Sermon for Sunday July 6th 2014
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life . . . ” 1 Thess 4:11 (NIV)
John Knox, is reputed to have said ‘It would be better for a preacher to stumble on the steps up to the pulpit, fall and break his neck, than to fail to put into practise what he preaches’ I am very glad that we don’t use the pulpit here, and not only because I should by right have already fallen many times from its steps in the three swift years I’ve been here . . .
15 years ago, last Friday – I was ordained to the Priesthood in the church of Christ. Amongst other things I was charged to model the life Christian life amongst the flock. Authentic Christian life requires us to live lives which are transparent to those amongst whom we live, this is what Our brother John mean when he says ‘Walk in the Light’ – Christians don’t play that dangerously self deceptive game – ‘God knows me, so no-one else needs to’. We confess to one another, it’s part and parcel of the Christian life. Therefore, as the person charged with modeling this life amongst us I confess. I have sinned . . . I have been working too hard.
Just incase you’re worried, I’m not going to engage in public soul searching – just confess it, place it in the light.
I don’t mean to excuse this in any sense when I say ‘I’m not alone in this’. Whenever working people gather the question is – Are you Busy? I can’t recall anyone ever saying ‘No, I’m not’. Indeed I’m not sure what the response would be. Perhaps if you are engaged in paid employment you might similarly reflect upon your own work and fellow workers, and what response someone would give to being told ‘I’m not busy’. It is almost as if the Good answer is ‘of course I am busy. We all are, aren’t we?’ Long hours in our culture are seen as ‘Virtuous’ – Or better we feel they MUST be virtuous. We do not try to think too hard about it. We all Know that no-one on their death bed says ‘if only I’d spent more time at the office!’, but that wisdom doesn’t percolate much into the reality of our lives.
Work has long been a research interest of mine. Amongst the research I note that all the evidence shows that working hours have been rising inexorably since the late middle ages, that is precisely since Western culture began its now completed uncoupling from a Christian world view. On average people work harder now than at any time in history. The less Christian we have become the harder we have worked. Long hours are declared by our political Lords and Masters to be a ‘good thing’. Our government rejects calls from the UN to address the culture of overwork New Zealand – despite the fact that contrary to the myth, Kiwis enjoy a much poorer work-life balance than in most developed nations – scarcely better than that self declared ‘light to the nations’ the USA which has what some learned commentators have called a culture of ‘total work’. ‘Work’ we are told, ‘makes us free!’ [Let the reader understand]
We are encouraged to find our life’s meaning in our work. Aunty Ada asks little Johnny, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ by which we all know she means ‘What paid employment would you like to be engaged in?’. Every time we ask this of our children we confuse their very existence with their Work as we have confused our own. We rephrase Rene Descartes – ‘I work therefore I am’. Therefore for someone to say that your life’s meaning is NOT to be found in your work – that hard work and long hours were not in and of themselves ‘a good thing’ or virtuous, is ‘The end of the world as we know it!’ It would radically call into question that which we hold most dear – to put it in biblical language – it would be an assault upon our idolatry. And it is idols which above all deform our existence.
Terrified of this challenge to our lives, we are trained in NOT condemning overwork as morally reprehensible, (as we did before the late middle ages). Consider had I stood here this morning and confessed to murder, or theft, or adultery – I have no doubt at the very least some would get up and leave, and others might send a quick text to the bishop. But Working too much???
Murder, theft, adultery, might direct our thoughts to the Ten Commandments. Funny how some we treat more seriously than others. I could confess to murder and everything would implode. But I could confess to covetousness (indeed I have done so publicly here in the past . . . :-) ) – or working too hard and its likely no one will call me to account in terms of Sin, so much is it part of the way of the world in which we live. Thus the Sabbath is rightly described as one of the Commandments we boast about breaking. The Sabbath is given Precisely NOT as taking a day off, but as a critique of overwork. Sabbath Limits our work under the Old Covenant in which we live not by Grace but by the Law. It stops us allowing the world to shape us too much out of the way of the one who promises Rest
And of course clergy are no more immune to the ‘way of the world’ than others. A few years ago, a colleague of mine leading a Diocesan study day on a book he had written on clergy self care and rest. It was a wonderful day, the atmosphere amongst us changed, we really began to see there was another way as we began to see how we’d been led astray by the working in the way of the world, not as consistent with our faith in Jesus.
And Then right at the end, the Bishop got up to speak. He began by commending the author for a very fine and very thought provoking day, BUT . . . and you felt the sense of hopeful expectation dissolve as he re-inforced what the world had always told us – that we had to work hard!! Still under the Pharaoh – Still in Egypt – ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’ no more than an illusion, or the hope of something better after we die . . .
Being so shaped by the world – is precisely what Paul is speaking of in Romans 7 – and what Jesus encounters as he comes to his fellow Jews. He has come to announce Life and Liberty in The Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, his herald has been trying to clear the way – but no-one is listening. ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ ‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Jesus comes announcing Judgement and Life! But there is no dancing to the message of Life he declares, nor is there mourning over the Judgement. John is too austere for their tastes, and Jesus too Free . . . and it’s very worth asking ‘are we any better?’ Do our lives – better our life together – declare that the world’s ways are under judgement? That ‘the way of the world’ has had its day? Does our life together reveal a life which in its freedom from the way of the world? A Life that might look like the kind of dangerous nonsense one might perhaps Crucify someone for? A Life that threatens our captivity?
It is a commonplace to look at Jesus and say ‘why crucify someone whose message was love?’ But that of course is to only tell half the story, It’s why we struggle to tell anyone the Good News . . . and our gospel has done this again – so we hear these words about dancing or not, about Jesus and John as eating and drinking, or not, but then the next few verses are missing – Then [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” In Word and Deed the flute – a New Song was being sung, and you did not dance – Judgement of the way of the world has been declare and you did not mourn. It will be worse for you than for Sodom.
For Jesus fellow Jews had by and large conformed their faith to the life they were living. It was easier to conform their faith to their familiar lives, than have their lives disrupted by their faith. Jesus embodied teaching was dangerous nonsense, to obey him – well it would mean the end of life as we know it. . . which of course is true. It is why by and large Jesus teaching is still ignored to this day, even amongst those who bear his name. Jesus said – ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’. Yet many Christians continue to say that someone needs to put bullets in another person to secure the State. Or rather they say ‘wars are just’ – but this is the same thing. Jesus says – sell your possessions and give alms to the poor – How many Christians see no problem with acquiring possessions? Jesus says ‘Do not worry’ and we think him a fool . . . Jesus says ‘Come to me – and I will give you rest’ How many think there is nothing sinful in our culture of constant work. Jesus present in judgement, but holding out the gift of Life, and few respond. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa!
In conclusion I want to think briefly again about my role as a priest amongst us, that bishop of whom I spoke, and the Sabbath.
‘I will give you (pl.) rest’ Perhaps nothing more marks the abandonment of the Hope of the Gospel by a culture than its abandonment of Sabbath – and in Christian circles its pietistic reduction to ‘a helpful individual practise’ at best. Why I must ask do Christian writers not see that an individual Sabbath is no Sabbath at all?? Perhaps because our notions of rest are more shaped by ‘the way of the world’ than by our story, Our Story.
The Sabbath was given to a people and only makes sense in terms of a people Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. (Note, this command is addressed to the powerful – the wealthy! Telling them that if they do not rest, neither will those upon whom their lives rely. If you do not rest, neither does anyone else . . . I’ll come back to that in a moment. The Written word is Always addressed to those at the top. Prophets largely speak to Kings. It rarely if ever speaks directly to the poor and the weak, but to the rich and the powerful, because their lives are the lives on which the lives of the poor and the weak are understood to depend. If the King is anxious, if the CEO does not sleep, then neither will their workers – you are back in Egypt . . .) Remember that you (you heads of families and nations) you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Secondly, then, a powerful person, the Diocesan CEO – the Bishop . . . I still wonder what on earth possessed him to undo what my colleague had done. Why he couldn’t let it be . . . and the only answer I could come up with is that he didn’t trust his clergy. He thought the wheels would fall off if they paid too much attention to rest . . . well if he was that anxious about the church, then perhaps the wheels needed to come off
You see those at the top really do set the tone. In reality, no matter how much our individualised faith denies it, they are or they are not vehicles of Grace and Life for their people. Why else take so much trouble over choosing a parish priest? That is why my overworking isn’t just a matter for me but for us all. My life does affects all of ours and just this week God in his severe mercy showed me something I hadn’t seen.
I’d been aware – it had been mentioned a couple of times at Vestry – and I do keep my ear pretty well to the ground :-) that church life had become very busy . . . of course I should have heard that better and I didn’t. Why were we busy? Because I as your priest was – why were we overworked? Because I was overworking. Pharaohs and hebrews, CEOs and workers, Kings and nations, Priest and people . . .
You see, for all we may well at times act as if it isn’t true, we are one body, not a loose afiliation of religiously inclined individuals. We are the body of Christ. And some of us are called by the Church to be channel of Grace and Life to that body, or not. As the scriptures make abundantly clear, those called to lead are held accountable before God, for the life of the whole.
And so not only do I confess to my overwork, and seek your forgiveness, I apologise for it as well and seek Grace to find a better way.
Perhaps some time with the words of Jesus from today’s gospel would be a good place to start. I don’t generally go in for the Message translation, it is after all, very American :-) but how about this ‘“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
You see there is Good Work, but only Jesus shows us it – and supremely it is revealed in Who he is not what he does. Perhaps we might train our children better, so that when Aunty Ada asks them what they want to be when they grow up they might reply ‘meek and humble of heart – just like Jesus’ The HIgh Priest whose life, unlike mine, is only and always Good News.