Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rachel is weeping

When I began my preparations for preaching today: I thought “I have nothing more to say…..
Last week I preached three times on Sunday, twice on Monday, and again on Tuesday. I have said all that I am going to say about Christmas”.

Then I took a look at the New Testament passage set for today (Matthew 2: 13-23) and the more I read, and researched, and prayed – the more I discovered there was to learn. I thought that Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem. I have always thought that this was a terrible way for God’s “Jesus project” to begin.

I have now discovered that there was no massacre – and that Matthew’s opening story is brilliant allegory, intended to introduce the purpose of Jesus’ coming. So here is the sermon I preached this morning: I have learned some new things: and will try to pass them on to you. Some of this is technical – please bear with me. Some of this might be new to you: it was new to me too. But all of this is good news: news that can help us as we prepare for 2008.

Today I have used two passages from scripture that use the same words: Jeremiah 31: 15-25 and Matthew 2: 13-23.

A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are not

These words are first used by the prophet Jeremiah to speak of the children who were carried off into exile. Then Matthew picks up the words of Jeremiah and uses them again: this time to speak about the birth of Jesus. This is a difficult verse, because if taken literally - Matthew seems to suggest that Jeremiah has predicted that Herod would kill the children of Bethlehem. However:
• Archeologists have dug up the graves of Bethlehem, and cannot find a grave full of babies.
• And the Roman historian Josephus, who hated Herod and recorded all his atrocities in great detail, says nothing about this event. So what is going on here?

This is one of those moments when we discover that we are reading a document that is written within a completely different culture, using a completely different philosophy of history and education.
Here is a moment when Matthew tries to teach us something about the reason why Jesus came. And he uses a story telling method called allegory: he tells one story that points to another story.
Matthew tells a story of a king who kills all the male babies – but one is spared who becomes the leader who helps the people escape, and who helps them establish a covenant relationship with God.
While you and I hear this as King Herod and Jesus – Matthew is actually pointing to another story…..

Any clues?
A king who killed the boy babies?
A baby who escapes by hiding in the bull rushes?
And people who are saved?
People who enter a covenant with God?

Matthew uses allegory to say: Jesus is the new Moses.
Just as Moses brought the first Covenant – so Jesus comes to bring a New Covenant.

Matthew tells us that the story of Jesus begins just like many other stories in the Bible: with a mother weeping over her child’s safety.
This is a verse of great pain:
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

This is one of the great themes that runs throughout the Bible:
Rachael is the wife of Jacob – the grandson of Abraham.
She dies in childbirth: giving birth to Benjamin.
And so a mother dies weeping, because she has lost the opportunity to raise her child.

Then the descendents of Rachael weep: this time it is Pharaoh who decides to kill the baby boys of the Egyptian slaves. You will remember that Moses was hidden in the reeds to escape death: but many more did not escape. And their mothers wept.

Again, in the time of Jeremiah, the descendents of Rachael weep when the children of Israel are conquered and taken off as captives. More mothers are in tears because their children are carried off – and they will not see them again.

And now Matthew tells us that mothers are weeping in Bethlehem because Herod seeks to kill any baby boy who would be a threat to his throne.
And Mary weeps as she flees in the night to escape Herod’s soldiers.
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

This is truly the terrible story of human history:
Mothers weep for lost children:
This is a history that goes beyond the Bible… and into the modern era:
this is a history of mothers weeping in
Nazi Germany
And Rwanda
And Northern Ireland
And Palestine
And Iraq
And Zimbabwe
And our own beloved South Africa:
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

Mothers weep
• because their children are abused, and raped, and killed.
• because their children run away, and go missing, and are abducted.
• because their children get HIV/Aids, and TB and Malaria.
• because their children are hurt, and disabled, and
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

And perhaps there are some of us today who weep because our children have got lost:
• We might have lost the close relationship we wished to have with them
• We might have experienced the loss of the dreams we had for our children
• We might have lost children through drugs,
or through distance
or through death
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

and maybe some of us are grieving the loss of our own inner child:
• we lost the dreams of our childhood
• we have lost our capacity for wonder and curiosity in life
• and we have killed our childlike innocence
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

But Matthew says that there is good news: we do not have to weep forever.
He asks us to go to the words of the prophet Jeremiah: When the writers of the New Testament quote from the Old Testament they do not just refer to a single verse. They might quote a single verse, but the quotation is intended to point to an entire Old Testament passage. Therefore, when Matthew quotes Jeremiah about Rachel weeping in Ramah, he also has in mind the verses that follow
Jer 31:16 Stop your crying and wipe away your tears. All that you have done for your children will not go unrewarded; they will return from the enemy's land.
Jer 31:17 There is hope for your future; your children will come back home. I, the LORD, have spoken

Those who weep for their children’s future: the time has come to trust God. “Stop your crying and wipe away your tears”
And I hear a word for us today: Let us stop acting like God has no say in South Africa, or in our world. God’s prophet says: “There is hope for your future”

And for those who are afraid of the damage done in your life by the passing of the years:
Those who think that it is too late for new beginnings:
Those who say - “so gemaak, so gelaat staan”
Jer 31:31 The LORD says, "The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
Jer 31:32 It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant.
Jer 31:33 The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Jer 31:34 None of them will have to teach a neighbor to know the LORD, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. I, the LORD, have spoken."

Those who weep because you are afraid of what you have lost: the time is here to renew your relationship with God.
This is the time to make New Year’s resolutions;
To dream new dreams
To dare to try to be a new person

I am pleading with you to resist the temptation to be cynical:
Dare to believe that God has forgiven all your sins:
And that you can have a new Covenant with God.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Not Helping

I help people.
I am a natural assistant: If you are stuck, ask me. If you need encouragement, come to me. If you want advice, my door is open. Oh I know that this is all about my needs – that altruism fills a space inside of me, and that the smile on the face of another is good for my own fragile self-worth. So I help people.

But I am unable to help Joe.
Joe lives on the street. He has spent some time in his life in the navy; and some time as a shaft sinker on a mine. But now he chooses to live on the street outside of my church. I have tried to help him. I found a place for him to stay off the streets. My colleague Lynn found a job for him. Which lasted for most of 2006: until just before Christmas...when the alcoholic lure of the festivities was too much for him. And he lost his job and his accommodation. I had hoped that he could make a new start in 2007. And again found him a place to stay. And employed him for various jobs around the church. When he is contrite and sober he works with great care and skill. And is gentle and kind. He had a wonderful work opportunity at the beginning of December, and on the basis of his work was offered further work in January. But Christmas fever has again seized his blood.

And here is where my helping nature tried to step in.
I knew that he was carrying a large amount of money around with him – money that would turn to liquid down his throat. So I offered to keep it for him. All of R500. And he gladly asked me to lock it in my safe. Then the day before Christmas he arrived, inebriated, and demanded his money. I tried to temporise. And eventually gave him R50.

But today I admitted my failure. Joe arrived on my doorstep and demanded all of his money. “If you do not give it to me I will go to the police” he stormed angrily. And even though I knew he would go directly from my house to the bottle store, and even though I know that he will be hungry and out of pocket by the weekend, I gave him his money. After all – it is his money.

But my need to be a helper is left deeply disturbed. I am unable to prevent Joe from being a drunk. I cannot exercise life-choices for him. And I cannot prevent the consequences of his actions....even when I can see that they are destructive. And in this I understand something of how God must feel about humanity’s freedom to choose. We are free to choose our actions – and trapped by their consequences. The good news of our faith is that God does not abandon us to “face the music” alone. God chooses to accompany us as we cope with the consequences of our actions. And God helps us to learn and grow from our experiences of life.

And so I will not give up on Joe. When he returns in the New Year and asks for work – I will help him.....again!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

(More) Sex, Christmas and Virginity.

I have a traffic monitor on this blog. And I have noticed a surge in visits to this site.... all of them to something I wrote a year ago. I suspect that the title has been picked up by people doing a Google search. And that the person is probably disappointed when it does not yield a naked virgin, or a sexy Christmas fairy. But I thought it worth republishing the blog anyway: So here goes:

Christians have inherited a fear of sex from our church fathers (always the men!) who repented of their sexually profligate lives and chose celibacy. Augustine of Hippo formulated this into a theology that equated the absence of sex with goodness. He suggested that those who abstain from sexual activity are pure, and are therefore closer to God.

Which is why Mary the young women was transformed by the church into Mary the Virgin. Because, the theory says, the mother of God could not possibly have engaged in the defilement of sexual activity. Some even suggest that she never ever knew what sex was, and went to heaven in this “pure” state.

Which is fine as a quaint and interesting notion.
However, this becomes the foundation for far graver implications.
1. From this we live with the idea that for priests of God to be pure they need to be celibate. And this suppression of a natural God given human function has led to the distortion of sexual expression with choir boys and other vulnerable people.
2. The idea that abstinence from sex equates with purity has left many young people feeling defiled and guilty for their early sexual awakenings. No matter how hard they pray – they still think of sex, and therefore are defiled.

So please, this Christmas, let’s decide to ignore the dirty old men of our Christian history, and cease to call Mary a virgin. Surely a greater miracle would be for God to take the seed in her womb and create Jesus from it. This certainly gives me hope for the power of God to transform my life into something good.

Oh yes - lets celebrate sex as a good gift from God

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

JZ Rulz

Sounds like a gansta rap.

This is the story of a Zulu freedom fighter who emerges as an astute post-revolutionary politician aspiring to lead the country. Jacob Zuma has just been elected the leader of South Africa’s dominant political party.

But – doesn’t he have some very dodgy friends?
Yes. One of them in now in prison for soliciting bribes on behalf of Zuma, who (it is said) promised to supply government contracts to gift-bearing arms dealers. But then this is not unusual amongst politicians: gifts and favours were the lubricant to deals between American politicians and American oil barons in the election of George Bush Jr, and the whole Iraq fiasco. And Gordon Brown is discovering that the British Labour Party has solicited some dodgy funding in exchange for signing some official papers. So JZ is in good company.

But – might he not land up in court for the same charges?
Yes, the national prosecuting authority is planning to charge him. But he will be in good company: Silvio Berlusconi the former Prime Minister of Italy, and Jacques René Chirac the former President of France are both facing charges of fraud and corruption. This seems to be the way of modern politicians.

But didn’t he have an inappropriate sexual encounter?
Yes - with the much younger daughter of his best friend, who was entrusted into his care on his death bed. And again, he is not alone in his sexual peccadilloes. Just ask the former American President Bill Clinton or the former Israel President Moshe Katsav.

But – wasn’t he democratically elected as party leader?
Yes. This is true: as was Aldof Hitler democratically elected as leader of a German political party! Democracy is not the will of God. It is a human election tool that ensures that the most popular leader gets to be in charge. This does not ask the leader to be moral, or ethical, or visionary. It just asks the leader to be popular. JZ is popular.

And perhaps this is the core problem with modern politics: leaders are elected because of their ability to capture the popular appeal: this has very little to do with personal faith/morality/integrity, and everything to do with the public persona of sound bite, image, and a strategic use of opinion polls. I do not support Jacob Zuma as president of my country. But I do not think him different from the President/Prime Minister/Illustrious Leader of any other country in the world.

I believe that Christ followers need to engage political leadership at every level. We must offer our opinions, our prayers, and our participation. We dare not abdicate our public civic responsibility in favour of some “other world” that we think lies beyond death. This is the world given us by God. It is this world that we must engage....for Christ’s sake.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

He who wears the Crown

Here is an exerpt from my sermon to my congregations today:

Right now South Africa’s dominant political party, the African National Congress, is meeting in Polokwane. And there will be elections for a party president – who might become the next President of the country. And the nation is asking who the right leader might be.
Isaiah 11: 1-10 describes a good leader as follows:
He will know the LORD's will and honor him,
and find pleasure in obeying him
He will rule his people with justice and integrity

A good leader is one who seeks God’s will rather than his – or her – own who finds pleasure in obeying who will rule with justice and integrity. Isaiah says the sign of this will be that “there will be peace in the land”. This peace is not just the absence of war: it is “shalom” – this is a peace that speak of healthy relationships, and a healthy society, and a healthy environment, and a healthy spirituality.

As Christians we believe that Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of the words of Isaiah: to paraphrase Isaiah, Jesus “ knew the LORD's will and honored him, and found pleasure in obeying him" ..He was a living example of justice and integrity. Jesus is the standard against which we measure all leadership.

So where does this leave us?
When the ANC meetings in Polokwane are finished there will be a leader who might become our next president:
And we have a way of testing him as a leader (Unfortunately the ANC has committed itself to nominating a male leader):
We need to ask:
Is he a person of justice and integrity
Is he someone who delights in obeying the will of God –
Do we see signs of the character of Jesus in him?

If this is not so: then we need to begin praying for that man – that the Spirit of God will touch his life and change him.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Revisiting the Past

I swore that I would never return – and yet, yesterday, I went back...

The 1980’s were a politically turbulent time in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. I was the pastor of a small, white, rural (read politically conservative) congregation. These were very loving, caring people who sacrificed much for one another, and saw themselves as epitomising the love of Jesus to those less fortunate. But these dear people never paused to ask why the distribution of wealth was so sharply divided along racial lines: their prevailing culture just assumed that black was poor.

I tried to say to my congregation that responding to poverty demanded more than handouts and kindly feelings. I noted that much of the deprivation was politically engineered by Apartheid, and we needed to work at ways of empowering people to shape their own lives. I helped the Black Sash establish an Advice Office, and became its treasurer. I spent time encouraging the political activists in the area. And sheltered children caught up in the school riots, rubber bullets and tear gas. The congregation indulged me – until the day I was arrested by the security police. Then the heads nodded knowingly: “No smoke without a fire” said one at a church meeting; another said to my wife “I knew he was up to no good”... and a well meaning colleague of a sister denomination prayed in his Sunday Service that the Methodists would be “kept from the evils of the socialist gospel”.

And my congregation stopped paying. The money simply dried up. And people stopped coming to church. And the Bishop was forced to withdraw me from the church.. .and when I left I swore that I would never return. And yet, twenty-two years later, I went back...

The congregation was celebrating a 50th anniversary. I walked in to a church full of the variety that is South Africa: I saw white and black members holding hands and embracing one another. I saw worship led by a team that transcended culture. And heard of a variety of community empowerment programmes initiated by the church.

And I wept inside of myself:
• I wept for myself because most of the congregation do not know my history of struggle with that church.
• And I wept for those die-hard members from the past who came over and shook my hand as if nothing had happened. Either they are choosing to re-write the past, or – more probably – what was a cataclysmic moment of change for me was nothing more than a blip on the radar for them.
• But mostly I wept for joy because the Gospel of Jesus truly is subversive: that tightly knit, conservative, white enclave has been blown wide open. And the church has been changed.

Pray with me for many more such changes in the Christian Churches of South Africa.
And pray for me that I might let go of the hurts of history and grow in the ways of Grace.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Two Wheel Bliss

Two Bikes, Three Bays, Four Passes, and High Fives.

Jimmy and I climbed onto the bikes at 8 this morning: a Triumph Tiger and a BMW R1150 GS.

It was a bright sunny day with a touch of the south-east wind. We crested Kloof Neck to be greeted by a panoramic view of Camps Bay beneath us. The sea was glittering blue, and as we wound our way down the mountain we could feel the layers of cold air rising off the Atlantic Ocean. Then left along the sea-front towards Hout Bay. The long graceful curves of the road are exceptionally motorcycle friendly and it was wonderfully invigorating to lean either left or right into the corners. The drop into Hout Bay down Suikerbossie Pass was matched by the climb up Chapman’s Peak, where we stopped at the top to admire the view.

Then down the pass to Sun Valley, right to Ocean View, and left to Misty Cliffs. The road past Scarborough took us to the top of Red Hill, and the wide vista over False Bay. We twisted our way down Red Hill Pass and turned right into Simons Town, stopping at Jubilee Square for breakfast. Our strength renewed, we set off up Black Hill, and over Ou Kaapse Weg Pass to the Blue Route and home.

For those who are exceptionally bored you can check: I have mentioned two bikes, three bays, four passes. And if you are so bored that you actually counted – get a bike!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Chaotic Joy

They descend on us from all over our neighbourhood.

50 of them are between the ages of 16 and 25. They have been busy with their own lives/exams/malls/sport/movies for the past six months and we have seen very little of them. But when the word is out – they arrive with generous hearts and plenty of enthusiasm. They have signed up as volunteers for our annual December Holiday Club. They raise funds through washing cars, selling boerewors rolls, and assiduously scrounging donations.

Then there are the others: Anything up to 200 of them between the ages of 6 and 12. This is their first week of school holidays. Many come from single-parented homes, or homes where both parents are working. And their parents worry about how to care for their children during the day. And so we offer a week of free child-minding to our community.

Right now our buildings are screaming with children as they express joy and general enthusiasm. They cling to leaders like Velcro, copying the way the older leaders walk and talk. The leaders take away as much as they give: they learn life-skills in leadership, management of funds, accepting responsibility, and working as a team.

It is true that they trash our buildings, and enthusiastically tramp all over the gardens, and leave crisp packets and cooldrink cans lying in the sanctuary. But then it was Jesus who asked us to allow children to feel at home with him. And I know that God celebrates their chaotic joy.