Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
If you have attended a service in Hebrew, you would hear this prayer, known by its first word Sh’ma., “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.” It is a practice to say this in the morning upon rising and evening the evening before sleep. It rolls off the tongue as automatically for Jews as “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” does for Christians. These are prayers that one never forgets. I have made pastoral visits where a person seemed to be unable to speak, unable to hear my words or near death, and when I say, “Our Father” out loud, their lips begin to move in rhythm with mine. They may not recognize their own children, but these words never pass from their consciousness. Such are the words of the Sh’ma.
Sh’ma may translate, “hear O Israel” or “Listen up, people!” but it also conveys “Listen and do.” Do what? The prayer comes from Deuteronomy 6, and it follows the 10 commandments, and a brief speech by Moses that this is the Greatest Commandment:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 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. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem[b] on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:5-9)
Put a reminder in your Google calendar, stick it on your refrigerator with a magnet, make it your screen saver. Listen and do, People! God is the source, God is oneness, you are called to love your divine creator and source with all your heart, all your passion and emotional life. Love God with all your soul, the part of you that is more than blood and bone. Love God with all your might, all your energy, strength and courage. Moses is saying that faith is not just a good idea, a comforting ritual or a cultural identity. It is meant to be a great passion. Moses surely understood what was at stake with this formerly enslaved people. They lived in the wilderness in between bondage and autonomy. Without their eyes on the prize, they could be back in Egypt. Without passion, without a connection to God, they would not find wholeness and freedom. As AA attests, you need a higher power to break the chains of the past. So Moses is adamant in Deuteronomy about the need to stir yourself every day, to live in oneness with God.
It should not surprise us at all that Jesus would answer the Pharisee’s question by reciting the Sh’ma. What is surprising is that they even asked him this. It says they asked him as a test, but what kind of a test is it? It would be like asking me, “What did Jesus teach about prayer?” “Our Father who art in heaven, thy kingdom come, forgive me as I forgive.” Its not a hard test. And Jesus has just handled much tougher questions, like should you pay taxes to Caesar and if a woman had seven husbands, who would she be married to in heaven? I don’t get the easy question at this point. I wonder if the Gospels are trying to tell us that it is the questioner who does not get the greatest commandment. If they think this is a tough question, they have lost touch with the simple grounding of a relationship of oneness to God.
We often go astray because we lost touch with the most basic truth. God is your source. God is one, and the source of all oneness, the giver of wholeness. Before all the hard questions and living into the challenges of life, this is the Christian path. As the Westminster Catechism states, “The chief end of a human being is to love God and enjoy God forever.” The 2nd century theologian Iraneaus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” This is not something that happens to you only on the road to Damascus, or the day you are baptized, or even if you felt some experience of being spiritually born again. It is a daily relationship, a oneness that is the fruit of mindful awareness that we live and move and have our being in God. So perhaps the Gospels are showing us that if someone is trying to trick Jesus, they have forgotten all this.
The big question that may be forming in your mind, because it does in mine, is this: How do I love God? I’m still working on loving people. I can give a hug, I can say “I love you,” and Jeanne says “I love you too.” I can pray to God and say “I love you,” but I have no real feedback on how that lands. It is hard for me to even speak of what kind of being God is, let alone express a love of the ineffable, beyond all knowing, being called God.
Jesus helps us with part two of his answer. Loving God and loving humans is not only similar, it is all actually one thing. Love your neighbor as yourself. They are God’s creation too. God is pleased when you love what God also loves. Any way you put more love out into the world, you are loving God. As Jesus said, whenever you give even a cup a cold water, you did it to me. He didn’t say you have obeyed me, or honored me, you did it to me. Why? Because we are all one.
Again, this is very basic. Jesus is quoting straight from Leviticus 19:18, which is a chapter of commentary on the 10 Commandments. Leviticus says to be holy, don’t take vengeance on others, don’t hold a grudge, don’t profit by the blood of your neighbor, don’t slander people, don’t tweet about them, but love your neighbor as yourself. Why? Because you are one, and if you hurt your neighbor, you have damaged the fabric of life itself. This is simple, basic, practical and mystical all at the same time. This is more than having the right ethics, finding the right ideology, voting in the right way, volunteering, though all these may be done with love. Love is having a great passion for the well-being for others, for of all life, and acting upon it.
This love is more than warm feelings or being nice and friendly. This is the same Jesus who has just spared with the chief priests, Pharisees, Sadducees and their lawyers. He turned over the money changers tables the day before yesterday. And he sees no contradiction between this and the Great Commandment to love. You can love and resist. But don’t hate, don’t harbor a grudge, love all of God’s people even, even the jerks, as you stand for justice.
We must always be mindful of this connection of loving God and neighbor, because one does not exist without the other. Anyone who claims to love God while hating their neighbor is not a practicing Christian, they are a bigot. People often ask can you be good without God? I know many people who are not Christian who love others. Agnostics and atheists can be moral people, and wish the best for others. Of course, I believe God created them and put the capacity for love in them, whether they realize it or believe it. To me the real question is – Can you ever be without God? It is in God we live and move and have our being, so anyone can love.
Whenever you get lost in the labyrinth of complex moral issues, frustrations, deep questions, the Great Commandment is where you return to find yourself again. It grounds us again in the deep oneness of God’s love permeating our being. And we need to do practice it daily, reminding ourselves as we rise and as we go to sleep.
I think the greatest book of Christian spirituality ever written was by a monk named Brother Lawrence. He was not a bishop or a theologian or even a poet. He was the kitchen steward responsible for supplies and cleaning the kitchen. The title sums up his spirituality, “The Practice of the Presence of God.” This does not take lots of extra time, or training or special skills. It is simply being aware in all that we do, not only prayer and good deeds, but also in making dinner and doing dishes, teaching a child, comforting the sick, making peace, doing justice, be mindful of the presence of God.
Stop for moment and close your eyes and be mindful of God’s presence. What does it feel like for God to be near you? Perhaps it is like the golden light shining through the window, or feeling safe and held, feeling unafraid. Put your hand on your forehead for just a moment. Can you feel the warmth of your own touch? As you feel the pressure of your hand and as it warms, also feel the touch of God as it warms you. Feel it in your head, feel it in your heart, feel it in your being, your soul. You are one with God, filled with the glory of God. And the glory of God is you living fully alive. “Sh’ma Israel. Adonai is our God. Adonai is one.” Amen.