This is a sermon I gave this morning at Emmanuel Mennonite Church. I had a lot of requests from people that wanted to read it, so here it is, slightly edited for ease of reading. I should have an audio recording up in the next week as well!
update: the sermon can be listened to here: http://www.emmanuelmennonite.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/July-14_2013-message.mp3
Don’t Forget: Patriotism, Table worship, and the Shema
This morning I’m speaking on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and a little bit past that as well. To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about this passage when I first began to look at it. I thought that it was obvious – Love God. Great, thanks. Well, that’s the shortest sermon ever. But as I read it over and over, and as I spoke about it with others, new depths were revealed.
One note before we get started. We all come to the text with biases and baseline observations. One of the biases that I have is that I see the entire story of Scripture as being a story of redemption, of God drawing His people into a relationship with Himself. I see this everywhere I look, from Genesis to Revelation. God desires to be known by us, to be father and friend and king. And this passage that we’re looking at today, the very heart of Old Testament theology, is a prime example of this. ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, The Lord is One.’
First, we’re going to start with a look at the passage itself. If you have your Bibles, you can turn to Deuteronomy 6, and we’re starting in verse 4. I’ll also have the passage up on the screen.
‘Hear oh Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’
This is a fascinating passage. So simple, but with so many layers. It can also be read a number of different ways – for example, an alternating reading is ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone!’ or ‘Hear, Oh Israel, The Lord our God is the Only Lord, or even Hear oh Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord.’ This declaration, called the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ or ‘listen’, is, as I have said, the very center of Old Testament theology. Here, Moses is claiming not only that Yahweh is the God of Israel, but also that he is the ONLY God. In saying this, Moses is simultaneously elevating Yahweh and claiming that faith in any other gods, such as Baal or Molech, is incompatible with worship of Yahweh. This makes a lot of sense, really – At this point in time, the Hebrew people are still wandering the wilderness, a landless people amongst foreign tribes. And soon, they will be entering Canaan, and the temptation will be to intermarry with the locals, taking on their customs and even their gods. Through cementing this declaration at the very heart of Hebrew theology, God, working through Moses, is attempting to prevent his people from being led astray by their neighbours.
But love for Yahweh is not simply about ceremony, or about an emotional experience, but rather about orienting the entire being towards Yahweh. This can be seen in verse 5, which is probably rendered in your Bible as You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. While this is textually correct, we miss some of the nuance here from a straight reading. Let’s start with ‘Love the Lord your God with your whole heart.’ In ancient Israel, the intellect, what we would think of as the brain, was thought to reside in the chest, in the heart. And so talking about the heart was not about an emotional response to Yahweh, but rather an intellectual one. You could say ‘let every thought you think be oriented towards Yahweh.’
The second clause, ‘love the lord your God with all your soul’ is again, about much more than a spiritual experience. The Hebrew people had no concept of a separation between the soul and the body – they were one and the same. And so the best way to understand ‘love with all your soul’ is to think ‘love God with your whole being, with everything that makes you you.’ We could say ‘with your entire consciousness’ or ‘love God with everything that you are.’
The third clause is a little more straight-forward. Loving God with all your might could be understood as ‘Love God in everything that you do, with all the works of your hands’.
So we have ‘Love God with every thought in your head, every fibre of your being, and with every movement you make.’ So, in full, I think this paraphrase helps us capture the meaning of the Shema: ‘Listen, you people, God, your God, is the Only God, the One True God – Love him with every thought, love him with every breath, love him with every movement. Orient your whole life towards Him!’
Not only were the Hebrew people to love god with everything that they were, but they were also to teach others to do the same. ‘Teach [these words I command you] to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fasten them as symbols to your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’
This reinforces the teaching of orienting your entire life towards Yahweh. At every moment God needs to be present – in all your actions, remember him and do what he asks! And there was good reason for this teaching – Israel was about to face challenges unlike anything they had seen before.
‘Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you – a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his name. You must not go after other gods, those of the surrounding peoples, for the Lord your God, who is present among you, is a jealous God and his anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land.’
God knew what the people of Israel would face when they entered Canaan. He knew that they were going to be installed into a place of power, into a kingdom they did not build, and that power so easily corrupts an unwitting population. It was going to be so easy for Israel to become just like any other nation, to give up the distinctive whole-body worship of Yahweh and to replace it with a ceremonial practice, disengaged from real life. And so God is saying here, again, ‘Remember! Remember the story! Remember how I saved you! Remember how I brought you out of Egypt! Don’t leave anything out! Tell the whole story!’ Unfortunately, It doesn’t appear that Israel paid much attention to the words of Yahweh, as their devotion to lavish temples and a pagan-styled monarchy eventually show. They claimed that Yahweh is the one true God, but all too often they did not act like it. They did not understand that the rule of Yahweh is different than that of any other God. Only after the Temple was destroyed and they were scattered into exile did they begin to tell the story again, and that story kept them rooted in Yahweh. Even today you can find this story being told over and over again every Passover. It’s a story that Jesus would have heard: ‘Remember, we were once slaves in Egypt, and God, the only God, saved us. He is with us, and we must remember him in all we do!’
Why should we care about any of this today? What does it have to do with us, living in the 21st century?
First, the Shema is more than a prayer, and more than a statement. It is a pledge of allegiance. Here in Canada we’re not particularly patriotic, at least compared to our neighbors to our south. But I think the point still stands. When I walked through downtown Vancouver on Canada day, I saw a lot of red and white. Like most things, love of country is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be kept in perspective. We must remember – there’s that word again, remember – that we are members, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have no king but Jesus, no Father but Yahweh. Do I love the fact that I can speak my mind and that I have free healthcare? Absolutely. But my love of Canada must come a distant second to my love of Christ and his Kingdom. Anything else is idolatry. Canada will pass away, kingdoms will rise and crumble, but the Kingdom of Heaven will remain, and will thrive, and will restore the world into something incredible and beautiful.
I am patriotic about the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Shema is my pledge of Allegiance – ‘Hear, oh Emmanuel Mennonite Church, The Lord our God, the Lord is One! We will love the Lord Our God with all of our intellect, with all of our being, with all of our strength!’ And, to paraphrase Jesus – ‘We will show our devotion by loving our neighbors – our poor neighbors, our rich neighbors, our homeless neighbors, our addicted neighbors, our Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Baptist and Calvinist and Charismatic neighbors, our homosexual and bisexual and transgendered neighbors, our black and white and brown and every other skin color neighbors – we will show our devotion to God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, as we love our own flesh and blood. I pledge allegiance to the Cross, to the Stone rolled-away, to the empty tomb, and to the Saviour for which it stands! Amen? Amen.
The second thing I think we can pull out of this passage is the difference between what can be called Temple worship and Table worship. I wish I came up with this, but I didn’t – There is a wonderful pastor in the states named Brian Zahnd who inspired these thoughts. See, at Temple worship, the ceremony becomes the thing, and it falls on just a few men to perform the ceremony. Temple worship isn’t about daily living oriented towards God; it’s about atoning for sins and participating in the system. Now, I’m not saying that atonement doesn’t matter – Jesus has absolutely done that work. But what I am saying is that when worship becomes a system through which we attempt to get holy, I think we’ve missed the point.
The Shema teaches Table Worship. Table worship is about orienting every moment of our lives towards the love of God. Table worship means inviting everyone to the table – it’s family dinner, keep one foot on the floor! There’s always room for more. My family is famous for this – I remember multiple times my dad picking up hitch hikers and bringing them home to dinner – having 15 or 20 people crowded around our old dining room table was a common occurrence. This is what I see God saying: ‘Come to the table! Eat! There’s always room. Of course there’s room. We’ll bring in some more chairs, don’t worry! This is what you were made for!’ And Jesus is there, with us, passing the potatoes. We show our love to God by loving others, by giving them a seat at the table, by not requiring more of them than what Jesus required. Remember, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with tax collectors and sinners. A prostitute washed his feet! And Christ, being God on Earth, by definition perfectly embodied the Shema. His entire life was oriented towards Love of Yahweh, and so He is the perfect example of what this kind of life looks like.
Finally, how do we practically connect this with loving the poor and marginalized? I have three suggestions.
First, we need to reclaim the sacred act of hospitality. I want to be honest: It’s really easy to exclude people. It’s really easy to say that we don’t have time or energy to include others, and I am totally complicit in this. My wife and I are huge homebodies. An ideal evening for us is a nice home-cooked meal and an evening of movies or video games. It’s so easy to close the curtains and turn inwards, and pretend like the world doesn’t exist. But what I realized is that when we invite others into our space, and when we accept the invitations that others extend, our lives become so much more incredibly rich. Eating and cooking with friends and neighbors is awesome. When we open our doors, amazing things can happen. Yes, there is risk – relationships and community are always risky – but there is so much joy to be found as well. Let’s engage in hospitality again. The Kingdom of God includes the poor and the marginalized, and not just off in some ministry to the poor, but front and centre. We need to be giving them a place at the table.
Second, we need to embrace the poor by killing the idol of security. Christ brought a new kind of Kingdom, one based on faith and mercy rather than on security and wealth. We need to be saying, ‘yes, in our backyard. If anywhere, we want the poor in our backyard!’ We need to stand up against dehumanizing tactics such as the kind used by this city very recently, from spreading manure on campsites to petitioning safe and affordable supportive housing. I work in a supportive housing building, and I can tell you that they work. They really do. There are some cases where silence makes us complicit in the actions of others, and this is one of those cases. Is Abbotsford going to be a place of refuge for those that have been abused and traumatized throughout their lives, or is it going to be one more place where they are simply not welcome?
And finally, we need to teach our children vigorously what it means to live a life oriented towards Yahweh. We need to show our children what radical hospitality looks like. One of the reasons I was able to move into the Downtown East Side was because my parents prepared the way for me. I spent my childhood with fishermen and loggers, hippies and rednecks, and all were welcome at the table. All were treated with respect. And because my father respected them, they respected him. Everyone was treated as a human, and this taught me to look for the humanity in everyone I meet, no matter what they look like on the surface. I watched this, and learned. We need to be showing our children how to love – otherwise they are going to learn from the world how to hate and discriminate.
So, listen, Oh Emmanuel Mennonite Church, listen, Oh Abbotsford, the Lord Your God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with every thought in your head, every fibre of your being, and with every movement you make. Remember the stories, and tell them constantly – when you eat, and when you sleep, and when you wake and when you walk! Don’t forget! Thank you.