Radical inclusion

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Luke 1 presents a compelling narrative about two women and two unborn babies. It is a remarkable way to start a story. Four individuals who, in various ways, are at the margins of society – an old barren woman, a teenage girl barely out of childhood, a six-month old foetus and a newly-fertilised egg. This is hardly a group of individuals that one would think would change the course of global history!

Yet, it is this very group that God chooses to initiate God’s major intervention in human history. It points to a pattern that we see in much of God’s work among humans – radical inclusion. God seeks to draw unexpected people into the centre of God’s working, people who society might often think of as ‘less than’ or ‘other’. Often, it is not the powerful, influential, reputable, wealthy, intelligent or educated that God places in key roles. Rather, God often chooses the outcast, the downtrodden, the humble, those who recognise their limitations and those who feel they have little to offer.

In this sermon, I tease out some of the remarkable insights we gain into Elizabeth and Mary, and the unborn John and Jesus, that Luke presents to us in the opening chapter of his Gospel narrative. I show the many ways in which we see God’s grace working itself out in profound and striking ways among this unlikely group of individuals.

From this, we get the message that there is no-one with whom God does not want to work. Every person – every single individual – has a part to play in God’s great work to redeem the cosmos. There are no exceptions. No matter how insignificant or inadequate or unavailable you may perceive yourself to be, God has a place for you, a role for you. We have to trust that this is indeed true. We have to relinquish ourselves to participate. As Mary so gracefully says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Conversely, we have to accept that God chooses to work with people we may feel God should not be working with. We (humans) tend to be far less tolerant and gracious than God! It is important for us not to become an obstacle to others who seek to play their part in God’s work. Even when we feel they are not right for or up to the task. Who are we to interfere with God’s judgment on who is worthy of participating in God’s work?

God’s radical inclusion is presented to us in Luke’s gospel as a cornerstone of God’s means of working. Through Luke, we see marginalised people, particularly women, being brought into the centre of Jesus’ ministry and God’s mission. We as individual Christians, and as a collective Church, should be emulating this approach.

Feature image cropped from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photo-of-two-pregnant-women-1253592/

Images of Stewardship

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September each year is ‘stewardship month’ in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, during which we focus intensively on the question of our contribution to God’s work in building the Kingdom of God in our midst. Traditionally, we focus on time, talents and treasures as the main focus areas of our contribution. This year, we’ve also focused on our stewardship of creation, particularly in response to the growing plastics threat.

This is the last of our stewardship messages this year, where I was led, by some difficult circumstances, to reflect on the meaning of stewardship. Using a set of six images, I show the multifacetedness of stewardship, and what it means to work as partners with God in transforming our world into the image of God. These images are:

  1. Parenthood
  2. Safeguarding (1 Corinthians 6)
  3. Care-taking (1 Kings 17)
  4. Gardening (Psalm 24)
  5. Loving (serving) (Ephesians 5)
  6. Friendship (John 15)

The image of stewardship as parenthood emerged in a crisis with my son during this past week, where he was involved in a very serious car accident. Although he was not badly hurt, thankfully, his life was jeopardised, and this raised considerable distress for me as a parent. It led me to think of my role as parent as that of a steward of this young man, who is first and foremost God’s son, and only secondarily my son.

The image of stewardship as friendship emerged from John 15, where Jesus says that we are not servants, but friends; friends of Christ and friends of God. Friendship, I suggest, involves freedom, reciprocity (mutuality) and equality. And friendship is the ultimate foundation of stewardship.

It is against these images that I believe we are invited to be coworkers with Christ in his mission to redeem the cosmos.

Blessings
Adrian

Truth to Power

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The Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 14-29, presents us with the grisly narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod Antipas, on request of his step-daughter Salome, who was acting on instruction from her mother Herodias. It is a passage that is inserted abruptly in an unrelated narrative about Jesus’ disciples performing miracles and preaching the Gospel. What is the purpose of such a narrative?

In this message, I suggest it serves as a tale about power and corruption. And about our role in the face of such power and corruption. I make three points:

  1. We need to avoid the entanglement of sin and guilt.
  2. We need to recognise and speak truth to the power of the powerful.
  3. We need to accept the cost of discipleship.

Christianity is not just about fellowship and singing choruses. It is not just about the love of God. It is also about challenging power and corruption in the world, about speaking truth to power. It is about championing Kingdom values, such as compassion, integrity, the intrinsic value of every person, equity, justice, the sacredness of the earth. It is about standing against oppression, exclusion, domination, exploitation, injustice and abuse. It is about accepting, even embracing, that speaking truth to power may have negative consequences for us. Christianity is serious business!

(Richard Strauss composed a chilling opera about this narrative called Salome. Not for the faint-hearted! Here is a link to a recent production.)

Looking up, looking out

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We live in a world that seems to be doing not very well. Globally and nationally we face many challenges. And many of us face personal challenges as well. These can wear us down, challenging our faith, leading us to wish we could escape all of it.

In such times, most of us look up. We look up toward heaven, towards God, and wish that God would fix things up. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalmist (121:1). Paul writes at length about this in 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:5. He reminds us that the world and the body we live in are transient – they last but a short time and then are done. So, he longs for a more permanent world – heaven – where we can dwell for eternity with God, and where we will be doing considerably better than we are now.

So, we look up for a better future. We look up for life after death. We look up for an eternal reward. We look up for justice. We look up for comfort and solace. We look up for hope and courage.

It is good for us to look up.

But God also calls us to look out. God is not in the business of escapism. God is not inviting us to run away from or ignore or avoid the difficulties that we are facing in this world. Rather, God wants us, calls us, to be a co-worker with God in bringing into being the Kingdom of God in our midst. This was the ministry of Jesus – “the Kingdom of God is near”. Looking out means to look around us, to look at the world as it is, to really see what’s going on. Jesus always had his eyes wide open and was looking out. In English, to ‘look out’ for someone also means to care for someone.

We hear this sentiment in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), when Mary begins to understand what God was doing through her, and the way she was participating in birthing the Son of God, who would order the world, turning tables, balancing books, righting wrongs. These were present things that Jesus would do, and Mary recognised that she was a participant in making this ministry possible. Mary was looking out at the world and seeing the role she and her son would play in confronting evil.

We hear this also in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), where Jesus prays not that we may escape to heaven, but rather that heaven will come to earth: “Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The rest of the prayer is about present realities: daily food, forgiveness, reconciliation, holy living, protection. His is a looking out prayer, not a looking up prayer. This prayer is about looking out at the world as it is.

Looking up and looking out are important Biblical principles for Christian living. In South Africa, during the years of struggle against apartheid, the Anglican church (which I’m part of) applied this principles. Our church services – sacramental, liturgical – are designed to help us look up to a God who is majestic, powerful, compassionate, gracious. We come to church, into a beautiful service, to escape the ugliness of the world outside; we come to church to look up. But, the Anglican church was also instrumental in undermining and eventually toppling the apartheid government and its laws; our church was looking out. THIS is what church is meant to be: Looking up and looking out.

Ministry in Partnership

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Yesterday (6 January) was the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, when we celebrate the Magi visiting the Christ Child. This festival is important for at least two reasons. First, the Magi recognise the infant Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Kings, because Christ has been revealed to them as God incarnate. Second, the Magi, coming from the East, represent the Gentile, non-Jewish world, and thus the message of Jesus is seen as being relevant not only to the Jews but also to all of humanity. Thus Epiphany represents the Gospel of the Son of God, incarnate in Jesus, for the entire world.

Against this backdrop, I look at the recurring themes that emerge from the three passages set for today: Genesis 1:1-5 (the Creation), Mark 1:4-11 (the Baptism of Christ) and Acts 19:1-7 (Paul’s baptism of John’s disciples with the Holy Spirit). Two main themes arise from these readings.

First, they all speak to new beginnings: a new creation, recreation through baptism, Christ’s new ministry on earth and Paul’s new ministry building the gentile church. This is relevant to us, on this first Sunday of 2018, as we think about what we want to do and accomplish this year, and who we want to be as followers of Christ.

Second, they all speak to participative ministry. Creation takes place through the collaborative work of God the Father (Genesis 1), God the Son (John 1) and God the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1). Jesus’ baptism by John (and Paul’s baptism of John’s disciples) involves the Triune God. Jesus’ willingness to undergo a baptism of repentance (which he did not need, as he was sinless) is an indication of his desire to participate fully in humanity – he was not only the Son of God, but also a son of man – one of us. And Paul and John were invited to participate with God in their baptism of others.

In all these cases there is participation: God participating with godself within the Godhead; God inviting humans to participate in divine mission; humanity participating with God in ministry; and people participating with other people for ministry. In short, there is no ministry that we do alone. We are not alone. Never alone!

Harking back to the Epiphany, we are all invited to participate with God in his great plan to reconcile the whole world to himself – to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God to every person. We do this with whatever gifts and abilities God has given us, and also with our weaknesses and inadequacies. We do it by aligning our values with Christ’s values, through living out these values in our behaviour and relationships, and through sharing our faith with people around us. But we always do it with God, with each other in a community of faith. We are not alone in ministry. We minister in partnership.

Advent Mission

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‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ and is the time we remember God’s first coming into the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as well as look forward to God’s second coming into the world when Christ returns to bring cosmic history to fulfillment (the second coming). Often, we think of Advent as a season in the Christian calendar – the four Sundays before Christmas. But let us rather think of it as a type of ministry or mission, which we see most fully expressed in the work of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).

This Advent Mission is particularly important in a world that seems to have gone made this year: in South Africa we experience profound loss of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our presidency; Trump was elected President of the USA, giving platform for racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and the exploitation of women; the Middle East continues to explode, with profound devastation in Aleppo, Syria; the president of the Philippines is promoting the unregulated execution of anyone involved in drugs; the president of South Korea has been impeached; the UK exited the EU; Europe is seeing a dramatic rise in right wing politics; HIV continues to threaten human development; and women continue to experience profound violence and degradation at the hands of patriarchal men. We live in an increasingly hate-filled world. More than ever, we are in need of Advent.

An Advent Mission means two main things:

  • First, we cultivate a vision for the cosmos that God envisaged at the time of creation and still envisages for one day in the future. This vision is expressed in wonderful poetry in Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146, and is shown in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. The Isaiah passage in particular contrasts the ecology of Israel (similar to the Karroo – beautiful but rather desolate) with that of Lebanon (similar to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal coastlines – lush and verdant).
  • Second, we root ourselves in the present world, living out our faith in ways that contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God, while we wait for God’s return. James 5 points to three key things we should do while wait:
    • We should be patient and persevere, continuing to journey forward, living out our faith, being faithful, and putting one foot in front of the other as we journey through life with God.
    • We should not grumble against others. That is, we should be kind, considerate and caring, particularly towards those who are different from us, especially in a world characterised increasingly by hatred and intolerance for those who are ‘other’.
    • We should be hopeful, that God will do what God has said, that he will return, that he will restore, that he will reconcile the whole cosmos together in union under the headship of Christ.

Cover image from: http://www.ccukailua.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/advent.jpg

Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.