I’m a simple kind of pastor. I’ve studied theology and I know theological things but I don’t spend a lot of time delving deeply into big thick books. I have friends that do and I rely on them when I have questions that get into all the deep things.
I do know this much. The cornerstone of our Lutheran theology is that we are saved by grace through faith. You can find that in Ephesians 2:8 and if you have your Bible or app open I encourage you to highlight that. For that matter if you want to highlight in the chair Bibles go right ahead with that, too.
That cornerstone of our faith tells us the why but not so much the how. The how of our faith has its beginnings in something called the Shema. We talked about the Shema a little bit in October when we heard from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. Specifically the sixth chapter which Jesus is referencing today in the 29th verse of today’s reading. “29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
The ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ is the beginning of Shema prayer. And in it we see and hear about first things first. This is something of a recurring theme in the Bible and it’s there for a reason. We are reminded again and again if we keep God first and foremost in our life then our life will be well.
That’s easier said than done, isn’t it? There are any number of things in our lives that try to distract us from God. Some do so intentionally. All kinds of media and competing ideologies going on. The whole consumerist ideas of buying all the things distract us from God. Some do so unintentionally. If we look at our calendars and daily schedules, how much time do we make for God in our running around? In today’s reading Jesus lays out a number of ways to help us turn our thoughts toward God.
The Shema prayer lists a couple of them. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. First things first. Put yourself entirely into the position of loving God. This covers everything we are pretty well, I think. It covers our emotions with loving God with our heart, it covers our spiritual selves by loving God with the soul. Our thinking rational selves get into it with by loving God with our minds and our physical selves are covered by loving God with our strength. Emotions, spirituality, thinking and physicality. That covers us pretty well, doesn’t it?
Think about this in terms of worship. Do we engage our emotions and spiritual selves? Do we think and move around? There are reasons we do all of the things we do in worship. The lines are not hard and fast and there is a lot of overlap but doesn’t the music speak to our emotions? And sometimes the sermon and maybe even communion? Communion certainly also goes in the spiritual realm and maybe even the physical as we come forward to receive the bread and the wine. Prayers certainly carry us into the spiritual arena. The sermon asks us to think about our faith and the music does at times also. We stand and move here and there and sometimes the music will get us clapping.
Think about the different parts of worship and how they strike you. Like I said, there is some room for overlap and everyone responds to different parts in different ways. Some people want to spend more timing singing. Some want a longer sermon. Some want more prayer time. Some want to move more. The Shema that Jesus highlights is the reason we do all these things.
Even the biblical writers understood something that teaching theory has just been coming back around to the past few years. We learn best when we engage our heart, soul, mind and strength. In the same way we love God best when we engage our heart, soul, mind and strength. For an example, those of you who highlighted Ephesians 2:8 are a lot more likely to remember it than those who did not.
Jesus covers the whole heart, soul, mind and strength bit and then takes it a little farther. He goes after the religious leaders and their actions that seem to point to themselves rather than pointing to God. First things first, let your life point to God. Jesus highlights the problems of these religious leaders and their desire to draw attention to themselves. “Look at me and how wonderful I am in all my religious stuff!” they seem to say to the people rather than “Look at God and all the wonderful stuff that God is doing in the world that I get to be part of!”
And Jesus doesn’t seem to have much patience with the religious leaders devouring the widows homes behind the scenes while at the same time making themselves look good by lifting up long prayers. Because we know that long prayers are the only ones that count, right?
There are plenty of examples in the corporate world about behind the scenes greed while looking good publicly. In the church world it makes me think of some of these megachurches and some of their buildings and pastors homes and lifestyles. They are the exception to the rule by all means but they get highlighted a lot and are one reason some people don’t think much of the church. We don’t get to judge the quality of their faith but we do need to think about their actions as well as our own.
Churchie license plate
Speaking of widows, Jesus highlights another first things first thing with the widow and her offering of a penny. Now, this frequently gets used as a reminder that if the widow, who without a husband didn’t have much in the way of financial prospects, if the widow could give her last penny then you cheapskates can pony up a little more cash into the offering plate. Have you heard this one before? We’d never call anyone cheapskates but we’ve implied it, haven’t we? As a standalone story maybe it does mean that we’re cheapskates and if so we should all be ponying up a little more cash into the offering plate. You know, so we can have a big fancy building and I can live in a mansion while flying around to my speaking engagements in a private jet.
But when we read about the widow with the rest of the stories here in today’s reading it sounds a lot more like a first things first story. It’s another example that reminds us of the danger of thinking about our money and our things before we think about God. Keep God as your first priority.
Love God with all you have.
Love God before yourself.
Keep God your first priority.
First things first.