Proverbs 14:15 MSG
February 11, 2018 -- Transfiguration Sunday
Mark 9: 5-6 and Job 2: 11-13
We are in the season of words.
Recently, the president delivered the annual State of the Union Address to congress and we were invited by the news media to listen in.
It wasn’t always this way. For most of our history the president’s report on the state of the union was delivered to congress in a letter which was then read aloud in both houses. Not until Woodrow Wilson did the president’s report on the state of the union become a speech delivered to a join session of the two houses of congress. And even after Wilson not every president gave a speech every year. That’s a relatively new phenomenon which has grown along with the power of the electronic media to broadcast it to large numbers of people
And, as it became an annual rite, so it also became a somewhat empty ritual.
Listening to the current version of the SOTU, I was astounded at how much like former examples it was. The state of the union is strong because it’s people are strong. The military is strong (and here’s a person who exemplifies that strength, sitting among us as I speak) because the people who serve in it are strong but it could be even stronger if some more money was given to it.
I have done an awesome job running things up to now.
Taxes are bad but some are, regretfully, necessary.
Our youth hold the future of our country in their hands. And here are some youth looking freshly scrubbed and bored.
We need better crime prevention and better ways to fight crime that isn’t prevented.
We need to speak to our national adversaries from a position of strength.
All I want is unity which we could have if you would all just do as I say.
Blah, blah, blah, on and on. The form, if not the content, is pretty much the same as its predecessors.
Don’t have anything to say? Make a speech!
Politicians are not the only ones who abide by the rule that the best thing to do when you don’t know what to say is to talk. Watch the awards ceremonies that are on TV. The Grammies, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Oscars. At least a few recipients always say, “I don’t know what to say,” and then take five minutes to say it.
The Super Bowl and the Olympics offer sportscasters filling empty air with words. Often, it seems that more airtime is given to talking about sports than showing the sports themselves. And much of that talk is done not because anyone needs to hear it but because sponsors have purchased airtime and the airtime between commercials needs to be filled with something.
With all these words flying around, it is hard to remember that sometimes the best thing, the prudent thing, the most effective thing to say is nothing at all.
In the Scripture
Compare these two passages:
Mark 9: 5-6 -- Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Job 2: 11-13 -- Now when Job's three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him…They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
In the first passage, Peter has just had an experience of awe and wonder. He’s afraid, as such experiences can sometimes leave us, and he doesn’t know what to say. So, like preachers and politicians have done down through history, he talks.
He fills the air with words not because he has something important, something worthwhile, something astute or bright or apropos to share. He fills the air with words because (1.) he’s afraid, (2.) the silence is awkward, and (3.) he doesn’t know what else to do.
And when he speaks, he falls back on the old and the familiar. First, he evaluates the situation and decides that it’s good, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.” And then, having established that the situation is a good one, he suggests that they all get busy and do something, something tried and true, something traditional, something familiar, something religious. “Let us build three dwellings…”
In the second reading above, Job’s friends have heard of Job’s misfortune, the tragedies that have befallen him, and they go to visit him. When they are not far away they see him but so miserable is he that they don’t even recognize him. So heartbroken are they for their friend’s miserable condition that they rip their garments and put dust and ashes on their heads as signs of their grief on his behalf. Then they sit down with him and simply share his pain for seven days and seven nights and “no one spoke a word for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Now that, my friends, is friendship. Most of us would, like Peter, break under the strain of being silent for 15 minutes, much less seven days.
But, alas, on the eighth day Job cries out his misery and despair, he puts his anguish into words and his friends begin to speak in reply and that is when the quality of their friendship begins to crack. That is when they start making a mess of things.
Interestingly, when God finally steps into the scene and starts to speak – to Peter, James, and John in the Gospel, and to Job and his friends in the book of Job – his answer is much the same. And, if you will allow a paraphrase, it is, pretty much, this that God says: “Shut up and listen.”
To Job and his friends, God says, “Shut up and listen to me.”
To Peter, James and John, God says, “This is my son, the Beloved; shut up and listen to him!”
When you are having or have just come out of a situation that is so overwhelming, so amazing, so awesome, or so horrible that it shocks you and makes you afraid, the thing to do is to “shut up and listen.”
In Our Lives
Most ministers are not strangers to the experience of awe and wonder. For many of us, it is why we became ministers. It’s the context in which we heard the call to ministry.
For me, it was at a weekend retreat when I was in college. We were studying Paul Tillich’s sermon “You Are Accepted,” and I heard his words, really heard them, for the first time in my life: Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
A typical oldest child (of five), I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to please people, especially the parental figures in my life: my parents, my teachers, my coaches, my youth group leaders, etc. And when I read those words from Tillich’s sermon it was as though a huge, heavy backpack had been lifted from my shoulders.
I was accepted. God’s loving, reconciling, healing grace was ladled over my head and shoulders and I was accepted, just as I was, by the greatest parental figure that I could imagine, the God and creator of the universe.
I left that seminar walking about six inches off the floor, not giddy or excited, but relieved. The burden of earning acceptance had been taken away. I could be the me that I was, not the me that everyone else expected or wanted me to be.
And as I look back upon that wonderful, transformative, salvation experience in my life I am thankful that no one tried to explain it to me or expand on it for me.
They just let the experience wash over me and they said nothing. (Later, they said and did much.)
Maybe for you the experience happened in your childhood or youth. Maybe it was in a Sunday School class, in a worship service, at Vacation Bible School or at summer church camp or on a mission trip. Maybe it was words that brought God’s grace into your life, or maybe it was music, or acts of service, or a special relationship.
Regardless of how it came to you, you have experience God’s grace and, hopefully, those who loved you did not try to explain it to you or question you about it, at least not at first. Hopefully, they loved you enough to just “shut up and listen.”
At the other end of the continuum, we ministers are not strangers to experiences of abject suffering and grief , often not unlike that of Job.
In my years as a pastor I was called to the scenes of murders, suicides, and horribly tragic deaths from illnesses and injuries, deaths that were premature and all the uglier because the victim was so young and full of life with so much more for which to live.
I was called to hospital rooms where hopelessness and despair seemed to saturate the very air to the point that you could not breath without inhaling it and feeling its corrosive effects upon your soul. I stood at the graves and spoke the ritual words of committal that nearly stuck in my throat as I spoke them.
And in nearly all of those cases I heard people, well meaning people, people with good and generous hearts, say things, as Peter did, not because they needed to be said, but because the silence was so awkward, the occasion so unfathomable, the pain so intolerable, that they just felt that someone ought to say something if, for no other reason, to fill that leaden air with light, sweet, fluffy words. And often, those words were not only unnecessary but ill advised and even hurtful, as well.
In all those cases I just wished God’s voice would come out of a big, dark cloud and say to whoever was trying to give comfort with platitudes and clichés, “Hey! Shut up, and listen.”
Listen as this mother pours out her grief. Listen as this father tears open his heart. Listen as this widowed wife screams her shock and anger. Listen as this child sits in fearful silence because she has not learned words to apply to a situation such as this. Listen to the sniffs and snuffles and wails and moans and know that your presence, your hand placed upon a shoulder, your arms enfolding in a hug, your own tears shed in empathy, are comfort enough without the need for words to shore them up and make them effective.
Words are gifts from God, to be used in God’s service for the purpose of bringing joy, understanding, edification, enlightenment, reconciliation, comfort, and caring to our brothers and sisters. They are too powerful, too dangerous, and too precious to simply be thrown into the air because we don’t know what else to do and the silence is getting awkward.
Dean Feldmeyer is the author of 5 novels, 4 non-fiction books, three plays, and over 100 essays, articles, poems, and short stories, some of which can be found on this web site.