Listen and Love

Ordinary Sunday 31: 4th November, 2018
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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." (Mark 12:29-30)

There are said to be 365 prohibitions in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and 248 positive commands. A common question among the first-century scribes and teachers of the Law was the question put to Mark's Jesus in today's gospel: "Which commandment is the first of all?"

Our Lord replies with "the Shema"; a positive command from the Torah (Deut. 6:4) cited every day by observant Jews at morning and evening prayer:
Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad
Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.

As Rabbi Lazer Gurkow notes of the Shema:

It is the verse declared by countless Jews who faced death at the hands of the Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Cossacks, and, more recently, the Nazis .... And it all begins with the word, Shema — "listen," "pay attention."

The first thing we must do if we are seeking to understand and interpret the complexity and multitude of voices in our Scriptures is to listen, to pay attention. And the best way to listen is to pray.

A priest observed a woman sitting in the empty church with her head in her hands. An hour passed. Then two. She was still there. Judging her soul to be in distress, and eager to be of assistance, he went up to the woman and said, "Is there any way I can be of help?" "No thank you, Father," she said. "I've been getting all the help I need." (De Mello, Prayer of the Frog, p. 23). The Jesuit priest, Anthony de Mello, puts it in this way (Sadhana, p. 32):

The Lord says, "Be still and know that I am God." Modern [men and women are] unfortunately plagued by a nervous tension that makes it almost impossible for [them] to be quiet. If [they] want to learn to pray, [they] must first learn to be still, to quieten [themselves]. In fact, this very quietness and stillness frequently becomes prayer when God manifests himself in the form of stillness.

(take a moment's silence ...)

Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad
Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.

Our Lord reminds the questioning scribe first to listen; and then, secondly, he encourages him to love; listen and love. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" and "love your neighbour as yourself."

One of John Henry Newman's favourite mottos was: cor ad cor loquitur "heart speaks to heart" (see Cooper, John Henry Newman, p. 127). In the transformative work of the Oxford Movement, as important as it was to resurrect liturgical precision and academic prowess, what was most crucial and most contagious, was the spirit of love that was at work in the Tractarian faith communities.

I love St Peter's. I have experienced some of the most moving liturgical experiences of my life here at Mass. On Friday, All Souls' Day, our choir led us into heavenly places without a doubt, through Gabriel Fauré's Requiem mass setting. Just listening to the choir rehearsing before Mass had me welling up, and In paradisum at the close of the Mass was indeed heavenly.

That being said, St Peter's (like any church community I might add) can be far from heavenly. It's nothing new. St Paul expressed a fair degree of frustration with his fledgling churches: "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath, and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:31-2).

A couple of weeks ago we had a plenary meeting of interested parishioners, to look at our hospitality and how we might better welcome people. There are many things we do well; but there is also room for improvement. After the meeting, which was a polite but very honest meeting of minds, one parishioner summed it up: "there is a great deal of hospitality in the sacrament at St Peter's, but there is not enough sacrament in our hospitality."

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" and "love your neighbour as yourself."

As a Christian faith community we need always to be spurring ourselves more deeply into love; love of God, and love of neighbour.

William Blake wrote of this in his poem "The Garden of Love."

I went into the Garden of Love.
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore,
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys and desires.
Let's not be the chapel of "thou shalt not."
Let's not be the priests that bind joy and desire.
Let's be a garden of love here at The Hill ...
Let's be a people of the Shema; listening, loving.
Amen.

Alae Taule'alo