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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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

On death

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

(This sermon was preached on 25 August. I was away at the time, so unable to load it until now.)

The week leading up to this sermon was quite a challenge. A dear colleague of ours, Prof Tessa Hochfeld, was killed in a freak biking accident the previous weekend. During the week leading up to this sermon, I attended her funeral and lead a memorial service for her at our university. Tessa was one of those rare human beings – brilliant, compassionate, humble and rooted in social justice. Her death shook us all and was uppermost in mind during the week. So, it was inevitable that the question of death should become the topic of this sermon.

As it turned out, in the week after the sermon, another colleague of ours, Dr Memory Mathe, was brutally murdered, along with her domestic helper, Ms Pretty Moyo, by men who wanted her car. We buried Memory yesterday.

In addition, a spate of femicides in South Africa have led to a rising tide of anger, particularly among women, leading to demonstrations around the country. Uyinene Mrwetyana, a university student, was lured into a post office where she was raped and murdered. She also was buried yesterday. Death in all its forms has been prominent in our thoughts.

Death is not a comfortable topic for most people. We tend to shy away from it. We regard talking or thinking about death as morbid. We often shield children entirely from death. When an older person talks about dying, we often tell them to ‘buck up’. And when they are on their deathbed, we sometimes do more than we should to prolong their life, no matter how poor its quality, no matter their own wishes. Most of us appear to suffer from thanatophobia – the fear of death.

Christians are by no means exempted from this fear!

I have long thought that if Christians cannot talk openly about death, who can? We, of all people, should be able to look death in the eye and, while not welcoming it, not be afraid it.

In this message, I grapple with Biblical views on death. In simplistic terms, the scriptures present two views of death: death as bad and death as good. I walk us through these views and suggest a way forward for us as Christians to engage with death holistically.

I dedicate the message to Tessa Hochfeld and to Memory Mathe, Pretty Moyo, Uyinene Mrwetyana and other women who have died at the hands of men.

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Feature image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_in_Clouds_by_Sunset_2.jpg

Courage!

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

There are times in life where we are called upon to stand up for truth or justice, or simply to challenge someone in our family or workplace. Sometimes, we back off from these situations because it seems too intimidating. It is at times like this that we need courage – courage that comes from God.

Jeremiah 1:4-10 tells the story of such a time:

  1. God commissions Jeremiah, with an amazing promise: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew [or chose] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
  2. Jeremiah responds with consternation (fear, anxiety, trepidation): “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
  3. God responds with words of encouragement, to give Jeremiah courage: “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ … Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you. I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

This three-fold pattern – commission, consternation, courage – is often true in our lives.

We see it also in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 3:21-22, Jesus is commissioned at his baptism, when God the Holy Spirit fills him and God the Father speaks words of affirmation. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus experiences (arguably) consternation, when he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. And in Luke 4:17-27, Jesus displays courage by proclaiming his ministry manifesto and speaking truth to the people in the synagogue. Specifically, Jesus challenges their assumption that Jesus had come just for them, and argues that God had come for the whole world.

But let us not be obnoxious! Sometimes Christians can be self-righteous, harsh, uncaring and rude in the way we stand up for truth. Let us, rather, be the embodiment of love. 1 Corinthians 13 makes it perfectly clear that anything that we do that is not infused with love is worthless.

When the time comes for us to stand up to power, to challenge someone, to confront injustice in the world, let us remember that we (like Jeremiah) are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors and to work for the values of the Kingdom (e.g., love, justice, human dignity, compassion, community). And despite feeling consternated or fearful, let us take courage from knowing that God is with us and we are empowered by Holy Spirit, and let us speak up.

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Featured image from: https://www.iamashcash.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Managing-Up-3-420×420.jpg

Standing against patriarchy

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

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.)