Sermon, Feb. 11

Let us pray in silence.

Amen.

The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you? And Elisha said, Yes, I know; keep silent.

Keep silent.  Another translation says: Hush you.

Why does Elisha hush the other prophets? It seems that Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of witnessing his departure, but Elisha is not leaving his side. He hushes the other prophets because they threaten the careful loving lie that Elijah and Elisha are telling each other, on this fateful day: that Elijah is just going on a little errand to Jericho, and Elisha is just coming along for company.

But Elisha also hushes the other prophets because even though they see the truth of the situation, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t understand the weight of the moment. They think they understand; Elijah is famous, one of the greatest prophets of Israel, who challenged kings in the name of God. His loss is significant for everyone. But it’s especially significant for Elisha, for whom Elijah is more than a prophet; for whom he is master, friend, and father figure. With their questions, the prophets of Jericho and Bethel are intruding on heartbreaking and holy ground. They are like every bystander a step or two outside the situation, who only thinks they’re being helpful. I KNOW, says Elisha. Keep silent. Hush you.

The Gospel of the day, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop, contains an admonition to silence too: “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

This call to silence is in keeping with a pattern in the gospel of Mark, which scholars call the Messianic Secret. Jesus often told followers, strangers, even demons, not to talk about him, in all the Gospels but especially in Mark. There are many reasons he might have done so. To avoid being mobbed by people seeking his help. To evade his enemies long enough to complete his work. To let the full meaning of his life and teachings emerge after his death and resurrection, to be understood in light of those events.

But there’s an element of “Hush you!” in today’s Gospel, too. Peter, James and John were confronted with an overwhelming holy vision: their friend and master, transfigured, transformed, ablaze with holy light, conversing with Moses and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophets. And they were terrified, and they did not know what to say.  They do understand the weight of the moment – and it confounds them. The wise person might, therefore, keep silent. But Peter always has an idea or a plan or a question. He comes up with this idea about building three little houses. It’s so off the mark that Yahweh God, the Father, the Source, speaks into the moment to say: THIS IS MY BELOVED SON; LISTEN TO HIM. Hush you.

I recognize myself in Peter, here and elsewhere. My impulse is always to start figuring out how to wrap words and ideas around something. I come by it honestly – my grandmothers both taught writing. My grandfathers were a professor and a preacher. My father is a professor, my mother is a poet and storyteller. I come from word people. I like words. Most of the time, I know what to do with them. My words have served me well, over the years.

But sometimes – I know – sometimes we need to stop talking. Sometimes I need to stop talking.

I’ve learned, over the years, that sometimes silence, presence, simply receiving the moment, is the better path. In silence I can listen and notice. Maybe there’s something I need to hear or receive. But silence is an end in itself, too. It doesn’t always have to a message. Sometimes there’s grace in just ….

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Awesome, definition: In popular use: Extremely good or excellent. A more formal definition: Extremely impressive or daunting. Inspiring admiration or apprehension. Origin: Awe plus Some. Meaning, Causing one to be filled with awe.

Awful, definition: Disgusting, horrible, terrible, nasty, vile, repugnant, dreadful. Origin: Awe plus Full. Meaning, Causing one to be filled with awe.

Some things are so big and strange that they break language.

Ineffable, definition:  That which cannot be spoken or captured in words or, That which must not be spoken or captured in words. The unnameable, the unspeakable. That which breaks language, or transcends it, or escapes it.

The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence. There are things words can’t do.

For God alone my soul in silence waits. (Psalm 62)

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;  a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.  (Ecclesiastes 3)

Now there was a great wind, but GOD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but GOD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but GOD was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19)

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Revelation 8)

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand. Now the silence, now the peace, now the empty hands uplifted. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. O hush your noise and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing!

The words of the prophets are whispered in the sounds of silence. Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm.

Dave Walker is an English church cartoonist.  His cartoons often explain aspects of church life and worship. My all-time favorite is a cartoon called The Liturgical Pause. You can read it here.

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Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46, verse 10.

I dug into that Hebrew verb, Be still. Raphah. It can mean a lot of things. Relax. Become helpless. Collapse. Drop down. Go limp. Be idle or lazy.  Put something off. Fail. Let it go.

Be still. Hush you.

I read once in some sermon or seasonal reflection that Lent and lento were the same word. Lento is a musical term, from Italian, meaning, Slow. So, Lent is a season for slowing down.

It’s not true. It’s a coincidence. The words have different etymologies, all the way back to Indo-European. Lento comes from a root meaning soft, pliable, flexible. Gracious and pleasant.  Also, Moist. Lent is actually related to Lengthen, and Long. It basically means, Spring – The time when the days are getting longer again. Finally.

And here’s another coincidence: The Lent in siLent is also unrelated.

It’s from an ancient root that means, Still, windless. Quiet. Slow.

Whether there’s a deeply-buried common root back there, or it’s all convergent linguistic evolution, there’s something all these words are clustering around, pointing towards: Long. Slow. Flexible. Gracious.

Still.