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Bishop Sarah’s SERMON: Lismore 9 July 2014

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’

 

Some years ago I spent two weeks in Jamaica at a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, cocooned in the Hotel Pegasus in downtown Kingston. We were honoured guests of the Diocese of Jamaica, and, indeed, of the country as a whole, and we were treated as such. The Archbishop of Canterbury was chauffeured everywhere in a BMW with a motorcycle escort – a privilege he found supremely uncomfortable. But our cocoon was very restrictive: we were warned not to leave the hotel without a local escort. There was one exception: we were allowed to walk in the park opposite because it was guarded. Its name is Emancipation Park – the irony was not lost on us.

 

The Jamaicans we met were delightful people – warm, hospitable, courteous and helpful. But every morning, as I listened to the news, I heard the accounts of the murders, stabbings and shootings that had happened the day before. This was why we were asked not to leave the hotel – it simply wasn’t safe. Although the island is home to less than 3 million people, every day there are, on average, 3 murders and a number of violent assaults, many of them in Kingston. There was a surreal disconnection between the crime reports and the warmth and beauty of the people we met – a disconnection that kept niggling away at me.

 

On the second weekend of the meeting we were all farmed out to Jamaican parishes. I, along with one of the Nigerian delegates, went out to a parish on the north-west corner of the island, some 5 hours or so from Kingston by car. I didn’t know you could drive 5 hours on Jamaica without falling off the end, but discovered that you can, simply because the roads across the centre of the island are so bad. As we talked with the parishioners about the joys and challenges of being church in Jamaica, it became clear that the church, at least where we were, mainly had women in it. I asked why – and in the answer I was given, also found an explanation for the culture of violence that besets the nation.

 

The Jamaicans themselves attribute both the matriarchy and the violence endemic to their culture to their history of slavery. From 1517 slaves were being brought to Jamaica, first by the Spanish and then by the British, who took over the island in the 1650s. African slave labour was used to cultivate sugar cane and coffee plantations. The slaves vastly outnumbered their colonial masters and mounted several rebellions. Emancipation finally arrived in the 1830s with 1838 seen as the definitive date of complete emancipation of the slaves.

 

This is 175 years ago – many generations. And yet, when the Jamaicans talk about their society they point to the legacy of the 300 years of slavery. Young men are, they say, reluctant to shoulder responsibility and become strong members of a self-governing society. Marriage rates are low and multiple partners are common. Women form the backbone of the society while among many of the men there is a shiftlessness and, more profoundly, a self-hatred that come from being the descendants of people who did not even own themselves. This manifests itself in violence, substance abuse and family breakdown. Tellingly, the General Confession in the Jamaican prayer book includes a line I have seen in no other version of the Confession. It reads: ‘we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves; we have not loved ourselves as we ought’. The societal consequences of slavery have been far-reaching and long-lasting. Even though the slavery itself has ended, people’s servitude has not.

 

The resonances with the experiences of our own indigenous cultures did not escape me. A broken-hearted people lose the human sense of selfhood and struggle to understand themselves as beloved by God and as worthy human beings. Where these understandings are absent, it becomes extraordinarily difficult for people to be who they are created to be and destructive behaviours such as violence and substance abuse have fertile fields in which to flourish.

 

In these circumstances, the consequences of disempowerment and suffering, of lack of direction and fruitlessness are obvious. The very severity of the situations imposes a clarity, emphasizing the outcomes.

 

However, it is also true that we are all enslaved in some way. Because it is less extreme and less overt, we can brush over it, ignore it. Without wishing in any way to diminish the gravity of the effects of slavery and dispossession on any group, I would also like to point to the prison cells and chains that bind us all. For each one of us is imprisoned in some measure – by our beliefs, by our expectations, by guilt, by the expectations of others, by prejudice, by fear, by depression, by emotional and physical blindness. The list is lengthy. We human beings are good at it! We contribute to our own and to others’ enslavement.

 

The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus attacking the religious authorities of his day. The substance of his attacks is precisely this: that they impose burdens on the people and neglect the truly life-giving demands of the religious life. He scathingly denounces their priorities. This is what is at the heart of his critique of the scribes and the Pharisees who tithe everything, right down to the herbs and spices in their pantries, and who neglect justice, mercy and compassion. These religious leaders were enslaving God’s people, wrapping them around in chains of obligation, and failing to lead them to the freedom God offers. The whole of Jesus’ ministry, on the other hand, is focused on liberating people from their burdens, and bringing them to fullness of life.

 

In this morning’s reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he talks about the tension between the law of God and that of the flesh – by which he means something much broader than we usually do when we talk about ‘the flesh’. Biblical scholar Bill Loader talks about this passage in this way: “human nature when twisted by sin has the capacity to be divided against itself and render a person almost helpless, at least seriously morally impotent”.

He goes on to say: “The good news of God’s goodness in Christ brings a new power into this hopeless situation which liberates people from such captivity. As people open themselves in faith to the love which offers them a relationship of forgiveness and growth in confidence, they move from death to life, they move towards freedom from sin and guilt and death. That freedom then liberates them to live and to love others, not least because they are released from the hopeless struggle grounded in fear. Love reproduces love and for Paul love is the fulfilling of the Law.”

At our best we, the church, are at the forefront of Christ’s work in the world. Christians spearheaded the emancipation movement, the anti-apartheid movement. Christians have worked to subvert the oppression of humanity in many parts of the world. And at our best, we are a community where individuals can find their own liberation from whatever oppresses and binds them and come to know God’s forgiving, compassionate, transforming love.

 

But we are so often not at our best. We are so often enslaved by our own fears and folly – individually and corporately – and we fail to embrace the freedom offered by the Spirit. What is it that enslaves you? What is it that enslaves our national church? This diocese? This congregation? God invites us to break our shackles and to enter the fullness of life we are created for and which Jesus dreams of for us.

 

Today’s Gospel uses the imagery of animals yoked together. A team of horses or oxen were held together by a wooden yoke in order that their power could be harnessed and used to plough fields or pull heavy loads. May we be held together, in our lives in the community and in the church, not by a wooden yoke, but by the thread of faith in Christ and the bond of love, and may we find there freedom and rest for our souls.

Amen.

 

Sarah Macneil

July 2014