A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 2, 2015
University Baptist Church
It’s always a crap shoot when someone picks a topic from the grab bag. So last week, Steve Lee selected the following topic: “the value/blessing of silence/Sabbath.” Like many of these topics, I could have gone in many directions. Silence is golden, so say the fortune cookies. Except when it’s not. Sometimes silence is toxic. Like when there is a grave injustice. I was reminded of this during yesterday’s Memorial service for Bill Burch. Michael Lubke read from one of his grandfather’s favorite books, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The Cost of Discipleship.” He said that a disciple can have an intellectual assent, but it is hollow if we don’t act on it. Bonhoeffer called the form of religion without the cost and challenge of religion “cheap grace.” Hear one this passage from his book:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Liturgical churches have this prayer that we be forgiven for the deeds we have done and the deeds we have left undone. So, silence in the face of injustice or abuse is sin. And it is not golden. It has lost its shine and it hides the truth. So this kind silence is not a blessing.
That’s one way I could have gone.
But the topic says, the value/blessing of silence. There are people who talk way too much. And when they stop talking, we bless the silence. I am thinking of politicians, well certain politicians. We can say the same of preachers. Jesus even spoke about preachers who heap up empty words that their hearers cannot take. In his Sermon on the Mount he said: (Matthew 6:5ff)
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your God who is in secret; and your God who sees in secret will reward you. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your God knows what you need before you ask it. “Pray then in this way: Our Abba in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…
I could have preached a sermon on this, too, but not today.
The paper said, “The value/blessing of silence/Sabbath”. This leads me to think that the writer was interested in the value of the Sabbath and its sister silence. That’s something I can preach on. “Blessed quietness, holy quietness, what assurance in my soul.”
We had a seminary intern several years ago from the Quaker tradition. She had a steep learning curve in our church, since everything was so programmed and so filled with words. She was used to a prayerful worship service with long stretches of silence interrupted from time to time with words or a song as the spirit moved someone in the congregation. She criticized us for being filled with words and only a few moments for silence here and there, if we have time. Touché.
It was serendipitous that Steve picked this topic knowing I was already going to the North Shore. It’s a decidedly unplugged type of a place, and not simply because we couldn’t get a cell signal in the Temperance River Campground. When the chatter around the campfire died down, we heard the crashing of the waves, the babbling brook, the breeze through the trees, even the rolling thunder. Silence is never completely silent. It just lacks whatever we are accustomed to hear. We then hear with new ears. You don’t need to go up north to hear it. Just step outside and away from the hum of the air conditioner. Enjoy the blessed quietness. To turn off, to wonder, to let our minds wander, to wonder what God wants to reveal to us next. You might hear the sound of the robin, the cardinal, the woodpecker, the marching band at summer camp. You might hear your own heart beating.
It is wonderful to set time aside to not just be silent, but to listen to the silence. And to do this, we need to engage in a radical spiritual practice. Turn this off. Not just on silent, or vibrate, but off. How many of us have spent a meal with someone and they pause in mid-sentence to look down at their phone?
We went to lunch one day at the Lutsen resort. It was a nice respite from campfire fare. Plus it had electricity. We ate our meal and charged our phones which had all died trying to find a signal in the woods. Sure enough, in a conversational lull, several of us were looking down at our phones. Didn’t we go up north to unplug?
God told the Hebrew people (long before cell phones) that they needed to take an entire day, one seventh of their time as a time set aside for God. Imagine if we did that. It was so important that the commandment was the longest of the 10 commandments. You must honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. That means no work for you, your entire family, your slaves, your business employees, the day laborers, even the animals. This was a no loophole commandment. And yet we find loopholes all over it.
What happens to us on a Sabbath? Well, besides coming to church. We take some time and attune ourselves to God. What if we took a day to attend to God, and God’s reflections in each other? What if we pay attention to the people here, and let the people who are virtually here have their own time. That’s radical work and it’s life-giving work.
John Medeiros spoke a few weeks ago about trying Ramadan on for size. Alongside his Muslim neighbors he fasted during daylight hours and feasted after sunset. He said he paid attention the way he mindlessly went about his life and how often he ignored God. In this holy Sabbath time, he brought God to mind and asked himself how he was doing in his Christian walk. Have we done the same?
One of my colleagues is beginning a two-month renewal leave. She says she’s looking forward to reflecting on her inward journey/outward journey and experience the “unforced rhythms of grace.”
You don’t need to be silent to have a great Sabbath, but I do encourage you to take some time to reflect on what this blessed quietness might be like. When we slow down our minds and resist the restless temptation to beat ourselves up. Resist the temptation to so seethe with resentment against someone that we cannot focus on anything else, ceding over our best energy to something or someone that does not feed us. Instead, be still and know that God is with us. Pause to ponder the big questions and listen to the wisdom in the silence that always reveals something.
We need some blessed quietness to remind us that we are God’s, we are loved, and we are enough. It might take weeks, if not years to reach that serenity, but the search is on for us each Sabbath. That’s the value and blessing of silence and Sabbath. How do we live in the blessed quietness?
When Kevin Branting heard about this topic last Sunday, he told me that he would love to play one of his original compositions which was written to address this very conundrum of busyness and silence. So I am going to stop talking, let some blessed quietness fill our space here and then Kevin will offer his composition as we individually and collectively reflect on the value and blessing of silence on this holy Sabbath day.
(after a moment of Silence, we heard “Introspective Contemplation”
from You Carry Me, Song Cycle, Part Two by Kevin Branting)