“The Sound of Sheer Silence”

Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind

The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-15a • Luke 8:26-39


Photo by Tracey Lind, The Provincelands, December 2, 2021

Let us pray:
Holy One
by the names
we give you,

in the silence
name us,
that we may know

who we are,
hear the truth
you have put into us,
trust the love
you have for us
which you call us to live out
with our sisters and brothers
in your human family. 1

This prayer by the late Ted Loder,
long-time pastor of First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, speaks of the gift of silence.

As Elijah learned,
we are named by God in silence
so that we may know who we are
and what we are called to do.

For most of us, daily life is busy –
filled with people, places, meetings, errands, and chores.
It also is filled with lots of noise –
traffic, radio, podcasts, social media, television, voice mails, computer games, political punditry,
construction, and conversation, as well as the sounds of nature.

It is hard to find quiet.

Even in the wee hours of the morning,
when nobody is awake,
the ocean roars,
the wind howls,
the leaves rustle, and
the birds sing.

Noise is part of our built environment and our social construct.
It is also part of God’s creation.
We can’t really escape the noise of the world.
But, according to Holy Scripture,
In silence, we actually can hear God.

In the 19th chapter of 1 Kings,
after confronting King Ahab and Queen Jezebel
the prophet Elijah fled to the mountains

for fear of his life.
He “sat down under a solitary broom tree…and
asked that he might die.”

Elijah who was faithful, true and bold
felt utterly finished and defeated.
And so, he pleaded that God would end his misery.

However, God was clearly not finished with Elijah.
After feeding his hunger and quenching his thirst,
an angel of the Lord sent Elijah to the sacred mountain of Horeb.

There, standing out in the open,
Elijah waited for God to “pass by.”
First, he looked for God in a fierce wind,
but God did not pass by in the wind.
Then, he looked for God in a great earthquake,
but God was not in the earthquake.
Then, he looked for God in a fire,
but God was not in the fire.
And then, the sacred text tells us that
Elijah heard God in
the “sound of sheer silence.”

For millennia, prophets, poets, philosophers, and physicists
have considered the concept of silence.

At the age of twenty-one,
Paul Simon composed “The Sound of Silence.”
In an interview with late-night talk show host Johnny Carson,
Simon said that his famous song was about
the inability of people to communicate with each other.

People talking with without speaking
People hearing without listening…
silence [that] like a cancer grows.

Simon’s words remind me of
standing in an airplane terminal with
CNN blasting on huge television screens
and nobody listening.

The sound of silence is also
when our civic, religious, and political leaders
refuse to address systemic injustice, executive misconduct, sexual abuse, gun violence, or
reproductive choice.

But that’s not the sound of “sheer silence” that Elijah experienced.

“Sheer” is an adjective meaning
“nothing other than,” or “unmitigated.”

When referring to a cliff or a wall,
“sheer” means “perpendicular” or “nearly so.”
When describing a fabric, it means “very thin.”

In the 16 th century,
The word “sheer” was used to describe “clear, pure” water.

“Silence” is a noun meaning “the complete absence of sound.”

Thus, “sheer silence” means
the unmitigated, very thin, clear, pure absence of sound.

Is there really such a state as “sheer silence?”

Based on an informal survey of friends and acquaintances, “the sound of sheer silence” can be

Lying in bed in the middle of the night
Sitting in a cathedral during a weekday afternoon
Reclining on the dock of a lake looking up at the stars
Climbing mountains in the Northwest
Standing on the edge of a frozen lake when there is no wind
Sitting at home after kids have gone off to camp or college, or
Pulling in the driveway and turning off the engine

The people I have talked to about this subject agree that silence is:

Something elusive in our busy world,
Something we crave, and yet,
Something from which we flee.

Since researchers estimate that,
the majority of the population are extroverts,
Most of us (myself included)
have a “come close – go away” attitude toward silence.
For some, silence can be frightening.

When we think about going into silence,
we are afraid that we might miss something, or
we are afraid to be alone with our thoughts.
So we have a tendency to avoid silence,
At best, we try to manage it –
like every other aspect of our busy lives.

And yet, when
we’re finally able to settle into the silence,
there’s a profound sense of relief and humility.

Silence actually has the ability to communicate through
disagreement, confusion, chaos and conflict.

Ed Bacon, the retired rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA, speaks of silence as
a “sacred pause.”
He suggests that whenever we’re about to have
a difficult conversation or meeting,
we should center ourselves in silence.

I’ve called for silence in the middle of a heated meeting,
and it’s made a difference in the outcome.

Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if
Congress were to use
what my friend Mark Beckwith calls
“the universal language” of silence
during its debates.

Monastics know a lot more about silence than the rest of us.

They live in the daily rhythm of silence,
often keeping silent from 9 in the evening to 9 in the morning,
and not wasting words during the day.

Most monastics know the truth about silence:
it is both a “killing and life-giving experience.”

It’s in the silence that
the dying to self and rising anew happens.

As the desert fathers and mothers
and monastics and mystics of all faith traditions
down through the centuries have taught,
without facing the silence,
the noise of the world can crowd out the voice of God.

In the silence,
the prophet Elijah had to let go of his ego-directed zealousness,
even on behalf of God.
I imagine it was terrifying all alone on that mountain top experiencing the “sheer silence” of

Matthew Kelty,
a monk who has practiced silence at Gethsemani for 35 years learned that silence forces one to
“the messy side of your life.”

In the silence,
Elijah had to confront
his exhaustion, his frustration and his own mortality.

Thomas Merton wrote that,
“Life is not to be regarded as an uninterrupted flow of words,
which is finally silenced by death.”

Instead, Merton explains that,
life bobs and weaves through periods of silence and necessary expression until the “final
declaration” and entrance into
the “silence of Heaven which resounds with unending praise.”

Merton, a great lover of both people and silence,
maintained that individuals who do not believe in a life after this one will resist silence because
it ultimately confronts death.

In No Man is an Island, he wrote:

The reason for their talk is: death.
Death is the enemy who seems to
confront them at every moment
in the deep darkness and silence of their own being.
So they keep shouting at death.
They confound their lives with noise.
They stun their own ears with meaningless words,
never discovering that their hearts are rooted
in a silence that is not death but life.

Alone, on a mountain, standing in silence,
Elijah had to face the inevitability of his own death,
and in doing so,
he rose to a new life.

Jesus clearly understood the importance of silence:
he sought out silence for his prayer life;
he silenced the crowds; and
he silenced the stormy seas.
In this morning’s gospel lesson,
Jesus silenced the demons,
sending them into the sea.

In the country of Gerasenes,
Jesus silenced the crazy-making legion of noise that kept a decent man naked in chains and
roaming among the dead in the cemetery,
isolated and removed from family, friends and society.

Silence is hard for me to talk about.
I used to feel like a fraud preaching about
the spiritual practice of silence.

As many of you probably know,
I am a major extrovert, and thus, not silent by nature.

When I was in elementary school,
teachers often wrote on my report card:
“Tracey talks too much.”

Silence has been something I’ve always known I needed,
and when in the course of my busy and noisy life,
I didn’t get enough of it,
I got into trouble.
But the gift of silence remained elusive –
something that would find me rather than me finding it.

As I reflect on these two stories from scripture,
and their meaning in my own life
I realize that for me, entering the silence
so that I may find and be found by God
is about removing
the clutter, noise, chains, fetters and fears of my own life.

I’ve learned and forgotten this lesson over and over again.

I recall one particular day off,
when I didn’t have anything to do.
I phoned all my friends and everyone was busy.
Eventually, I gave up and went for a walk in the woods
As I was walking in silence,

I heard a voice say:

Well Tracey, it’s about time you showed up.
Where have you been?
Why has it taken you so long to join me?
I’ve been waiting for you.

In the silence, I realized that I wasn’t alone.
God was there and waiting for my attention.

I would hold onto this sacred learning for a while,
And then it would slip and slide away.

In late 2016,
when I was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Degeneration,
the doctors told me that if my condition
followed its usual trajectory, over time,
I would probably become unable
to speak, write and understand language.

Informing my congregation of the diagnosis,
I joked that, thanks to FTD,
I would finally be able to attend a long, silent retreat.

However, in my own ruminations,
I imagined that I would be imprisoned in a world of silence,
and I didn’t like that thought.
In fact, I was scared to death.

So after retiring from full-time cathedral ministry,
I ran around the world preaching and teaching
until I became utterly exhausted.
Then COVID arrived, and like the rest of the world,
I was grounded and confined to home.

Following weeks of avoiding isolation and loneliness by
watching television,
talking on the phone,
meeting on zoom, and
listening to music and podcasts,
I found myself seduced by silence.

I felt drawn into her presence.
I accepted her invitation and started intentionally
sitting in silence for a period of time every morning.
In doing so,
I began to discover a sense of rest, relief and wonder.
Slowly, my soul was finding its way to a place of peace.
And my brain started to heal –
or at least,
the degeneration seemed to be slowing down and stabilizing.

As the world began to reopen,
I found myself both relieved and reluctant,
filled with bittersweetness for
I now knew that
I need silence, and I have to make the time and space for it.

And so it might be with you.

You who are extroverts might have a hard time quieting
your external conversations.
You who are introverts might have a difficult time quieting
your internal conversation.

The challenge for most of us in this busy and noisy world is
to make room for the silence:

So that we may find God in the silence,
or more importantly,

So that we may be found by God in the silence.
As we enter the summer months,
There will be the temptation to fill our waking hours with
people, activity and noise.

So, let us remember the words of the Taoist

Seek silence
Gladden in silence
Adore silence

For in the silence, if you listen close enough,
you might just hear the voice of God.

1 Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace, 1984