Shema, O Israel!: Homily on Luke 8:19-21

The following is a Homily I delivered this morning to the student body of the private high school where I teach theology and religion.

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:19-21)

On Saturday, Robert Bowers opened up gunfire on Jews who were attending their Synagogue on the Sabbath, in Pittsburgh, PA. The attack was explicitly fueled by anti-Semitism, substantiated by white supremacy and nationalism, with a not-so-thinly-veiled vein of Christian Zionism. These Jews were gathered there, in their Synagogue, in their sanctuary to worship God, to rest (it was the Sabbath). To hear the Word of YWHW, their Lord, their God. They were there to be brought face to face with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; they were there to hear the story of God’s activity and promises for and to them. They were there to receive life. Rather, that sanctuary, that rest, turned into chaos, fear, panic, and most grievous death.

 

One of the components of the Jewish liturgy said regularly, is something called the “Shema.” It’s considered a prayer of allegiance to God, a centerpiece of Jewish worship and prayer life. It’s the heart of the Law. The Shema, a prayer of the people of Israel, is from the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 6. If you didn’t know, Deuteronomy is one of the first five books, the fifth in fact, of the beginning of the portion of our Christian bible that we refer to as the Old Testament. But for modern Jews, as it was for those Israelites way back when, this is not the Old Testament, but The Testament. And this prayer functions as the heart of the portion of what is considered the Torah, the Law, which make up the first five books of our Old Testament.

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. (Dt 6:4-9)

“Shema, O Israel!” Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…And do these things. The word “Shema” is translated as “Hear” in our text of Deuteronomy. But “hear” is not the fullest rendering of what Shema actually and truly means. To translate it rightly, we should say, “Hear and Obey” hear so deeply that you actually do what is commanded of you. Hear and obey. This hearing and doing is the mark of the Israelite. Hearing results in the fear of the Lord, which we know about in terms of faith, and fear or the Lord, faith, is that which is the foundation of our activity, our vibrant activity in the world as God’s image, God’s representatives and reflections in the world, having dominion and caring for the earth and for all who inhabit it. To hear and to do is to be the righteous one that Micah, the minor prophet of the Old Testament, looks for in the streets where he finds none that are righteous. Through Micah, the Lord proclaims to Israel that what is desired by God’s very heart are not sacrifices and burnt offerings, but love and humility and justice.

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)

To do and be the good Israelite is to hear the word of God and to be so moved to act rightly and to do justice.

 

For Christians, Jesus is the embodiment of the Shema: he is the one who hears and does. He is the righteous Israelite who walks humbly with his God, does justice, loves kindness. He does the Law in full: Jesus loves God and loves his neighbor (the entire world). And in being the embodiment of these commands fulfills them. But we go very astray if we think “fulfillment” now means we are only to “think and pray” for those who suffer horrible atrocities such as this and all the other shootings and bombings and terror attacks in our country. We aren’t off such a hook. There’s a massive systemic problem that is infecting and has infected our country. And its names are legion: anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and nationalism. And worst of all, American Christianity has seemed to tether itself to the last (thus also to the three former) and it’s not okay.

 

Our passage today is the stuff of a word that is hard. Jesus says, “‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” There’s nothing easy about this text. There’s no way around what Christ says here and what is explicitly said: those who hear and do the will of God are those who are related to Christ, who are his brothers and his mother. Not “think” the will of God, not even “pray” the will of God. But “do” the will of God. And in saying these things, Jesus links those who follow him with those of Israel and binds them to the Shema back in Deuteronomy 6: Hear! Hear, O Israel… hear so well that you do. Christians are not off the hook, we might think we are, but we’re not. Saved by faith for good works. Not merely good doctrine but good practice.

 

Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification, Paul explains to us in the book of Romans (4:25). But this wasn’t so that our eyes would remain blind to carnage or our ears to remain deaf to cries of the people. But as Jesus did throughout his ministry on earth and continues to do through the power of the Holy Spirit in the world: he opens our ears and restores our sight so we can hear and see clearly, so that we can call a thing what it is, so that we can face evil and address it, fight back without fear of what the future holds for that is held in Christ.

 

As a priest in the Episcopal tradition and a future doctor of the church, I cannot tolerate the violence and horror that is taking people hostage. I can no longer sit idle or turn a blind eye to the suffering of my fellow brothers and sisters at the hands of extremists and white supremacists. And I cannot tolerate a corrupted, debased, and distorted version of the gospel that is used to support and service such hatred, fear, and oppression. I can’t because the very spirit that lives in me is the very spirit of God and God hates those things. The Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead and ascended into heaven is the stuff of the love of God for the world, of liberty for the captives, for the oppressed, for those who are weary and burdened and down trodden; to put it into service to do anything but these things is to lose the gospel altogether and to render Christ’s sacrifice for the world pointless. Thus, I cannot just watch, think comforting thoughts, and pray, I must proclaim. I must ask you to wake up, look around, and hear the cries of those who are suffering and hear the cries of those whose cries have been silenced.

 

A rabbi I follow on Twitter[1] wrote a piece for the Washington Post about the synagogue massacre. She writes,

In Judaism, when someone dies, we often say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” This time, it is all of our obligation to make it so. We must mourn and lament and grieve for the lives stolen from the world. We must rage at the baseless hatred and reckless lack of protections that made these senseless killings possible in the first place. And we must honor the memories of those who were murdered by fighting for a world that values every life — refugee and citizen, of every race and religion — and that creates cultures and policies that reflect those values.[2]

I can still speak out; you can still speak out. So we must.

 

 

 

 

[1] Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (Twitter: @TheRaDR)

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/28/victims-tree-life-synagogue-massacre-are-martyrs/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.04a7b3830002

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