The God Twist: The unexpected death

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, The God Twist: The unexpected death, was given at The Salvation Army Devonport on Good Friday, 18 April, 2014. The Reading was John 18:1-19:42.

You know, I never was one to pay much attention in Synagogue classes. Sure, my mother sent me there, wanting me to get an education, but really, all I ever really wanted to do was to be a fisherman. I loved being out on the water with my dad, and I dreamt of taking over his business. Being out on the water, there was nothing to worry about. I mean, sure, you had to worry about doing the right thing and staying safe, but eventually that just became second nature. Out on the water, there was just you, God, and the fish. Continue reading

Sowing Seeds of Hope

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Sowing Seeds of Hope, was given at The Salvation Army Devonport on Sunday 30 March, 2014, which was the Altar Service for our self-denial campaign, with the theme “Sowing Seeds of Hope”. The Bible reading was Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Sowing Seeds of Hope

Do you have hope? How important is hope for you in your life? Where does your hope come from? What do you do when your hope is gone?

In 1965, naval aviator James B. Stockdale became one of the first American pilots to be shot down during the Vientam War. As a prisoner of the Vietcong, he spent seven years as a P.O.W., during which he was frequently tortured in an attempt to break him and get him to denounce the U.S. involvement in the war. He was chained for days at a time with his hands above his head so that he could not even swat the mosquitoes. Today, he still cannot bend his left knee and walks with a severe limp from having his leg broken by his captors and never reset. One of the worst things done to him was that he was held in isolation away from the other American P.O.W.s and allowed to see only his guards and interrogators.

How could anyone survive seven years of such treatment? As he looks back on that time, Stockdale says that it was his hope that kept him alive. Hope of one day going home, that each day could be the day of his release. Without hope, he knew that he would die in hopelessness, as others had done.

Indeed, Victor Frankl, the successor of Sigmund Freud at Vienna, argued that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect on a man.” As a result of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl contended that when a man no longer possesses a motive for living, no future to look toward he curls up in a corner and dies. Is there really any wonder that asylum seekers, when told they have no hope of ever being settled, are willing to risk their lives in protest, or are willing to attempt to take their own life, as their last sliver of hope is removed?

There is a dying world

The reality of our world is that it is a dying world. Alcohol, Drugs and Gambling hold a firm grip over our society. Football season is back, which leads to gambling ads returning at every break in play, and more alcohol ads than you can point a stick at. We have wars, famines, pestilence, violence. The poor are poorer and the rich make themselves richer. Homelessness – an in particular youth homelessness is at an all time high, and there’s very little housing available for them.

We are living in a dying world, where people look around them and see no hope. Generational poverty is still a massive problem, where children see their parents and their grandparents living in poverty, and give up hope, and – as Frankl said – curl up in a corner and wait to die.

Hope provides the opportunity to save the dying world.

But just as a lack of hope can cause people to curl up and die, when you can give that hope back, you have the opportunity to give life to people. Hope gave James Stockdale the ability to survive. Because Leigh Ann Tuohy had faith in Michael Oher, she invested in him, gave him a family, gave him hope, and was able to turn his life around to becoming a first round NFL Draft pick, as depicted in The Blind Side. Hope gives us the ability to turn lives around.

But it’s important that that hope is in the right place. Gamblers hope that their bet will be the one that wins them the jackpot, and not the one that loses them their house. Alcoholics hope that the next drink will be the one that dulls the pain, and not the one that causes them to do something that could get them in trouble.

Our hope has to come from the source of all hope – from God, through Jesus by the Holy Spirit. When we have that hope, we can then take on the role of the planter, scattering seeds of hope wherever we go.

Planting hope gives us and others life

We need to take on that role of the planter. Have you ever put yourself in his shoes when looking at this reading? So often, we use this reading to ask the question, well where am I in my spiritual journey? Am I in the good soil, and growing strong, or am I in the rocky ground, having had a strong start, but soon to die and fade away? And while that’s a really important analogy, we can gain just as much from putting ourselves in the shoes of the sower.

Now, I’m not great at planting seeds. We’ve got a bunch of pots of dirt that I water regularly, but the seeds that were in there… well I’m guessing that they got eaten up by the birds because there’s certainly no plant there now. However, one thing that I do know is that if I am to gain the most success, then I need to start it off in some really good soil. I’m going to get some seed-raising soil mix, and put the seed in, and theoretically, so long as I give it just the right amount of water and the birds don’t steal it, then I should get some lovely plants.

However, the sower that Jesus depicts – he’s a bit different than me. He’s almost a bit lazy. The way he’s depicted, it’s almost like he’s being paid by the bag of seed that he’s used, and they don’t care where it goes. Or maybe he’s like the Oprah of sowers, “You get some seed, and You get some seed, EVERYBODY GETS SOME SEED!”

But this is what I love about the depiction. The sower doesn’t care about where the seed goes. While you would think that he should direct the majority of the seed to the good soil, he throws it wherever he goes, it lands wherever it lands, and what happens to it is whatever happens to it.

That’s how we need to be with sowing the seeds of hope. We could sow only with those people we think are in good soil, but there’s two reasons why we shouldn’t.

First – those who are in good soil already have reason to hope. They’ve got the good stuff. They’ve got all the right conditions around them to make them succeed. Sure, they need hope too, but we can’t restrict it just to them.

Secondly – how are we to really know who is in good soil and who isn’t? We don’t know. What we are called to do is to be faithful, and to sow seeds wherever we go.

Plant seeds of hope wherever you go

Today, we planted seeds of hope in Bangladesh, in Bolivia, in China and Tanzania. But today, commit to planting seeds of hope in the way that the sower did. Wherever you go, plant hope. Form relationships with people. Encourage them. Show them love and joy, be at peace with them and have patience with them. Be kind and generous to them, and faithful towards them. These are the fruit of the spirit, which as Paul says, there is no law against such things. When we live out the gospel, when we live out the glory of Christ, when we let the spirit guide our lives, then wherever we go we will have the opportunity to plant hope. And when we plant hope, we can then let God take over – We don’t know if the seed we planted landed in good soil, or whether it landed on a path that God is about to rip up and turn into good soil. So be faithful, trust in God, and this week, plant the seeds of hope everywhere you go.

As we think on that, we’re going to sing a song, the words may be familiar but the tune may be new. But these words speak of where our hope comes from, and what it can do. The opening lines states that “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” And the chorus says what it can do: “Weak made strong in the saviour’s love. It’s through Jesus that we can do it, and when that time comes, with trumpet sound, then we will be found in him, and that is our hope, that we will be dressed in his righteousness, and can stand faultless before his throne.

Enter the Impossible Love of God

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Enter the Impossible Love of God, was given at The Salvation Army Devonport on Sunday 16 March, 2014. The Bible reading was John 2:23-3:21

Did you know that it was impossible for Jesus to be a Christian? Think about it – a Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ, and if you follow yourself you’ll just end up going around in circles. It was impossible for Jesus to follow himself and to be a Christian.

The reading today is one that is probably fairly familiar to those that have been in the church for a while, and I expanded it out a bit to get some context into what we normally read. It deals a lot with what is possible, and what is impossible.

So we’re asking some big questions this morning. What is your big, impossible dreams? On arriving here in Devonport, one of Liesl and my early impossible dreams is to buy the old abandoned hospital and turn it into emergency housing for the homeless. Is it impossible? With our current funding – yes. But we’ll keep praying, because we know God has a funny way of making the impossible possible.

Another big question for you – do you limit God to the possible? Continue reading

Fasting is not for your benefit

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Fasting is not for your benefit, was given at The Salvation Army Devonport on Sunday 9 March, 2014. The Bible reading was Isaiah 58:1-12

Fasting is not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others

Wednesday marked the start of Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter where the church traditionally enters a time of fasting. This coincides with the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before being tempted by the Devil, and then starting his ministry.

Here’s a question for you: are you fasting from anything during this Lenten period?

Have you ever done a fast during lent?

Lenten fasts are usually one thing. People might give up Chocolate, or coffee, or maybe coke. Fasts in ancient times would prohibit all animal products, some permitting fish and fowl (such as chicken), but prohibit fruit and eggs, while others would eat only bread. The common theme is this: We take something away, with the idea being that when we would normally have that, we focus on God.

We are selfish people, and even in our fasting we do it for selfish reasons

Now I hate to burst the bubble of those who are fasting, but the reality is that while we may say we are fasting for the Lord, we are often fasting for selfish reasons. We give up chocolate, coffee, coke – because deep down we know that we really don’t need them, so this is a time where we can feel good about giving them up.

And the reality is that teaching on fasting – which was a common thing in the ancient church – has gone by the wayside, because people have the same complaint that the prophet identified in today’s reading.

Their intentions sound good: “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to god.” But they question the use of their fasting; “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” We fast, but fail to find anything of value. We do it out of obligation, not from a desire to be closer to God. So people will give it a try, then either give up half way through, or come to the end of the fast and find that they didn’t get anything out of it, so they fast from fasting until they are convicted to try again – often out of obligation once again, and the vicious cycle continues.

The prophet calls them on their fasting. “You serve your own interest on your fast day.” The fast isn’t for your own benefit. They fasted, but their hearts weren’t in the right space. They oppressed their workers, they quarrelled and fought. The prophet’s words are harsh but true: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” Which is to say, fasting alone will not make God hear your requests, if your other actions don’t meet up with the rest of what God requires.

The prophet continues, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” This is lining up with the teaching that Jesus gives on fasting in Matthew 6:

 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and dishevelled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private.”

The people that the prophet was speaking to, their fasting was so that other people would see them fasting. It wasn’t for the benefit of others, it was for the benefit of themselves – others would see them doing it, and see how “righteous” they were.

Instead of fasting from something, fast by taking up something

The prophet goes on to describe the fast that the Lord prefers: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

So what’s the difference between the fast that they were doing, and the fast that the Lord prefers? The fast the Lord requires is of benefit to other people, not to us, and it requires us to do something, not to give up something. Now, it may be that in doing something we need to give up something – as we are doing for our self-denial appeal – but the point of fact is that we are doing something for the benefit of others.

It’s all about others. We’ve had that as part of our history for so long, but do we really remember it?

Christmas Eve, 1910, General William Booth was sick, and unable to attend the Army’s annual convention. The suggestion was made that he send a telegram to the convention to be read out as an encouragement. But knowing that funds were limited – and preferring to use money on things that really mattered – he decided to send as short a message as possible – because in those days, telegrams cost by the word.

The thousands of delegates met, and the moderator announced that Booth wouldn’t be there due to failing health an eyesight. The mood dropped significantly. Then the moderator announced that General Booth had sent a message to be read for the opening of the first session. He opened and read the following message:

“Others!
Signed, General Booth.”

Booth knew it. Jesus knew it. The prophet knew it. We live not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God, and to do that we need to get right with God by helping others.

The thing I love about the fast the prophet describes is that it’s something that we all can do. Let’s be realistic – we can all have grand dreams about breaking injustice – and standing together as one we, as a worldwide church, can do that – but individually, that’s a little bit harder. Maybe you can stand up for someone being oppressed at your workplace, but even that can be difficult on your own. But the second part of his description is something we all can do. To feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and to love your neighbour as yourself.

This is what Jesus is talking about towards the end of Matthew’s gospel. It’s a bit of a long reading, so I’ll just paraphrase it, but if you want to look it up it’s Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus is talking about the final judgement, where the Son of Man separates the people, with his sheep at his right hand, and the goats on the left. The Sheep are the ones who fed The King when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, invited him into the home when he was a stranger, gave him clothing, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him in prison. When they ask when it was that they did it, he says “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”

So we have an opportunity to take up something as a fast that pleases the Lord. Maybe God is calling you to something practical – maybe volunteering some time in the Thrift Shop, helping to clothe those who have no clothes. Or maybe it’s something that we can do that helps others, such as sponsoring a child through the Salvation Army Child Sponsorship program, or making a microloan through a program such as Kiva, where something as little as $25 can go to help people all over the world start businesses and get themselves out of poverty. Or maybe you want to find out more about a particular injustice that is happening in our world – Asylum seekers, poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, and the many others that are out there. Take this time of lent as a time to take up something that promotes others over yourself.

The Lord hears us, guides us, and lets our light shine

The prophet says that when we do these things, it’s then that we find the glory of the Lord, and we start finding his responses to our calls. “Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer”. If we remove the yoke of injustice, offer food to the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then our light rises in the darkness. Our vision as a church is to be a lighthouse to the community. Now a lighthouse is a wonderful thing, but unless someone turns the light on, then a lighthouse is just as useless as any other building. We need to turn on the light, to shine it into this dark world, to take the light of Jesus into the community, and we do that by doing what the Lord requires.

This Lent, take up the fast that the Lord has chosen

So this Lent, I encourage you not to give up something that in the end gives benefit to yourself, but instead take up the call of William Booth – Others! Make Others! Be your Lenten prayer. We’re going to watch a video, a song by Israel Houghton called Others, which has as the chorus, “I want to love like you love, love like you love, want to love others the way that You love me.” And while we watch this, consider what you can take up this Lenten period. As always the mercy seat and holiness table is open for all, as a place of prayer, of commitment, for you to come and to seek God’s guidance. Someone will come and pray with you, or feel free to ask someone to come with you to pray with you. As we listen, seek out what God is calling you to do, to love others.

 

Asylum seekers: at least no more lives are being lost at sea

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Ben Clapton:

Enough. There IS a better way. Well written article, sums up the situation perfectly.

Originally posted on Wildfiles:

african women desperately waiting for help There.  I said it.

Yes, we’re hearing reports of people traumatised by lack of access to drinking water, injured in riots, held in detention with nothing to do and little hope of a future reunited with their families.

And yes, I’ve seen the graphic novel on the Immigration Department website – the one depicting despairing young men cowering under the shadow of the Australian military.  I’ve seen the pictures that reveal a trip to Australia by boat to be a ticket to a world of suffering.  We look menacing.  We look cruel.

It’s pretty awful.  I don’t deny it.  BUT IT IS WORKING.  The boats are stopping.  The message is getting through.

No more lives are being lost at sea and surely that makes the tough measures worthwhile.  Because sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

This is the message that’s out there in the Australian community, shadowy…

View original 682 more words

Lament for Manus

Our God, Our God,
we have hit a low point in our nation.
In our fear, we have put people in situations
where they have faced the very thing they were fleeing.
In our fear, we have caused people to be hurt, we have caused people to die
and blamed it on the very people who were hurt.
In our fear, we will try to explain it away,
they came here the wrong way, they shouldn’t have protested
they brought it on themselves.

Lord God, shine a light on our misdeeds.
Help us to see that our actions born out of fear
feed only that fear, and do not offer the protection that only you can give.

Father God, protect those who are in need of protection.
Heal their injuries, and keep them safe from further attacks.

Loving God, accept us with all our frailties,
the mistakes that we have made
the mistreatment that we have endorsed
and the times when we stayed silent when we should have had a voice
to speak for those who had no voice.

Blessed are you, O God, who accepts us all
Praise be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost
Who is above all, in all, and through all things. Amen.

This prayer of lament was written by Ben Clapton, Salvation Army Officer, musician and activist, in response to the reports of violence at Manus Island. I release this to be used in any manner, as long as the entire text remains in one unit, and a reference to this post is included.

I’ve been feeling a lot of hurt over the reports coming out from Manus Island. Last year, at this time, I was over on Manus Island. While it is my understanding that the families are no longer on the Island, I believe that many of the men that I met are still there. I don’t know if they’re ok, or whether they’re part of those who have been injured – and I’ll probably never know. It pains me that our government put these people here, and have not done enough to fully protect them, in the name of protecting us. I know that I am, at times, guilty of not speaking up, feeling tired and not knowing whether my voice really adds anything. This fight has gone on for far too long. My prayer is that this tragic event, which I wish had never happened, might draw us as a nation into focus, and realise that our actions and the path we headed down was wrong, and that we would repent of our actions as a nation, and set up a process to assess the claims of asylum in a timely and humane manner.

Doctrinally Sound Songs

I was putting together my lead for this Sunday’s meeting, and a thought came into my head that the song, “In Christ Alone” might be a song worth considering. If you don’t know it, here’s a version by Owl City (of Fireflies fame)

Now, this song has come under a bit of scrutiny in the past because of its lyrics. Last year, the Presbyterian Church of the USA wanted to include this song in their new hymnal, but decided not to because they were unable to change one of the lines of the song in verse 2. The original verse reads

’Til on that cross as Jesus died
the wrath of God was satisfied

Where as the altered version they wanted to use read

‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
the love of God was magnified

And to be honest – the change isn’t a bad one. I think it fits doctrinally, biblically and personally I’m more than happy to focus in on the Love of God (which is very evident in the New Testament) as opposed to the Wrath of  God (which is very evident in the Old Testament). However, the original lyrics also work, they are sound, and they also have powerful meaning. When the Getty’s decided not to allow the change, they were well within their right to do so, and for me this issue isn’t a deal breaker.

However, I’m uncertain as to whether to use this song or not. My doctrinal issue with the song comes in the last verse.

No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man
can ever pluck me from His hand

Now the issue here comes with the ninth Doctrine of The Salvation Army:

We believe that continuance in a state of salvation depends upon continued obedient faith in Christ.

Commonly known as the doctrine of backsliding, this means that as Salvationists, we believe that in order for you to remain in a state of salvation – that is saved by Jesus Christ – you need to continue to have obedient faith in Christ – that is, faith that follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. The flipside of this is that if you stop having obedient faith in Christ, then you lose your state of salvation. There’s no “once saved, always saved” here in the Army. Once saved, you need to keep being faithful to God.

And that’s where the issue lies. For Salvationists, if you stop having faith, then you are effectively plucked from his hand, to use the imagery from the song. Where the song states that there is nothing on the earth or below it that can remove our state of salvation, our Doctrines state that there is in fact a situation where we can lose our salvation.

That being said, there is a different way of reading those lyrics. You could argue that in fact, the line is stating that because my faith is so strong, because I have my continued obedient faith, that there is now nothing that can remove my state of salvation. But it’s a bit ambiguous.

And my problem is that I love the song – the melody is fantastic, the rest of the lyrics are so incredibly powerful, and such a grand statement. But can I, as an officer who is to proclaim The Salvation Army doctrines as the defining articles of our faith, use a song that has one single line that speaks against one of our doctrines?

This is the beauty of our Songbook. When we choose songs from there, we are guaranteed that the lyrics are doctrinally sound to The Salvation Army Doctrines. There have been people – far smarter than myself – who have gone through and analysed, and worked out whether the song can be used or not. I’m certainly looking forward to the release of the new songbook, hoping that it might have a few more recent worship songs which will make planning a meeting easier. When we move away from the songbook – as many corps are doing in order to stay relevant – we need to give at least a bit of a thought as to whether the songs we choose meet the standards set by our doctrines. If not, we have an obligation not to use them in our meetings, because as officers we are to proclaim the Gospel and uphold our doctrines.

So until I am suitably convinced otherwise, unfortunately, I cannot use this hymn, as much as I love singing it. Now I best get back to choosing that final song for Sunday’s service.

What do you think? Does one line mean that we shouldn’t sing this song? Is there a strong argument that means that it can be used in a Salvation Army context? or am I just overthinking things?

What does your welcome look like?

I was reminded by a friend’s Facebook post of an odd practice by some churches where they get newcomers to stand up, and the church welcomes them with applause. It got me thinking about the different ways we welcome newcomers – from welcome lounges to welcoming them by name, welcome packs to an invitation to the pastor’s house the following Sunday for lunch (and a guaranteed 2nd visit). Some of them can be pretty confrontational, particularly if the visitor isn’t certain whether they’ll return next week.
Yet, there is this sense of urgency in welcoming a new visitor to your church. We want to welcome them, the thought being that if they feel welcome then they will be more welcome to return again, and perhaps become a member. But if we come off too eager then we will scare them off with our welcoming. A tough line to tread.

This post has no answers, but I’d love to hear what your church does. At Devonport Salvation Army, we have a welcome pack which we offer visitors, which includes a book, some information about our programs, and some chocolates. I don’t know how well this works yet, but it’s what we have. I’d love to hear how your church welcomes new people, and as a challenge, why don’t you go to another church and see how they welcome you!

Living Lives of Love

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Living lives of love, was given at Devonport Salvation Army on Sunday 16 February, 2014. The Bible reading was Matthew 5:17-37.

I wonder what your families were like when you were growing up. Were there any topics of conversation that you didn’t talk about? Maybe football was completely off the table – bring it up and you’d get sent to your room. Or maybe it was politics, or religion. In my Dad’s family, the taboo topic was divorce. You didn’t talk about it when my grandparents were in the room – it just wasn’t done. And I don’t know why, because it was the sort of thing that, while we did ignore it, it didn’t ignore our family. In fact, the only one of my Dad’s family who hasn’t got divorced is my Dad. All this in a family where Divorce just wasn’t talked about. Looking back, I would say that the divorce was a good thing for all of my aunties and uncles. So when I look at today’s reading, and I read Jesus speak out so harshly against divorce, I have a bit of trouble accepting that. I’m not saying that I advocate divorce – I think it’s a shocking indictment on the church that there are just as many divorces within the church as there are outside of the church – but I feel like there must be more to this passage than the first, initial reading. Continue reading