First Things First

Deuteronomy 6:1-12
Welcome Back Sunday

Elizabeth M. Deibert
9 September 2012


Holy Spirit, as we hear your Word, inspire us to see you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.

Stephen Covey achieved international acclaim, and is perhaps best known, for his 1989 self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which sold around 12 million copies world-wide.   The third habit, Putting First Things First, became his second best-seller.   In these books, Covey helps us see that

·        Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.

·        Most people struggle with life balance simply because they haven't paid the price to decide what is really important to them.

·        The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.

By showing up at church, you have scheduled your priorities.  Covey was onto to something very helpful, but it was not new, as he himself admitted.  No, even back in the 6th Century, before the Common Era, before Christ, the Israelites under stress of exile were reminding themselves to put first things first.   In the narrative, Moses is reminding the people as they enter Promised Land of ample milk and honey, not to forget the Lord their God, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, not to forget WHO is first and only, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.   Those who recorded these words were living in a much later season in Israel’s life and no one had lived through the original entry into the Promised Land.  In fact, this was a time of exile and they were hoping to return again to their land.   So they needed to remember their love for God as a first priority.

Deuteronomy 6:1-12

Now this is the commandment-- the statutes and the ordinances-- that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy,  2 so that you and your children and your children's children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 

 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

 4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.   5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.   6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.   7 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.   8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,  9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

 10 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you-- a land with fine, large cities that you did not build,  11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant-- and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,  out of the house of slavery.  (NRSV)


Sh’ma Yis-rael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ek’had.   Six words, summarized in the one title, Sh’ma.    The Hear.   Shema is the first word of verse 4.   It is translated “hear” but it means, hear, listen, and do.   The Sh’ma is the name for the entire credo.   This is the center piece of Judaism, and Christ affirmed it adding the second commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.   For two-three thousand years, our faithful Jewish brothers and sisters have recited the Shema at least twice and often four times/day to remind themselves of their central commitment.   First things first in the morning.   First things first at services.  First things first at bedtime.


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells us that Jewish martyrs have gone to their death reciting Sh’ma, while those fortunate enough to have a more peaceful ending try to die with the Sh’ma on their lips.   One contemporary Rabbi was said to drive with a bell hanging from the mirror in his car.  He said every time his car turns or brakes, the bell rings, reminding him to keep the commandments, to say the Sh’ma, the great summary.   And he said, if I die in a car accident, the last thing I will hear is the ringing of the bell and so I will die with Sh’ma on my lips.


After the imperative to acknowledge God as the one and only comes the challenge to make God number one.   You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.   In Hebrew, heart means heart and mind.   The heart is the center of will, volition, decision-making.  

So we’re not just talking about feeling warm toward God.   We’re talking making hard decisions to follow the way of God, to put God first.   Feelings often follow action anyway.    It doesn’t say, you shall love the Lord your God with part or most of your heart.   But with ALL your heart/mind/will.


But it is not enough to love God with ALL your heart, because you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul.   Now this is what I think Jesus was talking about when he said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”   Loving God with all your soul.


In the second century, Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death and has famously been remembered for having recited the Sh’ma at the moment of death.   Apparently the hour for reciting the Sh’ma arrived and he said it and smiled.   The Roman officer became frustrated and said, “Old man, why are you smiling in the middle of all this pain?”   Akiva said, “All my life when I have said “Sh’ma, when I have said, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your might” I was sad because I was not sure how I could fulfill the command to love God with all my soul.  But now as I am giving up my life, I know I have given my heart, my might, and my soul, as well.   So I can smile.”   (Telushkin, Jewish Literacy, p. 668)


We’ve talked about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, but we haven’t talked about the last one – loving God with all our might, sometimes translated strength and sometimes translated by Jewish scholars of Hebrew as means.  Loving God with all your means.   I hope in the next couple of years all of us will be able to see the fruit of our growth in loving God with all our means, all our might.   Because that’s what it is going to take for this church to have a permanent home.  

Let me tell you the joy of returning to a church last summer, a church now twenty-one years old.  So many old friends returned, people like us who have moved away.   What a joy to Immanuel Presbyterian – the people and the building, a sign of that the people loved God with a substantial portion of their means.   They are now are blessed with a lasting legacy, never to be forgotten, a sort of Sh’ma seen in the structure of a physical building.   Loving God is worth this sacrifice.   The kids song said, Love the Lord your God with all that you are.   God wants all of you.   See, the thing is God made you and God has given you all.   We Christians affirm that God gave God’s very own self in Jesus Christ.   God gave up all and a covenant of love calls for mutual giving.   That’s it.   Put God first.  


But how?   Isn’t that the next question?   Keep these words (the Sh’ma) in your heart, the text says.   Make them part of your life, until your life is transformed by them.  Recite them to your children and grandchildren.   Talk about them both at home and away from home.   Think about them in the morning and at night.   Put them on your hands, on your foreheads, on your doorposts and on your gates.   Repetition.   Surround yourself with the Sh’ma.   So you cannot forget.  So your number one will stay number one.   Throughout history faithful Jews have worn phalacteries and put mezuzahs on their doors – reminders.   I hope you will take home your Shema that the kids passed out and put it in your car or on your mirror or on your refrigerator or on your door.   Sh’ma must leave the page (or parchment) and become written on our hearts and our lives, as the art in front of us illustrates.


And today as we begin a new year in Lively learning, I invite you to consider a new commitment to being involved in learning together.   If I thought you left here after worship to go home to study your Bibles and pray, I would not push this so much, but few of us are that disciplined on our own.   We need the discipline of others counting on us.   We need the challenge of other’s thoughts and the commitment of growing as disciples together.   Without people counting on you, you simply do not do it.  


Would I study scripture well, if you were not depending on me to stand here most every week?  No.   Much as it drives me crazy some weeks to try to write another sermon, I am thankful for the discipline of it, for the way this work shapes my life – even against my own desires.   If something is a priority, then it needs to be given time.   First things first.


And we are called to teach the Christian faith to the next generation here.   If we don’t, who will?   They are being shaped by culture at least 14 hours/day six days/week.   We need to make sure that our young people are being taught to remember the faith story – to know that it is not we who make ourselves.   When you come into the land and you have all these wonderful things, don’t think it is because you did it all yourself.    It is God who made us.   It is God who rescues us from danger.   It is God who loves us and gives us good things.   The beauty of life is always a gift of God.  The wonder of life is all because of God.   The most dangerous attitude is one of fierce independence, of self-reliance.  Those are the people who fall hard.   It is always sad to see self-made ones get old and feeble.  It is a painful, humbling process.   Don’t you see?   We were made for relationship with God, for dependence on God, for loving God with all that we are and all that we have – because that’s the love God pours out on us -- a love of full heart, mind, soul, and strength, a love willing to sacrifice for the saving of others.   That is the great Love which inspires our love.


Mother Teresa kept putting first things first until she found herself seeing the face of Christ in the poorest of the poor in Calcutta,  India.   She said with her words and her life, Give yourself fully to God.  [God] will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.

She also said, I pray that you will understand the words of Jesus, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Ask yourself “How has he loved me? Do I really love others in the same way?”

Dear Jesus, Lover of our Souls, help us to see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly day by day, until that day we know we have given our all, as you gave your all.