Preached August 14, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC
Our first song tonight comes from the sixties duo Simon and Garfunkel. The Sound of Silence propelled the duo to the top of the charts in January of 1966. Paul Simon wrote the song in 1964 in the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination the year before. Let’s try it:
Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again, Because a vision softly creeping, Left it’s seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence.
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone, ‘neath the halo of a street lamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.
I’ve been wrestling with this meditation for a couple of weeks now. I’ve told myself it’s because I’m busy doing other things that need to get done – but I think the truth is that I’ve really avoided putting this meditation together because it’s a tough, and touchy, subject. Do I really want to stand here and tell you to be “extremists”? That word has so much baggage around it – evoking visions of terrorists, car bombers, and gunmen. When we talk about “extremists,” we’re talking, generally, about people who do bad things, who hurt people. Extremists make us uncomfortable – even frighten us. We resist being pegged as extremists because we think the word means that we’re inflexible, or judgmental, or stubborn, or dedicated to only one right way in this world. This is what “extremist” has come to mean – someone who cannot be swayed, someone who becomes dangerous – to themselves and to others – when challenged. But, when I say that the Holy calls us to be extremists – this is something totally different from the vision we have of extremists. The Holy calls us to redefine this word – to reclaim it and redeem it. In our new definition of extremist we find someone who is not closed off to others and their opinions or dreams – but someone who is so extreme that they can take in the opinions and dreams of others and – if not validate them – at least make room for them, try to understand them, and work to reconcile with those we find different from ourselves. When we find ourselves doing the hard work of reconciliation – the hard work of unifying things that seem so opposite that they can never exist in the same world – then we are doing the work of true extremists – we have become extremists in love, extremists in caring, extremists in hospitality, extremists in joy. This is the kind of extremism that makes us say, “Whee! We! Wee!” all the way home. We are like the prophets of old – who were certainly called extremists in their day. We are called to dream the dreams they dreamed, to see the visions they saw – visions of unity and not division. Visions of equality and not inequality, visions of love and not hate, visions of justice and not injustice, visions of joy instead of despair. Visions of all going “Whee! We! Wee!” all the way home. It’s only the true extremists among us who can be a light in this darkness that seems to blanket our world. It is only true extremists, true radicals, who can be silent enough to hear that still small voice even in the midst of life’s clamor and distractions. It is a true extremist who can give voice to the restless dreams of our world – dreams of a world at peace – a world at one. An extremist hears the sound of silence – that wee, tiny voice – and understands that in that stillness God is calling us not just to come out of the darkness ourselves, but to engage in that “we-ness” of life, and lead others with the vision the Holy has planted in our brains. They still remain, within the sound of silence.
And in the naked light I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.
Fools said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you, Take my arms that I might reach you
. But my words like silent raindrops fell,
And echoed In the wells of silence
Elijah was one of these extremist prophets. He had enjoyed much success as a prophet and we find him in today’s passage coming off of a big success. He had battled some 450 prophets of the false god Baal on Mt Carmel, that King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had introduced to the people of Israel. It was a battle of extremists, between those who wanted to bring in the division of the cult of Baal, and Elijah, who fought on the other extreme, for the Yahweh, who had made a covenant with the people of Israel – part of which was to have no other gods before Yahweh. Another extremist in the story is Queen Jezebel, a foreigner who had married King Ahab. Jezebel was so angry over this public humiliation of her prophets that she vowed to kill Elijah, so he fled, and we find him in our passage in a cave on Mount Horeb, which is also known as Mount Sinai. This is important, because this is the exact spot where God had previously given Moses the ten commandments. Here, Elijah encounters the presence of God, just as his ancestor Moses did. Elijah also comes to this mountain much like Moses, tired and worn out from trying to give people the message God wants them to hear – a message of unity, peace, and justice. In Elijah’s story we learn that being an extremist for God’s love and mercy in this world is a hard job – one that can feel overwhelming, exhausting, and often hopeless. When we catch up with Elijah in this passage, he’s been in the wilderness at Mount Horeb for forty days and forty nights – which in the language of the Hebrews basically means, a long, long time. As a successful, extremist prophet of God, Elijah isn’t used to losing – so at the first sign of failure, he’s discouraged, and feeling all alone. He complains to God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.” I should note that Elijah fled into the wilderness without any food and water. Over these past 40 days God has sent him food and water. God has supplied his every need, and listened patiently while he bitched and moaned about how nobody would listen to him anymore. He felt as if his words were like silent raindrops falling into wells of silence. If anyone deserved a good divine smack down, it was Elijah. Instead, God uses that silence to speak volumes to Elijah. Instead of a rebuke, God simply says “Go, return on your way.” This is the life of an extremist, Jubilants, the life we are called to. It can often be lonely. It can be fraught with despair and complaints. It can make us feel like we are all alone – struggling against the King Ahabs and Jezebels of our day that deny justice and mercy to those who need it most. But, even in those dark days when we think our work is in vain, the Holy is with us, working in, through and around us, providing for us, and urging us to hear that still small voice in the silence say to us: “Go, return on your way.” Breathe deeply.
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made.
And the sign flashed out it’s warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said, the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls.
And whisper’d in the sounds of silence.
The Holy is an extremist, Jubilants, make no mistake. Why else would she create such a world of extremes? asks Matthew Fox. “The ecstasy of beauty and the unforgettable pain. Perfection and injustice. The Yes and the No. The Father and the Son. They mysticism and the prophecy. To care and not to care. To remember and forget; to love and to hate; to despair and to hope; summer and winter; ecstasy and the void; fullness and emptiness; justice and mercy; treble and bass; male and female; talk and silence; life and death.” “What we need to avoid,” Fox contends, “is not the extremes but the limiting of ourselves to only one extreme and neglecting the contrary.” When we can fully live into both beauty and pain, despair and hope, summer and winter, then we become the kind of extremists the Holy has called us to be – because then, we are fully alive, and only then can we truly say: Whee! We! Wee! All the Way Home. Breathe deeply. Our second song comes from one of the most successful bands of the 1970s. Formed in Los Angeles in 1971 by Glenn Frey Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner, the Eagles had five number one singles and six Grammys to show for their efforts. This morning’s song went to #4 on the charts back in 1975. “Take it to the Limit” was on the Eagles fourth album, One of These Nights. Let’s try it:
All alone at the end of the evening
and the bright lights have faded to blue. I was thinking ’bout a woman who might have loved me,
but I never knew. You know I’ve always been a dreamer
(spend my life runnin’ round)
and it’s so hard to change (can’t seem to settle down) but the dreams I’ve seen lately keep on turnin’ out and burnin’ out and turnin’ out the same.
CHORUS: So put me on a highway and show me a sign
and take it to the limit one more time.
In our Jesus story, we find our guy out for a walk with his disciples in the district of Tyre and Sidon. There he is approached by a Canaanite woman whose daughter is sick – or “tormented by a demon,” as this morning’s reading tells us.
Jesus, bless his heart, doesn’t come off too well in this encounter with this woman. Instead of the gentle, compassionate Jesus we’ve seen in other healing stories, Jesus is not just rude, but downright insulting to this woman. He tells quite plainly, “I’m not here for you people. I haven’t been sent to help your kind.” He even calls her a dog for her trouble. It’s no surprise, really, that a fully human Jesus, a Jew living in this first century culture, would react to this woman in this way. The gospel of Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite, but there really were no Canaanites alive at the time when this encounter is said to have taken place. Instead, the label is used as a pejorative, an insult reflecting age-old prejudices against Canaanites who were gentiles, and considered no more pleasing to God than Jezebel and her prophets of Baal. We’re used to thinking of Jesus as an extremist – in the best sense, of course. The man who overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, the man who broke the Sabbath rules, and ate with tax collectors and sinners. This was a true radical, a true extremist for God’s love and mercy for all people. But, here he is, shrinking from his duties just like Elijah before him. Perhaps Jesus was having an Elijah moment that day, feeling overwhelmed by his duties, and still one more person comes up to him while he’s out for a stroll, asking for healing. Only, he’s got an out this time – she’s not one of the chosen ones, so no trouble, she’s not on his list to heal today. But, in this hated Canaanite woman, Jesus has met his match. Instead of shrinking away from him after he called her a dog, she showed Jesus what a true extremist of love looks like. “I may be a dog,” she tells him, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” What makes this woman an extremist is that she was willing to step out of her comfort zone and approach a strange man walking down the street. In her culture, this was taboo. So, just approaching Jesus is an extremely brave step. Then, when she is soundly rebuked by this man, who, according to culture, had every right to rebuke her, she stood her ground, and told put Jesus in his place. She’s a role model for the kind of extremism the Holy calls us to. We’re called to be extreme in our boldness, extreme in our bravery, extreme in our faith, but also to be extremely vulnerable. Jesus, as a first century man, could have demanded this woman’s be jailed for this kind of harassment. He could have even called for her execution for being so impudent. Instead, Jesus heard the voice of God in the still, probably trembling, voice of this outcast woman. Jesus is humbled by this lesson in faithful extremism. And he said to her: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was instantly healed. Breathe deeply.
You can spend all your time making money, Or you can spend all your love making time. If it all fell to pieces tomorrow would you still be mine?
And when you’re looking for your freedom
(nobody seems to care)
And you can’t find the door (can’t find it anywhere)
when there’s nothing to believe in still you’re coming back, you’re running back, you’re coming back for more.
CHORUS: So put me on a highway and show me a sign
and take it to the limit one more time.
“Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus praises this woman, this woman his society says he can despise with impunity, for her extremism. The Greek word for “great” is “megas” and it can mean “intensity” – which is what extremism is all about – our intensity for the Holy. It is in that intensity for the Holy that we come to know the ecstasy of this life, this is where we find the ability to go Whee! We! Wee! all the way home. That ecstasy teaches us, just as that woman taught Jesus, that we need to take life to the limit, but not only to one side or the other. Instead, the extremism of the Holy is one that stretches us in all directions. Holy extremism stretches our hearts, our minds, our souls until we can see no reason for hating anyone, until we can see no separation between ourselves and others. “If our souls are not stretched,” asks Matthew Fox, “how will God enter to dwell there?” In this stretching we lose sight of our own self-interest, our own self-absorption, and we finally understand the “we-ness” of this world. We understand that even our modern day hated Canaanites remain our brothers and sisters. We understand that there is no one outside of God’s love and care – and therefore there is no one outside of our own love and care. In this stretching we also understand that we are not alone. Even in our deepest moments of despair when we think we are the only ones out there trying to make the world a better place, we, too, can listen for that still small voice and hear anew God’s promise to Elijah: “Yet, I will leave seven thousand in Israel.” No prophet is ever left alone. God will always send others, because this is a community effort – this is about being a group of extremists, ready to breathe in the despair of the world and breathe out joy. Ready to be bold and vulnerable, persistent and gentle, soft and firm. I invite you, today, Jubilants, to be extremists, to allow the Holy to stretch you in new ways, to call you out of your comfort zone on a weekly, daily and hourly basis. Open your heart to the Holy and live fully into your role as a Holy extremist, ready to get on the highway, read the signs, and take it to the limit, one more time.
So put me on a highway and show me a sign
and take it to the limit one more time.
Take it to the limit, take it to the limit,
take it to the limit one more time.
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.