Shema, yisrael. Adonai, elohenu. Adonai Echad.
These words begin a commandment that is vitally important to both Jewish and Christian faiths. 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.
The words come to us from God through Moses. They are part of the vital teaching that Moses shares with the people Israel before his death, as a way of preparing them for their new life in the promised land.
In Jewish tradition, the words are often called “the shema”, and they are woven into everyday life. Many believers have the words transcribed onto scrolls and put in beautiful boxes, fastened to their doorposts. Some recite these words twice a day in prayer, in the morning and in the evening. Some wear the words in special boxes on the forehead or on the arm during prayer.
In Christian tradition, we remember that Jesus called this the greatest commandment. This is our touchstone, the teaching that all teachings can be boiled down to, the heart of faithful living.
When Cindy and I were talking about this service, she suggested that this passage from Deuteronomy might be a good scripture reading for today. It’s always good to spend time with the greatest commandment, but why particularly now?
God says: Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children. Today we celebrate the end of this year of Sunday school. God says: Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away. As summer approaches, some of us will be following this commandment at home, while others travel. God says: talk about them when you lie down and when you rise. I am beginning my sabbatical time, when I hope to spend at least a little more time following God’s commandment while lying down, so that I might rise up with more energy to join you again in September.
As seasons pass and travel takes us away and transitions occur in our lives, we can always hold onto this: 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.
How shall we love the Lord our God with all that we are, this summer? What does it really mean, to love God?
Love is a word with so many definitions. We love things that give us pleasure: food, art. We love people: as friends; as family members, parents and siblings and children; as romantic partners of a moment or of a lifetime. In the ancient near east, the word love had at least one additional layer. Love was a word used in political treaties. People pledged their love, by which they meant their loyalty and their faithfulness to a ruler and an agreement.
Which of these kinds of love should we give to God? Maybe almost all of them. Our relationship with God can at times be full of pleasure or passion. But to love God with all of our heart, soul, and might, sounds most similar to the love of a family member; or the love of the covenant of marriage; or the love of loyalty to a ruler. It is love forged not only by experience and emotion, but by intention and action over time. Intention and action to love God and, by extension, God’s people and God’s creation.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. This is such good news. We need serve nothing else in this life but God. No other obligation has such a powerful hold on us. We are free: to love our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might.
Whatever the next few months hold for you, I hope you will keep this commandment with you, and try to follow it. I will do the same. It’s ok if we make mistakes along the way. There’s a reason that we’re asked to recite these words, talk about them, travel with them, sleep with them, put them on our bodies and on our houses. Following this commandment, loving in this way is not about perfection or completion but persistence. We choose to honor God with our lives, and we return again and again to this intention, using all that we’ve got: heart, soul, might. Our commitment connects us back again to the God who is always reaching towards us. Our commitment connects us back again to ancient traditions of faith, the great host of saints, and to each other, our local faith community.
As you leave today, I invite you to take a little card that has the words of this great commandment written on it. Keep it with you, as you stay or as you go this summer. Consider sharing its words with someone else: reciting them, talking them over. You could keep the card by your bed, and read it as you go to sleep, or as you get up in the morning. You could tape it on your bathroom mirror, or on a doorway you pass each day. May you discover each day new ways to love the Lord our God. May God, in turn, bless you and free you with her love. Amen.