Rev. Diane K. Hooge
The opening words of the Gospel of Luke gives us contrasting figures: King Herod of Judea, considered to be one of the most evil and cruel figures of history along with two figures of faith—Zechariah and Elizabeth.
It was two years ago today that I had my sermon written on Mary. And then came the horrendous news of the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 children and 6 staff were killed. Our nation was shaken. I remember that Saturday night tossing out my sermon and starting over…longing to bring some kind of comfort to a community of faith shaken to the core. On that Sunday morning, we had twenty of our youngest children up-front singing the Christmas song that they had been working on for weeks in preparation for that service. Tears were shed throughout the congregation…for we all got it! These children were about the same ages as the one’s lost in CT. The children reminded us of just how unbelievable the loss was not only for their parents, families, community and for our nation.
Two years later, and thousands more lives have been lost to gun violence. Two years later, and we’re still getting news like the report on Friday of another school shooting—this one gang related. Two years later, and we not only haven’t made any progress on gun violence, we are now dealing with horrendous revelations of the CIA. We have our own Herod’s —–and the Time person of the year offers us our own figures of faith: the Ebola Fighters. They don’t carry guns as their weapons, but bleach and prayer. While the world health organization wrapped itself in red tape, while governments came up with no solutions, the daring men and women of Doctors without Borders, The Christian medical-relief workers of Samaritan’s Purse, fought side by side with local doctors and nurses, ambulance drives and burial teams. They offer a contrast to the Herod’s of a world that often gets stuck in deadly structures. They are the faithful
Zechariah and Elizabeth were both descendants of priestly families. When they married Zechariah’s portrait was hung in the long line-up of temple priests, while Elizabeth stayed at home and was expected to produce a new generation of priests. Not only was becoming a priest not an option for her, we are told she was barren, and in those days the blame was placed directly on her. This was reason enough for Zechariah to have divorced her. But scripture tells us that they had not only kept their marriage intact, but they were considered righteous before God.
Elizabeth was used to Zechariah’s treks from their home in the hills to the Temple. As a priest, he had certain duties to carry out, but on this particular day, he had shown up at the Temple and upon casting the lots to see who got the honor of burning the incense on the holy alter, it was Zechariah who had won. This was most probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.
As all the folks are gathered outside waiting for the sweet fragrance and smoke to drift up from the altar representing their prayers being lifted to the heavens, Zechariah is confronted with an angelic presence. As he holds the sacred elements in his hands, the divine angel appears. He is both shocked and terrified. The angel offers words to comfort him. “Do not be afraid, your prayer has been answered.” Now, surely, Zechariah had given up praying for a son a long time ago. Not only is he scrambling to make sense out of the mystery of this visit, but he is stunned to hear that a son will be born to him and to Elizabeth. He did what anyone of us would do, he tried to bring some reason into the encounter by reminding this angel that he and his wife are well beyond that dream, and, after all, they are near retirement. I imagine it was difficult to even hear Angel Gabriel going on and on about this future son…especially when he got to the litany about how he was to be raised…even down to dietary issues. I can picture a glassy-eyed Zechariah stumbling to just keep his balance and stay upright.
Zechariah’s arguing with Gabriel did not go well. He probably re-played his reply a thousand times during the next nine months. In his humanness, Zechariah asked for a sign. He got his request. He was silenced. Gabriel made it clear that because he did not embrace the message, that he would become mute, unable to speak, until the birth of his son, John, who all of us know as John the Baptist.
Meanwhile, we can all imagine what is happening to the crowd outside who are growing weary of waiting to see the white smoke of the incense rising up. There is no fragrance greeting them. And, I suspect that some of the women are nervous because they timed the lamb shanks to be done based on when worship is always over.
Some scholars view Zechariah’s going mute as punishment for his lack of faith. My sense is that it was a powerful sign of God’s presence in Zechariah’s life. Not a day could go by without him being fully aware of the gift of new life that was coming and the expectations that were his for raising this future leader and prophet…the one who would point to the coming of the Messiah.
We’re offered a lesson that says that silence can be more powerful than words. And, it is in that silence that watching and waiting becomes far more intentional. In the midst of the outer world of darkness around the leadership of Herod was the power of God bringing forth new leadership, new hope and a new vision.
Divine calls do not immediately inspire folks to throw a party. The response is usually one that elicits mouth and stomach grabbing and a heavy intake of breath that often tends to push our shoulders up around our ears. Divine calls are usually not the type of information that one races around excitedly wanting to make public. They often demand a gestation period—a period of entering the silence and listening. There is generally a season of wrestling with God…a period of doubts and fears before one is able to claim, embrace and own the call. It is only after the internal process is well in place that it is time for the public announcement. It makes perfect sense to me why Elizabeth went into seclusion.
Silence comes into our lives in a variety of ways: the silence of an empty home after a death. An illness or a heart attack can bring the silence that comes with sitting in the hospital between blood draws and visitors while trying to make sense out of our body shutting us down. And, sometimes, the illness or injury is a wake-up call to the unfinished business that we may be carrying from a childhood trauma, or some painful encounter or event in our lives.
The great Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness, talks about how we know how to create spaces that invite the intellect to show up, and we know how to create spaces that invite the emotions into play, but we know very little about creating spaces that invites the soul to make itself known. It takes silence and patience in order for the soul to experience enough safety to reveal itself. I’ve always appreciated Palmer’s vulnerability in telling his audience about the importance of his seasons of silence during his bouts of depression. As he puts it, “In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
On the eighth day following the long hoped for child, the baby was gratefully carried into the gathered crowd of relatives and friends for the ritual of circumcision. The time came for the public to hear this newborn’s name. As his mother, Elizabeth, broke the rules and announced that his name would be John. The crowd was shocked. They called out with indignation, “You have no relatives by that name.” They sought out Zechariah, and scrambled to find a tablet. With his trembling hand, he wrote, “His name is John.” Any fears that he had had of living the rest of his life in silence ended in that moment as his tongue was loosened, and the party took on an additional piece of gratitude and celebration. From the nervous fearful responses of those living around them, there is the feeling that something has shifted, not only in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s life, but in their relationship with God, that has indeed already impacted neighbors, relatives and friends.
Aren’t we familiar with these actions? Let’s face it, truth speaking isn’t popular. It is important to remember that every divine call is wrapped in the words, “Do not be afraid.” Calls have an element of risk. They demand some kind of leap of faith. And, they demand support from our faith community.
I spent time Friday googling our seminarian Lacey Hunter who took part in a peaceful demonstration last Monday night protesting the grand jury decision in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. She was one of the ten students and faculty from Pacific School of Religion who were arrested and jailed. As Lacey expressed it, “It is a broken system where young people, where clergy, where anybody can sing “Amazing Grace” and have the response be brute force.” Fellow student, Randall Sparling, an army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, said, “We had to lay on metal without blankets or mattresses for the rest of the night…” (www.psr.edu/news/students-and-faculty-arrested-during-berkeley-protests.) Dr. Jennifer Davidson, Professor of Worship and Theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West was also part of that march. In her article as Guest contributor to Berkeleyside’s Daily Briefing email, she states, “The distraction comes in when we tell the story of violence without accompanying it with the intentional telling of the rest of the story: This is a movement of hundreds of thousands of protesters across the United States that both calls for and embodies peaceful protest rooted in love. These peaceful protesters are continuing to engage in holy disruption even when it means the need to take into consideration that they may come home severely injured because of the actions of others.”
Friday’s paper featured members of our church from Mountain Meadows on the front row protesting against the proposed pipeline. If the picture had been bigger, I would have spotted many more of our community who took a stand.
As always, we’re invited into the story. When and where have the lessons from seasons of waiting and watching come into your life? Did it follow a period of grieving? When have you been invited into a silence or at least a season of quieting down? What support do you need from this community to live out God’s call on your life?
In this season of transition and waiting for the next settled pastor, what is God’s invitation to this community of faith? In the discomfort that transition brings, we are often tempted to cling to old patterns in an attempt to re-create the familiar rather than trusting that God’s Spirit is actively working in our midst. May we collectively step out in faith as we listen for the Spirit’s leading in order to discern what is to be born anew within our church. Within a world of Herod’s, may we choose to be faithful to listening for what God wants for us. In the eclectic cast of characters of Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel’s words ring out, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, do not be afraid Elizabeth,”
Do not be afraid, First Congregational United church of Christ.
Do not be afraid Search Committee.
Do not be afraid, ( name members of congregation)
God is doing a new thing!
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. Amen.