The Sound of Silence

A sermon, based on 1 Kings 19.1-15 (with references to Psalm 42 to Luke 8.26-39), preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost June 23, 2019.

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Where do we go and to what, to whom do we listen for the voice of God?

Elijah slew the prophets of the god Ba’al. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, followers of Ba’al and benefactors of the cult of Ba’al, swear to kill Elijah. In fear, he flees. On his journey, he encounters God. The one who answers (the one who is the answer to) the psalmist’s thirst: “As the deer longs for the waterbrooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” God speaks. Not in the earthquake, wind, or fire of the violent threats against Elijah’s life and not in the turmoil of his fear, but in “a sound of sheer silence.” Or, in the King James Version, “a still, small voice.” An inner word reminding Elijah of his identity, who he is, one “zealous for the Lord,” and his destiny, what he is to do, “Go, return” to your prophetic ministry.

Elijah Dwelleth in a Cave, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This thirst to hear God, especially amid strife, led the poet John Greenleaf Whittier to write, indeed, pray:

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.(1)

Where do we go and to what, to whom do we listen for God’s voice?

Daily, I ask this question. For, daily, I am conscious that have more life and labor behind me than before me, which provokes an inner urgency about my identity and destiny, being and doing all I can with all I have left (and who knows, surely, not I, how much that is!).

Honesty also compels my confession that my daily concerns pale in comparison to Elijah. I did not slay 450 prophets of Ba’al.(2) I did not flee for my life under the threat, the promise of death. And, unlike Jesus, I did not confront a demonic Legion to free another from the depths of spiritual possession. I cannot claim to have faced these greatest of dangers.

Nevertheless, three things, three “nevers” I have learned…

First, never compare my experience to that of others, especially those whose circumstances I consider are worse than mine…

For when I do that (for though I say “never,” the temptation to do this very thing, likely due to the human tendency to see others and ourselves through the common lenses of our circumstances, is ever-present), I tend to dismiss my concerns as unimportant and, thus, ignore that inner, whispering voice of conscience that reminds me of who I am and what matters to me.

Second, never measure importance by the degree of my life’s difficulty, the weight of my worry and woe…

For when I do that, I tend to look for meaning only in the big events; the earthquakes, winds, and fires of existence. Grave illness. Death. Natural calamities of tempest and flood. And when I do that, I miss the grace, the wonder and power of those counterbalancing joys. Health. Birth. After nature’s storms, the noble labor of recovery engaged by countless hearts and hands.

Third, never disregard spontaneous moments of discovery…

A conversation with friend or stranger in which an insightful word is spoken that answers a vexing question…

The ethereal images of a dream, barely recalled upon waking that, in the light of conscious thought, reveal something to me about me that I little knew or least understood…

An occasion when I behold another practicing my values of love and justice more credibly, more incarnationally than I’ve seen in myself (in other words, someone who is and does my best self better than me!); the vision of which commends, commands the renewal of my vow…

At such moments, as Elijah standing on “Horeb, the mount of God,” I hear “a sound of sheer silence,” “the still, small voice of God” reminding me of my identity and my destiny.

Where do I go and to what, to whom do I listen for God’s voice? Everywhere and to everything and to everyone.

So, standing in the presence of all of life, with Whittier, I pray that my sense be dumb, that I reject my trust in my wisdom, and that my flesh retire, that I relinquish my often frantic and futile efforts to fulfill my will, so that I can hear God’s voice.

This is my answer to the question. Where do you go and to what, to whom do you listen for the voice of God?

 

Footnotes:
(1) From the poem, The Brewing of Soma (1872), in which the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), referring to the ritual, intoxicating drink of the Vedic religion, whose adherents consumed the beverage in quest of an experience of divinity, lauds the Quaker method for contact with the divine – selfless lives dedicated to doing God’s will and, through the veil of silence, listening to the “still, small voice.”
(2) See 1 Kings 18.22

Illustration: Elijah Dwelleth in a Cave, James Tissot (1836-1902)

5 thoughts on “The Sound of Silence

  1. Dear Paul,

    Such a thought-provoking sermon. I often find myself wishing that, after reading something of yours, sermon or otherwise, I could sit down with you and simply talk about all that your words bring to my mind. I have so many reactions to this, from so many perspectives. I am, as usual, blown away by the background and information you convey that I have never heard of. While I knew that Whittier had written the poem on which the “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” hymn was based, I had never read the entire poem or knew anything about its opening stanzas. What a revelation! It casts the hymn, which I have always loved, in a completely new light for me. While I cherish Whittier’s sentiment about the Quaker silence, I also find myself longing to know more about the Vedic rite and soma. I’m intrigued by all the ways humans have devised to try be in contact with the Divine and, beyond that, what persuades anyone to decide that others’ attempts at such connection deserve condemnation, even to the point of banishment, war, and killing.

    Thank you, Paul, for once again getting my mind going with questions and musings. Thank you for reminding me of Elijah’s story and of words that I have loved all my life, and, most of all, for putting them in a completely new perspective, one that in this case happens to be simply their original context. I love it when something I took for granted is suddenly revealed in greater light. I have learned I can count on you to give me that experience, and I love it when you do.

    With much love,

    Karen

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  2. Oh, my dear sister Karen, how oft I have said of you that you are kind, so very kind to me. And as I oft write/say of you and Loretta, to know that anything I have written and shared is of value to you, one whom I love and respect beyond the telling, it gladdens my heart and uplifts my soul. Thank you.

    As for differing human paths to seek the holy, I’m with you. Yes, I am a Christian, even – as some, I think, facetiously, and, if seriously, then, wrongly, would aver – “a professional Christian.” And, in this, yes, I follow Jesus as my brother and my Savior. However, I honor other traditions and practices enough to desire to understand them and to respect those, aye, all who follow those paths. For, I have found and continually find that, the more I am and remain open to others worldviews, perspectives, indeed, voices, the larger the realm of the holy becomes.

    Love, always and in all ways,
    Paul

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  3. Okay……. soooooo there’s so much to this sermon!! I took away a ton of things from it… I related to every one of the Nevers!!

    Here’s the one I want to discuss though that will allow us to go down memory lane!!

    “Third, never disregard spontaneous moments of discovery…”

    I think back to our trip to Maui years ago. You were fussing that we had “planned too many activities” and you weren’t gonna “do all that stuff”…. I was dismayed cause you were threatening not to go on the “road to Hana” with me, Pontheolla and Tim. They both said “then we will go without you”… I was so worried as the time to depart cane…. you jumped into the car with us and immediately began reading your paper. I was so relieved that you decided to join us. That outing turned out to be one of the most amazing 12 hours of our lives!! We laughed hysterically, we hiked, we climbed rocks, drank wine and almost ran off that bumpy road several times thanks to Tim’s driving. None of us knew then that would be our last family trip together… you even spoke about in your reflection at Tim’s funeral. You had people rolling in the aisles over that day we discovered the road to Hana. I’m delighted that all four of us got to discover so many new things that day and it’s a day I’ll never forget!!

    Much love!!

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  4. Loretta, tonight, at the close of an event at Clevedale, Pontheolla and I shared time with two couples of friends who are spending the night. I saw your post and read some of it aloud to the gathered group. I howled in delight, saying, “It is a grand thing, even at my worst, to be known and accepted.” All nodded in agreement, for each and all had had such moments and, then, began to share them. Thank you for offering an exquisitely wonderful entrée to a powerful moment of mutual humanity!

    Now, regarding the Road to Hana and beyond (that is, the four of us crazily NOT going back the way we had come, but rather trekking east from Hana, then south, and then west along the southern expanse of Maui), I have reflected on that moment in time many, many times. What a grand journey! When I think of our having no cell service and traveling through that uber-barren landscape (indeed, moon-scape) and, more than once, thinking that we might not make it back to civilization, I recall thinking that if the four of us never returned, it would have been okay to die in the company of deepest friendship, aye, deepest love-ship.

    Thanks for stirring that memory.

    Love,
    Paul

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    1. That’s sooooooo awesome!! Glad you got to share our story with others and that they were able to contribute their stories too!!

      I remember my sides being sore the next day too from all that laughing during our day long journey… but I too wondered if we’d get back to civilization… then just when we finally did start to see civilization we almost hit a cow we didn’t see along the side of the road!! Tim was soooooo glad you not only decided to come, but put your newspaper down about 15 minutes into our journey and engaged with the rest of us! When we got back to our room that night Tim said “that was one of the best days EVER”… and he was right!!

      Love ya back!!

      Like

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