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Reforming Society (Vision and Mission Part 5)

This is part five and the final part in my Vision and Mission sermons at The Salvation Army Devonport. View all of the sermons here. The reading for today was Luke 4:14-30.

What will you fight for?

This speech is one of the most famous quotes of The Salvation Army, and has served for years as a rallying cry. It speaks of the battle that we as an army face – that while there is still one person in need, that we will fight, we will fight to the very end.

Where that end is, we do not know. But, still, we must fight, and fight as if the end is both tomorrow, and in the next millennium.

This quote fits so incredibly well with the words that Jesus spoke in today’s reading. Quoting from Isaiah, this passage speaks of Jesus’ mission, that would shape his mission and ministry from that point in.

Jesus fights for Justice

Jesus returned to Nazareth, to his home town, and went to the Synagogue to read and teach. He found his way to this quote from Isaiah, and declared: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

These themes that this passage highlights bare particular emphasis in Luke’s gospel, but it should also be noted that this passage is found in Mark as well. But all through Luke’s gospel, we see the themes of justice, inclusiveness and freedom included as a central part of Jesus’ message. Let’s have a quick overview of Luke, to show these themes.

Luke’s birth narrative focusses in on Mary, and includes what is (I believe) the longest monologue by a female in the bible, in what became known as the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary. The first people to see Jesus, besides his parents, were the shepherds, not exactly the most well respected people in the bible, but the ones chosen by God. Following the reading we had today, Jesus begins his ministry, and heals a demoniac, Simon’s mother-in-law (separate people, I’m not saying Simon’s mother-in-law was a demoniac), a leper, a paralytic – the people generally avoided by society. He calls his first disciples, a fisherman and a tax collector, and teaches on the plain giving praise to the poor, hungry and sorrowful, and declares love for all as what is expected. There’s more healings of women in Luke’s gospel than in the others, and it’s in Luke’s gospel that we hear that there were a number of women who followed Jesus in the same way as the 12 apostles did.

More and more, all the way through, these themes are realised in Luke’s gospel, even through to it being the women who first see Jesus after he had risen.

Jesus is here to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, make the blind see, and to free the oppressed, declaring the year of God’s favour. Jesus is fighting for Justice, so that all may live in the kingdom of God.

The Salvation Army fights for Justice

Similarly, The Salvation Army has had a long history of fighting for justice. Now, I just want to first clarify that there are two aspects here: Social Action and Social Advocacy. Let’s put it like this: Social action is applying first aid when we see someone fall over and get injured. Social Advocacy is seeing that multiple people have fallen over in that same place, and campaigning to make changes so that others won’t fall at the same place. Social action is meeting a person’s immediate needs, and social advocacy is ensuring that people won’t need our social action again. Both are important, and both are necessary.

The Salvation Army has had a long history and is well recognised for meeting someone’s immediate needs. But we also have a long history of campaigning for changes in society.

In 1885, The Salvation Army, by way of the Founder’s son, Bramwell Booth, was involved in what would become known as The Maiden Tribute crisis, where W.T. Stead, an English publicist and editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, devised a scheme to purchase a 13-year old girl under the assumption that she would get sold into prostitution, but was instead whisked away to a Salvation Army home in France. The corresponding story written by Stead caused so much hysteria in England that the UK Parliament was forced to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, as they understood that opposition to the bill meant denying that child prostitution existed, but it was also condoning it.

In the 1890s, William Booth saw that many poor people were developing the fatal disease, “Phossy Jaw”, due to their working in factories producing matches with Yellow Phosphorus. Booth sought to show that matches could be produced safely and at a profit using Red Phosphorus, a process that had been invented back in 1855 by Swedish Chemists. Through providing the workers decent living wages, and campaigning to get grocers and shopkeepers to stock only safety matches, they were able to close their factory in 1901, having forced other factories to improve their working conditions and wages, and use red phosphorus exclusively.

Even today, The Salvation Army is fighting hard for justice in our world, taking a lead with Stop the Traffik, an international campaign to end human trafficking, and also playing a large part in the Fair Trade movement, with many corps moving exclusively to Fair Trade tea and coffee, and the Salvos in PNG producing a coffee that follows fair trade principles of a fair price for the farmers who produce the coffee beans.

We must fight for justice.

In the same way, we as a church, as well as ourselves individually, must fight for justice. Through our Doorways program, we are fighting to stop generational poverty. No longer is giving food enough, but instead we must be looking for ways to help get families out of the poverty cycle. Through our Doorways2Parenting, we are giving skills to parents that will help them to be better parents, which in turn models those parenting skills to their children.

There are many issues of injustice that we can fight for today. Slavery still exists in this world – not just in poor, third world countries, but here in Australia as well. Sexual Slavery is one of the highest forms of slavery in our modern world, and women from all over the world are trafficked and forced to take part in prostitution, pornorgraphy, and other degrading activities. The Stop The Traffik campaign aims to highlight the issue of slavery and human trafficking, with the aim of one day stopping this vile practice.

A lot of our food and clothing is produced in third world countries, where many workers are exploited, and not paid a decent living wage. There are a variety of different certification systems around, such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or UTZ certification, that enable us to be sure that the products we are buying have been ethically produced, and the source producers have received a decent wage for their product. Certified Tea, Coffee, and chocolate is becoming more and more widespread – for example, the coffee at McDonald’s is Rainforest Alliance certified, and Nestlé have announced that they are on track to have 100% of their chocolate products being Fair Trade certified by the end of 2015.

Domestic Violence is a major issue in our society, and one that we must stand up to wherever we see it. While most people think of it in terms of Physical Violence, it can occur in many different forms, be it physical, financial, emotional, psychological, or spiritual abuse. Whenever we see something happening, we have to stand up and say, “No, that’s not how we do it here.” We can support initiatives such as White Ribbon Day, which aims to stop violence against women – which is the predominant form of domestic violence – by encouraging men to swear to never commit violence against women, or to stay silent when they witness violence.

Homelessness is still a major issue in our society, with governments seeming to not want to act on the issue. There are many differing programs around, but one of the best things that we can do is to write to our politicians, at a National, State and Local level, and ask them to take this issue seriously. Governments in the US are beginning to realise that by providing houses for the homeless, they can actually reduce the cost of healthcare and other service costs more than what it costs to house them. The sooner our government realises this, and begins to provide affordable accommodation for the homeless, the sooner we will be able to see a noticeable change in our society.

The Australian Government is continuing to push it’s harsh line of border protection, but at the same time trampling on long standing agreements contained within the United Nations Refugee Convetion, as well as Human Rights conventions, and our duty of care for children. There are lots of organisations that are trying to work with the government to present a fairer solution, such as Amnesty International – which you’ve got some of their materials in your sermon notes today – the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, and many more, and we can support their campaigns, as well as writing to politicians, and other actions to encourage our politicians to show the love of the stranger that our faith encourages, and the fair go culture that we believe Australian culture has always had.

At the beginning of my sermon, you heard the words of the founder, in his famous “I’ll Fight” speech, and some modern day responses. As Salvationists, we are called to fight for this world, and whether you identify as a Salvationists or just as a Christian – or even just as a human being – I think we are all called to fight for change in our world. Mahatma Gandhi once said “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.” Or, as it is often simplified to, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We have the opportunity – not only as a church, but as individuals as well, to fight for change, to fight for the Transformation of our society. So what will you fight for?

While women weep, as they do now, will you fight?
While little children go hungry, as they do now, will you fight?
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, will you fight?
WHile there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, will you fight?
While there are people seeking asylum, who are forced to live in harsh conditions, will you fight?
While there are farmers producing food for major corporations with massive profits, but don’t have money to feed their own family, will you fight?
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, will you fight?

Will you fight? Will you fight to the very end?

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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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Engaging with God

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Engaging with God, was given at The Salvation Army Carlton corps on Sunday 3 June, 2012. The Bible reading was John 3:1-21.

Engaging with God

Today, the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday, a day where we look at this concept of the Trinity. The trinity is a vibrant and living concept that is very important to us. In fact, the Salvation Army’s third doctrine is the doctrine on the trinity – which is a nice link, as the Trinity is all about the three persons in the Godhead – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, who are “undivided in essence and co-equal in power and glory” to take from the doctrine. There are many different ways of trying to understand the Trinity. One that I like is that of the

English: Photograph of a Mars bar.
Photograph of a Mars bar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mars Bar – without the Caramel, it’s just a Milky Way; without the Nougat it’s just a caramello, and without the chocolate it’s a great big mess – but none quite get the understanding that the Trinity is both One in Three, and Three in one. One God in Three Persons, and Three Persons in One God.

The reading we heard today contains these three persons in some way, but the basic passage comes down to how Nicodemus – and how we – choose to engage with God – and in doing so, engaging with the Trinity.

Choosing

English: Jesus and Nicodemus
Jesus and Nicodemus at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Nicodemus approaches Jesus, when does he do it? Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Why do you think he might do that? There are a few possible reasons. We read that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Pharisees were teachers, and we read through the Gospels that they were often against the teachings of Jesus. And Jesus was often critical of them – many parables were often directed at them, and in Matthew 23, Jesus declares seven woes on the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. So you could say there was a bit of bad blood between them. By coming at night, Nicodemus is avoiding being seen, so as to avoid the backlash from the rest of the Pharisees.

And he does so with good reason. He comes to Jesus, and says “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus knows exactly who Jesus is. He has chosen to come to acknowledge this teacher from God.

Our spiritual lives are full of choices. A lot of the key moments in my life have come from my choosing to engage with God. I was baptised by my dad in the Church of Christ when I was 10 – my choice to engage with God, and to follow him. A few years later, having moved churches, I chose to stay there while my parents took up ministry at a different church – my choice to engage with God, and to grow with him there. Jumping forward 10 years or so, in checking out the Salvation Army where my then Girlfriend went, I heard God’s call to ministry in The Salvation Army, and I chose to accept that call – I chose to engage with God, and to spread his Word.

Coming back to Nicodemus, one of the major themes through John’s writings is the concept of Light and Dark. Basically, believers are said to be in the light, while non-believers are in the Dark. With Nicodemus coming at night, we see that he does not yet believe. I say yet, because Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s Gospel. In chapter 7, Nicodemus stands up to the Pharisees by asking whether there is a law to condemn a man without hearing from him first. Secondly, Nicodemus appears with Joseph of Arimathea to lay Jesus’ body in the tomb. Jesus engages with Nicodemus’ unbelief by saying that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he must be born again. Or born from above… depending on what translation you’re reading from. The word used, Anothen, can be translated quite validly as either option, and here, Jesus specifically used this word, Anothen, because it meant both things. Jesus was saying to Nicodemus that he needed to be Born again AND Born from above.

This of course conjures up all sorts of images for a contemporary audience. We think of the Born Again Christians, such a powerful political power in the United States. Yet, in Jesus’ definition, all who are believers are Born again through the Trinity. It is in fact the whole reason that Jesus came. Verse 17-18 states “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned.” We need to believe in God, in Jesus and in the Holy Spirit, so that we may be “born of water” – and this comes from choosing to engage with God and the Trinity.

Surrendering

But the choice to engage is only the first step in the journey. In specifically choosing the word anothen, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it is both/and that is required – both born again, and born from above. Both born of the water and born of the spirit. Both converted through the Trinity, and fully surrendered through the spirit.

In order to engage with God, we must be willing to surrender the parts of our lives that hold us back from engaging with God. Jesus warned Nicodemus about this: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” These “evil deeds” are what we know of as sin. William Booth, in his tract, A Ladder to Holiness lists the following as sins:

  • Pride
  • Vanity
  • Bad Temper
  • Malice, Hatred, and Bitterness
  • Revengefulness,
  • Ambition
  • Lust
  • Sloth

And more, and he goes on to describe these sins as “evils.” As part of engaging with God, we need to surrender these parts of our lives, and be born from above through the Holy Spirit.

Now you may think that it’s tough. Some may say that it’s impossible. I’m here to say that Nothing is impossible through God. Earlier this year, I was having thoughts that were thoughts I didn’t want to have. I won’t go into them here because it’s not the place, but suffice to say that these were evil thoughts that were preventing me from engaging with God. One night, I decided that I no longer wanted these thoughts. I surrendered myself to God, I prayed for help, to say that I no longer wanted to live like that. It’s still early days, but I can testify to you today that while the temptation of those thoughts still enters my mind, through the grace of God, I no longer entertain those thoughts, and the temptation disappears as quickly as it enters. It is possible to surrender these things to God, to be born from above, and in surrendering these things we engage more fully with God.

Living

Once coming into the light, having surrendered ourselves to God, to the Trinity, we need to then live in the light, for it is by living that we engage with God. Jesus said, “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” We need to surrender the parts of our lives that prevent us from engaging with God, but in doing so, we need to continue living in the light to engage with God, so that others can see that our deeds have been done in the light.

But, what are those deeds? Well, it all comes down to the overriding principle in the Gospel – Love. In today’s reading, we had the famous line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God sent Jesus because he loved us. In Matthew, we read that the two greatest commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Or to put it another way, Love God supremely, Love others sacrificially, love yourself sincerely. Love. If everything we do comes out of a heart of Love – for God, for others, and for ourselves – then those deeds are in the light.

We need to live in the world, to be engaging with God. If our deeds are not seen, then how can others see the light that we share? We need to be actively working to bring the love of God into the world. How? Find an issue that you are passionate about, and actively work towards bringing about change in this world. You may feel passionate about caring for God’s world – then get out there and live it! Start living in ways that bring the least harm to God’s earth. Or maybe you feel passionate about human rights and equality? Get out there, and fight for the rights of those who have no voice. Or maybe you want to care for the poor, the hungry, the homeless. Get out there and start doing something! For me, one of the things I’m passionate about is the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. So I’ll be marching in the Welcome to Australia March Together on June 23, to show my support to those that I’m passionate about. So find something that you’re passionate about, and engage with God by living in the light.

English: General Eva Burrows, at The Australia...
English: General Eva Burrows, at The Australia Southern Territory Training College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

General Eva Burrows, talking about holiness – which is effectively what living a life surrendered of your sin – said “God sanctifies us in order to mark out character with the Spirit of Jesus, and then He wants us to take that same character out and mark the world with the Spirit of Jesus. True holiness engenders a compassion that will naturally reach out in ministry, mission and service.” We need to mark the world with the Spirit, With Jesus, with God – the Trinity. We do that through our ministry, our mission and our service. We engage with the Trinity – through choosing to engage, through surrendering our sins, and through living in the world.

Where are you at today? Do you need to choose to engage with God? Do you need to surrender some area of your life that’s preventing you from engaging with God? Or are you ready to engage with God by living in the light? As we sing “This is my desire”, I invite you to, as the song says, to “honour” god. The Mercy seat – a place of prayer with God – is open to all. If you want to engage, feel free to come forward as we sing, or if you’re more comfortable stay seated. But Honour god, and engage with him today.