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The Holy Silence: Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2023


In the dawn of the mornings when I am first to rise, I let our three dogs out through the front door, and they go galloping off to chivvy the squirrels that stalk the birdfeeders. It’s a luxury and also a danger, since our yards are not fenced, so before opening the door I look to see if any deer, possums, or raccoons are visibly lurking, and rather than leave them alone I walk out with them.

I have learned in the months we have lived here to look up as well as out. More often than not, as they got rocketing into the woods, I will catch a glimpse of one or two barred owls launching themselves huffily from the very tops of the ash trees bordering our driveway. The first time I noticed this was in winter, and their large brown bodies stood out starkly against the pale gray dawn and the descending snow. In fact, I noticed that the hissing sound of snow caressing trees and ground as it fell was much louder than the sound of the owls’ flight. I was amazed that snow, which has sound-dampening qualities of its own, could be louder than the flight of these very large birds.

I later learned that, due to the unique structure of their feathers and wings, certain owls can fly absolutely soundlessly, despite their large size. Scientists speculate that this is a survival feature: given how slow they are, their silent flight can both help them sneak up on their prey, and help them be able to listen as they fly to locate and then track their prey.

In the stories we hear today about both Elijah and Jesus, silence plays an often overlooked role. In our story form the first Book of Kings, Elijah is in hiding in the desert, and feeling like God is not doing enough for him. He has obeyed God zealously, as he notes, and it has come at great cost to him. He lived when Ahab was king, a very weak king he was, childish and not too bright. Ahab foreign-born queen, Jezebel, was the real power behind the throne, and she encouraged the worship of Baal, a local storm god. At God’s command, Elijah had engaged in a spiritual contest with all of Jezebel’s Baal prophets. When they could not entice their God to outdo Elijah’s God, Elijah had not only triumphed, but had slaughtered them all. This caused Jezebel to demand Elijah’s head, and off into the wilderness he fled. In anger, he lay down under a shrub and demanded that God take his life.

In response, God led him up to Mount Horeb, we are told, and actually goes before Elijah. What we are NOT told is that Horeb is also known as Mount Sinai. This might help us make more sense of this story, especially compared with what we heard last week. Elijah kills agents of the corrupt Kingdom, flees into the wilderness, and then has an encounter with God. Does that sound like any other prophet we have ever heard of in the Hebrew scriptures? Try this: Moses, though raised in a position of privilege as the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, strikes down and overseer who is beating an Israelite, and then flees into the wilderness, where he encounters God in a burning bush. After freeing the Israelites from slavery, Moses climbs up the same mountain Elijah is on and converses with God in such a transformative way that his skin glowed, as we heard last week. In our story we hear today, we are meant to hear echoes of the relationship that God had with Moses. Undoubtedly, Elijah is meant to make that connection as well.

When things get rough for Elijah, he loses his faith in both God and himself. He loses faith in God because he expects God to be a thunderous, storming, smiting kind of God-- the kind of God that Baal was. Elijah doesn't want the God that we heard about being described in Psalm 85. Instead he wants the God who has described in Psalm 77, which describes God this way.

16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. 18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.

But God is greater than a puny storm god. God therefore takes Elijah up on one of the most significant mountains in Israel's history, and actually reveals God's self to him.

So is God in a mighty wind? No.

In an earthquake? No. Once again, puny Baal-like parlor tricks.

God is not even in a fire, not this time.

Instead, God is in what is described in this translation as “a sound of sheer silence.” Other translations describe it as “a small still voice.”

And yet Elijah is not impressed. After having the very presence and glory of God pass him by, when again he is asked why he is there, he simply repeats his complaint about God, implying that God is not supporting him enough.

In our gospel story, Jesus shows us the importance of silence and soft voices in communicating with God. After a day in which he's fed a multitude and healed countless others, all Jesus wants is a little bit of peace and quiet so that he can pray to God. And the only way he can get it is by forcing the disciples into a boat and sending them out on the waves. And in the midst of his quiet prayer time, he becomes aware that the disciples’ boat is in the midst of a storm, and so stops what he is doing and goes out on the waves to save them.

In this description of Jesus walking on the waves, we once again are reminded of those same lines from Psalm 77, this time being enacted by Jesus as the Son of God: “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” Jesus is here revealing himself as more than just a prophet. Unlike Elijah, the disciples are incredibly impressed-- so impressed in fact that you could call it terrified. They call out to him in the midst of the storm and even though he answers still can't believe what they are seeing understandably enough. Then Peter-- impetuous, leap before you look Peter, asks his teacher to allow him to walk on the water too, as proof that it's really Jesus. And so Peter is invited to step out into the waves, walking in the footsteps of the almighty, only to lose faith even quicker than Elijah and begin to sink. Jesus comes to the rescue, returned him to the boat, and stills the storm--the storm that is a symbol, as it often is, for a lack of faith in God., Just as it was a symbol of the worship of Baal in the time of Elijah.

As I think about the challenges facing the capital C church in these times, I wonder if the lectionary isn't trying to lead us into a place where once again we are being challenged to focus our imaginations and our attention so that we may see the presence of God all around us, and be encouraged. We are told that Christianity is in the midst of a storm of disbelief and irrelevance, Especially in the incredibly loud and busy world in which we live, a world where the quiet that allows us to see the wonders all around is deliberately almost impossible to come by.

St. Martin’s continues to struggle against a storm of financial challenges caused by lack of revenue, despite all the wonderful ministries and faithfulness of so many of her people--a problem that has existed for decades but is reaching crisis proportions now. And this couldn't be at a worse time, but also is somewhat unbelievable-- this is a parish that when I arrived here five years ago supposedly only had three years left to exist--and then COVID happened and yet we survived that and even in many ways flourished, even as we experienced terrible losses, including of beloved members of long standing. They loved this parish-- and entrusted it into our care.

Yet there seems to be this constantly swirling storm that assails our ears and our hearts and fails to believe that there is enough-- even more than enough-- to be able to place this parish on a sound financial footing so that we can concentrate on the really important things: seeing, and hearing, and proclaiming the generous and life giving presence of God in our lives and in the world around us. Even further, we are actually called to then embody that belief so that others may see it as well. Like Elijah, rather than believe that we already have the resources to succeed, we are tempted to act like Elijah and crawl under a bush and ask to die. God plays in 10,000 places all around us, and reveals the glory of God's love to us in every moment--if only we quiet the incessant grumbling of our expectations that God do our fighting for us. What if we decided to stop drowning out God’s compassionate love for us, reinforcing our own fears, and instead expect to see God even in the quiet little miracles that surround us every day—and even empower us to be miracles ourselves, as this parish church IS already to so many people?

As scripture repeatedly reminds us, and psychology affirms, our expectations have enormous influence on our ability to discern and experience the presence and activity of God and the world around us. If we expect to see God in the storm, that's the only place we will see god. But if we expect to see God all around, we will have the faith and the courage to do what we need to do to continue in the ministry God has blessed us with.

I wonder if each and everyone of us made an effort to mindfully seek the presence of God in silence for even 15 minutes of a day and silence so that we could hear that small still voice of God in every heart beat how that would change us, both as individuals and as a parish.

One of the gifts of my classes this June at Sewanee was an assignment to spend 30 minutes each day (at least five of the seven days of the week) in unstructured prayer: to simply sit and open my heart and spirit to God. Because my accommodations were in a busy apartment building, I decided to find quiet places around campus, often near water or an overlook. Sometimes I prayed in the morning, some days it was so busy I could only pray at night.

I want to invite you into considering joining me and seeking out the small still voice of God both in our common lives and in our lives as individuals, each and every day.

Be still, and know that God is God.

Be still, and know that God is there in quiet and in stillness.

Be still and look for God's hand at work in our lives-- not in the earthquake, or the wind, or the fire, but in the quiet love and tenderness that surrounds us and upholds us always.

May we seek out the small still voice within the sound of God's loving, precious silence, and then go into the world, charged to truly testify to the amazing presence of God’s love that will be revealed.


--The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire

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