Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Lent 1 Sunday 5 March 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Deuteronomy 6. 4-9, 16-25 Luke 15.1- 10
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
This morning at High Mass, Fr. Michael took us to the wilderness of Judea by way of his native Australia. Tonight’s travelogue is rather less exciting, although it will take us to the wilderness of Sinai.
Last Tuesday, after a funeral mass here, I was driven to Hendon Crematorium for the Committal. Our route took us through Golders Green and Hendon just at the time when schools were coming out and groups of orthodox Jewish schoolboys were crowding the streets. As we drove past kosher shops I spotted one called “Torah Treasures:” with a display of Jewish devotional items and books. This is a world in which the Book of Deuteronomy rules.
The Shema is the first prayer a Jewish child learns; the last thing an observant Jew says before sleep; the last prayer of a Jew before death. In a religion light on creeds and catechisms, it is as close as you can come to a Jewish statement of essential faith.
The text above is the part of the prayer which every Jew knows but there is more to it than that one sentence. The full prayer is three paragraphs long, including not only the statement of God’s uniqueness but also elements of Deuteronomy (6.4-9, 11.13-21) and Numbers:
“The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not to follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”(15. 37-41) that prescribe some of the most important elements of Jewish ritual, including instructions on when to recite the Shema. “When you lie down and when you rise up,” and to wear them upon the heart and as a sign between the eyes, to inscribe them upon the doorposts of houses and on gates. On the basis of these instructions, the rabbis devised:
- The schedule of reciting the Shema congregationally twice daily, at the morning and evening services – rather as the Prayer Book offices have the Apostles’ Creed – and in bed just before sleep – much as Christians may say the Nunc Dimittis.
- The wearing of tefillin at the morning service the wearing of tsizit, ceremonial fringes, and the placing a mezuzah on the doorways to Jewish homes.
The other element of the Shema that fills out its importance in Jewish theology is that the middle section, also taken from Deuteronomy (11.13-21), speaks of reward and punishment, a cornerstone of ethical monotheism: there’s more to this than just believing in one Supreme Being, you also have to behave properly.
When our Lord is asked which is the great commandment of the Law, he combines the Shema and words from Leviticus (19.18) in the love of neighbour in his “Summary of the Law” which many of us will have grown up hearing at Prayer Book Communion Services as an alternative to the Ten Commandments.
In a culture in which even the basics of Christian faith can no longer be taken for granted in the way that they could in previous generations, the Church could profit from seeing how some other religious cultures have managed to survive, to preserve their distinctive identity, in the midst of a surrounding culture which is at best apathetic, at worst actively hostile.
The option of maximum isolation and separation practiced by some Jewish and Muslim communities is not an option for Christians, except the most sectarian, but a more conscious effort to learn and teach religious practice is.
Learning things by heart has gone out of fashion in education – and to some extent in the Church too. Spontaneity is believed to be superior to familiarity. An ordinand from this parish told me of fellow-students at her theological college saying that ‘The Lord’s Prayer” was only a pattern and we did not have to repeat but should make up our own versions. Given who the author of the prayer was, this seems a particularly silly stance. Similarly, the Catholic Creeds – the Apostles Creed we recite at Evensong and the Nicene Creed we use at the Eucharist – are only specimens. We can write our own. Well, I’m sure we can and it might on occasions be a helpful exercise, but whether they will survive more than one use is another matter.
Rather than abandoning the old and the routine in favour of constant novelty, we should be paying more attention to the Church’s traditional practices of word and sacrament and prayer, offices and devotions, fasting and almsgiving, as vital aids in developing and maintaining and refreshing our Christian identity; in becoming a people holy to the Lord.
Contemporary Judaism is descended from the Pharisees whom we encounter in the Gospels. Their response to the political-theological crisis of Israel’s loss of independence was to see the observance of the law as the necessary part of being a people holy to the Lord; a preparation for the inauguration of the kingdom of God; the coming of the Messiah.
It is this world of faith and practice which Jesus learned as he grew up in Nazareth. It was this knowledge of the Torah, God’s teaching of his people which is manifested in his scripture quoting contest with Satan in the wilderness.
This brought with it a strong sense of the importance of separation from non-Jews and from Jews who did not share your moral standards: “sinners.” Among these were numbered the Gospel line-up of suspects: tax collectors and prostitutes. But it is this world with which we find him at odds in the Gospel. Pharisees have been grumbling about him eating with such people; worse still, not simply sharing someone else’s table with them but actively inviting them to his, being their host.
And so in Luke Chapter 15 Jesus tells parables which explain his actions in the light of God’s will. The God who is portrayed in these parables is not one whose first priority is a defensive holiness of separation but one of risky seeking for and embracing the lost and the sinful.
These parables subvert the occupational hazard for people who take the practice of religion seriously: the tendency to make what is a gift into an achievement or possession; something which bolsters our own sense of worth, but only at the expense of another’s.
And the sad thing about this kind of religion of which religious people must beware and repent, is that it is so often a joyless business. There is no celebration in it, perhaps because we are dimly aware of the fragility of our grasp on holiness. It is the religion of the older brother in the parable which follows the two in our passage: the one who refuses to join the celebration when his prodigal younger brother has come home.