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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.

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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.

 

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I’d give anything for a pancake

Pancakes with strawberry syrup and blackcurrants
Image via Wikipedia

Had an interesting experience in devotions today. We had an Ash Wednesday service. The minister who was leading devotions was certain that Ash Wednesday was today. It isn’t. He went round afterwards to let everyone know that he’d made a mistake and Ash Wednesday is actually a month away.

But it was interesting anyway, because I was able to start thinking about Lent. Lent is the time before Easter when you fast – you give up something. The idea is whenever you would normally have that thing, you think about God instead. In recent years, there has been a push from many people to say that Lent isn’t just about giving things up, but you can also take up something – for example, a bible study, or a spiritual discipline such as daily meditation, or a personal daily devotion.

Last year, I gave up coffee. It was tough (Liesl didn’t think that I could do it), but I managed to get through it, and that first coffee on Easter Sunday was just beautiful. This year, however, I’m thinking I’ll take up something instead. I’m thinking that I’ll try to get through as much of the bible as I can. This has been a goal of mine for a while, but I often get derailed. I’m not certain where I’m up to, but I know that there’s a bookmark in my bible of where I was. I think that for the 40 days of Lent, I’ll try to put an hour or two each day into reading my bible. Hopefully I’ll get through the Old testament, and make some headway into the new testament. I’ve heard it takes 72 hours to speak the bible. 2 hours a day for 40 days, I could most certainly finish it.

One of the great things about Lent is the way it starts. March 8 is Shrove Tuesday, which is colloquially known as Pancake Tuesday. It’s on Shrove Tuesday that you would get rid of everything that you were fasting of – which traditionally is Flour and Eggs. Best way to get rid of Flour and Eggs? Make Pancakes!

I remember heading to a party at my friends a few years ago where he’d made a Pancake Cake – chocolate pancakes, layered with alcoholic sauce (such as Kahlua, Bailey’s and other tasty liqueurs). It was so rich, most people could only have the tiniest of slices. But it was such a fun way to spend Shrove Tuesday.

The Uniting Church have caught onto this idea, and run Pancake Day as a fundraising event. They encourage churches, businesses, schools and individuals to hold a pancake day event where people can buy pancakes, with money raised heading to support local programs supported by Uniting Church organisations. It doesn’t matter where you are – you can have a Pancake Day event. Take a look at this video to see how the money raised is used:

So give a toss this Pancake Day and raise some money for awesome projects. And use this time before Lent to think about your Lenten Fast.

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