Stories of Sound and Silence
2010-06-17 by Jeffrey Nelson

While I spend a day or more just with the text, I begin jotting down any potential tie-in that pops into my mind.  It doesn't matter to me how nominal it may be related - I consider it worthwhile.  This may or may not be old hat for my readers, so I'll just list the things that came to mind as I pondered Elijah's experience of God on Mt. Horeb.

~A well-known church landmark in southern Ohio--a 6-story tall statue of Jesus--was struck by lightning and burned to the ground on Monday evening.  My in-laws live near Cincinnati, so this was a common feature of our trips down there.  To me the statue was a source of amusement, but also an example of wasted resources and Christian kitsch.  Both its existence and destruction were and are theologically provocative.  What lesson could be learned as the smoldering embers cool?

~The "What Is That?" video shown on Monday evening of this year's Festival of Homiletics (linking isn't working for me, so it can be found here:  The son rants about his father's annoying behavior, and finds greater meaning after he quiets down.

~In the memoir The Day the Voices Stopped, Ken Steele reflects on his battle with schizophrenia, including the morning he woke up and could no longer hear the voices.  This brings about a new reality for him; new questions about his existence.

~A while back, a friend shared with me that he'd elected to go to a place of worship radically different from the churches he's known.  Part of his reasoning was that he'd become tired of "the sound of church."  What might be included in this sound, and what sounds might people be seeking apart from it?

~Barbara Brown Taylor coins the phrase "sabbath sickness" in her book Leaving Church.  This term connotes the restlessness that one may begin feeling after even an hour or two of silence and free time.  In the silence, thoughts and feelings may creep up that we don't expect or don't want to deal with.  Do we sometimes avoid the silence for that reason?

All this and more have been with me this week as I consider Elijah's encountering God during or after the hushed sound. 

A Hushed Sound
2010-06-15 by Jeffrey Nelson

There are multiple places in 1 Kings 19 that recall other stories in the Old Testament.  The actions of Elijah recall Moses in particular, and that is no doubt deliberate.  After fleeing Jezebel, he sits in the wilderness and tells God, "I am no better than my ancestors."  The ancestors mentioned don't seem very specific until he continues his journey in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, recalling the Israelites' 40-year sojourn in similar conditions.

Elijah rests at Mt. Horeb, which is also known as Mt. Sinai, the place where Moses received the law from God.  Not only that, but Elijah rests in a cave and is soon told that God is about to pass by.  This recalls Exodus 33:17-23, where Moses is situated in a cleft and God passes by, though he is kept from seeing God's face.  Perhaps this is even the same cleft.  One may be invited to think that, based on all the other allusions to that earlier prophet.

The climactic moment then occurs.  There comes a violent wind that breaks and shatters, but that isn't God passing by.  Then comes an earthquake, but that isn't God passing by either.  Then comes a fire, but again that isn't God passing by.  Finally, there comes "a sound of sheer silence" (NRSV).  This gets Elijah's attention, and he stands at the entrance of the cave to witness God passing by.

The Hebrew word that is rendered "sound of sheer silence" in the NRSV is suggested to be several things.  The popular rendering is "a still small voice" (KJV).  Other possibilities are "a thin whisper," "a sound of fine silence," or "a hushed sound."  The phrase one selects will vary in suggesting just how much or how little sound there actually is in this moment.

Determining how exactly that term is translated may be an exercise in missing the forest for the trees.  The popular interpretation of this text has to do with centering oneself, blocking out the noise, in order to hear God in the silence.  Pick your favorite hobbyhorse here: encouraging more spiritual discipline, railing against how busy the typical person's schedule is, lamenting how increasingly noisy our world is thanks to new forms of technology or due to an increased inability for us to truly hear one another's experience.  There is nothing inherently wrong with these messages, and they're all worthwhile.

However, Elijah doesn't need to block out any noise.  The hushed sound comes after the noise, not during it.  There come three dramatic, violent, loud events in a row, but God is not in any of them.  After they all abate, one may imagine that relieved tension that hangs in the air after such a happening, where one's ears are still ringing and one's thoughts are suddenly, unexpectedly loud in one's mind.  When there is noise like that of the wind, earthquake and fire and then nothing, it is noticeable.  It can't not be noticed.  And that's what draws Elijah to the entrance of the cave to experience God's presence.

Whether God is in the silence or whether the silence calls Elijah's attention to God's presence may be another forest/trees issue.  However, after he hears the silence, he hears God's voice, and he is instructed to get back to work.  Now is not the time to be huddling in caves.  His time in the wilderness is cut short, and he is called to continue being the prophet that he was called to be.  His time of seeking God's presence in mighty, obvious theophonic ways is disappointed by a hushed sound followed by a renewed call to prophesy and to call others.

Guest Blogger 6/14 - 6/20
2010-06-14 by Jeffrey Nelson

Greetings, all.  I'm Jeff Nelson, and I will be your guest blogger this week.  I serve Emanuel United Church of Christ in Doylestown, Ohio, and have done so for 5 1/2 years now.  I recently returned from a 5-week sabbatical that included my first trip to the Festival of Homiletics, and it was so enriching that I can't imagine not attending in upcoming years.

But to the task at hand.  My original plan was to work with the Luke text, in which Jesus drives the demon "Legion" into a herd of swine and deals with the fallout from that episode.  This is the only time that a demon gives its name in the Gospels, and I was going to explore the meaning of that.  "Legion" wouldn't have been lost on 1 Century hearers due to the reference to a grouping of Roman soldiers.  Also, naming the demon gives Jesus power over it.  What demons in our own lives--addiction, greed, workaholism, etc.--could we name in order to finally overpower them?

Late last week, I changed my mind and decided that I'd focus on 1 Kings 19 instead.  Elijah has angered corrupt authority and is on the run.  He settles in a cave for shelter, and God soon passes by: not in the earthquake, not in the wind, not in the fire, but in the "sheer silence" (NRSV).  Other translations say "still small voice," and there's an entire meme devoted to blocking out the noise to listen to God's "still small voice."  

I wonder if there's more to this episode than learning to block out the noise.  Elijah doesn't center himself in that way in order to perceive God.  Instead, one noise after another (and these are dramatic noises!) follows until there is sheer silence, and that is when God passes by.

Is this story an invitation to spiritual practice or to moments with less busyness so that we can hear God?  Or does the sheer silence signify something else?

Unsure Why, But Thankful Nonetheless
2010-06-13 by David von Schlichten

I'll bet at least ten people told me they appreciated the sermon this morning, which I posted at the sermon feedback cafe. I almost never receive that much of a response.

Based on Psalm 32, the sermon was on repentance. Essentially, I said that God is not a wrathful ogre hungry to condemn us to hell but that God is eager to forgive us. God calls us to forgiveness, which then leads to liberation. Not repenting, by contrast, can lead to guilt and other burdens.

The key sentence of the sermon was: "Repentance leads to release." Throughout the sermon, I repeated this sentence with accompanying gestures.

Grateful for the hearing-healing, I am

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Psalm 32 and Sin-Pain
2010-06-11 by David von Schlichten

This psalm speaks of the suffering of the person who will not confess tron ("tron" means "his or her") sins. The psalm suggests that the suffering is the result of God's punishment or pressure, but, in light of the rest of the Bible, especially the gospels, this understanding no longer endures scrutiny.

Nevertheless, it is true that resisting confession can be painful. This Sunday, I may preach on the psalm and consider how rejecting the confession/absolution process can be deleterious for the believer and how embracing the process is liberating and rejuvenating, thanks be to God.

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