The Sound of Silence

May 2, 2004



The Sound of Silence (5/2/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Most denominations encourage preachers to follow a lectionary, which provides a list of four new Bible passages each week. While the lectionary does not suggest what we should say about those passages, it does suggest that those particular passages are important enough that they should be discussed from the pulpit.

Almost every mainline denomination uses the Revised Common Lectionary, and I read the suggested passages each week; however, I don’t always follow the suggestions found in the lectionary. For one thing, if I want to preach on some Bible passage that is not in the lectionary, I feel free to do so. Furthermore, if I want to preach on some subject that is not found in the Bible at all—something like, say, Paul Simon’s great song from the 60’s, The Sound of Silence, again, I feel free to do so.

This is not a bad way to do things. After all, I’m still seriously anchored in the biblical faith, and see the world around me through a spiritual lens. So when one of my daughters recently gave me a copy of Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits, I knew the instant I once again heard that great song—The Sound of Silence—that there was a sermon waiting to happen in the words of that song. Not only that, two famous Bible passages came to mind as I listened to that song. One was the story of the Tower of Babel, and the other was the 23rd Psalm. As this sermon unfolds, you’ll see why I made those connections.

Again, that’s what comes from seeing the world through Christian eyes. You can’t even listen to some good old fashioned rock and roll, or folk-rock in this case, without thinking about God, and Jesus, and the Bible. So I had it in my mind to find a way to slip in a sermon about this song, and while reading over the lectionary texts that are suggested for discussion this week…there it was! The lectionary said that today, May 2, 2004, preachers should preach on the 23rd Psalm—the very passage I had previously associated with the song!

Call it fate; call it the subtle movement of the spirit; call it dumb luck; but I had my excuse for talking about The Sound of Silence from the pulpit. The spirit moves in mysterious ways…which may or may not be what happened in this case, but that’s my excuse, anyway!

The reason I thought of the 23rd Psalm when I heard The Sound of Silence is that they create almost opposite visions of the world. The 23rd Psalm is about as close as we can get to heaven with the English language, and the Sound of Silence is a haunting and foreboding vision of a world gone mad—a nightmare from which it seems impossible to awaken. Hopefully, hearing the 23rd Psalm read from the lectern this morning will give us a firm spiritual foundation on which to stand as we make our way through Paul Simon’s chilling vision. The 23rd Psalm:

That psalm creates such a wonderful image. Maybe it is because we learn the 23rd Psalm as children; maybe it’s just something unique about the psalm itself; but you can’t help but feel relaxed all over when you hear those words. The words are…quiet. As you picture the scene—the green pasture, the still waters, God’s love anointing us as we lose all fear—that is not a noisy scene. The only sound, perhaps, is the still water. I like to envision a softly flowing stream, and that gentle sound that is made as clear fresh water tumbles over the rocks and pebbles, rubbed smooth by the water’s flow over the centuries.

Another Psalm says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” God comes to us in the quiet places. But where are the quiet places? Our world grows noisier and noisier. The world is so noisy that the quiet voice of God is drowned out in the commotion; even our own voices get lost in the din. And that, ironically, is part of the message we find in Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence.

What a song! I think the music is great, but the lyrics are even better. Paul Simon sets the mood for what is to come by saying,
Get advantage from casinosail of great sites.

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.

Okay, there is nothing especially theological so far. The songwriter has simply established a mood, and he continues setting the mood with the next verse by describing this vision, this dream he had in the night.

In restless dreams I walked alone,

Narrow streets of cobblestone.

Beneath 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.

This is good stuff. I can almost hear Vincent Price reading those words. We’ve been drawn into the story. We’re alone on a dark and cold night, walking in a restless and dreamlike state down a narrow cobblestone street. It’s a bit like real life. We sort of wander through our days hoping for some sort of revelation. We sort of huddle down against the world around us, which can seem so cold, so mysterious, and then…Flash! The light comes on. We are suddenly wide awake. We see the world as it is. As Paul Simon writes, My eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, that split the night…”

Alright! The poet is about to get to the point. He has set the stage, clothed it in mystery and darkness, and suddenly turned on the lights. What do we see?

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,

no one dare, disturb the sound of silence.

This verse always bothered me, because it is not easy to figure out just what the poet is trying to say. People talk but don’t speak; hear but don’t listen; all the while afraid to disturb the silence. This is where the Tower of Babel image enters into the image. I think the whole point is that people are talking but they aren’t saying anything meaningful. And people are hearing—their eardrums are working; but they are not really listening to the meaning of what they hear—or perhaps they are not questioning what they hear.

Remember the Tower of Babel story. Humanity decides it is great enough to build a tower that reaches all the way to heaven. The gap between God and humankind will be bridged not in God’s way, but in humanity’s way. We’ll storm the gates of heaven and knock them down.

The story goes that until this moment, all people spoke a common language. But God was so angered by the hubris of humankind, he reached down and confounded our speech. Suddenly we were speaking hundreds of different languages, and we could not understand each other.

This is a good time to mention an important word when it comes to Bible study—etiology. Technically, etiology is defined as the study of causes. But in Bible study, we talk about etiological stories. We ask, “What was the cause of that story? Why was that story written?” In the ancient world, people invented stories to explain how things got like they are. Why do women suffer pain in childbirth? We have a story! Eve tricked Adam in the Garden of Eden and deliberately defied the will of God; therefore, all women now suffer in childbirth. Why do people speak so many different languages? We have a story—the Tower of Babel story.

Now, before you think I’m denigrating the Bible, let me be clear—etiological stories are some of the most important stories we have. They’d better be, because the Bible is full of them. While the stories themselves are not true in a literal sense—we now understand that different languages developed as civilizations formed in unconnected parts of the world—they still contain great truth. The Tower of Babel story points out the folly of trying to bridge the gap between God and humanity on humanity’s terms. God is in control of eternity. We are not meant to live forever as human beings. And it is an affront to all of creation—to God—when we pretend that there is nothing greater in all of the universe that humanity. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the tower of Babel story, important as it is, doesn’t really explain why some people speak German and others speak French.

But that Tower of Babel story gave us a word that describes a lot of the talk in the world today—babble. It’s everywhere we turn. And most of us are like the people in Paul Simon’s song—we hear but don’t listen. We just let the noise go in one ear and out the other. We don’t question what we’re hearing; we just accept that this is the way things are.

The movies we watch; the television! Do you ever channel surf? The only time I channel surf is when I’m doing my morning exercises. It is easy to see why the Muslim world isn’t all that excited about adopting a western culture. Here’s a typical morning. I usually begin at channel 2—the weather channel, and work my way up thorough the channels. And the weather channel is benign enough. Then I go to channel 3—the Today show. Last week I saw some guy named William Hong singing a filthy Ricky Martin song called She Bang, the lyrics of which explain that all women are debased creatures who want only to be pleasured by some virile man.

To make this display even more pathetic and repulsive, this William Hung guy can’t sing. He really can’t! It turns out he was on American Idol—a talent show—and was so horrible he got laughed off the stage. Pretty soon everybody was showing the video of this poor goof who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but thought he was really hot stuff. Some genius in the music industry detected a way to make a buck, and now William Hung has an album out. And the whole world is laughing. There he was on the street in front of Rockefeller Center, awkwardly dancing and screeching out She Bang She Bang, while hundreds of adoring fans cheered and danced and laughed laughed laughed. Everybody laughed…except for William Hung. The tragic thing is, this guy still hasn’t figured out that he’s the butt of a nationwide joke. Which makes everybody laugh even louder.

Time to change channels. Infomercials are big, especially if I exercise at five of six in the morning. Everybody is selling something, and they are really good at it. I admit there are times when I feel like my life will be forever empty if I don’t get over to that phone and order Boxcar
Willie’s Greatest Hits. I’m equally concerned that I will never have a truly good meal again unless I order the Gormet-a-Matic 5000, which peals, grates, slices, dices and makes Julienne fries that no meal should be without.

Now it’s really time to change channels! I pause for a short while on C-span, and then click through Leave it to Beaver and a couple of very old movies. Then I come across the 24-hour talking heads on a variety of news channels, making sure that if some body is running from the police in North Tuloosie, Ohio, we will have a birds-eye view from a helicopter. And then there’s MTV! Oh my! All the folks who were so upset by Janet Jackson’s escapade at the Super Bowl—I want to ask them, “Have you ever watched MTV?” Wow! When I think back on the shows my parents would not allow me to watch as a child, and I watch MTV today…we’ve come a long way.

It’s enough to make you want to shut off the TV and turn on the radio, where you hear a diatribe of hatred spewed forth minute after minute, day after day, mostly telling us that the government is evil; and then telling us that we should not question the president. It’s a bit confusing, but then, that’s the nature of babble. But if you try to speak out, you’ll be hammered into silence, and called some names. Speak out about the filth on MTV—you’re an ignorant prude who doesn’t understand the First Amendment. Speak out about the hate talk on the radio—you’re unpatriotic, un-American, and should probably be locked away with your friends in Guatanamo Bay. Paul Simon’s words:

Fools said I you do not know,

Silence like a cancer grows.

Here my words that I might teach you,

Take my arms that I might reach you.

But my words like silent raindrops fell

And echoed in the wells of silence.

And then, then, this is where the song gets really prophetic. Because the fact is, we can get so used to the babble that we no longer recognize it for what it is. Joseph Goebbels knew that if you tell a lie often enough it becomes the truth. The Nazis learned how to be intentional about that, but today we are surrounded by lies, not only do we not realize they are lies, the people telling them often do not know they are lies.

Generally speaking, we do not lie down in green pastures and ask God to lead us by the still waters. We do not quietly open ourselves to God and seek God’s will for the world. We have other allegiances. Do we turn to the epistles of Paul to see how we should approach those with whom we disagree, or do we turn to Al Franken? Do we turn to the Gospel of Luke to see how we should approach the problem of people living in poverty, or do we turn to Rush Limbaugh? Do we take the gifts and abilities God has given us, and, hearing the voice of Jesus, use them for the greater good; or do we devote our talents to self-enrichment, respecting the voice of Jesus, but placing it beneath the voice of Adam Smith?

Who are our prophets? Where do we look for a prophetic voice? Do we look to MTV? Talk radio? Our preferred political party? Are these our new gods? Or are all of those just sources of babble? Are the words we hear in those places of any more value, in the eternal scheme of things, than the graffiti painted across the slums of our inner cities? Again, Paul Simon, as he brings his song to its tragic conclusion:

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon God they 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 tenement halls,

And whispered in the Sound of Silence.

It’s a great song. It’s a prophetic vision. And I think it forces us to ask ourselves, “To whom do we bow and pray?” There are no shortages of people and things vying for our devotion. Our challenge—now more than ever—is to find our way clear of the babble and into that green pasture of the 23rd Psalm, where we can allow the quiet voice of God—which is the only voice before which we should bow and pray—shape us into the people God would have us be.

I hope there are times when we all find this place, this sanctuary, to be a green pasture in our lives. May the soft voice of Jesus never be lost beneath the din of babble, or the sound of silence. Amen.