Silence: Second Sunday of Epiphany
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son Holy Spirit, Amen.
Though the poem Silence, by Edgar Lee Masters, is over one hundred years old there it holds a striking pertinence to our present times. ‘We are voiceless in the presence of realities - we cannot speak’. There is a shared silence of pandemic, particularly this month in our third lockdown. We watch figures climb and our language can’t meet. There’s an unbroken silence in some of our homes caused by the lack of visitors. There’s an astounded silence as we see the pictures from within our stressed hospitals or the anticipatory silence as we wait for the Prime Minister to make his next announcement. Each of these are marked by a different tension, a different mood.
Rowan Williams once write about the difference when ominous silences of anger are contrasted with the comfortable silences of peace, that even without words, there is often an energy or a presence or an intention that can be felt by all who stand in that particular place of quiet.
If I were to simply stop speaking now, I wonder what the silence would feel like?
We will probably all find that for a moment an outward silence meets our inward silence and it is in that meeting place that some of the most extraordinary insights can be found or the most extraordinary chatter will be heard. Something has to fill the space that is left and those of us who have been missing Breathing Space of late will know exactly how comforting or challenging remaining in silence can be.
Silences seem to be crucial to the plots of this morning’s Old Testament and Gospel readings. Out of silence we find God cutting through lack of language or empty noise to reveal what is good and true and beautiful; to reveal the voice of God.
‘Samuel! Samuel!’ God calls to the silently sleeping boy. In this case, a sleeping Samuel is in the temple, resting in the presence of God, you know that tranquil silence that sacred spaces offer … but Samuel doesn’t yet know that it is the presence of God he peacefully sleeps in.
Also there in that silence is Eli, who also is aware of the interrupted quiet and as the wise older man, he slowly opens one eye, observes what this is all about and chooses not to say too much. He resists the urge to directly name God or tell Samuel what’s happening, he seems to trust both the silence and the presence to do their work, reminding us that wise people clearly choose their words carefully and don’t rush to fill the spaces they see.
Eli knows how important it is for Samuel to personally recognise God and so he gently directs the young boy to be able to do so, because Eli knows that a calling is always between one person and God. Your calling cannot be brokered by another because it is an intimately unfolding relationship of recognition.
And God seems to play a divine game of ‘Peekaboo’ with Samuel.
We play the game of ‘Peekaboo’ for almost all of our lives.
Wrapped in those simple hand gestures are very childhood early memories of delight, surprise, and perhaps even relief, when disappearing faces became visible again. Then in later years playing it with children, it is revealed to be a game about belief … or ‘grasping the concept of impermanence’ as child experts might put it.
At first a baby only believes what it can see in the moment. But then they begin to understand that a thing can exist - namely a parent behind two hands - even when they aren’t visible. And wrapped in this is an evolution of emotion; from those initial feelings of mild panic and despair there is growth into delight and hopeful anticipation. Crucially, we all learn that something doesn’t need to be always visible in order to be believed in, in order to exist. Sometimes the calling of us by God can feel like that game of Peekaboo, especially when we find ourselves in the silence.
‘Come and see’ Phillip to Nathanael.
Nathanael sees Christ.
Christ had already seen and recognised Nathanael.
When he had been sitting silently beneath the fig tree.
‘Where did you come to know me?’ asks Nathanael.
‘I saw you’ says Christ.
And Nathanael sees the Son of God.
Peekaboo (to paraphrase God) and see …. how that moment of mutual knowing connects him to the unknowable mystery.
It is written that ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread’ and it might be written that the word of the Lord is rare in these days; visions are not widespread. It might be written that thoughtless words and a disappearing poetic imagination have diminished the idea of any invisible reality and mystery which makes the divine dance between creator and creature even harder.
Yet, it is a reality and a mystery; this idea of being known by God, and being called by God, to recognise and respond to what is true and good a mystery so immense and so full of light and love that many find themselves intrigued. Whether peeking through their hands, whether peeping with one eye open, or sat looking silently into the half-light. It is a mystery that endlessly calls to us whether we know it or not.
We all sit in a half-light of the pandemic at the moment, in the silences that I described at the beginning - each of us interpreting and responding to the demands and challenges, the restrictions and griefs in our own ways, in our own interpretation. Responding to the wretched things we see and fear with hope and the fervent prayer that God is in this somewhere, even if we can’t quite see it.
But God is present and whether we recognise it like Eli or simply rest in it like Samuel, we can be sure that every name is being gently whispered or loudly called within the silences. Because that is what God does.
The divine call to vocation is a continuation of the mystery that formed us in the womb and that knows our most intimate thoughts and ways. Not as some controlling machiavellian type of deity, but as one who purely delights in us; delights in our hiding, in our seeking, in our attempts to work things out and to live well, wants to help fashion us into flourishing day by day.
For some people that calling is to begin new journey, embrace a new chapter, a new calling full of the excitement and wonder that it should be. Our present silence allowing the time to discern where or what this will involve. But then there will also be the people he is calling to be at peace, to pray, to be at one with themselves and Him, to simply know and trust in his love. To walk gently with him through whatever life is giving at this present time. Both are equally valid callings.
It is often forgotten that any ‘calling’ is always first a revelation of God’s immense joy in your being. It is a moment of being recognised.
So, from under Nathaneal's fig tree, in the warmth of the sun, I invite you to take a moment to look back into the eyes of the God who gazes upon you.
So, from the soft sleeping mat on the floor of the temple, I invite you to take a moment to listen for the voice of the God who calls to you.
The One who knew you in the incredible mystery of the light-filled miracle that first created you, has endlessly loved you and calls out to you, always.
Sermon Preached by Rev’d Arwen Folkes 17th January 2021, Second Sunday of Epiphany 1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139. 1-5,12-17, John 1.43-51