Fr. Andrew Armond – The Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost, October 31, 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It’s easy to hear about the ancient Israelites and feel quite distant from them sometimes. Their understanding of the world, their experiences, their religious practices can all seem quite foreign and strange to us at times. It’s hard to imagine bringing live animals into a place of worship to sacrifice them on an altar. It’s hard to imagine living according to many of their ancient rituals and rules about food and cleanliness. And it’s hard to imagine having to continually avoid the temptation to worship statues, idols, foreign and strange gods and goddesses.

And yet, the ancient Israelites are the people of God, a people whom God chose out of all the nations of the world to be a blessing TO the world. From them we have received the extensive Scriptures that make up 2/3 of our Bible. From them we have received an outpouring of wisdom, of teaching, of intimate and heartfelt poetry, of dramatic and compelling stories that demonstrate the theological principles embedded in our faith today. 

From them, indeed, we have even received our understanding of God, of who God is, of how God works, and in particular, of how God seeks a people to partner with God for their own well-being, for the good of Creation, and for the good of all the people of the world. And, of course, from them, we have received our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the One whom we believe to be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, to take away our sins, to restore us to God’s Covenant Partnership with humanity, and to grant us the matchless gift of God’s Eternal Friendship.

What we see in our Scriptures for today is a conversation within God’s Covenant People, from the core teaching of Judaism found in Deuteronomy to the writer of Hebrews, who dearly desires to show how Jesus Christ fits into God’s plan for Israel and for all of Humanity, to Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus is shown to be the Jewish teacher above all others, the One who answers so succinctly the scribe’s question, but with such Authority, that an awed hush falls over the crowd.

What Jesus tells the scribe is that above and beyond every human conception of religious duty is a real, personal, and intimate relationship with the Creator. And so Jesus says:

Love God, give God your whole heart; give over to God your entire being; allow God to penetrate and saturate your entire life; love the neighbors God gives you, even the ones you’re not certain deserve love–especially them, in fact–and love yourself. Love yourself enough to be honest and open about your shortcomings and failures and needs, and bring all of it before God.

It’s not as though Jesus’s listeners had never heard these insights before. The prophets had long ago proclaimed that God privileges the full commitment of the heart over external religious duties. Hosea says that God “desires mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Samuel says that “to obey the voice of the Lord is better than sacrifice; to listen is better than the fat of rams.” The Psalmist proclaims that God “will not delight in sacrifice, or [they] would give it”; rather, that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.”

But perhaps most powerfully, the prophets Amos and Micah show how God’s justice is inextricable from the sincere sacrifice of our hearts. Amos finds God not even looking at the fattened animals on the altar, not even listening to the songs of praise from God’s people, calling on them instead to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Similarly, Micah asks whether the Lord is pleased with “thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil” OR is God pleased when we “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

Thus when silence falls over the crowd, when Jesus’s listeners are hushed and do not dare to question him any further on the particulars of the Jewish Law, it is not because he has offered them a new and startling insight. It is precisely because he has reminded them of something very old, in fact; something deeply embedded and rooted in their tradition, something, in fact, literally radical, the taproot of the covenant God made with God’s people so very long ago. Jesus has convicted his listeners, forced them to look deep within their own hearts, to consider all the ways in which they have concentrated their energies on what is external and superfluous.

Jesus is re-inscribing, rewriting within their hearts, and within our hearts, still, the first and most important word of the Sh’ma, the commandment found in Deuteronomy 6 that takes precedence and priority over all other religious laws, rules, and regulations. That word is “HEAR” or “LISTEN.”  

When we listen for the voice of God, the externals tend to melt away. When we listen, really listen, to what God is saying to us, we are forced to re-examine our priorities. When we listen to God’s voice, we find words of hope, of comfort, of challenge and, yes, even words of warning sometimes. To our human ears, at times, God’s messages may seem confusing and contradictory. 

But Jesus reminds us that in listening for God’s voice, we find our heart; we find our soul; we find our mind; and we find our strength. In listening for God’s voice, we find our care and concern for our neighbors, the people God has given us to love. In listening for God’s voice, we are not far–not far at all–from the Kingdom of God, God’s Loving Presence within our own lives. And if we truly listen, as Amos and Micah point out, that Loving Presence will radiate outward, in concentric circles, to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our city, our state, our country, and the entire world, as we work, pray, and plead for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven.

And that’s where our religious duty comes back around. Jesus is certainly not saying that religious rituals and ceremonies are inherently bad, or that they should be abandoned. What they are for–what they must be for, and what we must continually ensure that they are for–is to enable us to listen. Through Word and Sacrament, through silence, through corporate prayer, through education and fellowship, through music with and without words, we are enabled to listen for God’s voice and to love God in our selves and in our neighbors. 

What is God saying to you today? How will you listen for God’s voice? How will this liturgy of Word and Sacrament pull you back, pull you in, enable you to understand even a fraction of the depth of God’s Love for you, so that you can in turn better love God, your neighbors, and yourself?

When the Gospel is read in the Orthodox churches, the Deacon shouts “Wisdom! Let us attend!” That is, “Let us listen!” Let us listen for the voice of Jesus, here within these walls, and as we are dismissed to take what we have experienced here and share it with the world. 

Wisdom: Let us Attend.