These stones

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Our reading for today is a passage from the book of Joshua 4:1-7. It tells the story of the Jewish people crossing the Jordan river from the desert or wilderness where they had wandered for 40 years, into the promised land. As they cross the river, which parts much like the Red Sea parted when they fled from Egypt, the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel are instructed by Joshua to each collect a large stone, and carry it on their shoulder to the other side, into the promised land, into the camp where they would rest that night.

Joshua explains that these stones are

“to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

In today’s sermon, which I encourage you to listen to or watch, since it is too rich and compact to write down here, we review God’s engagement with humanity from Abram (later to become Abraham), Joseph, the migration of Jacob’s family to Egypt, the 100 or so years of good relations Jews had with Egyptians, and then the 100 or so years of slavery under the heavy burden of the Egyptians, the rise of Moses following his encounter with God in the burning bush, the plagues and the Jewish people’s escape across the Red Sea, their long and circuitous journey through the desert for 40 years, the death of Moses, the election of Joshua, and finally (in Joshua 4) the crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land.

In this long narrative, which extends over hundreds of years, we see repeatedly God’s engagement with and grace towards God’s people. And we see humanity’s faith in God rise and fall. And we see the remarkable things that happen when people align with God.

Thus, Joshua gathers these 12 stones to create a memorial that will remind the people of everything that God has done. As he says later in this chapter (4:21-24):

“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”

For us today, we need things (objects) that help to remind us of the good God who is well-disposed towards us and who desires us to flourish. We need things to remind of all that God has already done for us in the past, to nourish our faith that he will continue to do so in the future. These things – these stones – may be personal objects, or something in our church. For example, the eucharist we celebrate is a weekly reminder of God’s goodness – a memorial. For our parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton, South Africa, the church building is itself such a thing – these stones. It was built by hand by the members of the parish, from the digging of the foundations to the laying of the roof. We see a testimony in the very building within which we worship of what is possible when God’s people bring their time, their abilities and their finances to the work of God, and partner in faith with God for building God’s Kingdom.

Featured image from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/e5/f1/6e/e5f16ead9dcbdebfd53bdb8c6c057dda.jpg

Women in God’s Eyes

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In our Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:10-17) we read a less familiar story about Jesus healing a woman who has been crippled – bent over double – for 18 years. He heals of her on the Sabbath, and for that he (and all those present) are reprimanded for seeking healing on the Sabbath. Come on any of the other six days of the week for healing, the synagogue leader says, but not on the Sabbath.

Jesus then compares the situation of his healing of this woman, with helping an oxen. He says,

“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, …whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

Jesus here is calling out the synagogue leader for his deep patriarchy, even misogyny. Because he regards a donkey as more important than a woman. The church has a long history of supporting patriarchy. Even in our Bible, there are numerous patriarchal passages. And the church too often upholds patriarch – that women are less than, less than men, less than human. Even women contribute to patriarchy. Research in South Africa by a colleague of mine (Prof Shahana Rasool) shows that women (mothers and aunts) are often the first person to tell a battered woman to return to her abusive husband. So, while today’s message is in many ways particularly for men to take up, it is indeed for all of us.

In this passage in Luke, we see Jesus doing five transformational anti-patriarchal things in these few verses (vv12-13, 16):

  1. He sees her – he picks her out among the crowds, recognises her as a human in need.
  2. He calls her – in the synagogues then, men and women were kept separate, like in orthodox synagogues today – he calls across the synagogue and calls her to him
  3. He speaks with her – he speaks words of healing to her: “Women you are set free from your infirmity”
  4. He lays his hands on her – he doesn’t merely touch her politely on the shoulder. He “put his hands on her” – almost unthinkable in those days.
  5. He affirms her – and then later he refers to her as a “woman, a daughter of Abraham”.

These five acts set for us an example of recognising the full humanity, and indeed, the divine createdness of women. There is absolutely no space here for patriarchy, and even less for misogyny. Jesus see her as a unique and individual daughter of God, a person in need, who is as deserving of the ministrations of God as any one else.

Indeed, we find narratives like this throughout the scriptures. Many women and some men have given up on the Bible, because it is so saturated in patriarchy; and unfortunately, this is true. I struggle with it myself, constantly. But, when we read the Bible closely, in the context of its own time, we find that the Bible frequently challenges deeply held cultural beliefs about the relationships between men and women, and about the the status and place of women in God’s plan. Scripture is, in many ways, countercultural when it comes to patriarchy. And these challenges seem as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

Four quick examples – two in Genesis and two in John:

  1. In Genesis 1:27-28, the writer describes the creation of humanity – God created man in his image, male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them. Both are fully created in God’s image. It is not that man is in God’s image, and woman is in man’s image. No! Both man and woman derive their image directly from God. And then God goes on to mandate both of them (not just the man) to rule over earth, its plants and animals – both of them! There is nothing that says Adam should rule over Eve – no! Both of them are equally commissioned with the authority of God to jointly rule over the world. This is how God created humanity! Yet, so many churches teach something different about the differential authority of women and men. It does not exist here in Genesis 1!
  2. Two chapters later, in Genesis 3:16, we read the story of the fall of humanity. Both Adam and Even eat of the Tree of Life – both sinned. And God pronounces consequences of their sin on each of them. One of the consequences for the woman is that her husband “will rule over you”. There are Christians today who argue that this rule of husbands over wives is God’s plan for how gender relations are to be structured following the fall. Honestly, this is absolute rubbish! A consequence of the fall of humanity is patriarchy. It is not God’s desire for humanity. If it were, then all men should be out toiling in the fields to produce crops by the sweat of their their brow, because this is a consequence God gives to the man in v18. Yes, men are not doing that – they have invented machines to do it for them, or hired migrant labourers to work on their behalf for nearly nothing. Singling out this ONE facet of the fall, from all of the others, and raising it up to God’s plan for humankind post-fall, is a clear sign of patriarchy, and indeed of misogyny. It is NOT God’s desire! Indeed, Christ’s mission is to undo the effects of the Fall, including patriarchy, not to reinforce them!
  3. Let’s move to John’s Gospel. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well on a very hot day (John 4:1-42). Knowing who she is – Samaritan, not Jewish; a woman of ill repute – Jesus engages with her in a deep theological conversation. They don’t talk about baking or raising children. They talk about complex matters of faith. And she becomes the first female evangelist, as she returns to her community to tell them all about this man she had met. Jesus engages with her as a human being; not as a woman per se. Her gender, and the social norms around the relationship between men and women, are completely irrelevant to Jesus – he simply walks over them. Patriarchy is no barrier!
  4. Lastly, let’s look at John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The male religious leaders bring the woman to Jesus and ask Jesus what they should do, in accordance with the Law. Note that the man is no where to be found! It’s takes at least two to commit adultery – but where is he? They say, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery”, meaning they were were caught in the act of having sex. So he was there having sex with her; where is he now? And Leviticus instructs that both the man and the woman must be stoned – not just the woman. In this highly hostile context, Jesus kneels down and doodles in the sand. I imagine that in response, all the men shift their focus from the woman to what Jesus is doing. In so doing, he redirects the ‘male gaze‘ away from her and towards himself. He spares her the shame and humiliation of this gang of men staring at her. He champions her dignity as a human being, as a child of God. And then he challenges the men, and of course they must go. And then, at the end, he holds her accountable for her sin – she really had sinned, she has the capacity and agency to make both bad and good choices – and he forgives her and sends her off to choose to sin no more. But in the process, he has dismantled the deep patriarchy and misogyny that was at work in this narrative.

There is a great deal of patriarch in the Bible – the Bible was written in patriarchal times, mostly or perhaps entirely by men. We live today in patriarchal times. Our world is full of domestic violence (physical and verbal); of women getting passed over for promotion in favour of men; of the ways men silence, dismiss and diminish women; of the brutal rape of women and girl children; and of the exclusion of women from leadership in the church. There is certainly a lot of patriarchy in the Bible and in our church.

But there is no patriarchy in Jesus. No patriarchy in God. Our Triune God celebrates the full humanity of both men and women, and all gender fluid and nonbinary people. Jesus saw her, he called her, he spoke words of healing over her, he laid his hands on her and he celebrated her as a daughter of Abraham. How much must we follow in his footsteps.

Featured image by Barbara Schwarz, OP, “Jesus and the Bent Over Woman,” acrylic on canvas, 2014, from https://www.globalsistersreport.org/files/stories/images/Schwarz_JesusBentWomanPainting%20better%20color%20%281000×750%29.jpg

Peace, Division, Faith

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Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-58).

It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.

This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.

Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.

So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.

This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.

Psalm 80

Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”

And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.

In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.

Luke 12:49-58

So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.

But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.

We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.

At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.

Indeed, before the conference was over, conservative Anglican bishops had already gathered and reiterated their rejection of gay relationships.

My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.

And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.

I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.

But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.

For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?

And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.

The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:

  1. The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
  2. God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).

In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.

Featured image from https://www.needpix.com/photo/1311815/jesus-christ-christian-radical-revolutionary-holy-spirit-god-bible

Love like Jesus

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Our Gospel reading (John 13:31-38) teaches a well-known phrase: “Love one another”. This is a consistent and repeated message from Christ – to love each other. We should remember that Jesus’ is most often speaking to his disciples – he is saying that the disciples must love each other, and that that will be a witness to Christ. In today’s terms, Jesus is saying that Christians in the local church must love each other.

But in today’s reading, Jesus says, “A new command I give you: love one another.” But this is an often-repeated command from Jesus. So what is new about it? Previously, Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But here he says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” There is an important shift here of the source of love – our love is to be like Christ’s love. Today’s readings give us three insights into Christ’s love that we are called to emulate.

First, Jesus is tolerant and accepting of his disciples. Today’s Gospel reading is book-ended with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30) and Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 13:38). These are crucial betrayals of Jesus, and yet Jesus continues to engage with, tolerate, accept and love Judas and Peter. Indeed, he says to Judas, “What you are about to do, do quickly”. Jesus is under no illusions about his disciples, and yet he loves them utterly.

We in the church often make mistakes. We say hurtful things. We spread stories about others. We make poor decisions. We neglect to do things. This is true of all Christians in the church. And the mistakes of those in leadership are even more visible. We need to be tolerance and accepting of each other, even when we make mistakes or do wrong things. Our love for each other should persist through those challenges, as did Christ’s.

Second, Jesus is protective and caring of his disciples. Twice, Jesus says to them, “Where I am going, you cannot come“. Jesus is on his way to the cross, on his way to bearing the sins of the whole world, on his way to dying for humankind. He wants to protect his disciples from that. This is a trial that he will carry on our behalf. He does, eventually, say to Peter, “you will follow later”, but which is refers to Peter’s martyrdom. Yet, we see Jesus trying to protect Peter from this, or at least from knowing it.

While being protective of each other in the church may be patronising, we have a duty and calling to take care of each other and protect each other from harm. We do this by ensuring the safely of children, keeping checks on how finances are managed, being mindful of ethics and sound interpersonal relationships. We should recognise when others are going through hard times, and offer support or assistance. We aim to protect and to care for each other, so that we can all grow and flourish together.

Third, Jesus is inclusive, which leads to diversity. We don’t get this from our Gospel reading, but we do get it from other Gospel passages and from our other readings for today. We see Jesus repeatedly reaching out to people across boundaries – women, Samaritans, tax collectors, menstruating women, dead people, demon possessed people, Romans. He seems to deliberately cut across these boundaries.

Similarly, we as Christians in church are called to be inclusive of everyone and to celebrate a diverse congregation: black, brown, white or something else; male, female or something else; gay, straight or something else; richer or poorer; more or less educated; South African or from another country – you are welcome here! Everyone is welcome here. Diversity is desirable.

We want a church that is characterised by this kind of love of Jesus, the same love that Jesus has shown to us, he wants us to show to others. We want a church that accepting, protective and inclusive, that makes space for everyone, that cares for everyone, that accepts everyone. We must intentionally and purposefully cultivate this kind of church community. This kind of love does not come naturally or easily. We must be deliberate in emulating Jesus and emulating his love. This is the primary witness of the church: how we love one another.

Featured image from https://thesisterhoodhub.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/love-like-jesus_orig.jpg

Christ the King

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Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next Sunday, we start a new church year, beginning with Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into the world. But the Feast of Christ the King is the culmination of everything we have done over the past year, and climaxes with a celebration of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

In both the first and second testaments, there are passages that describe Jesus as King and God the Father as King: Moses can see only the back of God, not God’s face in Exodus 33, Daniel see one like the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and Isaiah sees God (but does not describe God; only the seraphim) in Isaiah 6. In all cases, God is powerful, magnificent and awesome, beyond words. They went out of their minds at their experience of the greatness of God. We get similar hints of this in the second testament with Christ: Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigure before them, and are overwhelmed by Christ in his glory (Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9). Hebrews 1 tells us Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. And Revelation 1 describes John’s vision of Christ, including blazing eyes, feet like burning bronze and a double edged sword coming out of his mouth! John tells us that he feel at Jesus’ feet as though dead!

Our limited human minds cannot begin to comprehend or even see the full glory and magnificence of God as King.

And yet, in both testaments, God reveals God’s self most fully, not in such demonstrations of power, as much as in God’s love and concern for and solidarity with those who are vulnerable.

For example, both Psalms 146 and 147 present the magnificence of God, e.g., “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them”; “The Lord reigns forever”; “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” and “He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?”

But interwoven with these references to the power of God the King, we get verses like the following: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” in Psalm 146, while in Psalm 147: “The Lord gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord sustains the humble.”

The power and awesomeness of God is most fully revealed in God’s tender-heartedness, his compassion, his concern for the marginalised, his solidarity with the oppressed, and so on. And the most complete and full revelation of the heart of God is in the person of Christ, who is (as we read in Hebrews) the exact representation of God the Father. We think of Jesus, healing, touching, listening, seeing, walking, helping, weeping – all of these reveal the heart of Christ the King.

Our Gospel reading for today (John 18: 33-37) has Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate about Jesus as King. Jesus is persistently unwilling to refer to himself as a ‘king’ – twice he his pushed by Pilate: are you a king? And both times Jesus declines to answer directly. He is willing, though, to acknowledge that he has a kingdom (not of this world and from another place). I think he makes this concession, because a ‘kingdom’ emphasises the people who live in the kingdom more than the king of the kingdom. He is comfortable to speak about his people, the citizens his of kingdom, but not about his stature as ‘king’.

And in the end he says to Pilate, “You say I am a king”, in other words, you’re saying, not me. But, “in fact, the reasons I was born and came into the world [was not so much to be humanity’s king, but] to testify to the truth.” And what is truth? (as Pilate mockingly and cynically asks) The Truth is that God is, at the core and essence of God’s being, love. That is the ultimate truth of the Gospels and of God’s self revelation to humankind. That God is concerned for us and stands with us and fights for us and protects us and love us. This is Christ the King.

From https://timothysiburg.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/christ-the-king.jpg

Ignorance and ambition

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James and John come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35-45). Such an audacious question! One can just imagine Jesus counting to ten. And perhaps looking at them and reminding himself that he really loves them. His response is so calm and measured: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Jesus responds to two main flaws in these two disciples: ignorance and ambition.

Ignorance

First, they are ignorant. Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking” – in other words, “You are ignorant in what you ask.” The disciples want to share in drinking the cup that Jesus will drink and in his baptism, without understanding that this is the cup of suffering in Gethsemane and the baptism is his death on the cross. They really have no idea what they are asking for, yet they are so caught up in their eagerness or self-importance, that they cannot see it.

We get something similar in Job 38:1-3, which we also read today. Job has been pitching for a confrontation with God for some chapters – he believes God is deeply mistaken in treating him so badly and wants to set the record straight. In the opening verses of chapter 38, God finally speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures my plans with ignorant words?” (or “words without knowledge). “Brace yourself like a man [like a human, rather than like a God]; I will question you , and you shall answer me.” God then spends two chapters asking Job if he can do all the many things that God has done. In chapter 40:1-7, Job recognises his ignorance and says, “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Yet, God is not done with him and goes at him for another two chapters.

The disciples, like Job, forget that they are human, not God; that their knowledge and capacity for understanding is limited, unlike God’s; and that they are therefore comparatively ignorant. Being ignorant is not a sin! We are just human, after all, and do not know everything. We cannot see across time and and space like God can. We cannot imagine multiple universes existing concurrently like God can. But there is a problem when we forget that we are just humans and fundamentally ignorant.

Ambition

In addition to being ignorant, James and John are ambitious – overly ambitious. They want to sit on Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory, that is, when he sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus quickly puts them in their place, saying “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” If it is not Jesus to grant – Jesus, who is the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – how much more is not for the disciples to ask. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” [by God the Father, we should assume].

He then goes on to speak to all the disciples about positions of power and authority. These are not fundamentally wrong or bad. Power is not intrinsically bad. However, he notes that there are some who lord their power over others, who exercise authority over others. These are people who want others to know and feel that they are the ones with power, while others are powerless and helpless. This is autocratic, oppressive and abusive power. This is the corruption of power. So Jesus says to the disciples, “Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And he goes further to point out that even he himself – God the Son who he is – did not come to be served, but rather to serve and to die for us.

We learn about this also in Hebrews 5:7-10, where the writer emphasises that Jesus is obedient to his Father, and through that obedience, even to death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus is the epitome of ultimate power that is sacrificed for the common good, even at his own expense. This is the inverse of ambition. Again, power is not wrong – Jesus was ultimately powerful. But power used for personal ambition is corrupt and harmful. It is not the way of Christ.

In short

Jesus (like his Father) is always willing to engage us with whatever questions, frustrations, angers, accusations we have for God. In none of the passages we read today, do we we Jesus or God spurning anyone. However, we are also well advised to recognise our ignorance and lack of understanding, in comparison with God’s infinite understanding; and to see to serve rather than to have power. In so doing, we get closer to God, more aligned to God, more immersed into the way of Christ. This is the path to salvation. This is the path to Christ.

Featured image from https://angelusnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Kaczor_humility.jpg

Stewardship 4: A generously-giving church

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 23-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook (the message starts at about 27 minutes).

If you want to skip the sermon and just watch the unscripted enacted “parable of giving back to God” with 13-year-old Zachary, watch the video below. Zachary blew us all away with his 50/50 deal!

This is the fourth in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. In week two, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Last week, we considered the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church. And today, we consider what it means to be a generous church, or a generously giving church.

Can we accept the following core principle? Everything that exists was made by God, comes from God and belongs to God. Everything: the cosmos, the earth, the plants and animals, water and air, life itself, and we ourselves. You and me. Even the things we have made as humans originate with God – we made them from materials that come from God’s creation, using the intellect and the capacity for learning that God gave us, made by people, whom God created. Everything comes from God and belongs to God.

Including our money.

We may feel that we’ve earned our money, worked hard for it, deserve it and that it belongs to us. These are not untrue. But again, our capacity work, to learn to do our work and do it well, and the things we work with, and the self that is you who is doing the work – all of these were created by God, come from God and belong to God. Therefore, our money also is God’s. All of it.

It is a common misperception among Christians that our money belong to us, since we worked for it, earned it. This is neither true nor correct. We have to challenge this misperception many of us hold. This is vital to our being able to properly think about the money that we earn.

If we think of all the money we have as coming from God, then the small percentage of this money that we give to the work of God in and through the church, is really a blessing, because the large percentage of the money that we get to keep for our own use is a gift from God. A grace.

God invites us each to give proportionate to what we have. Traditionally, this would be ten percent of what you earn (gross or net – you decide). You could choose to give more than 10% or less than 10%, as you feel led. But having 10% in mind is a good point of departure to reflect critically on your attitude to and practice of giving.

The bottom line is that we – and you – have to give to God’s work.

It really is not optional. Everything you have is from God, and God expects you to give at least some small portion of that back to him. But God really doesn’t want you to do it grudgingly or sulkily, like a chore or unpleasant task. No! God loves a cheerful giver. God loves us to give out of gratitude for all we have already received from God, out of thankfulness, out of joy and out of the privilege to participate in God’s work in the world.

At our church, St Stephen’s Lyttelton, we’ll be doing our dedicated giving pledge next Sunday (3 October). During the coming week, give serious thought to how much of the money God has entrusted to you you will give back into God’s kingdom.

Featured image from https://news-ca.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/orig/tithing.jpg

Stewardship 3: A clergy-supported church

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 27-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook (the message starts at about 46 minutes). This sermon was preached on the first Sunday after my appointment as Rector of St Stephen’s Lyttelton, by Bishop Allan Kannemeyer on 16 September 2021.

(Earlier in the service, I also tell a bit of the story of who I am when I’m not at church on the Facebook video, starting at 17 minutes and running for about 12 minutes. And for those who would like to know more about my research and what I write about as a professor of social work, you can watch my professorial inaugural lecture in 2018 on YouTube. It gives a nice overview of my life’s work as a researcher.)

This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.

Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).

But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.

The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:

1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.

1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.

(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)

These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.

To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:

God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)

Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.

To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.

But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.

As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:

  1. I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
  2. I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
  3. I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
  4. I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
  5. I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
  6. And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!

And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.

Me supporting the Mother’s Union to do what they do best (12 September 2021)

Bread of Heaven (Part 1)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 31 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).

In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.

The ground floor – a story about caring

Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.

So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.

Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.

The first floor – a story about faith

The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.

John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.

Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.

Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”

Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.

It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.

Postscript

Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.

Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.

Featured image from https://www.kitchensanctuary.com/artisan-bread-recipe/

Growing seeds

Click here to listen to the audio recording of today’s 18-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at 32 minutes). Or read the short summary below.

Mark 4:26-29 provide a short parable about the Kingdom of God, a parable that has no similar parallel in any of the other Gospels, and that is sandwiched between two much more familiar parables about the kingdom – the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. It is worth spending a bit of time reflecting on this less-well-known parable:

Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a person scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though they do not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, they put the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” 

As we approach this parable, we must ask, “What does this story tell us about the Kingdom of God”, since Jesus uses parable almost exclusively in his teachings about many things, including the Kingdom. As Mark writes a few verses later, “Jesus did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:34).

A few interesting things to note about this brief parable:

  1. The human character is referred to only as ‘a man’ or ‘a person’ and then simply as ‘he’. This suggests that the human is not an important character in this story.
  2. The rich part of the story is what happens between the two actions of the person – between scattering the seed on the ground and harvesting it. Between these, the person does nothing. This focus of the story is this in-between space between human actions and in which God works.
  3. While the human character is thin and peripheral, two other non-human characters have prominent roles, both of which are preceded with a definite article (the) instead of the ‘a’ used for the human:
    • “The seed sprouts and grows”. It is clear that the human does nothing to enable this. It is something the seed does on its own. This is what seeds do.
    • “The soil produces grain”. It is clear that the human again does nothing to enable this. It is done by the soil. Indeed, Jesus emphasises this by preceding the phrase with “all by itself” (αὐτομάτη / automatē) – the soil produces a crop of its own accord, through its own volition.
  4. These activities of these two characters, who show agency and power, are a mystery to the human, who does “not know how” it happens.
  5. Those who garden or farm will know that to produce good crops (or flowers, etc.) you need good soil. If you have good soil, you’ll have good produce. It’s all about the quality of the soil. Those who garden will also know that there is nothing you can do to make seeds grow – that is something they do themselves – all you can do is ensure conducive conditions for growth.

From this analysis of the parable, I suggest Jesus has three main lessons for us regarding our place and work in the Kingdom of God:

  1. We must scatter spiritual or evangelical seeds. Our words and our actions must scatter Kingdom of God seeds around the world.
  2. We must work to ensure that the soil into which we scatter the seeds is well composted and conducive for growth. We get the most detail from Jesus on this in Mark 4:1-20. We can do this by nourishing and nurturing the values of the Kingdom – justice, love, inclusivity, generosity, truthfulness, integrity, humility, service, sacrifice, etc.
  3. We must trust God to do what God does, which is to make seeds grow and to produce a crop for harvest. This is in God’s domain. We cannot make seeds grow in another person; only the Spirit of God can do that.

Featured image from https://middleburgeccentric.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Scatter-Seeds-2.jpg