The Great Commandment, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength" is the very center gemstone of the Judaic-Christian faith. "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God" is chanted at the beginning of every Jewish service. The long, red rope of that declaration winds through the prophets and into the Gospels where we hear Jesus affirm the commandment. With this text we are sitting in the center of our faith. All history of the Church, and we can say, the history of humanity, leans into this commandment to this very day, this Lord's Day. We live and move within the source of these words. This event in history, the declaration to the chosen people through Moses the mediator, is central to what they were to be, and what we are to be. It is fitting that the lectionary texts include this story with regularity. For we need to hear and speak it in assembled worship.

Until I reread the context of the Deuteronomy story, I had forgotten that the mountain which Moses climbed was on fire. The people gathered below Mount Horeb were terrified. Moses reviews the event in Deut. 5:22-27: "These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me. When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders, and you said, 'Look, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then tell us everything that the Lord our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.'"

Moses of the Burning Bush becomes Moses of the Burning Mountain, the Mediator of the Great Commandment. The burden of leadership is huge. The promise to the people is huge--they will enter the land of milk and honey, but they need instructions and laws. The words come from the mountain, from the fire and darkness. They are written on stone.

But how will we remember them in this far remove from the narrative? How can we bind this center of our faith to our foreheads and hands, how do we mark our doorways? And the other question is this: How do we learn to love this law, to trust it, and to receive it as grace?

I have a favorite walking place along a creek which runs near to our house. This summer I saw a brown dipper bird go underwater to feed, an unusual sight for me, while the swallows were feeding overhead. This resulted in a little poem which plays with the themes of law and grace.

Another Baptism

Today a brown dipper entered
the water of the creek
in total immersion,
the true Mennonite baptism.
It was like a drowning,
an emulation of martyrdom.
And when he staggered out,
empty, his feathers soaked,
I could see the suffering
in his eyes.

I thought of our little
midwest town in the 40's
with its five quarreling
churches, and watched the dipper
plow back in, while the glistening
swallows, all Lutherans,
swung easily over the clear,
cold flow, feeding on grace
as it flies.

Sometimes I admit a little Lutheran-envy, even as I so much value the Mennonite teachings of obedience. The Great Commandment is a challenge to us over and over. How can we better remember it and apply it? How can we love it and receive it as grace?

I suggest to you that we allow our imaginations to be transformed by this story and the words of Jesus affirming this central commandment. We need concrete images in order to imagine well. That is why God revealed himself in tangible symbols. And in this important act God chose to speak from the mountain. I remind you today of three images by which we may better remember, three ways to bind the commandment to our foreheads and to teach it to our children.

The first is this: remember the mountain. God chose Mount Horeb as the meeting place with his people. The one, holy, righteous powerful God chooses the mountain for the fiery presentation. God chooses a mountain for the temple in Jerusalem, and various other mountains hold significance in the Old Testament account. The metaphor is appropriate--height, distance, immensity. This is the stuff of creation, the earliest material rising up as magma from the center of the earth, rising into clear visibility. We gaze at the mountain and it looks back at us. This is God as majestic and distant, the unknowable, the Original. We are invited to enter the wonder and mystery of the call to hear and to be reminded that we have only one God. Such immensity and intensity calls for our intense response.

How might we respond to the mountain? Take time to be silent and listen, to be in awe. Be with the earth. You don't have visible mountains here in central Kansas, and often I can't see them in California because of mist or pollution. But I know they are there, and you know that they rise up not far away in Colorado. Envision the mountain.

I have been trying to find language for the Sierra mountain range which borders the valley in which we live. My response is a mix of wonder, fear, and demand. Coming from the plains, they are still exotic to me and provoke me to respond. I don't climb them and rarely hike in them, but I love to see them, to drive up in my comfortable car and to gaze from various viewpoints. They seem to say that I am small, that much is expected from me, and that I am not alone. They say, you cannot begin to imagine how big God is, how steady and sure a protector. We must never forget this aspect of God. It is the beginning of worship, of praise and confession. Annie Dillard says that if we really believe the words we say and sing in worship, we should wear crash helmets to church (Teaching a Stone to Talk, p. 40). "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your strength, heart, and might."

Binding this to our foreheads, we realize how small and frail our other gods are--our dependence on our health, success, bank accounts, national policies, and our way of being Christian when we claim that as a god. Putting this on our doorposts is a declaration that we will reject other idols.

One of my mountain poems is about my father who spent his retirement years in British Columbia in view of Mt. Baker. He is buried in a cemetery there which is guarded by mountains.

The Spoken Word

My father's last sermon was
on Easter Sunday, the church
in the shadow of mountains,

the congregation in pews,
new clothes, old blood.
Words of wonder and disbelief,

the crack in the stone.
Father knew his own slow thaw
of doubt, but he opened

his arms, his hair shone
like snow, and the words
from his mouth pried

at the old foundations,
shifting them, so that
the mountains drew closer.

And on his way home
the granite peaks guarded him
in his small gray car,

his hands on the wheel
steady as he arrived.

Secondly, remember the fire and the darkness. This scenario is rather terrifying. We reach for comfort in the message of grace. But we must remember that this grace came out of fire. God is speaking from the mountain with love, anger, and anguish. The Israelites repeatedly grew restless with unbelief and betrayal, making idols and indulging in sinful acts. God threatened to destroy them. And so these words were hanging on the mercy of God. Moses pleads for his people; this commandment is given in hope and generosity. If they obey, they will enter the promised land, and they will learn to live together as God's chosen ones.

We bind the words from the fire and darkness onto our foreheads so that we will remember the anguish, the anger, and the love. This is not cheap grace. This is the suffering God choosing us to follow the way to the fulness of life. God is in the darkness, and out of that darkness, we hear the voice of fire. This is the fire of sacrifice and light. This is not comfort, it is light and love with the highest demands. This feels like fire, for it leads to confession that we fail, that we have other gods, that we don't really want to be told what to do or think. We forget and are disoriented by false words and our disobedience. And so these words become a cleansing fire of reorientation when we choose to love God with our whole selves.

Remember the fire and darkness from which God speaks, inviting us to be transformed by this power. Fire is the symbol of the call to Moses, which changed his life. It is the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down in a new way to all the people of the world. It is our hope.

I offer my poem about fire entitled Sometimes Hope. It holds particular significance today because of the current, devastating fires in California.

Sometimes Hope

The mountainsides blazed
for weeks, ashes falling
on our heads as we stood
in the hazy air.
And then our son came home
with his blackened gear
and slept for days.
He had fought fire with fire
to do the impossible.
Now we see it, the giant
black slash with stumps
in grotesque postures,
acres and acres where nothing
moves or sings, where
nothing waits.

But sometimes hope
is a black ghost
in a fantastic twist,
an old dream that flickers
in the wind.
Not the worried twining
of selfish prayers, but
a reach for something
extravagant, something holy,
like fire itself,
which in its madness
devours the forest for the sky,
and then dreams a new greening,
shoots everywhere breaking
through the crust of ash.

Sometimes the fire of God is disorder, even destruction, allowing a new beginning, moving us toward a deeper order.

And third, remember the tablets of stone. On the mountain, out of fire and darkness, Moses receives the Ten Commandments. God gives a part of himself in pieces of the mountain on which the words are inscribed. These are the directions for the journey which are to be carried in the Ark of the Covenant. This is the presence of God among the people. We move from the distant, immeasurable God to the one who is near and intimate. This is the paradox of our faith: the unknowability and the nearness at the same time. The commandments come close to our daily living. Loving God means to love our neighbors, to rest on the Sabbath, and not to covet or kill or commit adultery. These are demanding and intimate commandments, for they address our deepest darknesses--our greed, our restlessness, our anxieties. And they address our deep need to be loved and transformed by the holy God. Here are the stones, marked for you, God says. Carry them with you, my covenant, my presence.

Jesus in the Mark narrative affirms the Commandment as central to faith. "You are near to the Kingdom," he announces to the scribe, "near as my hands and feet," Jesus could have added. This new Kingdom with the astounding events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. This new Kingdom for all people, the great dispersion of light and love.

So when the Psalmist praises the Law, loves the Law, and rests in it, we hear the words, "Happy are those who walk in the law of the Lord, who seek him with all their hearts." The longing is expressed for the Lord to be near, not to forsake the one who seeks. The Psalm invites us to remember the Law with pleasure, to taste the sweetness of justice in this commandment, to walk in its light, to be emboldened by its source. Loving God with all our hearts becomes our steady orientation and reorientation.

God is the Parent of all parents who hold their own children in remembrance of this liberating direction for life. We learn to love it by flying, by doing test flights of trust when the evidence is not there. We strengthen our wings of faith in the exhilaration of devotion to this God of the covenant and the great fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

I would like to end this message with my poem The Sermon on the Mount. It is the description of a fresco painted by Fra Angelico, one we saw in a cell in the San Marco Convent in Florence, Italy. The fresco is painted on fresh plaster, and must be finished before it dries. What amazed me was that the mountain was glowing as though it was on fire, while the face of Jesus was in shadow.

The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus is choosing
his words. The time
is short, the sky gray.
The twelve listen, absorbing,
even Judas with black halo.

The plaster is beginning
to dry. What are
the essential words?
His face is in shadow,
his words are becoming
the mountain.
It is glowing.
The disciples
do not know
they are sitting
on fire.
His face grows darker,
the last pigments
sinking in.

Let us this week be newly amazed and in awe of our God. Let us remember the fire of God's suffering love and our own need for confession. Let us hear in new ways the promise of the covenant more permanent than stone. God is here and with you always. You are children of this powerful promise. You can fly! God's peace be with you all.