Stewarding our world

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

Father almighty
we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit
To live and work to your praise and glory.

We end each Eucharist service with this prayer. It is the endpoint of the entire service of communion. We do come to be filled, restored and healed; we do come to worship and praise God; we do come for fellowship; we do come to learn; and we do come to celebrate the Eucharist. But the purpose of all of this is to equip and fill us to go out into the world and serve the Lord.

The church is a refuelling station, in which we are filled up and restored, so that we can go out and do God’s work in the world.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday in our stewardship programme.

  1. In the first week, we considered stewarding ourselves;
  2. then stewarding our communion (our church fellowship);
  3. and last week, stewarding our things, particularly our money.
  4. Today, we reflect on what it means to steward the world.

Genesis 2 presents the narrative of God’s creation of humanity. God then placed the man he had created in the Garden of Eden and commissioned him to ‘tend and care for it’; that is, to steward the world. We continue to carry this commission.

Stewarding the world includes a focus on the planet – the earth itself – with all its natural resources: the sky, the oceans, the water, the land, the minerals, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources. We are commissioned to take care of the earth (and indeed the cosmos) – not to exploit, plunder, rape and destroy. ‘Tend and care’ are gentle, kind, caring, nurturing words, to describe the relationship we ought to have to the world around us.

In addition, stewarding the world includes a focus on its people – on all of humankind – regardless of anything (religion, race, gender, politics, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, and so on). We are to be Christ’s presence among humanity – his hands, his feet, his eyes, his mouth, his heart (as Saint Teresa of Ávila may have written – see video below). It is unfortunate that many Christians see their Christ-like presence in the world as reduced just to fighting against two issues: human sexuality and abortion. While these are important topics to engage, Jesus’ own presence in the world focused pervasively on fighting for love, kindness, justice, inclusion. To steward the people of this world is to imitate Christ’s engagement with humankind.

Appropriately, today is All Saints Day, the day on which we commemorate and celebrate the lives of the saints. My church is named after St Stephen, who is described in Acts 6-7. Carrying his name, we in our parish are invited to adopt Stephen as a model or example for our lives. Stephen was a young deacon, whose ministry lasted less than a year. A deacon is a servant, who works out in the community, helping the poor and marginalised. Stephen is described as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. He was a bold preacher, delivering the longest sermon in the book of Acts. It resulted in his murder, at the age of 29. As he died, his last words were to forgive those who stoned him.

Stephen is a shining example of stewarding the world. He was a servant to the people of God and to people seeking God.

Let us each take up our own role, in our own place, in our own way, using our own Spirit-given gifts, to love and serve the world.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
In the name of Christ.
Amen

Painting of the saints by Fra Angelico (in the 1400s) from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Day
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7ymxW3rndk

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

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.

Why Jesus would say ‘Black Lives Matter’

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the very brief textual summary that follows.

I appreciate that this topic will be controversial for many. I really encourage you to watch this message please and not just read it, particularly if you find the title problematic. At least, just listen to what I have to say, even if you decide you don’t agree with it.

But, very briefly, the main points are:

  1. Jesus died for ALL of humanity – for the whole world – and would thus say, without equivocation, ‘All lives matter‘.
  2. But Jesus would also confront us, saying that we do not live our lives as if all lives mattered.
  3. Jesus’ ministry consistently and deliberately positions himself with those who are vulnerable, oppressed, poor, or marginalised: women, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, the dead.
  4. Throughout his ministry – throughout the Gospels – Jesus enacts the message that Black lives matter, Women’s lives matter, Immigrants’ lives matter, Children’s lives matter, etc.
  5. Jesus is not saying the lives of the poor matter more than other people’s lives; but that their lives do not matter less than other people’s lives.
  6. Jesus is sensitive to power differentials and deliberately chooses to stand with those who are disempowered and often against those who are powerful. The story of the woman caught in adultery is a good example.
  7. Jesus sometimes engages with the powerful, but does so in a way that helps them to recognise and challenge their privilege. The story of Zacchaeus is a good example example.
  8. Jesus’ ministry is consistently one of bringing down the powerful and raising up the powerless – a reversal of fortunes. Mary’s Magnificat is a good sermon on this.
  9. In the new heaven and the new earth, all lives will actually matter in people’s lives experience. But in today’s society, this is not true. Today, all lives are not equal and not equally valued. And in this times, Jesus would be saying: Women’s lives matter, Children’s lives matter, Immigrant lives matter, LGBTQI lives matter, Black lives matter.

True North

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows.

John 15:18-19 reads,

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

Jesus acknowledges that sometimes the world will hate us for our faith and teaches two things about this:

  1. He comforts us by sharing that the world hated him first, so we’re in good company, we’re not alone, we’re not the first.
  2. He explains that the world hates us because we don’t belong to the world, we don’t conform. The word ‘belong’ is what he uses in John 17:16, where he says “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” The Greek for ‘belong’ or ‘of’ is ‘up out of’, like a plant or a tree grows up and out of the ground. Jesus is saying that we do not come up out of the world, and that this can lead to tension with the world – that the world hates us when we speak the Truth of God.

Our capacity to speak the Truth of God requires us to have a kind of spiritual and moral compass that shows us the Truth of God. A compass that helps us discern the mind of God.

The verse just before our passage (John 15:17) reads:

This is my command: Love one another.

And this verse is the tail end of a longer passage about the vine and branches, in which Jesus calls us to ‘remain’ rooted in him and in his love (John 15:1-17). So our understanding of the world hating us is the context of loving others and remaining in the love of Christ and thus of God. This love – the command to love – is the frame around our experience of being hated by the world.

On the basis of that, I suggest two learnings about our relationship with the world and its possible hatred of us:

First, Jesus calls us to be thoughtful about HOW we speak to the world. Our words need to be saturated in the love of God. In truth, the Church has often been – and continues today often to be – hateful in the way it speaks to the world. Even if what Christians and the church says is True, it is often said in a hateful, unloving, judgemental, diminishing way. This is the not the way of Christ. Jesus was challenging and direct, but he was never hateful in the way he spoke. We need to model our way of engaging the world on Jesus.

Second, WHAT we speak out on is also important. It is not only about how we speak, but also about what we speak. Let’s return to the metaphor of the compass. A compass points to the magnetic north, but this is not the True north. In fact, they are about 500km apart – similar, but not the same. We need to ensure that our words point to the True north, not the some off-centre north.

How do we know what to speak up for and what to speak out against? How do we know what is True? Again, we must look to Jesus. In Jesus’ ministry, he almost always spoke up for sinners and marginalised people, and out against those in power. We seldom hear Jesus speaking out against sinners and marginalised peoples. And the people Jesus usually speaks out against are the powerful – the powerful of the world and of politics and the powerful of the church.

Christians today have tended to invert this, speaking up for the rich and powerful, and against those who sin and those who are marginalised. They have lost their True North. They are not following in the way of Christ. They are not remaining in Christ and not adhering to his command to love one another.

We must go back to the Gospels and model our lives on Christ, in the ways he spoke truth to power, on the issues that he spoke up for and on the issues he spoke out against.

Jesus is our True North.

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Featured image from https://www.euro-academy.com/euroacademy-blog/2018/2/18/pujof0xh909ihjovyuusrkvzsym4pl

Love & Justice

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

Even though I emphasise God’s love as the central essence of God’s being, we see God behaving in angry, wrathful and violent ways. How are we to make sense of this? This message defines justice as follows

Justice is God’s love working to protect those who are vulnerable

As much as God stands up against those who harm God’s loved-ones, God also reaches out a hand of reconciliation, rooted in repentance and contrition. And God desires reconciliation between people, rooted in forgiveness. We call this restorative justice – love and justice.

Featured image adapted from https://metro.co.uk/2015/03/05/this-is-the-real-reason-why-people-shake-hands-5089999/

Standing in the gap

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘standing in the gap’ and its relevance during this rolling COVID-19 crisis. The levels of human and social vulnerability are staggering. Many people are hungry, struggling financially, lonely, anxious, depressed, experiencing domestic violence and so on. In such times, we need people who are willing to stand in the gap – people who are willing to advocate and intercede for those who are suffering and sometimes to stand up against those who use power in oppressive and exploitative ways.

We read about this in Ezekiel 22:30 where God is looking for someone to stand in the gap of the wall of Jerusalem to protect them against God’s wrath for Israel’s sin. And we read it in Psalm 106:23, which refers to a story about Moses standing in the gap for the people of Israel after they made the golden calf (Exodus 32:12-14). In both stories, people (Moses and Ezekiel) are asked to stand in the gap between people and God, to protect the people from God’s wrath. This is ‘speaking truth to power’ at its highest level! Standing up to God!!

But we in our daily lives can stand in the gap in much more accessible and manageable ways. Standing in the gap is about standing between those who are vulnerable and those who are powerful. It is not a comfortable space – it takes some courage.

It requires us to:

  1. Recognise the vulnerabilities of people around us and to see the ways in which they need advocacy, intercession or support.
  2. Use the gifts and resources that God has given us through the Spirit in the service of others, by standing in the gap for them.

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Featured image from https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5401039

At the Foot of the Cross

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

It is sometimes easy (and more comfortable) to gloss over the death of Jesus on Good Friday. I grew up in a church that didn’t have a Good Friday service, and so for years I’d hop from the happiness of Palm Sunday to joy of Easter Sunday. For sure, on Easter Day, we’d get a gruesome account of Jesus death, but the sermon would end with “but he has risen from the dead, hallelujah”.

I believe that it is important and good for our faith to position ourselves with the disciples and particularly with Jesus’ mother Mary, who did not (like us) know the happy ending to the story. As they stood at the foot of the cross watching Jesus’ life ebb away on that Friday afternoon, they could not foresee his resurrection. Imagine the pain and horror they experienced, the utter loss of hope, the grief at seeing someone so beautiful and innocent dying in such a dreadful and slow way. Their hope for a better society was shattered and their own sense of having a part to play in the transformation of the world was in pieces.

And this experience persisted through Friday and Saturday until Easter Sunday.

During this time of crisis, they did what needed to be done. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with the authorities to claim Jesus body, placed him in a tomb he owned and wrapped Jesus temporarily in a burial shroud. He sealed the tomb to protect Jesus body. The disciples and Jesus’ family went home to observe the sabbath and remained at home until dawn on Sunday, when they went back to prepare his body properly for burial. In their shock and dismay, they continued to do what needed to be done.

I encourage you to stay with it. To stay in the midst of the distress and the heaviness of Jesus death over the coming days.

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Featured image “Calvary” by Edward Munch (1900), from https://arthive.com/edvardmunch/works/269172~Calvary

Following Jesus’ Example

Click here to listen to this 14-minute message. Or watch the video below. Or read the text after that.

Today is Palm Sunday. Many churches on this day will start their service outside with the blessing of palm crosses and then process around the church or community, shouting or singing: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:1-11). This is commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of donkey or colt and people’s recognition that he is king or messiah.

And then some churches will also read the whole passion story (Matthew 26:14-27:66). This is a long reading that can take 20 or more minutes (click here to listen to a recording of the passion narrative, from Luke). The juxtaposition of these two stories – one of triumph and glory and the other of suffering and death – is a stark and shocking contrast.

In today’s message, I suggest three main lessons we can learn from Jesus’ experience of suffering and challenge in life:

  1. Jesus does not rush towards suffering. He does not revel in it. Christianity has tended to glorify suffering, often encouraging people (such as women in abusive marriages) to endure their suffering as their sharing in the suffering of Christ. However, Jesus is not a masochist. He does not relish or rush towards or celebrate suffering. During this passion week, he appears to appreciate the recognition of the crowd as he enters Jerusalem, he enjoys supper with his friends and he spends time in prayer with his Father – he enjoys life. Of course, we do suffer, and some suffer more than others. But Jesus does not appear to enjoy or celebrate suffering.
  2. However, Jesus also does not run away from or avoid suffering. Instead, he moves into difficult places, and in the passion narrative, he walks towards his inevitable suffering and death. Jesus is a realist. He is not naive. He does not avoid difficulty; instead, he faces the truth. And he speaks the truth, challenging injustice, exclusion and poverty. He calls people out when they lie. He champions integrity. He faces the world as it is, without sugar-coating anything.
  3. Yet, Jesus is an idealist. Despite knowing that he will soon die, he continues to believe that God can use his suffering and death for good. He persists in believing that God can redeem humanity and the cosmos. He insists that people can participate in this salvific work of God. He remains steadfastly optimistic, hopeful and confident about the future.

There are many people whose example we can follow during difficult times, including this time of the Coronavirus and the lockdown that many countries are experiencing. I think Jesus provides a good, balanced and sensible example for us. Blessings.

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Featured image from https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/1264981/palm-sunday-messages-best-quotes-greetings-to-mark-palm-sunday-2020

Where is God?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 11-minute message. Or watch the video below.

During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”

This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).

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But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:

First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.

Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.

Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.

God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.

As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.

May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.

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