Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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Sermon given by Rev. Dick Dutton on 2/17/2013

at Kearsarge Uniterian Universalist Fellowship

We’ve been together for some nine years, as your occasional preacher… so you can trust me, right?  Well, for just a minute or so… I want you to close your eyes… I’ll do the same.  Now take this minute to experience the silence.  You can recite a mantra, a focused thought, a personal prayer, or just let your mind wander… let’s individually, and yet together experience the silence…

Amen.  Thank you!

In our one minute of silence, I imagine you had several thoughts about the exercise… this is something I can do, alone, not in a group… I really couldn’t concentrate, I came for noise and words, not quiet, just get into it, and you stopped me. 

Cindy Johnson is Associate Pastor of First Baptist Church in New London.  This is her story…

“There is something quite endearing about a child’s first struggles to master a musical instrument.  First there is the simple skill of carrying the instrument… piccolos being less of a challenge than tubas, of course.  For my seven-year-old Linnéa, it was a sight to see her get off the bus with her cello, not to mention watch her attempt to play that four foot oversized violin.

Well, one day Linnéa had maneuvered her way into the bedroom with her cello for 15 minutes of daily practice.  I went about my business with earplugs in place.  It was only about ten minutes later that I realized there were no sounds coming from the bedroom.

I was a bit curious, so I peeked in.  There sat Linnéa, intently staring at her sheet music, cello in place, bow in hand.  Silent.  Finally I asked, ‘What are you doing, honey?’  Linnéa looked up, surprised to be interrupted.  ‘Oh, hi Mom.  I’m practicing.’  ‘Practicing?  I don’t hear anything, Linnéa.’ ‘Oh, that’s because today I’m practicing the rests.  In cello music there are a lot of rests.’

As Cindy said, “In this symphony of our lives, if we could be a bit more intent on ‘practicing the rests’.”

In the Hebrew Scriptures there is that classic account of the confrontation between Elijah and God.  Elijah is angry, he’s scared, he’s at the end of his rope…

“God, I have been zealous for you… these dang Israelites have forsaken your covenant… they have killed your prophets with the sword… and God, I alone am left… and they are seeking to kill me.”

God says, “Elijah… go out there and stand before the mountain… for I am about to pass by.”

Elijah, trembling before God, goes out and stands alone.

And the Bible says… “Elijah heard a great wind… but the Lord was not in the wind.

And then a great 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 still small voice.”

Most Old Testament scholars believe that the ‘still small voice’ was really Elijah’s own within… his deepest inner thoughts… even the voice of his own soul.

Silence is like that… we get to hear the voice within… maybe the voice of conscience, the voice of our own nature… our deepest thoughts… our innermost feelings… the struggles of our own wills.

The story of the Prodigal Son who had blown his inheritance, starving to death, and slopping hogs… the Bible says he ‘came to himself’… in the midst of his physical suffering, his moral struggles, his humiliation and pain… “He came to himself.”  He was driven to listen to his ‘still small voice’ within… the voice of his own nature…

Gordon Cosby of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC wrote… “The one journey that ultimately matters is the journey into the place of stillness deep within one’s self.”

We really have to fight to re-discover silence as the lost art, in our society made of noise.  Smart phones, timers, radios, TVs…

We live in ‘Surround Sound’… music, news, sports, everywhere, all the time, in your face, relentless, pervasive… noise, noise, noise, noise, noise.

Sister Joan Chittister says it again… “What the contemplative knows… what the spiritual seekers know that modern society has forgotten is that the real material of spiritual development is not in books… it is in the subject matter of the self, and our own personal struggles.  But until we are quiet and listen, we can never know what is really going on in ourselves.”

In a quiet space and time, is it really possible to hear the still small voice, to listen, to ‘come to myself’… to discover ‘what is really within’… even our own calling…

I keep going back to this marvelous story from the Talmud, "The Rabbi’s Gift". 

The monastery had fallen on hard times… there were only five monks left in the mother house, the Abbot and four others all over 70 years of age.  Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a Rabbi from a nearby town used for a hermitage, for contemplation.  The next time the Rabbi came to the woods, the Abbot visited him and asked if by some chance the Rabbi could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

They read Torah together; they commiserated about the lack of the faithful.  “Can you give me advice?”  “No, I am sorry; I have no advice to give.  The only think I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

In days, weeks that followed the monks pondered what he meant, the Messiah is one of us.  If so, he probably meant the Abbot – leader for more than a generation.  On the other hand there was Brother Thomas, a holly man, a man of light.  He could not have meant Brother Eldred – gets witchy at times… but come to think of it, he’s almost always right… maybe Rabbi did mean Brother Eldred.  But surely not Brother Phillip… so passive, a real nobody… but then he does have a gift of always being there when you need someone… maybe Phillip is the Messiah.  Of course the Rabbi could not possibly have meant me… I’m just an ordinary person with usual selfishness.  Yet, suppose he did.  Suppose I am the Messiah.  I couldn’t be that much for them, could I?  As they contemplated in this manner the old monks began to treat each brother with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah.  And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

As strangers visited the monastery they sensed an aura of incredible strength and divine presence; they brought their friends, and others began to join them; the monastery became again a dynamic center of spiritual love and hope and joy.  And again they chanted and sang their songs and welcomed the silence.

Perhaps you are the Messiah!

Maybe that’s the reason that some of us are terrified by the silence… we may discover that we are the Messiah… or a reluctant teacher… or one of the few voices left… or an essential healer.  We don’t want to be called or sent forth.  We don’t want to be challenged or changed or commissioned.  We don’t want our planned lives to be disturbed.

And the risk of silence… is that we may get dangerously in touch with our true selves… and that may scare the fire out of us.  The real contemporary ‘deniers’ are not the skeptics of global warming… they’re you and me when we run from ourselves!

But as Sister Joan writes… “Until we are quiet… until we listen… we can never know what is really going on within”… we can’t really understand who we are!

But some of us remember that day, that hour, that moment when we stopped… and we with great joy heard the wind… and the earthquake… and the fire… and then the ‘still small voice’ within.

Recently Nancy and I have been watching an amazing ‘morality play’ on TV… it’s called “Downton Abbey.”  Maybe you’ve heard of it.  We are captivated, as you are, with Carson and O’Brien and Daisy and Matthew and Thomas and Lord and Lady Grantham and every one of the marvelous actors… they’re British, of course.  But my favorites are Anna and Bates.  For those of you living on another planet for the past five weeks… Bates has been in prison, falsely accused… but there he goes through a bit of a transformation.  Always a good person, kind and fair, but now he’s in forced isolation… endless silence… totally under the control of others.  When Bates is released… his normal anger, his desire for revenge… his demands for justice… all that’s changing, as he discovers his true self.  Through his time in prison and introspection, he becomes a man of large mercy… and he helps others learn mercy too.  Through his enforced journey of silence, he ‘came to himself.’  The question for us… Are we able to move beyond our fears and our angst… to discover the ‘still small voice’ within… and our true selves?  That’s the glorious gift of silence, isn’t it!

But we all know that, don’t we.  And everyone here this morning… knows we are too busy, too stressed, and too surrounded by constant noise.  And we also are absolutely sure we should do something about it… but… but…

As your preacher of the morning, I owe you a final brilliant response… ultimate answer.  As the Rabbi says, “Let me tell you a parable.”

In the Old Testament book of Genesis the 11th chapter it says…

“Many tribes gathered from the East and the West and they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with the top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves.’

But the Lord said, ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so that they will not plan evil together by understanding one another’s speech!’  So the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth.

Therefore the tower was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the earth.”

Words are still confusing, and misunderstood, and often divisive… we need all the more, don’t we, to listen to others and to ourselves, for the ‘still small voice’, the ‘quiet inner voice’, to come to ourselves!

T.S. Eliot, in his poem “Ash Wednesday” writes…

Where shall the word be found,

Where shall the word resound,

Not here, there is not enough silence.


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