Lord, your love for us is revealed in so many practical ways. You touched the leper, welcomed the outcast, blessed the children and responded to a mother’s cry. You loved even those who rejected you, and you gave your life for every one of our sins. And you call us to love. You declare that our love for others is your love in action.
Lord, we confess that we limit your love. We love those we like And we turn away from those we fear, those who challenge us, those who oppose us. We limit our loving to what we think we can cope with, have time for and can afford and that will not overwhelm us.
Yet we have the grace of God in our hearts and the resources of heaven at our disposal. Teach us, Lord, to love bravely, to love more widely and to love more passionately.
We pray for our Covid-19 world: For those finding a way forward and for those caring for the sick and quarantined, for vaccines and treatment programmes, for those who have lost loved ones and those who have lost jobs and homes and their sense of security.
We pray for America as it goes into one of the most challenging of elections on 3 November. And we pray for South Africa as we look for a way forward from the corruption, anger and conflicts that dominate our lives.
Help us to love so that the world will discover a better way to live.
What are you going to leave behind? And I don’t mean houses and bank balances. But how will you be remembered?
Of course, we don’t like to answer that question, because we know all too well what some people in our lives are going to remember. So, we prefer to answer a slightly different question: ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ No doubt we’ve all got ideas about that.
But that suggests another question, doesn’t it? What are we doing about it? How are we living and engaging with people so that they will remember us as we want to be remembered? What really matters? What should we be focussing on?
Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years. He brought them to the banks of the Jordon river and the edge of the promised land. Over ‘there’ was home. But not for Moses. His job was to get them there. The task of conquering and settling the land was for the next generation led by Joshua.
How would Moses be remembered? He was certainly remembered as the one who brought them out of slavery and into a covenant relationship with God. But what would they do with that legacy? Would they remain faithful to the covenant, or would they abandon all that Moses had taught them?
Perhaps Moses wondered about that as he gazed across at the promised land.
How will you and I be remembered?
The greatest commandment
Jesus tells us that the best thing to be remembered for is loving God and loving others.
The Sadducees had failed to trip Jesus up, so the Pharisees wanted to have a go. One of their number asked Jesus: ‘Which is the greatest commandment in the law?’
We often ask about the best thing to do. ‘What’s the best decision I can make in this situation?’ ‘What should I study first for my exams?’ ‘What’s the best car to buy?’
And in Pharisee school, the students and their tutors were always arguing about which commandment was the most important. Hence the question to Jesus: ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’
Now we might have different opinions about that.
If you were to ask a parent which is the greatest, most important command they might say, ‘Honour your father and mother, that you may live a long life.’
A judge would say, ‘Do not give false testimony.’ And your boss: ‘Do not steal.’
Your neighbour might point to the tenth commandment: ‘Do not covet your neighbour’s wife, house or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’
And, with churches closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, perhaps church treasurers might say that the most important command is, ‘Bring your tithes and offerings into the House of the Lord.’
Love God and love your neighbour
When Jesus was asked, he did not choose one of the Ten Commandments. It is as if he were telling the Pharisees, and us: ‘These ten commandments cannot be split up. You can’t pick and choose. One is not more important than the other.’
‘The greatest command is found in Deuteronomy 6:5, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.” Then he said, ‘The second is like it (Leviticus 19:18): “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” ‘The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on (can be understood in the light of) these two commandments.’
If you want to know what is right and wrong, what you should or shouldn’t do in a particular situation, you could check against the Ten Commandments, or you could check through the list of 613 commandments the rabbinic tradition held to. But Jesus said that we should rather ask, ‘Will this action or attitude be an expression of my love for God or for my neighbour?’
Whose son is he?
Then Jesus asked the Pharisees a question of his own: ‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’
Of course, ‘whose son is he?’ was a question that had been asked before about Jesus: In Mark 6 and Luke 4, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and he preached in the synagogue. The people said: ‘But, isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph …? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’‘Whose son is this?’ And they rejected him.
And the way Jesus answers his own question suggests that where we come from, our family background or where we live, or even what we have done or failed to do, is not particularly important. What matters is how we live: how we relate to God and how we relate to others.
None of us is any good at sticking to the rules.
The Psalmist says, ‘There is no one who does good, not even one.’ (Psalm 53:3) And Paul writes: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)
It doesn’t matter whether we take the Ten Commandments or the 613 from the rabbis, or any other list of dos and don’ts. We are going to fail. And if that is how we are remembered, our friends will say, ‘He kept 527 of the commandments.’ While our enemies will say, ‘He failed 86 of them.’
But is that what really matters? Jesus says, ‘No.’
How much better to say of someone, ‘She didn’t always get it right, but you could see her love for God, shining in her face.’ Or ‘He wasn’t a saint, but you knew that everything he did, he did because he really loved people.’
Jesus makes it clear that the rule that holds everything together, that demands our absolute attention is ‘Love God’, and tied up so closely with it that they become one thing: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
‘Love your neighbour, not as somebody who is different from you, not as someone who is separate from you; love your neighbour as if they were you.’
Rules are about what I can do and what I can’t do. Love isn’t about me at all. Love is about what God wants and what my neighbour wants.
Loving God means we put aside our lives and become involved with what God is doing. And Jesus makes it clear that our love for God and our involvement in his work can only be expressed in our love for others.
He said it again in the upper room in John 13: he gave his disciples a new commandment, to love one another. He said, ‘By your love for one another, the world will know that you are my disciples.’ And later he prayed, ‘that they might be one, so that the world will believe.’ In his first letter, John made it even more clear: ‘How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brothers and sisters whom you have seen?’
Friends, there are many things we as Christians can do in the world to make the world a better place. But if we do not love each other, if we do not find a way to work together, we will not be doing the work of God.
We will be doing good things, certainly, but we will not be living as Christ followers. What we do will not turn the world upside down. What we do, however great, however important, will not bring people into the Kingdom. It is how we do it, how we live and how we love, that will transform our neighbourhoods, our communities and our world.
When we make Christianity more about rules, what we are allowed and not allowed to do, we burden ourselves with guilt because of our many failures. And we dare not let anyone know, because everyone else seems so perfect.
So, we put on masks, then no one will know what we are really like. Not the Covid-19 masks that just mask our face, but those that mask our nature, that cover our failure.
Social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, tends to be one big rollercoaster of health, happiness and all-round success. Very much like the way we present ourselves in church, where we keep smiling and pretending all is well.
One writer put it: ‘Sometimes, church is the last place where people feel free to be themselves. They cover up with Sunday clothes and Sunday smiles.’ [Sarah Young (2004), Jesus Calling, October 19]
How can we love each other if we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know whether the person we are engaging with is a real person or just a façade?
We create so many barriers between us: Race, gender, age, culture, wealth, where we live, even how we worship. We use these things to divide us, to help us decide who we like and who we will mix with and listen to.
Our differences are not the problem. God has given us our differences as a gift to enrich our lives and the world in which we live.
The problem is that we have chiselled our differences into the concrete walls we build between us. We might not know quite what we believe, but we know what we don’t believe and who we don’t believe and what we don’t like and what we won’t put up with.
When we hear about the confrontation at Senekal or protests around the country, it is easy to take sides. Based on our experiences, our preferences, and which side of the wall we are on, we assume that we know who is right and who was wrong.
Your neighbour needs you
But Jesus says, ‘Your neighbour needs you.’ Our neighbour on the other side of that concrete wall needs us. And it doesn’t matter whether it is our wall or their wall, our neighbour needs our love. Not our wisdom, not our clever remarks, not our solutions, and not our opinions. Our neighbour needs our love.
But we are afraid of what is on the other side of that wall. So, we start asking the questions that the opponents of Jesus asked him, like:
‘Who is my neighbour?’ ‘Which is the greatest commandment? What should I be doing first? What’s the most important thing?’
And the answer Jesus gives us reminds me of a question Phillip Yancy refers to in one of his books: ‘What would grace look like now.’
As we peer over the concrete wall between us and our neighbour, between us and our children, our spouse, our colleague, what would love look like. How can I offer grace?
And if we are not sure what the loving thing to do might be, perhaps we will find inspiration in a basket of fruit, which is always well received: ‘The fruit of the Spirit,’ Paul tells us, ‘is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (Galatians 5:22-23)
Pick one and offer it to your neighbour today.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
Today is the second Sunday of Easter; the day Jesus appeared again to his disciples in the upper room, and in particular, to Thomas.
Today is, of course, also Freedom Day (South Africa’s 20th ‘birthday’). I think that South Africans in 1994 had a lot in common with those who were around Jesus.
Change The difficulty that the Jews had with Jesus – whether they were part of the establishment, or Zealots working against the status quo or the disciples themselves – the problem they had didn’t lie with Jesus, but with what they expected from their Messiah: what he should look like, how they expected him act, what he would teach.
That the Messiah would change the status quo was pretty much a given, whatever party you belonged to. But to what extent, and how ruthlessly was up for grabs. Much the same as South Africa in the early 90s. Apartheid had to go. That was a given for everyone, except for a few diehard denialists. But how it was to go and what would take its place was very much under discussion (to put it politely). Continue reading →
Salt and light Jesus said ‘You are like salt for the whole human race…. You are like light for the whole world.’
Light! I like the idea of being a light; you get put in some important place like a hilltop or on a lamp stand, and your light shines for all the world to see (or at least the neighbourhood or the family). You play a useful role; everyone looks up to you; they need you; they respect you. They might be looking at the path, but the light shines the way. Light is important. Light is noticed.
Salt? But salt? I’m not so sure. You see, light remains aloof, it retains its identity, but salt gets more intimately involved with people; it loses itself for the people it serves; salt is consumed. Light gets put on a pedestal, but salt, used properly, isn’t even noticed. It’s brings out the flavour of everything else, and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a great piece of beef,’ or, ‘That’s a fantastic soup.’ And the salt goes, ‘Hey! It’s me! You should try this stuff without me.’ But no one hears, and no one notices, and down it goes.
Salt and light I’d rather be light than salt. But Jesus says we are both. We aren’t given a choice. There will be times when we will be called on to be a light and at other times, salt. Some of us will be more salt than light or more light than salt. We are not called to choose or to debate, but to be faithful; to be reliable; to be available for whatever role we are given.
Covenant Prayer Remember the words of the Covenant prayer we prayed last week:
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you….
Jesus said salt that has lost its flavour is of no use at all. He also said, in effect, ‘A light that’s in the wrong place is equally useless.’
I’m sure you know the story of the man searching in the street for a gold coin he had lost.
A stranger comes up and asks, ‘Where did you lose it? Were you here?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘I was down there, around the corner.’
‘Well, why are you looking here?’
‘Cos this is where the light is. It was pitch black down there — couldn’t see a thing.’
We expect to be noticed Isaiah writes to a people who seem to have made up their own minds about service and who decided they wanted to be light not salt:
‘We’ll do it this way, thank you. We’ll fast and pray, we’ll even use sackcloth and ashes; we’ll compete with each other in bowing down low — but we do expect to be noticed. I mean, why should we fast if the Lord never notices us…if he doesn’t pay attention?’ (Isaiah 58:5 & 3)
Had Jesus been speaking to this group about salt and light, they would have said, ‘Yes, Lord, of course we’ll be a light for you. Bring the pedestal. We’re ready to be noticed!’
But what if God says, ‘I don’t need light; it’s daytime. I need salt.’
When our worship loses its flavour Roland McGregor, an American United Methodist Minister, comments on this Isaiah passage and the ‘salt and light’ reading in Matthew: ‘Isaiah shares a message about God’s taste buds: when our worship loses its flavor and what restores its taste’ (See McGregorPage for Epiphany 5.)
What makes worship taste good? God told the people of Israel through Isaiah:
‘The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.’
Micah Today’s reading is, of course, Isaiah’s version of the Micah 6 passage:
‘And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Micah 6:8
For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters.
I don’t want salt with my apple. And keep your salt well away from my chocolate. But give me a bowl of oats without salt in it? No! And biltong without salt will make you very sick.
We don’t need a light in the middle of the day. But in the dark? When we are lost? When we need it to find a lost coin, or a lost child? Where is the light then?
It’s in the church ‘Oh, no! It’s locked up in the church. That’s where we use it. It’s very beautiful there. We can’t bring it out here and run the risk of it breaking. No; please come on Sunday, 9 a.m., and you can enjoy it as much as we do.’
‘And you want our salt? For soup? For the soup kitchen? No, sorry. You don’t understand. Our salt is very special. It has a unique saltiness to it and a mix of minerals and herbs. It’s far too special to put on food (and certainly not soup for the soup kitchen). We keep it in a special saltcellar, and we bring it out on Sundays and put it on display during our worship.
‘It’s very important, you see. Jesus told us to be salt and light, so we have this beautiful lamp and this wonderful salt as part of our worship.’
Passing the peace out there For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters. For example, we pass the peace among ourselves, and there are many times we need to be reminded of that peace. But there is a world of turmoil out there and people who have never known peace. Dare we take the peace we have received and share it out there?
To be salt and light means going to the dark and unsavoury places where people live and work and struggle and weep.
Put an end to oppression After telling the Israelites to ‘remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice,’ Isaiah said,
If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. (Isaiah 58:9-10)
Your worship will bring flavour and light to the world if you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.
‘Biting barbed words’ Do we oppress people? Well probably not in chains in our garden sheds. And probably not on the scale that was experienced under apartheid. But a friend of mine published a poem the other day. It ponders on a lifetime of pain and anguish — a soul’s agony. Reflecting on the source of the pain, she wrote:
Maybe, it’s secrets Done to her—or kept from her. Maybe the silence, Or yelling—biting barbed words That shred a small child’s insides. (Mirada Mudo, ‘Caught in the Un-Wished Well’)
‘… biting barbed words that shred a small child’s insides.’ ‘… put an end to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.’
Sarcasm and criticism How often do we default to sarcasm? How often do we become overly critical of our children or our spouse? Have you listened to yourself recently? I know how easy it is to default to sarcasm and criticism. On a bad day I’ll get into critical mode, and everything my wife does needs to be criticised. The only way to break the habit is to declare a no-criticism day. I know there is grave danger that the sky might fall in if you don’t criticise and correct — especially the important stuff, like how to squeeze the toothpaste tube and hang up the washing — but it’s worth the risk. If you can just hold off until tomorrow you’ll find, as I do, that the mood has changed, the need has gone, and peace has a chance.
I wonder, also, how our Christian way of speaking might oppress people around us, especially fellow Christians. For example, I passed a motivational message board the other day. The message read:
‘Worry ends where faith begins’
Now if you are not a chronic worrier, you will drive past that sign and say to yourself, ‘Amen to that!’ And you won’t understand what I am about to say.
But if you are a chronic worrier, that sort of sign just adds to your worries. You say to yourself, ‘But I do have faith; I just can’t stop worrying. So, obviously, my faith isn’t any good. I must be a lousy Christian … or perhaps not a Christian at all.’
All you need is faith And much of what we say in church, or at least much of what people hear us say, confirms that understanding. We say:
‘All you need is faith.’ ‘Just pray your worries away.’ ‘If you just have faith God will heal you.’ ‘If you just have faith God will protect you.’ ‘If you just have faith God will change everything.’
Of course, all of that’s true. But the way we say it, or the way it is heard, people are left thinking that if my healing, protection, transformation doesn’t happen the same way as yours, or quickly enough, it must mean my faith is less than yours, my faith is not good enough.
We are not all the same But God’s healing, protection, transformation touches different people in different ways and at different times. We have to understand that; we have to remember that when we share our faith and our good news. We are not all the same, and God doesn’t treat us all the same.
The beginning of faith is only the beginning The sign we spoke about, ‘Worry ends where faith begins’, is a lie. The beginning of faith is not the end of worry. It might be the beginning of the end of worry; it might be the beginning of learning to live with worry and of learning to deal with worry. But the beginning of faith is not the end of worry.
I may as well say, ‘the beginning of faith is the end of alcoholism.’
Most alcoholics would know I’m talking nonsense; they know that the beginning of faith is just the beginning of a journey towards managing their alcoholism.
The beginning of faith is only the beginning of a journey where faith will grow and affect different parts of our lives at different speeds. It’s the beginning of a journey that will be different for each of us, but a journey towards joy and love and delight, of salty flavour and light in dark places.
Faith is a relationship Faith is a relationship with God. And like any relationship it is something we grow into. We get to know, we learn to trust. We struggle a bit and the relationship suffers; we discover a bit more about the other and we grow closer.
Being salt and light, putting an end to oppression, means we allow others the same space we need. So the challenge for us this week is to find ways that we can give people around us the gift of light and salt that is making a difference in our lives; look for ways that we can share the grace that God gives us in abundance.
‘… put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word…, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon…. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.’
What do you think make worship taste good? Add your comments below.
And be sure to come back tomorrow for the prayer that followed the sermon.
In our Church family we recently completed seven weeks working through John van de Laar’s book, The Hour That Changes Everything. In it he calls us to understand and enjoy worship as the heart and centre of our lives. It is profound, yet it is simply written, and easy to read. He centres on William Temple’s definition of worship:
“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
The main part of the book comprises seven chapters, five of which expound on the quote: “Becoming Holy”, “Becoming True”, “Becoming Beautiful”, “Becoming Loving” and “Becoming Purposeful”. There are three appendices. The first contains fifty daily readings for personal use during the seven weeks (yes, for the mathematicians among you, the last week has eight readings). The second contains notes for small groups on each of the seven chapters, and the third section contains readings and guidelines for Sunday worship.
Van de Laar continually reminds us that worship is not something we do for an hour on Sunday, but it is the whole of our lives. The hour we spend together with the rest of God’s family, focussing our minds and sharpening the sword, is indeed the hour that changes everything, or it is nothing at all.
I received the following in an email this week, and it profoundly makes the same point. It was written by David Barnett, who I am told is a missionary in Cambodia. The interview he refers to is also the focus of a 2007 Christianity Todayarticle.
Barnett heard about an interview between broadcaster Roy Firestone (ESPN’s Close-Up) and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a seven-foot-tall, 255-pound specimen of pure muscle and athleticism. He was one of the best big men in the history of the National Basketball Association, who led his team to back-to-back championships and was named an All-Star 10 times.
He was also known as the hardest working big man in the NBA. Roy Firestone asked him, “Why do you work so hard? Your teammates tell me that every time you step onto the hard wood, you give it 110 percent. They tell me you practice spin moves and fade-away jump shots by the hour. They tell me you run wind sprints until you can’t anymore, relentlessly pushing yourself. They tell me that even in a scrimmage, you go for every rebound and every loose ball like you are in the finals of the NBA. Why? You don’t have anything to prove. You have made it to the top. Why not just take it easy?”
Hakeem said, “Roy, I do not count what I do on the basketball court as work. Every time I step onto that court, I am not playing for me, but for Him. You see, the reason I work so hard is because basketball is not work…it is worship. It is my way of thanking God for His goodness to me.”
Hakeem Olajuwon is a Muslim, not a Christian. Yet God has given him an insight into life-as-worship that challenges us all.
When David Barnett heard about Hakeem’s response, he thought:
“What if I treated my job, not as work, but as worship? What could I accomplish?
What if I treated my marriage, not as an obligation, but as worship?
What if I treated my parenthood, not as an activity, but as worship?
What if I treated my friendships, not merely as relationships, but as worship?
What if I treated my hobbies, not only as fun things to do, but as worship?
What if I treated community service, not just as a good thing to do to help others, but as worship?
What if I even drove my car, not merely as a way to get from here to there, but as worship?
What if I treated everything I do, everyone I meet, everything I say, as though it is an act of worship?
“How would that transform my life? What could I accomplish in my life? Who would I be able to touch and reach and attract to Christ?”
What about you and me? What difference would it make if, with David Barnett, we decided to approach the whole of our lives as worship, as a means of giving God thanks and praise? Even driving my car?
Have you any experiences of life-as-worship to share with us?
Jenny Hillebrand over at Carpenter’s Shoes has included a video link to the tribute Jon-Mark paid to his father, Ross Olivier, at Ross’s memorial service on Friday. It’s a most beautiful tribute: warm, encouraging and challenging; a call to live intentionally every day in the light and love of Christ, reaching out to people around us. I recommend you sit still for 20 minutes, and let it warm your heart and bring peace to your soul. If you were also blessed to have known Ross, it will have extra meaning for you.
What stood out for me was: “Ross took his own life; not last Wednesday morning, but every day when he made a choice to give all he had and all he was to Jesus and the Church.”
And the challenge: “Every day to see the potential in the world around you, to see the good, and let your light shine…to make the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”