Oct 6th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Deuteronomy 6:4-9
The old man was on his deathbed and he knew it. He was no longer in his home. He had been taken to another country by his sons who had relocated there to escape famine. His life was ending and he called his sons to his bedside. One by one he tells them exactly what he thinks of them and then blesses them. His overwhelming concern was that his sons continue to follow in the way of God – the God of their great-grandfather, the God of their grandfather, and the God of their father.
The old man was becoming agitated. He was unsure of the commitment of his sons to walk in the ways of God. Finally, one of the sons raised his voice and shouted to his father:
Shema, Israel: Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!
Jacob, whose name had been changed to Israel, then whispered as he died:
Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed.
Blessed is God’s glorious kingdom and majesty
forever and ever.
Part of that story is from Genesis 48 and 49. Part of that story is from the rabbis who taught the meaning and importance of the Shema to the people. Interestingly, when speaking (or singing) the Shema, for some Jews it is customary to close their eyes, so as to not be distracted from the words and the words are said (or sung) with volume and energy. When you come to the second line – baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed – it is spoken or sung softly, even whispered, the traditional final words of Jacob/Israel.
By the time the people had been liberated from Egypt by God’s power and might, and Moses had led them to the threshold of the Promised Land, centuries had passed since Jacob’s death. The descendants of Jacob/Israel were now standing on the very doorstep of a new life in a land promised to their ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. Moses stands before the people, now collectively called Israel, and reminds them:
Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.
These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds.
Recite them to your children.
Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up.
Tie them on your hand as a sign.
They should be on your forehead as a symbol.
Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.
Professor Patrick Miller writes, “The Shema is the touchstone for Israel’s faith and life, the plumb line by which their relationship to the Lord of history was constantly being measured. For this reason later Judaism set these words to be recited by every Jew each morning and evening. This was not a legalistic or merely pious gesture. It was a true apprehension that those who live under the rule of the Lord of Israel are to set their lives and shape their daily conduct and their interior direction by these most important and primary words.”[i]
The nature of the relationship with God – then and now – is love. It is interesting that the relationship is not based on fear, or dread, or trepidation. We are not called to be afraid of God, or be anxious about God, or even frightened of God.
We are called to love God. We are called to be in a relationship with God that is personal, intimate, and trusting. Our relationship with God is to be marked by confidence, loyalty, and fidelity.
And that relationship calls us to be wholly committed to God and the way of God. The final words of the Shema are clear: the love called for is a total commitment. An occasional commitment, or a half-hearted commitment will not do.
Making the point as strongly as possible, the words that follow the Shema spell it out:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
all your being, and all your strength.
When I was sitting in Temple for the morning service of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year, my eye fell on a portion of the Machzor (the prayer book) that I was not expecting to see. The words said:
Love God with your mind: stay curious, open to questions; marvel at the wonder of what is.
Love God with your heart: stay alive to suffering and joy; yearn for the world that could be.
Love God with your strength: open your hands and give; work for the sake of what ought to be.[ii]
How do we live in this love relationship with God? We love with our whole heart – with an undivided loyalty to God. We place nothing before God – we have no other gods but God. We love with our whole being – our whole soul – our whole life. We love God even, God forbid, it should take us to the point death or martyrdom. And we love God with our whole strength – our whole might. We love God with our substance, our wealth, our property. We put all we have in service to God.
And so we love as God loves, for God loves us with the same complete and total commitment. God loves us so completely that God came among us in Jesus Christ to show us not only who God is, but who human beings – just like us – are capable of being.
And we love God with such completeness,
(that we keep) These words that God is commanding us today always on our minds.
We recite them to our children and grandchildren.
We talk about them when we are sitting around the house and when we are out and about, when we are lying down and when we are getting up.
We tie them on our hands as a sign.
They should be on our forehead as a symbol.
We should write them on our house’s door frames and on our city’s gates.
This is the very heart of the holy life: a complete and total devotion to God. It is the reason for Christian stewardship: the showing of love in tangible and active ways. It is why we give our time and our talents and our treasure to the service of God, for when we give ourselves away in God’s service, the world around us is changed – and sometimes, very unexpectedly, we are changed.
In all honesty, there are times I’m not sure what it means to be a pastor. The church I was trained to serve in is radically changed from the church through which I was ordained 33 years ago. The world is radically changed from the world of 33 years ago. So, there are days when I’m not sure that it means to be a pastor.
But, to borrow an image from this particular time of year, there are times I feel like a football coach, getting ready to send a team out on the field, uncertain of what awaits us there. So, I went back and looked at the words of great coaches. The words of one fell on me and, knowing my proclivities for teams, it will no surprise you that the words that hit me were from Urban Meyer. In 2012, the beginning of the current seven game winning streak, after Ohio State beat that team up north, Coach Meyer said:
The whole theme this week was to go where the air is rare. The last door is a big one -- open it up, kick it open, do what you've got to do to get through the door. Once you're in there, it smells different, it tastes different, it looks different. I'm hoping our guys get that taste and they want to go do it again. Once you taste that, it tastes really good.
What I want to tell all of you this morning, is that when you show your love for God in total commitment, when you give nothing less than 100%, life smells different, tastes different, and looks different. Once you get a taste of that, it tastes really good, and you want to taste it again.
In this month when we work together as a congregation to meet the challenges of ministry and mission in our 199th year, I pray that we can rediscover that powerful commitment to God that those who came before us most assuredly had, and pull our resources together to go up to the door of the future and open it up, kick it open, and do whatever we have to do to get through that door.
Nothing less than 100%. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” 100%. For now and evermore. Amen.
[i] Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, p. 97-98.
[ii] Machzor for the Days of Awe, p. 157