“Keep these words” | 7 September 2014


Text: Deuteronomy 6:1-9 


This is a story handed down.

It is about the old days when Bill

and Florence and a lot of their kin

lived in the little tin-roofed house

beside the woods, below the hill.

Mornings, they went up the hill

to work, Florence to the house,

the men and boys to the field.

Evenings, they all came home again.

There would be talk then and laughter

and taking of ease around the porch

while the summer night closed.

But one night, McKinley, Bill’s younger brother,

stayed away late, and it was dark

when he started down the hill.

Not a star shone, not a window.

What he was going down into was

the dark, only his footsteps sounding

to prove he trod the ground.  And Bill

who had got up to cool himself,

thinking and smoking, leaning on

the jamb of the open front door,

heard McKinley coming down,

and heard his steps beat faster

as he came, for McKinley felt the pasture’s

darkness joined to all the rest

of darkness everywhere.  It touched

the depths of woods and sky and grave.

In that huge dark, things that usually

stayed put might get around, as fish

in pond or slue get loose in flood.

Oh, things could be coming close

that never had come close before.

He missed the house and went on down

and crossed the draw and pounded on

where the pasture widened on the other side,

lost then for sure.  Propped in the door,

Bill heard him circling, a dark star

in the dark, breathing hard, his feet

blind on the little reality

that was left.  Amused, Bill smoked

his smoke, and listened.  He knew where

McKinley was, though McKinley didn’t.

Bill smiled in the darkness to himself,

and let McKinley run until his steps

approached something really to fear:

the quarry pool.  Bill quit his pipe

then, opened the screen, and stepped out,

barefoot, on the warm boards.  “McKinley!”

he said, and laid the field out clear

under McKinley’s feet, and placed

the map of it in his head.



That’s a poem Wendell Berry wrote back in 1980, and one I hadn’t discovered until the middle of this past week, leafing through some of his writings at the end of a day.  I’ve read over it many times since then.  It’s a fine poem in itself, a simple, good story.  Anyone with siblings can feel older brother Bill’s calm amusement as he hears what’s happening.  Or anyone who has ever felt their way through the dark in a place far away from city lights, knows of McKinley’s utter disorientation; and that delightful moment of revelation and relief, the familiar voice calling out his name from his hoped-for destination, which “laid the field out clear” as the poem says, and “placed the map of it in his head.”

Wendell Berry adds another layer of meaning by giving this poem the title, “Creation Myth.”  He doesn’t say if this is a new creation myth, or which of the old creation myths he means to be evoking, but if you are someone steeped in the Jewish/Christian scriptures, you can’t help but ponder whether the complete and formless darkness over those Kentucky hills on that particular night might be some kind of echo of the primordial world of Genesis 1, when the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep.  McKinley, who has stayed out late, might have something to say to the human condition, which started down the hill for home but has lost its way.  Bill becomes some kind of downplayed God figure with a southern accent, relaxing after a long day, thinking and smoking a pipe, somewhat ornery in knowing what’s going on but letting McKinley circle and breath hard, a dark star in the dark, McKinley’s feet blind on the little reality that was left.  Bill is listening and knows where McKinley is, though McKinley doesn’t.  And finally Bill speaks, the first and only spoken word in the poem, the only voice that needs to speak.  The creative Word that calls out and pierces the darkness and, with its simple profound presence, changes the landscape and sets the bearings for home.  “McKinley!”

For this Sunday when we celebrate the beginning of the Christian Education year, I offer this poem as a companion to the Deuteronomy text as a way of helping us consider what spiritual and faith formation look like.  You get bonus points if you have already noticed that a piece of the Deuteronomy passage – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength – and Genesis 1 were both a part of the Twelve Scriptures, which wasn’t completely intentional but does highlight how, if you listen for them, those themes that we touched on this summer show up in all kinds of places.

Genesis and Deuteronomy are the first and the last books in the Jewish Torah, the first five books of our Bible, sometimes called the Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch.  As a piece of literature, Deuteronomy is set up as a sermon from Moses, given to the people of Israel after they have been delivered out of slavery in Egypt, and after they have wondered in the wilderness for 40 years.  They are about to cross over the Jordan River, into the land that they will soon possess, and Moses is giving them instructions, and reminding them of the commandments they have received.  As the narrative before this tells it, besides Moses, there are only two people still alive who had been a part of that original group of Hebrews who had lived in Egypt.  The rest of that generation had died sometime during those forty wilderness years, and so the entire assembly of people being addressed are the children of those who came out of Egypt.  Children of slaves who had themselves never been slaves.  People who had only heard the stories.  People, like so many of  the people since who have heard and read Deuteronomy, and pondered the commandments and teachings.  Not first generation, but second generation, third generation, 100th, 500th generation.

Genesis 1 is a creation myth of the cosmos called into being, and Deuteronomy, written centuries after Moses, is its own kind of creation myth, only now what’s being called into being are not galaxies and planets and vegetation and animals, but a community of people.  A community of people who are being commanded to remember, remember, that they were slaves in Egypt, that they have tasted the bitterness of oppression and they have carried the burden of injustice.  Except they hadn’t really.  That was the life of their parents, their parents’ parents on back.  That was long ago, or, as Wendell Berry’s poem begins: “This is a story handed down, it is about the old days.”

The purpose of the laws and commandments given by Yahweh through Moses to the people was so that they would never become like the Egyptians from whom they escaped.  When they had their own land, when they were settled and prosperous, they would not simply fall into the mold that had been set for how settled and prosperous persons and societies treat the unsettled and the poor, the immigrant, the foreigner, the widow who has no economic means to provide for herself.  They would be a different kind of community, and it would be these words, these good news words, that held them and shaped them.  Them and their children and their children’s children.  Deuteronomy 6 says: “Hear (Listen), O Israel…Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates….Hear, O Israel.”  “Israel.”

What follows are the ethical and spiritual obligations one has to one’s fellow creatures.  It’s like a creation myth for a just society.  This is continued in the New Testament in the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the table fellowship.  Is a community founded, formed, based on the practices of subjugation and domination, or is a community created through love of neighbor, and fairness, and reconciliation, and shared meals?  When we read over Deuteronomy and Leviticus these days – which I know you do often – we don’t necessarily find all the commandments liberating and just for our time.   When Jesus is asked many centuries later what is the most important commandment, he answers that the law and the prophets can be summarized in this Deuteronomy passage of loving God with all one’s being, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  Other rabbis at the time said similar things.  The purpose of the commandments is to bring about a flourishing of life, and if a commandment no longer serves that purpose there is good reason to question it.  So the person of faith, the community of faith, is always asking whether what we are doing is leading to a flourishing of life or a diminishing of life.  Are we becoming more like Egypt and Pharaoh or more like the peaceable kingdom, the kin-dom of God?

The people are to have these visible reminders of these words on the doorsposts of their homes and gates such that every time they pass through in their coming and going they are reminded of who they are.  They are to wear these words on their body like jewelry.  You can’t take your doors and gates with you, but your body follows you wherever you go.  Wear these words.  These teachings of the Torah, of the gospels, are so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive at times that we do well to be constantly reminded of them.  The point for us isn’t necessarily to always wear Jesus T-Shirts, cross necklaces, and plaster our cars with bumper stickers, although that’s always an option.  The point is to be so immersed in the teachings that they become normal, they become our home.  They become an orienting presence with us wherever we are.

You are McKinley and you are starting to become familiar with this landscape.  You work in it, and walk through it each day.  You are beginning to make your imprint on it, and it is making its imprint on you.  It is yours to explore.  You walk through its shade and trails, you learn from its wisdom.  Though you are prone to push the boundaries, you submit yourself to its goodness and allow yourself to be shaped by its possibilities.  As year leads into year, this is becoming your home and you have a place in it.

You are Bill, and you have been here longer than others.  You are stationed at your place.  You are a guardian and a watcher.  A thinker.  You are not beyond being amused and finding pleasure in your tasks.  You are a listener and you can sense where people are, even if they don’t know themselves.  You will not let others wander too far toward danger.  Your words make maps in the minds of those who hear you.  You are present with them even when you’re not right by their side.  You will be there to greet people when they arrive, even if they’re late in coming.

You are McKinley and you don’t know where you’re going.  You thought you knew, but the more you walk into the darkness the less sure you are of things.  You can’t see past your face.  You are certain you are alone, and that fearful things could be coming close that never had come close before.  You are on the edge, but now, just now, you hear your name, and you remember everything.  You turn.  Home is just over the way, and that’s where you’re headed.