Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25A), October 26, 2008.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-181 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Psalm 1 Matthew 22:34-46

The World is One

Jesus is in trouble again. The Pharisees are out to get him, just as they were in the story we heard last week, when they threw him a trick question about paying taxes to Caesar. Later that same day some Sadducees confronted Jesus and tried to trip him up in a debate about the resurrection. When the Sadducees were silenced, the Pharisees gathered in a third attempt to trap Jesus – and that’s the story that we hear today. “One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” [Matthew 22:34-35]

The way that Matthew’s Gospel tells the story, the question is not asked out of a sincere desire to understand what Jesus is thinking or to connect with him as a person – it is posed from a place of challenge and suspicion, from that wary, critical, mistrustful place where we eye the other person and says, “Who does he think he is? Let’s get him.”

Sound familiar? It reminds me of the antagonistic atmosphere of these days before the Presidential election. Some of us have been unnerved by the degree of mockery and flat-out lies that has marked some of the political maneuvering – a method that stands at a polar opposite from what Paul describes as his approach to the people of Thessalonica, to whom, he writes, his appeal “does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery.” [1 Thessalonians 2:3]

Maybe “deceit” and “impure motives” and “trickery” are inevitable at this stage of a hard-fought election, but they are also a pretty good example of the general human temptation – even in the absence of an election – to treat other people not just as worthy opponents but as obstacles and enemies, as essentially different from us and our tribe, as objects either to be used for our own purposes or to be ignored and pushed aside. Ordinary human consciousness usually perceives things as separate: this is not that; this is separate from that; you are not my really my neighbor – fundamentally you are ‘other.’

So I imagine Jesus looking into the crowd of confused and hostile faces, and into my own face, too, and answering from the place deep within himself and deep within each of us where we are connected to God. Speaking clearly and with compassion, Jesus answers, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22: 37-40]

The first verse that Jesus quotes is from Deuteronomy and part of a text called the Sh’ma, which begins “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” [Deuteronomy 6:4-5] This passage is called the Sh’ma – which means Hear or Listen in Hebrew – because that is the passage’s first word, and, as one commentator points out, it is “the basic and essential creed in Judaism, the sentence with which every Jewish service still opens, and the first text which every Jewish child commits to memory.” 1

The second verse that Jesus quotes is from the passage of Hebrew Scripture that we heard this morning, Leviticus 19:18 – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus’ summary of the law is a completely orthodox, completely Jewish answer. Rabbis often debated which of the 613 distinct commandments in the Torah were the most important, and whether there was a primary commandment in whose light all the others could be understood. Rabbi Jesus is lifting up the same summary of the law – love of God and love of neighbor -that other rabbis had lifted up before, and it’s worth remembering that Jesus and the leaders of Judaism were arguing from within the same heritage of faith. Where they differed, where the tension between them arose, was in how to interpret that heritage of faith, and in who Jesus was.

For Jews and for Christians, and perhaps for people of every other religion as well, loving God and neighbor are completely interwoven. Unless we love our neighbor, our professed love of God is only pious fluff; unless we love God, our professed love of neighbor turns swiftly into co-dependence, into demanding from our neighbor the unconditional love that ultimately only God can give us.

It seems to me that this is why we come together every Sunday to worship: because we want to bring together all the scattered pieces of our lives and of the world that surrounds us. We want to dive beneath the surface differences that so often divide us, and to touch the living God who embraces everything within us and around us, and in whom everything is held together. Especially in the Eucharist, we discover again the deep unity at the heart of reality, that place where we know that everything is connected and that everything is lit up with love. If we want to help a neighbor, it’s no big deal, it’s not such a special thing, any more than it would be a big deal if with one hand I helped the other hand: they may be separate, but they are part of the same body – or if this finger helped that finger: they may be separate, but they are part of the same hand.

Remembering — and experiencing — our basic unity with God and one another is especially important at a time when so much of the world seems so bitterly divided. As religious people, our task is to hold in mind – to hold in heart – the totality of things, because then our thoughts and actions can spring from a deep root of wisdom.

Last year, during the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue, Jews and Christians and Unitarians and people of other faiths walked across Massachusetts as a way of expressing our shared love for God and God’s Creation. By day we walked, and by night we stopped at various churches and at a Jewish temple for an evening program. One night near the end of the walk, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg led us in a chant written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center. 2 The chant is based on the Sh’ma, and its purpose is to awaken our awareness that at every boundary, the world is one.

One of the words you will hear as we go along is the word “tzitzit,” which refers to the fringes of a prayer shawl traditionally worn by Jewish men, rather like the fringes you see hanging from the end of this stole.

I invite you to join me in the refrain, which is the first and last word of the opening sentence of the Sh’ma (Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one), four words, two in English and the same two words in Hebrew: Listen, one, Sh’ma, echad. Try it out: Listen, one, Sh’ma, echad.

You sing the refrain like this: 3

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad…..

And while I speak the verses, you keep holding that note, and when you need to breathe, you take a breath and return to the sound…. Mmmm… and if you want to add a little harmony, you can hum another note that sounds nice….and we return to the refrain and chant together:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad…..

OK, here we go…. Mmmm…(Hold that note as I speak…)

And when we come to a doorway between the risky world and our safe homes, when we might believe these are two separate worlds – then we pause at the doorway to remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad…..

And when we come to a doorway in time between our active rising up and our dreamy, sleepy lying down, when we might believe these are two separate worlds – then we pause at that moment to remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad….

And when we look at our hands and experience our eyes, when we might believe these are two separate worlds, the world of observing, watching, and the world of doing, making – then we pause to bind our eyes and hands together, and we remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… e’chad…

And when we come to the gateway of our cities, the boundary of our own cultures and communities, when we might believe these are two separate worlds – the world where everybody speaks my language and the language of those… barbarians out there – then we pause at that gateway to remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad….

And when we look beyond all human life at those beings that do not speak at all – mountains and rivers, ozone and oak trees, beetles and krill – when we might say they live in an utterly separate world beyond us, on which we have no effect at all – then we pause to remember that the poison we feed to earth and air and water feeds us poison, and we remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad….

And when we might assert one thing is certain, inside my skin I know what’s what but everything outside me is mysterious and alien – these are two separate worlds – then we look at the tzitzit on the edges of ourselves, we look at these fuzzy fringes made always of my own cloth and the Universe’s air, we look at these threads of connection that bind us to each other, and we pause at that moment to remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad….

And when we come to that final doorway whose other side no one has ever seen, and we might think that the world of life and the world of death are two utterly separate worlds – then we pause at that doorway to remember to remind ourselves:

Listen… One…Sh’ma… echad….

1. William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2, revised edition, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, p. 278.

2. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Sh’ma: At Every Boundary, The World is One, The Shalom Center, http://www.shalomctr.org/node/230. Rabbi Weinberg used the refrain cited in the sermon; Rabbi Waskow’s refrain is entirely in Hebrew.

3. For information on shruti boxes, try http://www.shrutibox.com.