Sower, Soil, Seed

Click here to listen to the audio of this 17-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows.

Matthew 13: 3b-19 presents to us the well-known parable of the sower, in which seeds are sown on four types of soil – only one of which is good soil that produces good crops. Usually our sermons focus on the types of soil. Today, I’d like us to focus on some of the key characters, and imagine that we are that character.

1. The Sower. The key thing that stands out about the Sower is that he is careless. He scatters seed carelessly, without thinking. He is given a bag of precious seed, that presumably had significant value and a limited supply. And he scatters it left, right and centre without thought for where it might land.

If we are the Sower, then God is calling us to be responsible for the opportunities God gives us to do the work of God in the world. We should not be careless; we should be responsible. The opportunities we are give to do God’s work are precious and we should treat them all, even the tiny ones, with a sense of gravitas and reverence.

2. The Soil. The key thing that stands out about the Soil is that it is not conducive. Some of it is compressed and hard, exposing seeds to the elements and birds. Some of it is rocky and shallow, not allowing seeds to take root. Some of it is riddled with weeds that dominate the soil and do not allow the seeds the opportunity to breathe and grow. It is only the fourth Soil that Jesus says is ‘good’. It is good because it is able to create a conducive environment for the seeds to grow and mature.

If we are the Soil, then God is calling us to be receptive to the voice of God. Jesus ends his parable with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear!” Some commentators argue that the soil refers to our ears – it is our capacity to be hear God’s voice, to receptive to the seeds God drops in our ears, that Jesus is calling for.

3. The Seeds. Arguably the hero of the story is the Seed. Ultimately, the Seed is central. The key thing that stands out about the Seed is that is wasted. We know that seeds are a precious commodity; there are seed banks around the world that serve to preserve this precious commodity. But in this story, three quarters of the Seed is wasted – it cannot grow, cannot flourish, cannot produce a crop. Only one quarter of the Seed is productive. Imagine if only 10 hours of the work you do each week is actually useful or productive, and that 30 hours are wasted. How disillusioning that would be!

If we are the Seed, then God is calling us to be fruitful. Jesus wants us to be productive – to produce more than we started with. He is looking for a small input and a large output. Indeed, he quantifies the productivity: “it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown”. That’s a big increase from the current 25%. And now Jesus says, if we have ears, then hear!

This is a central message of this parable:
we must be fruitful and productive.

Featured image from gardentech.com

Be audacious!

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

In Matthew 10:7-14, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on their first solo mission, and his instructions seem to be grounded in this message:

Be audacious!

Jesus is not saying, be arrogant, insolent, obnoxious, offensive, dogmatic or judgemental. But he is saying, be brave, be courageous, be reckless, jump in the deep end!

Here’s what we are to do:

  • We proclaim the good news that God is present in the midst of human life. God is near, right here, present, engaged.
  • We heal, cleanse, raise and cast out illnesses in all its manifestations, at both personal and social levels. Healing is, in Jesus’ understanding and practice, not only physical, but also relational and social.
  • We are generous in our investment in the lives of others – freely we have received, freely we give. We don’t hold back, we don’t over think, we don’t over risk manage.
  • We don’t take provisions with us, we don’t over plan, we don’t pamper ourselves. We simply go – a bit reckless.
  • We don’t take from the people we go to. We don’t go to enrich ourselves. We go to give.
  • We find people who are receptive to what we have to offer, and we spend time with them. And if people are not receptive, we just move on, shake the dust off our feet. It is almost blasé – if people want to listen, we talk with them; if they don’t, we don’t worry, we just move on.

Be audacious, be courageous, be reckless, be blasé. Don’t worry, don’t over plan, don’t over think. Jump in! Be brave!

Be audacious!

Feature image from here.

Welcome & Reward

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

Matthew 10 presents the narrative of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples to do his work in the world. The chapter is filled with all kinds of dire messages about how difficult this work will be: the disciples will be rejected, beaten, persecuted, threatened by Satan, etc. They are like sheep among wolves. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and prophecies deep discord between family members. And finally he says that anyone who loves their family more than him is not worthy of him.

These are tough words! Being a disciple is not fun and games! It is hard, threatening, demanding work. 

By the time we get to verse 40, the disciples were probably feeling rather shattered by what was expected of them and daunted by Jesus’ expectations. But finally, in the last three verses there is a little respite:

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

There are two messages here: one for the disciples (and all Christian workers) and one for all Christians:

  1. For the disciples (and all Christian workers), there is the encouragement that we will be welcomed by members of the church. The word ‘welcome’ appears six times in two verses. Welcoming suggests at least the following:
    • That Christian workers are embraced warmly by church members, valued, appreciated, encouraged, thanked, etc. This welcome is relational, personal, support.
    • That Christian workers’ subsistence needs are met. This appears particularly in the last verse which refers to “a cup of cold water”. I’m not advocating that Christian workers received sports cars and mansions! Definitely not!! But I am saying that Jesus promises that workers’ needs will be met by the church.
  2. For the Christian who does the welcoming, there is a promise of a reward – when we welcome a Christian worker, we welcome Christ; and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God the Father (and no doubt Holy Spirit also). The reward is not a pat on the back, community recognition or a medal. The reward is the very presence of God!

Finally, we note that Jesus seems to present some kind of hierarchy of Christian workers: the 12 disciples, prophets, righteous persons and little ones who are his disciples. The implication is that all Christians are Christian workers, whether you are an illustrious disciple or prophet, or ‘just’ a humble follower of Christ doing what you can – a ‘little fish’, so to speak. If this is the case – that all followers of Christ, all Christians, are Christian workers – then the welcoming that we do for each other is mutual – we welcome each other.

That means Jesus is describing the whole church as a working and welcoming community.

 

Featured image from https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/jesus-asked-the-right-questions/

Go before the Lord

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary of the message after that.

Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the story which is recounted in Luke 1. John is perhaps the most important character in the Gospel, after Jesus. He is the last of the prophets, and the one who prepares the way for the coming of Christ Jesus. Almost the entire chapter is devoted to the origins of John, before we learn about the birth of Jesus in chapter 2.

As we read this chapter, we see a large cast of characters: Zechariah, the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary, the foetus John, the foetus Jesus, Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives, and, in the 80th verse, John himself growing to adulthood, filled with the Spirit, and preparing in the wilderness for ministry.

This narrative speaks about the working together in faith of several individuals, each in their own way, all with the common purpose of preparing the way for the Lord. Each person has to play their role for the story to work out and to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. John is officially the prophet who will prepare Jesus’ way, but all these other people were involved in preparing the way for John. Even Jesus, yet unborn, helped to prepare John for his ministry of preparing for Jesus.

We are still each called to help prepare the way for the Lord, or to prepare the way for someone else who will prepare the way for the Lord. To make this world the kind of place that Jesus would want to live in. To give expression to the Songs of Mary and Zechariah. To transform the world into the Kingdom of God.

We are, each in our own way, prophets of the most high, who will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.

2020.06.24_Nativity_of_Saint_the_Baptist_icon

Featured image: 15th century Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia, from https://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/products/nativity-of-john-the-baptist-icon

Called – Authorised – Sent

Click here to listen to the audio of this 18-minute message. Or watch the YouTube message below, or read the summary text thereafter.

Matthew 9:35-10:8 sets us on a path of discipleship in which we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work in building the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ message is “the good news of the kingdom”, which includes personal salvation as well as a transformation of the world in which we live. It shows God’s interest in the whole of human life, from the individual through to the societal.

But while the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few. Jesus calls the disciples to pray for workers who can participate with God in building the kingdom of Heaven. You are that worker! As am I! We pray regularly, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. And we are the answer to that prayer.

And then in Matthew 10:1 & 5, we read that Jesus:

  • Called his twelve disciples to him” – the calling is individual and collective. He calls you and he calls me, and he calls all of his followers, the church.
  • “Gave them authority” – Jesus authorises them to do God’s work in building the kingdom
  • Sent out” the disciples – he sends them out to do his work.

We are called, authorised and sent!

Jesus instructs them to proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near”. The kingdom is near because Christ is near; and Christ is near, because he dwells in the hearts of his followers.

What does this look like in practice? Matthew lists four things that the disciples do. These are the same things Jesus has been doing. And Jesus does them not to show off his power, but to demonstrate the heart of God – God’s loving heart for humankind. These are:

  1. The ill are healed. This is about making people whole, and relieving pain and distress.
  2. The dead are raised. This points us forward to the resurrection of Christ, who becomes the first of the the many who will be raised to new life in Christ.
  3. Those with leprosy are cleansed. Leprosy was not just an illness, but also a social condition that lead to profound social exclusion and rejection. Cleansing or purification from the disease would lead to re-entry into the community, thus social restoration and integration.
  4. Demons are driven out. Demons oppress people, holding them in bondage. When they are driven out, people are liberated from oppression. This links to Jesus’ manifesto (Luke 4:18), where he proclaims freedom for prisoners and sets the oppressed free. In this way, oppressive power in human relationships is overcome.

The proclamation of the Kingdom being near, and the evidence of this in these four acts of service, show that God is interested in wholeness, life, social integration and liberation from oppression. These are all facets of salvation and all manifestations of God’s presence.

It is to this that we are called in this present time, a time when there is much fracturing of social relationships, much oppression, much brokenness.

We do this work out of a fullness of gratitude for what God has already done for us. “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8b).

2020.06.14_img_1467

Featured image from: https://thereeldeal.blog/2017/07/13/on-mission-for-jesus-mark-67-13/

Why Jesus would say ‘Black Lives Matter’

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

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

But, very briefly, the main points are:

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

True North

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

John 15:18-19 reads,

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

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

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

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

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

This is my command: Love one another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is our True North.

2020.06.03_Ny+kompass

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

Barrier-breaking Spirit

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

Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter and 10 days after Jesus’ ascension. Acts 2:1-12 tells us that the disciples were meeting together in one place. “Suddenly”, writes Luke, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This remarkable story give us two of the three key images we have of Holy Spirit: Wind, Fire and the Dove (from Jesus’ baptism).

Filled with the Spirit, the disciples begin to speak in different languages. Now Jerusalem, as the spiritual hub for Jewish people, was full of Jewish people from all over the place, speaking many different languages. They were initially drawn by the commotion – presumably the sound of the violent wind, like a tornado in a room.

But then they were “bewildered” and “amazed” and “perplexed” because “each one heard their own language being spoken”. Of all the things that Holy Spirit could have done to inaugurate her ministry among humankind, she chose to enable the disciples to speak the Gospel message in languages that the disciples did not know, so that a racially and culturally diverse group of people could hear the Gospel in words that they could understand. This tells us that:

Central to the ministry of Holy Spirit is to break down barriers

Indeed, Holy Spirit is just continuing the ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself was constantly breaking down the barriers that divide people:

  • His incarnation, when the boundary between divine and human was traversed
  • His speaking with the Samaritan woman – breaking boundaries of ethnicity, religion and gender
  • His healing of woman who bleeding – breaking purity and gender boundaries
  • His healing of the Centurion’s daughter – breaking racial, class and power boundaries
  • His touching of the dead boy and raising him to life – breaking purity laws
  • His salvation of the whole world – breaking the power of sin and death

Paul’s letters are filled with similar references to the barrier-breaking work of Christ and thus also of his followers:

  • Galatians 3:28 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” These are the classical sociological categories of race, class and gender. Jesus breaks them all.
  • Ephesians 2:14 tells us, “For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups [Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”.
  • Ephesians 1:10 tells us that God’s ultimate will is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ”.
  • And Colossians 1:20 tells us that God was pleased “through him [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”.

Just as Jesus’ ministry involved boundary-breaking, so too, Holy Spirit’s ministry is about boundary-breaking. And she continues this work as her first Act at Pentecost. And the rest of the Acts of the Apostles is a working out of what boundary-breaking ministry is all about.

If you are a follower of Christ – even if your faith feels thin and weak, even if you don’t feel gifted or confident – Holy Spirit lives in you. She has taken up residence in you. And she wants to continue to do this barrier-breaking ministry through you, so that all people and the whole of creation can be reconciled under Christ.

ARTWORK WITH BIBLE BY KELLY

Pentecost image found in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, from http://thedialog.org/catechetical-corner/living-our-faith-pentecost-filled-with-the-spirit/

In but not of the world

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 9-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text that follows.

In his prayer for his disciples, shortly before his arrest and execution, Jesus speaks about our relationship with the world (John 17:13-19). He says four things in rapid succession:

  1. We are not of the world (we are not rooted in the world)
  2. We are not to be taken out of the world
  3. We are not of the world (we are not rooted in the world)
  4. We are sent into the world

These four prepositions – of, out, of and into – set up Jesus’ expectations of us as his disciples.

We are not to be rooted in or ‘of’ the world. Just as Jesus is not of the world – he did not originate here and is not rooted into the world – we also are not of the world. Instead, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).

But, as much as we may wish then to be taken up out of this world, Jesus is explicit, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world.” Instead, he prays, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” And to guide us regarding our place in the world he prays that we “too may be truly sanctified.”

Our values, ideas, aspirations and truths should all be shaped by and rooted in God’s world – in heaven. But we are commissioned to work in this world, to influence it with God’s values, to shape it into some resembling the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaims, and to be somewhat set apart or separated from the world.

It is like our head is at the top of a long stick figure, in heaven, while our feet and hands and hearts are here on earth, working out God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

2020.05.27_A_CH3772

Featured image from a collection of ‘walking tree’ photos by Alejandro Chaskielberg at https://www.chaskielberg.com/portfolios/the-walking-trees

To work

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 has been to dramatically increase unemployment rates. We see this in both the developed world (e.g., the USA) and the developing world (e.g., South Africa). By ‘work’ I don’t necessarily mean employment (in the sense of being employed and paid by someone else) or even to have a job (in the sense of doing something that generates an income). ‘Work’ includes productive activities, such as volunteering or raising a family. So, I am using ‘work’ in an inclusive and flexible way.

Our current challenging context should prompt us to think about work from a Christian perspective. I suggest three key points about work.

  1. We were created to work. The creation story in Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 emphasises work. God created humankind to work. Specifically, to work as labourers, gardeners, farm workers. Work is thus bound up in the DNA of humanity, and when we cannot work, this can create difficulties for us. This is part of the threat of the COVID lockdowns – it is not good for people not to work.
  2. Work is about caring for (stewarding) the things of God. Genesis 2:15 emphasises that Adam was placed into the garden (probably the Garden of Eden, which can be thought of as the jewel of God’s natural creation) to tend and work it. We often refer to this as ‘stewardship’ – that the things of God are entrusted to us to (on loan) to care for. And to make productive. The garden is intended to be a well-cared for, creative and productive space.
  3. We work for God, not people. In Ephesians 6:7, Paul says to workers, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people.” To be a Christian at work is not so much to publicise your faith, to hold prayer meetings or to evangelise, as much as it is to do your job with the exceptional devotion and energy that comes form working for God.

I encourage us to think about work at this present time and to:

  1. Consider how we help people who are out of work to have work.
  2. Do our own work – if we are blessed to be able to work – as if for God.

There is so much more I want to say about Christian perspectives on work! One day I will write a book!

Featured image from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/23/world-ploughing-championships-no-till-farming