A Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Preached at the Comunidad Hispana/Latina
at the Cathedral of the Nativity
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
October 31, 2021
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 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.”
My Grandmother Cook was from the Bunten family—and her husband Jack was also a Bunton descendant. So, from the time that I was very young, I knew a good deal about the family.
The story we were told was that the ancestor, Billy Bunton, had come to the British Colonies in North America as young man as a solider for the English. Apparently, he decided that he did not want to return to England, deserted, married, and started a family in what would become the State of Tennessee, after the war ended. We had always assumed that the family was an old English one.
When I was in college, at around the age of 20, something happened to dramatically change my understanding of this family. One of my cousins, who had some time, and the money to do so, decided to go back to England, to the little town that Billy was from to see if she could learn more about his family. She was surprised to discover relatives still there. They knew that one of their cousins had come to the United States centuries ago, but had no idea what had happened to the family. They then told her an astonishing story. The Bunton family, it turned out, was not English after all. They had come to England from Amsterdam in the 1600’s. Before that, they had lived in Spain. The name was originally Butino—and the family had been Sephardic Jews. In fact, they were exiled from Toledo in 1492 because they refused to convert and become Christian.
To say that this was a surprise, would be an understatement. It was a shock. I was a bit skeptical, but later took a DNA test which confirmed that I did in fact have Iberian Jewish ancestors. And more than Jewish ancestors, I had Spanish ones—from several regions of Spain.
For the first time, I found myself to be interested in learning about Judaism. Until this point, I had never really given it much thought. As a committed Christian, I found myself fascinated by the Judaism of Jesus. I suddenly realized, in a transformative way, that Jesus was Jewish. His mother was Jewish. His earthly father was Jewish. Almost everyone he knew, cared for, and loved was Jewish. All the Apostles were Jewish, most of the disciples were Jewish. He was surrounded by a Jewish context about which I knew almost nothing.
- What role had his Jewish family, religious training, and formation played in his life? From the first breath at that manger in Bethlehem of Judea to that last breath which he took on the Cross, he had lived, worshipped, and prayed as a Jew.
- How had that faith shaped his understanding of God? How that faith sustained him in difficult moments in his life?
- How had the faith of Abraham, Isaa, and Jacob formed his own self-understanding?
- What had it been like to know that he had been circumcised and named on the eighth day?
- What had it been like to know that he had been presented in the Temple?
- What had it been like each year to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Weeks (Shavuot or Pentecost), and Tabernacles (or Succot)?
- What had it been like to light the menorah and to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication (Chanukkah)?
- What had it been like to be Bar mitzvahed become a “son of the commandment” at the age of 13?
I also found myself wondering about the Prayer Life of Jesus—not so much the personal, private prayer life with his Abba, but the communal life of Prayer which he prayed daily—and in the synagogue each Sabbath. Later, I had the blessing of being able to be introduced—on a very simple level—to Hebrew. I learned a few of the prayers which Jesus would have prayed each day.
I have concluded that there are perhaps a handful of Hebrew Prayers which I think every Christian would benefit from learning. The most important of those, is one which we encounter today in the Holy Gospel According to Saint Mark. Jesus refers to this prayer when he tells the scribe, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This prayer, known from the first Hebrew word for “hear,” is called the “Shema.”
I would like to do something quite different today. I want to teach you the beginning of this prayer in Hebrew. I want us to pray it together, and then I want to share with you—very briefly, a few ideas about what this prayer could mean to us. Perhaps we, like Jesus, and even like observant Jews to this day, might consider praying it—even if not three times each day (at morning, at noon, and at night).
Repeat after me:
Now all together
Repeat after me:
Now here is a surprise. This prayer is sung, as often as it is recited. It has a very simple melody. As it is sung, there is the tradition of closing the eyes and of placing the right hand over them.
Now all together:
Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one!
In the explanation which Jesus gives to the Scribe, or the teacher of the Law, Jesus uses two primary verbs: hear and love.
The first verb is the Shema—hear and listen. The beginning of the relationship with God is based on our hearing God call out to us. It is no accident that Holy Father Saint Benedict begins the Holy Rule with that instruction: “Ausculta”—listen. The Christian is one who is seeking God, and who hears the call of Jesus to “come and follow.”
The essence of the Jewish faith, as well as the Christian faith is the commandment to love. Here, Jesus is very precise. He defines this love—first of God, and then of others, in a very clear and detailed way: 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.”
What do these words mean?
–the word heart refers to “the will”
–the word soul refers to “the whole life”
–the word mind refers to the memory or “things memorized by heart, like prayers”
–and the word strength refers to “might, effort, or struggle”
What our Lord is teaching us here, is that the kind of love which we are called to have is transformative. When we love God and allow God to love us, we are changed. We are renewed, we are empowered, we grow. And that love will inevitably spill over into a concrete love for others. We become advocates for justice, equality, compassion, inclusion, healing, and reconciliation. We work to break down any barriers which marginalize, exclude, demean, or oppress. We become proponents of a Beloved community which includes everyone without exception.
This commitment to love and serve Christ and Christ-present-in-others does not happen in a single moment. It happens over a lifetime. And that is why we pray each day. To remind ourselves of what it is that God calls us to do—and to be. We pray to love and to be able to show love.
As we grow in prayer. May we grow in love—love of God, and of neighbor.
Let us pray, as Jesus prayed each day:
Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”