Deuteronomy 6:4-9 CEB
Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.
We arrive at the last of the three rules, but it is also the rule that sustains the other two. As we have explored and learned more about “Do No Harm” and “Do Good,” these two simple rules not only sound like they are far from easy but seem close to impossible for the ordinary person to accomplish. Without God, yes, these rules are impossible, for we constantly need God’s grace and presence in our lives to be able to avoid harm and do good. The third rule tells us to “Stay in Love with God,” and so this week we look to explore the ways in which we try to keep in close relationship with our God. Like any relationship, a good one with God will not just happen, rather it takes good practices and our attention to help it flourish in our Christian lives. Here, we will find that the “Means of Grace,” as described by John Wesley, are the essential practices that do more than express our piety but allow us to not only stay in love with our God but find that love outwardly expressed in our love of neighbor.
As we delve into this week’s rule, these few verses from Deuteronomy start us off by reminding us that our God is the LORD. Our translation reads, “Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!,” but it could also be translated as “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” In Hebrew, the name translated as Lord is YHWH, so we are reminded that we have but one god, and that God is YHWH. In the other cultures of the ancient near east, there were many gods, one for each aspect of people’s lives. Each god had to be petitioned with sacrifice or ritual to catch the attention of a single god in the vast pantheons of the time. Here though, YHWH stands apart, YHWH is the one and only god, the only god the people of Israel will ever need. YHWH, or “I am who I am” can also be understood as “I am who I am becoming,” or “you will know who I am by what I do.” Other gods could be honored or forgotten as needed, but this YHWH will always be in a relationship and always interacting with the children of God.
God says to the people of Israel and to all of us, I will be your God and you will be my beloved children, always with you, in loving relationship. God in turn invites us to live into this relationship too by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” God goes on to say that the people of Israel should teach this to their children, talk about these words, and mark them on all the places and in all the spaces people live and move. YHWH invites the people of God to constantly be seeking to love God. You see this reflected in a Jewish prayer called the Shema, often seen as the most important prayer in Jewish religious life as it affirms the singularity and sovereignty of God. Our scripture reading this morning constitutes the first part of this prayer, the essential statement of faith of the Jewish people, and our simple rule for today reminds us that this is the essential element of our discipleship.
How do we keep staying in love with God front and center in our Christian lives? John Wesley saw the practices of “the Means of Grace” as the essential ways we make space for God in our day and in our lives. The term may or may not be familiar to us, but the practices certainly are. They include prayer, worship, communion, reading and studying the Bible, and fasting. Each of these has stood out from our long history as practices that have made space in our lives for God, but more than that, Wesley felt that these practices are the “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end - to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” God uses our less-than-perfect actions to show up and surround us with grace. In these everyday practices, God may communicate divine grace to us, not through simply extraordinary means like miracles, but in the simple acts of our faith lives.
You know that is really the way of it with any relationship. Sure, there are these big grandiose things that we can do to show our love for spouses, partners, children, and friends, but to really maintain a relationship, it is the small things. It is the ordinary and everyday things when done intentionally with a mind toward living into the relationship that makes the difference. For instance, sometimes I like to do big things for Caitlin, take her out for dinner, a special date night, flowers, and other gifts. These are big romantic gestures are great, but a relationship is more than these. It is carving out time daily to talk to each other about our day and ourselves. It is taking a moment to dance with my wife when a song comes on that we love. It is in the thousand simple gestures and small acts, even something as ordinary as saying, “I love you” continues to communicate love to Caitlin. The same is true in our scripture reading this morning, as YHWH tells the Israelite people to mark every corner of their everyday lives with reminders of God’s presence and power and sovereignty and relationship in their lives.
For us today, we find these same reminders in these practices, these means of grace, but we also are reminded that our love of God involves our love of neighbor. Even in our practices, John Wesley reminds us, “Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” Friends, whether we are speaking of prayer, worship, communion, reading and studying the Bible, or fasting, these cannot be done in isolation. Pray in private, but also pray with one another. Yes, there might be a song that puts you in a worshipful mood, but worshiping God must also happen with our fellow siblings in Christ. Communion, this act is supremely communal, as it is the very earthly reminder of the heavenly banquet we will share with our God. Reading and studying scripture should never just be done alone as reading it with another and another and yet maybe even another enhances it tenfold! Even fasting, which at first seems like you are just giving up food, can be giving anything that creates more space in our days to give over to God. This too can be enhanced and shared in community. Each of these is part of our religious faith, but it must always be social, as any talk of the love of God must also involve the love of neighbor.
In fact, I am going to let you in on something. I left something out of these spiritual practices I mentioned earlier that John Wesley includes in his list of the means of grace, namely works of mercy. These works of mercy are the ways in which we do good and avoid harm in our relationships with one another, with our communities, with our state, our country, and our world. If you have the love of God in your heart and if you are actively seeking to love the Lord your God in your life, that love should spill out and into the world as God’s own love does. I believe this is why Jesus joins our scripture this morning with another from Leviticus 19:18 in the gospels when asked which commandment is the greatest. In case you are curious, that verse is “you must love your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus being Jesus says that both this and loving God are the two greatest commandments. Friends, this is why this third rule comes last, as loving God helps us with the other two because we cannot do good or avoid harm without the sustained and unending grace of our God, YHWH. YHWH tells us that we will know our God by what the divine does in our lives, and I say that this world will know us by what we do in theirs and in each other’s.
We are not holy solitaries, each competing and seeking to have a private relationship with God. We are holy companions, as we pray and worship and share in the Lord’s supper. We challenge each other to live deeper into relationship as we share in the word and study it time and time again to learn more about the one we love and long for in our heart of hearts. We fast together to make space in our individual lives and faith communities for God to show up and work out grace in our midst. Friends, in serving and loving each other as well, we make sure that there is no corner of our lives that does not bear the mark that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our being, and all our strength! Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman