Sunday, July 13, 2008

Written on the subway walls and tenement halls…

Palisades Presbyterian Church, Palisades, NY
Sermon Delivered July 13, 2008
©2008 Ray Bagnuolo

Psalm 119:105-112
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

It was in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that Paul Simon composed the song “The Sound(s) of Silence.” He wrote it as an attempt to capture the heart of a nation reeling from the unthinkable.

Included in their night club and coffee house performances, Simon and Garfunkel performed “Sound of Silence” on an album they soon released, which subsequently flopped. Shortly afterwards, they broke up as a group and went their separate ways.

Unbeknownst to either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, their music label producer overdubbed the original with a bass, drums, and electric guitar and re-released the single in 1965. By January 1966, it was number one on the charts; the duo reunited and released a hasty album to capitalize on their success, and the rest is history.

And this song, in particular, is history. It is 18th on the most played song list of the 20th century and #156 on the top 500 songs of all time. Impressive, and not without reason.

I was thirteen or so when I first heard it. I had no idea that it so harmonized with the times and that its haunting depths would capture me every time I heard it or read the lyrics right up until today. It seems I am not alone in this.

At certain times, the song surfaces, as today. I am sure that it has come up here before in my comments, and I have more than once used it in school in any number of ways – to the delight of every group I have taught. In fact, after one lesson in which I first read the lyrics as a poem, discussed it with the class, and then wrote about it – I played the recording. You could have heard a pin drop. Even more interesting were the comments of parents and guardians that I received, about their children coming home humming “Sound of Silence,” much to their surprise and their own memories that it stirred.

Some messages are just like that. They don’t ever fade. The images they create linger long enough to become permanent in some way, even definitive about a way in which we see things. Sort of like a gospel…

For me, the lines that have always captured me are towards the end:

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls
and whispered in the sounds of silence.

You know that I grew up in the City, in the Bronx. There was something about the juxtaposition of the word “prophet” and the “tenement walls” that linked God and the neighborhood in a way that was real to me.

There was something about the real presence of God in the streets on which we lived that was different than the experiences I had had of “religion” – in the church, in the parochial school, in the traditions and sacraments. That was all wonderful and mysterious and profound, but the concept of God in the streets, talking to us through others, coming out of the silence – or the noises of silence: well, it opened God to me in ways that I had never thought of before.

Without knowing it, I think I was having my first radical experience! And, I was noticing the response of some of those around me for the first time, the efforts to quell the rising tide of disappointment, disbelief, and dissent of the sixties. I was observing more and more the phenomenon of truth confronting power, yet I wasn’t quite sure where they divided or came together. Later I discovered just how much a chord had been struck and a seed planted in me.

That chord, today, is still difficult to describe – but in its essence, I call it the voice that each of us has deep inside: the one that is listened to and is spoken of.

You may remember me at one point talking about my seminary professor, The Rev. Dr. Barbara Austin-Lucas. She’s the one that said, “When you read the Bible it reads you.”

[Ezekiel 37:1-14 Valley of the Dry Bones]

The day I heard her say that – I knew exactly what she meant. That was it! It was that voice again. The one that you suddenly hear, when you are not expecting to hear one at all. The one that is so real that it prompts some kind of response. It’s the voice that creates that “pause” out of nowhere like the “beauty” of last week’s comments.

Even more, it’s that creative spirit that we all hear in the many ways in which we practice such things in our life.

So, when Dr. Austin-Lucas said that I probably heard nothing else for the rest of the class. Because suddenly then, as now, all those thoughts I had had about how God was and is; the questions; the feelings that certain things could just not be right or had to be right – all of a sudden they were given, at least, the possibility of being true – and not sealed tightly in the slammed covers of a book held high overhead like an icon or idol to be worshipped.

The experience of discovering God and prophets and God active in today’s world, rather than limited to the 66 Books or 1282 pages of the first Gutenberg Bible was an important spiritual passage for me. From there, it’s really not such a big leap to believe that God is still writing the Bible today and that we should keep listening, praying, and taking action.

I see none of this as an affront the authority of the Bible; in fact, I see this continued interaction with God and each other in this way as called for in the writings of much of the Scritpures.

The inner voice, that conversation that is initiated by the Spirit that is in us all, the God-given gifts of intellect, consciousness, and a deeper sense than we know - demands that we bring alive the teachings of Jesus today – in ways that meet the needs and conditions of our times, as Jesus did in his. This is not relativism, by any means but true transcendence from one time to the next with the same message of the Love of God, carried in the Good News, written for times from then to now, for places from the fields of summer, to our houses of worship, to the innermost of neighborhoods and tenement walls.

Such is the power of the Gospel to weave itself flawlessly into all times and creation, in all languages and the silence that precedes them – if we let it be what it is: God alive in this world calling us into service of one another, sharing the love that is unconditionally granted to us.

The psalmist in this morning’s first reading reflects this great and personal relationship of the author and his or her community with God. It is a relationship that is not only thoughtful, but the first line makes it clear that there is a call that emerges from the voice of God that we hear: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet.” Not a lamp unto my brain, but my feet. Upon hearing the words, we know what we are supposed to do, and then it is up to us to “step up,” so to speak. To bring our relationship with God into all of our lives and dealings with ourselves and all we meet. Think of what that means to this broken world: love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, patience, understanding, acceptance… That is TRULY something radical!

In the 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 a the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence.

We are the agents who “split the night,” “touch the sound of silence,” and become that lamp unto the feet…helping to make sure the path becomes clear for ourselves and others to follow – and as the psalmist concludes:

“Your decrees are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever,
to the end.”

The vision, the knowing, the “Aha!” This is what we are called to do! It is our life in the many ways we live our life, tucked away in the deep knowing and sense of God within calling out to the others and God within them. It is, in fact, the ancient Sanscrit greeting: "Namasthe" - the Spirit in me greet the Spirit in you.

Nothing brings us to vibrancy in quite the same way as when we are in alignment, heart and soul with God and each other, inclining our hearts to perform God’s will, listening, talking with others, praying, and then taking action on what is still being revealed to us. Inclining our heart…to listen…to see…to hear…

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
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

When God calls us into the silence and visions of justice or hope or love – when God calls us over the expired boundaries of laws created long ago to ensure the survival of a race through purity codes for food, as an example, we need to listen in the now.

This world of ours is as divided now by what our religions teach us to do as any political regime’s mandates. Some of us exclude and divide, assuring ourselves and one another, that we are most right and others are most wrong – and we “shun” others in the name of God. How, in the name of God, could we do such a thing?

Where did we ever get such ideas? How did some places become so fallow? Well, it seems we didn’t listen.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells the gathered that seeds planted in the rich soil will grow a hundredfold, more or less. And then he says:

“Let anyone with ears listen!

“The one who hears the word and understands it will be blessed.”

Jesus didn’t then say, “So, here are the prescriptions and the proscriptions.” No, but he might have agreed with Simon and Garfunkel’s words:

“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”

He just might have…sung along...

As a teacher, I am always aware that my role is to provide the tools needed for the young people I teach to go out into their world prepared to think in effective ways, so that when they discover things in their lives that I could never imagine – in some way, I have helped them be prepared by being able to think – in a more intuitive way.

I have come to know that intuitiveness as the working domain of the Spirit – sometimes stifled by my own human condition tossing in stones, and thorns, and shallow soil. So I do not rely solely on the intuition, alone, for fear that it might be too much of my voice and not so much of God’s call. It’s the reason I need to be in community, prayer in community, worship, discussion, and even debate.

Still, there comes a time when all that is done - and one has to base their actions on their convictions. For me, it must always be about the other. I like my objects of comfort and time on the beach – maybe too much. But I do know that deep inside none of those things are as important as being faithful, true to the prophets’ voices all around me in this world of ours, the voices that speak deeply as they did to the psalmist or from Jesus, or the lyrics of a song and a time whose chord is struck by the path I have been given to follow.

A voice and a path, for me and others, that is alive here as any prophet or psalmist, poet or evangelist.

I think it is much more difficult to resist the voice of God in our lives, however we know God, once we have accepted the fact that God does, indeed, continue to speak to us. Once that happens, the light shines unto the feet, the harvest is assured to be abundant in ways beyond counting, and the silence is truly filled with the sounds of God’s great joy… welcoming and inviting all to follow.