A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, June 23, 2013Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
Next year it will be 50 years since Paul Simon wrote those words. The shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald were still echoing in our nation’s ears. And Paul Simon sat in his bathroom in the dark with the water running and wrote this song.
Hello darkness, my old friend.
Any list of potential anthems for the Boomer Generation has to include the Sound of Silence. But like many of our old anthems, time makes them both ring true in new ways and also brings out a sense of irony in retrospect.
Paul Simon wrote the Sound of Silence as a warning. A warning about disconnection. A warning about technology. A warning about submission to groupthink and manipulation by government and corporate forces.
Now 50 years later, we see that much of what Paul Simon warned us of does ring true, but not in the way that he envisioned, and not without a lot of irony. And, like most things, it’s really complicated.
Disconnection. A half a billion people are on Twitter, 1.1 billion people on Facebook. And while that enables us to maintain relationships over space and time like never before, it also creates this tidal wave of surface contact among us that leaves us thirsting for real deep relationship.
Technology. We can Skype and FaceTime with people around the globe that we used to have to wait weeks and months to hear from by mail. But we also text, Tweet and watch YouTube videos while sitting across from one other in coffee shops.
Manipulation. We can read hundreds of millions of blogs and things like the Arab Spring can happen largely fueled by individual grassroots reporting, yet most of our information still comes from a handful of corporate interests whose primary concern is appealing to our basest instincts so they can sell us things.
But what Paul Simon didn’t envision in his ballad is that the primary ripple effect of the changes driven by technology would be pace and attention. We are busier and more distracted than ever before. There has been a 70% increase in work productivity over the past 25 years and that means what we all know … that those of us who are blessed enough to have jobs are working longer and harder.
And as the pace of email and Twitter becomes the expected pace of life, we have become more and more distractible and less and less able to hold our attention on any one thing. My generation and my kids’ generation and the generations to come are literally having different neural pathways cut in our brains and cultivating dopamine addictions craving the chemical hit our brain gives us when we get that tweet or email or the adrenaline rush when the next newest crisis hits … even if it is only a news alert about Kanye and Kim.
This week, we sat down as a family and watched Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, because we’d just seen Star Trek: Into Darkness and we wanted to show the kids the movie it was based on. Now this isn’t Citizen Kane, this is The Wrath of Khan. But there were ways it was difficult to watch – not just for the kids but for me – because the pace of the movie seemed so incredibly slow – and so incredibly different than what we have become used to.
What Paul Simon didn’t envision – and here’s where the irony is -- is that how these changes would manifest themselves wasn’t in the silence … but in activity and noise. It is not the sound of silence that grows like a cancer, it is the proliferation of noise and activity. The jumping from one crisis, one shiny thing, one dopamine hit to another. The marketing of drama and conflict and adrenaline. The demands of increased productivity and the normalizing of multitasking.
As it turns out, the sound of silence isn’t what we need to fear, it’s what we need the most. And it’s become not only more difficult for us to find but more difficult for us to bear.
The sound of silence is not a phrase that Paul Simon came up with in his bathroom 50 years ago. It’s much older than that. It comes from this morning’s reading from 1 Kings.
Elijah is in trouble. Last week, we heard how he gave King Ahab the bad news that he was going to pay for his actions in his wife Jezebel having Naboth killed so he could take control of his vineyard. And now Jezebel has put a price on Elijah’s head and Elijah is running for his life.
Elijah is in deep trouble. He needs God. But where is God to be found? An angel tells Elijah that God is coming and that all he has to do is to stand on the mountain and wait. So that is what he does.
And here is what happens next: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
Elijah heard the sound of silence. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And then, and only then, did God’s voice come to him and tell him what to do and where to go.
God was not in the wind or the earthquake or in the fire. What Elijah needed to enter into to find God was the sound of silence.
We are in deep need of God. Maybe we’re not running for our lives like Elijah was, but it sure feels like we are running and it sure feels like we are being tempted to be afraid at every turn. And so we look for God, we even cry out to God, and we sometimes wonder why God doesn’t answer.
And then we hear these words and remember.
God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. What Elijah needed to enter into to find God was the sound of silence.
Now, here’s the thing about wind, earthquake and fire. They are smart things to pay attention to. They’re not a Sex and the City marathon or another guilty pleasure type distraction. They’re real. Not only that, if we’re standing on a mountain and a hurricane or an earthquake or a forest fire comes, common sense tells us that we’d not only should pay a little bit of attention to it, we’d better spring into action and focus all our attention on it because our life depends on it.
But Elijah does just the opposite. If Elijah had said, “AUUHGGGH! A windstorm! Quick, everyone take shelter!” or “Waaaaaaah, fire! OK, you get water, you chop down those trees to make a fire break.” If he had done what just about every one of us would have done in those situations, he would have been sucked into them and missed the voice of God that would save his life.
Instead, Elijah waits. He waits for the sound of silence. And because he does, he finds God and God finds him.
We are in deep need of God. Maybe we’re not running for our lives but it sure feels like we’re running and it sure feels like we’re being tempted to be afraid at every turn. And there are no shortages of windstorms, earthquakes and fires of every variety that very legitimately demand our attention and tempt us to spend our lives fearfully leaping from one crisis to the next.
And God is there, watching us, trying to talk to us, saying “hear my words that I might teach you. Take my arms that I might reach you.” But God’s words like silent raindrops fall and are swallowed up not by the sound of silence but by the deafening roar of the wind, the earthquake and the fire, the crisis du jour and the beeping smartphone and the list of things that are so important that they can’t wait because my job, my family, my career, my life hangs in the balance.
The winds, earthquakes and fires will never stop. They’ve been around since way before Elijah and they’ll be around way after we’re all gone and this building is dust. And we will continue to be tempted to put the urgent before the important and jump fearfully from one crisis to the next.
But this morning we are reminded that our call is to be patient and wait. To understand that while there is urgency to the wind, earthquake and fire, that even more important is to seek the wisdom and presence and voice of God that we will not find in those places. To every day spend time in the sound of sheer silence. To cultivate and defend that time.
At first it might be hard not just to find but even more difficult to bear. Many of us will literally have to retrain our brains for this kind of listening and mindfulness. But if we are to follow Jesus and live the resurrection lives that will be saving for us, there is no other way.
We need God. But where is God to be met?
God is with us in the wind, the earthquake and the fire, but all too often God’s voice gets drowned out by them. God’s voice is still and small. And we have to still ourselves to hear it.
God’s voice is not in the wind. It is not in the earthquake. It is not in the fire.
It is whispered in the sounds of silence.