Be an activist (Fr Daniel 5 July 2020)

Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott

on Sunday 5th July 2020 (Fourth Sunday after Trinity)

Zech. 9.9–12; Ps. 145.8–15; Rom. 7.15–25a; Matt. 11.16–19,25–end

Over the last few months I’ve been in danger of becoming an activist. I’ve gone to a couple of protests, I’ve flooded Facebook with anti-racism posts, I’ve recommended books, I’ve signed petitions, I’ve written to my MP. And a lot of that has been a bit out of my comfort zone. Because, like many people, part of me just wants a quiet life. All this political engagement, all the arguments you get into – it’s so exhausting! And does it really do any good? Wouldn’t we be better off if we lowered our expectations and just got on with life, living in peace with our neighbours, trying to make our little corner of the world slightly more humane?

Because Jesus is about peace, not conflict, isn’t he? ‘Turn the other cheek’, ‘Do not resist an evildoer’, ‘he will be called the Prince of Peace’, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth’.

But we forget that Jesus was put to death for disturbing the peace, he overturned tables in the Temple, according to tradition eleven of his apostles were martyred… He came to disrupt this world and its order so that God’s kingdom of peace may come.

So how should we read those familiar verses from Matthew’s gospel that we’ve just heard?

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

It’s about peace, isn’t it? If you’re ‘wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world’, come to Jesus. Whatever your burden, leave it at the foot of the cross. Learn to follow Jesus and you will have an inner peace that will withstand all the sorrows of the world… That’s the ‘I just want a quiet life’ reading of this passage.

In contrast, the biblical scholar Warren Carter encourages us to try to hear Matthew as its first hearers would have heard it. They probably lived in the Roman city of Antioch, now in Turkey, and all around them there would have been reminders that they lived in a major city of the Roman Empire. Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and therefore the seat of the provincial governor.

It was important enough to be visited by emperors and military leaders: the future emperor Vespasian visited Antioch in ad 66 as commander of the military forces that assembled there to attack Galilee and Judea. Three years later he returned as emperor, and in ad 71 another future emperor, Titus, came to the city to parade the treasures and Jewish prisoners he had acquired after his defeat of Jerusalem and Judea the year before.

Four legions of Roman soldiers (about 20,000 men) were based in Antioch, and buildings, statues, and coins all declared Rome’s authority. Harsh taxes were exacted on all but the elite, and after ad 70 there was a specific tax on Jews, as punishment for the uprising in Judea. Antioch was a place where you knew who was in charge and who was rich – and it probably wasn’t you.

Life under imperial rule is hard – and because of that, throughout the Old Testament the metaphor of a yoke is used to describe oppressive rule. A yoke is a beam used to connect two animals so that they can pull a load together – it’s uncomfortable, and it signifies that you’re under someone else’s control. In Isaiah Israel suffers under the ‘Babylonian yoke’, later on the Maccabees rebel against the ‘yoke of the Gentiles’ – and Matthew’s hearers feel the weight of the Roman yoke.

So if you’re a resident of Antioch or the surrounding area in the 80s of the first century, conscious of living under Roman rule, paying huge taxes to sustain the lifestyle of the Roman elite, perhaps struggling to get by – how are you going to hear this passage?

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Perhaps you might hear Jesus making reference to the ‘Roman yoke’, the Roman Empire, and offering a different kingdom, a different empire? He has been proclaiming ‘the kingdom of heaven’ ever since the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. And he’s been identified as ‘the Son of God’ and ‘Messiah’, the Anointed One, titles given in the past to Israel’s king. It’s this royal Old Testament background that our reading from the prophet Zechariah reminds us of:

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Jesus of course deliberately re-enacts this passage when he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

So in an empire that has an emperor and an accepted set of rules, Jesus is setting himself up as an alternative king, with a different way of doing things. Perhaps those familiar words in our gospel reading (‘Come to me all you that are weary… Take my yoke upon you…’) are not primarily words of comfort, but words of challenge – which empire do you serve? Which empire are you loyal to – Rome’s empire, or God’s empire?

So how should we continue to proclaim Jesus’s alternative kingdom, the ‘different way of doing things’ he establishes in the midst of a rival empire?

Should we focus on the Christian community? Should Christians be a group of holy people who behave differently from the society around them? A group that practises radical love, especially for the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the forgotten? A group that looks outwards, but not too far. A group that does what it can, but isn’t in a position to effect wider changes. That’s probably what Matthew thought the church should be – when you’re under the control of an all-powerful empire, transforming society isn’t a realistic option. The best way the church can witness to the kingdom of God is by trying to live it. No activism, please – we’re Christians.

But we don’t live in an all-powerful empire. We know that things can change, and that a well-organized campaign, or a committed political party, can transform society, at least to some extent. In the last few centuries, Christians have been at the forefront of many movements that changed the societies they lived in: abolishing the slave trade, reforming prisons, establishing the welfare state. Christians have glimpsed again the Old Testament vision of a just society. They’ve been bold enough to denounce the powers and dominions as Jesus did. They’ve seen that the kingdom of God isn’t supposed to be just an internal attitude or something that exists within our churches, but that it’s opposed to whatever is unjust or corrupt or death-dealing in our whole society.

We know the people and characters in the Bible who wanted a quiet life: the rich in the time of Amos who walked over the poor in the street to get to the Temple sacrifices, the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s story who saw the injured traveller but passed by on the other side, the Pharisees and Sadducees who were perfectly happy with the deal they’d got under Rome and wanted this troublesome prophet from Nazareth to get out of their way.

So do find comfort in Jesus, and do learn from him. But also see his words as a challenge. Be an activist. Vote. Work for an end to racism. Call for the protection of the natural world. Aim for the ‘peace with justice’ that the Bible calls shalom. That is the true peace that Jesus brings.

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