Pastor David Eisenhuth
One of the most effective sermons I have ever heard was preached by a seminarian in Abiding Presence Chapel at Gettysburg Seminary (now United Lutheran Seminary after its merger with the Philadelphia Theological Seminary). Students preached at the noonday service of Morning Prayer each weekday except on Wednesdays, when the Eucharist was celebrated. I heard this homily during the winter of my first year, which would have been 1978. That’s a long time ago. Since I remember it so clearly you know it made an impression on me.
The text the student used was Psalm 46:10. It simply says, “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s not easy to preach on one verse and fill up the expected 10 minutes for any homily. Interestingly enough, after reading the verse, the student stood in the pulpit intently looking at all of us in the congregation. Now it’s not unusual for preachers to survey the audience in silence. Sometimes they are looking to see who is actually “out there,” so as to modify and adapt what they have written to make it more relevant to the listeners. Occasionally they have forgotten how to begin, and have to take a moment to collect themselves before beginning.
All of us were curious as to what seemed like a protracted pause. When it stretched out to 30 seconds it was obvious to all of us that something was wrong. In today’s world many preach from an iPad. Bishop Bill does. I’m not a technophobe, but I would be concerned about battery strength and the possibility of equipment failure! This happened long before the advent of such tools, so it wasn’t that. Could it be that the student had forgotten the sermon and didn’t know what to say? How embarrassing!
After five minutes, people in the pews were shifting in their seats in an uncomfortable way, communicating that enough was enough. Mind you, the preacher was still looking at everyone with a determined grimace. No doubt many in the congregation were praying that the long silence would soon end and we could all go to lunch.
At the 10-minute mark the preacher said in a still, small voice, “Be still and know that I am God.” Then the preacher sat down. Aha! This was an exercise in meditation. How better to understand that simple command in Psalm 46 than to actually sit there in silence and “listen to God.” Maybe we don’t hear actual words at any given time, but we have to be quiet to hear what might be spoken. The silence itself expresses the unfathomable depth of God’s existence.
Those of you who know me know that I like to talk. (No moans, please.) It’s not that I don’t like silence. I have a lot to say. But in reality, protracted silence is uncomfortable for me. Perhaps it is for you, too. In worship this is especially difficult. There are places in the liturgy when the rubrics (instructions) indicate a brief pause. Most come after the salutation and invitation to pray. People are supposed to “collect their thoughts.” The Prayer of the Day was, in fact, at one time called just that – the Collect. When the direction for silence appears in the bulletin, the ensuing silence lasts for no more than five seconds. Anything longer gets uncomfortable.
It may surprise you to learn that Luther thought the ideal service of worship would be close to what Quakers do. The assembly sits in a circle, closes their eyes, and waits in silence for the Holy Spirit to come and move the group. This probably did not work very long. I suspect Luther probably never tried it with a group of lay people. As a member of a religious order, he would have experienced long periods of silence and been comfortable with that. But for lay people, the liturgy, which fills up silence with hymns, prayers, and formal words, seemed better.
And so silence is relegated to prayer groups and retreats. Pity, because as that sermon so long ago invited me to contemplate God and listen for God’s words to me, meditation is an effective tool for bringing us closer to God. Silence is part of the discerning process when we listen for God’s advice.
We have an interesting opportunity to reclaim some of the importance of meditation when a new service de- buts on Wednesday, September 18. At 7 p.m. we will gather at the front of the sanctuary for a Taizé service. Perhaps you have heard about Taizé. It’s a community of about 100 brothers who live in a monastery by that name in Burgundy, France. It was founded in 1954 by Brother Roger. Taizé worship uses a comfortable space (pillows and chairs), soft music, candlelight, icons, repetitive chant, and guess what—silence to create an atmosphere of meditation wherein we can experience the presence of God.
Our director of Praise Worship, Andy Wallace, made a pilgrimage to East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pitts- burgh to experience a Taizé service which has been going on for nearly 30 years. He and his wife, Jeanne, were moved by the service. Andy came back really enthused to give this a try at Trinity. He has been working hard to make this first service very special. Please come on September 18 at 7 p.m. Don’t be afraid of the silence. No one is expected to say anything. Just be open to that still, small voice which may speak to you!
“Be still and know that I am God!”
-Pr. David Eisenhuth