Sermon for Sunday next before Lent High Mass Sunday 11 February 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Kings 19.1-16; 2 Peter 1.16-21
“This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”
Words we heard in today’s Gospel at Mass (Mark 9.2-9). They were addressed to Peter, James and John, the disciples who had witnessed the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
Tonight we have heard of part of the story of Elijah, who with Moses was present on the holy mountain with Jesus as he was transfigured. On the run from the vengeance of Queen Jezebel, he experiences the presence of God – not in the spectacular events of wind, fore and earthquake – but in the “sound of sheer silence,” – the “still, small voice of calm,” of the old American Quaker hymn.
Listening and silence are bound up with each other. If we cannot be silent, then we will not be able to hear what is being said to us – whether by God or by our fellow human beings.
Yet we live in a world of noise. There is the roar of traffic in our streets and of aircraft in our skies; the cacophony of announcements and music, of mobile phone conversations – even in the quiet coaches on trains.
And some of this is self-inflicted or self-generated. It seems that we cannot bear silence but must surround ourselves with noise; as if to insulate ourselves against a silence which frightens us by turning on television or radio or music.
I do not often watch TV soaps, but when I do I am struck by how much the characters shout and scream abuse and accusation at each other. Life is portrayed as a state of constant low-intensity warfare. If this remained on TV it might not matter, but this seething anger and lack of restraint seems to percolate into public discourse – so that in the street I often hear people raging into their mobile phones; or yelling at their children; or abusing shop assistants or bus drivers or waiters. It is not so much art imitating life as life imitating art.
While I have been here, I have helped with chaplaincy at two church primary schools. Years ago, at one of them, I was chatting to a young student teacher in the staff room. She commented on how quiet and well-behaved to children were. I asked if she had noticed that it was because the staff were calm and collected. They did not shout, so neither did the children. These children were not cowed or repressed – but they were learning the ways of civil and sociable discourse; they were learning to listen as well as to talk.
Noise has invaded the church, too. There are very few parishes now in which silence is kept before services so that people can prepare. Instead there is often a constant hubbub of chatter as people greet and gossip. Some of my fellow clergy, who ought to know better, seem incapable of being quiet. How often I have heard the words, “Let us pray in silence,” only for them to be followed in an instant, without time to even drawn breath, by “Almighty God…..”
I hope that you will have noticed that is not the case here. Priests and people both, we work hard at maintaining silence before services. Each weekday morning, a few of us spend half an hour in silent meditation before Morning Prayer. In the vestry before services, a quiet descends as priests and servers, having prepared everything else, prepare themselves by keeping silence. That is something I would commend to all of us who have jobs we do in church. We must not let them become a means of keeping God at a safe distance. Those of us who work in church need to pray at least as much as others, not less.
We have periods of silence at significant points in our worship:
- before we confess our sins at Mass
- before the Collect of the day
- after readings and sermon
- after Communion and during the prayers at Benediction.
Our observance of silence is a gift to each other; an expression of our mutual concern for the spiritual well-being of our brothers and sisters. This concern extends to beyond the bounds of our regular congregation to embrace those who just pop in to say a prayer and light a candle or to sit in silence for a period long or short.
Our communal prayer, reciting prayers and psalms together, can teach us the art of listening to others. It we cannot hear the voices of others, it is probably because our own is too loud.
People often speak to me about the problem of distraction in worship and prayer. I ask them, as I ask myself, about their preparation for prayer; “pre-prayer” we might call it. We need a period in which to still ourselves, to calm our minds, to relax our bodies – not the calm and relaxation of sleep but of attention. That’s why arriving at church breathless at the last minute is not a good idea; even if sometimes it is unavoidable. That’s why rushing into our private prayers can leave us feeling distracted and frustrated.
Next Sunday, we will hear in the Gospel of Jesus’ time in the wilderness after his baptism, after hearing God speak to him, and before he begins his ministry. The wilderness, the desert, is a place of silence. It was a place of encounter with God. It was in their desert wanderings that the Israelites were tested and formed as God’s people. It was in the wilderness that Jesus faced the temptations of his own unique calling and in the gospels we see him repeatedly seeking that silence in the midst of his ministry.
This place of silence and encounter would be sought out by St. Antony and the desert fathers who were the first hermits and monks. Ever since religious communities as diverse as Carmelites and Trappists and the Society of Friends have sought this silence – either in remote places, hermitages or monastic enclosures or in their gatherings for worship. People whose lives are set in the world have often been drawn to such places and communities in search of that silence.
The writings of Christian masters of prayer from those Desert Fathers onward speak of the confrontation with our demons which takes place in the wilderness of silence. That can be a frightening experience, which may explain why we so often flee silence and prefer to insulate ourselves with noise, so that we do not have to listen to the reality of ourselves.
It is in the desert of silence, too that we are able to hear God speaking to us. That also may be what we are afraid of.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
What are we doing here?
What am I doing here?
Silence for Christians is not just a form of self-improvement or stress management, a technique to be learned from a self-help book to help us cope with life. We practice it individually and corporately so that we can hear what God is saying to us as both individuals and as communities. That God is one who calls and sends. Elijah is depressed, fearful, suicidal. He has had more than enough, he thinks, of being God’s prophet, God’s voice in the world. It’s all too much: “He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough, now Lord, take away my life.”
While our situation is hardly as dramatic as that of Elijah, there is much in the state of the Church to give us cause for gloom. There is so much noise of conflict, so many voices of despair; to make us wonder why we carry on. And we do need to talk honestly and openly about these things.
But we also need to be silent so that we can hear what God is saying to us: So that, as the 2nd Letter of Peter says, we may “have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and he morning star rises in your hearts.”
However much we may share Elijah’s despondency, one thing we can take away from tonight is that just as God was not finished with Elijah, he is not finished with us. And the blessing that countless Christians have found is that as we lie down under the broom tree in our wilderness, an angel nudges us awake and says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too long for you.”
We too can find that it is true; that just as the angels came and ministered to Jesus after his temptation in the wilderness, so he sends his messengers to feed us at the table of word and sacrament, to strengthen us for the next stage of our journey of faithful obedience to God’s call.