4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite 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. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NRSV)
A minister told his congregation, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read in advance Mark chapter 17.”
The following Sunday, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the minister asked for a show of hands. He wanted to know how many had read Mark 17. Every hand went up. The minister smiled and said, “Mark has only sixteen chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”
I think we would all agree that lying is wrong. We were probably all taught early on in life that lying, and many other things are bad things to do. Now as adults we might say that these things are unethical. Ethics are described as a set of moral principles. We as Christians adhere to a certain set of moral principles referred to as Christian Ethics, that is, ethics that are Christ-like.
But where do we learn our Christian ethics? And more importantly, how do we develop into the kinds of people that live out what we believe when we get right down to the nitty gritty of things? Today I hope to show you that Christian ethics are best learned and developed within the gathered body of believers that we commonly refer to as the church. Let’s begin by looking at our scripture for this morning.
Our text for today is a very well known section of scripture often referred to as “The Shema”, named for the first word of verse 4 in Hebrew. Shema means hear. Most of us probably know at least part of this scripture because when Jesus was approached and asked which of the commandments was the greatest, he lifted out verse 5 as the most important command out of all of the commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
To the Jewish person, living today or living two thousand years ago, the Shema was a daily part of their lives. A devout Jew even to this day still repeats the Shema twice a day; once when they wake up and once before they go to bed. Some would even recite it more often than that! But the minimum of two times a day comes from the end of verse 7 which says to recite these words, among other times, when you lie down and when you rise. Recite these words, time and time again, until they become more than just words to you. Recite these words until they become a part of your life and a part of your in-most being.
They say that practice makes perfect. I don’t know that this is true, because obviously you can practice something in the wrong way and it will not be perfect. But it will be ingrained in your skull in a particular way. That is why some people have taken to the saying, “Practice makes permanent.”
For instance, I don’t have a lot of experience in construction. I may have other gifts that I am to pursue, but I am not overly gifted at erecting buildings. But I like to get outside and swing a hammer every now and then. So I was very quick to offer my assistance a week ago in helping a friend frame a barn. I quickly realized that I was out of my league.
You can tell how much experience someone has by a few basic criteria: How many swings of a hammer does it take them to pound in a nail, do they know the right name for parts of the building like fascia, top plate, and bird’s mouth. The crew that I worked with was skilled, they were proficient, they knew what they were doing. And they didn’t get to that point by reading magazines or watching “This Old House” on PBS. As we sat around the table at lunch I noticed that mine were the only fingernails that were pink at the beginning of the day and now had hints of a deep purple, and I realized that these guys had done this before. Swinging a hammer to them was like second nature. Swinging a hammer to me was…well…painful! I probably hit as many finger nails as I hit framing nails.
Verse six from our scripture says, “6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” How do you get them into your heart? Verse 7-9, “7Recite 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. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Devout Jews today obviously take this very seriously. Like I said, twice a day they recite the Shema. Some do bind these words on their hands and on their foreheads in the form of phylacteries. Some do write them on the doorposts of their homes and of their gates in the form of mezuzahs. The point in doing this is not so that you have the words close by in case you ever forget them and it isn’t because these words possess some kind of supernatural power to protect you from evil and harm. The point is that the words of God that are to shape our life, to shape our very being need to be ever-present. They need to be on the tips of our tongue, they need to be at our fingertips, they need to be on our minds at all times, and they need to be in our hearts. And by immersing ourselves in a culture where the word of God is so prevalent, the teachings of God will manifest themselves in our lives. Like driving in a nail, practice makes permanent.
Some people have argued that ethical training, knowing what is right and what is wrong, comes from logic and education. The theory goes, “If you know what is right and what is wrong, you will choose to do what is right.” Well, I’m not so sure that I agree with that.
The apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” and picking up in verse 19, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Paul is saying that even though he knows what is good and what is evil, he still often does not do the things that he knows he should do, but instead does the very things that he knows that he should not be doing.
I would say that we must first know what is right and what is wrong in order to do what is right and not do what is wrong. But just knowing right from wrong is no assurance that we will always do what is right. It’s like this. I could read all of the books ever written about how to build a barn and I could watch a million swings of a hammer by a million different carpenters. But none of these things would keep me from hitting my finger with the hammer when I try to drive a nail. The thing that will keep me from hitting my own finger is practice and real-life experience.
So how do we develop ethical Christians; ethical children and ethical adults? How do we get the words of God within our hearts? How do we foster within one another a desire to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and might as well as loving our neighbor as ourselves?
John Roth, professor of history at Goshen College, has written a wonderful book titled Practices: Mennonite Worship and Witness that I borrowed from the library recently and I love the way he connects worship with the ethical development in Christians.
Roth brings his readers’ attention to a story that is all too familiar to many of us: the West Nickel Mines Amish School shooting that took place now over three years ago. Charles Roberts bound and shot, execution style, 10 Amish girls ranging in age from 6-13. Five of the 10 girls died from their wounds, as did Roberts, who turned the gun on himself after the shooting.
We all know what we should do in that situation. If we were the parents of one of the children that was shot and killed, there wouldn’t be any doubt in our minds as to what we should do. We all know that we should forgive the killer and care for his family. The thing that strikes so many of us is that the Amish community did just what they knew that they should do.
Nobody expected that of the Amish community. Our society would not hold it against the parents of Naomi Ebersole, the youngest girl shot and killed, if they held a grudge against Roberts and his family. Our society would not hold it against the family of Rosanna King, the six-year-old that has been forced to live out her young life in a wheel chair and severely disabled, if they hated the man who did that to their daughter. But they didn’t. They forgave.
This act of forgiveness is not rational to many of us modern-day thinkers. It is not rational because that is not a part of the society in which we live. If someone doesn’t shovel their sidewalk and we slip and fall in the winter time, we do not forgive them. We sue them. When someone calls us a bad name behind our backs and word of it gets back to us, we don’t forgive and forget. We retaliate. It even seems to be a competition among some people to see who can say the worst things about another person. Forgiveness is not a part of our society. But forgiveness is a part of the counter-cultural community that meets regularly to worship our risen Lord. Forgiveness is essential to the life and livelihood of the church.
Those in the Amish community of West Nickel Mines meet regularly for worship and to hear stories of God’s forgiveness for his people and how we are to forgive others because we have been forgiven. Those in the Amish community of West Nickel Mines not only heard these teachings, but they saw them being lived out in the daily lives of their fellow believers. Forgiveness is a part of the society in which they live. So when they were faced with the option of holding a grudge against Charles Roberts and his family, or forgiving them, there really wasn’t a question as to which they would do. Forgiveness was so engrained in their understanding of the lifestyle that they were called to live as Christians that it became second nature.
Our ethical decisions do not simply come from knowing right from wrong, they come from being in, living in, residing in a community that talks about and demonstrates these kingdom ethics every day of their lives. Our ethical decisions as parents in our own homes influence our children and they influence our spouses, and even the neighborhood children. Our ethical decisions in the church form each and every one of us into people no longer conformed to the ways of the world, but transformed into the image of Christ.
Imagine if you will, looking at a church service through the young eyes of John Harvey Cassel (who was dedicated earlier in the service). We begin by singing praises to God, the creator of heaven and earth. Then we have a time for announcements. As we look at the announcements we see what is important to this church: fellowship, retreats, sharing with those less fortunate than ourselves, leadership, and stewardship. As we move on in our service we have a call to worship, focusing our attention on why we are gathered today. There is then a children’s time, showing that we believe that we are called to teach the younger generation the ways of God and that everyone, no matter how old or young they might be, is important. Then we spend more time praising God through music, which forms us theologically as we sing about God and to God. Then we take up an offering, saying, “Times might be tough, and though I would love to keep this money and spend it on myself, I am giving it to the church to fund the kingdom work set before us.” Then we share in one another’s joys and concerns and bring these things to the Lord in prayer. Then there is a time of reading the Scriptures together, hearing the word of God, followed by a time of explaining what we have just heard and how to apply it to our daily lives. We sing some more, and we close with a blessing and a charge to manifest the kingdom of God in our lives and through our lives in the rest of the world.
John Harvey may not know it now, but these things are shaping him into a follower of Jesus Christ. Even this morning, when his parents decided that they were not going to stay in bed late or do something that might be considered more fun, but instead would come here, John saw choices being made, priorities being lived out. So while I hope that John Harvey never is put in a situation like the Amish community in West Nickel Mines, I believe that his parents and we as a church are taking the right steps and doing the right things so that if he is faced with such an ethical decision he will not have to ponder whether or not to forgive, but rather he will instinctively follow Jesus because he has grown up in a community that does just that.
Swinging a hammer is an easy thing to do. Most people can do it. All it takes is the ability to grasp and lift it and allow it to fall back toward the earth. However, hitting the nail on the head takes practice. That is what we are doing here today, we are practicing. We are practicing kingdom ethics within the church so that we are formed in the image of Christ and will instinctively choose to follow him when we find ourselves in a situation that requires that we make a difficult decision.
We do not recite the commandments of God throughout the day or bind them on our hands, foreheads, and doorposts for any reason other than to train ourselves in how to live for God. It is my prayer today that we will be so immersed in God’s will throughout our days, in our churches and in our homes, that when we are challenged to do what is right, we will instinctively know what it means to follow our risen Lord. We live in the word so that we might live out the word.