By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD.
Readings: Acts 17.22-31; Psalm 66.7-18; 1 Peter 3.13-22; John 14.15-21
As we’ve been going through this pandemic crisis the last couple of months, and now as we are talking about re-opening the economy as well as social life, I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is for people to be alone, to be comfortable in their own skin. So many people are alone together, standing two metres apart, talking via phone or Zoom. For many people it’s been an opportunity for soul-searching, rest, slowing down, maybe even having more time to talk with friends and family because they can’t do all the things they usually do.
For others, though, it’s a scary and anxious time – not just because of the COVID pandemic but because no one knows exactly what the future holds, who’s really in charge, whether there is a God out there that can possibly help us. And in that context I’ve been thinking about Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sounds of Silence.” Listen to the words:
1) Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence.
2) 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.
3) 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 dared
The sound of silence
4) “Fools,” said I, “You don’t 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 raindrops, fell
And echoed in
The wells of silence
5) And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they had made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said: The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And the tenement hall and whispered
in the sound of silence.”
Paul Simon wrote that song in 1963, at a time when the world was in crisis. John F. Kenedy was shot the next year, a harbinger of many other political and social crises, and young people then as now were looking for meaning in their lives. The music of the era, in its own way, reflected the uncertainty, restlessness, and confusion of a generation deep in the effects of a cold war, a generation which did not know whether the world would survive for their children.The readings this morning are especially relevant to the restlessness, self-seeking protectiveness, and anxiety of our time. They are relevant to our own conversations about the future of the earth, our church, our community. Nearly everyone we know is seeking God, whether they recognize that or not. The readings address that longing, and they emphasize the importance of relationship, of intimacy between people – something that people are starving for in our culture and that many cannot find in the traditional places.
The gospel passage is a continuation of the passage from last Sunday, when Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Here Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”
The world cannot receive the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth – because it does not yet know about it. But we do, and we have been commissioned to pass that on. If the world cannot recognize the Spirit of Truth, is there something we can do to help make the Spirit more visible? The disciples, including us, have a special commission to share that story with everyone. And how they do that is what the reading from the Book of Acts is about.
Paul has gone from Jerusalem to Athens. He is standing in front of an altar to “the unknown god” at the Areopagus, which in ancient Greece was the equivalent of our modern Parliament. Now picture Parliament Hill in Ottawa, or Queen’s Park in Toronto, and imagine a large monument there. The scene would have looked something like that to Paul – a large imposing civic building with a large gathering place or park in front of it, and in that park an altar.
That altar was a reminder to the Greeks that in spite of all their wisdom and achievements there was something more – something they didn’t know or understand. And so Paul chose that place to deliver one of the greatest and most well-known sermons in the New Testament. It is to me a perfect example of how we Christians today who want to share the love of Christ need to be aware of the culture we live in and how we need to translate our language into terms that can be understood by those outside the church.
Paul did not start his sermon by telling the Athenians their beliefs were wrong, or that they were sinners. He started by affirming them in the faithfulness of their own religion:
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
Paul goes on to say that this unknown god is the very breath of life, the cause of our existence and the thing we most long for even without knowing it. God created a world in which all people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” For “in him we live and move and have our being.”
With these words Paul acknowledges that the ancient Greeks were wise and humble enough to know there was much they did not know. So they are open to hearing what Paul has to say about Jesus Christ.
What if Paul were to turn up in Toronto? What would he see? And what would he say? The neon gods of our culture are not quite as imposing at the memorial to the unknown God at the Aeropagus, and not as benign. Now this is just a fantasy, but I think he might say something like this: “as I went through your city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I saw many things that you worship: those coins and those plastic cards that you carry around in your pockets for instance.” Now we might expect him to say, “your culture is worshiping money and what it can buy.” But I don’t think Paul would say that. I think he might say something like this:
“I understand that those plastic cards and those coins are what you use to trade with each other. That’s good because they enable you to get the necessities of life and provide for your families. They also enable you to help others who don’t have all those coins and cards in their pockets.”
Paul might also comment on some of our acts of worship – everything from sex to sports to movies. I think he might say “All of these are expressions of beauty and love and physical strength – great gifts of the God who made the world and everything in it. And they hint at an even greater love that underlies all those things, that we all long for. ”
What do you think would be the altar to the unknown god which Paul would find in Toronto? In my fantasy I picture it as a smart phone kiosk, and I think Paul might say something like this: “Your smart phone, this unknown god, is a symbol of how much people in your culture want to connect, to be in relationship with each other. Some of your other gods have gotten in the way of that. But your phones and computers point to the ultimate meaning of our lives, the reason that God has created each of you – that is for love, for real human and divine relationships not merely technological ones.” And as he said to the Athenians, he would say to us:
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is Creator God served by human hands, as though anything was lacking, since Godself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
The great God of heaven and earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, gives us all good gifts – money or the means of trading, food, beauty, art, sexuality, love, physical strength – all the things that the Greek gods also represented. But above all, as Paul says at the end of his sermon, God will send the righteous one to judge the world – one whom God appointed. “And of this,” Paul says, “God has given assurance to all by raising Christ from the dead.”
And so might Paul’s sermon in Toronto conclude. Paul has taken what Jesus taught his disciples and enculturated it for the Greeks.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither seems him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
That is the relationship of intimate love which Jesus calls each of us into – a relationship that goes beyond the technology of our smart phones, a relationship that transcends all our human relationships and longings.
And then perhaps the sounds of silence will no long reflect a paralyzing fear which makes people bow before the gods of technology and neon consumerism, but will be recognized as a manifestation of God’s deep love for us and all creation.