The following is the text of a sermon I delivered at Leichhardt Uniting Church on Sunday 9 July 2017 at both the morning and evening services. The lectionary readings for that day were Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 and Romans 7:15-25. I’ve added a link to the picture of the roller door mentioned at the end of the sermon.
Good morning it’s a real pleasure to be speaking here today – and a little scary too. One of the things I have loved about this time in-between ministers is hearing from my sisters and brothers in the pews and learning from their incredible talent and insight. But then of course, when it comes my turn to speak, those same whip-smart people are my audience, so I hope what I say today is helpful.
For those who don’t know me, I’m Rohan Salmond – I joined this community a little under a year ago. The last time I delivered a sermon, I was on the Isle of Iona in Scotland in the Abbey. Iona is a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides and a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people every year. I was working with the Iona Community providing hospitality to guests and leading services.
We didn’t dress up to lead services in the Abbey. I usually wore wellington boots, three layers of jumpers and hoodies and a beanie. Sometimes guests would say “Can’t you wear at least some liturgical dress when you lead worship?” and we would say, “This is my liturgical dress! Work and worship are the same thing.”
The readings today have got me thinking about work and worship – especially after attending School of Discipleship last weekend. There we were taught by Dr Liz Boase about Jeremiah and Lamentations. One of the things that stuck out to me was that when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, they longed to return to their homeland. Their whole world had fallen apart and they wanted to return to the glory days. But Jeremiah said to them, settle in; plant crops and harvest them; marry and have children; pray for the welfare of your new city, because you will be in this situation for a while.
In short, he said don’t be afraid to do the work in the community in which you now find yourself – and in so doing, you bring glory to God. Work and worship.
I’m preaching from the lectionary today, and I’ll focus on the Romans reading first and then circle back to Matthew so you’re thinking about Jesus by the end of it.
I love Romans; it’s fabulous and I’ll never fully understand it. In this text the Apostle Paul is explaining a Christian’s relationship with the Law of Moses. It’s a dangerous passage I reckon, because it’s easy to swing wildly into cheap grace, or to completely disregard scripture, even though Paul himself goes to great lengths to stop the reader from making this mistake.
Paul is saying, the law tells us what is good, but because of sin and human nature, we naturally rebel against it, even though intellectually and spiritually we agree with it. I grew up in evangelical Uniting Churches and went to a private Baptist high school, which I would describe as fundamentalist in its interpretation of scripture.
In this time I heard people talk about this passage pretty often, but it was always in the context of our own individual sinful natures, and our need to be rescued from them through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I don’t want to detract from that reading of this text, because I think Paul is saying something profound about human nature and God knows, I need that rescue. Having said that, I do think that reading is putting blinders on the full scope of what Paul is trying to say.
We know that the law of Moses isn’t just about individual moral behaviour – it’s about the community. It’s about making Israel (as a community) holy and acceptable to God. Likewise, sin is not just an individual failure to carry out moral behaviour, it’s a corruption that corrupts the way we relate to each other – and the way we order ourselves and the way we relate to the natural world. It gets into everything.
Jesus didn’t just die for you, he died for the cosmos.
And so it makes me think about sin as a collective state of being. That although I desire peace and justice to be carried out in the world around me, through my actions and through the actions of others, I find myself literally unable to do it. I find myself in a world governed by systems that make truly righteous behaviour impossible.
I say this not to get myself off the hook, because I willingly participate in these systems – just my virtue of being alive. I don’t know how to live apart from them. I was raised by them. I am a part of them.
For example, I know that climate change is a result of our abrogation of our duty to steward the Earth. It’s offensive. It’s a sin. It’s deadly to the poor across the globe. They die in sudden disasters like floods and cyclones, and in slow, creeping disasters like famine and displacement.
But I am addicted to carbon. I use plastic without thinking and even as I wrote this sermon I had the heater blasting because I don’t handle the cold well.
It’s not like I do nothing about it. I’ve lived without a car for the last six years to try and do my bit. But I find governments attacking the public transport networks I now rely on, and when I need to use a car, my choices are Uber – with a toxic corporate culture – or traditional taxis. One time I was in a taxi that ran a red light, I said, “What’s going on?” and the driver said, “Sorry mate, I’ve been driving for over 12 hours.” You can’t even avoid contributing to one destructive system without contributing to another.
That’s just one person. On a broad scale, the systems that govern our behaviour make it easier to do wrong. So climate change continues to take effect because of our policy and behaviour. Who will save us from this sin ravaging the Earth?
There’s a lot of good, important work being done to change those systems, and I’ll talk about that in a little bit, but I feel like without outside help, we’ll never have the will or the energy to get it done in time.
And that’s just climate change. There’s all kinds of sin at work in the world. The way we treat refugees; how we construct our cities to profit the wealthy and disadvantage the poor; the way we fail to honour the Indigenous people of the land that we took and now reside on. And things I don’t even know about because I’m so far inside them I can’t even see them.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Thanks be to God, Paul gives us an answer. It’s Jesus.
We are liberated by the resurrection power of Christ. Paul writes that we have died with Christ and are now dead to the Law, and thereby freed from the prison of sin, “So that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.”
Paul is talking about the Law as in the Law of Moses, whereas I’m talking about the law in more general terms, as in “the things we understand are right and moral.” Paul draws a link between the Law of Moses and this more general understanding in the text, so I think it’s a fair comparison.
According to the Uniting Church Assembly we’re still in the season of Pentecost. Pentecost reminds us that God isn’t just interested in saving our souls for the life to come – through the resurrection. No, God is interested in building the kingdom here, among us today through us, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the new way of the Spirit we are liberated into by the liberating power of Christ.
How does that work? What does it look like? Well fortunately, in the reading from Matthew, Jesus talks about that. A bit of background the yoke he mentions here is the rule followers of a rabbi were expected to follow. A yoke is the plank of wood that sits across the shoulders of oxen, binding them together in their work. Each rabbi had a different “yoke” – a different set of expectations based on that rabbi’s interpretation of the law that their disciples were supposed to fulfil.
So Jesus says, “Come to me” those of you under heavy yokes, crying enormous, unbearable burdens. “Take MY yoke upon you and lean from ME, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
This is such a relief to hear after worrying about how its sometimes impossible to do the right thing. When we link work and worship, it can feel like you keep doing stuff, even if you’ve got nothing left to offer – because otherwise you’re not doing your job as a Christian. But Jesus says, that’s not the way I’m asking you to follow. It’s a compassionate response that liberates us to fulfil the true meaning of the law.
Okay, but how does it really look, today, in my life? I have no idea. I ask myself that all the time. I have to have faith that as I come to Jesus and follow him he’s gonna lead me in the right paths.
On Tuesday I was at Bible study and Liam was talking about how a nun told him that life is lived for the glory of God, goodness in our souls and goodness to others. If something is wrong, we need to go backwards. If there’s no goodness to others, we have check that there’s goodness in our souls. If we find that there’s no goodness in our souls, we need to check that we’re giving glory to God.
The work, and the worship, are all linked up. They flow from each other, and feed into each other.
Even though because of the bramble of sin at work in the world, it feels impossible to do any meaningful work – we can do it with confidence because it is an expression of our worship to God. The very act of doing it is a physical articulation of faith. The only reason we can do it is because it has been made possible through Christ.
One last story. On a staff retreat to Glasgow, an Iona Community member took us on a pilgrimage of the city. We stopped at places of spiritual and historical significance to talk and pray about the issues these locations would stir up in us. As we were walking through a nondescript street, the leader stopped across the road from this door. She pointed and said, “Look, it’s the kingdom of heaven.”
Behind this little roller door was enough room for a desk, a chair and a filing cabinet. It was located a few blocks from the department of immigration office in Glasgow. Asylum seekers who had appointments at the immigration office would first check in at the desk behind this door. If they didn’t check out again by the end of the day after their appointment, the people working this desk knew that that person had been spirited away to a detention centre elsewhere in the country and would soon be deported back to their country of origin. There was no other way to know, because the government wouldn’t notify anybody. The life-giving system this little door represents gave enough time to launch legal challenges which prevented dozens of deportations and saved lives.
This little door was making a new system, a new way of the Holy Spirit, challenging the sinful systems at work in the world. It really was the kingdom of heaven breaking out into the world around us.
It’s the way of the Spirit – enabling us to do the things we know we should do.
We have an opportunity to take on the yoke of Christ and help make the kingdom of heaven manifest in the world. Why? Because we love him. And what a privilege that is. Work and worship. Same thing.