10 February 2017
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep.” (Luke 5)
Michelle Obama is famous for having said, “When they go low, we go high.” I’d like to play off that statement this morning, but paraphrasing it to say, “When they go thin, we go deep.”
Now, the “they” in that statement is nobody in particular. It’s anyone who speaks a platitude, or a slogan, or some kind of propaganda—anything that’s said that substitutes superficiality for substance; triviality for seriousness; shallowness for depth. You know what I mean: you can hear it most anywhere. On the television news, in the mouths of politicians, from the lecterns of the halls of academia—even from the pulpits of the church (I hasten to add).
But moving from the thinness of so much of what we hear, to the depths for which our hearts and minds yearn, is important, because in the gospel we just heard, Jesus teaches his disciples that it’s in the deep where the fish are to be found. Jesus is walking along the lake of Gennesaret, and he comes upon several fishing boats lined up along the shore, one of them belonging to Simon. The fisherman have been out all night, though the fisherman haven’t caught a thing. Yet Jesus bids them to put out their boats once more, and directs them to come with him into deeper water, and to let down their nets there. And what happens? Their nets come up full to overflowing, so heavy with fish that they even start to tear. Depth, that’s where there’s a catch to be made!
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about language, and the difficulties that come with trying to say something of substance, something with depth, something that resists the rising tide of vulgar simplification. I was put in this frame of mind by a TED talk that a colleague group to which I belong shared together. It was given by Lera Broditsky, a cognitive scientist who spoke on the topic, “How language shapes the way we think.” She pointed out that there are roughly 7,000 different languages spoken around the globe—which also means that there are roughly 7,000 different worldviews, because language shapes the way in which we understand ourselves, and the world around us.
As an example, she pointed to an aboriginal society in which their language has no equivalent for “left” and “right.” Instead, they orient themselves according to the four directions. So, for example, if I hold up at this moment what I would call my “right” hand, they would describe it as my “southwest” hand. Or if I held up my “left” hand, they would say that it was my “southeast” hand. Think of the difference in that: instead of defining my place in the world in reference to myself (left or right), this culture would have me define it by reference to the physical world around me (north, south, east, west).
The point is that when we use words, we naively assume that they have a kind of direct correspondence to the world around us. In fact, even words with the most obvious meanings, are actually very culturally conditioned—like left and right. And if that is true of simple concepts like left and right, how much more so of extremely complex concepts like—God, for instance! In our common usage, you and I assume rather casually that the word “God” refers to something rather concrete and tangible. But if we start to pick that word apart a bit, we quickly discover that it is rather indeterminate. Do we mean by God the unity of all things in the divine life, or their inherent diversity? Do we mean by God an inexhaustible reservoir of mercy and compassion, or the judgment of evil? Do we mean by God a reality that is as near as the beating of our own heart, or as transcendent as the heavens above ultimately beyond our knowing?
In short, as we begin to pick apart the idea of God, do we not come to a place where God is the silence that is left when the games of all of our other speech have ceased? Is God … silence? That’s deep.
The silence of God, however, is not a void. It is a silence that is full. A silence that is pregnant. A silence where we stop spilling our platitudes and slogans and propaganda about ourselves, and discover the depths. Thomas Merton once said, “If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything, will never become anything, and, in the end, because we have said everything before we had anything to say, we shall be left speechless.”
Our Christian life is about learning what it means to have something true to say, by stilling the superficial voices of the self sufficiently to hear the deep, silent voice of God. And by extension, church is a place where we come to learn how to use words carefully, thoughtfully, expressively, deeply—breaking the silence only when necessary. Even the words we use here in worship, which in their abundance may at first seem to be the antithesis of silence, are ultimately about replacing the superficial interior dialogue we have with ourselves, with a language that first substitutes, and then quiets our interior voice so that we may hear the silence that is God. [You have to sing Amazing Grace a thousand times, before you can really sing it once.]
Now, I know that for most of us, “silence” is about as accessible in our daily routine, as “order” is in our households. But it’s all around us, like the air we breath, waiting to be heard. It’s there, whenever you need to listen to it. So maybe, just now, in the prayers we are about to offer, you will hear in this moment the silence that is the deep, the silence that says more than anything else you will hear today, the silence that is at the core of life, the silence that both preceded and will follow you. So listen: listen for the depths, listen for what God’s silent voice has to say to you. Amen.