My grandma, Ruth, who passed away in 2013, told me once about a day when she was just a little girl growing up in North Carolina. A very violent storm was blowing through, and her mother and her older sister were huddled in the corner of the kitchen behind the stove in fear, waiting for it to pass. But little Ruth started right for the front door! She wanted to see God, and she was quite sure that God was in that storm, because they had covered this passage in Kings in her Sunday School class. As she opened the door, her mother called out to her “Ruth, what are you doing?” “I am going out to see God!” “No, you are not. Get back in here this instant!”. She laughed when she told me this story, and said, “I think I didn’t remember the passage quite right.”
It is easy to understand how my grandma, this little girl, could have thought God would be in the big drama of a storm. After all, God is found in burning bushes and thundering mountaintops in other stories the bible. In fact, the bible is full of this type of dramatic narrative, right? Just look at the Gospel lesson. Demons driving a man to near insanity, so that he must be chained up, then the demons being allowed to enter a herd of pigs, who dive right off a cliff. And, not for nothing, “what did the pigs do to deserve that?” one may ask.
And in the Hebrew lesson for today, we have Elijah running from his own demons – those of his enemy, and those of his own soul. And, he seeks respite in a cave. He is told that God will be passing by, and as he waits, he experiences wind so terrible it rips apart the mountains and so he looks for God, then an earthquake – but still God isn’t there, and finally a fire – still no God. God is not in these “shock and awe” events at all; but, in the calm that comes after the storm. “From deep inside this cave, from deep inside this soul, Elijah hears a voice, small in size yet great in strength.”1_ The traditional translation is often “a still small voice,” but is actually closer to “a sound of sheer silence”.
A sound of sheer silence.
What is the sound of silence, apart from being a fantastic song by Simon & Garfunkel. It seems almost an oxymoron on the level of Jumbo Shrimp. Yet, I remember a time about two years ago, when I had to create a layoff list for my department. I left work heavy with the pain of the decisions that were mine to make. I decided to attend vespers at the Community of St. John Baptist, the Episcopal Convent in Mendham, and then to have dinner with the sisters. Only, I did not realize that it was one of their weekly silent meals, during which no one speaks. As I sat slowly eating my dinner, the silence overtook me, and I could no longer stand it. I was alone with my thoughts in a room of people, and I could not bear to “hear” it any more. I left.
But usually, within this hectic world, we often wish for time to ourselves without the noise and clutter of our daily lives. How many times have you said “I just need some peace and quiet” right? It is as though we sense that in silence we can renew our souls. We seem to instinctively know that in silence we can hear ourselves, we can here each other, and Elijah discovered, that we can hear God. And yet, for the most part, we seem unable to unplug from the noise of life, as though we all suffer from a sort of ADD of the soul. And the result is that silence is a rare commodity, and we are unable to hear what is all around us, and if we were Elijah, we would miss God entirely.
In the past week, I think most of us wanted to hear God, as much as Elijah did. Yearning to hear how this could possibly have happened. Wanting to hear words of comfort from our Creator. We yearned to find God – amidst the earthquake of violence, the fire of emotional pain, and howling winds of the incessant images all over the television. But what we heard was the sheer silence of the victims whose voices were lost to us forever, the silence of the tears, the silence of our breaking hearts. Did we miss God? Was God even anywhere near?
I remember a story about Midwesterner from the farm, who was visiting his college roommate in New York City. Walking near Times Square one day, the farm boy suddenly remarked, “I hear a cricket.” “You’re crazy,” his city friend replied. “It’s the noon rush hour, and in all of this traffic noise you heard a cricket? C’mon, man!” “No, I do hear a cricket,” the visitor insisted. Focusing more intently, he walked to the corner, crossed the busy avenue and looked all around. Finally he approached a shrub in a large cement planter. Digging beneath the cover mulch, he found his cricket.
His friend couldn’t believe what he had seen. But the friend from the farm said, “My ears are no different from yours. It simply depends on what you have learned to listen for. Here, let me show you.”
He then reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a handful of change, and dropped the coins on the sidewalk. At the sound of the money hitting the pavement, every head along the crowded block turned. “You see what I mean?” the visitor said, as he began picking up what was left of his coins. “It all depends on what you are listening for.”
Elijah was listening for God, and was able to hear God in the silence. And in the same way, each of us needs to listen, so that we too may hear God…even when things are horrifically dark and seemingly hopeless. Hear God through the clutter of news. And we need to open our eyes to see God pass by amidst the chaos of all that has surrounded us in these past several days.
Because if we do, we will see that God was present – in the first responders, in the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, in the many people all over the world, who have gathered, as we did here, to pray, to cry, to care for one another in our time of grief. We can visually see and experience that today at Christ Church in the large 8’ swan, which remains from the vigil in the center of our labyrinth here in the church, with colorful notes posted all over it.
Now, to understand how special this swan is, you need to know something about swans, and about this swan, in particular. Swans are generally thought to be a symbol of freedom, life-long love, and commitment. They can walk on the earth and swim in the sea as humans do but they also have the ability to soar into the sky. Many cultures believe that they are a symbol of eternal life; the link between heaven and earth. This Swan is what is known as an Animodule, and it was brought to us as a community art project from the Barat Foundation, and we are so grateful to them for lending it to us for the vigil.
According to the Barat Foundation website, “Animodules are Newark’s official Peace Ambassadors. Over 50 schools and communities have collaborated in their creation and they greet 500,000 people annually at Newark airport. The creation of an Animodule is an act of community organizing and an education in the language of visual arts. The Animodules empower community members in understanding their history and vocalizing their own identity.”
Listen to that description again, Animodules empower community members in understanding their history and vocalizing their own identity. This swan helped everyone at the vigil to vocalize something about identity – about our identity as brothers and sisters in humanity, and the pain we all feel whenever any one of is hurt, abused, marginalized, oppressed, or tragically killed. As we are part of the large and beautiful quilt of all of creation, all related to one another in God, bound to one another in our common humanity, a loss such as this mass shooting affects us all deeply.
And so, weakened and in despair like Elijah, we gathered here in this place to, in a very real sense, to find God…to look for God to pass by. And what we found was that God was not only passing by, but kept vigil with us – as we prayed, as we sang, as we read the names, as we wept and hugged, and taped our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams on this enormous and beautiful swan…and as we heard the bell toll 49 times and stood silent – our candles lit – together at the end of the night. God was surely there indeed.
And you know what? After we had that incredible experience Thursday night, this same space, where we are this morning, was filled with the sounds of children laughing and singing. It was our Nursery School’s kindergarten graduation on Friday afternoon. It was the kind of celebration that can only leave you filled with joy and hope. And God was there in all of that too.
The psalmist this morning surely expressed what many of us felt this week, when he wrote: As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?
We are a thirsty people – thirsty for love and peace in this troubled world. Seeking as the Psalmist and Elijah the presence of God.
Look, listen, beyond the fires of daily life, amidst the chaotic aftermath of the earthquakes of senseless violence, beneath the howling winds of war and destruction, and in the sheer silence of our heartbreak – the God who nourishes our thirsty souls is there – present in and through us as we join together in love. Present in the sounds of children laughing. Present in the silences.
Through our joy and our pain, God is with us, and we are nourished and strengthed for our journey – the journey to spread the knowledge of God’s all inclusive love, to stand up against injustice, and to bring about peace in our time. And the time for peace is now, more than ever.
There is a quote by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin that our bishop likes to use as a benediction and blessing, and I have used it here before. After a week such as this, knowing that unless we stand up and fight to change the way things are, we will be holding more vigils, we need to hear it again. And so, I leave you with it this morning.
“May God give you grace not to sell yourselves short,
Grace to risk something big for something good,
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
May God take your minds and think through them.
May God take your lips and speak through them.
May God take your hands and work through them.
May God take your hearts and set them on fire.”
1. Thunder in the Mountains, Silence in the Soul, Sermon shared by Carl Greene.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
The Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
June 19, 2016
Pentecost 5 – Year C
1st Reading – 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Psalm 42 and 43
2nd Reading – Galatians 3:23-29
Gospel – Luke 8:26-39