God speaks in many voices
5th Sunday after Trinity Matthew 13 1-9
“Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:9)
It’s said that silence is golden, and often in our hectic lives, with all the background noise, chatter and distraction, we feel the need for peace and quiet. So you might think that the “anechoic chamber” at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis would be an excellent retreat. Holding the record for being the world’s quietest place, it’s said to be 99.99 per cent sound absorbent. Interestingly, however, complete silence doesn’t mean peace of mind. In fact it’s so quiet in the chamber that it quickly becomes unbearable, and it’s common for people to hallucinate. So extreme is the reaction to near-total silence, that the longest that anyone has survived in the chamber is just forty-five minutes.
Normally, of course, whether we’re asleep or awake, in town and countryside alike, we’re used to constant background noise. Traffic, people, animals, birds and even the wind in the trees, all provide a soundtrack to daily life. But just as extreme silence can cause us to hallucinate, so focusing on these sounds would probably drive us to distraction. So we learn to listen selectively, to filter out what is unimportant and hear what we need to, such as someone asking us a question or shouting a warning. Sometimes, however, we miss the very thing we are waiting to hear. While listening to the local weather forecast on the radio, to find out whether our washing will dry or the hay can be harvested, it’s all too easy to get distracted and miss the information we need.
All of today’s readings require us to pay attention to what is really important, rather than what distracts us. Isaiah says that God’s reassurance that peace and joy will replace loss and sadness is as real as the seasonal changes in the weather. The people’s situation of exile and longing for home will change to singing, clapping and rejoicing.
Paul, writing to the Romans, reassures them that God has set them free for life not death, so they mustn’t get distracted by the glitter and shallowness around them, but know themselves to be God’s beloved people. The problem is not that they are human flesh, but that they forget to pay attention to what is really important and what will give them life in God.
In his parable of the sower, Jesus shows how easy it is to be distracted. Trouble and wealth can distract us, just as a lack of understanding of God’s joy in the creation can lead us to forget that God is the God of abundant life. But the good news is that, even in that sorry place of forgetting what matters, God’s abundance is constant and enduring. We could hear the story of the sower in a narrow way, as a threat to people who get distracted from living a joyful, God-filled life, but that would be to make God too small. This God, whom Jesus tells us about, is one who, even if there is distraction, can bring forth abundance in the world and in people and communities. Now that is good news indeed!
So how might we set aside a place and time in our noisy world to hear God’s words of encouragement? Part of the problem for some people is that there is no expectation that God has anything left to say. Other people think that God speaks only through words written down several thousand years ago. Others feel too busy or oppressed to find the space and time to listen. Perhaps some of us feel that God speaks only to more important, “holier” people. Maybe some people are even afraid that the word God speaks will be angry, telling us of our faults. Looking again at today’s readings we can see that God speaks words of joy, peace, life and abundant fruitfulness, not punishment and anger. So we do not need to be afraid to hear God. We simply need to listen out for that voice. But how do we distinguish it from the background noise? The test seems to be that if the word bears good fruit and shows life, peace and joy – then it is the voice of God. We can hear it anywhere and any time. We might hear it in words spoken by a child, or a friend or stranger. God speaks in many voices, and not only through the Church or chapel or in a place of silence, but in the noise and chatter of everyday life.