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Sermon on “Work and worship”

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.

Niceness means nothing

There’s a lot of talk about “respect” and “civility” at the moment. In case you were unaware, Australia’s federal parliament is trying to decide whether literally every Australian should get to vote on same-sex marriage. In Australian political discourse this kind of vote is called a plebiscite.

There’s something particularly emotive about the plebiscite. It feels like a public opinion poll on whether LGBTI people have a legitimate place in society, so it’s no wonder everyone is keen to appear polite and reasonable. The stakes are too high to be accused of foul play.

Earlier today I had a bit of at Twitter conversation with Josh Taylor from Crikey, about Dr David and Ros Phillips from FamilyVoice, who I know from the annual Australasian Religious Press Association (ARPA) conferences.

It’s true, they are unfailingly polite. They’re softly spoken, sweet and kind. Your heart warms to see them together because their love for each other is obvious. And yet they would eagerly throw me under the metaphorical bus in the continuation of their social agenda.

BuzzFeed reporter Lane Sainty experienced this too when she attended the launch of Dr David van Gend’s book, Stealing From A Child: The Injustice Of ‘Marriage Equality’. Her piece recounting the experience, published today, is well worth a read.

When introducing the enabling legislation for the plebiscite, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull said holding a plebiscite “respects [the Australian people’s] intelligence, their civility, their capacity to express and make a decision and above all, it respects the fact that each and every one of them can have a say.”

It’s as if regardless of what you say it is inherently worthy of respect so long as you are polite about it. Further, so long as you heed the pleasantries of regular face-to-face interaction, your actions appear to be irrelevant.

There’s no inherent connection between politeness and goodness, or that a civil discussion is really being conducted in good faith. It seems self-evident to me, but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard “but they’re so nice!” used to excuse appalling behaviour elsewhere.

Niceness means nothing. What good is niceness if that person won’t stick up for vulnerable people when they really need it? Worse, what good is niceness if that person is going to actively work against your wellbeing?

It makes me think of the Parable of the Two Sons, in which a father asks his two sons to work in his vineyard that day. The first says no, but later thinks better of it and goes. The second says yes, but never gets around to it. Which one actually did what his father wanted? I think about this parable often.

Not that we should go out of our way to be abrasive or rude, but respectful dialogue and sweet words don’t necessarily produce outcomes. In fact, insincere platitudes mask apathetic and obstructive behaviour. I’m seeing a lot of this from our parliamentarians in this debate, and I’ve had enough.

Overlooking someone’s civility to point that out might not be nice, but it is necessary.

Confessions of a Christian church-hater

Hello, my name is Rohan. I like Netflix and birds. I also like the internet, provocatively-titled articles and chicken.

I thoroughly enjoy discussing ideas, politics, storytelling and writing and I’ve even come to like those inconsistent rules in English spelling and grammar that used to make me cry in primary school.

There are a lot of things I enjoy in life, but I hate church.

Community offended animated gif

Actual video of my friends when I told them I hated church.

About a month ago I confessed this to some friends while I was visiting the United States. Their mouths where literally agape. How could this be? I’m very open about my faith, and I suppose that’s one of the first things that springs to mind when people think of me.

I thoroughly enjoy theology, community and talking about what Jesus means to me. I like Christians and I ardently believe that churches have an important role to play in society. I work for a church and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about church and churches and how to grow them and encourage them and all the exciting, interesting things about them. I even spent nearly two years living in a Christian community on Iona because I believe communities of faith are a vital part of what it means to follow Jesus.

But none of that changes the fact that sitting through a church service makes me want to pull my fingernails out.

I love learning and listening to people talk, but I can’t listen to a sermon without completely zoning out.

I love to sing and dance, but church worship feels artificial and I can’t stand it.

I don’t know why. In my teens and early 20s I LOVED going to church. It was the highlight of my week. I’d go to church in the morning, spend all day hanging out with church people and then go to church with them again at night. Then we’d have dinner together and chat late into the night. But not anymore. What changed?

Man punching himself in the face

Me, at church.

Maybe I overchurched myself when I was on Iona. While I lived there we had church twice a day every day. By the end of my time there it was all too much and I regularly skipped the morning office, and sometimes evening worship too. That’s probably a contributing factor.

Leaving my old church on the Gold Coast may be another. Having to make new friends and a find new support network in Brisbane was hard, and I might be trying to find an identical thing in what is actually a very different context. I still visit my old church from time to time and in many ways it feels like coming home, but there’s still the feeling that this isn’t where it’s at for me anymore. I’m done.

At the moment when people ask where I go to church, there is a congregation I say I attend. My boyfriend and I started going there a few months ago and we really enjoy spending time with everyone there. But the reality is we might make it once a month if we’re lucky. I’ll take any excuse to avoid a church service.

Before the service starts it’s great, and once it’s over I’m in my element, but during worship I feel stressed and cynical, and then I feel guilty about feeling stressed and cynical.

I should be into this. I love God and love the church, so why do I hate church services? Can I even do my job properly if I don’t like going to church? Do I have the dreaded “It’s all about me” mentality that my pastors always decried and which I always looked down on during my more enthusiastic churchgoing days? I know God loves me, but is he annoyed at me for being so petulant about the whole thing?

You're the devil

“You don’t like going to church?!”

That’s a lot of me-focused thought happening when I’m supposed to be participating in a God-centred worshipping community. I feel guilty about that too.

I know this side of things is my problem. I’d probably just deal with it and go if I truly believed that’s all it is, but there’s also the niggling thought that I am definitely not alone feeling this way. My story is one part of a much larger story.

It’s not a secret that churches in Western countries are struggling to attract and retain people my age. It’s practically a miracle that I’ve been attending church for as long as I have. There’s a lot of talk about how churches can fix this, but the problem is so complex nobody is quite sure what to do about it.

Is it a crisis in theology? (Partly!)
A crisis in style of worship? (Maybe!)
Do we ask too much or too little from our young adults? (Sometimes!)
A neglect of single people and those whose families aren’t “normal”? (YES!)
Is religion in a losing battle with science? (Not really!)
Are Christians sometimes insular and naive? (Kinda!)
Is there a negative demographic shift? (Sort of!)
Do ministers misunderstand the reasons people go to church? (Probably!)
Are churches too paralysed by fear of obliteration to innovate? (A little!)
Too wedded to nostalgia and tradition? (Perhaps!)

Are people too afraid to admit when they don’t like going to church, so they just kind of embarrassedly drift away never to be seen or heard from again?

I think that last one is a pretty safe bet. It doesn’t explain the whole problem, but I think it’s more common than we’d like to admit and I’d like to avoid being part of it, if I can.

I don’t like going to church. Can’t entirely put my finger on why. It’s a problem for me and for God’s family.

I’m open to suggestions on what to do about it.

Jesus didn’t die for you

It’s a little late to be blogging about Easter, but I never mentioned it in Holy Week and I won’t get another chance to dwell on it so deliberately for another year at least.

In the current edition of Journey we have an article about experiencing Easter afresh so we remember its true power. One of the things I reflected on over the Easter weekend was the line from Peter Lockheart near the end of that article, “It is good to have that personal notion that Jesus came for ‘me’, but Jesus didn’t come for ‘me’, Jesus came for the cosmos.”

That’s not necessarily a new idea for me, but meditating on that, it occurred to me that thinking about Jesus’ death and resurrection in this way is fundamentally different to how many people live out their Christian faith. At Easterfest I heard a lot of people talk about how, “You might not think you’re good enough, but Jesus died for you and God has a plan for your life.” That’s encouraging in one way, but it really just reenforces the idea that I am the centre of the universe. If anything, that’s the real problem and the real thing I need to be released from.

I’m so thankful that Jesus died for the cosmos. The Spirit is actively at work doing whatever it wills. Whether or not I am a part of that it totally irrelevant, and that’s a relief. I don’t need to save the world—that work is already in progress.

But for whatever reason, I am invited to take part in that work. I am caught up in it as it swirls around the cosmos in which I exist. I’m courted to take part in it, even. I get the feeling that any effort on my part, no matter how small or irrelevant, brings enormous joy to God because he loves me and has enabled me to contribute. It isn’t about me, but I am still able to participate in this story.

Silly old me, so unsuited to so many things, not best at anything, forever having to learn and relearn everything, gets to be part of the many-personed body of Christ and his saving, restoring work. Thank God I’m not an irreplaceable cog in that mechanism, but he saw fit to make use of me anyway.

It’s now too late at night for me to really finish off this blog post how I want, but that’s it. That’s my Easter.

My charmed, gay life

Tonight I went to Freedom2b, which is a support group for LGBTI people from Christian backgrounds. I don’t always go, but this month we watched The Cure—a documentary about gay and lesbian Christians who went through ex-gay programs.

It feels strange for me to go to f2b sometimes, because I’ve lived a pretty charmed existence as a gay Christian. Watching the movie, it really reinforced the sense I have that I dodged a bullet. I never wound up in an ex-gay program. My parents weren’t openly hostile to gay people while I was questioning my sexuality and took my coming out really well. I even had a primary school teacher who set me up to handle coming out in a Christian environment (although I didn’t realise that’s what was happening at the time).

How did I get away with it? I didn’t do anything to make any of this happen. How could I?

Perhaps it was divine intervention. Perhaps I was just lucky. Either way, my gratitude is so deep I’ll never be able to fully express it.

Also, it’s not over yet. Charmed lives don’t always last.

Not your Sunday School’s Noah

Currently, I am sitting on my boyfriend’s couch typing on an iPad. I confess I have never typed on an iPad before. It is weird—a cross between a keyboard and a smartphone—so I apologise for any typos or autocorrect errors that may result.

Also, there will be no BEDA image today, because I don’t have image editing software on this iPad.

Anyway, the thing I want to write about here is the movie Noah—specifically the things that I wish I could publish in the review I’m writing for Journey, but I won’t because I’m too shy and I don’t want the readers to think I’m picking a fight with them.

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle about this movie among Christians. Is the film biblical? Does it take too many liberties with the text? Why does it make me so uncomfortable? Does it represent the story accurately? Does it represent people of faith positively? Please tell me I MUST KNOW before I accidentally give $17 to the devil when I buy my ticket!

That kerfuffle is partly why I like the film so much. It’s making Christians ask some of those tough questions about the Bible. Is it more important to portray the text word-for-word or to capture the spirit of the story? Are those things mutually exclusive? What about those bits we gloss over in Sunday school? Noah getting off his face on wine isn’t a very good example of righteousness, so we usually skip that part, but it’s in there.

The main problem I have with much of the Christian criticism of the movie is that it’s basically selfish. It’s essentially:

1. How does this movie represent ME, as a person of faith?

or

2. Does this movie (made by an atheist, oh dear!) live up to MY standards and the special knowledge I have as a person of faith?

Obviously the movie isn’t about Christians (or Jews or Muslims, to whom this story is also important!), but it does raise questions about how faith is lived out. I actually think Noah is an important movie, partly, because it is made by a person with no faith. Aronofsky explores territory every other makers of biblical films have so far avoided—to their detriment.

That’s not even including the fact that although they are holy to followers of Abrahamic faiths, the biblical stories don’t belong exclusively to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The story of Noah isn’t important only because of the faithful; it has something to say to everyone, regardless of faith, and they are free to engage with it however they like. This movie opens up Noah’s story to anyone who cares to engage, and it vaults over this story’s traditional gatekeepers in the process. It seems to me that these gatekeepers are upset about it.

You don’t need special knowledge to read Noah’s story and be moved by it. You don’t need to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour to imagine what it was like on the ark, or wonder why in this story God would prescribe such a calamitous event in response to a broken world.

Noah—and Adam and Moses and Samuel and Isaiah and Jesus and John and Paul—are for everybody. They are important to me. Perhaps I could go so far as to say that understanding them is vital to understanding me—but they don’t belong to me.

The Bible is for everyone, and if you can open it up a little wider in a thoughtful and imaginative way, as Aronofsky has done with this film, then I applaud that effort.