Summary: For our Remembrance Sunday, when we recall church members deceased during the past year. Memories that are all positive or all positive leave judgment on our hearts. The gospel means that we learn and rejoice from them, but recognize that their lives we
The way in which we remember those who have gone before us can either empower us or it can disempower us. The way in which we grieve for those we have loved and lost can either enable us to greater things, or it can disable us and hold us back. It all depends on what we do with the judgment that lies on our hearts.
“Judgment on our hearts” is a fascinating phrase that appears in an unlikely place in the Book of Exodus. “Judgment on our hearts” is a picture of what we do with our memories and with our grief.
Let me set the scene by taking you to the context, in a part of the Bible we seldom read and which, I am sure, I have never preached before. I am very sure that never before have I preached about priestly vestments. The issue of what the well-dressed preacher should wear is not usually a part of our Baptist conversation. In fact, this is the first Baptist church I’ve been in where the pastor is expected to wear all this regalia. Every Baptist church I have ever been a member of, and every one I served as interim pastor, expected the preacher to come in a business suit and be done with it. Only here at Takoma do we think we are just low-rent Episcopalians, or, in deference to our guests, do we think we are Presbyterians without the hifalutin’ Scottish accent!
But in Exodus there is a great deal about the vestments made for Aaron, the high priest. Lots of blue and purple and scarlet, plenty of gold, and, most intriguing of all, precious stones. According to these instructions, Aaron was to wear on each shoulder a stone engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel, six on the right and six on the left. That was a way of suggesting that when he did his duties at the altar, he represented the whole people of God, not just his own tribe, not just the ones he liked, not just the ones who supported him, but all of them. The good, the bad, and the ugly. That speaks to me, and, by the way, is a good word for our seminarians who are only a few weeks away from ordination: remember that you serve the whole people of God, and that all of them are precious stones, not just the ones that shine brightly, not just the ones that are your color, and not just the heavy-weights. All of them are precious stones.
And then, in addition, according to Exodus, Aaron was to be given a breastpiece. This was a pouch, measuring some nine inches square. And on that breastpiece he was to attach twelve different precious stones, each one again representing one of the tribes of Israel. Aaron was to wear that breastpiece over his heart as he served at the altar. Wonderful symbolism! Each tribe is precious, but different; each family, unique, but valuable, in its own way. And the priest carries them all near his heart; in other words, he is to love them. It is not a question of whether they are his favorites. It is not a matter of whether they take his side in disputes. It is only that each of the tribes is a part of the people of God, each is precious, and each deserves to be remembered. So Aaron’s breastpiece was worn above his heart.
And inside that breastpiece, with all the stones attached, are to be kept two special items. Special stones, called the Urim and Thummin. We don’t know a lot about these words, or about these stones, but evidently they were sort of like dice, used to help make decisions. Evidently, at times the priest would throw these special stones and they way they fell would tell him God’s will.
Now let’s get it straight. You have not heard me suggest that we have been throwing dice in the deacons’ meetings; I have not said that we cast lots to see which bills we pay this month. (No, we do that by throwing all the bills up in the air, and we pay only the ones that stick to the ceiling!). The Urim and Thummin in the breastpiece made it the breastpiece of judgment. Discernment – sifting the truth – judgment. This mysterious pouch, carrying the symbols of all the tribes of Israel over the high priest’s heart, suggested judgment. And so, symbolically, judgment was carried on the heart of the priest.
And so, here is my thesis: that judgment, when we remember those who have gone before us, is on our hearts.
The way in which we remember those who have gone before us can either empower us or it can disempower us. The way in which we grieve for those we have loved and lost can either enable us or it can disable us. It all depends on what we do with the judgment that lies on our hearts.