Micah 6:6-8; Mark 6:30-46
7th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 31.07.2022
Rev Jeremy Bevan
We’ve reached the last week of our sermon series looking at different ways of
connecting with God. On the past three Sundays, we’ve looked at experiencing
God through nature, and friendship; through our minds, our emotions and
routines or rhythms; through our senses, spiritual disciplines like prayer, and
caring for others. This week, we’re looking at how we might encounter God
through working for justice, through silence, and contemplation.
The followers of Jesus have long been at the forefront of acting for justice.
When families in the Roman empire left weaker babies out on the rubbish
heap to die, Christians took them in: a merciful second chance at life
expressing gratitude for the new life that God had given Jesus’ followers. Anti-
slavery campaigners drew inspiration from the liberating justice of God that
freed the Israelites from Egypt. And Christian groups today urge better care for
our planet knowing our creator God’s care for all he’s made.
Acting for justice can be controversial. It can be hard work, too. So it’s
important to remind ourselves, as Tulo’s done in this series, that different ways
of encountering God will resonate differently with each of us, all made
uniquely in God’s image. But if acting for justice perhaps sounds a bit too
confrontational, it’s good to stop and reflect on the first of our two Bible
readings. In a society that was failing to do justice for all its people, Micah
reminds his hearers that our God requires three things: doing justice, loving
kindness (mercy in some translations) and walking humbly with God. That
verse has long been a favourite of mine. But doing justice and loving mercy
grow out of lives rooted in walking humbly and wisely with the God who was
humble enough to be born as a human being. Jesus learnt to do justice and
walk in loving kindness as he grew up. As he walked, so justice and loving
kindness expressed the character of the Heavenly Father he kept company
I wonder how such humility and teachability might open up for us experiences
of God as we work for justice? It’s tempting to think that doing justice is only
about the things that make news headlines. But it’s small-scale, too, within
reach for all of us if we grow to expect God will nudge us as we walk with him.
It’s as humble as supporting the work of our mission partner Christians Against
Poverty, freeing people from debt; or creating a petition to make crossing
Beechwood Avenue safer. It can be long-term, almost invisible ‘background’
work. After 23 Chinese cockle-pickers died in Morecambe Bay in 2004, I took
on responsibility in my work with the Health and Safety Executive for getting
Britain’s employers to improve how they managed migrant workers’ health
and safety. It took years of building alliances before I could launch a series of
initiatives to do this. All the time, trying consciously to walk in step with the
God who seeks justice for the stranger among us.
Silence and contemplation are not as far from working for justice as we might
perhaps think: they share a sense of self-sacrifice and abandonment to God’s
will. Our Gospel reading shows how much value Jesus placed on silence and
just spending time with God. Yes, he’s interrupted by a pressing need to
practice loving-kindness and feed the crowd, but the end of our passage has
him once again determined to depart for a quiet place with the disciples.
We live in a society desperately in need of quiet places and opportunities for
contemplation: we’re always talking, tweeting, tapping our phones. Getting to
those quiet places can be a bit easier if, like Jesus, we plan ahead! Like
Susannah Wesley last week, we might just have to grab a moment, be ready
for God while waiting in the checkout queue, or washing up, and say ‘here I
am, Lord, it’s good to be in your presence’. As our reading from Micah hinted,
God doesn’t want things from us – God wants us! And if we’re expecting God
to be in touch, it’s also good to be on the lookout for the gift of silence: years
ago, I had an unsought but strong sense of the presence of God at the top of
the highest mountain in the Brecon Beacons, windless, still and utterly silent,
cut off from the valley below by a thick blanket of fog.
The Old Testament prophet Elijah helps me appreciate the value of silence.
After battling the prophets of Baal, and experiencing God powerfully and justly
at work, he seems to have expected God to always act through ‘fireworks’, so
to speak. And yet, in the desert, on the run from queen Jezebel who was trying
to kill him, Elijah discovered that God wasn’t always in fire. Or earthquake. God
could also be in the sound ‘of a slender silence’. God’s gentle presence seems
to have restored Elijah, but also taught him not to let his last experience of
God determine the next one. Perhaps that’s why Jesus longs to get the
disciples away to a quiet place? Like us perhaps, they needed to realise their
relationship with God could acquire new and revitalising depths if only they
were quiet long enough to let him speak.
Silence can be a gateway to contemplation, too. Like silence, though, I think it’s
one of those things we maybe shy away from as ‘not for people like me’, and
perhaps especially ‘not for busy people like me’. Although I’m not one of life’s
natural contemplatives, I’ve come to appreciate its value. As I explained in
answer to Tulo’s questions a couple of Sundays ago, I try each evening to
review my day with God. It helps, not least because it starts from the
assumption that, since God loves us, we ought to see evidence of that love for
us as we go about our everyday life.
There are lots of ways into contemplation. If you need something to focus on,
take a leaf out of the book of Lady Julian of Norwich, who spent time gazing at
a vision God gave her of a hazelnut. She said about the nut: “It lasts and ever
shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of
God.” That was a powerful stimulus to Julian’s own sense of being loved by
God, who loves all he has made.
In the end, contemplation is about desire, about wanting to satisfy a thirst for
more of God. There’s no right or wrong way. You’re the only person who can
give your love and adoration to God. So if you’ve got a gentle, insistent sense
God is saying “stop for a few minutes and give me yourself”, but you don’t
know how to get started, here’s an offer. There’s a retreat house in Allesley.
It’s called Breathing Space. It runs quiet mornings to help people get in touch
with God through different ways of being contemplative. If a Saturday morning
there under the guidance of Lois and Peter sounds like it might be for you,
come and chat to me afterwards, and I’ll see about arranging to take a small
group there in the early autumn.
We’ve come to the end of our series on ways of experiencing God. I hope
you’ve been affirmed in a pathway you already walk, or perhaps enthused to
try something new. So let me close now with some words from psalm 34,
reminding us how fundamental experiencing God can be for us all: “O taste
and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. The
young lions suffer want and hunger but those who seek the Lord lack no good
thing.” [Ps 34:8, 10]