"PECULIAR" - Deuteronomy 26:16-19 from January 22, 2017

Alex Evans on January 22, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, January 22, 2017

I Peter 2:9-10; Deuteronomy 26:16-19

“PECULIAR”

“The two most important days in your life are the day you were born . . . and the day you find out why.”

            That is a quote attributed to the famous American writer, Mark Twain. That quote is also one of the opening lines in the film production of Roots, (recently on the History Channel) the latest re-make of Alex Haley’s book by the same title. Roots is that epic story that chronicles the life of an African boy, Kunte Kinte, born four days up the river in central Gambia, who was sold as a slave and sent to America.

            “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born . . .  and the day you find out why.”

            Why were you born? What is your life meant to be about?

            Those questions seem to take on a special and focused relevance these days. The recent year and presidential election have been divisive and difficult, reflecting lots cultural change, even raising cultural questions. As of Friday, we have a new president and we wait and watch – some of us with hopeful anticipation, others of us with great anxiety – about how things will unfold. There are questions and uncertainties in every area – healthcare, education, environment, immigration, race relations, foreign relations, and more.

What is our life meant to be about? What does faith and discipleship look like for these days?

            To keep me going, to find some encouragement, I have been reading one of my favorite authors, a person of great wisdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. His newest book is entitled, NOT IN GOD’S NAME. It is about the growing problem of religious violence; Sacks’ insights always help me know what life is about. His wisdom emerges from the core of faith. Sacks reminds us:

-                    Every human being, regardless of color, culture, class, or creed, is made in the image of God.

-                    The Supreme Power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless.

-                    A society is judged always by the way it treats the weakest and most vulnerable members.

-                    Life is sacred.

-                    And between all people there should be a bond of righteousness and love.

So what is life about? Sacks confirms: we are to live by faith and be a blessing to others regardless of their faith. When we do anything less, God weeps. (see p. 4)

            Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, argued that the most dangerous sin in our lives is NEVER something we did or did not do.  The most dangerous sin in our lives is NOT some grievous act – like stealing or murder; and it’s also NOT some significant negligence, or omission, like the prayer of confession sometimes says. The most dangerous sin of our lives is the tendency to forget – we forget whose we are (God’s); we forget the Source of our lives (God); we forget what shape our lives are to take (loving God and serving God).

            Now, let’s listen to the Scripture from Deuteronomy 26:

16This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. 17Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. 18Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; 19for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            That is what life is about!

I want to take moment and remind us of the context of these verses. Deuteronomy, the book, gets it name from the Greek words that mean “second Law.” Deuteronomy, considered the “second book of the law,” wants to reiterate and clarify what Moses received on the mountaintop with God, which is found in Exodus, the second book of the Bible. Deuteronomy has many chapters of laws and ways that God’s people are instructed to live. Knowing how easy and tempting it is to FORGET, Deuteronomy says many times prior to chapter 26, do not forget: this is who you are. Therefore, this is how you worship, this is how you deal with one another, this is how you treat foreigners, this is what you do with crops, and daily routines.

            Then, Chapter 26 begins with instruction that when God’s people come into the land that God promises, they are to take the first fruit, the first of their resources; then they are to RECITE the great history of God’s saving acts. So Chapter 26 becomes a favorite: “A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down to Egypt, and increased in number as aliens, . . . but became slaves, . . . yet they cried to the Lord, and God heard, and God saved them, and brought them to this land of milk and honey.”

            The message is very strong. We should never forget who we are. We have a history of God loving, saving, helping, guiding. That means we always have a hope. That is the point of this litany, this remembering, this passage.

Then we get to verse 16: “Today, you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to walk in God’s ways, and to live as God’s people. And today, the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people.”

That is the phrase I love so much – “God’s treasured people.” That is the promise once again, the COVENANT - we seek to live as God’s people and God makes us God’s “treasured people.”

            Then, there is something very fascinating about this phrase – God’s treasured people.

            The Hebrew word here is segullah – which is found only 8 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is a noun, feminine – meaning, essentially “possession, or property.” Segullah appears first in Exodus 19:5 – God claims the people – “his treasured possession.” There are other references, especially in Deuteronomy, and they all refer to cherished, or prized, or precious “people of God.” The word connotes affection; the people do not JUST belong to God, the people are adored and loved by God. It is a term of endearment.

            But guess what? When the King James Version translates this word, that translation always uses the English word – PECULIAR. We are God’s PECULIAR PEOPLE.

            Isn’t that fantastic?

            In some ways, “peculiar” may convey the sense, in these days, of “weird,” or “odd.” But the KJV conveys something increasingly IMPORTANT in our complex and changing times. There intends to be – and needs to be - a wonderful distinctiveness to us as God’s people. There intend to be unusual characteristics to the people of God – we are different from the world. Or at least we are called to be different and distinct. That is very helpful to me.   

            As God’s PECULIAR people, we know what life is about. Every human being, regardless of color, culture, class, or creed, is made in the image of God. God cares about all people and intervenes in history to bring life and light, especially to those who need it most. It matters what we do with life, especially how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable. Life is sacred. We are to live by faith and be a blessing to others regardless of their faith: God’s PECULIAR people.

            This is especially helpful to me as we seek to navigate these complex days. There is plenty of reason to wonder if we are going backwards in terms of healthcare for the most vulnerable. Fear seems to be growing among immigrants, . . . and the gay community, who feel that much of the progress they have seen is going to be lost. We may be losing ground on racial reconciliation. There is concern about the Russians and foreign relations, the EU and NATO, especially at a time when terrorism and religious alienation seems on the rise. The list goes on. It can make our heads spin and our hearts break. Our worries increase. Our anxiety goes up.

But we hear the news – we are the PECULIAR people of God. Our lives are grounded not on what happens in the complex world of these days. Our lives are rooted in the truth that we are adored, cherished, prized, special to the God of the Universe. This becomes our main IDENTITY – that is the message of Deuteronomy. Our primary identity is in God – we are the PECULIAR people of God, cherished, adored, enfolded into God’s love. We put our trust there. We exist not for ourselves but for God. We have, as Jeremiah reminds us, a future and a hope with God, no matter what.

Mary Oliver has become a favorite poet. She has a great poem, called “MOMENTS”:

There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.

Like, telling someone you love them.

Or giving your money away, all of it.

 

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?

You’re not in chains, are you?

 

There is nothing more pathetic than caution

When headlong might save a life,

Even possibly, your own. (In Felicity, Moments, p. 9)

“When HEADLONG might save a life, . . . .our lives.”

What if we went HEADLONG into living as God’s PECULIAR people?! That is what life is about.

As God’s PECULIAR people, we actually frame our lives a certain way. You cannot read Deuteronomy, especially the following chapters, without knowing the extreme importance, the high expectations of what it means to live as God’s PECULIAR people. Worship and faithful life – loving and serving God, blessed to be a blessing – that is always the way. The following pages of Scripture echo this same message. Isaiah re-affirms it: You are precious in God’s sight, never to be forgotten, so live and serve as God’s people. Micah asks: What does the Lord require – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. Amos reminds us: hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate. Jesus comes  preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives – the in-breaking of the reign of God. Everything Jesus does is about life and light – healing, helping, forgiving, saving – and he instructs us to live that way. PECULIAR people. His final sermon is one of the most memorable – “what you do to the least, you do it to me. I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was sick and you took care of me.” This is how PECULIAR people live with faith, loving God and loving others in the world.

The apostles pick up this same message. Paul says “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another.” Peter reminds us, “once we were no people, now we are God’s people. Once we were in darkness, now we are in the light of God.”

What if, in these days, we went HEADLONG into living as God’s PECULIAR people. This is our identity. This is our calling, is it not?

As a church in the center of this city, we have work to do to share love and light in a way that moves us and the world closer to God’s love and light, following Jesus. As an urban congregation, we face complex issues and changing times, but we are the PECULIAR people of God. We keep seeking to build community, promote generosity, encourage one another, spread kindness and justice, working with God on the in-breaking of God’s reign.

As disciples, we each have work to do – to live and serve – individually and together, to bring about the love and hope, the light and peace of Christ our Lord. We are the PECULIAR people of God who know that everyone is created in the image of God, that the Supreme Power breaks into the world to liberate the supremely powerless, that life is sacred, and we will all be judged by how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable, and our lives are always to be about loving God and loving others. We have to take a step back from partisanship and to take a step toward discipleship, striving to strengthen and not weaken this land. We have to build community, and spread compassion, and deepen our commitments to God’s work wherever we find ourselves.

It is good to be peculiar, right? The PECULIAR people of God!

Here is another insight that helps me so much – also from Rabbi Sacks. The word “tragedy,” which could very well be part of our language and thought in these days - with all the cultural change and uncertainty - is NOT a part of the Biblical lexicon. The word “tragedy” is NOT in the Bible. It is not in the Old Testament – Jews never coined a phrase that means “tragedy.” And it is not in the New Testament either.

As you know, we understand “tragedy” to be a lamentable event, a disaster or calamity, a drama with an unhappy ending. But neither that word, nor that concept, are part of Scripture – and that is most instructive. (see J. Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, p. 177) 

This is not to say that there are no disasters in the Biblical story.  This is not to say there are not crises, catastrophes. Absolutely, there are. Jewish history has all too often been written in tears. The Old Testament has many unhappy endings – Genesis ends with Jacob’s children in exile. Deuteronomy ends with Moses unable to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are many stories of loss and exile and desperation. The psalms are full of lament. And there is much pain and suffering through to the New Testament – persecution and death, dispersion and uncertainty.  But the word ‘tragedy’ never emerges, nor does that concept. . . . .  . And it is because of God.

The story  - our story - is always about God. We are God’s PECULIAR people. We are cherished, adored, held forever. And we are called to live a certain way – spreading God’s love and hope, light and justice across the world.

There are moments – however we see these moments - that cry out to be fulfilled. Let’s run HEADLONG into life as God’s PECULIAR people – trusting God with all things and serving God, living in God’s ways toward justice and light forever.  AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Lord, as your PECULIAR people, we seek to be a blessing always, toward the reign of Christ our Lord. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on January 22, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.