"On Silence and Noise" 4 of 4 in a series on forms of “Contemplation in the Bible” (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)

Mark Longhurst, May 13, 2018
Part of the Easter series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

May 13, 2018
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 14: 26-33
Sermon: Rev. Mark Longhurst
On Silence and Noise
4 of 4 in a series on forms of “Contemplation in the Bible”

One thing you can say about Paul’s Corinthian Christians is that they are not quiet. They are noisy.

We’ve been in the midst of a series on various forms of contemplation in the Bible. Silence is sometimes thought to be the heart of contemplation. But the earliest Christians do not dwell in a monastery, and in Paul’s day, Christian spirituality has not yet grounded its roots in silence. The earliest churches, and the Corinthian church in particular, are full of noise.

They are rowdy. In Corinth, everyone has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation to share. In congregational style, everyone has a preferred style of music, an opinion about the sermon, and a passionate insight to share. You can imagine if we did whole-church hymn sings and dialogical sermons every week—it might become unruly. But long before stained glass and boxed pews, the apostle Paul meets with Jesus-followers in their houses. And the letters that he writes, and this letter from which we’ve heard today, are the earliest glimpses into what the Jesus movement looked like. The glimpse is startling, because the first Christians have more in common with the experiential Spirit flow of Pentecostals than they do mainline Congregationalists or Catholics.

It will be Pentecost next week, and Pentecost in the mainline tradition sometimes serves as that once a year time in which we remember that people, not us mind you, experience ecstatic speech—what’s known as speaking in tongues. In Paul’s letters it is called a gift from the Holy Spirit Herself. We might know of this strange occurrence by academia’s more distanced term glossolalia, from the Greek glossa “tongue” or “language,” which means “the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship.” You can even sense the skepticism dripping from the Oxford Living Dictionary’s writer; it is the phenomenon of apparently speaking in an unknown language, as if the writer shrugs her shoulders and says, “I don’t know. It may be real, it may not. I give up.”

What we can say, though, is that in the early church, trance-like speech, worship based on prophetic or psychic messages, opening the floor to the Spirit’s wind of instruction, often spirals out of hand. We have to remember that when we read Paul’s letters, we are, as one scholar puts it, reading someone else’s mail. This is not the best foot that the church could or would have put forward. 1 Corinthians is not the Corinth church’s welcome brochure or website. It’s an uninvited window into their community, some of it transformative and exciting, and some of it is downright embarrassing and noisy.

Sometimes noise serves a spiritual purpose. Paul is not anti-noise. The experiential testimony of the Corinthians serves as an ancient corrective to mainline religion’s largely intellectual and subdued style of worship. Paul assumes that when Christians gather, stuff happens. Visions and intuitions and songs and proclamations exult from the heart, from our voices and bodies, such that we can’t keep it in. This is why in Christian tradition there is such a sustained tradition of Spirit-inspired fervor in worship, from quaking Quakers to dancing Shakers to Azusa Street tongue-speakers. Paul assumes the Spirit’s relative unruliness, and, not one for modesty, even brags about his own ecstatic gifts; he says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”

Sometimes, though, noise is just noise. And that’s what Paul is sorting out; what’s helpful, and what’s not. This strange experience of apparently speaking in other languages may serve as one person’s intimate time with God, and Paul says that’s great, it’s one way to pray. But if there’s no one who can interpret, or make sense of the experience for the larger group of people gathered, than it’s best to stay silent at the risk of becoming unintellible or noisy. After bragging about how much he speaks in tongues, Paul says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in church, I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in an [ecstatic] tongue.”

From a contemplative perspective, noise is what knocks our hearts off the rails. Noise is what fills our minds. You know those repetitive loops that play in our heads like a record player’s stuck needle? We respond to what that person said, we replay whole scenarios, we side with that group over against that other group, we take offense. And we call it our identity, or we call it political discourse. But the Trappist Monk and writer Thomas Keating sees through these repetitive loops. He names them our “programs for happiness.” There are three primary programs that we subscribe to, he says: the need for security and survival, the need for affection and esteem, and the need for power and control. And, he says, to find any freedom in the spiritual life, we need to release our programs of happiness to God.

Instead of raucous noise, according to Paul, there is another way to engage in the spiritual life. This way is about building up, or in other translations, edification. The Greek word oikodome, used in verse 26 for building up, means to build, as in to build a building, or, interestingly enough, to edify. What this implies is that we who are on a spiritual path are in the process of building a place for God to dwell. There is a sanctuary within us, but we cannot hear God’s voice, or respond to God’s presence, unless we become skillful in dealing with noise. And to do that, silence is needed. “If there is no one to interpret, Paul says, “let them be silent.” Silence creates the capacity to cut through the noise, and to discern what is useful in building a sanctuary for God, and what is not.

Of course, in the next verse, verse 34, Paul pens an immensely unfortunate and infamous verse telling women to be silent in church. There’s contemplative silence and then there’s oppressive silence, which are not the same thing. The church in its two thousand year history has largely silenced women and minority voices. It’s only in the last fifty years that women became equal to men in religious office that mothers could be clergy too. But what’s interesting to me here is not cataloguing how much of a misogynist Paul is, but that the letter already assumes women are active teachers and sermonizers and prophesiers and apparent glossalia speakers in the first place.

Sometimes the Spirit compels us to make some noise, to speak out and not be silent. Today marks the launch of Martin Luther King Jr. reconstituted Poor People’s Campaign, led by the Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis. At 35 state capitols across the country, thousands of people of faith will be standing out against the interlocking issues of racial injustice, poverty, environmental degradation, and war.

The way to discern when to make noise and when to be quiet, however, is to cultivate a relationship with silence. We cannot avoid it—otherwise we become overpowered by noise, and superficiality and obsession, rather than wisdom and freedom, wins. But this isn’t only a matter of talking less. Silence to the contemplative practitioner is not the absence of noise but a posture of the heart; a skillful presence through and around and within noise. Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Silence doesn’t mean not talking and not doing things; it means that you are not disturbed inside.”

Several years ago, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh led thousands to sit in silence in London’s Trafalgar Square. Trafalgar Square is London’s equivalent of Times Square. It’s where the yearly Christmas tree is raised, where World Cup fans cheered England’s Team in the streets, and where the largest political demonstrations march. But in 2012, four thousand or so people descended on the Square with one objective: to sit in silence. The taxis still blared their horns, and the trains still made their stops, but the collective presence of meditators changed noise into silence. This simple practice reminded them and us of what is possible and necessary for spiritual survival in a world of noise.

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