The Shema and worship

The Shema and worship

Listen now

Our theme today is worship. Our passage of scripture, which is known to our Jewish friends as the Shema, gets to the very heart of it. It tells us who God is and it tells us what our appropriate response should be.

For the Jew, the Shema is a central confession of faith, said twice daily by the orthodox, when rising in the morning and when going to bed at night – and it’s the first prayer taught to children. Centuries after it was written, Jesus calls it the great commandment.

It gets its title from the first word in our verses, shema, meaning ‘hear’. Sh’ma, Yisra’el! Hear, O Israel! Shema means more than listen. It means obey too. Do something. If you don’t obey, if you don’t do, then you may have listened, but you’ve not heard. 

And it’s taken from the book that we call Deuteronomy but in Hebrew is Devarim, meaning words. The Book of Words. That might seem a little unimaginative, but it refers to the words spoken by Moses. Deuteronomy is a collection of sermons given by Moses as the children of Israel are about to enter the promised land. This is his last will and testament. Moses is dying – and he’s afraid the people will forget all that’s important.

Focused attention

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ means more than just ‘Hear, O Israel’. It means ‘Listen, concentrate. Give the word of God your most focused attention. Engage all your faculties, intellectual and emotional’.

Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad: ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ implies a uniqueness. God is before all, above all and beyond all. They had left one land with many gods and were about to enter another one, Canaan – but the God that they had entered into relationship with, stood alone, apart and above. 

How do you feel about God? Is God one of many, all jostling for your attention? Or does everything else somehow pale into insignificance? Unless we fully feel that way, our worship will only be half-hearted. 

Together

But it is ‘The Lord our God’ not ‘The Lord your God’. Plural not singular. We’re meant to do this together, as a group or community. As the opening story suggests, every single one of us has a part to play, we each need to participate. We’re not in this alone. We are a congregation, not an audience.

And what is the response to learning that our God is above all others? That’s when it becomes personal: ‘You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ 

Some translations add an important word at the start of that. ‘And you are to love…’ What seems like a command or a demand to love now becomes a response. Instead of being forced or coerced it’s a choice. Having heard that the Lord our God is beyond all others, love is the reply of our hearts to that revelation.

Act lovingly

‘And you are to love…’ Love here in Hebrew means to act lovingly. To be faithful, loyal and attentive in that action. It’s less about feelings and more about doing. The love is evidenced by behaviour. 

It reminds me of the Letter of James in the NT. ‘Faith without action is dead’. Words are easy. Actions are harder. It’s not what we say in here, it’s what we do out there. The Shema is more than fine words – it’s a call to worship in how we live our lives. Actions speak louder than words.

Centrality

‘And you are to love with all your heart…’ In the Hebrew Bible the heart is the core of someone’s being, the centrality of the individual. It speaks of the inner workings of the mind. Through the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord longed for a people that would have the law ‘written on their hearts’. And when Solomon asks for wisdom – actually he doesn’t ask for wisdom! In Hebrew, 1 Kings 3 translates as: ‘Give your servant a listening heart’. Solomon asks for a listening heart.

To love the Lord with all our hearts is to place him in the centre of everything, every facet of our lives. Our relationships, careers, finances and ambitions. Whatever the Lord needs, we give it.

Share the breath

‘And you are to love with all your soul…’ the first time we see the Hebrew word for soul is in Genesis 2:7, the second creation narrative. God had formed the human from a mud pie and breathed into the nostrils to give life. The human became a ‘living being’. Other translations use ‘living soul’. Soul and being are being used interchangeably and owe their life to God’s breath.

To love God with all our soul is to share the breath that was first given us. To return to the purpose for which we were made – and to offer our bodies, our souls, ‘as a living sacrifice’, as Paul later said. 

Enthusiasm

‘You are to love with all your strength…’ Strength here means energy, might, enthusiasm. It’s giving the very best of what we are. And the same word used for strength here is used in the first creation narrative. The word ‘good’, when ‘God saw that it was very good’, is the same word translated in this verse as ‘strength’. It’s as if God gave of his best in creation – and of his very best when making man and woman. 

So, we’re to give to God ‘the good’, the very best of ourselves. The creativity, the energy, the innovation. Not the dregs and the leftovers. 

The Shema asks us to give God the entirety of our being and our behaviour. Our conscience, our essence and our vitality. That’s the heart of worship. Worship is not what song you sing. Or what kind of liturgy you use or how many candles that you light. They may be important – but worship should be a way of life – of who and what we are.

Everywhere, constantly

It’s a thought continued in the verses that follow. They were to teach these instructions to their children, to talk about them at home and away. At the start of the day and the end. And they were to make them very obvious to everyone. We don’t know if the intention was literal or metaphorical but we have the command to bind them to the arm and the head, on the doorposts and on the gates. So, these are words to be kept in and by the community. They should be visual reminders, everywhere, constantly. 

How obvious are we in our faith? In the way we live our lives, teach our children, in our daily routines and how we appear to others? Can anyone tell that we are Christian? 

Troublesome text

But there is danger in the text too. In the context of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are about to enter the promised land. That’s great for the children of Israel, but not so great for the Canaanites who already live there and whose land is about to be occupied, if that means they are going to be dominated and subjugated.

In the verses that follow (6:20-25) both the original audience, and ourselves, are reminded that God is a liberating God who had freed Israel from slavery and bondage. That should determine their identity of living as people of God. The memory of being slaves shouldprevent them from enslaving others. 

Instead, we have some troublesome text in the chapter that follows (7:1-6) which we’ll need to deal with another time. But suffice to say that down the centuries we too have hardly been exemplary in the way that we’ve treated other nations and other cultures. 

And there’s another challenge. Despite our best efforts to keep the commandments and love God with all our heart, being and might, we all know that things can still go horribly wrong – both individually and as a community.

This is a poem written by Primo Levi, based on the Shema, in the context of the Holocaust and the Concentration Camps:

Shema – If this is a man

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:

            Consider if this is a man,

            Who works in the mud

            Who does not know peace

            And who fights for a scrap of bread

            Who dies because of yes or a no.

            Consider if this is a woman,

            Without hair and without name

            With no more strength to remember

            Her eyes empty and her womb cold

            Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:

I commend these words to you.

Carve them in your hearts

At home, in the street,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your house fall apart,

May illness impede you,

May your children turn their faces from you.

Loving your neighbour

Primo Levi links the Shema – that is centred on loving God with all one’s being – with loving one’s neighbour. We know someone else who did that, don’t we? He called them the first and second commandments (Mark 12:28-34). Primo Levi’s poem says how can you say that you love the Lord your God while your brother and sister are experiencing such horrific treatment? Something else that Jesus would agree with: “As you did to the least of these…”

If the Holocaust seems a long time away then this is more recent piece written by Kathleen Norris: 

‘There were grace notes in the unspeakably evil acts of September 11, 2001. No one phoned out of those buildings in hatred or revenge. Instead, the calls and e-mails were an affirmation of life and love: “I love you; take care of yourself”, “I love you and the kids. God bless you and good-bye”, or simply: “You’ve been a good friend”. 

If the terrorists’ intent was to destroy us, they failed miserably. And we succeeded in finding a measure of grace. A more unified country, at least for a time. No riots, no panicked runs on banks. We were a more thoughtful people, if only briefly. We enjoyed the grace of a week without the usual bombardment of advertisements, a week without celebrity trivia. Now that we’ve gone back to worrying about what Ben Affleck eats for breakfast and what Jenifer Lopez is wearing, or not wearing, we might recall the seriousness to which we were called on Sept 11 and find something meaningful there’.

Dignity

True love of God then, true worship, demands that we stand where God stands and challenge any behaviour which denies dignity to people – people in all places and in all times. Hear O Israel, yes. But hear O world. Hear every last man and woman of us here in Four Lane Ends today.

And I wonder if, in the end, “You shall love the Lord your God” becomes less of a command and more of a promise. Despite all the horrors and losses, all the grief and disappointment, we will come to love God at last – as from the first God has loved us. And, in loving God, we will come at last to love each other too. Amen

“The Shema and worship” was delivered by Ian Banks at Four Lane Ends Congregational church on the afternoon of Sunday October 24th 2021. It’s based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

References:

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