Today you may be here filled with fear and doubt and that is ok. Jesus is not waiting for us to get our house in order and open the door. Jesus is breaking the houses we lock ourselves up in offers to us peace and breathes on us the liberating Holy Spirit that frees us. And if that image is too abstract for you and you need something more real to touch and to taste, come to the table, and like Thomas, experience Jesus’ real presence with you. Through that real experience of resurrection, the Spirit is at work, giving us ordinary, fearful, doubting people extraordinary boldness to declare, “My Lord and my God.”
Vicar Noah Herren
September 22, 2018
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.
There are many ways to meet an ideal spouse, if you can find one. Consider the story of someone who put out their list of 25 qualities for an ideal spouse and married the person three years later. Proverbs ends with a poem about the “ideal wife” and Jesus talks about greatness. What virtues motivate us?
July 1, 2018 | Lectionary 13b | Pr. Craig Mueller
It caused quite a stir: the words on Melania Trump’s coat: I don’t care, do you? What exactly did that mean? What was behind the words? Was it lamenting the way migrant families were treated? The way her husband is treated? That we should care more or care less?
When we ask someone “how are you,” we’re used to the responses “fine” or “busy.” But when someone says, “I’m okay,” you wonder what they mean. Sometimes “okay” is what you say when you’re not okay, ironically. So, what’s behind the words? After such a response last week, one person revealed that she has just learned about a suicide of one colleague and a cancer diagnosis of another. Things were not okay.
David’s words in the first reading are poignant. The grief is raw. Both Saul and Jonathan are dead. Three times David says, “the mighty have fallen.” Strange that David is grieving Saul after being in a cat and mouse chase with him, and Saul trying to kill him. Sure, David—the king in waiting—has consorted with the arch-enemy Philistines, yet Saul continues to be out of control and growing ever more paranoid.
Yet, Jonathan is a true soul-mate, David’s best friend and ally. “Greatly beloved were you to me,” David says, “your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” What’s behind the words? We can’t necessarily read today’s understanding of relationships and sexuality into that time, yet for many sexual minorities today, the same-gender relationship between David and Jonathan is deep and abiding. And the loss of it breaks David’s heart.
Let’s think about lament. The concept of lament wasn’t a part of my Lutheran upbringing or even mentioned much in seminary. The lament of David doesn’t name God, interestingly. Yet lament is usually directed toward God as it is in many psalms, including today’s. “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O God.” Sometimes it’s more like: how could you do this to me, God! Have you rejected us forever?
Yet now there is a section in our hymnal with lament hymns. Laments are part of our prayers and we will use a special litany of lament this morning. We may lament following a national disaster. We may lament in a time of grief or illness. We may lament injustice or the way the earth is treated. I discovered a book called “Spiritual Complaint,” helping Christians to become more comfortable with the language of lament. Some of us were taught not to challenge God or question God. But that’s not biblical, you say! There’s plenty of lament in the scriptures, actually. What’s under the words of lament? Surely, it’s not just permission to complain, bitch, fret, whine, kvetch, and feel sorry for ourselves, is it?
The reality is that sometimes there are no answers. The grief is too raw, the grief all-encompassing. In such times it feels like life as we have known it is over. Jews have prescribed mourning rituals, and they vary whether it has been seven days, thirty days, or a year since the death of a loved one. I wish we had something similar. Too often we rush through grief, thinking after a couple of months we should be able to move right on.
In our gospel Jairus begs Jesus to lay hands on his daughter near death. When Jesus arrives, the girl has died, and there is a scene of lamentation: people weeping and wailing loudly. A true and perhaps more healthy expression of grief than much of our sterilized approach to death.
William Sloan Coffin was a well-known preacher at Riverside Church in New York. His twenty-four-year-old son was killed while driving in a storm. Coffin tells of a well-meaning, middle-aged woman who visited him following the death, carrying about eighteen quiches. The woman approached Coffin, shook her head, and headed for the kitchen, saying over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.” What, pray tell, is under those words? Reacting with hot pursuit, Coffin shot back, “I’ll say you don’t, lady.”
Sometimes we don’t have the words, we don’t know what to say. And perhaps silence, an embrace, or a gentle touch is all that is needed. And for the record, a few more things not to say: “Everything happens for a reason. She’s in a better place. I know you exactly how you feel.”
So, even as I lament when we use too many words to say what is too deep for words, let me close with a poem, “The thing is,” by Ellen Bass.
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.