Images of Stewardship

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September each year is ‘stewardship month’ in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, during which we focus intensively on the question of our contribution to God’s work in building the Kingdom of God in our midst. Traditionally, we focus on time, talents and treasures as the main focus areas of our contribution. This year, we’ve also focused on our stewardship of creation, particularly in response to the growing plastics threat.

This is the last of our stewardship messages this year, where I was led, by some difficult circumstances, to reflect on the meaning of stewardship. Using a set of six images, I show the multifacetedness of stewardship, and what it means to work as partners with God in transforming our world into the image of God. These images are:

  1. Parenthood
  2. Safeguarding (1 Corinthians 6)
  3. Care-taking (1 Kings 17)
  4. Gardening (Psalm 24)
  5. Loving (serving) (Ephesians 5)
  6. Friendship (John 15)

The image of stewardship as parenthood emerged in a crisis with my son during this past week, where he was involved in a very serious car accident. Although he was not badly hurt, thankfully, his life was jeopardised, and this raised considerable distress for me as a parent. It led me to think of my role as parent as that of a steward of this young man, who is first and foremost God’s son, and only secondarily my son.

The image of stewardship as friendship emerged from John 15, where Jesus says that we are not servants, but friends; friends of Christ and friends of God. Friendship, I suggest, involves freedom, reciprocity (mutuality) and equality. And friendship is the ultimate foundation of stewardship.

It is against these images that I believe we are invited to be coworkers with Christ in his mission to redeem the cosmos.

Blessings
Adrian

Standing against patriarchy

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The church has fallen far short of its expected role in championing the dignity and worth of women. Instead, the church has been complicit in advancing patriarchy: women and children have been abused and exploited by clergy and church leaders; the role and authority of women has been dampened in the church; women have been encouraged to return and submit to their abusive husbands; and a theology of male supremacy has been advocated. The church has and continues to advance patriarchy.

This is at odds with the teaching of Scripture. While the Bible was written men in a patriarchal world and reflects patriarchal patterns of life, this does not mean that God is a patriarch, nor that the church should be patriarchal. We need to revise our theology in light of a reading of scripture that is not dictated by cultural norms about gender relations.

For example, the creation narrative in Genesis is often used to support male superiority – woman was derived from man, man was created to rule, etc. But a close reading of Genesis 1:27-8 and 2:18-23 presents a picture of God creating woman-and-man as a partnership.

  • Both were commissioned to rule over the world – man was not mandated to rule over woman. They were co-workers, partners, sharing in an egalitarian way the responsibilities for taking care of the world.
  • Woman was created out of man, from Adam’s side, showing that they are the same (or similar). They are equals, partners, lovers.
  • Woman was created as a ‘helper‘, but that word does not imply servitude or subordination. It is used 21 times in the First Testament, 16 of which refer to God helping the people of Israel, e.g. Psalm 121:1-2. God is hardly the servant of or subordinate to Israel! If anything, being a ‘helper’ connotes a position of strength and capability.
  • The creation narrative speaks not of male supremacy and female subordination, but of gender equality and mutuality, of partnership and sameness.

Another example, Paul’s writings in the New Testament are riddled with patriarchy: wives submit to your husbands, husbands are the head of the wife, husbands are the head and wives are the neck, women must remain silent in church, etc. Unquestionably, Paul was a patriarch in a patriarchal world. But, we too seldom hear another thread in Paul’s writings: a thread that is at odds with the patriarchal narrative.

  • In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes about the unity of humanity in Christ. He starts with divisions that he fully understands and lives out: “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor Free”. These shifts towards equity in race and class were radical at that time; indeed they are radical today. But Paul was struggling with “neither male nor female”. One has a sense that Paul understands and partly believes that there is gender equality in Christ, but that his upbringing and investment in a patriarchal world-view hold him captive.
  • In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Paul presents a view of marriage – of sex in marriage – that is contrasts starkly with the views he presents in Ephesians 5:22-33. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents sexual relations in marriage as entirely egalitarian and mutual. There is no sense here of a hierarchy of status or even of a differentiation of roles. Instead, there is simply a loving, mutual self-giving of one to the other. Egalitarian marriage.

I’m not arguing here that the Bible narrative advances gender equity. Far from it – the Bible was written by patriarchs in a patriarchal world, and is full of patriarchy. But I am arguing that the Bible equally presents God’s view of humanity as endorsing gender equity. At very least, we must admit that the Bible is not unequivocally in support of patriarchy.

And when we combine this fracture in the patriarchal edifice, even if only a tiny fault line, with the person of Jesus, and his ministry among the women and men of his day, the church must stand up to and against patriarchy. Patriarchy is a social evil that harms the life of the majority of humanity: all women, all children and (arguably) all men. We are all held captive to patriarchy, with some of us (mostly us men) benefiting at the expense of women. This cannot be. This is not the image of the Kingdom of God presented by Jesus Christ.

I call on all of us, but especially men, to do four things:

  1. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). We have to start with our own minds, which have been taught patriarchal ways of viewing the world and ourselves since infancy. Let us be transformed, so that we can perceive God’s will more clearly. Let us challenge the deeply engrained patriarchal patterns of thinking.
  2. We need to speak out against patriarchal talk and behaviour. Let us not be silent. Let us not turn our eyes away. Let us speak up for truth and love, for gender equality and for the full dignity and worth of both women and men.
  3. We need to challenge the misuse of Scripture, which draws on handfuls of texts that bolster the culture norms of our society, but are not aligned with the Kingdom values that Christ presents in his teachings and ministry. Scripture has problematic passages, to be sure, but the overriding thread that runs throughout Scripture, and that is our key to making sense of the Bible, is God’s extravagant love for humanity, revealed through creation and the life of Christ.
  4. We need to stand, unequivocally and unflinchingly, with the victims of gender-based violence. For too long, the church has stood with the perpetrators. We see this particularly in the Roman Catholic church, for example, in Pope Francis’ protection of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile, and his later apology to the victims of Bishop Karadima. But let those of us who are not Catholic, not be complacent and point fingers. Child sexual abuse and sexual harassment of women manifests in all churches, including, for example, the Church of England and Willow Creek. The church – you and me – must stand with those who are violated and abused. That is what Christ did, repeatedly. We can do no less.

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, the Church should and must stand up to and against patriarchy, and for the voice of those who have been disempowered and silenced. This was the role that Christ Jesus took up during his brief time on earth. It is the role that his mother gave voice to in her great Magnificat. And it is the role that the church, and all its individual members, must continue today.

A Little Faith

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While there are people who have oodles of faith, many of us have a frail, faltering, fractured faith. I’m one of these people. As a young Christian, I berated myself for being faithless, and envied those who seemed to have waterfalls of faith. As I got older, I clung to Matthew 17: 20, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” While large faith is wonderful – God bless those of you who have lots of faith – a little faith is fine.

It is not the quantity of our faith that is so important, as much as the one in whom we place our faith.

Our faith does not accomplish much, but the one in whom we place our faith can accomplish a great deal.

Today’s message draws on John 6:5-13, the narrative of Jesus feeding the 5000. I focus on four points to make the argument that a little bit of faith can go a long way:

  1. Philip‘s problem was that he was so focused on the thousands of hungry people that he lost sight of Jesus, who was standing right beside him. We also, often, get so absorbed in the problem, that we forget to look to Jesus, who is standing right next to us.
  2. Andrew had a little faith: he found a boy who had 5 little loaves of bread and 2 little fish. ‘Here is something, something small’, he thought. But then he too lost sight of Jesus and became overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. We also may find that we have a little faith, a little gift, a little ability, but quickly feel daunted by the enormity of the task ahead and falter.
  3. Jesus, however, is more than able to feed thousands and already had a plan long before he asked Philip’s input. Jesus’ capacity to do the Work of God is not dependent on us, on our faith. However, he wants our partnership. So, he instructs Philip and Andrew to prepare the crowd for the miracle, by getting them to sit down. Regardless of our faith – large, little or nothing – Jesus invites us to move ahead, as if we had faith. We are invited to act. You don’t actually have to have faith to act; through action comes faith.
  4. The crowd receive the bread and the fish, and they eat their full. Today, we’d probably question the bread and the fish, and be hesitant to partake. But the crowd then also exercised a little faith – they participated, they ate. When Jesus offers us a gift – a gift of faith – do we accept it? Or do we critique and doubt it?

Ultimately, Jesus shows that he is more than able to take care of an impossible need, with or without the faith of the disciples. This shows us, that it is not about our faith, but about Jesus, the one in whom we entrust our faith. And that whether our faith is large or little or absent, Jesus can and does work out God’s purposes among us.

Let us, then, cultivate just a little faith by looking to Jesus, by taking small steps, by doing something and by opening ourselves to his capacity for love and work.

Brandon Heath – A Little Faith (Official Audio):
“A little faith, just a little faith; a little faith goes a long long way”

Truth to Power

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The Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 14-29, presents us with the grisly narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod Antipas, on request of his step-daughter Salome, who was acting on instruction from her mother Herodias. It is a passage that is inserted abruptly in an unrelated narrative about Jesus’ disciples performing miracles and preaching the Gospel. What is the purpose of such a narrative?

In this message, I suggest it serves as a tale about power and corruption. And about our role in the face of such power and corruption. I make three points:

  1. We need to avoid the entanglement of sin and guilt.
  2. We need to recognise and speak truth to the power of the powerful.
  3. We need to accept the cost of discipleship.

Christianity is not just about fellowship and singing choruses. It is not just about the love of God. It is also about challenging power and corruption in the world, about speaking truth to power. It is about championing Kingdom values, such as compassion, integrity, the intrinsic value of every person, equity, justice, the sacredness of the earth. It is about standing against oppression, exclusion, domination, exploitation, injustice and abuse. It is about accepting, even embracing, that speaking truth to power may have negative consequences for us. Christianity is serious business!

(Richard Strauss composed a chilling opera about this narrative called Salome. Not for the faint-hearted! Here is a link to a recent production.)

Looking up, looking out

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We live in a world that seems to be doing not very well. Globally and nationally we face many challenges. And many of us face personal challenges as well. These can wear us down, challenging our faith, leading us to wish we could escape all of it.

In such times, most of us look up. We look up toward heaven, towards God, and wish that God would fix things up. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalmist (121:1). Paul writes at length about this in 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:5. He reminds us that the world and the body we live in are transient – they last but a short time and then are done. So, he longs for a more permanent world – heaven – where we can dwell for eternity with God, and where we will be doing considerably better than we are now.

So, we look up for a better future. We look up for life after death. We look up for an eternal reward. We look up for justice. We look up for comfort and solace. We look up for hope and courage.

It is good for us to look up.

But God also calls us to look out. God is not in the business of escapism. God is not inviting us to run away from or ignore or avoid the difficulties that we are facing in this world. Rather, God wants us, calls us, to be a co-worker with God in bringing into being the Kingdom of God in our midst. This was the ministry of Jesus – “the Kingdom of God is near”. Looking out means to look around us, to look at the world as it is, to really see what’s going on. Jesus always had his eyes wide open and was looking out. In English, to ‘look out’ for someone also means to care for someone.

We hear this sentiment in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), when Mary begins to understand what God was doing through her, and the way she was participating in birthing the Son of God, who would order the world, turning tables, balancing books, righting wrongs. These were present things that Jesus would do, and Mary recognised that she was a participant in making this ministry possible. Mary was looking out at the world and seeing the role she and her son would play in confronting evil.

We hear this also in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), where Jesus prays not that we may escape to heaven, but rather that heaven will come to earth: “Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The rest of the prayer is about present realities: daily food, forgiveness, reconciliation, holy living, protection. His is a looking out prayer, not a looking up prayer. This prayer is about looking out at the world as it is.

Looking up and looking out are important Biblical principles for Christian living. In South Africa, during the years of struggle against apartheid, the Anglican church (which I’m part of) applied this principles. Our church services – sacramental, liturgical – are designed to help us look up to a God who is majestic, powerful, compassionate, gracious. We come to church, into a beautiful service, to escape the ugliness of the world outside; we come to church to look up. But, the Anglican church was also instrumental in undermining and eventually toppling the apartheid government and its laws; our church was looking out. THIS is what church is meant to be: Looking up and looking out.

God works with young people too

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Today is the first Sunday in Youth Month (June), and our church decided that ‘the youth’ (i.e. teenagers) would attend grown-up church for the month, rather than the usual youth church. Youth will be participating more actively in the services this month – welcoming new comers, serving as sides persons, reading the scriptures and leading prayers. And on June 17th, a teenager will preach.

So this sermon is intended to kick off Youth Month by addressing the question of the place of young people in God’s work in the world, in the Kingdom of God. All too often,  grown-ups tend to think of teenagers as being ‘adults-in-waiting’ (something scholars call ‘waithood‘). We have high expectations of who they must become, but low expectations of what they can offer now, and create little opportunity for them to act now. But, I argue, this is not what we see in the way God relates to young people in the Bible.

Drawing on the story of God calling Samuel when he was a boy (probably about 12 years old) in 1 Samuel 3:1-11, I show how God intentionally sidelined a grown-up priest (Eli) to rather engage with Samuel. God calls Samuel FOUR times in the night! During a time when the voice of God was rarely heard. AND God appears to Samuel in physical form (a ‘theophany’), which is also rare in the Old Testament narrative.  And then God gives a momentous message to Samuel, about God’s judgement on Eli, who is Samuel’s master.

In this story, we see God engaging fully with a young person, and making that young person central to God’s mission in the world. It is no accident. God selected a youngster to do this pivotal work. Samuel was about the same age as Jesus was when he left his parents to sit in the temple and engage the Jewish leaders (Luke 2:41-52).

Another narrative is found in Mark 2:23-3:6, a passage ostensibly about Jesus’ teachings on Sabbath law. I suggest that in this narrative, we Jesus acting in a typically adolescent way! (Remember that Jesus, being around 30 years old, was himself a youth, according to the South Africa definition of youth as ages 14-35.) In the first part of this narrative, Jesus and his disciples are walking, harvesting and carrying – all against the Sabbath law. Jesus’ response when challenged is a first century “Whatever” that is typical of modern teens. And then he heals a man, not because the man is in danger (his hand had probably been shriveled for many years, and was not in any immanent danger that warranted an ’emerging healing’ on the Sabbath), but to make a point. He wants to show his disregard for the Sabbath laws that had become a millstone around people’s necks.

In this second story, we see Jesus valuing a typically adolescent attitude: a healthy disregard for tradition and authority. Teenagers want to know why we do things the way we do them. What’s the point? Why is different not acceptable? Who says? We know that God appears to value such a questioning stance, because Jesus himself acts it out.

Teenagers are not grown-ups in waiting. They are already people. They’re just young people. God loves them enormously, extravagantly, intensely. God wants to engage with them, be in communication with them, listen to and talk to them. God wants them to partner in God’s work in the world, in God’s Kingdom. God sees them as full people, who have much to contribute. We, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, need to create some space for God to work with these young people.

Good Morning, Holy Spirit!

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Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the early church, 50 days after Easter. Holy Spirit is a person we talk about far too infrequently, so today I seize the opportunity to talk about him (or her) in greater detail. In this message, I answer two question: Who is Holy Spirit? and What does Holy Spirit do in our lives? I draw on three great readings about the Spirit, viz. John 15:26-16:15; Romans 8:9-11, 22-27; and Acts 2:1-21.

Regarding the first question, my answer is in three parts:

  1. Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity (or the triune God) – as much God as Jesus and the Father are God.
  2. Holy Spirit is a person (not a force, or presence, or love) – as much a person as Jesus and the Father are persons.
  3. Holy Spirit is active in numerous ways in our present lives and in the lived-experience of our faith, thus very much to be incorporated into our faith life.

Regarding the second question, I give two answers, briefly:

  1. Holy Spirit dwells within us, and is thus present in the body and heart of every believer, working to align our spirit with the risen Christ, and helping us in living out our faith.
  2. Holy Spirit empowers and equips Christians for living and speaking out our faith in the world, through equipping us with gifts and strengths, and growing our confidence.

I hope that you will find this an accessible explanation of Holy Spirit. It was preached at our family service – half of those present were children and youth.

May you experience a rising of the Holy Spirit in your heart this Pentecost.

Blessings
Adrian