These stones

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 23-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts about 26 minutes into the recording).

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

Joshua explains that these stones are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in God’s Eyes

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 27-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 30 minutes).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace, Division, Faith

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 26-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 33 minutes).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 5:1-7

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

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

Psalm 80

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

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

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

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

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

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

Luke 12:49-58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity in practice

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 17-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook here (the message starts at about 24 minutes).

The concept of the Trinity can be hard to get one’s head around. But when we get down to the basics, it is the understanding that the one God comprises three persons – Farther, Son and Spirit. The theology to explain how this works is hard to grasp. Eventually, we are invited to gaze upon and appreciate the mystery of God who is three-in-one.

In today’s message, I suggest there three key practical implications of worshipping a triune God:

  1. Since God has, for eternity, been three-in-one, a united collective rather than a singular entity, there is little room among Christians for othering, excluding, judging and discriminating. The three-in-one collective God created humanity to be in harmony with one another, much as God is harmony with God’s self. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, aging, homophobia and so on have no place the hearts of Christians. We need to be vigilant in examining our assumptions and judgements about others, and to repent of any form of othering.
  2. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were jointly involved in creation, according to Genesis 1, Proverbs 8 and John 1 (among many other passages). Creation was a collaborative, joint effort by God, with humanity coming along only right near the end. The natural world is the outpouring of God’s generous love and we should treat it as such. Each of us can do even just small things to protect the earth – switching off the tap when we brush our teeth, switching off the light when we leave a room, planting an indigenous tree or a few spekboom plants. None of these is particularly difficult, time consuming or expensive, but collectively can make a difference to the future of God’s planet.
  3. God’s entire mission for the salvation of humankind has been a collaborative and coordinated effort between Father, Son and Spirit. Each person of the Trinity had their own role and their time to lead, but everything they have done and continue to do has been of one accord, of one mission. In a similar way, the church can do its mission only through a collaborative effort, with the inputs of every member. The priest or wardens or lay ministers cannot do it – we all, every one of us, have to do it. Each person playing their part, whether big or small, is necessary for the church to do what it was put here to do.

Even if we cannot theologise the triune God, the Trinity, we can understand that God works in a collaborative and purposeful way to build healthy human relationships, to protect and nourish the earth and to accomplish God’s mission. We as the church are called to work in the same way.

Featured image of Ethiopian painting of the Trinity from https://twitter.com/DerilloEyob/status/1315268039668043783/photo/1

Love like Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 16-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 22 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a mission

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message.

Luke 13:31-35 finds Jesus on God’s mission. He is busy “driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow”; he desires to protect the people of Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”; and he desires to reach his goal – Jerusalem, where he will die.

But Jesus’ mission is fraught with obstacles!

For one thing, Jerusalem does not want to be join him – “you were not willing” to respond to his protection and care. And so, he will leave them alone – “your house is left to you desolate” – until Palm Sunday, when they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” as he enters Jerusalem (Luke 19:38).

And for another, “Herod wants to kill” him. Others also are conspiring against him. His days are numbered. But Jesus says that he is too busy with God’s mission to die now, and moreover, “no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem”, so Herod will get his way only later, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem. In the meantime, Herod must wait.

Jesus continues on God’s mission, despite all obstacles. He is focused and determined.

We also face obstacles as we live out our faith in this world, as we live our mission, the mission God has given us. It is not always easy to maintain our faith in our personal lives; and it is even less easy to maintain our faith in the challenges and complexities of the world we live in. We need to be more like Jesus: focused and determined.

Our readings today provide some helpful advice for us:

First, we can take hold of God’s covenant, God’s promises. In Genesis 15:8-9, God is assuring Abram of his blessing and to make him a great nation, but Abram is beset by challenges, not least of which is that he has no heir. Abram eventually says to God, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it [of the land]?” And God engages with Abram’s need for reassurance and promise. The Scripture says, “So the Lord said to him…” and we get the instructions for the covenant made between God and Abram. God offers this covenant promise in response to Abram’s need for reassurance. Similarly, we can ask God for reassurance. And we can rely on the many promises God has already made to us through his son in the Scriptures.

Second, we can take up Jesus’ offer of protection to “gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Luke 13:34). This is such a beautiful image of Jesus as a mother hen, protecting her young ones, by sheltering them under her wings. Our reading from Psalm 27:5 speaks similarly: “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock”. Here again is a wonderful image of God’s protection within a holy tent, a tabernacle, where we will be safe from harm.

And third, we can be tenacious and determined in our mission, trusting in a trustworthy God. Philippians 4:1 encourages us: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” and Psalm 27:14 concludes, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord”. Life is often hard, but we need to persevere.

Take hold of God’s promises,
seek shelter under God’s wings,
stand firm,
be strong,
take heart and
wait for the Lord.

Featured image from: https://gmtma.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/untitled-design.jpg?w=490

Stewardship 4: A generously-giving church

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

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

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

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

Including our money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why I have come

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at about 29 minutes).

That is why I have come!”

These are the words of Jesus for us today. In Mark 1:29-39, we read of Jesus healing people and casting out demons. He then withdraws to pray and his disciples follow him, annoyed, saying, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus responds, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Jesus has a clear sense of calling, of why he is here in this world. It emerges out of his time of prayer with his father. He has come to heal, to restore, to save and to preach. (You may recall last week’s sermon, Acts of love, in which I showed that while Jesus is involved in both knowledge or teaching and healing or acts of love, it is the latter that enjoys more attention.)

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul writes, “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul does not regard preaching as something he can choose to do or not do. He feels that he was made to preach, and thus has to preach. And so he says, “I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.” God called him to preach, and preach he must.

I resonate with this verse. After many years of feeling called into ministry, and running away as fast and as far as I could, I finally conceded and preached my first sermon in August 2005 (you can read that sermon, based on Romans 12:1, here). Terrified as I was, I knew as I stood, clinging to the lectern, that this is what God had called me for and that I had to continue preaching. I felt compelled to preach! There was a period of a few years when lay ministers were barred from preaching. I remember feeling like a bear with a headache or a woman who was 11-months pregnant. I was irritable, distressed, uncomfortable, in pain, because I felt I was unable to give birth to the sermons growing in me. As Paul wrote, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

The clear sense of calling or purpose expressed by Jesus and Paul, and indeed most of the characters in the Bible (think of Isaiah’s “Here am I. Send me!” in Isaiah 6:8), is God’s gift to every Christian. It not just some special few who have a calling, a sense of why they are here, as sense of being compelled to do something for God. This is a gift God gives to every believer. 1 Corinthians 12:7 & 27 tells us that “to each one [that is, to every single one] the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” and that “each one of you [that is, every single believer] is a part of” the body of Christ.

God has put you on earth for a purpose.

You are alive for a reason.

You have been sent to do particular work for God.

What is it that God is calling you for? What has God gifted you to do? What is that nagging voice at the back of you mind telling you? What do you know you should be doing for God, but are avoiding? What is it that deeply satisfies you? What is it that, when you do it, tells you that you are in the centre of God’s will for you?

That thing is what you are here for. That is what you are compelled to do. That is why you have come!

Featured image from https://byfaithonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/620x400_p40.jpg

God’s handiwork

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 11-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video here. Or read the text summary below.

Now and then, it is good for us to reflect on who we are in Christ – our identity – and what God wants from us – our purpose. Ephesians 2:10 gives as a wonderful opportunity to do that:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Let’s start with the idea that we – that you – are God’s handiwork. The Greek word behind ‘handiwork’ implies creative activity – sculpting a statue, painting a painting, writing a poem. It is about intense and skilled craftsmanship. This is what you are – you are a great work of art by the greatest artist/poet who ever lived. You are not merely a product of your genes or your environment; you are not an accident; you are not a coincidence – you are one of God’s masterpieces, unique in every way, and beautifully crafted.

Paul tells us that we are created in Christ Jesus. Christ is “the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15), thus we are the second born – Christ’s brothers and sisters. Indeed, Paul writes that “we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). Jesus Christ is our oldest brother; we are his younger sisters and brothers. He leads the way and we follow in his footsteps.

Paul says that we are created to good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Before we were born, before we were even conceived, God already had us in mind. He knew what kind of person you would become, with your unique genetic makeup and life experiences, and the hand of God shaping the course of our life. God already has in mind what he wants us to do in the world. I do not think this means our lives are scripted and preset; but it does mean that there is already a pattern of what we are each able to do in unique ways that bring a smile to God’s face.

And what are these things God has prepared for us to do? Good works. It is striking that Paul writes here about good works, because in the preceding verses he has been emphatic that are saved by faith and not through good works. But now he closes off this passage by saying that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works. That is the purpose for our creation.

What constitutes a ‘good work’. Let’s refer to the great commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), where Jesus says, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. A good work, fundamentally, is anything that shows God’s love for our neighbour. We are each created uniquely to love uniquely, to do unique good works. The good that you are able to do is different from the good I can do. You were uniquely created by the great Craftsman to do unique good, loving works, that God prepared in advance for you and only you to do in a uniquely ‘you’ way.

Let us meditate on Paul’s words:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Featured image from: https://feeds.croatia.hr/epic-week/experience/check-fascinating-handiwork/

Stewarding our world

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

Father almighty
we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit
To live and work to your praise and glory.

We end each Eucharist service with this prayer. It is the endpoint of the entire service of communion. We do come to be filled, restored and healed; we do come to worship and praise God; we do come for fellowship; we do come to learn; and we do come to celebrate the Eucharist. But the purpose of all of this is to equip and fill us to go out into the world and serve the Lord.

The church is a refuelling station, in which we are filled up and restored, so that we can go out and do God’s work in the world.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday in our stewardship programme.

  1. In the first week, we considered stewarding ourselves;
  2. then stewarding our communion (our church fellowship);
  3. and last week, stewarding our things, particularly our money.
  4. Today, we reflect on what it means to steward the world.

Genesis 2 presents the narrative of God’s creation of humanity. God then placed the man he had created in the Garden of Eden and commissioned him to ‘tend and care for it’; that is, to steward the world. We continue to carry this commission.

Stewarding the world includes a focus on the planet – the earth itself – with all its natural resources: the sky, the oceans, the water, the land, the minerals, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources. We are commissioned to take care of the earth (and indeed the cosmos) – not to exploit, plunder, rape and destroy. ‘Tend and care’ are gentle, kind, caring, nurturing words, to describe the relationship we ought to have to the world around us.

In addition, stewarding the world includes a focus on its people – on all of humankind – regardless of anything (religion, race, gender, politics, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, and so on). We are to be Christ’s presence among humanity – his hands, his feet, his eyes, his mouth, his heart (as Saint Teresa of Ávila may have written – see video below). It is unfortunate that many Christians see their Christ-like presence in the world as reduced just to fighting against two issues: human sexuality and abortion. While these are important topics to engage, Jesus’ own presence in the world focused pervasively on fighting for love, kindness, justice, inclusion. To steward the people of this world is to imitate Christ’s engagement with humankind.

Appropriately, today is All Saints Day, the day on which we commemorate and celebrate the lives of the saints. My church is named after St Stephen, who is described in Acts 6-7. Carrying his name, we in our parish are invited to adopt Stephen as a model or example for our lives. Stephen was a young deacon, whose ministry lasted less than a year. A deacon is a servant, who works out in the community, helping the poor and marginalised. Stephen is described as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. He was a bold preacher, delivering the longest sermon in the book of Acts. It resulted in his murder, at the age of 29. As he died, his last words were to forgive those who stoned him.

Stephen is a shining example of stewarding the world. He was a servant to the people of God and to people seeking God.

Let us each take up our own role, in our own place, in our own way, using our own Spirit-given gifts, to love and serve the world.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
In the name of Christ.
Amen

Painting of the saints by Fra Angelico (in the 1400s) from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Day
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7ymxW3rndk