Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 9 July 2017
Many of you will know/recall what it was like when you had had tiny tiny children. When from being a free spirit, going out when you want to, just booking holidays without thinking, sleeping in on a Saturday morning, just going out for a meal when you felt like it. And then almost overnight it changed. You had to think about feeding, nappies, moving baby around with all the paraphernalia required, carry cots, car seats, sleeping times, (for baby not you), feed requirements. WE had two tiny ones fourteen months apart so all that stuff was doubled and those with more children it is multiplied in geometric progression.
Everything has to be thought of. You become a slave to the system of early child rearing. And if you miss something it’s cataclysmic. As well as two new babies, a new dog and a new country we had to also set about buying a house. So we tramped around show house after show house. Very early on in this nightmare we were looking at a new show house and we put Primrose’s baby buggy on the kitchen bench of this house and proceeded to check it out with Wesley who was about 18 months. We had to get on to the next viewing so off we went. It was about 10 minutes later we realised that we’d left Primrose on the kitchen bench!! We did a quick U turn to the shrilling screams of Joni shrieking “I forgot my baby” “I forgot my baby”. The guilt was overwhelming. Even now if I ever I mention it she buries her head in her hands in the mode of being unforgiven for the unforgivable sin.
But recall the mountain of chores required and the guilt of forgetting one.
Now consider the poor old faithful and devout Jews, Jesus was speaking to. They were a desperately trying to find God and desperately trying to be good. For Orthodox Jews their faith and their religion was a thing of burden. It was a host of chores. It was a religion of endless rules and requirements. People lived their lives in a forest of regulations which dictated every action. They must listen forever to an inner voice which constantly said ‘Thou shalt not’. Jesus said about them (Matthew 23:4) “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”.
Even the Rabbis saw this. There is an ancient rabbinic parable which goes: “There was a poor widow who had two daughters and a field. When she began to plough, the law, through Moses said “You must not plough with an Ox and an ass together. When she began to sow he said “you must not sow your field with mingled seed”. When she began to reap and to make stacks of corn, he said “When you reap your harvest and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it” (All from Deuteronomy), and you shall not reap your field to its very border” (Leviticus). She began to thresh and the Priest said “Give me your offering and the first and second tithe”. She accepted this and gave them all to him. What did the poor woman do then…she sold her field and bought two sheep to clothe herself with the fleece and to breed lambs. When she did this the Priest came and said “Give me the first born”. She did. When shearing time came the priest said “give me the first fleece” (Deuteronomy). She couldn’t stand it any longer. I will slaughter the sheep and eat them. Then the Priest said “give me the shoulder, the two cheeks and the stomach” (Deuteronomy). Then she said “even when I have killed them I am not safe from the law. I shall give my sheep to God”. In which case the Priest said “they belong to me” (Numbers). She went away weeping. The demands of the law are never ending and relentless.
This type of burden is still around. Religion and its demands are often a heavy burden, causing pain and misery and conflict.
It was to these people weighed down with guilt and rules to whom Jesus was and is speaking when he says” “Come to me all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit. For the yoke I will give you is easy and the load I will put on you is light”.
This word ‘easy’ in Greek is ‘chrestos’ which means well fitted. In Palestine ox yokes were made of wood. The ox was brought and the measurements were taken… purpose and individually built. The ox was brought back, to have the yoke tried on, just like having a tailor made suit. The yoke was carefully adjusted so that it would fit well and not chafe the neck of the animal.
Jesus says “My yoke fits well” what he means is “The life I give you is not a burden to cause pain. Your task is made to measure to fit you”
Remember this when we consider what we carry and how it relates to:
- The Church
This organisation more than any other should be a place of peace, of comfort. Somewhere where people’s yokes are tailored perfectly to their own circumstances. Somewhere where there is no judgement or guilt. Where it’s easy to belong and to understand.
But sadly we know it’s often not like this. So often this supposed “haven of peace” is a place of conflict. Is a place of burden and anxiety. How many more disagreements do we have to face up to on theology, on interpretation of the bible, on understanding of God, on prayer, on liturgy (i.e. the words that we use in our services). Only last week I got a phone call from someone shouting down the phone at me because he had read my short paper on the Trinity, that I circulated on Trinity Sunday,…after calling me godless and accusing me of blasphemy (which he said should be punishable by stoning), finished up before he abruptly concluded by saying that he was a faithful Christian. It reminded me of Bishop Spong’s comment that he had had 16 death threats in his life…but he says ‘not one of them had come from an atheist or an agnostic they had all come from bible quoting true believers’.
Were still having ridiculous debates in the church about a range of crazy issues on marriage equality, the role of women in the church, who can or who cannot come to Holy Communion, or be a priest, or be baptized. I say crazy issues because there is no issue it’s all so obvious …..yes LGBTI people should be as equal as the so called straight world, yes women should be leaders and priests in all churches, yes everybody is welcome to share in all our church services. How wonderful it was last week to walk down this aisle in a shared embrace with Imam Nur Warsame.
All these things and many others are not issues to weigh us down, they are opportunities to embrace.
The church is full of prejudice. Prejudice based on gender, sexuality, colour, status, culture, age, ability, nationality or religion is a dead weight which drags the church down and we must get rid of it. If we claim to follow the way of the Nazarene peasant we have no option. His whole life was about removing that weight and smashing down barriers that divide people.
He embraced lepers whose rotting flesh was condemned as untouchable by his religious tradition. He allowed the touch of the woman with the chronic menstrual discharge, who by the religious laws of the day was declared to be both corrupting and unclean. He refused to condemn the woman taken in adultery as the Torah dictated.
We must in our church get away from being snarled up in petty arguments that divide us. We must stop concentrating on our pharisaic tendency to be bound by our own created rules which somehow make us feel we are doing something, whilst all the time we are denying freedom of the spirit.
Let’s see a church not weighed down but lifted up.
- The community
Now let’s look beyond the church to the community around us. We see so many tribal identities. We see everybody hiding behind their own walls.
Whether it’s in North Korea or Collins Street. We feel safe behind our own walls.
We see it every day. There are the divisions which most of the time are harmless fun, like in sport. I love the New Zealand T shirt…I barrack for 2 teams New Zealand and whoever is playing Australia.
However when this tribal feeling is exacerbated in war tribal propaganda dehumanizes our enemies…as it’s then easier to kill them. And when we do we don’t see them like ourselves as people with families, children who love them, partners who they care for. Sadly in our own land there has been much dehumanising of our first people, starting initially with even denying their existence.
It’s also so easy to link this prejudice with religion. We hear some politicians describing Australia as a Christian country, thereby counting every other religion as usurpers in our special territory.
Jesus saw this first hand. The Jews always regarded themselves as “God’s chosen ones” and the gentiles were on the outer. Jesus again smashed through this prejudice, not seeing different races just one humanity.
This is why we as a church ideally situated in the centre of the metropolis must make a strong stand against division. We must open our doors and our hearts to all religions and cultures, particularly those on the outer, the equivalent to the outcast leper. We must consider lobbying government on issues such as safe injecting rooms, marriage equality, refugees, aged care, equality in education, women’s pay equality,. We must be partnering with other organisations and faiths on issues like homelessness, restorative justice, and domestic violence.
And we must be breaking down religious walls and pursuing strongly a city centred spirituality which has meaning for an ever increasing city community both living and working here.
I believe that the community would welcome a city church breaking through those barriers. Here I’m talking spirituality not religion. We still have a degree of regard to be able to be listened to.
Now let’s think about us. People…one by one.
So many people have been brought up with an inherited guilt complex. The church has fostered this …its suited it’s patriarchal and domineering role.
Many people have said to me over the years that they have had certain religious observances that they have had to observe or they would feel ‘guilty’. I know people who have to read the bible for at least an hour everyday (often without understanding it…but that doesn’t matter. It’s the religious observance that counts). There are many who have to go through some other ritual, because that’s what it is, be it prayer or sacrament, or confession, or dare I say it, going to church …not as a joy but as a penance.
This is clearly what Jesus was talking about to the devout Jews, to the Pharisees and scribes. It’s what many of the Old Testament prophets are referring to when they criticise the people for putting their faith in the temple rituals, sacrifice and the minutiae of the law. This is what Jesus calls the “heavy burden”.
Jesus does not mean rules and regulations. Jesus means freedom …freedom within ourselves to acknowledge God’s presence here and within us and around us, to embrace the fragility of our humanity and to step boldly into an exciting and risk taking future as we search for the depths of being.
And as we do this we share in carrying other people’s loads as they share in ours. Our faith and our prayers are not cosy religious beatitudes but it becomes real as we face concrete real life issues around us. We become agents of change and transformation. God is not reserved for sacred ceremonies and holy days. We are with God in the to and fro of everyday life with all its challenges and concerns.
There is an ancient legend that Jesus as a carpenter made the best yokes in all Galilee and that people came from all over the country to buy the best yokes that skill could make.
In those days, as now, shops had a sign above the door. The legend says over this carpenter’s in Nazareth was the sign “My yokes fit well”. It could well be that Jesus was recalling this when he was using the yoke analogy.
What he is saying to the church, to the community and to us is “The life I give is not a burden to cause you pain. Your task is made to measure to fit you.”
The weight is lifted as you help others carry theirs.