The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 62, includes the phrase: “For God alone my soul in silence waits”; however another translation of this text is: “Before God, I am silence.” Not, “I am silent”; but rather, “Before God, I am silence.” And therefore, when God speaks, I am silence: I am an empty, open vessel to receive. Our life’s invitation is to learn to “be silence” so we have space to receive the work and words of God. It is a good thing to cultivate stillness and silence within ourselves.
But for many people, life seems to lose its cultivation because of suffering. We witness, and we may personally experience, tremendous suffering, loss, fear, grief, despair that may simply leave us or others speechless and empty, feeling very much alone and abjectly vulnerable. This is the silence that visits the elderly who have lost their health, lost their companions, lost their meaning in life; the silence of those who are very sick with no help at hand and the silence of those who are very sick with help at hand; the silence of those who are imprisoned because of prejudice and racism, and those imprisoned behind bars; the silence of those who live with inexpressible shame. So many people experience a silence that is unbidden and which may seem to them so vapid, despairing, orphaning.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
I enjoyed swimming in the ocean last week. A friend gave me earplugs when we went swimming last summer, but I didn’t wear them this time. In the moment, I frolicked without a concern. But that evening and the next day, all sounds were muffled in one ear. It took a lot more effort to hear and pay attention. The loss made me appreciate what I previously had. Why settle for something so much less? Remember what it’s like to lose part of your perception.
The psalmist tonight says idols, gods which humans make, are not worth worship. “They have mouths but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. … Those who make them are like them; so are all who put their trust in them.”
Idols cannot perceive. They are not alive. Don’t trust them, says the psalmist. Rather, “you who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord.” Likewise God speaks through the prophet Hosea, not about other nations but God’s own people. “With silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. … an artisan made it; it is not God. … Though I write … the multitude of my instructions, they are regarded as a strange thing.” Focused on what they made, they do not hear or pay attention. It’s like their ears are full, muffled to God’s voice.
Luke 1:57–80, Nativity of St. John the Baptist
On June 25th, 2010, nine years ago today, something amazing happed for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a Friday, around noonday, and even now I’m not sure what to call it. I’ve heard people talk about “conversion experiences,” but that never seemed to quite fit somehow. I started attending a church shortly after it happened, and the pastor there suggested it was a kind of “spiritual awakening,” which did sound a bit closer to the truth. But the description that felt most true, and came naturally as my mind tried to make sense of it, was that it felt like being born again. It felt like being utterly annihilated only to rise again as something new, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. It was as if God, getting inpatient and tiring of being subtle, grabbed me by the ankles, held me upside down, and shook violently until… well, I’m still not sure, but let’s just say that a lot of spiritual and psychological loose change fell from my pockets.
I remember coming back to my senses slowly, and then carefully sitting up. Two very kind and helpful souls, were sitting to either side of me, and, looking very concerned, one of them asked if I was “OK.” My first reaction was spontaneous and tearful laughter, because “OK” seemed like a vast understatement if ever there was one. And then something curious happened…. I opened my mouth with every intention of giving some sort of answer, although not knowing what I was going to say. But when I opened my mouth nothing came out, and nothing would come out. I was struck completely dumb unable to speak or utter any sound at all, and even more curious, I didn’t feel any surprise or fear over this. I just tried to be helpful by pointing at my throat and shrugging. It’s probably because of this experience that when I read today’s gospel, I felt a strong kinship with Zechariah.
1 Kings 1:19-15a
Rising global tensions and almost striking Iran. Mass deportations planned. Tragic accidents. Migrants fleeing. Children held by our government in despicable conditions. Political clashes, lies, illness and personal loss. With a week like this, with a life like this, remember Elijah.
Elijah ran for dear life into the wilderness. Queen Jezebel was trying to kill him. In a cave on the mountain, God compassionately asks: What are you doing here, Elijah? What brings you here? What is on your heart? Elijah is honest: I’ve done my best for you, but the people refuse. The rulers destroyed everything. They killed all my companions, and now they’re trying to kill me.
Have you been there? Been zealous. But now run down. Run after. Alone and afraid. Ready for it all to end? Have you at the same time longed to be seen, to be heard, to be loved? How have you reached out to receive it? Perhaps you have invested time and travel, even a great distance, to be with a safe, trustworthy person, with whom you can be honest.
Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.
I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.
Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.
1 John 4:7 – 12
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Mark 6: 30 – 44
Those of you who have heard me preach before know that when reading Scripture, my attention is often caught, not by the soaring passages, or the amazing miracles, but the details that often creep in around the edge. Yes, the majesty of the Prologue of John, or the poignancy of the Foot Washing at the Last Supper, or the beauty of the Psalms are not to be missed. However, there is more to Scripture than majesty, poignancy and beauty. There is also the ordinary routine of daily living. It is there, in the ordinary routine of daily living, that God can be found as well. And that is why I am drawn, not to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, but to what comes before.
Chapter Six in the Gospel according to Mark is one of those breathless sections of Mark. A lot happens, and I mean a lot. It begins with Jesus’ rejection by his hometown and carries on to the sending out of the Twelve on their mission, the dance of Herodias and the death of John the Baptist, the return of the Twelve from their mission, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the calming of the sea, and there arrival at Gennesaret. As I mentioned, in 56 breathless verses, Mark crams in an awful lot of action, so much so, that if it were read all at once, our heads would be spinning!
As you may know, this kind of concentrated action is typical of Mark’s Gospel. It reminds me of an excited child coming home from a great adventure trying to condense a whole day’s activity into a few sentences: and then we did this! Then we did that! Then this other thing happened! Then, guess what happened???!!!
And the angel said, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Or, as another translation has it, “for no word from God will be without power.”These angelic words of assurance to Mary can sometimes pass our ears quickly. For my own part (depending on my state of mind), they not only pass my ears with haste, they manage to leave behind an echo that always seems to ring a little trite. Yet Luke begs us not to hear them with such haste or detachment.
The first chapter of Luke presents two annunciation scenes, one to Zechariah and one to Mary. Each angelic scene bears an almost identical, four-fold structure, the message with which Gabriel greets both Mary and Zechariah perplexes each of them, and it is my hunch that Luke places these two similarly constructed annunciations next to each other at the opening of his gospel for a reason.
Both Zechariah and Mary question Gabriel; yet the question asked by each is met with—we might be tempted to say—a somewhat disproportionate response. Mary receives a word of assurance, while the angel gives Zechariah not a word, but rather takes Zechariah’s words themselves from him.
In a fit of desperation, I asked God for a sign. A light, a feeling, a sound in the dead of one cold November night. I got nothing. But that nothing is the moment I have pointed to, for years, as the beginning of my conversion. Because, in retrospect, I don’t think I received nothing. I think I received silence.
There was a Sunday afternoon when I was a child that I sat my mother down and demanded to know about life and death, where babies come from, and where we go. When my mother had answered all my questions to my satisfaction, I announced, “I’ve learned a lot today,” and left the room confident in my grasp of existence.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, silence, solitude, and recreation.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:10)
I once had a deaf friend, an earnest Christian, who asked me whether hearing people could hear God’s voice as clearly as they could hear one another’s voices. He had often observed hearing people responding to one another’s voices, mysteriously communicating meaning to one another through the movements of their jaws and lips, and understanding one another even when they weren’t looking at each other, or when the speaker was in another room. He had learned that they possessed a mysterious ability that he had never had, and now he wondered if the same ability that enabled them to communicate with one another even when separated by a wall or a door enabled them also to communicate with God. “Does God talk to you?” he asked; “Can you hear God?”