At the crossroads of silence and noise
This sermon was preached at CSMSG on Sunday morning, August 13, 2017, at 8am and 10am. It came at the end of an eventful week in our national public discourse, with tensions increasing in North Korea and a shockingly open display of racism and hate in Charlottesville VA — while for me in our own parish it was a week more than usually concerned with death and dying, and fallout from the breakdown of relationships. I did not write this sermon as a direct response to any of these concerns, but as a reflection on the nature of specifically Christian peace under the growing shadow of so much that seems to threaten it. Meanwhile, as the world continues to mark various WWI centenaries, war poet Wilfred Owen’s “At A Calvary Near the Ancre” keeps echoing in my head. This was one of those Sundays where the appointed lectionary texts were perfectly suited to this kind of timely reflection, and the music was very much in tune with the theme. The choir sang a recent setting of John Henry Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light,” while hymns included At The Name Of Jesus and How Firm A Foundation.
Collect: Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
“Can’t you just give me some peace and quiet?!” “It’ll be so nice to have the kids out of the house, we’ll have the place to ourselves again.” “I can’t wait to get back to back to school, I’ll finally have my parents out of my hair.” “I’ll miss my husband on his trip, but it sure will be nice to have some more quiet in the house.” “The neighbors are so noisy,” “The television is so noisy,” “Why can’t it ever be quiet?”
If you’re like me, or like most of the human race for that matter, you’ve probably said something like this before, at least to yourself or under your breath. Quiet is one of those things we long for, maybe now more than ever. The retreat industry is booming, monastic vocations are growing, as we all begin to see the health and spiritual benefits of shutting up for a little while.
And yet, even as Quiet starts to become big business, there seems to be less and less of it to go around. Everywhere noise fills the space. In a world of 24 hour news and social media, the only cardinal sin is to have nothing to say. In a world of 24 hour market cycles, the only mortal offense is not to be busy. And when we do manage to escape, we find ways to fill the silence on our own.
The truth is we’re uncomfortable with quiet. At a public event, if the speaker pauses for too long shuffling papers, we all get nervous; if they take too long drinking from their water glass the audience breaks into a sweat. What if they lose their place? What if the words stop? Even when we’re alone, we put on music, or turn on the radio or tv, anything to avoid the silence we so desperately long for.
Why? Why are we so terrified of the silence, but so drawn to it all the same? My best guess is that silence, for all its prospect of relief, is also when the demons come out. Quietness presents us with nothing but ourselves for company. We are faced with all our worry, all our wounds, all the darkest parts of our natures, and it makes us feel vulnerable and afraid.
It’s easy to criticize someone who self-medicates with drugs or booze, especially if we don’t share the temptation. It’s much harder to see, much harder to admit when we self-medicate with constant noise, constant distraction. But self-medicating is exactly what we’re doing, protecting ourselves against the silence that both menaces and entices us.
The prophet Elijah knew something about both the enticement and the menace of silence. He flees to Sinai in today’s lesson, because he is afraid for his life: Ahab and Jezebel both want to kill him for exposing the prophets of Baal in their lies. Elijah flees their persecution, flees to the solitude and safety of Mt. Sinai, where God had visited his people centuries before, to speak with Moses and deliver the law.
Elijah goes there to escape the chaos, to escape the threats on his life. But, truth be told, he goes to mope a little too: he goes to complain to God about how alone he feels and how overwhelming it all is, how “those people” he’s working with are just the worst. God’s answer is to send a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, each of them greater and more impressive than the last, while God himself does not appear in any of them. When Elijah hears a whisper, a still, small voice, then he knows, instinctively, to cover his face, for God is finally present.
Why does God go through all the trouble with the earthquake and the fire? As if to say, ‘Elijah, whatever you are going through, whatever chaos you face, there is something beyond it all, something unaffected by all the uncertainty and the fear, and that something is God.’ Go to Mt. Sinai, enter the quiet cleft in the rock, face the demons that come out, but press through to the silence that cannot be harmed by them, press through to the presence that refreshes even as it sends us back out into the fray. That silence, that presence is God, whose peace passeth understanding. When Elijah spends time with God listening to that still, small voice, he is encouraged and strengthened for the rest of his ministry. And such a remarkable ministry it is that when it concludes he is taken to heaven, bodily, in the chariot of fire.
Today’s Gospel offers another example. Jesus has been alone at prayer all evening, after dismissing the 5000 he’s just fed. The disciples have gone ahead in the boat, and Jesus prays in silence alone. (Enjoy the irony here! Jesus, the eternal Word of God, silent in prayer.) He looks up, sees down the hill across the water to his disciples, struggling in the boat against the wind and waves. He walks to them on the sea. When they see him coming they’re even more afraid, but he assures them he’s not a ghost. He bids Peter come to meet him, walking on the waves, and Peter does.
It’s a remarkable moment: Jesus, fresh from his moment of communion with the Father, extends that same peace, that same assurance even to Peter in the midst of the storm; and Peter is so encouraged by it that he walks on the sea to meet Jesus.
But somehow the spell breaks. Peter looks down and sees the wind. He sees the rain, the waves, he loses his balance, he starts to sink, he cries out for help. Jesus himself of course is undisturbed by Peter’s trouble, but in the very moment Peter cries for help, Jesus grasps his hand.
Then they’re in the boat, the wind stops, and the disciples are in awe. But pause for a moment on the sea, at the instant where Peter grasps Jesus’ hand. Poor Peter – of course he’s terrified, there is every reason to be: the wind is strong, the waves are tall, and suddenly he realizes, ‘Wait, I’m walking on the sea! Who thought this was a good idea? What am I doing? Help!’ Jesus grasps his hand.
Peter is in terror, quite rightly afraid for his life. And Jesus grasps his hand. There is no mistaking it, Peter is in immediate, grave, mortal peril. And yet, with Jesus grasping his hand, there is no place on earth or in heaven that is safer or stronger or more stable.
Peter goes out into the sea to meet Jesus and quickly realizes he’s facing all his worst fears and the very real possibility of failure and death, as the waves threaten to swallow him whole. But what he meets there in all the noise and chaos is the deep quiet of the wellspring of eternal life, which grabs hold of him and saves him.
There is another moment in the Gospel where all the demons of silence and noise duke it out. That moment is the cross, where Jesus himself faces all the weapons of death, all the storms of anguish and despair. As he gives up his spirit and descends to the dead, he carries with him the inexhaustible peace of God — which all hell cannot endeavor to shake, though all hell surely tries, and is undone in the process.
Here is one of the central paradoxes of the Gospel: Hell itself, Pandemonium with all its demons, is finally defeated, broken down, not by frontal assault; not by subterfuge, sanctions, or diplomacy; but by Peace itself, crucified and dressed in bloody rags, simply walking through its doors and out again, leading its captives free.
So what am I saying? When you or I feel overwhelmed by the noise and chaos of this life, turn off the TV. Look for the silence, for God, who is beyond it. But don’t be fooled: as Elijah discovered, there is no safety in hiding out. As Peter discovered, there are no guarantees even when we go to meet God. Whatever winds, waves, earthquakes, fires or demons we face in this world follow us into the silence, follow us wherever we try to escape, and we will face them there all the more directly, all the more fully. They will make us feel threatened and afraid, and with Peter we can’t be sure whether the waves won’t swallow us alive.
But whatever demons our silence or escape reveal, resist the temptation to self-medicate. Resist the temptation to turn the TV back on, to restore the flow of our favorite anesthetic chatter. Instead of reaching for the remote, reach for the Cross, where our anchor holds no matter the storms without or within.
Let the one who hangs there be your still point in this turning world. He is the one we come to, waiting for us, at every crossroads we reach. He looks desolate and alone, but his cross is the seat of all majesty and power. Our way is non-linear. We get lost, we screw up, we disappoint, we don’t live up to our potential, we don’t know where to turn. But strangely, mysteriously, his cross is always near at hand. I cannot tell you what will happen when you approach it, what he will say to you, or what you will become. But I do know one thing for certain: as you look up, and your eyes meet, your whole world will shatter, and you will be made new.
As we wander amidst the noise, and fire, and fury of our lives, we face only one question. Will we stop, will we look up, to regard the one hanging at the crossroads? Will we let everything else fall away? Will we choose his peace over all the noise and distraction? Only then will we share his victory of life over death, only then will the demons retreat to their broken lairs.
“And mercy and truth will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other; and his glory will dwell in our land.”
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.