A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, 28 June, 2020, preached (via Zoom) at All Saints Church, King City, Diocese of Toronto
Readings for this Sunday: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Romans 6: 12-23, Matthew 10:40-42.
“… present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:13_
In these pandemic times, every one of us has experienced may disappointments – holidays cancelled, loved ones not seen, pleasures deferred. Collectively these lost pleasures form much of the substrate of grief that forms the burden of this strange and unwelcome time.
In another, coronavirus-free universe, I would have been in Holland in early May, as part of the Canadian Armed Forces delegation marking the seventy fifth anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War Two. It would have been a wonderful way to end my career in uniform, accompanying the last Canadian veterans who, like like my late father, had freed the Dutch people from Nazi occupation. Military friends who have made similar trips always say that to wear the Canadian uniform in Holland is to be treated as a hero by people who understand what it means to be liberated.
Paul, in today’s reading from Romans, tells us that we as followers of Jesus are, like the Dutch, also a liberated people. Specifically, Paul tells us that we “have been brought from death to life” (Rom 6:13), because we have been freed from our captivity to sin, which is death, because Jesus has liberated us. Sin enslaved us, but now we are free, free “to become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (Rom 6:17).
So what does it mean to be “free from sin”? This in itself is a huge question, but it’s worth wrestling with, because if we can answer it, then we can explain to others why Christianity matters. The reason why we struggle to answer it, I think, is because the church hasn’t always done a good job in explaining sin.
Historically we’ve either defined sin as the opposite of individual purity, which often makes Christians seem puritanical and judgey, or we’ve defined it in cosmic terms, as something profoundly wrong with the world, as in the doctrine of original sin. The problem with these two views is that the first downplays sin as something that we can fix by amending our own behaviour, and the second renders us helpless victims waiting for God to rescue us.
Our lived experience tells us that sin exists, in small acts that sometimes trip us up, despite our good intentions, in the small stuff of our lives. For this sort of sin, Christians have a pretty good tool kit. We know what the Jesus-focused life should look like, we have a long tradition of Christian ethics, and we have hope that we can grow into the person that God wants us to be, a process called sanctification.
But then there is big sin, the objective reality that we confront in the news each day, the long, complex web of wrongdoing and injustice that seems woven into the fabric of history and society. For example, take the broad debate that has been raging since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to the widespread killing of African Americans by predominantly white law enforcement. When protestors pull down statues commemorating the Confederacy, they are making a deliberate connection between racism today and systems of racial oppression, such as slavery, that go back to the very founding of the United States. Segregation, voter suppression, and disparities of wealth all stem from this past.
Similarly, the opportunities for Canadians to learn about our indigenous brothers and sisters, such as last Sunday’s day of prayer, also point to patterns and structures that go back centuries. As I noted last Sunday, Bishop Townshend of the Diocese of Huron noted that the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated at the start of the west’s colonization of the Americas, argued that the indigenous inhabitants of those lands were non-persons, that, essentially, they were not created by God and did not really exist. This doctrine, like a cancer, infected the government policy, laws, and even theology that Canada was built on.
If you’re a gardener, you’ve probably fought bindweed, a vicious persistent plant that spreads its tendrils everywhere, choking out the plants you love. Sin can be like that, pervasive, deep rooted, structural. The theologian Oliver O’Donovan defines sin as “a universal truth about mankind, a generic disunity with creation and a solidarity in refusal of the good” (Ethics as Theology 1, 82). God created all of us to be in unity, but sin creates multiple layers of oppression – racial, economic, sexual – because it draws humans away from the good. If we think of God’s creation as a flower bed, sin spreads through it, choking the beauty that was in the mind of the gardener. Like bindweed, it has to be carefully and methodically pulled up.
So where is the good news in all of this? Well, we heard it in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul tells us that we’re liberated, we’ve “set free from sin” (and we are no longer forced to live within old, sinful structures of oppression because God in Jesus has set us free. “Sanctifcation” in Paul’s language means that we are made holy, we are restored to the way that God wanted us to be, fee to flourish in God’s garden, which is creation.
Being set free means that we are called to care about those who are not yet free, which is why we are called to preach and live out the gospel. The gospel is a message of freedom that allows us to escape systems of oppression that we have been caught up in. For example, take today’s simple reading from Matthew. Jesus says:
“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
The word “welcome” here means much more than just “hi, come on in”. It implies respect, a recognition of the other as being worthy of our respect and generosity. The phrase “in the name of” is from an ancient semitic idiom meaning “because they are”, so when we someone “in the name of a disciple” it means that we recognize that someone else “is also a disciple”, is also a follower of Jesus, regardless of their race, gender, or class. The act of giving someone water is thus not a trivial act, but stands for a recognition of another’s need, and another’s status as a deeply loved child of God, regardless of who they are. Discipleship crosses every boundary that humans can think of, and we see others as fellow disciples, as fellow children of God, then we all find our freedom.
The action of welcoming is part of our role as apostles, it means that we as the church have to out there in the world, where we are able to recognize and respond to the need of others. Otherwise, if we are confined to our churches and our holy bubbles, we can’t see other people or see their needs. I think this recognition that we can act locally as individuals and as a local parish is important, because it’s how we start restoring creation, how we start getting rid of this systems of oppression, like a determined gardener, pulling up those strands of bindweed, one by one.
In the months ahead, I look forward to thinking with you about what our vocation as church in King township looks like, and how we are called to this work in this part of God’s garden. I am confident that if we as a parish see our mission as sharing God’s liberation with those who yearn for freedom, then we sill have an exciting future ahead of us.