Blogger Megan Griffith shares what it is like when she listens to the world.[i] She says, “Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone at a concert, sporting event, or on a noisy train/subway? It’s difficult to hear the other person, right? [My life] is like all your conversations take place in some kind of stadium or subway station, even if you’re actually sitting in a quiet classroom or even your own living room.” All the time, in any circumstance, Megan hears the sounds all around her, but she can’t distinguish where they come from or the meaning attached to each one. Sound is a constant bombardment and sifting through the barrage is virtually impossible. Megan suffers from Auditory Processing Disorder, a condition that includes the failure of “auditory figure-ground discrimination,” or, “being able to focus on the most important sounds in a noisy environment.”
In 1 Samuel today, the little boy Samuel is asleep in the temple at Shiloh, but he sleeps fitfully. Three times he is awakened by a voice calling out to him. Samuel can’t distinguish from whom or where the voice is coming. He thinks it must be Eli the priest, and he gets up each time and tries to follow the sound. Finally, the bible tells us, “Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy,” and he counsels Samuel that, if Samuel hears the voice again, he should listen with care.
I’ve always loved this story, and it does, indeed, turn out that the voice calling out to Samuel is the voice of God. That’s why it is included in Holy Scripture, after all. But I’ve always wondered, what if it hadn’t been God? Because often, of course, it isn’t. Often, when we hear a siren song and call it God, the voice is something different altogether. Albert Schweitzer famously said that sometimes seeking to hear God is like calling out down a deep well and mistaking our own echo for God’s voice.
But even that is just one voice among innumerable others. In full, it is as if we suffer from a cultural Auditory Processing Disorder. We are all so bombarded with noise—and I mean this both literally and figuratively—that we cannot process it accurately. We suffer from a collective failure of auditory figure-ground discrimination. We too often fail to recognize the trustworthy and reliable voices in a noisy environment.
As a result, often the sound that lands is the loudest, most incessant, and most outrageous. Why is that so? Because we cannot abide ambiguity or confusion. We are hard-wired to seek simplicity and clarity just as when the earth beneath us feels like quicksand we will seek solid ground no matter what, even if that ground is volcanic. We desire these things so much that we are sometimes willing to accept whatever pierces through the noise and grants us something distinguishable, whether or not that voice is trustworthy. Or, to hearken back to the story of Samuel, whether or not that voice is of God.
That can happen regardless of one’s politics or ideology, but it certainly happened in the weeks, months, and, indeed, years leading up to January 6. The assault on the U.S. Capitol Building was the inevitable result. The rhetoric, postings, and emblems of those who violated the Capitol Building express fidelity to, and certainty in, loud and incessant voices that are most decidedly not of God. There were overt expressions of white supremacy; idolatrous signs emblazoned with the message “Jesus Christ is my Savior; Donald Trump is my President;” and, cryptic to those on the outside but most telling of all, ubiquitous symbols of QAnon, the Byzantine, internet-driven conspiracy theory with thousands of devotees that claims to be combatting, as reported by the BBC, “a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”[ii]
The scale of the violence involved in the assault on the Capitol is still becoming clear. In addition to the Capitol Police officer killed, Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin reports as “mind-blowing” the extent and severity of the acts of violence at the Capital Building. Sherwin said in his press conference, “People are going to be shocked with some of the egregious contact that happened within the Capitol.” Sherwin also revealed that live pipe bombs were planted at both Democratic and Republican party headquarters. Blessedly, they did not detonate.[iii]
In the wake of January 6, we must ask anew, “Through the world’s noise and our own distress, how do we know which voices are God’s and of God, when so many competing ones claim to be?” For that, we turn, as we should always turn, to the Gospel. Today, the voice of Jesus calls out amidst the world’s noise, and Nathanael hears him. Without pause or hesitation, Nathanael proclaims of Jesus in awe and wonder, “You are the Son of God!” In that moment, Nathanael’s entire life changes. And by that, I don’t mean he starts going to church twice a month or rests easy in the assurance that he gets to go to heaven when he dies. Rather, his life becomes, in its entirety, a life of discipleship to Jesus. Every commitment, every decision, every priority, every passion becomes the shared passions of Jesus.
Why is this so? Why is this voice different? Why does it transform Nathanael’s very being in the world? A few verses prior, John’s Gospel has told us, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”[iv] That is to say, and admittedly mixing metaphors of sight and sound, “If you want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus.”
This has always been the central Christian truth, the truth of the Incarnation: If we want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. If we want to know what the voice of God sounds like, listen to Jesus. By extension that means we mustn’t call our own self-affirming echo Jesus’ voice, and we mustn’t choose some ideology—any ideology—and call it the Gospel of Jesus.
Listen to Jesus. Let Jesus’ voice reach us through the noise. Focus on it, and only it. What does that voice say? The voice of Jesus denies the temptation of power in favor of sacrifice.[v] The voice of Jesus defends the vulnerable who are at the mercy of the majority and the mob.[vi] The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. [vii] And the voice of Jesus blesses those who do likewise as inheritors of his kingdom.[viii]
This is the voice of Jesus piercing the noise. This is the only entirely true, trustworthy, and reliable voice. Any voice, from anyone, that speaks differently is not God or of God. And following the voice of Jesus in all things is what the life of discipleship looks like. It is all-encompassing.
At the funeral of John McCain on August 31, 2018, McCain’s friend and fellow senator from Arizona Jeff Flake said, “This fever will eventually break. It has to.” That’s an interesting image. Fever spikes, often into delirium, before it breaks. I pray that our national fever broke on January 6. In hopes that it did, then we must ask how we, as Episcopalians and members of Christ Church Cathedral, can contribute to national healing.
Importantly, the first word Jesus speaks in the Gospels is a call to repentance, to acknowledge our contributions to the world’s unholy noise, and to turn anew toward the God of love. Surely and specifically, this means holding accountable all those who participated in and abetted the violent and hateful assault on January 6. Beyond that, in order to experience societal redemption, we must each ask and answer with stark honesty what sins of commission or omission we have contributed to the acrimony in our nation. We must amend our speech where we have added to the noise and speak Gospel words where we have been silent.
Secondly, and of equal importance, a restoration of health also requires that we acknowledge that “getting back to normal” is not good news for everyone. Our experience these past years has revealed that there are those in our society who remain vulnerable and for whom justice and equal opportunity have been ephemeral. There is much work to be done with regard to race and racism, the economic effects of de-industrialization on communities, and more, all of which must be constructively addressed, from our national leaders all the way down to our local community. And about these things the Church must have something to say as well, just as Jesus did.
First of all, we must quiet the noise and listen to the voice of Jesus. In it there is no deceit. It is good, trustworthy, and true. And it calls us, this day and every day, to follow him into the transformed life of discipleship.
[iv] John 1:18
[v] Matthew 4:1-11
[vi] John 8:1-11
[vii] Luke 4:16-20
[viii] Matthew 25:31-46