Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
September 20, 2015
Proper 20B, Mark 9:30-37
Jesus asked the disciples, What were you arguing about on the way? But they were silent.
The Judgment of Silence
Our lives are punctuated by periods of silence. We intuitively pause and grow still when someone says, Let us pray. If a friend is wracked by grief, we hold them in our arms and don’t say anything. We wake up at dawn, and before getting ready for work sit quietly in the living room for a few minutes drinking coffee as the sunlight slowly pours itself in around our feet. We have a fight with a family member and fume silently on our way back up the stairs. In one way or another, silence testifies to a truth struggling to make itself known to us. Our lives are pregnant with revelations, some of which are unspeakably beautiful, some of which involve unexpected pain”and when we find ourselves drawn to silence, we can be sure that some revelation is at hand. I want to highlight five kinds of silence we encounter in Mark’s gospel.
The first is the uncomfortable kind we fall into when someone has called our bluff. In chapter three, Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and meets a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees are there, waiting to see whether Jesus will break the commandment about doing no work on the Sabbath so that they can catch him breaking the law. Jesus looks directly at the Pharisees and says, Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill? But the Pharisees are silent (3:4).
Jesus is calling their bluff: only the Son of God could perform such healings, and would they subject the Son of God to their own laws? In the Christian life, we might say that this is the kind of silence that falls upon us when we realize that our prayers are being answered in an uncomfortable way, or on a timeline not of our own choosing. It’s the urgent, convicting silence that drives the newly converted St. Augustine to pray, Give me chastity and continency, and then quickly add, but don’t give them to me yet! (Confessions VIII) When we pray for comfort for the sick or grieving, or for relief for the poor, or for the right use of God’s gifts”are we bluffing? Maybe. When we pray these things and then are confronted with a situation in which we have a chance to comfort the grieving, or support the poor, or to put our gifts and resources to God’s use”perhaps this is God’s way of saying, This is a very direct response to your prayers¦or perhaps you were bluffing?
The second kind of silence is the kind that descends upon us when we’re in the presence of someone with a great deal of power. In chapter four, Jesus and his disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee. A great wind-storm pounds their boat with waves almost to the point of sinking, and there’s Jesus asleep in the stern. His disciples wake him up, and Jesus rebukes the wind and says to the sea, Silence! [Your bibles probably say Peace! but the word is actually, Be silent!] And suddenly the wind ceases and there’s a dead calm on the waters. The disciples ask each other, Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:37-41) The answer, of course, is someone with divine power and authority. Only someone with divine power and authority could bring silence to the raging sea.
Something about being in the presence of real power and authority draws us into silence and stillness. There is a moment in the Episcopal liturgy when the priest lifts the bread and breaks it, and for a moment the only sound is the sound of Christ’s body broken again and again. Silence fills the room with the power of God. Even the raging of our own internal seas grows calm. What could we possibly say to add to the experience of standing in the presence of such a one as the Son of God?
The third kind of silence is the kind that leaps onto our backs when we think we’re in trouble. This is the kind of silence the disciples find themselves in today. They all sit down in this house, and Jesus asks them, So what were y’all arguing about on the way? ˜But they were silent, for they had argued with one another about who was the greatest’ (9:34). The disciples know they’ve done something wrong. They’re not exactly sure how wrong it is, or how much trouble they’re in, but they know that they’ve been misbehaving.
It’s like the disciple are a bunch of nine-year old girls and boys rough-housing upstairs. Jesus is in the kitchen making dinner and having a glass of wine, and through the ceiling he can hear the disciples running around and chasing each other and using up all their nine-year-old energy. And then all of a sudden through the ceiling there’s this thud that shakes the light fixtures”but after the thud there’s total silence, as though all the disciples think that if they don’t make any more noise at all then they can pretend like they didn’t actually tip the bunkbeds over while pretending to be Kristoff, Sven and Anna trying to climb the mountain into Elsa’s ice palace. They were just playing around, all of them hanging off the rail of the top bunk and swinging back and forth, and then all of a sudden the whole thing came crashing down around them. And they think, Are we in trouble? Did we hurt somebody? Will we ever be allowed to watch the movie Frozen again?
In our worship, after the celebrant bids the confession, there’s a brief moment of silence and shuffling around before we start saying the words. Every now and then that silence fills my mind with knowledge of some very particular wrong I’ve committed against God or my neighbor, but most of the time that silence is filled with questions more like the ones those nine-year-olds are asking. Was it wrong, what we just did? Are we in trouble? Did I hurt somebody? I promise it wasn’t on purpose! We were just doing what we were supposed to do and then the whole thing came crashing down around us. Or maybe for you there’s a very particular mistake you made a long time ago, and that brief silence always fills you with regret, with the desire that the thing that happened hadn’t happened, or that you could go back and unsay all the words you said, or say the ones you didn’t say. God knows that silence is uncomfortable for us, and I think God appreciates our discomfort because it means that we really are trying to be God’s people. But just like the parents of those 9-year olds, God delights in our rowdiness and is most concerned with loving us and keeping us safe. God isn’t waiting around to inflict retribution every time we go a little overboard, and God would hate it if we stopped rough-housing all together just because of that one mistake we made that one time.
The fourth kind of silence is the kind we try to force on each other. In chapter ten, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus hears Jesus walking by and calls out to him, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus’ disciples and the crowd try to shut Bartimaeus up. Be quiet, and don’t bother Jesus, they say. Bartimaeus is unkempt, undesirable, and he always seems to say the wrong things at the wrong time. The disciples have important work to do; they can’t be bothered with a never-do-well like Bartimaeus. People like him should just be silent.
That is the kind of silence we try to force on our neighbors when they act in an unseemly way, that’s the kind of silence the disciples try to force on Bartimaeus. God wants no part of that silence, but it’s probably the kind of silence we know best. It’s that kind of silence that we wish would overtake somebody who is prone to saying off-color or awkward things. It’s the kind of silence we try to inflict on somebody when we give them that irritated, over-the-glasses look in Church when they’re kids are shuffling a bit more than we’d like them too. It’s the kind of silence which I think sometimes keeps us from naming out loud our own intercessions and thanksgivings: we don’t want to appear unseemly or disruptive or over-eager in front of our neighbors. Some people really do pray through silence; but I’d be willing to bet there are people in this room who every week feel a prayer or a name or a thanksgiving rise like a lump in their throat and force themselves to swallow it again, just for the sake of decorum. God wants no part of that silence.
The last kind of silence is the most difficult. This is the silence of Jesus. When Jesus is on trial, many of the religious leaders of the day are bearing false witness against him, saying how he blasphemed and threatened to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem. The high priest stands up and demands of Jesus, Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you? But Jesus is silent and does not answer (Mark 14:58-61 or so).
In this silence, we see something of God’s heartbreak. God has sent his Son into the world that all who believeth in him might not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus is the incarnate Word of salvation God speaks to us, and what do we do? We scheme up false charges and excuses and hurl them back at the Creator and Redeemer of the world. There’s always something else we’d rather have than life everlasting. We’d rather have those stories we tell ourselves about how we’re not capable enough to let this or that dream become a reality, because then we don’t have to risk failing. We look at the predicaments our children find themselves in and then blame ourselves, saying that if we’d only done more of this or less of that as parents while they were growing up, we could’ve prevented this. Clinging to that story is easier than accepting the hard reality that they’ve grown up now and really are making their own decisions, which might bring along very real mistakes and failures. We’d rather tell ourselves that their actions are really our own responsibility than admit our own powerlessness amidst their pain and trust that God is somehow working resurrection in their lives, too.
Whether we know it or not, each story we tell ourselves that prevents us from living fully into the life of God here and now is an accusation against Christ that he is not who he says he is, because whether it’s our self-doubts or our own acquiescence to the status quo or our constant need to put pictures on Facebook that make us look happier than we really are, anything we do that prevents us from being real with ourselves and with each other is an accusation against Christ that says, You really aren’t the Son of God, and you sure aren’t present in the midst of my regular old tragedies and my average celebrations. Christ is silent in the face of these accusations because he knows that the truth is already in us, like a dim memory, struggling to rise to the surface. The high priest eventually asks, Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? That is a more honest kind of question, and Jesus responds directly: I am.
The point of all this is that the prayer we most desperately need to make is usually not the one closest to the surface. All the silences we encounter in the Christian life serve to allow a greater, more difficult but more beautiful truth to surface in our awareness. Whether it’s the silence we feel after God has called our bluff, or the silence of awe in the presence of great power, or the silence we stumble into after we think we’ve done something wrong, or the silence we try to force on our neighbor, or even the silence of Christ in the face of our frantic anxieties and pretensions: all these silences are curtains behind which the truth resides.
Or maybe it’s more like standing in a pond. You can only see your reflection if you hold very, very still. It’s only then that you can look into the water’s surface and see yourself as God sees you, small and gorgeous and wonderfully made and always against the backdrop of heaven reflected here on earth. This silence and stillness is a kind of judgment because it reveals or eliminates all the ego-noise that keeps us from leaning into God who is the sustainer and redeemer of the world.
Jesus asks us, his disciples, What were you arguing about on the way? God’s judgment falls upon us like silence because it is only in great silence that we can shed what is unnecessary. In silence we are distilled into our more essential being. In silence we shed our arguments with each other and the false stories we tell ourselves, all of which are accusations against Jesus that he is not who he says he is: the savior and redeemer of the world, the Blessed of One of God who even now is wearing your life like a robe.
God’s silence, then, is really just the flipside of worldly noise. God refuses to talk over us. When we come to this table each week, the Lord is asking us this very question: What were you arguing about on the way? If we are wise, we won’t say anything. It is only then that Christ takes us in his arms and reminds us that we are not welcomed here because of our greatness or because of how we compare to our neighbors. We are welcomed here only in his name, and we can receive Christ’s welcome”we are open to receiving Christ’s welcome”only to the extent that we welcome each other, for each of us is sent by God into lives more sacred and more extraordinary than we can possibly imagine.