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.

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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).

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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.

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

Doing mission

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Our Gospel reading for today is Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. It is the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers (having previously sent out the 12 disciples at the start of Luke 9) to do missionary work. It’s an important narrative, because it provides insight into Jesus’ teaching and training of his followers in missionary work. In this recording, I do an almost verse-by-verse Bible study of the passage, to tease out what happens, what Jesus says and how Luke conveys Jesus’ teachings to us.

I start by disclosing that I am a useless evangelist. I was trained in and did cold-calling as a university student, while a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. But, being a naturally shy and introverted person, walking up to strangers to share the Gospel with them was the hardest thing in the world for me.

I wrap up with three main points (RAP):

  1. Our Responsibility. We are responsible to be faithful to God, to make God known in the world. But we are not responsible for how people respond to us. Our responsibility is to lay a foundation and prepare the way for Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s work in the life of other people.
  2. Our Attitude. We are invited to enter the lives of others with an attitude of peace – to be calm, quiet, respectful and deferential. And we are invited to accommodate them and their ways, not to impose ourselves on them. Paul writes at length about this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
  3. Our Presence. We are assured (and reassured) that since Christ dwells in us – has taken up residence in us – wherever we are, Christ is. And wherever Christ is, the Kingdom of God is (since Christ is King of the Kingdom of God). Thus, merely being among people who do not know God brings the Kingdom of God near to them. This, ultimately, is what Jesus emphasises to his followers (Luke 10:8-11):

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, … tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say … be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.”

Whether we realise or intend it or not, the truth is that we are always Christ’s ambassadors. We are always revealing Christ to the world. We are always preparing the way for Christ’s coming. We are always doing mission. But we could be doing mission in a way that better aligns with Jesus’ teaching on mission and that does indeed prepare the way for him.

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Featured image is a 13th century mosaic of Jesus Christ from the ceiling of the Baptistry across from the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) in Florence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bbmaui/719415433/

Christ has no body but yours

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Today’s reading (John 14:23-29) speaks to us about the centrality of relationships in the Christian journey of faith.

First, we learn that relationship is central to God’s self. This passage is steeped in Trinitarian language: the sense that God, while one being, comprises three persons.

  1. John 14:23 “My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This verse is unique in that it is the only passage where Jesus uses first person plural language to refer to himself and the Father operating as a unit. Jesus talks about himself and the Father as two distinct persons, working together.
  2. John 14:24 These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” Here, Jesus emphasises the unity of his words and the Father’s words. The Father and the Son speak from one mouth. It echoes John 14:10, where Jesus says, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
  3. John 14:26 “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Here, Jesus mentions all three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), operating in unity with one another.

God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in eternal and loving relationship with one another, so powerful that they are one being. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it is (for the vast majority of Christians) the most inevitable way of reconciling the oneness and the threeness of God that the Scriptures present to us. And this passage from John is one of those that does so strongly.

If nothing else, and perhaps most importantly, we learn from this that relationship is central to God and to God’s experience of God’s self. And if relationships are important to God, they must surely be important to us also.

Second, we learn that relationship is central to God’s mission on earth. Jesus message in John 14:23 is a response to a question from Judas, one of his disciples, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us [only] and not to the world?” Judas was concerned that the good news that Jesus was telling the disciples about was not going to be heard by everyone. His was a question about mission.

And Jesus answer is that God the Father and God the Son will come to the disciples (and by extension to all Christians) and make their home in us. This means that God’s showing of God’s self to the world will be through us. As God resides in us, we reveal God to the world.

This is an extension of the incarnation. When God the Son came into the world as a human, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, he was available to the world as just one man, with all the limitations of a single human. But when Jesus returned to the Father at his ascension, he sent Holy Spirit who fills up every Christian. Moreover, the Father and Son also come to dwell in us. In this way, Christ is incarnated in the world through the Body of Christ, the church, that is, through the community of believers. We are Christ’s body on earth.

Thus, God continues to work through God’s relationship with each of us and our relationships with everyone in our social environment – those at church, those in our families, those in our workplaces and play spaces, those in our communities, those we meet in passing as we shop, travel and live.

This reminds me of the prayer of St Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 1500s:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

I end this message by singing John Michael Talbot’s arrangement of this prayer.

(Note: This sermon was preached at a home for women with intellectual disabilities.)

Here are two beautiful performances of this prayer. Music by David Ogden.

 

 

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Link to featured image.

Love one another

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

I have been redeployed from the church I’ve attended for over 20 years (St Martin-in-the-Fields) to a new church, not too far away (St Stephens, Lyttelton) as part of my curacy. Today was the first time I have preached to this new parish, so it was a good opportunity to lay down what is most important to my faith and that what is most prominent in my preaching. And it is this:

God is most essentially and completely LOVE. The three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) have been in eternal relationship with one another since before the creation of time and space. It is the profound love between these three persons that makes the one being. God created time and space out of a fullness of love. God created humanity out of a generosity of love, to be shared. And God’s actions throughout human history embody and describe love. Love that is fierce, generous, extravagant, radically inclusive, steadfast and unshakable.

Today’s reading from John 13:34-35 sets out Jesus’ command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In this message, I provide the context in which Jesus delivered this message – a context that represents on the crisis points in his ministry, characterised by betrayal, denial and isolation.

And I set out what is ‘new’ about old command to love, viz. the source of our capacity to love and the missional impact of our love for one another.

Let the love of God be the centre of your life.

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