Silence of Fear, Silence of Grace

Vicar Noah Herren

September 22, 2018

Lectionary 25b


Silence of Fear, Silence of Grace


A pastoral care professor at my seminary has a practice each time he speaks in public. He takes the time before speaking to look each person in the crowd in the eye, whether it is 6 people or 600 people. The larger the crowd, the longer the period of silence. And while most people appreciate the intimacy of eye contact, this extension of silence can create some discomfort.

Silence can come as a welcome break. A moment can be pregnant with silence as we wait in hopeful expectation. Silence can indicate fear or apprehension. We take moments of silence to honor those who have died or have been victimized in our society. In some cases, silence is necessary to protect ourselves from danger. Sometimes we long for silence when words are being spoken that we don’t want to hear. For all the speaking in our world, silence manifests in important and diverse ways. Silence serves as the space between words and action.

The disciples find themselves speechless, internally silenced, at several points. On the covert journey to Galilee, Jesus teaches of the betrayal, death, and resurrection that he will inevitably experience. The disciples don’t say anything because they don’t understand and they are afraid to ask. One commentary states: “Perhaps they do not want to understand this confusing message about a Messiah who suffers and dies. Or perhaps they are afraid to reveal their ignorance. Maybe they remember the rebuke Peter received at Caesarea Philippi and want to avoid similar humiliation.” We can try to surmise what the disciples were feeling or thinking. Ultimately, we learn that they are silenced by their fear and insecurity.

Who here has an iPhone? You know the three dots that show up when someone is typing a text message but it’s not quite complete? That’s how I imagine the disciple’s response at the house in Capernaum. Jesus asks a pointed question, “What were you arguing about on the way?”, and blankly they stare, trying to formulate any kind of answer but coming up short. This also makes me think of my sons, who like to argue frequently about ridiculous things…especially in the backseat of the car…on a long journey. And then that deer-in-the-headlights look when they are called on it, because they know deep down…that whatever the argument is, it’s not really the point. So, it’s at this place that we find the disciples: filled with fear, insecurity, and misunderstanding…and the only way that feels safe to respond…is with silence. The disciples did not need to speak for Jesus to extend grace. Jesus did not demand an answer from them. Jesus does not avoid hard topics, but neither does he attack the disciples with a truth hammer. Jesus intervenes as any good teacher would, with patience and a concrete example.

The bible storybook my grandmother read me as a child had a version of Jesus and the children. A clean blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy sat on white Jesus’ lap with a happy grin. After studying this text, I’d have to make a few edits to my grandmother’s storybook. Obviously, the first change would be to modify the ethnicity of the characters to a more accurately representation. Then, I would scruff up the child a bit, put some dirt on his (or her) face and hands, and morph the happy smile to an expression of wonder mixed with a bit of helplessness and fear. Finally, I’d remove the child from Jesus’ lap and place her in the midst of a towering crowd of confused and frustrated men, so the power dynamic at play cannot be missed. The great overshadowing the least. With these updates, the scene shifts from an idealistic cartoon to something more like recent images in the news.

We tend to romanticize and project our current view of children into this narrative. Why wouldn’t we? It’s beautiful to imagine Jesus hanging with the kids, kind of like its Vacation Bible School or Sunday School. Programs where our children are valued and honored at places like Holy Trinity. However, what is actually happening is that Jesus is literally taking up one of the least regarded members of his society to illustrate his lesson. This was a political and theological statement from Jesus, not an act of sentimentality. He tells the disciples, not only must you be like this child (a servant who has no social status or regard), you must also welcome those who are the least in our society. You must embrace this child as I am doing. In a time of uncertainty and fear, the disciples are scrambling to determine where they fit in their known world order. And Jesus says, if you follow me, the world you know is turned upside down, flipped on its head where the last are first and the first are last. He helps us them along by filling their silent moments of fear with his message of unending grace. The gospel that Jesus proclaims is grace for all, regardless of social status, race, color, creed, religion, income, age, gender, citizenship, ability, credit score, sexual orientation, or any other category we use to divide and stratify humanity. Jesus extends his arms of mercy and justice to embrace every. single. human. and we are called to do the same.

I encountered a message written on a storefront window on Southport. “This is not your practice life. That which matters the most should never give way to that which matters the least.” This actually sounds like pretty decent advice to me…about priorities, integrity.  It even sounds like something we might read in our Bible…some conventional wisdom from somewhere like Proverbs. It feels fantastic to boldly proclaim such phrases…breaking through the silence with our certainty. Yet if we replace a few words here, we begin to see how easy it is to slip into a worldview that damages and overlooks the marginalized. “Those who matter the most should never give way to those who matter the least.” It’s exactly this kind of messaging that Jesus counters in his teaching. The human hands and human societal structures that would betray Jesus and tread over the lowest in society are still alive and well in our world today…and in ourselves. Yet God’s grace still abounds where we fall short.

Jesus message is not one that elicits an easy, quick, or certain response. It’s a difficult message that often leaves us stunned and silent. It’s requires responding to hard teachings and questions that cause our worldviews to be overturned. Like the disciples, we may be silenced by fear and insecurity. Like the disciples we may try to cling to safety by remaining silent. Like the disciples, we may secretly strive to find our location in a familiar worldview. Grace flows in, around, and through these spaces of silence. The good news is that, as Christians, grace serves as our space between words and action…when fear and uncertainty silence us.

As we gather at God’s table of radical welcome, rest in the silent wisdom that grace is for us and for all. In the silence receive the mystery that is beyond words. Amen.