It’s happened. Oh boy, has it happened. It makes me nervous. He is listening to everything. I know because I hear him repeat it back to me. Those of you who have had young kids, do you remember when that happened, when your children started picking up on everything you said?
That time has come with our son, Patrick. And I worry about it. I mean, every now and then, I forget he’s listening. I think. “Oops, did I say a bad word? I sure hope he doesn’t repeat that.” After all, kids can pick up on stuff we’re doing and saying even more than we can.
It reminds me of a joke my dad told when I was growing up. It goes like this. This family had invited their pastor over for Sunday dinner. The father of the family wanted to impress the new preacher. So, he asked his daughter. “Honey, bring that book that we all love to read together as a family each week.” The girl looked a bit puzzled. Then her eyes lit up, and she dashed out of the room. A few moments later, she came back, bearing the precious book, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog. It’s a bit dated, but I like it anyway. I can still see how my dad’s face broke into amusement every time he told it.
But over the past several days, I’ve had to worry about a different sort of telling. I've had to be careful about what I say in front of my son because of something almost unspeakable. When it comes to Parkland, my wife and I cloak our words. We hide that terrible reality from him. But I know the day will come when we can’t hide those things; when he will come to know just how broken our world is.
When that day comes, how will I answer his questions? How will I explain to him where God is, what God is doing, when such awfulness happens? But who am I kidding? Not only do kids struggle with those questions. Everyone does. From the blood in the halls of Stoneman Douglas to the children buried in the rubble of Damascus, ugliness and senseless brutality runs rampant in our world. So, what do you say to your kids, to your grandkids, to yourself in the face of that? In these words, God points the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
When terrible things happen, what do you say? How do you understand what God is doing in the midst of awful acts, of senseless tragedies, of immense injustices? In these words, some of Moses’ last words to his people, God shows you the way. God shows you that the way to understanding lies in doing three things when it comes to God: listening, acting and remembering.
And that first thing, listening, God tells you right at the beginning in the very first word we read. In fact, that first word became the shorthand for the most important statement of belief in all of Judaism. When Jews talk about this faith statement, they simply talk about the Shema. And what does Shema mean. It means to hear. For years, I did not get the significance of that one word, of how crucially important that word is to everything. To get that, a Hollywood movie director had to teach me.
It happened late one night as I watched James Lipton host a show called Inside the Actor’s Studio. Lipton, a well-known acting coach, interviews top actors and directors before his students and the cameras of the Bravo cable network. That night, he was interviewing Steven Spielberg. At the end of every interview, Lipton asks the same set of questions. And the last one is always this. “If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates? When he asked this of Spielberg, Spielberg thought for a moment, and said this. “I’d hope God would say to me, thanks for listening.”
Spielberg explained his answer with the words we just read. As a Jew, he said, the core belief of my faith, the Shema, calls me to do just that. Before anything else, even before the command to love, God commanded him to listen, as in: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Do you know why God put that at the beginning? God put it there because you and I are so bad at it.
When I first started in ministry, I had this leader, Ed Robles, on the church board, who used to drive me nuts. Every meeting, he would bring up some thing he was concerned about. We would address it, and then move on. But you could almost set a clock by it. 15 minutes would pass, and he would bring it up again. We would again address it and move on. Then 15 minutes later, he would bring it up again. Finally, I got it. Ed wasn’t an idiot. He hadn’t forgotten that he had brought it up. No, he brought it up, because as far as he was concerned, we had not addressed it. And he wasn’t going to give up until we did. So, I stopped the meeting, and we all actually listened to what Ed was telling us. And two amazing things happened. First, we discovered that Ed had a very important issue that we had missed. And second, after we had listened and really dealt with the issue, Ed never brought it up again.
Yet, what I learned with Ed about listening, I keep forgetting. I forget it with my wife, with my son, with my staff, heck with everyone. I imagine that a number of you might even be thinking. “Yeah, he forgot about it with me too.” God understands that forgetfulness. That’s why God spends the next several sentences here giving you ways to remember to listen (recite them to your children, talk about them when you are at home etc); to not let prosperity and wealth dull your hearing (take care that you do not forget the Lord…).
God knows. Too often, you and I simply don’t listen. How often when someone talks to you are you formulating your response while they’re talking? How often when someone confronts you about something are you already developing your defense even before you even know what the problem is? One of the painful revelations that has come after the awfulness in Parkland is how many people weren’t listening, weren’t listening to a young man who was going into a terribly dark place. And what you and I do with others, we do even more so with God.
When if you visited the doctor and did the following? You carefully shared all that was bothering you, and then said. “Wow, thanks doc, I feel so much better.” And you left the room without giving the doctor a chance to say a word. Would that make any sense? Isn’t the point of the visit to hear what the doctor has to say about what you tell her? Yet what would be ridiculous with a doctor, people do all the time with God.
This series that we are doing during Lent takes its inspiration from something called Faith 5, a way for people, either families or family like groups to connect with one another and with God. And wisely, the creators of Faith 5 have put listening right at the top of the process. First, you share your joys and concerns. You listen to one another, a place where often God will speak. And then, you read scripture, a place where God is always speaking. You begin with listening.
Life, especially life with others and with God, has to begin with listening. And listening becomes even more important when awful things happen. It’s why so many rightfully commended our President for what he did on Wednesday. What did he do? He simply sat in a room with a bunch of heart-broken and often angry people and listened.
But it course, what begins with listening has to go further. It has to move towards action. Yet, if you move to act without listening, you’ll almost always go wrong. And often where you go wrong, is without the listening you end up blaming God.
That’s why Moses warns the people to not put the Lord your God to the test, as they did at Massah. To understand what sort of test Moses means, you need to understand what happened at Massah, which by the way is a word that actually means test. The Israelites were running out of water. And they went to Moses and said. “You and God have led us out in the desert to die. So, we’re going to kill you, and go back to Egypt, where at least we’ll have water.” Basically, through Moses, they were saying to God. “God, if you don’t deliver us, we’re taking our marbles and heading home.”
And they presumed the worst about God. They presumed that somehow this God who had powerfully delivered them from slavery to a superpower was now abandoning them in the desert to die of thirst. Does that make any sense? But that’s what they thought. And on top of that, they had a slavery mentality. They still behaved as if it was God’s job to do everything for them, that they couldn’t figure it out for themselves.
And when you test God the same things happen. You presume that God doesn’t care. Then in your anger, you say God if you don’t deliver, then forget about me trusting in you. And the whole time, you’re often not acting as if you have any role in solving the problem yourself.
Years ago, I heard a story about a couple who were walking down the street, and they saw a homeless
family with young children begging on the sidewalk. The whole thing troubled them so much they went home and prayed to God. “God, what are you doing about that poor homeless family?” Do you know what God said? God said, “I created you.”
The great preacher, George Buttrick put it this way. God’s providence is not in baskets lowered from the sky, but through the hands and hearts of those who love him. The boy without food or shoes made the proper answer when a cruel woman asked, “If God loved you, wouldn’t he send you food and shoes?” The boy replied, “God told someone, but they forgot.”
When the unspeakable hit Parkland, what did Parkland do. They acted. And yes, those actions included helping the wounded, comforting the grieving, and praying for one another. But it also included a lot of moves toward change. They realized their elected leaders could have done things to prevent those senseless deaths. And so, they’re challenging those leaders to do those things now.
That’s why the church I serve works with other churches in Bold Justice, to change things. The very things we’re fighting for will help make Parkland’s vision of never again happen. We’re fighting for civil citation that effectively diverts kids from lives of violence and crime. We’re fighting to get every officer training to understand the mentally ill so that those who are vulnerable get protected, and those who might harm themselves or others get the help they need. And we’re fighting to change assisted living in Broward so that the deaths at Hollywood Hills never happens again either. Do you want to know how you can help make those changes happen? Walk a few feet into the chapel after worship today. You want to help Parkland, show up in that room after worship.
But in this acting, how do you know? How do you know God does have your best interests at heart, that God does care? That’s where the remembering comes in. What does Moses tell the people to do when their children ask. “Why do we do all these things?” Moses tells them to tell the story, the story of how God delivered them. And as we get ready to celebrate Easter, the children of Moses will be telling that story again at Passover. On that night, they will remember how when God’s judgment took out the Egyptians, it passed over them. That judgment passed over the Israelites not because the Egyptians were so bad and they were so good. It passed over because God told each family to slaughter a lamb and place its blood upon their doors. And when they did, the judgment passed over. Why did a lamb have such power? It didn’t. But it pointed to the One who does. Thousands of years later, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming, he says. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
In the story of Noah, God puts a sign in the sky to mark God’s promise that such death and destruction will never come again. What sign does God put? God puts the sign of a bow, of a weapon of war. But which way does this bow point? It points to the heavens, to what folks thought of as the home of God. God is saying this death and destruction will not come, because I will take that hit. I will take that death and destruction into myself so that you will never have to.
And when you remember that story of a God who kept that promise on the cross, who, there, became the ultimate Passover lamb, then you know what to tell your kids, your grandkids, yourself. This is the God I know, the God who gave everything so that the evil in Parkland will never have the last word. No. God’s grace will. God’s justice will. God’s infinitely powerful love will, a love sealed with God’s very life. And before that last word, no evil, not even death itself will stand. So, when evil strikes, listen, and act, and remember.