Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Ordinary Sunday 12 - Year C | DBHome | RCL Resources Index |
Silent Communion and Social Action
Do we concentrate on the inner life of prayer and spiritual communion, or do we put our time and effort into action for social justice and witness? Is the inner or the outer expression of the Christian faith to be our primary interest? Is it a matter of personal choice or is there a better way? Questions like this arise in the each of us individually. In the life of the Church as an organisation we have to decide where to invest our time and resources. Of course, different people have different gifts; and within the body as a whole we can rejoice in the different contributions that members will make. It is to be expected that some will be more involved in outreach and social action and others will give more time to contemplation, but the message for today is that we all need both to some degree. All members of the body of Christ need to possess both the inner and the outer expressions of the faith. For many of us in the active outgoing style of Western democracies and it that means that steps will need to be taken to renew the inner life of communion with God.
Diversity in the Church
The readings selected for today combine some of those set for the anniversary of the Uniting Church on 22 June and some for this Sunday, the third after Pentecost [Ordinary 12]. In both there is a clear call to quiet communion with God in a life of faith, while at the same time that life calls for social action. In passing let me make a point in regard to social and political action which causes difficulty for the main churches because of their diversity.
In the church today there are many emphases and differing enthusiasms. It is easy for the media or anyone, really, to pick up the words spoken by someone voicing the opinions of a particular interest group, and to present a personal opinion as if it were the voice of the church, while people in another part of the church will feel outraged that such opinions might be held in the church at all, even if it is not in an official statement. The Uniting Church, while it shares this diversity with the other main churches, tends it suffer from lack of discipline. In my view church leaders should speak clearly for the body as a whole and other staff should be constrained by being subject to discipline, but I do not wish today to enter into controversy, only to ask for patience and tolerance of errors while Synods and Assembly sort things out in a young organisation that is still finding its way.
[That was in 1995; in 1998 I still said "have patience", in spite of the fact that I had been critical of our church and its leadership in these and other respects over recent years, as witnessed by the papers published on my web site under Issues in the Uniting Church.
In preaching, as you know, I try to keep close to Biblical teaching. I think it is better to leave personal opinions to informal discussion. That related to the parish situation in 1995 when I planned to deal with some topical concerns in over the following weeks. Given the political developments, especially the support for a new political party (One Nation) in the Queensland State election in 1998, and the many expressions of concern about it that were being voiced at that time , I said that I would be inclined in 1998 to return to social and political questions, particularly in regard to the responsibility church leaders share with the cultural elite for the reaction of many ordinary people, especially in rural areas, against a new orthodoxy granting favours from which they feel excluded. It is essential at the same time to set whatever we have to say in that regard in the context of biblical teaching and apostolic witness, not taking our cues from the dominant culture, whether it be elite or popular, and that must include the message today from Elijah's experience of the 'still small voice' as well as his willingness to speak out against exploitation. To that note in 1998 I would add in 2001 the observation that the One Nation party soon fell apart and lost support but that the alienation of many of the less privileged people in our country remains, although it is now being acknowledged by political leaders on all sides. The context in terms of social justice and political responsibility is not one in which escape to private religion unconcerned about what is going around us can be justified, but the lessons for today still point to the need for balance and fullness of expression of the faith. Without an inner life to sustain it no external active witness will remain faithful to God and effective in the world.]
Today, I believe it is important to hear the message about quiet communion with God which comes to us from the life of the same prophet whose strong witness for justice led us last week to think about the powers of government and the rights of citizens. My message is that it is essential that these inner and outer views of Christian life, concerning quite communion and social action, are held together. If a person heard only last week's message he or she will have only half the picture, and if any hear only the call to the inner life of communion this week, they too will still only have one part. In the church we need to be able to appreciate the contributions that people with different gifts and different ways of living the Christian life can make, but we also need, each one of us, to hold the inner and outer expressions of the faith together in ourselves.
The powerful voice of God
Last week we heard the prophet Elijah confront the King, to challenge the power of government. He condemned the corrupt use of power and claimed justice for the weak. We saw how the courage and integrity of the prophet raised important questions for us today about powers of government, liberty, justice and idolatry. There are times when a message of God has to be proclaimed loudly and clearly. The idea of God speaking with a voice like thunder seems to fit that kind of proclamation. That is how the ancient Hebrews did sometimes describe the voice of God and his presence with signs of great power.
For example, in the psalms:
Today, in another story about Elijah, we learn about a contrasting facet of God's relationship with us -- how he can speak quietly, even silently, in secret communion. Indeed in the same psalm as we read of the mountains shaking and the earth melting, a few verses further on there is a different note, even when his powerful voice is heard in the cause of peace and justice:-
then in the next verse:
Elijah connects with the experience of Moses and learns more
The great prophet also experienced the contrast. Going far from his home in the North, Elijah travelled for forty days into the desert to the South of Judea. Those forty days prefigured the forty days Jesus would spend in the desert after his baptism when he was tempted by the devil, and it recalled the forty years that the Israelites had wandered in the same wilderness before they entered the promised land. Elijah came to the same mountain, Horeb (Sinai) where Moses had met with God and received the law of the covenant, of which we remember the ten commandments [Exodus 3:2-4]. On that earlier occasion Moses had experienced the presence of God with the signs of great power:-
There was another occasion when Moses especially sought the presence of God to be assured that he was with them.
This experience of Moses has much in common with Elijah waiting in the cave on the mountain for the Lord to pass by. Elijah came to the mountain seeking to know God at close quarters, perhaps even to see his glory. He certainly wanted assurance, for after his struggles with the royal family and false prophets, when his friends had been killed, he felt deserted and alone in his faithful service. He needed to know that God cared, that God was still with him.
He knew already, as the people of Israel generally had learned, following Moses, that he could not expect to see God face to face; but in this awesome place on the mountain he hoped for an encounter of some kind: so it came:-
Power and gentleness
Here at first were all the traditional signs of the mighty power of God:- the great wind, and was his presence not indeed known later too at Pentecost in a `rushing mighty wind'?
And fire? It too had been a sign earlier for Moses when God spoke to him out of the burning bush [Exodus 3:2-4] and then on the mountain with smoke and lightening, so also much later for the Church at Pentecost:
But this time for Elijah God did not communicate through those signs of power. He spoke to Elijah in small thin voice characterised by quietness, stillness, even silence: The old translation was "a still small voice"; others "a gentle whisper", "a low murmuring sound" or in the NRSV, the best of the recent translations: a sound of sheer silence(1).
Here is the voice of the gentle shepherd:
A comforting presence:-
As Moses learned on the day when he hid in the cleft of rock on the mighty mountain:
God's humble servant
This is the God whose power is given to one who will not break the bruised reed. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the servant who was to come:-
Such quietness and gentleness is not weak in the sense of cowardice, of running away from the challenge. Isaiah continues: he will faithfully bring forth justice.
So it was when the Messiah came. He took the quiet way himself, sometimes retreating to the mountains to pray quietly and be alone with God, but above all choosing the quiet way of the cross. Even at his trial, like the suffering servant of Isaiah he held his peace [Mark 14:60; 15:2-5].
The same gentle voice of the good shepherd is heard in his word to the disciples when he said:-
We are called to follow his way
When we follow his gentle command in this way we are in communion with him in daily life. That is a way of sharing in the life of Christ through service to others, just as in the holy communion at the Lord's table we share in his life in another way. There is always a link between the quiet inner voice of the gentle saviour and strong social witness. It is the kind of passion for justice and unity with God and our fellow human beings that Elijah had so strongly, which we see in our Lord Jesus.
The way of prayer, quiet devotion and communion with God in Christ becomes the way of courageous action for social justice. We who are a branches of the true vine are called always to dwell in him. It is from that source of life in the stem of the vine that the strength comes for us to take part in reshaping the world. Unless we are connected to that source we run the risk that in pursuing what we regard as good causes we might simply be caught up in the political and social power games of those who appear most visible and demanding in our time and place. There are many causes claiming our allegiance and it is all too easy to be swept away by passing enthusiasms. True discernment is not likely to come unless we who act are also the people who pray. The gospel for the anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church, John 15, the true vine, is pertinent for us all. It brings home to us the necessary of that quiet communion with our Lord that is the basis of all true strength wherever the call to action might be.
A good example of the link is in how quiet Christian initiatives contributed to the remarkably peaceful transition which has taken place in South Africa, and which we can hope and pray will continue. A few years ago we had good reason to expect a blood bath with many contending factions in South Africa prepared to use violence to achieve their ends. Many say it was a miracle that the new government was elected in relative peace and good will. It was a miracle for which many did pray. There were big public occasions for prayer. Ten days before the first democratic election 30,000 people gathered in a Durban stadium to pray for peace. Perhaps more significant was a series of off-the-record weekend retreats arranged quietly by a Christian group for the leaders of the parties across the spectrum. Remember that the key players, Nelson Mandela, Chief Buthelezi and former President de Klerk, all declared their faith. Michael Cassidy, who led the group which arranged these retreats and who tells the story of twenty years quiet work behind the scenes building relationships, in his book A Witness for Ever, comments:
Cassidy believes that what happened in South Africa can happen elsewhere, saying,
The still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, can be heard and it does make a difference in the affairs of nations. To go back to Elijah on the mountain. It might have come to him in the sound of silence, but the message he received was not without content relevant to his immediate concerns. The message he received there was a very important one. In the following verses we read that it was about who should be anointed as future kings in two countries and who should be his successor as prophet [1 Kings 19:15-16]. The inner life of quiet listening is coupled with decisive action in God's way of dealing with us.
We are now being called to renew that way of silent communion. We may then be equipped for more effective action true to his calling for justice in the world. It is all the more important when there is good reason to be concerned about the state of the world or the nation or our kind of society with contending factions or ideologies in the face of political threats and economic uncertainty. Let us first renew our strength in communion with God, dwelling quietly in the vine of which, through Christ, we are living branches.
[RCL Resources Index] © David Beswick 1995, 1998, 2001
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1. [A still small voice (the sound of sheer silence) :
KOL (voice, cry of animals, sound, noise, thunder, rumour, report)
DEMAMAH (silence, stillness; from DAMAM, to be dumb, silent, quiet; to rest, cease, to leave off; [hence] to reduce to silence, to destroy, to cut off; DOMAH, destruction, desolation)
DAKAH (small, thin, fine; or slender, thin, withered; from DAKAK, to beat or grind small)]