No new voicemail?
Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
Did you do any Christmas reading? It wasn’t a present, but I read this old paperback during the vacation – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It was written by the 23 year-old Carson McCullers, and published in 1940. It is set in an unnamed southern town in the USA, not unlike Columbus, Georgia where she had grown up. The novel’s main character is John Singer who is described as a deaf-mute – he can neither hear nor speak, though he can lip-read. Throughout the novel, four other characters come to see him, spend time with him and speak to him. They are all lonely in different ways, and find comfort in spending time with Mr Singer. There is Jake, a hard-drinking mechanic. There is Mick, a 14 year-old girl. There is Dr Copeland, a male African-American doctor. And there is Biff, who runs a bar-restaurant. The narrator says:
The mute was always thoughtful and composed… They would come and talk in the silent room – for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him. And maybe even more than that. [p. 87]
The image on the cover of the order of service is from a 1960s film of the novel. In the film Mick is 16 years old – Mr Singer is on the right.
Singer seemed to understand these people. He wrote to a friend and said, “Those words in their heart do not let them rest, so they are always very busy.” [p. 190] Singer’s quietness and kindness give him a sort of fame, and mystery. Rumours grew about him, that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead. The rich thought he was rich, and the poor thought he was poor. One of the four visitors, Biff the restauranteur, saw that people made of Singer “a sort of home-made God. Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.” [p. 204]
Singer is a Christ-figure. He is like Jesus in significant ways – present with people, listening deeply to them (although deaf), compassionate, and able to make them feel better in their trouble, and their loneliness. Are the four friends akin to four gospels?
But the story continues, and I fear a spoiler is coming. Singer’s only friend died, leaving him deeply lonely, and perhaps unable to bear the lives of those who had trusted in him. A tragic end for Singer follows, leaving the four characters shocked, lost and isolated.
Scripture offers, not a Christ-like figure, but the person of Jesus Christ himself. Today’s passage from the Gospel according to Mark gives a thumbnail sketch of him. Like Mr Singer, Jesus is present with his people, in his case in the synagogue. He too listens to the words of the lonely, the mentally ill. He too is compassionate to those in trouble. People feel better after encountering him. His fame spreads. But of course, unlike Mr Singer, Jesus speaks. Jesus “taught them as one having authority.”
This voice, this teaching, is also a hallmark of his closeness with God. When the voices of the unclean spirits spoke – perhaps we might say today, the voices of those with certain kinds of mental illness – they recognised that Jesus’ speech came from beyond him. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And indeed, Mark agrees, strangely, with the insight of these ill people – that Jesus is the holy One of God, the Messiah, God’s servant and prophet, God’s own Son. This reflects the reading we heard earlier from the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy. Moses is the speaker in this passage, conveying God’s message to the children of Israel:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
Mark believes that Jesus is this prophet like Moses, come to speak God’s words, and who should be heeded by all the world.
My Christmas reading struck a chord with me. 1930s Georgia is not the same as St Andrews 80 years later. But it is a sign of the brilliance of the novel how universal it seems. At 23 years old, this young woman seemed to understand humanity with an astonishing insight. Reading it, my mind turned to contemporary loneliness. Students and staff who come and see me, to talk over difficulties, usually express some form of isolation – from family, fellow-students, colleagues, lovers or society as a whole. Modern technology connects us instantly to hundreds of facebook friends, but can also cruelly establish our lack of connection. Today’s sermon-title, No new voicemail, may be just one sign that isolation takes.
And no matter how connected or disconnected we may be, we are still people with longings, dreams, fears, and desire for community. Each of McCullers’ four characters had deep longings which they found they needed to share with Mr Singer.
For Jake, it was the longing for fairness and opportunity for the poor and downtrodden.
For Mick, it was to play and write music. Indeed he bought a radio for her so that she could listen to music that he would never hear.
For Dr Copeland, it was for justice for African-Americans.
For Biff, it was for companionship, for love.
And for all, it was for one to hear them, listen to them, understand, and be a true companion.
It is tempting to trust such longings to Christ-like figures, human individuals and institutions who offer solutions, who provide cures for our troubles. A political party, a form of art, a lover, a hashtag campaign, a group of friends, a priest, self-development. But ultimately, we may find we’ve put too much faith into them, and laid too much upon them, as the characters did upon Mr Singer. He couldn’t bear that load. He could not save them. And our own Christ-like figures may not save us either.
I’d like to suggest today that only God can save us. I think that’s the point in a way of this story in Mark. The man was healed when Jesus spoke to the spirit within him. Such power and authority can only come from God. And so Jesus clearly shares that power and authority, and truly speaks with the words of the divine. Why should God care to save us, heal us, help us? That’s a good question. It may seem that he does not care to do so, or not often enough. And the Bible does not duck these questions. But the Bible approaches them in the deep conviction that God cares for us because this world, this universe is God’s creation, that it flowed from his longing to love, that our freedom comes from his hand, that our life emerged by his will, that he is present within creation as it evolves, and that he speaks to us within it, promising to bring his realm of love, peace and justice into being.
Mr Singer was, in many ways, a wonderful counsellor, such as we might see at Student Services. He gave time. He was present to the troubled townspeople. He was warm to them. He listened patiently. He did not judge them. He helped them see their situations more clearly, as they spoke and spoke in his company. But he lacked that essential element which may be part of Isaiah’s words we hear in Christmas services – Wonderful Counsellor. He did not speak. He did not guide. He could not lead.
This is what God offers to us in Jesus. Yes, to listen to us in prayer. Yes, to be present with us in our lives. Yes, to be compassionate, understanding our longings, and wrongdoings. But he also offers to lead us, to teach us, to offer us a vision of what is good, to teach us what is true, to lead us in the right paths for our lives. Of course it is good to be committed to individuals and institutions. It is good to be faithful friends, family members and partners. It is beneficial to join with others in campaigning for justice – for example for the importance of black lives, for freedom from harassment for women, for decent treatment for people with mental illness. It is life-changing for many to be involved with art and music, and find joy in beauty. For me, though, reading this novel has helped me understand the limits of these human endeavours. They can be fragile, easily bruised, and all too often can disappoint. It is when we listen to the voice of the one who is still making the world, pouring himself into it love, and speaking to us – that we may touch the deepest reality, and find the singer whose song we can join with, eternally.
In some ways, Jesus was nothing new. He spoke with the authority of heaven. He was a prophet like Moses. He was the Son of God. No new voicemail? And yet in other ways he made our relationship with God completely new, bringing God’s love, God’s guiding and God’s presence right into our world. There in 1930s Georgia. There in Carson McCullers’ profound imagination. And here, in St Andrews, at the beginning of a new semester.