Monday, November 20, 2017

Lead Where you are!... reflections from Titus 2

This message was preached at a café style service at St Peter's and was designed to get people reflecting on how they could lead and live out the gospel in the situations and places in which they live. It has discussion questions incorporated at the end... 
Recently I listened to a podcast of a pastor from South Africa talking about how their church moved from seeing themselves as simply members of a Church to being people who were all called by God to serve in the city and place they lived, and see the good news of Jesus Christ bring transformation.

He illustrated this by talking about an unemployed woman teacher who asked the church to pray for her to find a job. The next week the pastor got a phone call from the women to say she had got an offer for a job, teaching, but she didn’t want to take it because it was in the worst school in the worst area of the city, the people were the wrong colour, it was full of problem kids, drug dealers and crime. The pastor said that he though as she was called to be a teacher and they had prayed for a job that just maybe this might be God answering that prayer and giving her the place God wanted her to serve. Long story short, She taught at the school and got to know the kids and their families, that lead to the church getting involved in the community.. They got involved in the notorious housing estate next to the school that many of the families lived in. One of their congregation was called to be a lawyer got involved in the body corporate, and used his legal skills to stop apartments being used to manufacture and distribute drugs. 

We might not see it when we look at our own lives and circumstances, but God has called each one us, and placed us where we are and its there that he calls us to serve and to lead, and see his kingdom come. In the passage we had read out to us today Paul continues to speak to Titus who he has left in Crete to establish the church in what is a difficult situation.  We are looking at it as a way of gaining insight into Christian leadership as maturity and ministry.

Paul tells Titus to teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. The gospel of Jesus Christ results in his followers living the gospel out in the society in which they live. Paul relates that to how should Christians live in the very structured society of Crete. Paul give Titus things to teach people who are at different levels in that structure, because of age, gender and weather they are free or slave: from top to bottom, he is to teach them how they can serve God in the place they are. Then he underpins that by articulating the sound doctrine that they are to live out. Paul finishes by exhorting Titus to teach and not to let anyone despise him, it is an exhortation for him to lead where he is.  

On Crete there seems to have been a disconnect between gospel teaching and gospel behaviour, and people in the church were getting caught up in the more indulgent and promiscuous society round them. So Paul starts by teaching Christian character and behaviour.  He also starts with households because he had talked of the false teaching happening in Crete impacting on households. Household is also a metaphor that was used as a metaphor for the Church.

Greek and Roman society was built around a very rigid and enforced social structure. Aristotle summed up the system very succinctly when he put it in a series of three authority relationships…’ Master and Slave, Husband and Wife, father and children’. It was a very strict patriarchal structure, that had very codified and rigid gender roles and expectations.

Paul’s applies the gospel to that structure in a very radical way. He speaks to the older men who would be seen as the heads of the households and in positions of authority, not to be indulgent and simply accept the privilege of that position, rather to be temperate and self-controlled, to be worthy of that respect rather than simply demanding it. In a radical way he talks of being sound in faith, and in love. It becomes not about power but about care and concern and self-giving service. Likewise the older women were not to simply indulge in gossip and wine, but be about teaching younger women to follow Christ. Teaching is of course an important role in the church, passing on the faith to new generations.  The word for older women here up until the fourth century was also seen an official role in the Church of women elder.

Paul is radical in that he also speaks to the people in the positions of less or no power as well, showing them how to live out the Christian faith where they are.  Avoiding the excesses of the culture round them and acting in a way that reflects Jesus Christ.  They may have to do the things that they do because of their position in society, but he changes it from duty and demand to being about service, and showing Christs love, in fact it becomes subversive rather than submissive. To each group he tells them that their behaviour will help further the gospel… The young women while having more equality in ministry and leadership because of the gospel will show by their behaviour in managing their households…remember most women in Greek society were married at an early age and expected to have and bring up children…  will not give people any opportunity to malign God’s people… likewise the young men are to be self-controlled and have integrity, so that the opponents of the church will not be able to have anything to hold against them.  The slaves are told that by the way they show Christ like character that they will do more than that they will attract people to the gospel. These powerless people in society are empowered by Paul to make real change by their trustworthy integrity.  They can lead where they are.

The rigid social order of Paul’s day makes it kind of hard for us to work out how to apply what Titus is told to teach to today’s society. Sadly, some people have tried to apply the social structure and the household code of the then and there on the here and now. Man is the head of the house, women are to submit… with the emphasis on maintaining the power structures. Walter Liefield in his commentary on Titus gives helpful principles to how we are to apply Paul’s teaching to our very different cultural settings.

The first is that in every age and culture Christians need to evaluate how contemporaries of moral integrity view the relationship between men and women and apply Christlike love to that. In our age where marriage is viewed as a partnership between equals then it is easy to apply Paul’s teaching on the Christian household in Ephesians 5:21 “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ”… working out the nuts and bolts are a little harder.

The second is, that in all our interpersonal relationships like at work where we find ourselves in positions of authority or being under authority we show a level of integrity, that is as least as high as those of non-Christian people. I remember a speaker at a young adults’ camp we ran one Easter saying he knew his Christian faith was having an impact when his coworkers asked him to take on an advocacy role in the office. He was known for treating everyone no matter who they were with kindness and integrity and was never caught up in office gossip or complaining about everything, and could be trusted to keep confidences and do what he said he would do. People found that attractive.

The last principle is that while we point to Christ with our lifestyle, it does not simply take the place of sharing our faith and the gospel. At the end of teaching on behaviour Paul articulates the gospel truth that underpins that behaviour. That God has appeared and offers Salvation to all people, calling us to live out the Kingdom of God in this present age. Turning from the ways of the world to the ways of God. That Jesus Christ has made us his very own eager to do what is right.  As well as living out the gospel we need to be able to tell out the gospel.

In a very real way Paul is instructing the followers of Jesus in the places that they are to lead where they are.  To be an example of what the Kingdom of God looks like in a marriage and family life, at work, in the neighbourhood and community in which we live. In how we exercise authority or deal with other people exercising authority. It’s not simply to keep the status quo of a culture or society but rather Christ is about redeeming those structures and societies as people come to know his great love and reflect it…

I want to give you a few moments to have a think through this stuff in the groups you are in round the tables. Here are some questions which may get you thinking….

1.       What are the different areas of your life God has called you to serve in?

2.       In what ways do you see yourself able to offer leadership and reflect the gospel?

3.       How have you noticed that call change as you move through different life stages?

4.       How do you see it reflected in your relationships to people of different gender?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Insight into leadership from Paul's introduction to Titus (Titus 1:5)

In the past few decades Leadership has very much come into the spot light. People are fascinated with leadership and what makes a good leader…Tens of thousands of books have been written, copious theories have been expounded, courses run, seminars given, leadership development programmes instigated and it still seems quite an enigma. What constitutes leadership… When we see good leadership we see things thrive, and we have seen failures in, and abuse of leadership cause immense amounts of harm.

From now until Easter we are going to be looking at the pastoral epistles… 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Letters that Paul wrote to people in leadership positions within the church dealing with hard real life pastoral issues. He writes to encourage them in exercising leadership in the Church, that they may grow in both maturity and in ministry. It’s helpful for us as it gives us insights for Christian life and Christian leadership. We are going to look at Titus before Christmas and then Philemon and 1 &2 Timothy from Mid January until Easter, focusing on leadership, as maturity and ministry.

Now don’t sit back and say, I can relax and turn off here because if Howard is talking about leadership he’s not talking to me. That’s not the case…

 In the first two chapters of Titus we see that Paul talks of leadership in terms of official church structure, governance, and then in Chapter two tell Titus to teach people to lead where they are in the very structured society of first century Crete. As we grow in the Christian faith we are called to use our gifts and talents to minister to others in the church and as we mature in our faith to inspire and encourage one another, to show leadership where we are. In Hebrews 10:24 it says we are to spur one another on to love and good deeds… and how we live out the gospel leads people outside the church to Jesus.

 In the passage we had read out to us today, Paul had left Titus in Crete to  complete the unfinished task of appointing leaders, elders, in the local church. While that was specific to that time and place, God’s work in building up the church and calling people into leadership is an ongoing unfinished process. Not just to keep the existing institution going, but raising up new generations with fresh vision and vigour, and like with Crete because God’s call is always for the gospel to reach into new and different places and spheres, God calls his people to be part of that to lead it. God is calling you?

That’s a good place to turn to look at the passage we had read to us today. You can see it cut into three sections, first the introduction, where Paul gives us extended insight into how he views the ministry that he is called to exercise. Then we have a section where Paul gives Titus a list of qualities for elders and overseers for the Church, that he is to use in the process of appointing leaders in the churches on Crete. Finally we see those qualities in the context of both Cretan society and the challenges that the Church faces. We see how those qualities for leadership are counter cultural and reflect the Kingdom of God rather than the realms of humanity. We are going to look at those qualities of leadership in depth in a two Sundays time.

Paul’s introduction right off the bat tells us some important things about Christian leadership. Paul starts his letter like all his other letters by talking of being a servant or a slave. Christian leadership is not about privilege or position, power or popularity it’s about service. Titus is the only letter that Paul introduces himself as a servant of God rather than a slave of Christ. Now servant of God by the first century had taken on a sort of honorific element from the Old Testament Prophets, it was a term of respect. The church in Crete, may not have known Paul well and he is laying out his credentials here, we don’t know how the church on Crete was started, we don’t have a record of Paul having a mission to Crete, people from Crete are mentioned as being present at Pentecost, the church could have its origins there and be more Jewish than gentile and more used to the term ‘servant of God’. Definitely the main opposition group Paul mentions, the circumcision group, would have understood it having more weight and authority. But it shows that for Paul first and foremost his understanding of his leadership was as a servant. Jesus is the role model for that “The son of man came not to be served but to serve’.  

We also see that he saw leadership as a call to serve others, he was called by Jesus Christ to be an Apostle, to further the faith of God’s elect, and their knowledge of the truth that leads to Godliness. Paul saw leadership as having a specific function and playing a role, which was given to him by Jesus. It is a call to serve Jesus it is a fulfilment of Jesus great commission, “to make disciples from every nation, baptising them in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you.” We may see this as a more individual thing but by using the word God’s elect Paul is seeing it as a community thing, not about simply bring individuals to faith in Christ but establishing communities of faith, churches. 

For Paul leadership and ministry also meant being faithful to the gospel, the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time and which at his appointed season he has bought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of Jesus Christ. The good news about Jesus Christ is what Christian community and leadership is about. To Lead is to be faithful to that. When Paul talks of “preaching entrusted to me” he is not talking simply about his ability to talk in public, but rather the content of his message… the greek word means proclamation, and to the Corinthians Paul had talked of coming to them not with fancy words or eloquent talk but preaching Christ and Christ Crucified, so that they would see that they had come to faith not because of his oratory but by the power of God, the Holy Spirit moving in their lives as they heard of Jesus Christ.

Leonard sweet defines leadership as “the art of the future. A leader is one in whom the future shines through in support of the present in spite of the past.”  For Christian communities and leadership, that future is the kingdom of God, God’s eternal salvation plan, initiated by Jesus Christ, his incantation, his teaching, his death on the cross and his resurrection. We are called to live out that future hope in the here and now… Christian leadership is not about look at me, look at me and see what I have done… and how it’s made a difference…  but rather look at Jesus, look at Jesus and see what Change Jesus has made and can make. It’s not as a deflection away from a person but the direction of where we are called to go.

Paul as a leader was aware of the context in which he was called to serve God in. In his introduction he uses words like God’s elect to talk of the people of God, again a term which has Old Testament roots. It points to the fact that the church in Crete had a strong Jewish influence. But he also talks of God as the one who does not lie, he is aware of Cretan mythology and their gods who play tricks and deceive people, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not like that he can trusted to be faithful and keep his promises. Later in the chapter he will quote a person the Cretan’s consider a prophet, and his perception of the issues facing the church in Crete society is quite insightful, and colourful. Paul as a Christian leader is aware that God’s call is to serve God in a specific time and place, that does not change his mission or his message but he adapts it so it will be heard.  A good example is Billy Graham’s salvation tract “Steps to peace with God” which was effective in communicating the gospel to a generation that had gone through the second world war for whom peace was important.

Paul models Christian leadership being about developing other leaders. In the pastoral Epistles we see people that Paul has spent time in developing and now sends out to do ministry. He disciples Titus as his true son which may mean he lead Titus to faith, Titus definitely had been part of his ministry team and had learned about leadership from Paul. Just like Jesus had spent a large portion of his time investing in the disciples who became the leaders of the first church, and Baranabas had mentored Paul, so we see Paul mentoring other leaders. We don’t know as much about Titus as we do Timothy, but he seems to be Paul’s trouble shooter, he gets the difficult situations. Here we also see that Titus’ leadership is about developing leaders in the church in Crete. Leadership can get caught in wanting to hold onto power and ministry and not letting it go, but the Jesus model Paul uses is to empower and enable others to do what you do.

In youth ministry we used a four step process for developing leaders, it was I do it You watch, we do it together, you do it and I watch and then you go and teach someone else.

Titus’s task gives us insight into Church governance. Like any organisation the church needs organisation. This is one of the only places in the New Testament that talks about the structures of Church governance. Titus was to appoint Elders in each town in Crete. Now St Peter’s is a Presbyterian Church and Presbyterian means a church that is lead by elders, our governance structure is that we believe that Christian leadership is a group activity. Biblically, we see it in the emphasis on group leadership in scriptures like Timothy and Titus. Although on Crete it could be that because the churches were small elder’s plural here could mean one per church. Historically that has been emphasised against the distrust of power being held by one person, that comes out of the reformation and the power of bishops and the pope.

 In our Presbyterian Church the church is governed by elders and the minister (which again emphasises the idea of servant) is set aside as the teaching elder, set aside for the teaching of the word and the right observance of the sacraments. Alongside that is another layer of leadership which you could call decans but has in the past been the board of managers, which are responsible for the more practical running of the church. Because of our size as a parish we have a parish council which incorporates both those functions. Over the top we have a system of governance for regional and national levels, presbytery and national assembly, and elders and Ministers from each parish are involved in those bodies. As Presbyterians we don’t believe that our form of governance is the one the scripture expounds as being the right way of doing things, when you are ordained as and elder or minister, you acknowledge that our form of government is agreeable with scripture. Let’s face it all the different flavours of Church governance look to the scriptures for their validity…

It would be great if Paul had given Titus a handbook or a book of order (which is what we Presbyterians call our rule book) so we’d know the process and procedures that he and the church in Crete used to set up leaders, but we don’t. Paul’s emphasis was on two things on the character of the Elder, and how it reflected Christ, rather than the society around them, and their faith, that they were able to teach and encourage the church in the gospel and defend the church against false teaching. It’s about maturity and ministry, knowing the good news of Christ and living it out. We will look at that more in two weeks time.

This is not an exhaustive look at the leadership needed in the church either it was the basic governance structure and God calls people to serve in a whole raft of different ways and roles.

In our strategic plan the parish council identified leadership as one of the eight key areas we need to focus on… That the development of leadership in all areas is a priority.  That we need to have in place processes for identifying, training and mentoring new leaders as well as providing training

opportunities for, and reviews of existing leadership. We are going to come back to this passage and explore Paul’s list of qualities for Elders after next weeks café service.

Many years ago a women came up to me in Church and handed me a piece of paper and said this is for you and walked away. On the paper were written the words ‘I will give you all the gifts you need.” I wondered about it, and came to realise that this was talking about the Holy Spiit working in me but alos the development of teams and  but for many years I kept it in my wallet, until the paper disintegrated and occasionally I would take it our and read it and would be encouraged. You see most days I find myself saying “who me God! Come on you’ve got to be joking right… right!”  I wrestle with self-confidence and question my own abilities, but God has used this amongst other things to make me realise that leadership and ministry are reliance on God to provide for the things he calls us to do.

We may be tempted to see Paul’s greeting to Titus ‘Grace and peace from God the father and Christ Jesus our savior’ as a generic, things you write at the start of a letter, sort of thing. But in blessing Titus with God’s grace and Peace Paul is letting Titus know God will supply all he needs to carry out the mission God has given him. What was true for Titus is true for us as well. AS God calls us to leadership, we can trust that he will give us the grace and the peace that we need.  The “who me!” is answered by Jesus promise, “and lo I am with you to the end of the age”.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Psalm 131 A humble trusting hope in the LORD.

When you have small children going for a walk will inevitably turn into going for a carry. With toddlers there comes a time when all their energy has gone and you just have to pick them up and carry them the rest of the way.

When my kids were babies we’d have them in a back pack, and for the start of the journey they would wriggle and giggle, pulling hair and kicking there, then after a while they would be still and drift off to sleep. When they were toddlers I’d carry them on my hip or my shoulders. They would be happy to snuggle in and sometimes you’d be aware of a head coming to rest on your chest or your head as the exhaustion of a long walk and the rocking sensation of your own gate lulled them to sleep. Safe and secure in their parents embrace.  

Psalm 131 is a psalm of ascent and the pilgrims journey from distant homes to the temple that the psalm was part of the soundtrack for, was a family affair.  Little children being carried by their parents would have been a common sight. Children went with their parents. From Luke’s gospel, we know that was Jesus childhood experience, as like all Jews his family made an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the festivals.

Psalm 131 has been described as one of the most beautiful of the Psalms not just because of its brevity but because it takes such an endearing and treasured picture of a child being carried by its parent to articulate succinctly a humble trust in God. An image that Jesus himself used in Matthew 18, when he put a little child in the middle of his disciples, arguing over who was the greatest, and told them “if they did not change and become like little children they would not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Psalmist comes to a place of humility, realising that they are totally dependent on God.  “my heart is not proud, my eyes are not haughty, I do not concern myself with great matters, things too wonderful for me.” Critics of the Christian faith often take a childlike faith to mean simplistic and unthought out, and not standing up to the rigors of adult reflection and consideration and the realities of life. But the Psalm has the feel of not being an unthought out blind faith as a staring point, but a journey, the destination of a well thought out process.

Taken in isolation, this humility is not the unhealthy or smarmy “I am nothing” used by some to engender pity or excuse wrong behaviour.  Rather it is a coming to know ones limitations, the having a right understanding of one’s self that Paul talks of in Romans 12, that allows one to show the costly love of serving others. That allows one to take on the mind of Christ and view others needs as above ones own that Paul talks of in Philippians. That allows the psalmist to acknowledge their ‘spiritual poverty and need that Jesus in the beatitudes says is blessed by the kingdom of God.

AS part of the psalms of ascent, we see something of the process of coming to this place. The Psalms of ascent start in psalm 120 with a holy dissatisfaction with the way thing are; no longer willing to dwell amongst the tents of those who do not seek peace. Seeing God’s provision and protection on both the journey to Jerusalem and that journey as a metaphor for life. Knowing God’s rescue and help amidst the traps and snares of life, recognising that every blessing comes from God’s hand, family and land, provision and prosperity. God’s guidance and leading in the history of his people. As we saw last month in Psalm 130 through sorrow, pain and doubt and the deep dark pits of life ebbs and flow knowing God forgiveness and God’s unfailing love.

It’s a process that the psalmist says is like a child being weaned, it has been a process of wrestling and tears and upheaval. When we lived in Rotorua, we lived up sunset road and the city ended at the foot of the hills at the end of that road. On one side of the road was houses and on the other farm land. When the calves were being weaned we would be kept awake at night by the cries of both calves and their mothers in different paddocks pinning for each other. But after a few nights it was calm again as both became settled. It is not a simplistic faith but a simple faith and trust in the love and care of God, proven trustworthy amidst history and life.

The Psalm finishes by turning from an individual psalm to a communal one. The Psalmist turns from articulating his present place of contentment, forged in past experience, to encouraging the community of God to look forward and have hope in the LORD. Because of the psalmist hope and trust he calls us all to have hope and trust, for now and for a preferred future off into eternity. That hope is based on the LORD on God’s character and God’s action, here we see the psalm point forward to the coming of Christ, his death his resurrection his ascension into heaven and his ultimate return to make all things right. This is the hope that we have in the lord.

Bryan James Smith says “ The Solid facts about the future hope of Christians are a powerful motivation for constant faith and costly love in the present.” In his book the good and beautiful community he calls us a community built round a four part story of hope.

Firstly, death… which may not sound the most hopeful place to start, but our hope filled story is Christ’s story. In Christ’s death the past is dealt with, we are no longer prisoners of all we have done in the past, tied to the social structures of this world. We are no longer tied to all the false narrative of this world of where we find joy and fulfilment, but in Christ’s death they are defeated and we are forgiven. AS it says in Colossians 3:3 “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. We have a new identity a new address.

We are people of the resurrection. God raised Christ to life again and we share that new life. Just as we died with Christ we have been raised to life again, we are a new creation, we are part of a new family, we have been filled with God’s abiding presence when the Spirit of God was poured out on all who believe. The power that raised Jesus to life again is at work in us.

Christ ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. Often people think of Jesus ascension as his heading off and leaving us back here to simply get on with it. The reality is that he is seat on the throne and his Kingdom his reign has begun. God’s Kingdom does not come seeping into this world into our realm like a military force with shock and awe, but rather as we live it out and sharing the hope we have in Christ, as Walter Brueggemann puts it

“ It is hidden in the weakness of neighbor love, in the foolishness of mercy, in the vulnerability of compassion, in the staggering alternatives of forgiveness and generosity which permit new life to emerge in situations of despair and brutality.”

Finally, in Christ’s return. The hope that Christ will right all wrongs and bring ultimate healing and justice. When the church has it’s eschatology right and its focused on Christ as the ultimate one, not on a calendar of possible events and weird theories of what will happen when, then it it as its most vibrant.

Not asleep but content in our fathers loving arms, waiting expectantly hope filled and living out the new and coming reality in the here and now, with childlike humble trust in our good and gracious Lord.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Psalm 133 and the Spiritual Discipline of Community (Psalm 133, Hebrews 10:19-25)

Psalm 133 is a psalm of ascent.. It is a psalm that was used as pilgrims came to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, specifically for one of the big three festivals… Passover, Pentecost and tabernacles As such it is a journey psalm about travelling from afar and coming to worship.  A journey not just of distance but of preparing oneself to encounter God. A journey of spiritual growth and renewal.

 Psalm 133 is the second to last Psalm of ascent. It’s about arriving at the temple to worship. It’s a blessing on the pilgrims, who have come together as God’s People to worship.

Psalm 133 is a Psalm of relationship, community and unity. As the Pilgrims journeyed to the temple it is not just reconnecting to a place and growing in their relationship with God, it has been an identifying with God’s people. They belonging to one another, and in their unity God blesses them. 

I’ve been meditating on the psalms of ascent this year and using them as a basis for services I’ve taken at Edmund Hillary retirement village. There is a progression in each of them, where the pilgrim identifies his own experiences with that of all God’s people, it develops a sense of commonality: common discontent, common awareness of God’s help in times of trouble, God as the source of life and blessing, a common trust in and dependence on God. We can see spiritual disciplines and devotional life as solitary and individual, but the spiritual discipline of community is at the heart of the Christian faith…

 “The real meaning of life,” says Leonard Sweet, “is not a journey question or an arrival question. It’s a relationship question. Your journey and your destination are important, but neither is possible without an answer to this prior Question: who are you taking with you on the journey toward your destination?”

So come join me as we explore Psalm 133 and see what it has to say to us in our season of prayer.

The Psalm is a benediction on God’s people gathered for worship. It’s a proverb about family unity that has been turned into a blessing for all God’s people. The proverb is in verse 1 and the blessing is the last line in  verse 3 and in between are two examples that are used at metaphors to illustrate that blessing.

As well as being a Psalm of ascent it is acknowledged as being of David. In the time of King David the tribes of Israel were bought together, there is a sense of a national unity that enabled them to grow strong and become an empire. For Israel they looked back at that time as their golden age. But also from David’s reign when his own sons were divided we see the damage disunity and personal self-interest had on the whole kingdom.

Many modern translations translate the second line “When God’s people” which reflects the intent of the psalm, and is inclusive but hides its roots as a proverb about family life. The Hebrew is ‘when brothers’ live together in unity. In Israel’s agricultural background, sons would normally stay with their father and work the land they had together, even after they were married, land was distributed after the father had died.  So family dynamics were an important part of the prosperity of that family.  If it was good then they would be able to work together as a unit, if it was bad it could have disastrous consequences. In the book of Genesis we see this in the clash between Jacob and Esau. We see both the negative and positive it in the joseph narrative: Where jealousy and favouritism lead to Joseph being left in a dry well to die and as a compromise sold into slavery. Then with forgiveness and reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers God provides for the whole family in a time of dire famine.

That proverb for family life is then taken to apply to all God’s people together. It is not simply a family relationship but a covenant relationship. AS God’s people they belong to each other, and equally that unity and living together is the basis of blessing.

That is how we find ourselves as pilgrims standing in this Psalm. We are God’s people because through Jesus Christ we have been bought into a relationship with God.  We are Brothers and sisters in Christ. In our new Testament reading from Hebrews this morning, the author of Hebrews uses the image of coming to the temple to worship God to talk of through Christ, that we as brothers and sisters can gather into the very presence of God. Not simply stopping at the outer courts of the temple, or the holy place where only the priest could go, but having the confidence because of Christ’s priestly sacrifice, to come into the very presence of God, the holy of Holy’s beyond the veil, that was torn in two, as Christ died.

The pastor down at Mt wellington Community Church and I are often asked if we are brothers, we look alike… I think it has a lot to do with being men of a certain age with receding hairlines and gotees who wear glasees...  I’ve always find it hard to answer that question, and I’m so grateful for that most Kiwi of answers “yeah Nah!” or rather “Nah, Yeah!”  because nah we are not biologically connected but Yeah we are brothers in Christ, we have that covenant relationship in Christ. When we work together with other Christian leaders and our congregations work together, the community is blessed.

When we think of oil being poured out on clothes, we probably wonder how will we get the stain out right. But the picture here of Aaron being anointed for ministry, with a fragrant oil, frankincense. It was a symbol of being set aside for God service, to be the one who would mediate the people’s relationship with God. Lead them in worship, through sacrifices help them get their sins forgiven and proclaim them right with God.  It’s reformation Sunday today and its special today as it marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five thesis to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. The reformation reemphasised the fact that through grace and faith in Christ that we are put right with God. We are a priesthood of all believers. We are all called and set aside to serve God. The oil poured out is a foreshadowing God anointing us all with the Holy Spirit. We often emphasise the individual aspect of that relationship. But its a unity and community thing. The scriptures of the Old Testament is the story of God’s people and the scriptures of the New Testament are written to communities of faith, to communities working out what it meant for them to be followers of Jesus together.

The dew on Mt Hermon falling on Mt Zion, is a picture of God’s provision of plenty for his people. Zion was a mountain in a dry part of the country, barren and rocky, Hebron was well watered by dew and snow. God's blessing here is shown in the land spring forth with life that comes from a reliable water source. You may remember the imagery of Psalm 65 we looked at last month, where God’s blessing on Jerusalem was seen in the whole land being fertile and abounding with life. There is an ethical element here. The sense that that abundant life and plenty is for all God’s people, for all the people God loves and cares for. When God’s people dwell in unity, there is no poverty or want. Those who do not have do not miss out because they are blessed by those who have more than enough who share with them. Part of the spiritual practises of community for the Jewish people was alms giving. Giving money and a percentage of their crop for the sake of those who do not have. Community storehouses were set up. In Acts 2 the fledgling church in Jerusalem had a vibrant prayer life and worship life and teaching life, but they also gave hospitality to each other and didn’t hold onto what they had as their own but were willing to sell and give to those in need.  So it was said there were no needs. They were willing to look together at injustice and inequality, when the Judean Widows were getting more that those from a Hellenistic background. Prayer devotion and action go hand in hand.  

In that unity God bestows his blessing on his people. It is as we are together that God ministers to us and through us to each other. The picture is of Abundant life but eternal life as well. This passage looks forward to God’s blessing being fulfilled in Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and the abundant and eternal life he brings. Life we share together here on earth and will share forever with Christ. In fact the whole of psalm 133 Jesus is the high priest who has offered the ultimate sacrifice in giving up his life for his people. Jesus is the source of the Holy Spirit poured out on all who believe. Jesus is the source of life giving water which changes the land from barren and lifeless to abundance that can be shared with all people. Jesus is the source of eternal life. 

I want to finish off this reflection in our season of prayer by tying it all down to some basic spiritual practises for our lives together.

Firstly, the psalm of ascent is in the context of coming together for public worship, it was used as pilgrims came to the temple for festivals and as people simply came to the temple for regular worship as well. Regular public worship is a spiritual disciple. It is part of the sacredness of time and using that time for worship and acknowledging God and Identifying with God’s people. We live in a world with real demands on time and it easy to put coming to church low on the priority list. Likewise we can see the festivals of Church calendar as times to get away rather than times to come together.  If we view attending worship as part a spiritual discipline it will mean some sacrifice. Like all disciplines it means setting priorities.

In his Book the Good and beautiful community James Bryan Smith talks of some simple steps to help make worship a  spiritual discipline. I was wondering if I should mention his first one as He says ‘come early’ like with any spiritual discipline it’s important to prepare yourself, like simply slowing your breathing before you pray or read scripture so you are relaxed. He says come expectant, that you will encounter God, “ Matthew 18:20 “when one or two are gathered in my name, Low I am with them” is usually used as a way of chasing away despondency when there is a poor turn out, but it is not it is the encouragement that when we gather together which includes for public worship Christ is present. In our reformed tradition, the flow of a worship service is that the focus is on the reading and preaching of the Word, what goes before it is designed to make us ready to hear the word and what we do after that is how we respond to the word of God. There is the expectation that we will meet God and he will speak to us through his word. Be expectant. Remember the focus on God… It’s easy to get distracted or to find ourselves struggling with style and form, but we need to remind ourselves the focus is on God. Lastly Come expecting to give… Now this is not in a prosperity we are after your money kind of thing OK… but rather as it says in our reading from Hebrews that we should encourage one another, we are to spur one another on towards love and good deeds. It’s easy to have a consumer mentality, we come for what’s in it for us… But God’s spirit dwells in each of you and you all have been called to witness to the hope you have in Christ and to minister to one another.

secondly, its about relationships, 'the church says Larry Crabb is a community of people on a journey to God. we need to develop a balanced set of relationships as a spiritual discipline for the journey and to enable us to arrive at our ultimate designation. Leonard Sweet, who I quoted at the start of this message maintains that for our Christian lives to grow and develop we need to cultivate a range of relationships in our lives. While he specifically mentions eleven, in his book eleven (and then adds a twelfth which is the Holy Spirit)... it is easy to break it down into people who are able to build into our lives and people who we invest into, and those who walk alongside us as friends and it’s a bit of both. Sweet says we need to find a mentor and encourager, but also people who we are open to being our editors and butt kickers as well, trusted prophets who speak the truth in love. We need to find a timothy or a protégée someone we can encourage and build up in the faith, a Zacchaeus, that outside who needs our love and our care. A close friend   who is with us all the way. In New Zealand society, men find it hardest to form that kind of bond. We used to having a mate, someone we work or hang out with, but really when you see the depth of care and concern that the likes of David and Jonathan had in the scriptures we kind of don’t really cultivate that sort of closeness. It is a dangerous romantic myth that we can have all our relational needs meet in a marriage. Spiritual discipline cultivating this range of relationships because there is a balance of people who fill our tank,… fuel our lives… that give to us and encourage and inspire us and those who drain our tank, that we give to, and inspire and encourage or carry and hold.
A healthy system is where there is a balance of these two things. Very often these relationships can’t be built up in a large group and one of the ways that Churches help in developing these is through forming small groups or cells. It is one of the goals in our five-year strategic plan is to develops small groups here at St Peters. Ralph neighbours says that for a church to really soar in the spirit it needs to develop two wings,  a big gatherings wing, like public worship and feeling part of something bigger than ourselves and a small groups wing, where people can develop the depth of relationships they need for real spiritual growth.   

Developing that balance of healthy and heal giving relationships is a matter of developing other spiritual disciplines: hospitality, opening your homes and your lives. Listening, showing kindness, forgiveness, caring, making time. In the end they are a source of God’s blessing for you, they can minister to you and enable us as a church to be a blessing as we practise the spiritual discipline of community.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

For All the People... A Prayer of Thanksgiving and Confession

On sunday I am Preaching on Psalm 133 and the focus for the prayer of thanksgiving and confession is the relationships God has called us to live out our faith in: Our family and friends who walk along the road with us. The people who have spoken into our lives and God has used to bring us to faith and help us to grow to maturity in Christ. Those who Christ has called us to serve and show his to... and of course as this sunday is reformation sunday and we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the ninety five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral those who have reaffirmed salvation by grace alone and the authority of scripture.

As Always feel free to use any part of this prayer you may find useful... all of it if you like or none of it if you don't. 

Loving God

This morning we gather to give you praise and thanks

We especially want to praise you for the people around us

People who make life special and good

Who have spoken into our lives and bought us near

Those who we love and walk alongside us in you

And people you have called us to serve and care for

Righteous God

Thank you that we know what love is because you first loved us

You sent your son to die so our sins maybe forgiven

In his resurrection we know new life

As he ascended to heaven we know his kingdoms rule

In the small acts of love we see around us that rule makes itself known

We have hope it will all be put right when Christ returns

Gracious God

We thank you for those who have gone before us

Those who for two thousand years have witnesses to the gospel truth

Who in the face of persecution and trouble have spoken your truth

This morning in particular men and women of the reformation

Who reaffirmed salvation by grace through faith alone

Who Emphasised your word and reformed your church

Holy God who leads and guides

We thank you for the mentors and role models in our lives

Those who you have used to speak into our lives and inspire us

Who have used their talents and gifts to minister to us

Taught us, loved us, shown us and prayed for us

Those in the past who are now at rest with you

Those around us today who you continue to use

Caring God

Thank you for the people you have allowed us to show your love to

The ones in need who we have been able to help

The ones looking who we have been able to help see

The least whom in simple acts of kindness we have met and served you

Those we find it hard to love, who you call us to persevere with

Just as you will not let us go

Father God

Thank you for our family and friends

Parents, great and grand parents

For children, and great and grand kids

Brothers and Sisters, all those other rellies

For wives and husbands, we hold dearest in our hearts

For friends who are always care, and mates who are just there

Righteous and just  God

While our lives are enriched with so many people

We confess that we do not always love as you have loved us

We do things that are wrong and hurtful and unjust

We leave good things undone, and injustice unchallenged

We ask that you forgive us and wipe the slate clean

We thank you are just and righteous that in Christ we are forgiven

God who is with us on the way

We ask for your continued presence with us through the Holy Spirit

May the Spirit pour Christ like love on all our relationships

Bring the words of Jesus to our minds and help us to obey them

Enable and empower us to share you love and good news

 Break down barriers that divide, unite us with your people everywhere

 So you O God may be glorified, Father, Son and Holy Spirit  

Monday, October 23, 2017

Psalm 139.... Knowing the God who knows us so well (Psalm 139)

Psalm 139 says Leslie C Allen, takes theology from the “realm of theory, and turns it into news we can use.” It turns all those attributes of God that speak of God’s transcendence in a way that make God seem “far away”, like eternal, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence (always, all knowing, all powerful and all present) and brings God close, as the Psalmist experiences the reality of God surrounding him. In a prayer for vindication in the face of false accusations, his faith and hope is not in a God who is simply omni this or that, but who sees, and knows, who is with, where ever we may go, and who is mindful of us, a God who seeks us out and who leads and guides.

 It is what makes Psalm 139 such a magnificent Prayer, one of the most beloved in the book. We usually forget about the last section as people are not quite sure about the emotional outburst against the wicked in verses 19-22.  It’s headed up ‘of David’ and if it was written by David like many of the Psalms we don’t know which part of his life it relates to.  In Ancient Near Eastern wisdom if bad things happened to you, it was thought to be a consequence of something you had done wrong which had angered a deity. This thinking underlines the Psalms motivation. In Job, Job’s friends come to him and call him to repent of what he has done wrong, and part of Job’s suffering is this anguish over maintaining his innocence. Not that he is morally perfect, he’s never done anything wrong, But he is, like the psalmist pretty sure he has not done anything that deserved this. Jesus dealt with the same thinking in   Luke 13 when he is asked about people killed by Romans in a horrific way and others who dies when a tower collapsed. His response is to call all people to turn to repent, we all need to know God’s forgiveness and grace, likewise in Psalm 139 the psalmist finishes by wanting to be totally transparent before God, so he can know the God who knows him so well.

Let’s have a look at the Psalm.  Traditionally its seen as being in four sections or stropes.

Verse 1-6 deals with God’s knowledge of all aspects of the psalmist’s life. As he comes to pray it is in the sure knowledge that God sees and knows. Increasingly we live in a surveillance society, we are observed by cameras and scanners and kept tabs on. One of the reasons given for it, is that it will make us safer, and one of the other reasons is that it will modify our behaviour, if we know we are being watched we will behave better, like speed cameras are supposed to make us keep the speed limit.  But it also becomes more invasive and we ask questions about who is in control. If I forget to turn off the GPS function on my phone, I receive messages from google maps asking me if I would like to review a restaurant I’m in or post photos of the beach or park I’m at to help other people.  It is also open to negative abuse. On the news this week you may have seen the warnings about CCTV cameras connected over the Internet being able to be hacked and the videos broadcast on websites all over the world.

For the psalmist God’s seeing and knowing is a source of comfort and hope. AS we saw last week when we looked at Psalm 113, God’s seeing is aligned with his compassion, God stoops down to see and he acts and lifts the lowly and poor. From beyond the cross and resurrection we see God’s knowing takes on a whole different level of love and grace, that in Christ the word became flesh and lived amongst us, experienced human existence. As it says in Isaiah 55 became a man of sorrow acquainted with grief, and carried the sin of many, hat we might be reconciled with God. For the Psalmist the truth is that God’s knowing is comforting because of what he knows of God’s character, that God is all loving as well. He can be trusted to lead and to guide. “ as sure as water will wet us and fire will burn, So an all knowing God, will perceive, understand, bless, guide and judge.”

The second six verses focus on the fact that the psalmist is confronted by God at every turn. It deals with God being ever present. The ever present Spirit of God. The psalmist sees it as if he goes to the highest heavens or into the lowest depth. Wings of Dawn to the far side of the sea are a poetic way of saying from the east to the west. The wings of dawn are the fan of rays as that often precedes the rise of the sun, for the people in Jerusalem it would have been over the hills of Moab to the distant, and to the west where it sets would have been the Mediterranean Sea.

For the person who wishes to run from God, like the prophet Jonah, this was a source of great fear, but for the Psalmist it is a matter of reassurance. It speaks of the sovereignty of God over all the heavens and the earth and because of God’s love and concern it means wherever God can lead and to guide. For us as followers of Christ, we have the promise of God’s Holy Spirit having been poured out on all those who believe and dwelling within us. God is within us and with us. Be it in the dawn and joy of new things or in the depth of depression when it all feels dark, God is with us. In the near and familiar and in the disorientation of the distant and unfamiliar. The Spirit of God is there to lead and guide, to comfort and enable.

The third section Speaks of God’s constant and comprehensive concern. Who knows us better than the author of the very process by which we become who we are. We can focus on the biological process of human development and reproduction, but the psalmist is aware that who he is and who he will become and his very being is not hidden from God in fact our individuality is a gift from God. Ethically the psalm provides a theological basis for the sanctity of life.

When the Psalmist   tries to comprehend how great are God’s thoughts about him, we find his only response is wonder. Wonder which is the starting point of both Philosophy, trying to comprehend and understand, and of our worship, the adoration of God. 

 Then the psalmist turns to respond to God’s presence and knowing. In verse 19-22 he expresses his disdain for those who do not keep God’s ways. Maybe for many of us caricature of the loud angry fundamentalist who defines himself by who he is against crops up here. It is hard to comprehend the switch from wonder to wrath, and justify the jump from worship to waging war. Here perhaps we hear the pain and sorrow and suffering the psalmist has endured as his name and reputation has been assassinated in public. The good thing is that God’s response to this is not to agree and to answer the psalmists wishes, rather we know God response is with grace, a giving of himself in Jesus Christ to allow us all to turn from going our own ways be reconciled with God. In the end the Psalmist also opens himself up to the scrutiny of God, with great courage he invites the God who knows him so well and from whom nothing is hidden to reveal any wicked way in him. Maybe that emotional outburst is the first thing on the table.

Well October is the season of prayer at St peter’s where we are reflecting on selected psalms to see how they can speak to us to help us grow in our devotional life. So I want to draw out a couple of things from this Psalm that relates to that.

Behind me is an illustration of the Jahari Window, it’s a tool to help us to develop and grow in our communication and personal development. You can see four quadrant there. The open quadrant, which is the us we are happy to show to the public, the things we know about ourselves that other do as well. Our strengths and the weaknesses and failing we are openly working through. The bottom left is the things we hide about ourselves, that we don’t want people to know, the top right is our blind spot, the things other people know about us, but we are impervious to, we don’t see, it may be positives and strengths and there are definitely some weaknesses and negate in there as well that if we were aware of we’d be able to work on, the final quadrant is the unknown section, its that part of us that we and everyone does not know. In relationships work, community and life, it’s often the stuff in the hidden, blind and unknown that trip us up and stop us developing in our life and our faith. The psalm invites God in this process of self-development and spiritual growth. God knows all of us, what we hide or are blind to or totally unaware of and is able to bring these things out into his light and .  Prayer has as one of its functions the practise of utter honesty, seeking self-revelation and complete humility. The Psalmist is asking God to show the hidden the blind and the unknown to him that he grow into maturity.

In the 1920’s and 30’s there was a big revival in East Africa, and many people came into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, in places like Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya. Its effects were felt right up into the 1970’s and beyond with strong local churches. One of the things that people involved in the revival talked about was living in a house without walls or a roof. Being totally open and transparent to God and to each other. So that things were not hidden and if they were wrong attitudes or actions to take root and grow or fester. This is the attitude that the Psalmist takes as well. To be God’s change agent in the world we must open ourselves up to the God who knows us so well to change us.

Part of that knowing ourselves is knowing how we are wired to connect with God. God’s knowing of us, and his making us individuals means that God speaks to each of us in different ways. That we are wired to know and experience God’s presence in ways that are specific to us. While there are spiritual practises that are universal, like scripture reading and prayer, there are different ways that we feel close to God, knowing those ways and developing them can strengthen that knowing God. They are like natural gateways for each one of us. In education they talk of seven different kinds of smart… some people are academically smart, which is valued in our school system, others are musically smart, or practically smart, they know how to fix things, others are relationally smart, they know about interpersonal stuff, emotionally smart. Gary Chapman has written a very useful series of books called the five languages of Love that speak of how we are wired to give and receive love… when we know those things it helps our relationships to grow in depth.

 Well there are also what are called devotional pathways. That is ways we are wired to connect with God. It may not be exhaustive but people have identified seven different devotional pathways. A relational pathway. That you find it easiest to connect with God when you are with other people, and being told to do private bible study or prayer doesn’t do it for you, you want to be part of a small group and discuss and interact. The intellectual Pathway, that you need to Engage with your mind, you don’t want emotional fuelled spiritual experiences. For you reading a solid theological book just draws you closer to God. The Serving pathway, when you are helping people or caring for people then you fell closest to God. A contemplative pathway, it’s when you are alone and you flourish in private prayer and solitude and silence. The Activist pathway, you feel closest to God when you have a cause to champion an injustice to right, I wonder if the Psalmist wasn’t an activist and that loathing of injustice was behind that outburst. The creation pathway, its when you are out in the middle of what God has made is when you feel closest to God, and can pray. The Worship pathway, you just love singing and music, that’s one of the way’s I’m wired and I have to balance that by knowing many others are not. I went on a week long silent retreat and about half way through I had to go and find some worship music to play and sing along to, to feed my soul. By understanding which are the one or two ways you are wired and making time for that it will help you to grow to know the God who knows you so well. (material gleaned from Viv Coleman's Devotional pathways) 

This Psalm gives us confidence and motivation to pray and develop our relationship with God. Motivation that is based in the very nature of who God is. Both the transcendence of God, all the omni stuff but the reality that God is loving and a personal God, that God is immanent and with us. Personal God does not mean that God is at our beck and call, like a personal shopper, rather that God is knowable. God is with us and knows us and is concerned for us so there is the great privilege to know the God who knows us so well.  The God who knit us together and made us, who cared so much that he gave his only Son that we might be forgiven and have new life in him, the God who sent his Holy Spirit to dwell within us.  We have confidence to cast all our cares on him for he cares for us.