Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad…
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone…”
This is the famous Jewish prayer known as the “Shema,” after the first word, “Hear!” It is what Jesus affirms as the first command of the entire law, and it is what Moses lays before the Israelite people as the most important of the commands that he is imparting. Since that time of Moses, this prayer has been on the lips of Jews every single day. It was likely on the lips of those who gathered in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday, where a gunman took so many innocent lives out of his own hatred.
Jesus affirms this teaching of God’s uniqueness and the fact that He is our God. Not only that, Jesus stresses the command that we must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, …and love your neighbor as yourself.
God. Love. Neighbor.
These three things are key for us as a community – as Christians – as human beings – to live in harmony, unity, and witness. When I hear them, I think of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood,” where Fred Rogers kept telling me that I was his neighbor and that he loved me because I was me. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Mr. Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and so his relationship with God must have been behind his wonderful personality.
Fred Rogers lived two blocks from that synagogue. It was, literally, in his neighborhood.
When we consider Jesus’ teaching today, and all the events that are dividing and hurting our world – violence against innocents, political polarization, demonization of groups of people, anger and outright hatred for refugees and those trying to find a better life here, terrorism, and threats against the lives of the most vulnerable – we must hear a call to place this commandment of love at the center of our lives again. When we place love, God, and our neighbor at the focus of our efforts – with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength – then we become agents of unity, peace, and justice; just like Jesus.
After the attacks of 9/11, Mr. Rogers shared his thoughts on moving ahead and coping with disasters and hatred and despair. He said, “I know how tough it is sometimes to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. … But whenever there is a catastrophe, always look for the helpers – there will always be helpers, just on the sidelines.” After last weekend’s horrible hate crime against our Jewish brothers and sisters, so many helpers came forward, out of love for them – black and white, men and women, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is a beautiful testament to unity and the love that Jesus is affirming today.
Surprisingly, there are relatively few commands to “love” God in the New Testament. Usually, we are to “obey,” “know,” and “believe in” Him. However, with this teaching, which Jesus gives as the “first” commandment, He shows us the primacy of love. Not only that, He shows us that this love is the key to uniting us all as children of the one God.
When we must face this divided and divisive world, we can simply join in the rhetoric, or we can ask ourselves, “Do my words and actions reflect above all a love of God and my neighbor (who may or may not be like me), and serve the unity that ourone God desires?” If they do not do that, we must ask for the courage to be quiet, or, better, to be a helper – whether on the sidelines or front and center. We can only do that if we are placing Jesus’ teaching here at the heart of our lives – as Moses and Christ commanded, and as has been the case for Jews and Christians now since our one God gave it to us.