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.)

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.

I am Judas

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The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.

Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.

We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)

But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).

What the Gospel Says about Decoloniality

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Decolonisation and decoloniality are huge topics in contemporary South Africa, demanding that we engage with the legacy of centuries of oppression of African people by Dutch and British colonial powers and the Apartheid government. The question I explore in this message is what the Gospel has to say for Christians about decoloniality, that is, about living in a post-colonial society.

Matthew 22:15-22 is a well-known passage where Jesus says that we must “give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s”. It has often be used to say we must support the government of the day. It is one of the most political narratives in the Gospel texts, and forces us to engage with political issues.

This narrative took place against the first century backdrop of the Jewish people being under the oppressive colonial rule of Rome. A key part of Rome’s rule was a tax, called Census, that every Jewish person had to pay simply for having the audacity to be born Jewish. It was a deeply humiliating, subjugating and repugnant tax for Jewish people.

The tax was paid with a silver coin that had Tiberius Ceasar’s portrait engraved on it. Such an engraving was idolatrous to many Jewish people at that time, because it conflicted with the second commandment. And the inscription on the coin effectively said that Tiberius was the ‘son of God’ and ‘high priest’. Paying a ‘sin tax’ for being Jewish with such a coin was outrageous.

In this message I break open some important points that Jesus makes to determine what he really thought about how Jews at that time should live under colonial rule. These thoughts are useful for Christians today who live under a colonial government or under the rule of an oppressive or corrupt state, as well as those, like us in South African, who live in a post-colonial society, coming to grips with the present legacy of colonisation and coloniality.

This is a chewy message, requiring a close reading of the Gospel text, and careful application in its original and present day contexts. I hope that you may take the time to listen to this podcast and to engage with these thoughts.

When the World goes Mad

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Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33

Reconciliation

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South Africa, at the moment, has become a pot reaching boiling point, as racial tensions and anger mount. For some, reconciliation has become a dirty word, and for others there is fear that the reconciliation that was built up in the last 90s is under serious threat. Globally, we see similar breakdowns in relationships and rolling often violent fracturing of relationships – among the states of the former USSR, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa. And at a domestic level, we all too often experience broken and pain-filled relationships in our communities, with our neighbours and friends, and even in our families. How is it that we humans are so good at breaking fellowship?

This 20 minute message tackles these difficult issues and questions. Starting at the beginning of Genesis, I trace this origins of broken relationships: between people, with God, with the world and with ourselves. We call this ‘sin’.

Working through the First Testament, I show the many ways in which God, who created relationships and is in the business of reconciliation, worked to restore these fractures, and to build harmony and wholeness in humanity.

And then I show how Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the pinnacle of God’s work to redeem us, to restore us, to reconcile us.

And finally, drawing on Paul’s teachings in 2 Corinthians 5, I show how we are called to be agents of reconciliation, to join with God in bringing about reconciliation. I suggest four main ways that we can and should do this: accepting God’s offer of reconciliation with us, praying for those who have fallen out of fellowship, transforming our hearts of racism and sexism (and all the other -isms), and taking a step towards an estranged loved-one. In so doing, we build the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Gender in the Kingdom of God

Click here to listen to this 26-minute sermon

God’s vision for the Kingdom is one in which all of humanity is related to each other in relationships of equality, dignity, respect and peace, under the sole headship of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:9-10). But in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy this Kingdom. Women and girl children are all too frequently the victims of abuse, violence, exploitation, domination and subordination. I have been harshly confronted with this over the past 33 years, since I was a young teenager. We live in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.

But the church has typically been silent and even complicit in this oppression of women. This is often because people of faith interpret the Bible through the lens of their culture, and most cultures are patriarchal – thus we come to the Bible with preconceived notions of gender and ‘find’ support for our ideas in the Bible. And of course the Bible itself was written in patriarchal societies by people who endorsed patriarchal beliefs. But while the Bible is surely filled with patriarchal passages, there are also many passages that have been invalidly used in support of patriarchy – texts have been distorted to serve the interests of men in power. What is required, in fact, is that we allow the Scriptures to interpret our culture, so that our culture is redeemed and transformed into the image of the Kingdom of God.

In this sermon, I take two passages that have, for thousands of years, been used to support the subordination (and often abuse) of women by men, and read them closely and carefully to show that they really do not provide support for male superiority or female subordination, but rather for equal partnership between the genders.

Genesis chapters 1 to 3 lay the foundation for our understanding of God, creation, humanity and the divine-human relationship. But far from endorsing gender power differentials, these chapters (specifically 1:28, 2:22-23 and 3:16) endorse both domestic and commercial partnership and equality between women and men, and depict patriarchy (a husband’s rule over his wife) as sin.

Paul, of the New Testament, was almost certainly a chauvinist, and grapples with the implications of there being “neither male nor female … in Christ” (Gal 3:28). Ephesians 5, with it’s infamous verse about wives submitting to their husbands, must be located against 5:21, which calls for mutual submission within the household of God. Using three pairs of power-differentiated relationships (wife-husband, child-parent and slave-master) Paul first introduces the cultural norm of submission/subordination for the less powerful person, though with a bit of a spiritual spin; and then a counter-cultural requirement for submission by those in power. Read as a whole, this passage calls for mutual submission or consideration in all human relationships, particularly when there are cultural power differences.

Through all of this, I am calling for people of faith to set aside their cultural assumptions as they read the Bible; to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, in choosing to unlearn racist, sexist and colonialist ways of thinking and relating; and to not stand by silently when women are humiliated or oppressed.

Blog image from http://www.borgenmagazine.com/10-examples-gender-inequality-world/