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Friday, July 27, 2007

Faith Plays - Deuteronomy 6:1-9: Homily for Choral Evensong

Now this is the commandment – the statutes and the ordinances – that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.


I grew up as the third of four children. When my oldest sister, Christel, was about three, my mother was setting up the Christmas decorations, and my sister asked what Christmas was all about. Mom took the time to explain the entire Christmas story, complete with angels and shepherds, and culminating in the event all others pointed toward: the birth of Jesus. Putting it in terms my sister could understand, Mom told her that Christmas was a party for Jesus’ birthday. Christel clapped her hands and said, “Oh mummy, we MUST have a Happy Jesus birthday cake!”

As I grew up, our family shared a Happy Jesus birthday cake every year between the 7pm and 11pm Christmas Eve services. It is the same recipe every year, accompanied by herbal tea and egg nogg. We turn out all the lights in the dining room and living room, sit in the warmth of candlelight, and watch the snow swirl around outside as it can only do on a cold, winter evening in Buffalo. And every year, at just the right time, Mom tells the story about how this tradition of happy Jesus birthday cake was born.

Undoubtedly, your family has traditions as special to you as this one is to me and my family. They may be tied to a specific holiday, a family anniversary or birthday, or they may simply be meaningful because they remind you about who your family is. No matter how familiar they are, or how many times you celebrate them, you never tire of hearing the story, and the feeling of warmth and security within you never cools.

In our text from Deuteronomy read a short time ago, we find one of those treasures from Israel’s tradition. It was a bit of treasured Scripture, passed down from generation to generation, reminding the community who they were and who they belonged to. It possessed a rhythm all its own as repetition had worn it a place deep within the hearts of those who knew it.
In our day, repetition and ritual have gotten quite a bit of bad press. If something is too familiar, it’s actually boring, stiff, manufactured, and lacking any sense of creativity. Too often, we clamor for what is new, flashy, and trendy rather than what is old, steady, and unchanging.

But whether the community knows it or not, remembrance and ritual are important markers. They capture words said quite prayerfully intended to be woven into the very fabric of everyday life. So the prayer goes:

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words – recite them whether you are at home or away. Repeat them when you wake up. Repeat them when you lie down. Mark your house with them; and tell them to your children and your children’s children.
If anyone in Israel knew only one prayer, this was the prayer they knew. Called the Shema for the Hebrew word for ‘hear,’ every child of Israel knew this prayer in much the same way Christians today might pray an ‘Our Father’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ This was a prayer in which the people constantly rehearsed their faith, much as a troupe of actors constantly rehearses a play. The people knew crucial moments would arrive when they would have nothing other than their memories to lean on. No liturgies, no bulletins, no gentle guidance from the pulpit. They repeated these words to themselves because a time would arise when those familiar words were the only thing they had to cling to.

It is a clarion call. “Hear, O Israel.” “Hear, O Boone.” “Hear, O Church.” It says, “Wake up! Pay attention! This is the part of the lecture you may want to take notes on! This is going to be on the test!”

You shall love God with everything you have, and everything you are. It seems so simple, yet it is a radical departure from the ways in which we are conditioned to structure our lives. We treat our relationship with God like it’s the product on a cereal commercial – “Kellogg’s Corn Pops are part of a well-balanced breakfast.” We treat God as one product among many that may add a distinct flavor to our lives, but seem unwilling to make him the center of our existence. Really, when it comes down to it, a bowl of cereal is a bowl of cereal. You may get slightly more sugar out of one, or slightly more fiber out of another, but all cereals are essentially created equal.
And yet, there is only one God. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the God of Jesus and Sts. Peter and Paul; the God of Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther, and John Wesley is our God. God is not one among many. We do not have to worry about whether we choose the right or the wrong God, for there is only one. In our lying down, in our rising, in our going out, in our coming in, God is still God. For reasons beyond our comprehension, it is God who has chosen us, rather than we who have chosen God.

This God – one who has chosen us, one who has no rival – has asked us to do one simple thing: love. Here, it would seem the text is stating the obvious, and it is, yet it is an obvious truth so far beyond our reach sometimes. How many times in my own faith journey have I been called to love – genuinely, wholeheartedly love – and felt clueless as to how? What do I know about love? I only know what has been shown to me by parents and grandparents, by family and friends, and by my community of faith. Yet as I remember the love shown by these, I find that I already know much about love, and that love can only be experienced in the context of relationships. I learn to love when I realize that I, too, can love in just the same manner as I myself have been loved. Like the ancient Hebrews before me, I realize that I am not the final destination of God’s good gifts and that God wishes to shine love and grace through me. Like the ancient Hebrews before us, like Peter and Paul, like Martin Luther and John Wesley, God sends unloved people into our lives so we might show them God’s love.

Will we love the stranger in our midst? Regardless of age? Gender? Ethnicity? Social Status? Disability? Are we really willing to say that there is no class of person to whom we will deny God’s love?

I think that is the test. The world’s inclination would be to control, to limit, to set boundaries. But God calls us to trust rather than control. He invites us to rehearse our faith again and again so that it becomes written indelibly on our hearts. He invites us to leave a legacy for our children, not of control, but of trust. Let us live as people who really do believe that the Lord is our God, and open ourselves up to God’s radical possibilities. God promised to go with us and bear us as we start to seek his new future. So join with God and even with the stranger in your midst as you open yourself to the risky freedom of wide spaces and the ever-new coming of God.

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