Sunday, 1 November 2009

Shema Yisrael - Hear, O Israel

Preached at MCC North London, Camden Town, on Sunday 1st November 2009.

Ruth 1:1-18
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 
The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 
These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that God had considered the people and given them food. 
So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 
But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's house. May God deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 
God grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 
They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 
But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 
Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of God has turned against me." 
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 
So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 
But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 
Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried. May God do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" 
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 

Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"
Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Creator our God, theCreator is one; you shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'
The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'God is one, and besides God there is no other'; and 'to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbour as oneself,' --this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the Realm of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.


"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried. May God do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" 

These are the well-known words spoken by Ruth to her mother-in-law as she commits to joining her in her walk through life. Ruth, as we have heard, was a Moabite who married an Israelite man, Naomi’s son. When Naomi’s husband and sons die, she and her two daughters are left destitute. It is no exaggeration so say that widows were considered the least important people in Ancient Near Eastern society. Women’s purpose was as wives and mothers. Ruth and Naomi were no longer either. To add to that, Naomi was an outsider and knew that the right thing to do was to return to her homeland alone and live in Jerusalem amongst her people. Her two daughters-in-law respond very differently to this. After some initial objections, Orpah realises that it is sensible for her to return to Moab and she kisses Naomi goodbye and leaves. Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to hear of it. We are told that she “clings” to her mother-in-law. She will not be parted from someone she has come to love as part of her family. I honestly think that Ruth’s speech to Naomi is one of the most moving in the Old Testament. Think about what she was giving up in order to stay with her mother-in-law. Firstly, she had to leave the place she had grown up and been married, along with whatever family she had there. It was not common to travel, she had no idea what sort of land she was heading to, she took a chance to stay with someone she cared deeply about.

In the course of this life-changing decision she also acknowledges that she will make changes to her faith tradition. In the ancient near east there were many gods and traditions. There were many ways to worship each god. Even those who accepted Yahweh as God chose to worship in many different ways until the common acceptance and practice of Deuteronomical and Levitical law. The god worshipped by the Moabites was Chemosh, who Ruth turned her back on in order to embrace the God of Naomi’s people, the God we know as the one true God. This statement of faith and love is so profound that it continues to be used in wedding services across the world.

Ruth and Naomi committed their lives to each other. Ruth became known as “Naomi’s woman” when they were living together, and when Ruth was married to Boaz and had a child, that child was born not just to Ruth and Boaz but also to Naomi. The relationship they model is beautiful and profound. Whether it is a mother-daughter relationship, a romantic friendship or a sexual relationship honestly doesn’t matter to me. It is important to acknowledge that their relationship models so many types of love, that they had a profound affection for each other and lived as a family. It is important to acknowledge the possibility that they intentionally lived as a married couple. But this is not to say that Ruth and Naomi’s relationship validates LGBT relationships through history. This is not to say that our worth in relationship – friendly, sexual or romantic – comes entirely from Ruth and Naomi’s worth, from the fact that God blessed David and Jonathan or from the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. All of these people have been looked to by the LGBT faith community as powerful and positive role models, and they are. But they do not provide the validation for us. All that provides validation for who we are is God’s love for us and our love for the people of God. To put our faith in anything else, whether it is Biblical or not – is a form of idolatry. Your worth in God’s eyes is neither enhanced nor diminished by our ancestors.

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
Hear O Israel Adonai our God Adonai is one. Adonai is the Hebrew word for God that we often translate as Lord, but it has a suggestion of possession and relationship in it, it means “my ruler”. Jesus instructs his followers in tonight’s gospel reading that there is one commandment that is the first of all and it is this one. The second is to love your neighbour – and we know from other readings that that means everyone; there is no one on this earth who is not my neighbour. This love is the love that Ruth had for Naomi, a love that values yourself and others equally, a love that accepts the God of Israel as our God and the One true God, because we can only love God by loving and cherishing each other.

As a community, we stood together in a powerful display of love and faith on Friday night. As many of you will know, recorded instances of homophobic abuse and violence are rising year on year as other forms of hate crime are recorded less frequently. Whilst we hope and pray that this is due to the LGBT community having the courage to name our persecution, there is always a doubt in the backs of our minds. A month ago, on September 25th, a man named Ian Baynham was attacked by three young people. He was beaten so savagely that he was unable to survive and on the 13th October he died. A week ago, just over a month later, a young trainee policeman named James Parkes was attacked in Liverpool. He remains in a critical condition. On Friday night we gathered in Trafalgar Square to honour Ian, James, and the other victims of homophobic hate crime. David Morley, who survived the Soho nail bomb attack ten years ago and was then murdered on the Embankment; Jody Dubrowski whose only crime was to be openly gay; 18-year-old Michael Causer who was beaten at a house party in Merseyside. None of these people needed or deserved to die. Not one of them died out of the sight of God, who weeps to see people in pain. Not one of them was forgotten or forsaken. We love them, and the number of people who showed up to honour their memories is a testament to that.

“Love your neighbour as yourself, there is no commandment greater.”
Love your neighbour as yourself, as Ruth loved Naomi, as Christ loved his disciples and continues to love us. Who is my neighbour? The Good Samaritan – who rescued a Jewish man who’d been beaten up and abandoned by those who should have cared for them – is certainly my neighbour. What of the men who beat up the Jewish traveller? Well, they are my neighbours also, and although their actions came from a place of ignorance and hate I care for them. The young woman who attacked Ian Baynham in Trafalgar Square is also my neighbour. We are called not just to love the martyrs, or the people who stick up for us, that is not enough. Ruth loved Naomi, a foreigner. The Good Samaritan cared for a Jew, his enemy. We must love those who have persecuted us. We bless them, we know that they are called by name by the same God who called and loved us. What they have done, what they have said, what the world has taught them to believe in hate, none of that is who they are. They are called beloved just as we are. God will forgive them their sins when he forgives us ours. There is nothing – nothing – that we can do to separate ourselves from the love of our one God.

There is a story in Judaism about a learned Rabbi – Rabbi Hillel – who was once approached by a gentile. This gentile said to him, “Rabbi, I will convert to Judism here and now if you can teach the Torah to me standing on one leg”. Hillel did this. He stood on one leg and said very clearly, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, then putting his leg back down and standing as usual he faced the man and said, “this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” As a community, we witness so much hate. From the antagonistic looks we get in the street to the people who call us dykes, poofs, queers and trannies. The people who spit at our feet and the people who use violence against us. The people who protest at Pride and the people who enter the parade to make trouble. They are mistaken, they are wrong, and we must correct them. And we correct them not with further violence, not with threats, not by suppressing their freedom to speak. We correct with love, we correct by living the gospel of Christ. To those who call us perverts, we show a pure love, the blessed love of our Biblical ancestors, and we remind them that the words of the marriage service are the words of one woman to another. We say that there is no fear in love, and that the first and greatest commandment is to love one another. We face them in love, proudly and boldly showing how we love our partners – whatever gender we and they are – and we embrace our persecutors. We stand facing them and say, we love you, you are our neighbours.

This is my challenge to you today; a challenge that comes from Jesus himself. Know your worth in God’s eyes. Know that it is not dependent on how the world sees you, it is not dependent on being able to find others like you who are loved by God, God, Adonai, Abba, loves you because you’re so special. You were created unique, every hair on your head and ridge in your fingerprint. Every mistake you have ever made is wiped out, every tear dried and every right move celebrated. When you hear the many names of God and bless them you are in turn blessed. You are called to then fulfil the second commandment Jesus gave and to pass that blessing on to others by showing them love. When someone calls you a name in the street, bless them. When someone tells you that something or other is “so gay”, correct them gently and lovingly as Christ would. Protest by all means – Christ would, Christ would not be letting his people suffer in silence – but never, ever forget to pray and to praise.
"You are not far from the Realm of God"
Truly, we are drawing near to God in this time of adversity. We are a people whose spirit will not be crushed, we are a people who refuse to be downtrodden. We are the army of God and we fight all forms of injustice. But we do not fight with the weapons used against us, instead we disarm and bring peace and love. That, truly, is our calling. That is what we must do to glorify God and in doing so we embody the love of Ruth and Naomi, we act out the commandments to love one another. When we do this and we are motivated by the love of God for all people, we are truly close to seeing the Realm of God.

Hear, all people, Adonai your God, Adonai is one. 
Alleluia! Amen.

No to Hate Crime vigil, Trafalgar Square, 30th October 2009
(c) Paul A. Brown

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