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"To Speak and to Hold Silence"
Sermon preached at Dumbarton United Methodist Church
December 3 , 2017
Sermon preached at Dumbarton United Methodist Church
December 3 , 2017
So. Here’s the set up. With the exception of the brief preface that the author of Luke’s gospel uses to set the stage, Elizabeth and Zechariah are essentially the first characters we meet in this gospel. And right away, Luke wants us to know what kind of folks we are meeting. Zechariah is a member of a prominent priestly class. Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron – in other words, herself of priestly origin. And this association with priestly piety isn’t just an act for Elizabeth and Zechariah. Luke makes sure we know that they are righteous and godly people, inside and out. No hint of hypocrisy here—they keep all the commandments, all the observances, and they are “worthy in the sight of God.”
It’s important that we know all of this because we are quickly introduced to another piece of background about the couple – they don’t have children, and not because they’re young or haven’t given it a shot yet. Apparently, the couple has been unable to have kids, and they are too old now to have any human hope for a change in that reality.
In a religious and cultural milieu in which children are seen as a particularly special kind of blessing from God, and in which childbirth is seen as the primary duty and honor of women, a lack of children can all too easily be interpreted as a sign of sin, shame, or moral failing. If we are honest about our own religious and cultural milieu here in the 21st century United States, we know that we are not so very far from this sort of stigma around childless couples. We know, from the words uttered quietly by Elizabeth later on in this same text, that this holy and righteous woman has internalized this stigma as shame and disgrace. So this sort of revelation about this “first family” in Luke’s gospel is meant to disturb and disrupt the reader’s – if you’ll pardon the pun – pre-conceived notions about childbirth and childlessness. They have no children, but not, the narrator insists, for lack of godliness or worthiness.
In beginning the story here, the narrator of Luke’s gospel calls to mind a foundational story in the Jewish scriptures. The situation of Elizabeth and Zechariah resonates through the centuries with the stories of Abram and Sarai, Hannah and Elkanah, and others – righteous God-followers whose childless existence is miraculously reversed by divine intervention. Biblical scholar Sharon Ringe points out that even the language style of this section of Luke’s gospel seems designed to invoke the reader’s connection to more ancient narratives of the faith. While the preface to the gospel is scholarly in tone and the body of Luke’s narrative is quotidian in usage, the section we heard from today seems designed to echo the style of the Jewish scriptures. Writes Sharon Ringe:
The contrast is like what happens in a worship service where all the prayers are in Elizabethan English and the sermon in modern speech….[F]or many people who were brought up on earlier English translations of the Bible such as the King James Version, the rhythms of Elizabethan English connect them to the entire biblical story. The language itself is strengthening and reassuring because of the memories and associations it invokes, and in that way it makes real again the presence, power, and love of God. It does not require a great deal of imagination to see the peculiarly biblical-sounding Greek of the beginning of Luke’s narrative having a similar effect on his hearers.
So if we as readers are tuned in to Luke’s stylistic choices, and if we are familiar with the narratives of the Jewish scriptures, we can predict what will happen next: God will act in a miraculous way; the surprised couple will welcome a child into the world; and this child will have some sort of special purpose or role to play in the great narrative of God’s people.
In a bit of dramatic irony, Zechariah is not able to see what we, the readers, have already guessed. While serving his shift in the temple, Zechariah is visited by a messenger of God, who lets him in on the good news. Zechariah questions the angel, and is slapped with a particular sort of fine: he will be unable to speak for the next, oh, say, nine months or so.
Let me just say that I’m inclined to be pretty sympathetic to Zechariah here. I like that he doesn’t mind asking questions. I think it’s overall a pretty healthy thing to pose some questions to heavenly messengers who show up unbidden to announce seemingly ridiculous things. I am all in favor of a healthy amount of doubt, curiosity, and skepticism. So at first read, I want to leap to Zechariah’s defense. What’s so wrong with asking questions? Doesn’t this passage stigmatize doubt and promote unquestioning faith? Isn’t this seeming punishment a bit unjust?
But these days, I’m not so sure that a sentencing to silence is such a bad thing, at least not for folks, like Zechariah, that are accustomed to having some say in matters. Sharon Ringe notes that “Zechariah, who is used to speaking, is silenced, while Elizabeth, whose body itself communicates what Zechariah cannot, articulates God’s favor.” A quick look around our nation at the folks who are “used to speaking” is, I think, instructive here. I wouldn’t much mind a moratorium on speaking for the folks who talk the most in our country. Imagine – nine months with nothing from the president, nothing from Congress, nothing from the most powerful actors and producers and network owners and news anchors, except for silence. Blessed, peaceful, silence. Perhaps the angel’s message to Zechariah is as much an invitation as it is a condemnation.
Unless you’ve been without internet or radio access for the past month or so, you’ve probably heard about the #metoo hashtag campaign. [[EDIT 12/8: The "Me Too" campaign actually began much earlier than this past month, led by a black woman named Tarana Burke. You can find out more on the Me Too website.]] As women across the country speak out on social media about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, courageously shattering the culture of complicity, stigma, and silence that surrounds such attacks, the inappropriate and even abusive behavior of one powerful man after another has come to light. For some, at least, consequences have been swift. And not surprisingly, American men have had a mixed record of reactions, from the bumbling to the hand-wringing to the outright defensive. In a recent sermon at Foundry United Methodist Church, our mutual friend T.C. Morrow had this to say:
I’ve appreciated the 'we hear you. we believe you.' messages I’ve seen on social media as people share their stories of surviving sexual harassment and sexual assault. These are important first steps, but it will take significant cultural change to fully shift away from the vestiges of the notion that women are property….Gentlemen, a few social media posts, especially of the 'well, I respect women' type do not necessarily mean you are fully an ally to women. I invite you to engage in some truth-listening, you may learn an additional way or two that you can more authentically respect women.
I’m struck by T.C.’s phrase “truth-listening,” the other side of the “truth-speaking” coin. T.C. invites men to engage in some “truth-listening.” And I wonder if men, even men like Zechariah who genuinely seek to be good and righteous and law-abiding and worthy, practiced silence a bit more, whether “truth-listening” would come easier for us. I wonder whether the speech that would arise out of the practice of silence might be wiser, less reactive, and more empathetic.
In fact, I think the Elizabeth gives us a hint of this very thing in our readings for today. At first, oh-so-unsurprisingly given the patriarchal underpinnings of both Luke’s society and our own, we hear little from Elizabeth. When she does speak, it is only after she has “gone into seclusion” – we don’t know any details about this, but she is certainly not shouting from the mountaintops. And yet, a somewhat surprising thing happens when Elizabeth receives a visit from her cousin Mary. In Sharon Ringe’s words, “Elizabeth’s body teachers her” – and thus teaches us – “theological truths.” Elizabeth’s child, the one who will become John the Baptist, leaps in her womb at the sight of Mary, pregnant with the one who will become Jesus. And it is Elizabeth who is the first one in Luke’s gospel to proclaim the Messiahship of Jesus, the first to make a Christological affirmation. She exclaims this in a loud voice, and her blessings and exultations in turn invite Mary into singing her earth-shaking, power-challenging “Magnificat.” Out of Elizabeth’s seclusion arises wisdom and gospel truth; out of her silence she pours forth proclamation, prophecy, and praise.
And what of Zechariah? His story, as it turns out, is not over. When the time comes for Elizabeth to give birth, their community assumes that the baby will be named after his father, Zechariah. “No,” says Elizabeth, taking confident command of the situation, “the baby’s name is John.” How did she know this, if Zechariah is unable to speak? Did he write her a note? Or does Elizabeth have her own access to the divine good news, and the wisdom to share it? The community doesn’t seem to want to believe Elizabeth – “Big surprise,” says every woman ever, “they don’t want to believe the woman.” But Zechariah, prompted to sign to them, does finally ask for a writing tablet and lets them know that Elizabeth has it right. Then, and only then – after writing, “You know, y’all, she’s right, you should listen to her” – is Zechariah permitted to speak. And the speech that pours forth out of his long silence? It’s an echo and a continuation of Mary’s earlier song, a Benedictus to echo and amplify her Magnificat. We sang and recited pieces of Zechariah’s prayer earlier in this service, praising God for liberation and for mercy, for holiness and justice. “Such is the tender mercy of our God,” Zechariah cries, “who from on high will bring the Rising Sun to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Out of Zechariah’s silence arises a call for our feet to be guided in the way of peace.
And so as I read these texts, I reflect on Elizabeth who, out of her silence and seclusion, speaks. I reflect on Zechariah, whose hasty speech leads him to silence before he can be invited into speech again. I think about all those #metoo posts on my Facebook wall, which have now been joined by #churchtoo posts, breaking an oppressive form of silence and naming the reality of sexual harassment and assault in our supposedly sacred spaces. I think about silence and speech. I reflect on times in my own life, too many times recently it seems to me, in which I leapt to hasty speech instead of pausing, waiting, holding a wise silence. And times when my speech has served to silence others. And I think too of times when I could have, should have, spoken up and said something. And times when I’ve felt shut down, or silenced, or shamed, or stigmatized. I’ve been reflecting on when to speak. And when to keep silent.
I suppose I wish I had some sort of easy, three-step guide for you this morning. Here’s when to speak up, and here’s when to hold your tongue, I could say, and they would be pithy, and alliterative, and they would rhyme. I don’t have that. But I do have three themes, or maybe three spaces in our lives, which I think call us to discernment and wisdom in deciding when to speak and when to hold silence.
First, for folks like me who like to talk, who have a tendency to jump in and speak right away, I think we need a regular practice of silence. I think we, like Zechariah, need to listen to the divine messenger who invites us, rather than condemns us, into a space of silent reflection. Perhaps we may discover that there are forms of silence that are more powerful than our habitual speech. Perhaps if we begin from a space of silence, our speech will be wiser, more empathetic, based more in believing and amplifying the stories of those who have been marginalized and silenced, and thus more evocative of justice, and of mercy, and of peace. Perhaps those of us who are accustomed to speaking but suddenly seem to lose our voice when it comes to naming and interrupting abuse and injustice might spend more usual time in silence so that we can speak more rightly and more justly when the extraordinary is called for. Perhaps we can learn to, as T.C. Morrow says, “truth-listen.”
Second, for folks who, perhaps like Elizabeth, instinctively move toward silence and seclusion, perhaps in that silence and seclusion you might hear the voice of the Spirit calling you to speak out, calling you to cry out. Perhaps, like the courageous women who have broken oppressive silence with the #metoo campaign, your voice is needed. Perhaps silence is the seedbed out of which good news and the proclamation of truth can arise.
Third and finally, I want to just say a few words about silence as it relates to stigma and shame. As I mentioned earlier, this whole story of Elizabeth and Zechariah is based around this trope of the barren woman who miraculously conceives a child. Of course, in its original context, this trope was intended as a message of hope, a reversal toward justice for those who have been unjustly associated with sin and shame. And yet, the idea that somehow finally having that child fixes everything still leaves some of that stigma in place, doesn’t? Still says that those who have children are somehow blessed by God, while those who do not…..What of them? There’s a danger in interpreting the text this way, reinforcing the very shame the text is meant to undo.
But I don’t think that’s the core message of this text. This text calls us to think critically about the stigma and shame that surrounds those whose circumstances are popularly blamed on their own moral failings, their own decisions or sins. In Luke’s time and perhaps still in our time, barrenness or childlessness – always blamed on the woman, never the man, by the way – was one of those circumstances. In our own time, those who come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault are often blamed for the violence enacted against them, told that if only they had not dressed like that or had that drink or associated with that man, they would have been safe. We need to challenge that sort of stigma, and the silencing that it seeks to enact.
And while I can’t speak with much personal authority about the stigma surrounding childlessness – as the male partner in my relationship, I’m largely spared such things – or about the silencing of survivors of sexual assault, I do know a thing or two about the silencing effect of shame and stigma. As someone who struggles with a mental illness, I’ve grappled with the question of whether the suffering associated with my illness is somehow caused by God or by my personal failings or my lack of faith, which I am convinced it is not.
And so what I see as good news in this text for anyone who has an experience that has been surrounded by stigma and shame and enforced silence is not that there is some miraculous cure waiting out there if we just have enough faith. That doesn’t really strike me as good news. No. The good news is that it is from those places of silencing, from those places of stigma and seeming shame, that the words of gospel truth, of liberation and mercy, can pour forth. It’s not that Elizabeth’s barrenness is “healed” but that her experience of shame, stigma, and silence becomes the source, the seedbed, out of which the proclamation of good news can arise. Not because suffering is good, but because in the midst of suffering we are able to stumble across the goodness of a God who proclaims hope to the hopeless. In the deafening silence, in the feeling of seclusion, in the seeming darkness, there, perhaps, we can be quiet enough to hear the voices that need to be heard – whispering now, perhaps, but soon to shout out for justice and truth.
And so I pray for us all. That we may have the spiritual discernment to know when to speak out and when to hold silence and when to break the silence. That we can practice the kind of silence and the kind of speech in which we can hear the voice of the Spirit proclaiming that the dawn from on high is breaking, shining on those who dwell in the shadow of death, and guiding us along the way to a promised future of justice and of peace.
 Sharon Ringe, Luke, part of the Westminster Bible Companion, series editors Patrick D. Miller & David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 25.
 Ringe, Luke, 25-26.
 Ringe, Luke, 30.
 Ringe, Luke, 34.