Before we sing Silent Night, we should acknowledge that this evening’s story begins with those who are silenced this night and experience God as silent before we join with God to break the silence with joy and praise.
You came out on this long, dark night because you too know something of being silenced and of God’s silence. When one despairs that nothing can change, you have been silenced. When deceit has been found out, we have been silenced. When someone you loved betrays you, it is easy to succumb to the silence of shame.
People who hunger and thirst for justice and righteous have been silenced in recent months by grand jury decisions even as the victim is videoed saying, “I can’t breathe.” Whole segments of our community have been silenced by the color of their skin or had their cry for justice go unheard.
James Baldwin spoke about the silencing of the black experience in America saying, “You see, whites want blacks to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account really of black life can be held, can be contained, in the American vocabulary.” Baldwin’s statement is harsh but it could also be true of any minority experience in a dominant culture – silenced because “the vocabulary will not hold it.”
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You would think that climate extremes we have experienced in recent years would be enough to cause a chain reaction of immediate responses but as toxic as willful ignorance may be, the larger challenge may be the silence of despair that there is nothing I can do. In his essay, “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” Wendell Berry says, “the distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.”
Our story tonight is about a couple, the Holy Family we say, but, in actuality, a silenced people. Our story tonight is a story of hope for silenced people and people who have experienced God as silent before it becomes a Silent Night.
In April 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” and one of the memorable phrases from the sermon was “there comes a time when silence becomes a betrayal.”
In 1987 Larry Kramer, one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, despairing that AIDS research alone was not timely enough helped found the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power or ACT UP which then introduced the world to the slogan Silence = Death. The artist Keith Haring used iconic figures mimicking “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” to drive home the point that silence equals death.
When you talk about domestic violence, what is the first way of helping? By not being silent or as one advocate says, “BTS” or “break the silence.” It is the silence that allows the violence to continue. It is as true on the international scene as in the home. BTS: break the silence, stop the violence.
Our story tonight is about every point in time when silence is a betrayal, when silence equals death, when silence covers over violence … and when silence must be spoken to.
Tonight's story is God speaking a Word into our silence and to the silenced. This speaking is God restoring order with imagination – the Eternal One coming in flesh. When all has been silenced, even a whisper can become the sound of hope.
Additionally, humans are invited to imitate by speaking into the silence and with the silenced. Made in the image of this silence breaking God, Word becomes flesh in each of us. We are to speak when remaining silent will be a betrayal. We are to speak such that our speaking equals life. We are to break the silence and stop the violence.
The praise this evening is God speaking into the silence certainly but also earth now resounds with the heavenly host in singing praises as the silence of grief and sorrow, sin and injustice, trauma or despair, is broken which is the first step towards healing.
May it be so, on this Silent Night and every silent night.
The Rev. Richard Edens is the co-senior pastor at United Church of Chapel Hill.