Shema Yisrael

A sermon on Deuteronomy 6 4-9, first preached at Family of Christ PC(USA) October 11, 2015

Shema Yisrael. Hear O Israel. 

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. 

That brings to an end this whole long passage that seems so legalistic and prescriptive to our ears,  and indeed time and again it’s been read as “Here are the rules, now follow them.” From the Pharisees to Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, this is what you have to do and those who fail to do not will face the wrath of God and be doomed to hell for all eternity. 

For so many people that reading makes this passage a heavy burden to carry and that legalistic way of looking at the church has driven a lot of people away as they’ve either felt the weight of it themselves or experienced others wielding it like a club against them.  

It’s created lifetimes of guilt and shame and has led many to leave the church as they came to believe that is what the church is all about. 

I’m going to propose then a different reading, particularly of the Shema Yisrael. Maybe instead of being a tool to use against others, a way of filtering the worthy from the unworthy, the elect from the reprobate, maybe it’s there as something to lean on. 

Maybe it’s a place for those who are lost or are struggling to find their path again. 

I’ve been reading “Furiously Happy, A Funny Book About Horrible Things” by Jenny Lawson, who is also known online as The Bloggess. 

Miss Lawson has struggled with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions for all of her life and has learned ways to survive when things are at their worst.  

. . .And I remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to feel such great sorrow, and also such great happiness. I Can grab on to each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have see the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to be able to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved, because those same moments are a medicine, a balm. Those moments are a promise that life is worth fighting for, and that promise is what pulls me through when depression distorts reality and tries to convince me otherwise. 

Through long painful experience she knows that she will have times where she will not be able to get out of bed because of the weight of depression, when she won’t be able to leave the house because of the terror of anxiety, but she has learned to remember the times of great joy, indeed she has learned to cultivate those times, to experience them and take them far beyond where those without the lessons of mental illness would take them, that’s what she means when she talks about being furiously happy. She says, “I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that “normal” people also might never understand, and that’s what FURIOUSLY HAPPY is all about. It’s about taking those moments when things are fine and making them amazing, because those moments are what make us who we are, and they’re the same moments we take into battle with us when our brains declare war on our very existence.” 

In another place she talks about the way that, in the midst of depression, our brains lie to us. “…And I push myself to stay healthy. I remind myself that I’m not fighting against me. . .I’m fighting against a chemical imbalance. . .a tangible thing. I remind myself of the cunning untrustworthiness of the brain, both in the mentally ill and the mentally stable. I remind myself that professional mountain climbers are often found naked and frozen to death, with their clothes folded neatly nearby because severe hypothermia can make a person feel confused and hot and convince you to do incredibly irrational things we’d never expect. Brains are like toddlers,” she says, “They are wonderful and should be treasured, but that doesn’t mean you should trust them to take care of you in an avalanche or process serotonin effectively.” 

I understand exactly where she is coming from, I too suffer from depression, perhaps not as extreme as Jenny’s and I’m very fortunate to have it under control at the moment, thanks to my friend Wellbutrin. But when it is not under control, my depression will lie to me again and again. “You’ll always be alone, just accept it”, “No one wants to be around you, you might as well just sit at home”, “you’re not good at anything, there’s no point in trying and on and on. And the thing is, when depression tells me those things they make perfect sense, “of course no one wants to be around me,” I’ll think to myself, “I don’t want to be around me.” 

In the musical [Title of Show] they talk about it this way: 

It’ll wake you up at 4am to say things like: 
Who do you think you’re kidding? 
You look like a fool. 
No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be good enough 
Why is it that if some dude walked up to me on the subway platform 
and said these things, I’d think he was a mentally ill asshole, 
but if the vampire inside my head says it, 
It’s the voice of reason. 

My pastor and friend Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about her depression in her book “Accidental Saints”,  

I remembered that, at one point in my life, my own depression had felt so present, so much like a character in my life, that it had actually felt right to give her a name. I named my depression Frances. . . 

Frances first stopped by in my teens and early twenties and was written off by my family as my being “moody.” But later when I found myself coming to like the same things Frances liked – booze, emotionally unstable boyfriends, self-destruction—she finally just moved in, turning my studio apartment into a wilderness. 

She was a terrible roommate. She kept the place filthy and always told me devastating things about myself. When Frances lived with me, I was no longer able to do simple things, like remembering if I’d showered or shopping for groceries.” 

Jenny Lawson’s decision to be furiously happy is to reject those lies and to claim the identity that she knows to be hers, that of a beloved mother and wife, as an very popular and talented blogger and author. Those are the truths that she needs to hold on to when depression tries to steel them away from her. The furiously happy moments anchor her to what she knows to be her true identity, no matter how hard depression and mental illness try to deny her those things. 

What if that’s what the Shema Yisrael is meant to be for Israel? 

God’s call to Israel is one of remembrance and anchorage. It is a call to identity. 

I’m not saying that Israel as a nation was depressed, but it is certainly true that throughout their history, nations and powers have tried to make them forget their identity, to convince them that they weren’t who they knew themselves to be. Conquer them, make them slaves, scatter them throughout the word in the diaspora.  

But through it all, they had the Shema, not only to remind themselves who their God is, but to remind them that they belong to that God and that nothing anyone can do can change that.  

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[e]5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 

God’s call to Israel is one of remembrance and anchorage. 

God wants them to remember in the good times, but also in the bad times who they are and who their God is. 

Their God is the God that led them out of Egypt, their God is the God that gave them manna in the wilderness, their God is the God who made promises to Abraham and Isaac, who was furiously happy with them and who in turn made them furiously happy to be loved by God. 

And God knows that people will forget, God knows that the outside voices of powers and principalities will try to convince Israel that they are not the special people that they have known themselves to be, just as depression tries to steal our identities away from us. 

And because God know that, God gives them very specific instructions to help them remember. Talk about it, God says. Tell your children, remember it when you go to sleep and when you wake up. Write it on the back of your hands so that you will see it with everything you do, write it on your foreheads so that those around you will be constantly reminded of who they are. Remember it when you are home and when you are away, and put it on your doorposts and gateposts so that when you’re neither home nor away but somewhere in between you will think of it then as well. 

Hear o people of God. You are not what others tell you you are, even when those others are your own brain. In life and in death you belong to God, and that makes God furiously happy, remember that. 

Keep these words . . . 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