Hear, O Israel

Last week a good friend of mine returned from a camping trip with quite the story to tell. This is an annual trip he takes with two brothers who have been his friends since childhood--a journey that has become a ritual of sorts. The three of them turn off their cell phones, setting work and family responsibilities aside for the weekend, and trek deep into the Tennessee woods with only campfires and conversations to keep them company. The brothers are twins, but despite their identical genes, they couldn't be more different from one another. One tends to be quiet, measured, and pensive. The other is vocal and passionate, particularly when it comes to religious and political issues. And their opinions on these issues clash dramatically. My friend and the first brother tend to align themselves with a fairly progressive set of values while the second, more outspoken brother stands alone in his evangelically-based conservative views.

Given the rise in political fervor over the past several years and the stresses of the pandemic, it came as no surprise to my friend that tensions ran a little hot during their excursion. The rest and relaxation he had nevertheless hoped for didn't materialize. Instead, the three old friends fought like crazy the whole time. They'd rise in the morning with the sun, crawl out of their tents and gather 'round the fire, cowboy coffee in hand, and within five minutes they'd be in full combat mode, lobbing explicative-laden zingers back and forth about masking, vaccinations, presidents, personal freedoms, and all manner of explosive topics. Now, I'm getting this account of the trip from my friend, who holds the progressive views, but I'd be willing to bet that the conservative brother's tale to his friends back home would sound much the same: "He just wouldn't relent! I was being as clear as I could, but it was like he couldn't hear a word I was saying."

If you take a look at the passages in Mark's gospel that immediately precede today's lesson, you'll find a similar theme. Jesus and the authorities are famously sparring. First it's about the power of prophets, then its about who pays taxes to whom, and next, they try and outdo one another in interpreting the details of the resurrection. Finally, after several exhausting rounds, a scribe asks Jesus which is the first commandment, and Jesus replies, "love." "Love God with all your heart and soul." Then he adds, "and love your neighbor as yourself." The scribe, of course, agrees with Jesus's answer as it is a version of the Shema, a highly revered and oft repeated prayer in the Jewish tradition. Interestingly, the Hebrew word "shema," which begins the prayer, means "listen," or "hear." "Sh'ma Yis-ra-eil," or "Hear, O Israel." It's a command from God to pause, put everything aside for a moment, and not only to acknowledge, but embrace the truth that follows: everything begins and ends with love. "After that," concludes the passage, "no one dared to ask him any question."

It's a deceptively simple concept, this love business. We say words about it every Sunday, conservatives and progressives alike, and yet we don't seem to actually hear those words. And the reason is, I think--and we all know this at a gut level--is that love is really hard. It's easier to take cover in our trenches with our like-minded friends and toss insults and "gotchas" back and forth. And we think that if we just keep at it the other side will eventually acknowledge our righteousness and we can go on doing and believing whatever we want, because we will have won. Now, I'm not arguing for relativism here. It's not that everybody's right. Far from it, but everybody's not wrong either. Rather, the truth emerges when we begin to see one another not as adversaries but as neighbors--when we talk, when we listen, when we hear. Love demands that we exercise the higher functions of our humanity, such as compassion, empathy, flexibility, and reflectivity. Cultivating these qualities takes effort, yet it's something we're all capable of. In fact, having been created in the image of God, it's what we're all made for.

Back in the Tennessee woods, my friend's story ended up being a hopeful one. After two solid days of conflict, my friend considered packing up and leaving the trip that night. He didn't think the brothers would blame him. After all, pretense had burned up in the campfire long ago, and everyone was raw. But he decided to stick it out to the morning. "All this argumentative energy must be worth something," he thought. "Surely, after having endured for nearly forty years, this friendship deserves more than a cold shoulder."

On the morning of the third day, when they gathered 'round the fire for a final breakfast together, everyone was uncannily calm. And then the more quiet of the two brothers broke the silence. "It's clear that we can't agree on much," he said with a gentle laugh, "but can we agree that it's important to love one another? Can we start there? Can that be our common ground?" The mood seemed to change instantly, as if the forest around them had suddenly taken a great, cleansing breath. My friend and the other brother nodded in ascent, finally having heard something neither could refute. And then they enjoyed their coffee.

You see, it's not that the three friends suddenly saw eye to eye, but they remembered that they were neighbors, and that changed everything.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. John's, Helena | October 31, 2021
Proper 26, Year B
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