The Sound of the Genuine in a Still, Small Voice

Sermon by the Rev. Helena L. Martin on Sunday, August 9, 2020.

I vividly remember this one moment of transformation that I had when I was a kid. I was sitting on the floor of a vast room, kind of like a hotel lobby. Lumpy couches lined the edges, and it was covered in red carpet, even up the stairs and all around the balcony level. Around me were other teens, also sitting on the floor, all facing the big staircase at one end of the room.

It was sticky, sweaty. No air conditioning. And we couldn’t have the fans on because this was open mic night at camp, and we needed to be able to hear each other.

This was my first time at a sleepaway camp, and I was still a little terrified, even on day four. I came from a competitive school where I was often excluded and teased. So, I fully expected that not all, but at least some of the kids there would find reasons to be mean to me. I did not expect to fit in.

One of the older girls stepped up to the microphone. She had a pink guitar slung around her shoulder. She looked confident. Despite the importance of this moment in my life, I do not remember the song she sang. It was probably something classic that I was too young to recognize— Simon and Garfunkel or something.

What I do remember is that this girl was terrible. She sang just slightly out of key, earnestly strumming her guitar, pausing briefly between chord changes to get her fingers in the right places.

If this had happened at my school, many kids around me would have been snickering, giving each other that look. I waited uncomfortably for the other campers to laugh out loud.

But the whole song passed, and everyone remained attentive, not just listening politely but really listening. In the breaks in the song where she was just strumming, campers started cheering wildly, and by the end of the song, the whole camp was frenzied, cheering and applauding. You would have thought she just gave the performance of a lifetime.

I don’t remember any of the other performances that night, good or bad. This one stuck with me, and almost 19 years later, it still chokes me up. The applause was not out of pity. We weren’t trying to make her feel better because she knew she gave subpar performance. She drew such raucous cheers because it was clear: this song meant so much to her. She really meant every word she was singing. I saw in that moment that this was a community that could transcend the petty values of daily life. This was a community that recognized the sound of the genuine.

This idea of the sound of the genuine comes from Howard Thurman, a renowned African American theologian and civil rights leader. The tenets of radical nonviolence that he taught influenced a whole generation of civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even if you don’t know his name, you live in a society marked by the thought of Howard Thurman.

Thurman gave the graduation speech at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, in 1980. He starts by encouraging these young women to find the sound of the genuine in themselves. He says:

There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching.[1]

But this is no “just stay true to yourself” speech. Thurman continues that we must also—we have to—listen for the sound of the genuine in others, as well. This is not an extra task that we do if we happen to get around to it. If we don’t look for the sound of the genuine in other people, we lose a piece of ourselves.

That night on the floor of that sweltering room, one community put me on the path to hearing my own sound by showing me how to recognize it in someone else.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, Elijah gets his marching orders to stand on the holy ground of Mount Horeb and wait for God.

The passage is so beautiful, I’ll read it again:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11b-12).

And it is in this silence that Elijah hears a small voice: the voice of God.

Elijah certainly knows the stories of his people. The only other time the Israelites were at Mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, was when Moses received the Ten Commandments, generations before. In that story, the mountain was enveloped in a thick cloud, with thunder and lightning all around. God descended on the mountain in fire, and the mountain quaked violently (Exodus 19:16-19). Elijah knows that story.

So maybe Elijah is expecting the Storm God of Exodus and of Job, the Mighty God of the Psalms. But for Elijah in this story, God is in the silence. God speaks here not in thunder but in a small voice. When we’re listening to the sound of the genuine in ourselves, we are listening for God’s small voice.

Sometimes, we think that having faith means being perfect about giving over our cares to God, or believing a certain list of things from the Bible, or volunteering “enough” at church, or praying every day.

Those things may be good, but to me, faith is being willing to turn down the volume on everything else, trusting there’s something else there. That faith, that trust, lets us hear all the way down to our deepest truth:

God is with us. Each of us. Always.

Thurman says that when you and I are both listening to the sound of the genuine in ourselves,—this is a reciprocal thing; we have to both work on it—it becomes possible for you to go down in yourself, come up in me, and look at yourself through my eyes. Then, he writes,

The wall that separates and divides will disappear, and we will become one.[2]

Another way to say this is Communion. Another way to say this is Baptism. Another way to say this is the Body of Christ.

In our baptismal covenant, which we reaffirm today, we vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). We vow to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, p. 305). I think that means that we vow to raucously applaud someone who’s earnestly communicating their deepest feelings, even when they’re doing it out of key. We will respect that person’s dignity and celebrate it because in their face, we can see Jesus himself.

Unfortunately, though, these vows are more challenging than supporting an earnest teenager. I think it also means that we vow to look differently at someone who we imagine we couldn’t have anything in common with. When we see someone we think should be wearing a mask, we won’t shame them, aloud or in our hearts. We vow to honor that person’s dignity—that they are making the best choice they can with the resources they have— and we vow to listen for the sound of the genuine in them. Because we have faith that God is there.

The only way to seek Christ in all people—to serve God in all people—is to open our capacity to hear: first the sound of the genuine in ourselves and then the sound of the genuine in everyone else. If we miss either part of that, we’re losing part of ourselves.

As we renew our baptismal vows this morning, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all people. Maybe we can take a page from Howard Thurman’s book and vow to seek the sound of the genuine in ourselves and in each other.