Gender, by God

Click here to listen to the audio of this 35-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. This is a longer-than-usual message, because this is such an important topic, that is so seldom spoken about. So, while 35 minutes is quite a long time, I urge you to set aside some time – particularly today, Women’s Day – to listen to this message.

Today – 9 August – is Women’s Day in South Africa. It’s a day when we celebrate women. But it is also a day when we confront the profound and relentless violence against and subordination of women in our society. The church must, on this day, give particular attention to its role in perpetuating, supporting and even advancing such patriarchal and misogynistic views and behaviours. My own church – the Anglican Church of Southern African – must take responsibility for our role in advancing violence against and oppression of women. And men, like me, must do the same.

So, in this message, I unpack four passages of the Bible – three in the Genesis creation story and one in the writings of Paul – that are often used to support patriarchy. I invite you to read the texts and see what they actually say and to critique how they have been used. Of course, the Bible was written in patriarchal times by people who held patriarchal views. But we are invited to read through their views to see the mind of God on the issues of gender inequality in the world.

This is an important and substantial topic, hence this is a rather lengthy message. I urge you to engage with it, as I think it will help to lay a foundation for thinking about gender relations in the world, in the church, in the workplace and in our homes.

  1. Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that both women and men are equally created in God’s image. It also tells us that they were both – as a couple, as a partnership – given authority to rule over the earth. There is no hint that the man is more created in God’s image than the woman, that he is important or more powerful than the woman. The man is not given dominion over the woman; instead both the woman and the man are given conjoint dominion over everything else. This is a picture of unity, equality and power-sharing between man and woman – a picture that is very much at odds with how life is lived in many homes today.
  2. Genesis 2:18-23 is part of the second creation story, where God recognises that it is not good for man to be alone and decides to create a ‘helper’ for him. Initially, God looks among the animals, but realising that none of these will do, God creates woman. The word ‘helper’ is often used to imply woman’s supportive, helping, subordinate role. But in v18 God recognises that man is somehow inadequate or deficient – unable to be alone – he is incomplete and needs a partner to make him whole. Therefore God creates a woman. The woman is there to help him be a whole person – this is by no means a subordinate role.
  3. Moreover, she is created from his rib, suggesting that they are equal – they stand side-by-side, joined at the rib – the midpoint between the head and the foot. God did not take Adam’s toe and create Eve’s collarbone so that Adam could stand on her head! Instead, they are created as the same, as equal, as partners. It reaffirms Genesis 1 – they are equal partners.
  4. Genesis 3:16-19 tells of God’s cursing of man and woman for their sin. v16 has a line that says “and he [your husband] will rule over you”. Many male theologians and scholars and ministers have used this verse to construct a theology that God’s divine plan for human relations post-fall is that men (husbands) exercise authority over women (wives). This is a profound perversion of the scriptures, because this is just one line out of several lines of curses, including that women will experience pain in childbirth (which humanity has constantly worked to reduce and to reduce maternal mortality).
  5. In addition to hers, there is a lengthy curse against the man (72 words to the man, compared with just 31 to the woman – the man’s curse is more than double the length of the woman’s!). God says that he will suffer and struggle to produce crops from the earth. And yet men have never accepted this as God’s divine plan for them! Men have worked, since they left Eden, to ease the burden of producing crops, through the use of slaves, animals, machines, genetic modification and most recently artificial intelligence. If the curse against men is not part of God’s divine order, why is the curse against women? It is simply patriarchy and misogyny at work!
  6. Overall, the creation story across Genesis 1-3, there is an overriding narrative of equality between woman and man. Even in the fall, both woman and man eat the apple and both woman and man are cursed. Everything is equal, parallel. Indeed, if there was any hint of gender inequality, it would be in favour of woman – she was God’s second attempt at creating a human (we are usually better the second time round) and her curse is shorter than man’s. But indeed, the dominant and pervasive narrative is one of equality and partnership between gender. This is God’s vision for gender.
  7. So, we do need to look also at the New Testament, and particularly to the writings of Paul. It is true that Paul was raised in a patriarchal society and household. He is certainly a patriarch and probably also a misogynist. He does write that men are the head over women, that women must be silent in church, etc. He clearly writes about male domination over women. This is how he was raised. There are, however, NO passages where Paul advocates or endorses, even tacitly, violence against women or the oppression of women. And just because Paul was a patriarch, does not mean God is a patriarch.
  8. Paul grapples with gender issues. He writes “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). He has some sense that in God’s eyes, there is no gender; but in his own thinking, he still sees and supports gender inequality. What we seem to be seeing in Paul’s writings is a developing insight into God’s view on gender equality, emerging and receding.
  9. 1 Corinthians 7:2b-5 presents to us a profoundly egalitarian view of gender relationships from the pen of Paul. It shows a perfect equality between women and men, equal exercising of power over one’s body, equal self-giving of oneself to one’s partner. It is an image of a very modern marriage. It is completely out of step with the traditional passages we quote from Paul on ‘wives must submit to their husbands’. If men are going to quote Paul on gender, let us quote ALL of Paul on gender, and recognise that here is a man whose views on gender are uneven. And this unevenness is best explained as Paul’s growing understanding of God’s view of gender equality.

In light of these challenges about God’s views – and Scriptures views – on gender equality, I suggest two principles that should inform and shape how we interpret scripture:

  1. First, we need to look at the whole of scripture when we formulate a position on something, like gender relations. We need to look at the whole body, and we need to understand the underlying mind of God, which we see most clearly expressed in the mind of Christ, which we best gain insight into in the Gospel narratives.
  2. Second, we need to separate custom from teaching, description from prescription. Just before the Bible writers believed the earth was flat and that the sky was a bowl over the earth, does not mean that the earth is actually flat and that there is actually a bowl in the sky. Even though they express this view in the Bible, e.g., in the Psalms, does not mean it is true or that God believes this. We are inclined to bring our cultural beliefs and impose them onto scripture – gender is a good example of this. Instead, we are required to bring God’s mind, expressed in the scriptures, and use these to sanctify and transform society. When it comes to gender, we impose our preconceived patriarchal beliefs on scripture, even though scripture advocates a far more egalitarian view on gender.

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Featured image of St Praxedes and St Paul, presented as equal co-workers for Christ, in the Basilica Santa Prassede, Rome, from here

Eternity just here

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follow.

Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John to pray (Luke 9:28-31). While he prays, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a lightning flash. And he is seen talking with Moses and Elijah, the great heroes of the Jewish community.

The boundary that separates the ordinary, daily, lived world that we inhabit from the world of the divine, of eternity, of spiritual beings, of God – that boundary is momentarily breached. It is like a dividing curtain has been pulled aside and we are given a glimpse into heaven itself.

These two worlds – the earthly finite world and the heavenly eternal world – are always touching, pressed right up against each other. Indeed, there are people crossing over from one to the other every minute, as they die.

The materialistic world view – that we believe in only what we can see and touch, measure and weigh – has become so prominent in the world today. Many people have given up any belief in a spiritual realm, in an afterlife, in God.

Luke tells us that Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but that when they became fully awake, they saw his glory (Luke 9:32). He emphasises this because we all know that when we sleep and dream, anything is possible. The rules of this material world do not apply when we are asleep. Had the disciples been ‘sleepy’ when they saw Jesus transfigure, we could put their story down to them just dreaming. But Luke emphasises this – they were fully awake – all of their critical, rational faculties, all of their empirical senses were fully active when they saw the glory of Jesus revealed.

How wonderful it would be if we were all fully awake so that we too could perceive the eternal that is just here.

2020.08.06_Saint_Catherines_TransfigurationFeatured image of the apse mosaic of the Transfiguration scene from St. Catherine monastery in Sinai, available here. This is the oldest known image of the transfiguration, dating to AD 565-6.

Visit this website to learn more about this piece of art, as well as other artists’ depictions of the transfiguration: http://tamedcynic.org/the-transfiguration-through-art/

Jesus’ heart

Click here to listen to the audio of this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the short summary thereafter.

Today we focus on the Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21. This is the ONLY miracle story to appear in ALL four Gospel accounts. It is clearly an important story for the Gospel writers. Perhaps something about it exemplifies Jesus and his ministry.

Usually, we focus on the miracle of the feeding, but today I invite you to focus on what we learn about Jesus’ heart. And Jesus’ heart reflects God’s heart. Here are five important things we learn about Jesus, that are relevant for each of us today:

  1. Jesus feels. The story opens with Jesus hearing of the execution of John – his cousin, friend and prophet. And he feels distressed about John’s death, he feels emotions, his heart is soft and responsive. So he withdraws, privately to a solitary place. Jesus grieves and feels. He is not unmoved.
  2. Jesus’ heart goes out. Even though Jesus tries to get away to be alone, crowds of people – thousands of people – follow him on foot. And instead of being irritated with them, he has compassion on them, his heart goes out to them. As he sees us and our difficulties, his heart softens, his heart fills with care.
  3. Jesus heals. As his heart fills with compassion, Jesus moves into action and heals people of their illness. The Greek word for ‘ill’ in v14 is used nowhere else in the New Testament. It is best translated ‘wretchedness’, meaning unhappy, broken-hearted, poor, downtrodden, ill. Jesus makes people whole, he restores them.
  4. Jesus embraces. The disciples want to send the crowds away, as they sent away children, lepers and others who wanted to speak to Jesus. But Jesus refuses. Instead, he instructs the disciples to feed the crowds, and invites the people to sit down on the grass. Jesus is crowd-centred, other-centred, generous, inclusive.
  5. Jesus multiplies. Jesus takes the tiny supplies of 5 loaves and 2 fish, and multiplies them to feed thousands. He is able to see through the smallness of what we offer, to the enormous good that God can do through them. He has eyes of faith that sees the potential of the tiny to do great work.

As continue to grapple through Covid, and the many challenges it presents to us, let us look into, let us gaze upon the heart of Christ – he who feels, whose heart goes out, who heals, who embraces and includes, and who multiplies. This same Christ is present for us today. Let us look for him and sit down with him and be fed by him.

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Featured image: Sacred Heart of Jesus by Joseph Fanelli (Oil on Linen) 1993 from here

In his joy

Click here to listen to the audio of this 5-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the short summary thereafter.

This is the order Jesus gives for Christian life: we find the treasure, this fills us with joy, so we sell all our possessions (which are worth a fraction of the treasure), and we acquire (take ownership) of the treasure (Mat 13:44). The treasure is there at the start and the end; the joy is the immediate consequence of finding the treasure; and the sacrifice of possessions is really no sacrifice at all. This is the Christian life. Let’s find our joy in Christ!

Featured image from here.

Baking with Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below (highly recommended, as this is a message to watch, not just to listen to) or read the summary text after that.

Matthew 13:31-33 presents two tiny parables about two tiny things in the world: yeast and mustard seeds:

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about 30 kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

These parables emphasise:

  1. Jesus’ interest in the little things of life and God’s desire to work with the small things we bring to the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about little things regularly: sparrows that are worth so much, faith the size of a mustard seed, the individual hairs on our head which God counts, little children to whom belongs the Kingdom of God.
  2. God’s capacity – through the power of Holy Spirit and the love of Christ – to transform little things into big things, helpful things, things that build the Kingdom of God. A mustard seed grows into a large tree that provides shelter to humans and animals. Grains of yeast that turn a lump of heavy dough into an airy loaf of bread.

Recipe for poppy seed rolls

Ingredients

Dough

500 g all-purpose (cake) flour
1 sachet instant yeast
1 tsp salt
100 g granulated sugar
250 ml milk lukewarm
80 g butter, melted
2 eggs

Filling

200 g poppy seeds, ground in a blender until they form a paste
100 g butter
200 g walnuts, ground in a blender until they just begin to form a paste
100 g icing (confectioner’s) sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
10 ml ground cinnamon
4 egg whites

Frosting

180 g butter unsalted, softened, or margarine
360 g powdered sugar also known as icing (confectioner’s) sugar
120 g cream cheese at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
0.25 tsp salt

Instructions

Mix the first four dry ingredients, then add in the next three wet ingredients. Mix the dough and knead for 10 minutes, until elastic and smooth. Place in a bowl, smear with a bit of oil and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise. (Hint: heat your oven to 100 degrees Celsius, then switch it off, and place your bowl in the oven.)

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a pot and cook the ground poppy seeds in the butter for 2 minutes, then mix in the remaining ingredients to form a thick black paste.

Knock the risen dough down and roll out into a large thin rectangle, about 50-60 cm wide. Spread the poppy seed paste evenly over the dough. Roll the dough to form a long sausage about 50-60 long. (If it is a bit short, gently massage it until it reaches the required length.) Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into about 35 even pieces (about 1.5cm each).

Line a roasting tin with parchment and lay the circular buns in the pan. Prove for about 30 minutes or until about double in size. Bake at 180 C for about 20 minutes until golden brown.

Blend the frosting ingredients, beating well with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. When the rolls are cooled, spread generously with frosting.

If the rolls are a couple of days old, heat in the microwave for 15 second to get them back to a fresh state.

What to do about evil

Click here to listen to the audio of this 22-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the introductory text message after that.

Today’s message is from Matthew 13: 24-30, in which Jesus tells the parable of the weeds. It is followed, later in the chapter, by Jesus’ explanation of the parable (Matthew 13: 36-43). Preachers are generally expected to ‘have all the answers’ when they preach the Word of God, but in truth, preachers are just people like all other people.

The passage set for today is – for me – an exceptionally difficult passage, because (a) Jesus’ message seems to contradict his own consistent message through word and action and (b) Jesus appears to be telling us to do nothing about evil in our midst, but rather to leave it until the end of the age, the Day of judgement. If we were to live according to this passage, we would have allowed evil to flourish over the past 2000+ years since Jesus preached this message.

So what are we do with a message that seems fundamentally wrong. Was Jesus mistaken?

I encourage you listen to the audio recording or watch the video to see my grappling with the message and how I try to make sense of it. Evil in the world – and evil in our midst (our family, community, workplace, church, etc.) – is a serious matter and warrants our critical engagement and reflection.

To offer ourselves

Click here to listen to the audio of this 7-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Romans 12:1-2a:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

This passage offers us two sets of verbs:

  • Offer, sacrifice, worship – which speak to giving ourselves to God
  • Transform, renew – which speak to an inward-focused process

The passage also offers us two nouns:

  • Our bodies – which speaks to the embodied being that we are, crafted from clay and in-breathed by God’s Spirit
  • Our minds – which speaks to the immaterial being that we are, mind, emotion, thought, spirit

Together, these two verbs and these two nouns call us towards a complete offering of ourselves – a surrender, a relinquishment – to God.

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Feature image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2013/03/off-the-cliff-of-surrender/

Sower, Soil, Seed

Click here to listen to the audio of this 17-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows.

Matthew 13: 3b-19 presents to us the well-known parable of the sower, in which seeds are sown on four types of soil – only one of which is good soil that produces good crops. Usually our sermons focus on the types of soil. Today, I’d like us to focus on some of the key characters, and imagine that we are that character.

1. The Sower. The key thing that stands out about the Sower is that he is careless. He scatters seed carelessly, without thinking. He is given a bag of precious seed, that presumably had significant value and a limited supply. And he scatters it left, right and centre without thought for where it might land.

If we are the Sower, then God is calling us to be responsible for the opportunities God gives us to do the work of God in the world. We should not be careless; we should be responsible. The opportunities we are give to do God’s work are precious and we should treat them all, even the tiny ones, with a sense of gravitas and reverence.

2. The Soil. The key thing that stands out about the Soil is that it is not conducive. Some of it is compressed and hard, exposing seeds to the elements and birds. Some of it is rocky and shallow, not allowing seeds to take root. Some of it is riddled with weeds that dominate the soil and do not allow the seeds the opportunity to breathe and grow. It is only the fourth Soil that Jesus says is ‘good’. It is good because it is able to create a conducive environment for the seeds to grow and mature.

If we are the Soil, then God is calling us to be receptive to the voice of God. Jesus ends his parable with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” Some commentators argue that the soil refers to our ears – it is our capacity to be hear God’s voice, to receptive to the seeds God drops in our ears, that Jesus is calling for.

3. The Seeds. Arguably the hero of the story is the Seed. Ultimately, the Seed is central. The key thing that stands out about the Seed is that is wasted. We know that seeds are a precious commodity; there are seed banks around the world that serve to preserve this precious commodity. But in this story, three quarters of the Seed is wasted – it cannot grow, cannot flourish, cannot produce a crop. Only one quarter of the Seed is productive. Imagine if only 10 hours of the work you do each week is actually useful or productive, and that 30 hours are wasted. How disillusioning that would be!

If we are the Seed, then God is calling us to be fruitful. Jesus wants us to be productive – to produce more than we started with. He is looking for a small input and a large output. Indeed, he quantifies the productivity: “it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown”. That’s a big increase from the current 25%. And now Jesus says, if we have ears, then hear!

This is a central message of this parable:
we must be fruitful and productive.

Featured image from gardentech.com

Be audacious!

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

In Matthew 10:7-14, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on their first solo mission, and his instructions seem to be grounded in this message:

Be audacious!

Jesus is not saying, be arrogant, insolent, obnoxious, offensive, dogmatic or judgemental. But he is saying, be brave, be courageous, be reckless, jump in the deep end!

Here’s what we are to do:

  • We proclaim the good news that God is present in the midst of human life. God is near, right here, present, engaged.
  • We heal, cleanse, raise and cast out illnesses in all its manifestations, at both personal and social levels. Healing is, in Jesus’ understanding and practice, not only physical, but also relational and social.
  • We are generous in our investment in the lives of others – freely we have received, freely we give. We don’t hold back, we don’t over think, we don’t over risk manage.
  • We don’t take provisions with us, we don’t over plan, we don’t pamper ourselves. We simply go – a bit reckless.
  • We don’t take from the people we go to. We don’t go to enrich ourselves. We go to give.
  • We find people who are receptive to what we have to offer, and we spend time with them. And if people are not receptive, we just move on, shake the dust off our feet. It is almost blasé – if people want to listen, we talk with them; if they don’t, we don’t worry, we just move on.

Be audacious, be courageous, be reckless, be blasé. Don’t worry, don’t over plan, don’t over think. Jump in! Be brave!

Be audacious!

Feature image from here.

Come to me

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary below.

Our reading today is Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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 seems strange that Jesus’ solution to our feeling burdened is to offer us a yoke, which is a heavy wooden pole used to join two oxen together so they can plough fields. This does not sound like a relief! However, in v30, Jesus equates the yoke with the burden. The truth is, we are already yoked – yoked to and burdened by the world and its worries. What Jesus offers is to replace our own heavy yoke with his yoke, which is ‘easy’ and ‘light’.

A yoke connects two animals together, so that they can work in partnership with each other, as they walk through their work in the world. This is what Jesus offers us: to be yoked to him, in partnership, walking together as we journey through life’s challenges. The idea of working together with Christ, as a team, as partners, is quite remarkable.

The idea of working together, of walking together, leads us to the next point, which is to “learn from” Jesus. Not “learn about me” but “learn from me”. He invites us to see how he moves through the world and to learn from that. We learn from what he says – particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, which came shortly before today’s reading. And we learn from how he behaves – how he interacts with those who are powerful and oppressive and those who are meek and humble. Chapter 11 speaks a great deal about these two groups. What better way to learn from a master, than to be yoked to them.

Jesus chooses to emphasise that we should learn from his gentleness and humility: “for I am gentle and humble in heart“. It is remarkable that God, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who co-created the universe with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to describe himself as gentle and humble (or simple). His use of ‘in heart’ suggests that these qualities are essential to his being – they describe who he is, not merely how he acts. He is, deep in his being, gentle and humble. If God the Son chooses these qualities as essential to a description of himself, how much more should we not embody these same qualities of humility and gentleness.

The result of all this is that we will find rest for our soul. For those who are weary and burdened, soul-rest is very much what we need – rest, refreshment, deep peace. God promises us this frequently, e.g.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)

The sovereign Lord says: I myself will tend my sheep. I will make them lie down. I will search for the lost. I will bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16, with slight rephrasing)

This is the kind of rest that we get, when we put down our burden, and take on Christ’s yoke, and walk together with him.

Featured image by Yongsung Kim, from Pinterest.

Two songs that were running through my mind all the while I prepared today’s message: