Sunday, August 7, 2011

Heavy Silence

Oregon State University
Sermon, Sunday, August 7, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Disclaimer: I have been struggling with the 1Kings text the last couple of days, trying to make sense of the violence found there. As usual I am disturbed by the violence, and I did not know what to do with it in my sermon for church this morning. So I left it out. As I've sat longer with the text this afternoon, editing for the blog, I had further thoughts and have added them to the sermon. This isn't what I preached this morning, but it's what I would preach this afternoon. 

Also, to really understand what was going on with Elijah, read more of 1Kings than the lectionary suggests: at least chapters 18 and 19. To understand my discomfort with the violence, perhaps read of Jezebel's violent end, found in 1Kings 21:20-24 and 2Kings 9:30-37

These are hard texts. 


A day of silence 
Can be a pilgrimage in itself. 

A Day of Silence 
Can help you listen 
To the Soul play 
Its marvelous lute and drum. 

Is not most talking 
A crazed defense of a crumbling fort? 
I thought we came here 
To surrender to Silence, 
To yield to Light and Happiness, 
To Dance within 
In celebration of Love's Victory! 

~I Heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafiz 
by Daniel Ladinsky. Mobius Press, Oakland, CA, pp. 129. 

Perhaps you recognize days that go like this: 

A month ago, in the height of summer, I got up early out of bed. I had some work to do before going to my French class, some writing and some studying. A few dishes leftover from the night before. The cats were hungry. I was hungry, and in need of coffee. By then it was 8 and time to wake the children, who would sleep all day if I let them. I gave them breakfast and growled like mama bear until they got dressed. I carried their shoes to the car and dropped them off at a friend’s. By now I needed more coffee, and I made my way to class, where I had to park quite some distance away to find the 40 cent per hour parking meters (instead of $1.25). Walking 10 minutes to class, w/my French dictionary in my backpack, I was a bit out of breath as I sneaked in the door and took the last available seat just as the professor started speaking. She smiled at me—she has kids too. 

We studied together for two and a half hours. At the break I checked my phone and returned messages. And had some more coffee. Lunchtime now, I rushed off to pick up the children. We took the afternoon and found a wooden castle playground in a township somewhere north. The boys buzzed around for a half hour before dying of boredom, and we headed off to find some place to get a soda. We landed at an Applebee’s. The little guy ordered a strawberry lemonade. Oldest tried to order a margarita. The little guy didn’t like the strawberry lemonade, so oldest got two lemonades. The waiter kindly brought a regular lemonade. Oldest asked why he couldn’t order a margarita. The waiter side eyed me. 

I dropped the boys with their father for the night and went to a favorite basement bar. Happy hour was done, so the food was ridiculously priced, but they extended happy hour prices on drinks so the wine was cheap. I sat there for four hours and translated French, getting ready for our final exam in a few days. All around me the noise of people buzzed, drowning out the constant scatter of my thoughts. Paradoxically, in that place full of people and noise and dim lights, I was able to focus intently on my translation. Except when strangers tapped me on the shoulder and asked how it was possible for me to study in that atmosphere. 

Finished for the night, I packed up my things and wandered back home. The cats were hungry, and so was I. There were dishes left from the morning. The laundry needed to be moved so it wouldn’t mildew. I had more writing to do, but I was too tired by now. It had been an 18 hour day already. I curled up in bed, my mind still whirring about. The night was cool, so the air conditioning was off for once, no fan was needed. And it hit me; the silence. 

The silence of my home weighed heavy on my body. 

It is in these moments of absolute silence that we are most able to hear the wisdom of our bodies, the long suppressed thoughts, words perhaps from God. 

Elijah, a prophet of YHWH had had a busy time of it lately. Sent by God to deal with Ahab, a king of Israel fallen away from the Lord, Elijah dutifully carried out the Lord’s commands. As he approached the king, Ahab called out “Is it you, troubler of Israel?” Full of righteousness, Elijah poured out scathing condemnation and rounded up the false prophets of Baal (who had been doing the bidding of Jezebel, wife of Ahab). After besting them in contests of power, Elijah had the false prophets killed, thus infuriating Jezebel, who set her mind on killing Elijah: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them (the slain prophets of Baal) by this time tomorrow.” Elijah made tracks for the hills and disappeared, knowing that Jezebel’s words were no idle threat. Terrified and tired, Elijah laid down under a tree and asked the Lord to let him die. As he lay sleeping, an angel woke him and offered food and drink. 

After resting and eating his fill, Elijah traveled forty days and nights to Mount Horeb, where he found a cave in which to seek the Lord. “Why are you here?” asked the Lord. And Elijah told the story of how he came to be the sole remaining prophet of YHWH. The Lord told Elijah he would pass by, so Elijah left the cave to meet the Lord. First he saw and heard a great wind—so great that it cracked open rocks. Then an earthquake. Then a fire. The Lord was not in any of those things. The Lord was to be found in the silence after the turmoil, in the heavy silence of nothingness when all is still. 

What are we to make of this? And what on earth are we to make of the violence in this story? An ocean away across many centuries, the context of this story makes little sense in suburban New Jersey. If one of you tells me that in the stillness of the night God told you to slaughter those who worship another God, I will call the police. What can we learn from the horror of slaughtering one another in the name of any God? How do we understand Elijah, driven to desire death after ordering the death of 400 prophets of Baal? Nowhere in the text does YHWH order Elijah to kill the prophets of Baal, but after this time of silence at the cave, the Lord sends Elijah back on a mission to appoint new leaders who will finish killing off the rest of the worshipers of Baal. This passage is disturbing in its mixture of horror and beauty—the horror of killing the Other mixed with the beauty of finding God in silence. 

There is warning here, I think. What do we do when we pray in silence and hear back violent answers? How do we know it is God’s voice we are hearing? Is there ever a time when violence is justified? How do we live in peace with those of other faiths (or no faith)? What analogies can be drawn between ancient Israel’s kings and prophets and our own political and religious situation today? These old passages require silence, questions, humility, nuance. I wonder a little if Elijah wasn’t quiet long enough. After the 40 days of travel, a great wind, and earthquake, a fire, if he had leaned deeper and longer into the silence would he have found more answers? If he had let the horror of killing 400 people sink into his body, could he have gone on to kill more? I wonder (and surely this is blasphemy) if perhaps the Lord needed another few moments of silence. 

Elijah told all that had happened with Jezebel and YHWH responded with “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” The fury, the jealousy, the hatred—might that have abated if Elijah and the Lord had sat a while longer with it? Was there no other way, I wonder? 

Perhaps, perhaps not. It is probably a useless exercise to second guess the prophets or YHWH’s intentions. We fight enough of our own wars, both official and unofficial to be sure. Who started what? Who did what to whom? How are we to live in a time and in places where some human life is willfully sacrificed to grant the security of other human life? I don’t have all those answers. But judging from my own life, we do not spend much time in silence contemplating those questions. I wonder what word of God might be spoken into the silence if we stopped to listen longer than the easy answers. I wonder what God’s word to us might be if we weren’t running in fear while we prayed. I wonder what the wisdom of our bodies might teach us if we let our minds hear. I wonder if we let all the thunder and lightning and flash and glitz of our faith pass by and waited for the heavy silence if that might make any difference. And I wonder if sometimes we need to let God finish grieving before we move to act. 

Maybe our hope lies in the words of Psalm 85: 

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, 
for he will speak peace to his people, 
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. 
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, 
that his glory may dwell in our land. 

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; 
righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, 
and righteousness will look down from the sky. 

The Lord will give what is good, 
and our land will yield its increase. 
Righteousness will go before him, 
and will make a path for his steps. 

May we pray this psalm for ourselves and for our enemies as well. May we feel in the silence the damage done in the busyness of our lives, our carelessness, our quick actions. May we lean into the silence long enough to grieve pain and injustice and to witness the kiss of righteousness and peace.