We have a saying in our house, “Silence is golden, except when coming from children. Then you better go check to see what’s broken.” Kathleen and I know that if the parsonage gets quiet all of sudden then that’s a pretty good indicator something is being drawn on, cut up, ripped, destroyed, or being eaten that isn’t supposed to be. I don't know about you, but I need the noise to feel at home as much as I need the silence to take me away.
The author of Ecclesiastes notes, there is “a time to keep silence and a time to speak" Jesus practiced both sides of this coin very well. He often used silence as a means of getting closer to God. Having spoken to the multitudes, Jesus would abandon the crowded streets and wander in the wilderness, so he could hear that “still small voice” of God speaking to him. Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it this way, "Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God." We all need some peace and quiet to hear what God is whispering to us and to receive guidance, peace, and of course divine serenity.
There is a time for silence, but there is also a time to speak.
For example, when we speak to God in prayer. Jesus said "Ask God for anything you want in my name, and it will be given to you." Of course in social settings we use words to ask for things, or to express an opinion, or to simply take part in a conversation. Words also allow us to offer sympathy to someone in need. We use them to let people know we care. Of course there are times when our opinion isn’t needed. Or when a person’s pain is so great, that a quiet hug is all that needs to be said.
There are also times when we talk too much. And times when we don’t say enough. In the recent political debates, we see how one person's opinions can dominate a conversation keeping others from fully participating. And with all their talking, how many of these presidential hopefuls spoke out against the injustice of global poverty and malnutrition? Yes, Mr. Trump, “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” A time to hear God whispering to us. And a time to take what God says, and put it into action.
I’d like to recall a story of a man who joins a monastery. Although he takes a vow of silence, he is permitted to say two words every seven years. After the first seven years have passed, the elders bring him in and ask him for his two words. "Cold floors," he says. The elders nod and send him away.
After seven more years, they bring him in and ask for his two words. "Lousy food," he mumbles. Again, the elders nod and send him away.
Another seven years pass and the elders bring him in and once more they ask him for his two words. "I quit," he declares. "We're not surprised," says one of the elders, "you've done nothing but complain since you got here."
For many of us, our silence, as well as our words, can be confusing, and often misconstrued. After 16 years of marriage I have come to learn that when my wife is silent, she’s either mad at me for something I said or did, or she’s busy thinking why on earth I didn’t do or say something in the first place. I have also learned to employ my right to remain silent.
In Mark’s gospel this morning, we read two examples of Jesus interacting with his disciples, and in both, the 12 are rendered mute. The first is when Jesus proclaims his death and resurrection, and the second is when he asks them a direct question. And this is typical, isn’t it? We humans often remain silent when we do not understand something or when we don’t want to admit something. It’s like we are embarrassed to show others that we are not the know-it-all’s we believe ourselves to be, or we’re too ashamed to admit the things we actually know. Dolly Parton once admitted, “I am not offended by dumb blonde jokes at all because I know I am not dumb. And I also know that I am not a blonde.”
This is the second time in Mark, Jesus reveals to the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. And what do they do? They zip their mouth shut. Either they don’t understand what he is saying, or they simply didn’t want to believe what they’re hearing. Last time Jesus spoke of his betrayal, Peter was quick to respond. And Jesus was quick to shut him down. “Get behind me Satan,” he said, “You of little faith.”
Is this the reason why the disciples are afraid to speak up? Perhaps they don’t want their faith measured. Or maybe they know that once they start asking questions, they are committed to the conversation. Asking questions makes us vulnerable because we cannot predict how the other person answer or react. Once we hear the truth, it’s hard to escape it. Yet it’s easy to shut down and become silent. Bury our head in the sand…and hope this too shall pass.
At some point we all will have a tough conversation with God. Therefore we must be “brave enough to start a conversation that matters,” as Margaret Wheatley writes. God doesn’t call us to be silent. Instead God calls us into a vulnerable and intimate relationship where our words have great meaning. God speaks to us, not just so we will know the truth but so we can proclaim it...with or without using words. For “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak” in every exchange we have with others.
The second time the disciples are silent comes on the heels of a long, tiring journey. The 12 have spent much of the walk arguing over who was the greatest among them, believing they had the power to increase their own status and prestige. When Jesus asks, “What are you guys arguing about?" I imagine some of them looked down at their sandals, while the others looked at an invisible watch; anything to avoid answering the question.
How different are we? If Jesus were to step into your conversation and asked you point blank what you are talking about, would your answer honor God? Would your actions speak volumes about your faith? Could you stand before Jesus and tell him how you’ve cared for the widows and looked after the orphans, or how you fed the hungry, cared for the poor, visited the sick and imprisoned? in other words, do our actions reflect what our mouth proclaims? And will our answers live up to his expectations? This is a question the church must always ask itself.
It’s clear that Jesus sees through the disciples’ silence. And he can see through us. We all want to look good in public, to have power and prestige. But let us not forget God knows our private side as well. Perhaps more than we know ourselves. I believe what Jesus tells the 12 speaks clearly and directly to us as well. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.”
To illustrates his point he takes a child into his arms and declares that in welcoming the weak and the helpless the disciples will be helping him. In this lesson we learn our status among God will be measured by the way we faithfully serve God’s love, liberating the world through our inclusion and participation in with the people around us. Like entering into a conversation with God, our caring for the vulnerable makes us vulnerable. It’s in our vulnerability that we rely on God’s words and promises, and not our own.
Yes, “There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak.” Both sides of this coin challenge us to put our faith on the line with what God has called us all to do; that is to say...to enter into relationships and conversations we might not want to have; to make ourselves vulnerable, and open to embarrassment out of our love for God.
We can bring food to the Food Pantry, but to hand feed a person who cannot feed themselves is truly showing God's love. We can enter into conversations where people are proudly professing their disbelief in God, but it takes real faith to proclaim what you believe in a way that shows God's love is real and very present in the conversation. God wants us to be the voice of the voiceless and to live the living words of God through the grace and love that has been given to us.
We can say we want to be like Jesus, to follow in his footsteps and to always do the right thing...or we can begin the long, hard journey ourselves...and follow Christ to the cross of salvation. We can say all we want too, but God doesn’t want excuses any more than He wants our silence. God wants us to be actively living out our faith at work, on vacation, in our homes, in school and on our streets. In other words, God wants our actions to speak louder than our words.
This doesn't mean God wants us to be silent either. God wants us to proclaim the Good News. Love may not always need words to express how we feel. But love always needs you. It needs me. It needs us. It needs our faith to be committed to speaking God's love...in all that we do. Enough said.
Bible (NRSV) Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-18 Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Lewis, Karoline M. "Living by the Word: Reflections on the lectionary." Christian Century, September 16, 2015: 18.