Taking Care of the Garden

leaf.jpgNote to the reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 10, 2019 at University Church of the Nazarene, at the close of “Green Week” at Africa Nazarene University.


Text: Genesis 2:15 — “The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.”

INTRODUCTION

On my last birthday, my younger son gifted me with a black Cross™ pen. For me, it has sentimental value, besides being a sleek pen. Now suppose that Simon (the interpreter) had no pen, and asked to borrow mine. Then a week later, he brought it back to me. But instead of returning the pen to me as he found it, in good condition, it is badly scratched. The eraser is bitten off and the ink cartridge is missing. How would I feel? You’re right. I wouldn’t feel very good about it all!

OWNERS, OR STEWARDS?

God has loaned us something far more important than a pen. God as the owner of all creation has loaned us the Earth. It doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to God.

Psalm 24:1-2 (CEB) affirms:

The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters.

Turn to your neighbor and say: “The earth is the Lord’s.”

If God is the owner, then what does that make us? We are the caretakers, the stewards.

This becomes clear in the second creation account. Michael Lodahl calls it the “worm’s eye view.” No longer is it the “bird’s eye view” of Genesis 1, with God high above the creation. In Genesis 2, God is down in the dirt. It is there that God creates the human being (Adam) after he had previously created everything else.

And now in Genesis 2:15, God – the owner of the trees and the birds, the animals and the fish – entrusts their care into the hands of the steward, the human being:

The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (CEB).

To take care of something that belongs to someone else is called stewardship. We’re accustomed to hearing that word in relation to other things. Often, we say that our money, time, and talents are on-loan to us from God. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6:20 goes as far as to say that even our bodies belong to God:

You have been bought and paid for, so honor God with your body (CEB).

Yet we may forget that besides money, time, talents and our bodies, God has entrusted something else to us as stewards. God has entrusted to us the Earth. That’s why we speak of “Creation Care.”

Sadly, we have sometimes used the Bible as an excuse not to care for the Earth but to exploit it. The old King James Version of Genesis 1:28 speaks of “having dominion” over the Earth and “subduing” it. And historically, some took that as a license to exploit nature, to cut down trees without replanting, to pollute the Earth’s waters and foul its air. But modern translations are better. The New Living Translation says:

Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the seas, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground – everything that has life. And that is what happened (Gen. 1:29-30, NLT).

 

adam eve
Adam and Eve take care of the Garden. (painting by Katherine Roundtree)

To “govern” is not to exploit. God calls humans to practice good governance, a benevolent reign.

So there you have it. We are not the owners. God is the owner of the Earth. Turn to your neighbor and say: “God is the owner.”

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Of a forgotten time

out of africaKaren Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa in 1937. In this classic memoir, she reflects upon her time as a small-time coffee farmer and expatriate living west of Nairobi, Kenya. Many know of Blixen thanks to the 1985 movie, “Out of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is based upon Blixen’s account.

As one who lives and works only a few kilometers away from the community now called “Karen” (the upscale Nairobi suburb bearing Blixen’s name), some of the places she describes are places I’ve been. Her old tractor and the mammoth rusted coffee dryer sit adjacent to her old farmhouse, now a museum open to tourists. The Ngong Hills that she praises poetically also greet me each morning a century later, unchanged in their glory, though now hemmed-in by dwellings and businesses spilling over from Nairobi.

The reader is soon aware that Blixen’s workers and the squatters on her farm became for her like the children she never birthed, and she the matriarch. Her love for them is evident, though there is always a measure of condescension. Nowhere does she describe a “Native” (now an unacceptable descriptor) as an equal. Perhaps this stems in-part from her own high birth as a Danish baroness? A Kenyan reading the book today may take offense at some of the sweeping character generalizations she makes about Kikuyus, the Maasai, and others. The colonialist worldview tolerated in the early 20th century – which shows up in Blixen’s occasional use of the term “savage” and talk about “two races” (white and black) – sounds a false note in a book whose words-pictures otherwise let the account soar to orchestral levels.

 

K Blixen home
Karen Blixen home

 

Despite these shortcomings, Out of Africa, when considered as a snapshot-in-time, provides a fascinating portrayal of an era that is no more. Visitors to the museum should first read the book. This will provide context to better appreciate the compelling story of an intrepid European woman who – thanks to a 17 year sojourn – came to fondly view Kenya and its hospitable people as her second home.

 

 

God to the rescue

1024px-ROM_1500_MaryIt’s called Mary’s Song.

Elizabeth had just discovered that her young cousin was bearing the Christ child. “God has blessed you among all women, and he has blessed the child you carry” (Luke 1:42, CEB). What a gracious affirmation to a girl pregnant out of wedlock. Where others might have uncovered her shame, with her words, Elizabeth clothed Mary with honor.

Something in Elizabeth’s warm embrace made the dam break. Mary burst out in song:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord! (1:46, CEB)

In these 10 verses (Matthew 1:46-55), Mary extols the God who:

  • cares about those in humble circumstances (v. 48)
  • is mighty and strong (v. 49, 51)
  • is holy (v. 49)
  • is merciful across time (v. 50)
  • deposes the arrogant and powerful and lifts up the lowly (v. 51, 52)
  • feeds the hungry but sends the rich away with nothing (v. 53)

In vv. 54-55, her song comes to a climax. Among the poorest of an oppressed people, under the boot of the Roman conquerors, she praises the God who comes to the rescue! 

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever (CEB).

Rescue is a word we use less often these days, yet it’s a word with a rich heritage. As a boy, I remember singing the hymn: “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying.” In large cities in the U.S., churches sponsored “rescue missions” that ministered to men suffering from alcoholism, giving them a square meal and place to sleep in exchange for listening to a salvation sermon. (One such mission still operates in Kansas City, Missouri, ministering to men and women). The Nazarene church building in Pilot Point, Texas includes story boards of the home for unwed mothers run on the property in the early 1900s.

With such a heritage, and in-light of our God who comes to the rescue, what shall we do?

As God’s people, our call is to be like God: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). Mary’s Song fleshes out what holiness looks like. The one whose name is holy (Luke 1:49) can never be conceptualized apart from the God who acts in history. And how does God act toward people? God scatters the arrogant (v. 51), dethrones the powerful (v. 52) and leaves the rich to their own devices (v. 53). On the other hand, he empowers the lowly (vv. 48, 52) and provides for the hungry (v. 51). If this is what God coming to the rescue looks like, then it’s fair to ask ourselves:

What are we doing as a church that looks like that?

The Gospel has no political party. Our interest is always the Kingdom of God, set in motion when God incarnate came to the rescue in a manger in Bethlehem. This Christmas and always, I want to be part of the Rescue Mission. Let’s join our voices and sing Mary’s Song!


 

Image credit

Theonlysilentbob at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Role Reversal

28ae36946daf05c6172d09cad9686435-2Every married couple has to figure it out.

At the end of a long day when you’re both exhausted, it’s better to “divide and conquer.” Who will cook and who will wash the dishes?

Once in a while, it’s helpful to trade places. Do you normally cook? Tonight, clean up instead. If you typically wash the dishes, try your hand at cooking. Besides increasing versatility, role reversals let us walk in another’s shoes. Nothing fosters empathy more effectively.

Jesus modeled the Great Role Reversal. Paul captured this well:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV).

Christ, the Eternal Word, identified with us by becoming one of us. God put on skin. His name was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31) exemplifies role reversal. A man of wealth lived in luxury, oblivious to the plight of Lazarus, a sickly and hungry beggar.

[Note the subtle role reversal. Normally, everyone knows the name of a rich person, and poor people remain nameless. In Jesus’ story, the poor man has a name, and the rich man is nameless. Things work differently in God’s Kingdom!]

Jesus said that Lazarus “longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21, CEB). He lay at the pitiless rich man’s gate, where at least the dogs came and licked the poor man’s sores.

The rich man never saw the role reversal coming.

After death, Lazarus was comforted, carrried to Abraham’s side by angels (v. 22). There he found solace, while the rich man – who had also died – was tormented in the flames.  During their life on earth, Lazarus had longed for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Now, the tables are turned, and the rich man longs for a drop of water from Lazarus (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, reminding the rich man:

Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain (v. 25, CEB).

Likwise, at the close of a different parable about the coming Kingdom, Jesus concluded: “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16, NLT).

But I wonder:

Why do we need to wait until the end of time to live the Great Role Reversal?

How much closer to reflecting the Kingdom of God would our world be if those who bear Christ’s name (Christians) were willing to switch things up now?

 

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Two street children in Antananarivo, Madagascar, circa 2010

 

Gavin Rogers, a pastor from San Antonio, Texas, joined a caravan of Honduran immigrants that has been making its way north through Mexico. For five days, he chronicled the kindness and humanity he witnessed along the exhausting path. Rogers concluded: “The only Christian response to immigration is ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” He learned by coming close to people that every need has a name.

Stories like that of Lazarus or pastor Rogers and the Honduran immigrants challenge me. Unlike the rich man, I am not wealthy, yet am I not also attached to my “creature comforts”? How might God be calling me to step into the shoes of another, to journey alongside them, to see things from their point-of-view?

Jesus was the master of the Great Role Reversal. May we together learn to follow in his ways.

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Image credit: pngtree.com

Holiness and Healing: A critical book review

bohi mccorkleHow big is the “Big Tent” in the Church of the Nazarene? Evangelist Dan Bohi and Pastor Rob McCorkle have written a fascinating book that may provoke readers to ask this question with greater urgency.

Holiness and Healing (Groveport, Ohio: FSM Publishing, 2016, Kindle edition) was born out of the authors’ concern that we Nazarenes at some point dropped power from our sanctification message, focusing only upon purity. Corey Jones (who wrote the introduction) alludes to Bohi’s illustration of the Holy Spirit as a dove that can only fly if it flaps both wings simultaneously, the wing of power and the wing of purity:

The Holy Spirit’s work should result in both purity and power, in spiritual gifts and the fruit of the Spirit, and in holiness and miracles in and through the lives of believers (Kindle location 126).

This two-winged dove metaphor undergirds the rest of the book, a wide-ranging discussion of multiple topics including (among others) revival, the Five-fold ministry outlined in Ephesians 4:11-13, miracle stories, impartation, and a theology of healing.

The book gets some things right. Rob McCorkle zeroes in on the meaning of salvation. He correctly notes that the Greek word, soteria, has been too narrowly understood in the past as applying only to spiritual things. It is more than preparing individuals for heaven. Rather, “it includes deliverance, healing, and restoration” (Kindle location 816). In short, God wants to redeem all that has gone wrong, to destroy the devil’s work and all of the effects of sin upon creation (1 John 3:8). Clearly, the Church of the Nazarene affirms divine healing, as stated in our 14th Article of Faith. (See my support of this doctrine in a paper written a few years ago with the late Field Strategy Coordinator, Rev Mashangu Maluleka, of South Africa).

Bohi and McCorkle also repeatedly mention the malaise that affects the Church of the Nazarene, particularly in North America, which is their field of ministry. While there are bright spots, the decline in membership and the pace of the closing of churches (relative to new church starts) does not augur well for our future. As a missionary who has itinerated every couple of years in the U.S. on home assignment, I, too, have noted the graying of our American churches and the generally dispirited attitude in many congregations. The authors and I are of one mind in diagnosing the problem. Their proposed remedy is concerted corporate prayer coupled with a revivalism characterized by the manifestation of all nine of the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. (See Kindle location 160).

Their willingness to admit the problem and propose a solution is admirable. Nonetheless, there are difficulties with their approach, in light of Scripture. After examining those, let us consider an alternative to revivalism from the book of Acts, one that is also more in keeping with our Nazarene DNA as descendants of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement of 18th century Great Britain.

A faulty understanding of “apostle”?

Chapter 6 is entitled “An Apostolic Culture: A Biblical Model for Ministry.” Holiness and Healing espouses a re-organization of the church based on Ephesians 4:11-13. On Bohi’s and McCorkle’s reading, the Church of the Nazarene only practices three of the five roles mentioned by Paul (evangelist, pastor, and teacher). What is missing are the roles of apostles and prophets. According to the authors, the former “governs” while the latter “guides” through prophetic words (locations 1697, 1703). This appears to be close to the teachings of Alan Hirsch, an adjunct instructor at Asbury Theological Seminary and a prolific writer in the area of apostolic renewal and missional movements.

One of the postive features of the polity of the Church of the Nazarene is the checks-and-balances in-place that make for accountability. (Note: Dan Bohi is now a disrict licensed minister in the Church of the Nazarene, as announced near the beginning of this video). Rob McCorkle calls Bohi an “apostle” (location 1850). It’s not clear in Holiness and Healing how an apostle as defined by the authors would fit into our polity. (The authors recognize this problem as well). Specfically, how would “governors” be accountable? The concept seems to invest too much authority in the hands of a single individual, opening a door to the likely abuse of ecclesiastical power.

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A New Song

Greg preachingNote to the reader

I preached this sermon on Thursday, September 27, 2018 in the chapel on the L.T. Marangu campus of Africa Nazarene University (Ongata-Rongai, Kenya).

N.B. – All Scripture references are from the Common English Bible.

Text: Colossians 3:12-17

I. INTRODUCTION

Have you ever had an earworm? You know what I mean by that. Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? Maybe it was the first song you heard when you woke up, or the last song you listened to before going to sleep at night. However it happened, it’s stuck in your brain and you can’t get away from it. At first, it was pleasant, but how that you’re hearing it for the 57th time, it’s just plain annoying. In fact, if you don’t get the song out of your head soon, it’s going to drive you crazy! What do you need? A new song, a better song. To drive out the old, find something new.

II.  TRANSITION TO COLOSSIANS 3:12-17

In Colossians 3:16, Paul invites us to sing a new song, a better song. He writes:

The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

III.  THE OLD SONG

Earlier in chapter 3, Paul details the sour notes of the old song. These are the dischordant strains, the off-key melodies of the life of sin and selfishness. Verse 5 lists these practices: sexual immorality, moral corruption, lust, evil desire, and greed. Then v. 8 adds anger, rage, malice, slander, and obscene language. Verse 9 wraps up the list with a simple command: “Don’t lie to each other.”

These 11 practices, this dirty laundry list, make up the old song we used to sing before we came to Christ. But now, God has given us the Holy Spirit. The Lord has put a new song in our hearts, a better song. Verse 2 puts it this way:

Think about the things above and not things on earth. You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (CEB).

If we continue in our old ways, in the ways of sin and disobedience to God, there will be a price to pay. I’ve never met a person who practices the 11 sins Paul enumerates who in the long run is well-adjusted and who lives in peace and contentment. And the reason is simple: Every one of the practices mentioned – in one way or another – destroys community.

This is Africa, where Ubuntu teaches us that “I am because we are.” Yet greed, moral corruption, rage, and slander (to mention a few) push others away. And in the end, this old bitter song on our lips will have people plugging their ears so they don’t have to listen to it. You will be singing off-key, all alone.

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A more excellent way: An open letter to my fellow clergy

clerical collar.jpgI opened my e-mail today and found a message from my state Board of Elections. In less than 2 months, Americans will go to the polls and cast their vote for many elected offices. These range from local Sheriffs, city council members, state representatives, governors, judges, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Politics has always fascinated me, since the day in 1974 that the honorable Rep. Barber Conable came to my 6th grade class in Spencerport, NY. Later, his opponent visited as well. At the end, we had an unofficial in-class vote, and Rep. Conable was handily re-elected. To this day, I’m not sure how my social studies teacher managed to get such a high-powered duo to come visit, but it left a deep impression on me:

I learned that voting was something every good citizen should do.

But as much as I appreciate the importance of taking part in the democratic process, with time, its many flaws have left me hungry for a better way. Maybe it’s because Jesus taught his followers to pray:

Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

With each attack ad, with each half-truth or outright lie uttered by candidates, all in a bid to gain or keep power, I become more anxious for the day when King Jesus will return and take his throne (Rev. 19:4). He is the one who is “true and just” (Rev. 19:2). We can count on him to lead us with integrity and love.

But meanwhile we live here on this earth. How shall we as members of the clergy carry ourselves in the run-up to elections? Here are two suggestions:

  1. Maintain political neutrality. There’s an increasing tendency among my fellow members of the clergy to speak out for candidates of one party or another. In so doing, the danger is that we will be seen as operatives of the GOP or the Democratic Party instead of (like Paul), an ambassador of the Gospel (Ephesians 6:20). This unwise taking sides shows up in various ways. It may be allowing for the distribution in church of a “voters’ guide” which is really no more than a thinly-veiled means of pushing one party’s candidates. Or perhaps we used to pray regularly during worship for the nation’s highest official. But now? We never pray for the new leader. People notice the subtle signals that we as their spiritual leaders send.
  2. Use social media wisely. Today, the “pulpit” is no longer limited to the piece of furniture that sits at the front of the sanctuary. Choosing to bash politicians online lowers us to the level of partisan hacks. Instead of using our social media megaphone to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11), we loudly condemn the latest comments from high elected officials. The danger is that by routinely criticizing every remark, we become nothing more than background noise, easily tuned out. When the key moment comes when I as a messenger of the Lord must speak a prophetic word, I no longer have the ear of my listeners because I’ve foolishly forfeited it long ago. If a sermon is carefully prepared and prayed over, why should it be any less for a Facebook status or a Tweet? Whether during an election season or other times, ask yourself:

Will this comment attract people to Christ or drive them away?

Jesus opens his arms and invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). His invitation is non-partisan. It is extended to one-and-all, regardless of political persuasion. As preachers, when we maintain political neutrality and use social media wisely, we commend all comers to the only One who can unite us, our Christ who breaks down walls (Ephesians 2:14). In troubled times, is that not a more excellent way?

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Image credit: Test Everything Blog