Sermon #4 in Series: The Things that Trap Us

Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 2, 2013 on Deuteronomy 6: 1-9 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.

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Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

These are considered by many to be the most important words in the Jewish Bible and are called “The Shema.”  As Deuteronomy says, you are to teach these words to your children, and say them when you first wake up and when you go to sleep.  Deuteronomy continues that you are to bind these words to your hands, as an emblem on your forehead, and on the doorposts of your home.  This is why when you see some Jews, usually Orthodox, you will see them with the teffelin, the boxes with words of scripture written inside, tied to their arms and to their heads as they pray.  Or a mezuzah, which is a little box affixed to the outside of the doorframes of homes, inside of which resides this piece of scripture.

The words of the Shema are written out on the cover of your bulletin today in Hebrew and are written in the round by the artist Jackie Olenick in the form of a mandala which is a Hindu or a Buddhist way of doing spiritual art.

The Amazing Shema, Julie Olenick

The Amazing Shema, Jackie Olenick

As I showed the children during the children’s sermon today, I have a mandala from Nepal that my father got me when he was there on a business trip years ago as a gift.  Mandalas are said to represent the Universe and usually have a central focal point where the art or words move out from.  Mandalas, or religious art in the round is not just limited to our Hindu sisters and brothers—but can be found in Christian art too.  Earlier this year during Lent we practiced the ritual of the labyrinth after worship, walking in meditative concentric circles in the Parish Hall.  Our Catholic friends, the sisters at Mount Saint Mary graciously loaned us their labyrinth to use that day.  From our Scottish-Presbyterian roots, there is the Celtic cross, with its interlocking circles, that have no end and no beginning, but weave together to form the symbol of our faith.  In the Catholic tradition, there are rosary beads, woven into a circle, never-ending.  Buddhists and Muslims also have prayer beads that they use to guide their meditations.  In many churches, there is usually a large stained glass window that is in a circular shape, usually with Christ or Mary at the center in a mandala-style.  Islamic art is full of geometric shapes, usually that create circles and religious poems.  Circles are an important symbol and pathway to opening up the spiritual journey in many faith traditions.

The circle is a great way of thinking about the spiritual life, as a journey that is never-ending, but also constantly turns in on itself over and over again, sometimes passing by the same territory, sometimes contracting in, sometimes expanding out.  We think of God’s Creation as a circle—we tend to call it in popular language, the Circle of Life, the idea being that all life is interconnected in one way or another, and there is a feedback loop that nature relies on to function.  Even in the Creation, God was thinking is circles.

The idea of the Shema is not that it is a verse in the Bible that is memorized, but that it describes a way of life that is internalized and lived out into every aspect of our personal and communal life.  The idea that it is tied to prayer and instruction of children is a way of experiencing God’s Word in a fully life-integrated way.  Like a circle, living out the Shema is a never-ending spiritual practice in our lives and in our faith communities.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus reflects on this central piece of scripture.  This is how the writer of Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ interaction with the Shema:

One of the religion scholars came up. Hearing the lively exchanges of question and answer and seeing how sharp Jesus was in his answers, he put in his question: “Which is most important of all the commandments?”

Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”

We have an allusion to the Shema in the ordination questions for ministers, Elders and Deacons in the PC(USA):  “Will you serve the people with energy, imagination, intelligence and love?”  It’s a great question—and it goes back to this ancient commandment that comes to us from the roots of our faith in the Jewish tradition: “Will you love God with all your heart, your soul and your might?” And then the question of Jesus: “Will you love your neighbors as yourselves?”

Intentionality about practicing our faith is probably the most difficult part of the spiritual journey for all of us.  What would happen if you paused throughout the day and asked yourself these questions:

“Right now, am I loving God with all my heart, my soul and my might?”

“Right now, am I loving my neighbor as myself?”

For most of us, probably about 80% of the time or more the answer is no.  We are busy.  We are going about our day-to-day lives.  We might be engaged in practices at home or at work, or out in the community that do not show the love of God in the world.  We might be engaged in selfishness, self-protection or consumption.  We might be angry or fighting.  We might be engaged in a practice that is harming some part of the Creation.  Or we might just simply not be thinking about God at all.   How do we get back on track?  How do we find ways to shift the equation, make 80% or more of our lives about living out the call in the Shema—and slowly dwindling down that other percentage?  Can we do it?

Last month the Gallup polling agency published a poll that stated that only about 20% of people believe that religion in our country is having an influence on the day-to-day lives of people.  That 20% number holds as an average for people who attend worship services on a weekly basis and those who attend much more infrequently.   However in that same study, 94% of weekly worship attenders felt our country would be better off if people would take their personal religiosity more seriously, and 58% of those who attend infrequently think the same thing.  What does this poll tell us?  Lots of people have written different opinions about it, but this is my personal one:  People are honest.  The poll is probably right.  They know that very few of us live out our faith on a day-to-day, even hour-to-hour basis.   They see the lack of faith lived out in daily life.   That’s realistic.  But they also say that if people would live their faith out more, our society would be better off.   And I agree with that too and I bet most of you would agree as well!

There was another study that came out this week, from the US Census Bureau, which showed that at least 15% of people in our country are living at or below the poverty line.  But the misery index is even higher than this because before you hit the poverty line, you are food or housing insecure, or have a myriad of other problems that makes it hard to move forward.   If we are to love God with all our heart, and all our strength and all our might, and our neighbor as ourselves…..If we are to teach this way of life to our children—then how can numbers this high be even remotely accepted in our society or not creating high levels of anxiety and activity from faith communities?  Think back for a moment about the first study from Gallup, people say that religious beliefs have little to do with our day-to-day lives, but that if they did, our society would be better off!  This place of deep sin and brokenness, hyper-inequality, that might be one place to start, that might be one thing to throw our individual or our communal energy into as an act of faith.  This might be a way to begin to address the question of how do we live out the Shema in our daily life!  Are we loving God with our whole hearts?  Are we loving our neighbors as ourselves?

Gallup and the US Census Bureau give us the answer to that most important spiritual question: no.

As we continue our journey through this series about the church of the future and how we can get on board here at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, and be a part of the changing future of our religious institutions, the Shema is a key issue.  My generation, and the generations coming after me will not for the most part involve themselves in voluntary groups or institutions that they see as not living out what they say they believe in.  This is why religious institutions of all types are seeing a precipitous fall off in the participation of younger and emerging adults.  The churches in our denomination that are experiencing growth today are the ones whose members and participants give mission, outreach, inclusiveness and partnership equal if not greater energy than they do to weekly worship.  A lived out faith becomes the worship-experience.  A transformative and prophetic witness in the world and community becomes the point of engagement and the reason others are drawn to these churches.

The mission field is not somewhere out there, far away.  It is next door, or across the street from your homes and mine because we need to re-evangelize people and community in the most basic principle of the faith: The Shema.

In the community garden working

In the community garden working

Just yesterday I woke Sofia up early to have her come and spend the morning working on our church’s Community Garden with me.  Like most kids she grumbled a bit.  She got upset when I didn’t stop the car at Dunkin Donuts on the way to church.   But as she got busy and as we talked, as she visited and met some of the people that are being fed from our garden she got excited.  I know the story from my own life and my own coming to faith.  It was missional service and then spiritual conversations with people at my church and in my family about that service that helped me figure out how to integrate my faith with my day-to-day living.  It was consistent mission-service as I grew up through adolescence, that I have continued to engage in as an adult that gives me the reason to get up each day and be involved in ministry and in life, even on the tough or discouraging days.  Integration, a sort of circular living—faith as a feedback loop—is what it is all about.

My challenge to you this week is to think through your day-to-day living and even keep a spiritual journal this week and write down your answers to these questions.  As yourself a few times each day, “Am I loving God with what I am doing?”  “Am I loving my neighbor as myself with how I am living?”  Depending on the honest answer you give yourself, then you know what you need to change.  Talk to God about the Shema in your prayers.  Tell God about your struggles and your successes.  Use this an opportunity to have a conversation with God.  See what changes take shape.  Talk to your family members about the Shema each day.  But don’t just stop there, with yourself!  Teach it to your children, or your spouse, your partner, or your friend.  Discuss it together.  Find ways to live it together.  See what new circles the everlasting God invites you to move into!

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad

Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

Amen.

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