2 Pentecost, Year A
2 Pentecost, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“Be still, and know that I am God!” Be still. How many of us are actually able to be still? What does it mean to be still? What does stillness look like in our hectic lives? Is it even a possibility for us? Is stillness not for those living in monasteries and convents? Why would God command or invite us to be still?
Is stillness not an idyllic never-never land for fast paced people like us? It is extremely difficult if not impossible for us to be still. Ours is the world of noise and speed. We cannot countenance silence or stillness. After all, we have cars, trains, aircraft, and spaceships that move us around more rapidly than ever before in the history of humankind. What do the psalmist’s words: “Be still, and know that I am God” mean in today’s crazy, noisy, fast-paced, instant gratification oriented world? Why is it that life is not “normal” unless we have piped-in background music or blaring talk show hosts or automobile horns honking away and jet planes roaring over us? Why are we so out of our element when we sit quiet, turn off all of our computers, televisions, radios, CD players, and telephones? Why is it that even when we seek to escape from it all by going out to the lake for some rest and relaxation, we aren’t satisfied unless we bring all of our everyday conveniences with us?
Is there a tragic truth about ourselves that we don’t like to face up to? Could it be that deep within us, we don’t know how to be still because our lives are so full of stuff that there’s no room, no time, no place for stillness? Maybe we are like the professor in the following Zen tale:
There was a university professor who went searching for the meaning of life. After several years and many miles, he came to the hut of a particularly holy hermit and asked to be enlightened. The holy man invited his visitor into his humble dwelling and began to serve him tea. He filled the pilgrim’s cup and then kept on pouring so that tea was soon dripping onto the floor. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “Stop! It is full. No more will go in.” “Like this cup,” said the hermit, “you are full of your own opinions, preconceptions, and ideas. How can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?” 1
Could it be that we, like the professor are too full of our opinions, preconceptions, and ideas or too full of our busyness by doing life that there’s no room within us to be still and learn what God wants to teach us? Could it be that we see ourselves as human doings rather than human beings? Maybe we’re rather like the prophet Elijah—failing to expect that God will encounter us in the still, small voice; or, put another way, in the sound of sheer silence. Is our busy, hectic pace of life a foil, a cover up of the truth that deep within we are attempting to avoid God and run away from God? In so doing, are we not also trying to run away from ourselves? Are we afraid of being still and silent precisely because we are afraid of the consequences of having to face the truth of God and the truth about ourselves? If we keep ourselves busy, we don’t have to think or act or feel too much in God pleasing and risky ways; we can numb ourselves with a non-threatening, superficial existence.
However, deep within us all we know that such a non-threatening, superficial existence is or shall become a living hell. We shall never experience contentment or satisfaction; peace and tranquility by living such an existence. The more we try to deny and run away from the truth of God’s presence and the truth about ourselves; the more we shall be ceaselessly driven. Deep within us, God has created that eternal longing to commune with God and learn more about our true self, created in God’s image. When we take to heart the words of our psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God,” we begin to discover the rich depth of what God offers us in stillness and silence—just as Elijah did and a host of other people of faith, including Jesus himself, who is our perfect model of basking in the rich treasures of stillness and silence with God.
Silence teaches us to be ourselves. Silence is an essential part of our daily lives. Silence is no longer just empty time or listening to the distracting voices within. It’s much more placing one’s self in the presence of God.
These moments of silence are like bridge-heads for us; we are trying to fill our day-to-day lives with what we experience in the silence. Contemplation is a way towards a new dimension in our lives. It is like living in the same house for several years, and suddenly uncovering a door in the house and beyond the door new spaces that you had never known were there. At the same time, contemplation means a meeting with Christ, and the discovery of his traits in ourselves brings us closer to him. 2
Whenever we think of stillness and silence, I believe that there’s a tendency for us to associate them all too easily in a negative light with a severe case of navel gazing; of, as Luther put it, as he described the human condition, “being turned in upon ourselves.” Is it true that being still and silent tends to make us excessively inward looking and too detached from others or “the real world”? This, of course, has been the classic Protestant critique of monasticism and asceticism. But is it still a legitimate critique? Perhaps it is in some instances, but I do not think it’s fair to paint everyone who engages in stillness and silence with the same brush. Rather, I believe that many leaders within Judaism and Christianity—and for that matter, as was the case with M.K. Gandhi within Hinduism—have benefited significantly from stillness and silence, and the consequences have influenced the collective life of the faith community. In short, there is a communal aspect of stillness and silence too, which is not obsessed with looking inward; which is outward looking and has very practical implications for everyday life in “the real world” and the faith community as a whole. In the Protestant tradition, perhaps the Quakers (the Society of Friends), have been most successful in emphasising the communal nature of stillness and silence.
Quaker communal discernment clearly has some features in common: the search for a profound unity of minds and hearts in the one Spirit with regard to certain choices; an emphasis on the importance of prayer; a willingness to listen and have one’s views changed; a setting in which those who speak may be heard with openness and respect; a process by which conflict can be expressed and given due weight; a dislike and mistrust of emotionalism; an attempt to allow the inner light to shape the speech of individuals; the possibility of stating disagreement without wishing to block the decision; a preference for voteless decision-making; a tendency to postpone the decision until a sense of unity has been reached. 3
Although this description of Quaker stillness and silence may be a tad bit too idealistic; nonetheless I believe there is some truth in it, which has the potential to benefit us all if put into practice—indeed, the contributions that Quakers have made towards conflict resolution, better working conditions, peace and reconciliation in the past are instructive and exemplary, and may be instrumental in solving similar issues today.
So, like Elijah and Jesus, and a host of other people of faith down through the ages who have practiced stillness and silence; may we too take to heart the words of our psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God!” In so doing, we are drawn ever closer to our God, learn more about others and ourselves; and are given the strength and resources of grace to carry out our calling as servants of the LORD.
1 Cited from: Paul J. Wharton, Stories and Parables for Preachers and Teachers (New York & Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1986), p. 17.