They say silence is a good thing. It’s hard for us to know because we have so little of it. All around us there is noise, within us, in our minds and hearts, there is noise, an almost constant racket. That’s one reason we hold silence in this place every week. We even call it the ministry of silence, and that’s what it’s meant to be — a ministry, a help. The silence is meant to provide space to be, there’s nothing you have to say or do or remember. You’re simply invited to be who you are, to just be.
Now, it’s not always easy. If we have small children who struggle to sit still or have constant questions to ask, the silence can feel like an eternity! If we haven’t been in a place where silence is practiced, those moments can feel strange and awkward, and why won’t someone hurry up and say something?! They say silence is a good thing.
Research suggests silence can lower your blood pressure, improve your concentration, and even reduce cortisol levels.1 We’re really looking out for your health here on Sunday mornings. Silence is a good thing.
When I was in seminary, I did an internship one summer at a large church near my hometown. I was excited to be home for the summer and thankful for the opportunity this internship provided. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Miller, had been part of that congregation for years and by this time was retired from teaching. She served as the preschool minister at the church so we had the chance to work together on staff that summer, which was really neat. Each Sunday the intern would shadow a different minister. I remember shadowing Mrs. Miller and seeing how busy she was, managing childcare, greeting families, making sure kids and volunteers had everything they needed. Sunday mornings seemed pretty crazy for her, but she always served with grace and care. Early on in the summer, the pastor of the church talked with me about my seminary experience, my interests in ministry, and what I hoped to learn that summer. I shared with him that I enjoyed preaching. Now, I didn’t really expect to get any opportunities to preach at that church, but I shared with him anyway. A few weeks into the summer, it was my turn to shadow him on a Sunday. He invited me to co-preach with him. So he gave me a point in his sermon, asked me to develop it and then we would tag-team the preaching that week. It was a good, safe chance to share. By the end of the summer, he invited me to fill in for him one Sunday while he was on vacation. I was really surprised and thankful for the chance. I wasn’t sure that a woman had ever preached a full sermon in that church before. The day came, and I was both excited and pretty nervous. I sat near the front row of the sanctuary, waiting for the time in the service when I would go to the platform. Someone offered the welcome. The music minister began to lead us in singing. I was feeling more and more nervous. Then out of nowhere, Mrs. Miller sat down beside me in the pew. She didn’t say a word. She just sat there, with me, for me. I knew it cost her something to be there, and yet there she was, silently sitting with me.
Silence is a good thing. It can mean solidarity, being with and for each other. It can offer space to listen to those around us. In silence there’s patience, space for contemplation, openness. Maybe that’s what our psalmist is thinking about when she writes, “for God alone my soul waits in silence.”
There are lots of times when silence is a good thing, when it is important and needed.
What about when silence is not so good? In her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.2 Her research shows links between the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany. Chapter nine is titled, “The Evil of Silence,” and it begins with a story about a small town north of Berlin. The ash from the crematorium settled on the front steps and flower beds of people’s homes. The ash coated the swing sets and backyards of the townspeople. There was no denying the slaughter and torment on the other side of the barbed wire. The fruit of evil fell upon villagers like snow dust. They were covered in evil, and some were good parents and capable spouses, and yet they did nothing to stop the evil, which had now grown too big for one person to stop, and thus no one person was complicit, and yet everyone was complicit. The dissident theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the millions who suffered and perished in a Nazi concentration camp. “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil,” Bonhoeffer once said of the bystanders. “God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”3
Silence can mean solidarity and being with and for others. Silence can also mean being complicit or hurtful or it can be used as an excuse not to act.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence.” Sometimes the silence isn’t so good. Sometimes it seems like God is silent.
We’ve had two funerals in this room this weekend. One for a person who lived a long life and still seems gone too soon. Another for a younger person whose life was inexplicably cut short. Friends and family are hurting from the silence of their loved ones. At different times and in different ways, we’ve been in their shoes. We’ve experienced that kind of silence, and it hurts. It is a silence that weighs on us, a silence that becomes an ache, an emptiness. It can feel like God is silent.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence.” How long do we wait? The psalmist may be asking the same question. Our psalmist is hurting. That’s the context of this psalm. In the verses leading up to our passage, we find out something has happened. Our psalmist feels attacked, and not just that, she’s been attacked by people she trusted. Verse 4 explains, “With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.” We might call these people two-faced. We might describe what happened as our psalmist getting stabbed in the back, betrayed.
Our gospel text opens with difficult words too – “after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.” John the Baptist, this charismatic leader, has been arrested. People who followed John, people who heard about John, they didn’t know what to think or what to do. Where his voice had so powerfully sounded, now there was silence.
What do we do when it seems like God is silent?
Psalm 62 is categorized as a psalm of trust. The psalmist describes her trust in God by calling God her rock and refuge, her fortress and salvation. She even urges everyone else: “Trust in God at all times, O people. Pour out your hearts to God for God is our refuge.”
Today isn’t that much different than lots of days throughout our history. Wars are ongoing. Injustice and oppression are happening all around us. Pain and sickness and disease are debilitating us or people we know and love. It often feels like God is silent. So it seems a bit too trite to say, “Just trust God.”
What does that even mean? What does that look like? How can we talk about trust?
When I worked at camp, every summer during our training, we did team building activities. We did these for several reasons. One was to build trust and strengthen relationships among our staff. We needed to be able to trust each other and to know we supported each other as we worked together throughout the summer. One of our team building activities involved trust leans. We worked up to those – we did “easier” activities to help us build up our trust, things like sitting back-to-back, linking arms, and helping our partner stand up. Then we’d join with another set of partners and work together to help all four of us stand up. Eventually the whole group would sit on the ground with arms linked and balancing off of each other, working together in unison, we’d stand up together as a group. It was a big accomplishment. This and all the activities we did built up to one called “Wind in the Willows.” We stood in a circle, with one person in the middle. The person in the middle clasped their hands against their chest (to prevent flailing) and, after making sure everyone was ready, they closed their eyes and leaned, letting themselves fall in any direction they chose. Everyone in the circle was ready for them, hands up, waiting to support this person, whichever way they leaned. We would carefully guide them all the way around the circle and then all together we’d pick up the person and gently sway them back and forth down to the ground. At some point in this activity, everyone became silent. We weren’t instructed to do so, it just happened. We trusted each person to do their part. Each person began to realize that the people around them trusted them. It was an incredible thing to experience.
To find that we are in a place of trust is a gift. To find that we can trust those around us is a relief, a refuge. Seeing others trust us is sacred.
Professor Dave Bland tells us, “Trust is an essential part of life. An environment of trust is necessary in order for mental, emotional, and spiritual development to occur. When (we) encounter mistrust, (we) withdraw to (ourselves).” Theologian Jurgen Moltmann observes, “Fish need water in which to swim, birds need air in which to fly, and we human beings need trust in order to develop our humanity. Trust is the basic element in which human life exists.”4
Jesus knew this. He calls out to Andrew, Simon, James, and John. He trusts them to follow. They must trust him too because silently they do follow. They listen, they watch, they learn the ways of Jesus. The ways of compassion, peace, and justice. The practice of listening to each person they encounter. They learn the courage to speak up on behalf of those who aren’t being seen or heard. Now we know they’ll mess up. They’ll scatter and be silent when they could’ve spoken up or been in solidarity with Jesus at the end of his life. But for now, they’re learning. They’re learning a lesson we continue to learn… Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way: “Trust is always a mutual affair, and this is true of trust in God too: We trust in God because God trusts in us.”5
We have the opportunity to embrace the silence of solidarity, to sit with those who are hurting, to listen and believe those on the margins. We have the opportunity to break the silence of being complicit, to speak out against injustice wherever we see it. God trusts us to do both – to know when silence is right and when silence is wrong.
Last weekend, our youth attended a retreat called Winter Youth Summit. We heard from an incredible speaker in our worship sessions all weekend long. At the end of one of her sermons, after pausing in silence, she began her prayer: “God, your faith in us is sometimes astounding.”
We trust in God because God trusts in us. Amen.
2. Quoted from front flap of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.↩
3. Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, pp. 89-90.↩
4. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, pp. 275, 277.↩
5. Ibid 275, 277.↩