This sermon is the first in a series of five on the Lent theme, “Love one another”. This theme is part of a larger theme on ‘Identity’, which our Diocese is focusing on this year – who are we as Christians, as the church? Within this broad theme of Identity, our parish is focusing on Jesus’ command to ‘Love one another’. And today, our particular focus is on the primacy of love.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 15: 1-17) has a strong emphasis on remaining in Christ as he remains in his Father and in us, and on remaining in Christ’s love, as he remains in his Father’s love. This passage ends with, “This is my command: Love each other!” (John 15:17). It echoes an earlier passage (John 13:34) where he says, “A new command I give you: love one another”. This is a repeat of his Great Commandment (Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 13): to love God with all you have, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
About this Great Commandment, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. Gal 5:14 echoes this, “The entire law Is summed up in a single command: love your neighbour as yourself.” And Romans 13:9 similarly says, All the commands and “whatever other command there may be are summed up in this one command: Love your neighbour as yourself. … Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” You can hear that this command is repeated again and again across the New Testament.
In addition to the command to love one another, there are dozens of other passages in the New Testament that speak about ‘one another’ or ‘each other’ and they all seem to refer to our relationships with people within the church – with other Christians, in the household of faith. There is supposed to be a special bond of love among Christians. As Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this [love that you have for one another], everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”. We are what Paul later describes as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 23.
The big question is: Are we exemplifying this kind of love for one another here in our church?
This love that Jesus talks about incessantly is more than just behaviours; it is our very identity. Deut 6:6-9 unpacks how the great command of God, to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, is to become the very fabric of life: “The commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and why you walk along the road, when lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
You can hear from this how central the Great Commandment is to God. It is a summation of the entire law, because it is the primary value of God. In Jesus, the command to love each other is the summation of God’s revelation to humanity and his central and persistent message. This love for each other reflects the very heart of God. We are called to develop a culture of love – a pattern of living that is deeply embedded in our habitual practices as a community. Our love for one another here in the church should be so engrained that we barely think about it.
There is a lot of caring in this church, but I think we are not yet living up to Jesus’ example and expectations. During this Lent we want to immerse ourselves in this central teaching of Jesus and this central value of God. Let us become deliberately conscious and mindful of how we interact with each other, and purposefully work to be more loving and more caring towards each other.
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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**:
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!
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.
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.
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:
I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
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.
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.
We focus on stewardship for one month of each year – the month of September. It is the time when we reflect on everything that God has given us – which is everything, every single thing – and how we use this in God’s service. Stewardship has its roots in the creation story in Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
After God had created humanity – male and female – in God’s image in Genesis 1, God immediately said to them, “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen 1:28). And in the narrative in Genesis 2, God placed the man God had created in “the Garden of Eden, to work it and take care of it” (Gen 2:15).
In both narratives, the first thing God does after creating humanity is to entrust God’s creation to humankind, to rule over it in God’s stead (which is what a steward does) and to tend and care for it (which implies care and love). For us today, stewardship involves taking care of everything God has entrusted to us – our bodies, our relationships, our family, our finances, our possessions, our gifts (or talents or abilities), our time, our earth, our future – and using these to build God’s Kingdom.
Stewardship is not only an individual thing, but also a collective thing. We are called, as the Body of Christ, as a collective, to steward our church and to each participate in building the life of the local church as a place in which people can grow, receive support and healing, learn about God, contribute to those who are in need and fellowship together. Stewardship is thus as much about your church as it is about you.
The book of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah, which is largely written as a first-hand account by Nehemiah himself, provides us with a good foundation to stewardship.
Jerusalem had fallen and the people of Israel had been taken off into exile in the East, to Persia. The walls of the city had been destroyed, leaving the city vulnerable to anyone who wanted to take stuff. Nehemiah, whose name appropriately means “God comforts”, arranges with King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. He does three main things:
First, Nehemiah rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. He ropes in everyone – the priests (or clergy) and all the people, working as families and neighbourhood (suburbs), to build up the walls. The walls serve to protect the city from foreign invaders, to create a safe sanctuary for those who dwell therein. People put their heart into the work, even putting their lives at risk, holding a spear or sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. Nehemiah writes in 4:6, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half it height, for the people worked with all their heart.” It reminds me of how the people of St Stephens, Lyttelton literally built the building themselves, as we recentlysaw in a video on St Stephens’ Day.
This kind of working to build the church is what stewardship involves for us, particularly if we are members of a church that has been broken down in some way. Churches are not perfect, and things can break. When they do, all the members of the church – clergy and laity – need to stand shoulder to shoulder, with a sword or a shovel, and work together to build up the church. After all, we are the church.
Second, Nehemiah takes care of the poor. In chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that some people (wealthy, elitist people) are taking advantage of the crisis by requiring poor community members buy back the land they used to own or charging them interest. Nehemiah writes, “When I hear their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials” (5:6-7). He called them together and instructed them to cancel the interest on loans and to return people’s property to them. They said, “We will give it back and we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say”. Here we see those with more giving to those with less. We see people cultivating concern for those in need. We see a faith community forming, based on sharing and care.
This kind of working to build a church that takes care of its own is what stewardship involves for us. This is particularly so, if we have an economically diverse church, or if some are struggling with life’s challenges more than others. Caring for each other within the church is something Jesus emphasises over and over again – it is this love for one another that reveals to the world that we are Jesus’ disciples. It is at the heart of stewardship.
Third, Nehemiah gets the prophet Ezra to read the Law to the people (chapters 8-9). The people gather every day and the listened to the Law being read. In response to hearing the word, they repented of their sin. Their song, in chapter 9, verses 5-37, repeatedly starts with “You” – You alone are the Lord, You give life, You are the Lord God, You made a covenant, You have kept your promise, You saw the suffering, You send signs, You divided the sea, You led them, You came down, You made known, and on and on and on. They turn as a group, as a body of believers, towards God. They focus on God.
And at the end of that chapter, they made a collective commitment: “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing…” (9:38). Among other things, they commit to stewardship: “We will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and olive oil. … We will not neglect the house of our God” (10:37+39c).
This kind of engagement with the Word of God, and the response of penitence and commitment to dedicated giving, is what stewardship involves for us. We are asked to commit seriously to God, to make a solemn pledge to give of our time, our abilities and our finances to to the building up of God’s church and the work of God through the church.
What does this mean for us?
Even in the midst of Covid, with all the restrictions on our meeting, stewardship calls us to build our church. That means to come back to church, whether in-house or on-line. Too many have drifted away from church and from fellowshipping with others, even though church is available online. We must come back and practice again being church – whether inhouse or online. We must relate to each other, which we can do between services, by phone, WhatsApp and Facebook. And we must participate in praying for each other.
We must take care of those who are poor and vulnerable. A key way to do this is to give some of our financial resources to the church. A good church will use these resources to build out God’s work through the church, not to line the pockets of clergy. A good church will account for every cent that comes into the church, and demonstrate how the finances it receives are used to build the Kingdom of God.
We must immerse ourselves in the Word of God, through reading scripture, through listening to sermons and teachings, through prayer, through joining a mid-week group. In so doing, we root ourselves in Jesus, and begin to be transformed into his likeness.
I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to reflect carefully on stewardship over this coming month, and on our place within the church of Christ.
Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.
Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.
Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.
James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).
Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.
On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).
James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.
Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.
There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.
But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.
The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.
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:
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.
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.
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.
These activities of these two characters, who show agency and power, are a mystery to the human, who does “not know how” it happens.
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:
We must scatter spiritual or evangelical seeds. Our words and our actions must scatter Kingdom of God seeds around the world.
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.
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.
Two of Jesus’ disciples come to him asking for positions of authority in heaven (Mark 10:35-45). It is really an immature and arrogant request. Understandably, Jesus responds quite firmly. In part he points out that in the world people are grasping for positions of power that they can lord over others, but then he says, “Not so with you!” He calls us to a different value system.
And then he continues to says that “even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If even Jesus – the Son of God – has come as a servant, how much more should we be servants. We are called to take on a servant mentality – as awful as that might sound – and to live out his role in the world – serving humanity.
We have a critical failure in South Africa of public service, from those employed by the State (who are called “public servants”, as described in the Batho Pele White Paper for Public Service). Far too many people who are employed as public servants (whether as general assistants, chief directors or ministers) have lost this focus – that they are employed to serve the public. But not just them – all of us! We Christians are all put here on earth to serve humanity, to serve the world. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.