Deut 6: 2-6; Mark 12: 28-34
Even if we tried we couldn’t have chosen better readings than these, summing up the Jewish faith as the Tree of Life Synagogue continues to bury their dead and deal with the tragedy of last weekend. For our Jewish brothers and sisters and for ourselves, it all comes down to the shema, the great commandment that Moses passes along to Israel today. It’s a prayer recited three times a day, a consistent reminder to a people throughout the centuries, that, when faced with so many false gods and idols, even to our own day, there is but one God that sees us through this life. Yet, like many of our own prayers, they tend to be words. They can come easily off our lips and not have much meaning or while we continue to cling to our own gods that provide us comfort and safety. It helps to know their meaning and why they stand as so important to people of faith, especially in the face of such tragedy.
Today we hear that context from the Book of Deuteronomy, in our first reading. It’s Moses that passes the prayer along to his fellow Israelites. If you can imagine yourself on the cusp of something new, that’s exactly where Israel finds itself in this reading. After forty years of wandering in the desert they have finally arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land. They can finally see it with the naked eye, lying just before them, and now there is this pause before passing through. Of course, like us there is a sense of excitement and anticipation as they prepare to take that last step, but there’s also fear and resistance in facing the unknown, of what lies ahead for them after years of slavery and then wandering in the desert, Moses assures them that before the pass over, they can finally let go of all the other false gods and idols that they’ve had to confront about themselves in these forty years and finally enter into relationship with this one God that has seen them to this point.
It’s bittersweet, though, because as Moses passes on this message, Israel will now be left with a choice. A choice that can no longer be made by him. It’s now going to have to be their doing and from their own heart as to whether they trust this God so much that they’re willing to step into the unknown, into the life that has been promised for ages to come. For Moses, though, it marks the end of the journey. He never has the opportunity to walk into the Promised Land with them. He’s taken them as far as he could and will die before they arrive. It’s as if Moses himself becomes the final stumbling stone for Israel. He had become their crutch in difficult times. He’s led them through this, often with trepidation and his own sense of insecurity. He’s gotten angry at God and at his people. Despite not crossing over, Moses has already experienced the Promised Land. He doesn’t need to go to this physical place because he’s already at home in himself and with God, within his very being. It’s why the words mean so much coming from Moses at this time. He’s done the journey with them and now they must cross over at their own doing, by affirming their own trust in this God.
Then there’s Jesus, who of course takes it to a new level. He intertwines the two commandments, and as we’ve heard him say before, he’s well aware of how easy it is for everyone to recite this prayer and not really mean it. Jesus, the one who manifests the shema now points the way that the same it true for us. To come to an understanding, as his student does today, we have to make it our own and it is manifested by the way we live our lives, with a sense of integrity, that the prayer isn’t just something we say but rather prove by the way we love our neighbor. The twist, though, is that we don’t get to choose who our neighbor is. That doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t try. It’s what often causes tension between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his time. They want to decide who’s worthy of that love, a conditional love at best. They want nothing to do with the Samaritans. They want nothing to do with the Gentiles. Of course, even when Israel finally passes into the Promised Land, even their immediate response is revenge and vengeance against their enemies. It will lead them, time and again, into exile because of their own failure to embrace the fullness of love of God and neighbor. Their false gods that Moses had told them they can finally let go of, find ways of creeping back in, wanting security, safety, fear, territory, and all the rest to rule the day and the prayer becomes words once again. It’s not to say we don’t experience that tension between what God desires and demands of us through the gospels and our own frail humanity. That’s a part of our human condition. It’s when we abandon it and create gods for ourselves when the prayer becomes hallow and shallow, as we so often see in our own time and day. As much as they desire the freedom that comes with loving in such an unconditional way, they’d prefer their own way and their own gods.
We can say the same of our own society and country. We love to say how much we love God and how central God is to our lives and what we do. But does it really? Aren’t we just simply offering lip service as well? We cling to false gods and idols in our day and age, reminding us that we find ourselves wandering through the desert as Israel had for forty years. We want to decide it all rather than learning to trust the God of the unknown, of mystery, of the promise for all ages, the God who strips us of all of our own gods and teaches us what it truly means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and all the other ways we translate it, ultimately with our entire being. Moses points the way. Jesus points the way and is the way. Yet, we still want to decide who’s worthy of our love. We can’t say we’re anti-black, anti-brown, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, and all the rest, and still have the audacity to utter such words as the shema, of loving God with all our heart, soul, being. That’s not the God of mystery and promise. It’s our own god we’ve created for ourselves. They’re words, and hallow words at best, at that point. If we love any God, we love our own gods, as Israel did in those forty years, the gods of fear, safety, security, of what was known, of vengeance, and all the others they were forced to confront in those days in order to learn to love in the way God loves, unconditionally.
Like Israel, we’re given a choice as we stand at the cusp. Our faith reminds us that we’re always on the cusp, the threshold of something new by this God of mystery and unknown. Israel is given the choice to take that leap of faith, as we are this day and at this time, the leap of faith into the unknown. Sure, with a sense of anticipation and excitement, but also with fear and trepidation grounding us in our humanity. Are we going to take that leap of faith or do we run back, as Israel so often did, clinging to our gods and idols of fear, hate, resentment, certainty, safety, security, and all the rest. All of those gods require so much energy on our part and only lead to a greater gap between each other and with God, trapped wandering in the desert, and without the freedom of love we desire. The shema, and our own prayer, must be more than words. Like Moses, it must become a very part of our being, a central part of who we are so that they are no longer simply words, but the very way we live our lives. Words matter, especially when they’re prayer and a declaration of the one God over all other gods. We stand at the cusp and are given a choice to love God with all our heart, soul, being, and only then our neighbor, all people, unconditionally, as ourselves.