Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Sound of Silence

Sermon preached June 20, 2010

Texts: I Kings 19:1-15a

When Elmer Fudd says, “Be very, very quiet” we know why. “Be very, very quiet. I’m hunting rabbits.” Many of us probably remember being told to be quiet as children, but no good explanation was given. Maybe someone offered the old saying, “children should be seen and not heard.” This originated in 15th century England and was supposed to apply particularly to young women. Makes it even less appealing, doesn’t it!
We have very contradictory attitudes about being quiet, about silence. On the one hand, we hear the proverbial saying, “Silence is golden.” Sometimes it is. On the other hand, we hear that silence is deadly. Sometimes it is, as when we keep quiet in the face of wrongdoing, injustice, prejudice, harm. The song, “The Sound of Silence,” from which I took my sermon title, captures something of this ambiguity. On the one hand, the songwriter has a vision planted in his brain within the sound of silence. On the other hand, he has a dream in which he sees “people talking without speaking, people listening without hearing.” His response is to cry out, “silence like a cancer grows.”
The words from the biblical wisdom book, Ecclesiastes, are wise indeed. “For everything there is a season… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (3:1a, 7b). “When” and “why” remain important. When should we speak or keep silent? Why should we speak or keep silent? There are multiple answers.
The story from I Kings 19 offers us a vitally important reason to find some time for silence in our lives. In the story, Elijah encounters God in “a sound of sheer silence.” Some translations render this “a barely audible whisper.” To feel the full impact of the story, it helps for us to pay attention to certain of its elements. Elijah is not in a good place. He has challenged the powers that be, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel wants to see Elijah’s life end. He was afraid. He fled into the wilderness by himself and “sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die.” This is the sound of discouragement and despair.
In the wilderness, Elijah encounters God – not just once but multiple times. First an angel, a messenger from God, speaks to him in a dream encouraging him to take care of himself, for he has a journey ahead. The journey takes him to Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. There God meets Elijah in the question – “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This is not a GPS question, but a deep, existential one – what’s going on in your life? What’s happening with you? Elijah shares his deep sense of loneliness and loss. It is then that the most direct encounter with God occurs – not in a great wind, not in an earthquake, not in a fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. One would expect God to show up in a dramatic way. It certainly would have helped Elijah, who felt alone and dejected. Instead God arrives in an unexpected fashion – in quiet, in silence. Elijah is not immediately changed in a dramatic fashion either, but something has happened, for God gives him some direction. Elijah is changed enough that God sends him back to work.
The sound of sheer silence. Be very, very quiet, for God may be trying to speak to you, to us, in those moments of silence and quiet. Not only may God be trying to speak to you, to us, but I trust that God is doing just that in every moment of our lives.
Hear these words from theologian Marjorie Suchocki about how God speaks in our lives. God’s creative word launches us anew in every moment of our existence, initiating the directive energy that aims us toward what we might become. This word is felt within the depths of the self, which suggests that God’s word comes to us as a whisper…. It is a quiet word, a suggestive word, an inviting word, not always easily noticed. (The Whispered Word, 4)
If God’s word for our lives comes to us as a whisper, barely audible, as the sound of sheer silence, we need, sometimes, to quiet ourselves so that we can listen, hear, and respond. What a challenge in our noisy world, in our noisy lives. Think of all the sounds we have around us. Think of all the ways we can keep sounds coming at us – telephones which we now carry with us everywhere (I saw someone running the marathon yesterday talking on her phone), portable music players (any number of runners used those), televisions, dvd players, computers. I can plug my i pod into my car, and cars can be equipped with satellite radio. How difficult we make it for silence, and yet in silence may be when we hear, feel, sense God best.
I need to add a caveat. I truly believe we all need some silence in our lives, for silence can be a moment of encounter with God. I also believe our need for silence varies. For a period of time in my life there was hardly spiritual advice given that did not seem to indicate that a truly serious spiritual life involved getting up early every morning for time alone with God. I never found that worked very well for me and it taught me something about our varying personalities and spiritual styles. So some of us may need and benefit from more intense, regular silent meditation and prayer. For others, silence can come in smaller doses.
Still, some silence, however brief or however structured, seems indispensible for hearing, feeling, sensing God and responding to God’s whispered word.
I recall a snowy night, traveling home from a meeting. Julie was worried about my safety, and I was driving cautiously. I love to listen to MPR and music, so my car is not usually a zone of quiet. Sometimes, however, I turn it all off just to listen and pray (eyes open). Well this night, I did that, and even more. At one point, near the tall pines on the border of Itasca State Park, I stopped the car, got out and listened to the wind. There was no word from God that brought dramatic change, but I felt intensely and intimately God’s presence. Silent prayer, for me, can be recalling those brief moments before I got back in the car and finished my journey home.
I was a candidate for bishop first in 2004, when we were still living in Alexandria. I remember some of the anxiety around all of that, unsure of what being a candidate might mean, nervous about putting myself out there. One morning, in the shower, in those few quiet moments with only water running, I sensed something deep within. To call it a voice would be too much. But that morning I had this sense that I would not be elected at that time, and that it would be alright – and a wave of peace washed over me as much as the water coming from the shower.
Sometimes sermon ideas come to me in a flash in silent moments – not the whole sermon, mind you, but an idea, even a series of ideas or outlines. Some of what happens with this can be explained by processes of human creativity, but human creativity is wonderful in its own way. There are moments in that process when I trust God’s Spirit is at work.
Our need for silence varies, but lacking all silence means we may miss the creative voice of God whispering to us. Shhh! Be very, very quiet. We are searching for God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is searching for us in the sound of silence. Amen.

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