"The Eloquence of Saying Nothing,"           Mark 9:2-9                Feb. 22, 2009

In his 1924 presidential campaign,
CalvinCoolidge greeted the touchy subject of Prohibition at press conferences with a standard response: "No comment." No matter how insistent the questioning reporters, he persisted in his "No comment." Then he would leave the room, smiling softly and adding, "Now don't quote me."

CalvinCoolidge hardly stands out in our national history as paragon of presidential leadership and power - his laid-back style and renowned nap taking are the few legacies of his presidency. However, Coolidge did seem to understand that no response is sometimes the wisest response we can make, especially to a situation that transcends human insight or experience.

This week's texts highlight the chasm between Creator and created by allowing us dazzling, almost blinding, glimpses of the glory of God. The human response to this overwhelming power is, almost without fail, one of inadequate, inappropriate blathering. Unable to resist the urge to couch God in human terms, both prophet and disciples end up making foolish remarks.
Elisha can only deal with the vision he encounters by naming it, trying to harness the miraculous by enclosing it with descriptive words. Peter tries to domesticate the vision by proposing something to do engage him and his companions while the epiphany lingers.
The same discomfort that motivates us to make small talk in bank lines or to discuss the weather with cab drivers spills over into our response to the holy in our lives: We feel compelled to add our own commentary to every situation, when a silent contemplative "no comment" would demonstrate a far more profound grasp of the situation.

We live in a talkative, loquacious, word-processing world; our tongues are loose and continually wagging. We don't have to tell everything we know about something or somebody. The ethics of sparing ness of speech was preached by Norman O. Brown, who wrote, "The meaning is not in the words, but between the words, in the silence."
Refusing to talk can be a sign of openness and completeness - sometimes we dare not speak because no words can express our joy and happiness. Other times, like Isaiah in the temple, we can only utter "Holy, Holy, Holy" (6:3).
Various biblical texts express the virtue of silence.
  • Psalm 46:10 succinctly states, "Be still and know that I am God ... "
  • Isaiah 15:15 counsels, "... In quietness and in trust shall be your strength. In returning and rest you shall be saved."
  • Psalm 37:7 adds, "Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him."
  • Proverbs 17:27 "A man of sense is sparing of his words; the prudent man will keep cool."
  • Job admits that his long tirades against God have been so much blowing chaff when in 42:2, 5 he eventually discovers: "I know that you can do all things. I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me which I cannot know."
Finally, in the book of Revelation it even says that "And there was silence in heaven for about the space of half an-hour" (Revelation 8: 1).

The Quakers have celebrated the spiritual value of silence perhaps more than any other Christian group. William Penn's Advice to His Children (first published in 1726) offers this counsel:
"Love silence, even in the mind; for thoughts are to that, as words [are] to the body, troublesome . . . . True silence is the rest of the mind, it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment. It is a great virtue; it covers folly, keeps secrets, avoids disputes, and prevents sin."[i]
Jesus is a perfect example of the masterful use of eloquent silence. His ministry was a mastery of understatement. His message was communicated in parables. His mission was cloaked in commonness. The "temptation of Christ" is usually defined as that period of wilderness wanderings following Jesus' baptism,
Yet it was at the conclusion of his earthly mission that Jesus confronted what was surely one of the greatest temptations of his life.

Arrested and hauled before first the Sanhedrin and then the Roman authorities, Jesus was given numerous opportunities to explain away his actions and attitudes. Having wrestled with his doubts in Gethsemane, Jesus remained obedient to the will of God, to the mystery of the impending crucifixion and the resurrection. He maintained a consistent silence in the face of the apparently reasonable requests by the authorities to explain himself.[ii]
Jesus' deadly silence in Pilate's presence was the most eloquent response he could have given. Through his silence the majesty and mystery of God's grace was allowed to happen in the drama on Golgotha.

Returning to Mark 9: 2-8, 2Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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." 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Peter is staring at Moses, Elijah and Jesus. We can almost sympathize with Peter's predicament. We, too, want to preserve every special moment, and yet ..., at the same time… aren't we in danger of missing something even more monumental?

Missing - in our craving to capture it - the God-given moment itself? 

Susan Smith Jones, author of Choose to be Healthy (1987), writes, "Those people who live in a constantly noisy environment and who neglect to go inside their 'temple' to listen to the silence are depriving themselves of one of life's most profound experiences. Unmitigated loudness breeds agitation, aggression, and disharmony. Noise deafens the mind to the inner voice, to our connection to all life, to peace and joy.[iii]

Peter, understandably, was awestruck. It was to have been a quiet retreat, a time apart from the crowds, but an extraordinary event was unfolding, a moment in history so sacred that Peter, as Vice President in Charge of Doing Something, had to do something.
So he proposed building a booth or kiosk or shrine - whatever - to preserve the moment. We're not told how he was going to do this, whether he had hammer and saw at the ready, or a few fisherman's tools in his belt.
Just then, a cloud dimmed the moment. Out of the cloud a voice: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" (v. 7).

God did not say, "Take a picture; build a shrine; be sure to capture the moment!"

Instead, God said, "Listen to him." Listen. Pay attention.
"We prepare ourselves best for his incalculable ways when we are silent," as one who maintains "that the authentic attitude of the spirit was one of 'listening quietly to the truth of things,' a silence before the mystery. It is in silence that we experience the constant newness of God. [iv]

Nevertheless, like tourists who see Paris through their viewfinders, Peter, who wanted to keep the moment from passing, was in danger of missing the moment.
Let's face it: We, too, are easily distracted. We go through life too busy trying to film the Transfiguration (looking for those special moments). We look but don't see; we hear but we don't listen. So what? So what if we have acid-free scrapbooks filled with ticket stubs and categorized photos, if we have forgotten what made those moments sacred?
Focusing on the image, we forget about its significance and we are losing the sense of the sacred in the "everyday."
So forget the camcorder and go enjoy the moment. Sacramentalize the ordinary. Experience the moment. Listen, and look, for God.
7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
God's advice is to listen. Listen to the children, listen to life, and listen for the sacred. Divine the divine. Listen to Jesus.
"When Leonardo da Vinci was painting 'The Last Supper' in the little Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, he spent a good deal of time in apparent idleness out in the cloister, much to the annoyance of the monks who were paying for his services.
For a time nothing was said, but finally a delegation went to the artist and complained that the church was not getting its money's worth. Leonardo heard them out, then explained simply, 'When I pause the longest, I make the most telling strokes with my brush.'"[v]
In situations when we come face to face with the wonder of God's love and power, our best response may be to close our mouths and open ears and our hearts.
Closing Prayer:
Lord God Almighty, We do not even take much time for silence in worship. We are not sure what to do with silence because we are not accustomed to a worshipful use of silence. However, we need it; we need it more than just on Sunday. Teach us how to set aside a time of silence each day when we can break away from the distractions, which consume us. Help us to learn the disciplined use of silence. We rob ourselves of that still small voice that can speak to us in meditation ... Grant us wisdom, grant us grace. Amen.
Rev. RosemaryStelz

[i] (--Philadelphia: Friends Council on Education, 1944, 25.)
[ii] (cf Mark 14:60-61, Luke 23:9, Matthew 27:14 and John 19:9).

[iii]--"On Serenity, Solitude and Silence," New Realities, May/June 1989, 24.
[iv]--Popular German Catholic theologian LadislausBoros cites Heraclitus. LadislausBoros, Meditations (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974)
[v]--Story told by RoyAshford, Take it easy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 6.
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