Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano
You may have heard it said that one of the most common commandments in the Bible is Fear not. Consider, for example, the Annunciation. When the Virgin Mary meets the Archangel Gabriel, he first says, Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, but, after our Lady’s confusion, he follows up with Fear not, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
Fear not. It is a powerful command, that speaks to a fundamental human reaction to encounter with God or with his servants, whether they be angels, prophets, or some more ordinary figure. But if fear not is a common command, there is another that is far more common, found in nearly every book of the Bible, lying behind nearly every other command, and implied in nearly every story. That command is: Listen.
This should not surprise us. As Christians, we confess that God made and redeemed all things by the Word of his power; we confess that the divine Word has come among us, is present with us now, and will come to judge the earth. It is no wonder that we are so often called to Listen.
But what does this command mean for us? Where do we hear the sounds and strange accent of that Word made flesh? And how ought we to shape our lives better to fulfil this command to listen? These are important questions for any Christian to ask. But they are perhaps even more important for us to ask, who are gathered here for this feast, our patronal festival, in honor of the great father and master of the religious life, St Benedict of Nursia.
If you read the first Life of Benedict, written in the late sixth century by Pope St Gregory the Great as part of his Dialogues on the saints of Italy, one thing becomes clear quite soon: Benedict’s whole life was characterized by a careful listening to, and embodiment of, the Word of God. In episode after episode, St Gregory portrays St Benedict as one like Elijah or St Paul or Jesus Christ: from the time of his conversion; to his living in the wilderness, denying himself, and relying only on the grace of the Lord; to his preaching, his founding of monasteries, and his death.
St Benedict gave great attention to listening in the Rule he wrote for his monasteries as well. Listening is precisely where the Rule begins, in words that echo deliberately the wisdom literature of the Bible, not least the book of Proverbs. “Listen carefully, my son, to the teachings of a master and incline the ear of your heart. Gladly accept and effectively fulfil the admonition of a loving father. … To you my word is now directed…” (Prologue, 1, 3). The Rule goes on to give instructions on a great variety of matters, from questions of how to lead a humble life, to very specific instructions on how many psalms to chant on saints’ feasts, to very banal comments on the best sort of person to keep the key to the wine cellar. Every instruction has a single goal: to form a school for the Lord’s service, where the voice of Christ may be heard most clearly and every member of the community may be enabled best to pursue holiness and attain eternal life.
It is clear that for Benedict and his Rule, direct listening to Holy Scripture and its good commands is fundamental. When speaking of them, he says: “What is sweeter to us, dearest brothers, than this voice of the Lord inviting us? Behold, the Lord in his love shows us the way of life.”
Amid the varied life and activity of Christ’s Church, it is key to take time to hear and interpret the Lord’s sweet and inviting Words. This activity of listening serves as something like the bass line in 12-bar blues, marking for soloists and for band the movements and progressions. It is like a constant drone lying beneath intoned chant, without which all other notes might float away untethered.
There are two aspects of this listening that I would like to highlight further. They are found front and centre in our readings today, and they concern first what we might call our “posture” or position toward the divine wisdom of Scripture, and then second the nature of our heart.
Our passage from the book of Proverbs says much about the first aspect of listening. Let me repeat it again: “My child, if you accept my words, and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom, and inclining your heart to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures—then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Consider what kind of listening and attention this is. It is not like merely being in the room when someone speaks; it is not straining to hear a voice that is far away. Rather, it is an active work of accepting and seeking, treasuring and attending. Incline your heart to understanding … cry out … raise your voice.
I find this posture toward Holy Scripture quite helpful and realistic, because it exhibits a love for the wisdom hidden in it and yet it can account for the Bible’s difficulties. We all know that it is not always easy to understand and attend to Scripture’s words or to hear Christ’s voice in them. Its words can be plain, or confusing and mysterious. They are often comforting, but can seem harsh, insensitive, or out of place. To attend to Scripture and treasure it, on the model of Proverbs and the Rule of Benedict — to “seek it like silver,” above all, to find Christ in it, even in hard moments and tough readings — can be an exhausting process, requiring much patience: patience with ourselves, patience with each other and the broader Church, patience with the Word God has given us, the manner in which he has chosen to save us. To hear Christ’s voice in Scripture, we must incline the ear of our heart.
The second aspect of our listening is especially the province of our readings from Hebrews and the Gospel, and it concerns the preparation of our hearts to receive the Word once we have heard it, or even to obey the Lord after we have sought and found his commands.
Hebrews 3:7-9 quotes Psalm 95 on this point. We heard earlier: “As the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness…” Later in the same section, it says: “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” We have a responsibility, the author seems to say, to prepare our hearts, day-by-day to hear and receive the Word. We cannot assume that we will be ready to hear, but must guard ourselves vigilantly: against sin, against faithlessness, against our own native stubbornness, if we are to listen well.
The need for a ready heart is apparent as well in the Gospel today. In it, we see the very real possibility that we will seek out the Lord and his Word and yet find ourselves unable to follow him when he calls us, perhaps because he calls us to a deeper vocation or service, to a more radical form of obedience than we had ever expected. The rich young ruler in the Gospel is no religious novice: he kept the commands, and he sought the Word Incarnate. But Jesus’ call for him to sell all his possessions, distribute to the poor, and become a disciple proved to be a step too far. The young man departed, sorrowful, “for he had many possessions.”
And in the face of this potential disciple’s failure to follow, those who heard asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”
For us today, it is all too easy to brush past this passage, and to condemn the young man. But, we must be careful, especially if we are churchgoers, professional Christians, readers of Scripture or givers of charity. The young man sought eternal life; initially, he had good desires, and he was a hearer of the Word. But what that Word called him to proved too much. To use an illustration much beloved of the Latin Fathers: his hearing (in Latin, audiens) had not translated into obedience (obaudiens). The rich young ruler presents an example of a heart hardened by riches or the cares of the world, and thus a parable of our own potential failing, amid a sincere seeking.
This is a sobering thought for a Sunday morning. If we were left here, we might all have to drag our feet over to lunch, cursing the curate and muttering, “Who then can be saved?” But, thank God, the good news of Jesus Christ does not simply place demands upon us that cannot be met. We are not left shattered by the coming of the Word in our midst, or by our own failures to obey. We are gathered up; the Gospel goes on.
When those around Jesus said: “‘Who can be saved?’ He responded, ‘What is impossible for men is possible for God.’” With our hearts enlarged by faith and illuminated by the Spirit, it is possible to hear and discern together Christ’s voice amid Holy Scripture. By God’s love poured out into our hearts, preparing them and softening them, it is possible to receive his Word, attend to it, and obey. We cannot do this under our own strength. Rather, to quote the Rule again, “we must ask with most urgent prayer that whatever good work we begin be completed by Christ” (Prologue, 4). His is the strength, his the energy and love that works in us, empowering us both to will and to do what pleases him (Phil. 2:13). God’s grace will supply and perfect whatever is lacking in us by nature.
“Therefore, let us at last arise, scripture rousing us [from sleep] …. Let us hear with thunderstruck ears what the divine voice, calling out daily reminds us, saying, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’ (Prologue, 8-10).
Then, by constant progress in Christian “life and faith, with our hearts expanded by the indescribable sweetness of [divine] love, [let us] run along the path of God’s commands, so that, never turning away from his instruction and persevering in his doctrine … until death, we may through patience share the sufferings of Christ and also merit to be sharers in his kingdom” (Prologue, 49-50).