Beleaguered

Click here to listen to this 24-minute message.

Probably all of us go through times, at least now and then, when we feel beleaguered (click here for a definition of this word).

Jesus certainly did. The closer he got to the cross, the more the leaders of his time circled him, plotted against him, slandered him, entrapped him. By the time Judas became willing to betray him, Jesus had scores of vultures circling him. Our reading for today, from Luke 21:5-19, comes at just this time in his life. In it, Jesus speaks about the future – both the near future of the time of the destruction of the Jewish (second) temple, which would take place about 40 years later in AD70, and the distant eschatological future of the End Times, when Jesus prepares to return. In both times, followers of Christ will suffer persecution. They will be beleaguered.

Even though we are probably not living in the End Times, we as Christians may already have experience of being beleaguered. Sometimes we become beleaguered in our workplace, when we stand up for Kingdom values: integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, inclusion and vulnerability. Or in families, someone who converts from the family’s faith into the Christian faith may be ostracized, even expelled and cut off. Churches are attacked and people at workshop are killed, as in Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019. Even within the church, people can become beleaguered by leaders who are threatened by their vision, their Spirit-filledness, their willingness to ask for change and their desire for greater inclusion. Much as the church ought to be a place of sanctuary and community, it can become a place of persecution and exclusion.

In Luke 21:5-19, Jesus presents four words of advice – words of wisdom – for those of us in such situations.

  1. Know that God knows. Sometimes, when we are under such pressure, we feel alone and abandoned. But Jesus emphasizes that God knows and is mindful of our situation. In v9 he says, “When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” In other words, since God knows what is still to come, such as the destruction of the Temple, God also knows your situation. God knows. God cares. God is present. God is in control. Psalm 121 reminds us that “he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
  2. Persecution is an opportunity for witness. He says in v13, “And so you will bear testimony to me.” While we are being persecuted and beleaguered, witness might not be uppermost on our minds, but Jesus says that this is the time to embody Kingdom values. But our capacity to witness is not something we do alone – no! He emphasizes that we need not stress about what we will say as witnesses (v14), because “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” We see such inspiration particularly in the life and death of St Stephen, in Acts 6 and 7.
  3. God protects his own. With God at our side, we have God’s protection: “But not a hair of your head will perish” (v18). Jesus appears to contradict himself here, because just two verses earlier he said, “they will put some of you to death“. We get some clarity about this from another passage that also speaks about the hair on our head, Luke 12:4-7, where he says, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” This follows a passage in which Jesus distinguishes between the death of the body and a more permanent death (which he there refers to as being thrown into hell). Jesus wants us to understand that to die does not mean to perish. Our bodies may suffer and even die, but we do not perish – those who are in Christ continue to live in the presence of God. (See my previous sermon on this passage in Luke 12.) So, yes, may may suffer when we are beleaguered and persecuted, but God protects us when it counts most.
  4. We are called to endure. Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Stand firm, and you will win life.” We are called to stand firm, to endure, to persevere, to be resolute, to hold the faith and (in South African idiom) to vasbyt (literally, to bite tightly). Paul says something similar in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” This endurance is more than just standing still; it is about continuing to do God’s work. In Luke 8:15, in the parable about the seeds the fell on different types of ground, Jesus says, “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

Jesus never promises us an easy life, despite what many pastors and churches preach. Indeed, if anything, Jesus promises us that life will be difficult. But he provides us with the reassurance that God knows what we are going through and is present and in control, and that God will protect us, and ultimately whatever happens we will fall into his arms. He calls us to use these opportunities to witness to his values and Kingdom, and he calls us to stand firm and to produce good fruits, not matter what is going on around us.

If you are in such beleaguered circumstances, please know that I do not aim to diminish your suffering – not at all. Rather, I hope to encourage you with the words of Jesus, who suffered much, that God is right there with you and holding you through it all.

 

2019.11.17_Beleaguered churchFeatured photo of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, which was bombed on Easter Day, 21 April 2019. May the souls of those who died rest in peace in God’s loving embrace. From https://ie.gofundme.com/f/victims-of-st-sebastian-church-negombo-sri-lanka

Shrewd Christian

Our reading for today (Luke 16:1-9) has to be one of the oddest of Jesus’ parables. Here it is in full:

“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “‘Three thousand liters of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifteen hundred.’

“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘Thirty tons of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it twenty-four.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Instead of preaching a sermon on this topic, I engaged a few of the parishioners in enacting the scene. This service took place at Irene Homes for intellectually disabled women, a ministry setting that brings me great joy. The ladies participated wholeheartedly in the acting out the story, as you can see in the video taken by someone in the congregation.


The moral of the story is that we should use what we have in life (what Jesus refers to as ‘worldly wealth’) to build positive relationships with people and to invest in the development of the world. While the people we invest in might not open their homes to us, as the dishonest manager in Jesus’ story hoped. But God will open his eternal home to us. And that’s a worthwhile investment!

Who am I?

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

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This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

Christ has no body but yours

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Today’s reading (John 14:23-29) speaks to us about the centrality of relationships in the Christian journey of faith.

First, we learn that relationship is central to God’s self. This passage is steeped in Trinitarian language: the sense that God, while one being, comprises three persons.

  1. John 14:23 “My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This verse is unique in that it is the only passage where Jesus uses first person plural language to refer to himself and the Father operating as a unit. Jesus talks about himself and the Father as two distinct persons, working together.
  2. John 14:24 These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” Here, Jesus emphasises the unity of his words and the Father’s words. The Father and the Son speak from one mouth. It echoes John 14:10, where Jesus says, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
  3. John 14:26 “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Here, Jesus mentions all three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), operating in unity with one another.

God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in eternal and loving relationship with one another, so powerful that they are one being. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it is (for the vast majority of Christians) the most inevitable way of reconciling the oneness and the threeness of God that the Scriptures present to us. And this passage from John is one of those that does so strongly.

If nothing else, and perhaps most importantly, we learn from this that relationship is central to God and to God’s experience of God’s self. And if relationships are important to God, they must surely be important to us also.

Second, we learn that relationship is central to God’s mission on earth. Jesus message in John 14:23 is a response to a question from Judas, one of his disciples, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us [only] and not to the world?” Judas was concerned that the good news that Jesus was telling the disciples about was not going to be heard by everyone. His was a question about mission.

And Jesus answer is that God the Father and God the Son will come to the disciples (and by extension to all Christians) and make their home in us. This means that God’s showing of God’s self to the world will be through us. As God resides in us, we reveal God to the world.

This is an extension of the incarnation. When God the Son came into the world as a human, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, he was available to the world as just one man, with all the limitations of a single human. But when Jesus returned to the Father at his ascension, he sent Holy Spirit who fills up every Christian. Moreover, the Father and Son also come to dwell in us. In this way, Christ is incarnated in the world through the Body of Christ, the church, that is, through the community of believers. We are Christ’s body on earth.

Thus, God continues to work through God’s relationship with each of us and our relationships with everyone in our social environment – those at church, those in our families, those in our workplaces and play spaces, those in our communities, those we meet in passing as we shop, travel and live.

This reminds me of the prayer of St Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 1500s:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

I end this message by singing John Michael Talbot’s arrangement of this prayer.

(Note: This sermon was preached at a home for women with intellectual disabilities.)

Here are two beautiful performances of this prayer. Music by David Ogden.

 

 

2019.05.26_Christ_has_no_body

Link to featured image.

Radical inclusion

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Luke 1 presents a compelling narrative about two women and two unborn babies. It is a remarkable way to start a story. Four individuals who, in various ways, are at the margins of society – an old barren woman, a teenage girl barely out of childhood, a six-month old foetus and a newly-fertilised egg. This is hardly a group of individuals that one would think would change the course of global history!

Yet, it is this very group that God chooses to initiate God’s major intervention in human history. It points to a pattern that we see in much of God’s work among humans – radical inclusion. God seeks to draw unexpected people into the centre of God’s working, people who society might often think of as ‘less than’ or ‘other’. Often, it is not the powerful, influential, reputable, wealthy, intelligent or educated that God places in key roles. Rather, God often chooses the outcast, the downtrodden, the humble, those who recognise their limitations and those who feel they have little to offer.

In this sermon, I tease out some of the remarkable insights we gain into Elizabeth and Mary, and the unborn John and Jesus, that Luke presents to us in the opening chapter of his Gospel narrative. I show the many ways in which we see God’s grace working itself out in profound and striking ways among this unlikely group of individuals.

From this, we get the message that there is no-one with whom God does not want to work. Every person – every single individual – has a part to play in God’s great work to redeem the cosmos. There are no exceptions. No matter how insignificant or inadequate or unavailable you may perceive yourself to be, God has a place for you, a role for you. We have to trust that this is indeed true. We have to relinquish ourselves to participate. As Mary so gracefully says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Conversely, we have to accept that God chooses to work with people we may feel God should not be working with. We (humans) tend to be far less tolerant and gracious than God! It is important for us not to become an obstacle to others who seek to play their part in God’s work. Even when we feel they are not right for or up to the task. Who are we to interfere with God’s judgment on who is worthy of participating in God’s work?

God’s radical inclusion is presented to us in Luke’s gospel as a cornerstone of God’s means of working. Through Luke, we see marginalised people, particularly women, being brought into the centre of Jesus’ ministry and God’s mission. We as individual Christians, and as a collective Church, should be emulating this approach.

Feature image cropped from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photo-of-two-pregnant-women-1253592/

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.

Truth to Power

Click here to listen to this 14-minute message.

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.)