jews still wear phylacteries on their foreheads and their arms. These are boxes the hold passages of scripture as a reminder of God’s teachings.
When an Orthodox Jew meets another Orthodox Jew, they see the box strapped to the other person’s head and they know that this person has the same beliefs as I do. They too practice the teachings of Moses, the teachings of God to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength. And though I’ve never experienced this myself, I assume that if you have some sort of negative feeling toward a fellow Jew and see them wearing their phylactery on their forehead, you are reminded that they too are created in the image of God. Or if you are about to punch someone, or cheat someone, you look down on your hand and see the teachings of God written there and you are reminded that you are called to a higher level.
Say these teachings of God when you lie down, when you get up, when you are at home and when you are away. Write them on your hands and foreheads. Does such repetition or practice make you perfect? No, but perhaps it makes you better.
Our final adage for this morning surprised me a bit this morning when I really started to think about it. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The reason this caught me off guard is because it says the exact opposite of the previous adage. Practice is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!
I want to change this up a bit because it is too specific and surely does not apply to every situation equally. Because sometimes doing the same thing over and over in exactly the same way and getting the same result is exactly what you want! And sometimes it can lead to different results.
Verse 9 simply says this: “Write [these teachings] on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” If you know a Jewish family or have seen a movie you may have seen the mezuzah nailed to their doorframe or the fencepost at the edge of their property. My Hebrew professor had a mezuzah on the doorframe to his office. And when you enter or leave the home/office, it is customary to place your hand on the mezuzah or even to kiss your fingers and touch the little box out of reverence to God.
The instructions to place the teachings of God on the doorframe come back to this passage, but the reason it is touched as you pass by is often traced back to a Roman soldier who converted to Judaism. The other soldiers noticed that when he walked out or into his home, he always paused a second and reached out his hand to touch the little box that was on his doorframe. They asked him why he did it, and he said, “It is the custom of the world that the king sits in the inside of the palace, and the guards protect him from the outside. However, with G‑d, His servants are inside their homes and He protects them from the outside, as the verse says (Psalms 121:8), “G‑d will protect your departure and your arrival from now and forever” (http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1671534/jewish/Why-Kiss-the-Mezuzah.htm).
Doing the same thing over and over in the same way is not insane if it is working.
But there is more to it than that. We do thing the same way over and over some times with the expectation that something will change. And that something is sometimes us.
This is one of the main points of today’s text, in my opinion. Recite these teachings over and over, recite that the Lord God is one and that we are to love him with all our heart, soul, and strength over and over, multiple times a day because it can change you.
There was once a skit on Saturday Night Live called “Deep Thoughts With Stuart Smalley.” This bit was intended to mock the self-help industry, and there was some reason to poke fun at some of the practices. Every time this bit was on the actor would begin by looking in the mirror and repeating his mantra: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”
We laugh about that today, but there is something right on about that practice. I believe that you can do the same thing over and over and be changed by it. This is why some people read the same 66 books of the Bible over and over every year. Why do you do that? Because every time you find something you haven’t seen before. Every time you go a little bit deeper. And every time you are changed if only a little bit.
In churches around the world today people are reciting the same creeds and praying the same prayers that they pray and recite every week. The Apostle’s Creed is recited in many mainline denominations, and it speaks of the creation of the world, the divinity of Jesus, his death and resurrection. I have heard that there are times when people claim that they cannot say the creed because they just don’t believe it. The advice that is given to them is usually, “Say it anyway, even if you don’t believe it.”
This isn’t an attempt to fake it until you make it. But it is a recognition that by reciting the creed over and over you will be transformed by it.
Doing the same thing over and over isn’t insane. It can be transformative.
Today on this All Saints’ Day I want to challenge you all to follow the lead of those who have gone before us. We are a part of something that started a long time before we ever entered the picture, and it will continue all long time after we are gone. Will the next generation remember us the way we remember our parents and grandparents? Only time will tell. But I’m pretty sure the chances increase drastically when we instruct the next generation about how God has acted in history, and how God has called us to live as his followers, because those who know the history of Christianity can choose to repeat it, or go a different route. The chances increase when we practice, not because practice makes us perfect, but it can make us better. So we practice loving our enemies now when our greatest enemy is that guy who got the best golf cart or your favorite desk at school. By practicing enemy love now, if we are ever faced with a real difficult situation, hopefully we will respond accordingly. And the chances of future generations remembering us increase when we repeat the same thing over and over, hoping that some things will not change, but always praying that God will continue to change us.