Beleaguered

Click here to listen to this 24-minute message.

Probably all of us go through times, at least now and then, when we feel beleaguered (click here for a definition of this word).

Jesus certainly did. The closer he got to the cross, the more the leaders of his time circled him, plotted against him, slandered him, entrapped him. By the time Judas became willing to betray him, Jesus had scores of vultures circling him. Our reading for today, from Luke 21:5-19, comes at just this time in his life. In it, Jesus speaks about the future – both the near future of the time of the destruction of the Jewish (second) temple, which would take place about 40 years later in AD70, and the distant eschatological future of the End Times, when Jesus prepares to return. In both times, followers of Christ will suffer persecution. They will be beleaguered.

Even though we are probably not living in the End Times, we as Christians may already have experience of being beleaguered. Sometimes we become beleaguered in our workplace, when we stand up for Kingdom values: integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, inclusion and vulnerability. Or in families, someone who converts from the family’s faith into the Christian faith may be ostracized, even expelled and cut off. Churches are attacked and people at workshop are killed, as in Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019. Even within the church, people can become beleaguered by leaders who are threatened by their vision, their Spirit-filledness, their willingness to ask for change and their desire for greater inclusion. Much as the church ought to be a place of sanctuary and community, it can become a place of persecution and exclusion.

In Luke 21:5-19, Jesus presents four words of advice – words of wisdom – for those of us in such situations.

  1. Know that God knows. Sometimes, when we are under such pressure, we feel alone and abandoned. But Jesus emphasizes that God knows and is mindful of our situation. In v9 he says, “When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” In other words, since God knows what is still to come, such as the destruction of the Temple, God also knows your situation. God knows. God cares. God is present. God is in control. Psalm 121 reminds us that “he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
  2. Persecution is an opportunity for witness. He says in v13, “And so you will bear testimony to me.” While we are being persecuted and beleaguered, witness might not be uppermost on our minds, but Jesus says that this is the time to embody Kingdom values. But our capacity to witness is not something we do alone – no! He emphasizes that we need not stress about what we will say as witnesses (v14), because “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” We see such inspiration particularly in the life and death of St Stephen, in Acts 6 and 7.
  3. God protects his own. With God at our side, we have God’s protection: “But not a hair of your head will perish” (v18). Jesus appears to contradict himself here, because just two verses earlier he said, “they will put some of you to death“. We get some clarity about this from another passage that also speaks about the hair on our head, Luke 12:4-7, where he says, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” This follows a passage in which Jesus distinguishes between the death of the body and a more permanent death (which he there refers to as being thrown into hell). Jesus wants us to understand that to die does not mean to perish. Our bodies may suffer and even die, but we do not perish – those who are in Christ continue to live in the presence of God. (See my previous sermon on this passage in Luke 12.) So, yes, may may suffer when we are beleaguered and persecuted, but God protects us when it counts most.
  4. We are called to endure. Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Stand firm, and you will win life.” We are called to stand firm, to endure, to persevere, to be resolute, to hold the faith and (in South African idiom) to vasbyt (literally, to bite tightly). Paul says something similar in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” This endurance is more than just standing still; it is about continuing to do God’s work. In Luke 8:15, in the parable about the seeds the fell on different types of ground, Jesus says, “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

Jesus never promises us an easy life, despite what many pastors and churches preach. Indeed, if anything, Jesus promises us that life will be difficult. But he provides us with the reassurance that God knows what we are going through and is present and in control, and that God will protect us, and ultimately whatever happens we will fall into his arms. He calls us to use these opportunities to witness to his values and Kingdom, and he calls us to stand firm and to produce good fruits, not matter what is going on around us.

If you are in such beleaguered circumstances, please know that I do not aim to diminish your suffering – not at all. Rather, I hope to encourage you with the words of Jesus, who suffered much, that God is right there with you and holding you through it all.

 

2019.11.17_Beleaguered churchFeatured photo of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, which was bombed on Easter Day, 21 April 2019. May the souls of those who died rest in peace in God’s loving embrace. From https://ie.gofundme.com/f/victims-of-st-sebastian-church-negombo-sri-lanka

Who am I?

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

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This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

Not peace, but division

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Jesus says, in Luke 12:49-53:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 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.”

This is a challenging passage because it seems so contrary to what Jesus appears to stand for: love, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. How do we make sense of this?

We start by testing out whether Jesus really did not come to bring peace on earth. We locate this specific passage within the broader narrative of his life and ministry. When we do that, we find that Jesus definitely did come to bring peace on earth. Here it is from Luke’s version of the Gospel:

Prophesies about his ministry

End of Song of Zechariah:  “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Lk 1:79)

Angels proclaiming the birth of Christ:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth  peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14)

Jesus’ actual ministry

To the sinful woman who anointed his feet:  ‘Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.’ (Lk 7:50)

To the bleeding woman:  ‘Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace”.’ (Lk 8:48)

To the disciples after his resurrection:  ‘While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (Lk 24:36)

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples

To the 72 followers:  “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.” (Lk 10:5-6)

It is hard to read all of this from Luke’s Gospel and conclude that Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth. Then what does he mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

I suggest that Luke 12:49-50 informs us that to accomplish his mission (to bring peace on earth), Jesus must first go through a great confrontation and that this informs us that peace-building brings him into conflict with the forces of darkness, with Satan and his minions. And the Luke 12:51-53 informs us that peace-building can bring conflict even within the family home; and thus also in churches, communities, workplaces and nations.

I provide three examples of this, from my experiences in church, the ‘secular’ workplace and the nation. In each case, standing up for the values of Christ’s kingdom values – love, dignity, respect, compassion, human development, social justice, peace, etc. – has the potential to bring about conflict and division. The values of the Kingdom of God are contrary to all the values of the kingdom of darkness and to the path of sin. Small wonder, then, that championing these values brings about conflict and division. 

What I take from this passage is that there is need for us to stand up for Kingdom values. This is part of peacebuilding. But standing up for peace may well lead us towards conflict and division. Let us not be too scared by this.

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Featured image from https://images.app.goo.gl/WcNWwMLn4eci585V7

Poverty

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Poverty is one of the great challenges facing South Africa today, with unemployment rates above 25% for the population as a whole and around 55% for young adults, and with poverty still running along racial and gender lines (StatsSA). It is a challenge for the country and for the church. It is a challenge we try to deal with in our mission to the world, and it is a challenge we try to deal with among ourselves. Many of us are ourselves struggling with poverty.

What is it that God expects of us regarding poverty?
And how do we do something about poverty, when we ourselves are poor? 

Luke 12 presents to us Jesus’ perspective on poverty, which is essentially that we should not worry. “Don’t be afraid, little flock”, he says. “Do not worry”. “Do not be afraid”. He regales us with analogies of ravens, sparrows, flowers and hairs on our head. Analogies that speak of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care. “You are worth far more than many sparrows”.

How does Jesus expect us to ‘not worry’ about things that are so worrisome? Are we simply to sing the “Don’t worry, be happy” song? or Hakuna Matata?

Jesus reveals in Luke 12 that not worrying about poverty (or any other life challenge) is not about switching off to poverty or denying reality. Rather, it about seeing a more powerful reality that lies beyond the present; a world that lies beyond this present world. He invites us to recognise that there is a world to come that is more important than this one and more enduring. It is not that this world, this life, is unimportant! Clearly, from Jesus’ behaviour and teaching, we know that this life and its challenges are important. But there is an even more important world to come. And it our investment into that world that really matters, that counts in the short and long run.

Our capacity see that world rests in faith. It is “by faith” that we see that world. Faith is the central topic of Hebrews 11. The writer reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Paul similarly writes, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). In this chapter from Hebrews, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” 21 times to emphasise that the legacy we inherit from our biblical ancestors is one of faith. While we typically want an instant return on our faith investment, our ancestors were willing to wait generations for the return:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb 11:13).

Abraham was able to see the future through God’s eyes. He heard and believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2, 15:5 and 22:17), even though he did not see this for himself in his lifetime. He could see it because he could see through God’s eyes. Through the eyes of faith. It is these eyes that we need to be able to see the world beyond this one, to see God’s provision in the midst of hardship, to see God’s promises fulfilled even if not yet. These are the eyes of faith. These are the eyes of God.

And so Jesus says,

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).

This is a message not just for those with money (though we, especially, should heed it), but also for those without (think of the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4). This what God calls his people to:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It starts at home, within the church community:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. …And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).

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Discomfort zone

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Most of us like to remain within our comfort zones. They are, by definition, comfortable. So, we tend to stay within our comfort zone.

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul explains that while we were formerly imprisoned by Law, we are now set free from such bondage. We’re set free by Christ, who brought a new kind of faith. We are now clothed with Christ. The result of this, is the breakdown of divisions among us: race (Jew and Gentile), class (slave and free) and gender (male and female). Elsewhere, Paul describes this as the destruction of a barrier, a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16). We are made into one people. A diverse people.

As Christians, we are thus freed up to cross the boundaries that divide us. Choosing to cross boundaries is not easy for most of us. We tend to stay without our comfort zone. And that zone is typically populated by people who are similar to us. Engaging authentically with people who are of a different race, class or gender pushes us into a discomfort zone. Christ has freed us to step into these discomfort zones.

Indeed, we are mandated to step into our discomfort zones, because this is exactly what Jesus did. Again and again! Luke’s Gospel is particularly attentive to the ways Jesus deliberately and consciously – sometimes even flagrantly! – stepped over the boundaries that divide, placing himself and others in their discomfort zones.

A great example of this is Luke 8:26-39. Here Jesus crosses into gentile territory and engages a profoundly demon-possessed man, who is naked, uncontrollable and living wild among the tombs. In numerous ways, this man takes Jesus into his discomfort zone; Jesus breaks several Jewish taboos to be with this man. It is in this this context of discomfort that Jesus heals him, saves him, transforms him. When the community sees the man again, he is clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet and in his right mind. Jesus does this reconciling work in his discomfort zone.

And this pushes the people of that region into their discomfort zone. They are afraid; overcome with fear. They beg Jesus to leave. They want their discomfort removed, and that means getting rid of Jesus. So Jesus leaves. He leaves them in their comfort zone. Separated from the loving presence of Christ.

But the man himself begs to follow Jesus. However, Jesus sends him back into his discomfort zone, back into the community from which he has long been feared and excluded. Jesus commissions him to be a missionary – perhaps the first gentile missionary to the gentiles! And it is into this zone of discomfort that the man goes, telling everyone what Jesus had done for him.

God wants us to step out of our comfort zones and into discomfort zones. God knows this is not easy. But God also knows that it is in these places that healing, transformation and reconciliation take place. So, what are your discomfort zones? And what can you do to cross into them deliberately?

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Featured image called “Hands Across the Divide” in Derry, Northern Ireland. From http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/11/snapshot-18-photos-of-u-k-statues

Courage!

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alignment

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This message was preached on a special day: the first service I led as an ordained Anglican priest in the Diocese of Pretoria, South Africa. There’s a picture of me below, flanked by The Rev’d Marti Slater (Assistant Priest) and The Rev’d Siphiwo Bam (Rector of our parish) after the service.

In this message, I share a little of my journey of being called into ministry, which goes back about 30 years since I first heard the call (and began avoiding it) and 14 years since I accepted the call and began journeying towards ordination. There is a long story, the details of which I don’t go into in this message. Suffice it to say that it has not been easy and that I and many others are delighted that this day has finally arrived.

In the process of this journey, particularly in the past year or so, and especially during this past week of preparation for yesterday’s ordination (Saturday 15 December), I have come to understand that God has been working to increasingly align my life – the whole of my life, both interior and public, both in church and in the ‘secular’ workspace – with God’s will and desire. Alignment has become the word I use to express my experience of this journey towards ordination.

Looking at the Advent reading for today, from Luke 3:7-18, we see John the Baptist calling people to prepare for the coming Messiah, to make their hearts and their society ready to receive him. He says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (vs 8a), which I interpret as a call to alignment. Repentance is an internal and spiritual act, between oneself and God. Producing fruit, on the other hand, is a public and social act, between oneself and the world.

After exhorting his congregation to repentance, people ask him, “What should we do then?” and John gives three responses that point to a message of social justice – about treating people fairly, honestly, kindly and with integrity. His message of repentance is, in many ways, a social message. But then he goes on to warn people that one greater than he will come, who baptizes not with water but with Spirit and fire. This message is a religious and spiritual one.

John is not presenting a muddled message. Rather, he is calling for an alignment between our private and public lives, between our ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ lives. He is anticipating Paul’s disclosure of the mystery of God’s will, viz. “He [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Ultimately, there is no distinction between our private and public lives, between our ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ lives. All are within the sphere of God’s interest and mission. All need to align with God. As we journey towards alignment, we help to make straight paths for the Lord, rather than crooked ones. We help to fill in the valleys and make low the mountains, so that rough ways become smooth. Then all people will see God’s salvation (Luke 3:4-6).

Here is a definition of Christian alignment that I have been working on. Alignment is:

  • The will of God the Father,
  • Enacted by God the Son,
  • Empowered by God the Holy Spirit,
  • Illuminating our hearts and minds,
  • Expressed through our values in action, and
  • Transforming the world.

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The video below is a song written and performed by Gregory Porter called Take me to the Alley. I have been listening to this song over the past week, and during retreat it was ever in my mind. I find the words profound and the style of the song very moving. I think it is an Advent hymn.

 

Feature image from: http://mxtrianz.me/stone-stack/stone-stack-9-stack-of-stones-and-sea-splash-stock-footage-video-4820351/