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

Stewarding our things

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

Today is our third Sunday in our four-part series on stewardship. We have already reflected on stewarding ourselves and stewarding our communion (our church fellowship). Today, we reflect on stewarding our things. By ‘things’ I mean all the things we have or own – our house, our car, our furniture, the space in the place we live, our books, our garden, and our money.

I’m going to focus on our money in this message, because money is in many ways a proxy for all our things – most of our things were purchased with money. But also, money is needed for the church to to be church and to grow – there are real costs associated with operating a church – salaries, rent, water and lights, supplies, and so on. So, we do have to think about the real costs of serving the communion (the local church) and of building God’s Kingdom (the mission).

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul writes an extended passage about giving. The context is that the church in Corinth had promised to give Paul some money towards the spreading of the Gospel, but had not actually paid it over. So Paul tries in this passage to persuade them to pay it over, not out of obligation, but freely. This makes this passage quite relevant for the modern church, as we also need money from our members, but want members to give freely.

There are four primary themes about giving in this extended passage:

GIVE WHAT YOU CAN, ACCORDING TO YOUR MEANS

8:3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able…

8:11 …[give] according to your means.

8:12 For … the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

GIVE FREELY, BY YOUR OWN WILL

8:3-4 …they gave …even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

8:8 I am not commanding you…

8:10 Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.

8:12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable

9:7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion

GIVE GENEROUSLY, SO IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE

8:2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

8:5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.

8:7 Since you excel in everything… see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

9:5-7 So I thought it necessary to … finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously… God loves a cheerful giver.

GIVE, AND YOU WILL RECEIVE

9:8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

9:10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps the most striking verse in these chapters is an extract from 2 Corinthians 8:7, “see that you also excel in this grace of giving”. Grace in Greek is charis which means a gift (like the gifts of the Spirit). Paul views giving as a gift, a privilege, an opportunity and something that God enables us to do.

As we come closer to the time when we make a commitment to contribute financially to the work of the church, I pray that God will stimulate in you this sense of the opportunity and gift of giving, and that you will be able to give freely and generously, according to your means.

Features image from:
https://elements.envato.com/coins-in-hand-hands-counting-a-few-euro-coins-a-ha-Z47B9H6

Sower, Soil, Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured image from gardentech.com

Be audacious!

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

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

Be audacious!

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

Here’s what we are to do:

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

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

Be audacious!

Feature image from here.

Welcome & Reward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Go before the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020.06.24_Nativity_of_Saint_the_Baptist_icon

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

Called – Authorised – Sent

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

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

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

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

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

We are called, authorised and sent!

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020.06.14_img_1467

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

In but not of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020.05.27_A_CH3772

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