Sermon preached June 19, 2016
Texts: I Kings 19:1-15a; Luke 8:26-39
This is going to be a very auditory sermon. We are going to focus on hearing, on ears, on listening, and I want to begin with an exercise in listening.
This is a piece called “The Unanswered Question” and the composer is the American Charles Ives. I first encountered the music of Charles Ives in college, in a course called “Arts in America.” One of the things that troubles me a bit about the world today is that we have become so career focused that young people in college have very little ability to take a course or two simply because they are interested in the content, because they might want to explore new ideas. The cost of higher education also plays a role here.
Ives was an American composer from the early twentieth century. This particular piece has a haunting quality about it, and it reminds me of the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb. Remember, Elijah is on the run from Jezebel, again Jezebel – just like last week a wicked figure. God tells Elijah to go to the mountain where God will meet him. There is a strong wind, but no God. There was an earthquake, but no God. There was a raging fire, but no God. Then comes “a sound of sheer silence” and God.
Quick cut to the other Scripture we read for this morning and it could not be more different. It is chaotic and noisy. Jesus and the disciples arrive at the country of the Geresenes, and there they are greeted by a naked, shouting man, a person who lived among the tombs, a man driven by demons into the wild. A legion of demons speaks out of this suffering man, asking Jesus not to send them into the abyss. The demons are sent into a heard of swine who rush headlong into a lake. The scene is wild and frenzied.
Hearing of the incident, crowds gathered – wondering and fearful. The wild man is healed. Jesus tells his to go and share his story. So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
Doesn’t this sound chaotic and noisy and wild and frenzied – more like strong winds, earthquakes and raging fire than like the sound of sheer silence? I want to draw two broad lessons for our lives from all this, and within the second lesson go a little deeper.
The first broad lesson is this: God can be heard in the sound of sheer silence, in the gentle, quiet whisper, but God’s voice is not always so quiet. God can also be heard in joyous sounds and songs. I contrast that Charles Ives piece with a concert I attended recently, through the gracious generosity of a friend. The week before General Conference, I had two meetings in the Twin Cities, one a training for small group leaders for clergy groups in the Minnesota Conference, and the other the mandatory clergy ethics and boundary training I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Well, the night of the clergy ethics and boundary training, Paul McCartney was playing a concert in the Twin Cities, and, as mentioned, through the grace and generosity of a friend, I was able to attend. It was loud, it was joyous, and there were times when I was moved in deep places in my heart and soul, places where God speaks. Music is often for me a way the Spirit touches me, speaks to me and it can be the quiet sound of Charles Ives or Paul McCartney singing “We Can Work It Out” the week before General Conference.
God can speak even in the joyous songs of life, yet God’s primary voice is the whisper. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes: God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world. It is a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 6).
So I was thinking about our auditory capacity as humans. We have two ears, unless something has happened along the way. So in a metaphorical way, perhaps we can think of our life in the Spirit as having one ear tuned to the whisper of God in the sound of sheer silence, and the other ear tuned to the world – its screams, its cries, its anguish, its songs of hope and joy. We listen for the sounds of screaming silence.
Jesus, it is reported, sometimes stole away to quiet places, wanting to listen for that whisper of God. Jesus also went to places like the country of the Geresenes, encountering a wild, frenzied man, noisy crowds, chaos. As he listened to the whisper of God and to the anguished cries of a hurting person isolated from the community, healing could happen. The Paul Simon song we used in the call to worship is a warning about the dangers of a certain kind of silence, of silencing the voices of anguish, the cries of pain in our world, and of being silent in the midst of them. Jesus uses both ears – an ear attuned to the whisper of God and an ear attuned to the cries of the world, and we are invited to do the same.
We don’t have to work very hard to hear cries of hurt, pain and anguish. Our nation is still reeling from the shooting last Sunday in Orlando. We prayed for the victims and the community last Sunday, not knowing many of the details. What has become clearer since is that the shooting was motivated by hatred, hatred directed toward LGBTQ persons. While we are all affected, and we all feel pain and grief, it is the LGBTQ community that we particularly need to listen to. This week on CNN, there was a brief history of some similar incidents of violence directed toward LGBTQ persons – other nightclub shootings, and arsons.
Friends I know that human sexuality is a topic that is difficult. It strikes deeply into our identity. It touches our deepest selves. Maybe getting close to this is like getting close to the naked man living in the tombs – it is a little frightful. Challenging as it may be, we need to hear the cries of anguish and pain from our LGBTQ neighbors and friends.
It is now about a year since the shooting in Charleston, SC, a shooting directed at the African-American community. We need to listen to the cries of anguish and pain from our African-American sisters and brothers.
We need to listen to the voices of all those who have lost loved ones to violence, and ask what we can to better as a human community.
We need to listen to the anguished cries of all those marginalized in our world, all those seemingly consigned to living among the tombs – the hungry, the destitute, the bullied – and when we hear those voices, those screams, with our other ears we need to listen for the still small voice of God’s Spirit.
The sounds of the world are not only cries of anguish and pain, however. There are songs of hope and joy. The novelist Darcey Steinke, whose father was a pastor, wrote in her memoir, Easter Everywhere: Life is brutal, full of horror and violence. Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy. Both things are true at the same time. (219) We need to listen to both kinds of sounds. At the end of the story, the healed man proclaims all that Jesus had done for him. There is a joyous voice.
The idea of listening to both voices of the world was brought home to me again by another voice, this the voice of a young woman I met a few of years ago when she was a young delegate at General Conference from Michigan. She is now living in London, and this week she posted these thoughts on Facebook, and I asked if I could use them in today’s sermon. So thanks to Rebecca Farnum.
Tears finally came today. Since waking on Sunday, I have been on autopilot, incapable of concentrating on work and unable to properly engage with people. The emotions were too raw, too poignant, too conflicting.
And finally, finally, the dam released. And the tears came.
Tears for families who lost their loved ones in such a tragic way.
Tears for survivors who will grapple with horrific memories and what ifs for the rest of their lives.
Tears for dear ones who were viscerally reminded of the unjust dangers accompanying their sexuality.
Tears for beloved friends who, while fasting during one of the most beautifully reflective celebrations of their holy year, saw their religion cited as a motivator for horrific violence and faced accusations against their entire community.
Tears for a man so broken and failed by the system that his confusion, hatred, and rage came out in the form of senseless massacre.
Tears for a nation that has seen this time and time again and still fails to take adequate action on gun control, mental health care, and hate speech.
America, you are broken.
World, you are broken.
Humanity, you are broken.
But oh, you are beautiful.
For also this week in the world, a couple gazed adoringly at their adopted daughter as she laughed for the first time.
A man unhesitatingly embraced his transgender son.
A woman gleefully accepted her girlfriend’s marriage proposal.
A Pakistani Muslim shopkeeper donated money to rebuild a Christian chapel destroyed by monsoon rains.
We must let the tears come. There is a time to weep. This is that time.
But we must also let the smiles come. Because there is a time to laugh. And this is that time too.
May you mourn. May you rejoice. In the beautiful, broken mess this thing called life is. And may you know peace.
Listen. Listen with both ears. Hear God’s caring, compassionate voice embracing you in love – that voice that also calls us to proclaim good news, to listen to and stand with the hurting, the bruised, the abused, the marginalized, the victimized, and to do good. Listen. Live. And may we know peace. Amen.