Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
What we hear today in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is the Decalogue, the ten commandments, or ten words – a phrase that more closely approximates the original Hebrew. They were given to Israel through Moses on Mt. Sinai to promote and protect the life and well-being of the community. The ten words provided core values that would ground the multitude of religious laws later given. Our Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in the ten words and in the covenantal relationship with God to which they are rooted and grounded.
In the book of Deuteronomy, written much later than Exodus, the Ten would be condensed into One, the Great Shema, which encapsulates the commandments: Hear, O Israel: The LORD is 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 might (Deut.6:4-5).
The Shema. But we don’t seem to get it – to understand what it means to love God with all our heart. Much later, Jesus tries to explain, when he is asked by someone not searching for the truth, but trying to trap Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus responds, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34-40). Perhaps adding a practical application would pointedly clarify the Great Commandment. Jesus’ explanation should help us understand what it’s like to really love God; how loving God is manifest in the way we live our lives and how we treat others. Jesus gives it another try when he says, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’” (Matt. 5:43-44).
How much clearer could Jesus make it in trying to explain and demonstrate what it means to love God with our whole heart…?. You can understand why Jesus becomes angry when he finds that even many of the people at the temple don’t get it – the merchants are worshiping money rather than God. Not only were they not offering a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, they were trying to rip off those who were. When will we ever get what it means to abide in God’s Word, which was given for our well-being?
I wonder, if God were giving us the commandments, now, if there might be an eleventh one: “You shall not bully. You shall not bully your wife or your child, your donkey or your dog. You shall not bully your neighbor or your enemy, your classmate, or any person or peoples or nation or creature that you consider to be different or weaker than yourself.” You shall not bully.
A friend called last week asking about Bible stories that relate to not feeling loved, to not belonging, to not feeling special at school. I was rather amazed at how many Bible stories immediately came to mind – that is, until I realized that this has been my issue for most of my life: not feeling like I belong, feeling “different,” invisible – not seen, not heard. It’s probably been an issue for most of us at some point in our lives.
For me, it started way early on when I would be out with my mother and people would think that I was a boy. For sure, I was a tomboy: dressed that way when I could get by with it, played ball with the boys during recess (almost always on the winning team, I might add). For the most part that was okay in elementary school. I could play ball with the boys and still have a boyfriend like the other girls – the best of both worlds. Until my boyfriend Ricky got onto me – said I even spelled my name like a boy. My middle name is Joe – says it right there on my birth certificate – Lisa J-O-E, after my dad. From the day that Ricky humiliated me, though, my middle name has been spelled J-O.
The transition from elementary to middle school was terrible: Not only was there no recess, no football, battle, or marbles to play; the girls had to wear dresses. And there were no sports teams for girls. For us, the choices of extracurricular activities were pep squad, cheerleading, or band majorette. I can still do the first part of the cheer, “Beat the Cubs,” but not very well.
All of a sudden, my world was turned upside down. Being popular became the utmost endeavor at school, and the popular girls and boys took little notice of me. It took a very long time to discover where, if anywhere, I fit in.
That was just the beginning of my journey of feeling like an outsider. Not just at school, but sometimes even at home. My mother was tall, feminine, and Grace Kelly beautiful. She loved me dearly, of that I have no doubt. But I also have no doubt that I turned out quite a bit differently than she had dreamed I would.
And then there was Church, where I fit in only if I hid a part of myself. That’s a long story in itself, but you can imagine my astonishment when Bishop Maze told me that he not only welcomed me into the discernment process, but that he was excited to see what God was up to! I shared this with my spiritual director, the Rev. Merry Helen Hedges. “Of course,” I told her, “If I’m called to be a priest, I’ll have to move to another diocese to get a job.” You can imagine my shock to hear Merry Helen quickly respond, “Oh no, you won’t. We need you here.”
When I got the request last week about Bible stories relating to not belonging, not feeling special, I should not have been surprised at the energy it invoked in me nor the numerous Bible stories that popped into my mind – the first being that of Moses: The little Hebrew baby hidden away by his mother in the reeds of the Nile River to protect him from Pharaoh’s violent fear; the little baby who ended up miraculously being nursed by his own mother until he was adopted by the pharaoh’s daughter; the adolescent who came to the rescue of one of his fellow Hebrews by killing the Egyptian who was beating him; the young man who protected the women at the well in Midian from shepherds who were bullying them; the man whom God called at the burning bush to lead the Israelites out of the land of bondage. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s actually our story; our salvation story. Though Moses himself did not know, God knew all along that Moses was special, just as his mother had when she lovingly and with great faith and anguish, placed Moses in a little basket boat in the reeds of the Nile.
The recitation of the Shema in Jewish liturgy is expanded to include three parts. This is the first, from the book of Deuteronomy (6:4-9):
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.
Keep these words in your heart. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away; when you lie down and when you rise.