Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father At Work

Father at Work

(This sermon was preached in Kamuning United Methodist Church on Father's Day).

Today we read about two parables from the Gospel of Mark, the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The Gospel of Mark is full of stories and images about the kingdom of God, about making God the king in our hearts, about making disciples of Jesus. That is our calling as Christians, to be disciples of Jesus and grow into Christ-likeness. The Parable of the Growing Seed is a story unique only to the Gospel of Mark and so this parable may emphasize an important message about our discipleship and growth as Christians after the seed of faith has been planted in our hearts. This theme is rightly so on Father’s Day. We know that Fathers want nothing less but for their children to grow in the right way and maximize their potential. Our Father in heaven definitely wants nothing less than to see the seed of faith planted in our hearts to grow and that this growth will lead us into Christian perfection. Let me be gender sensitive here, when we say heavenly Father to refer to God, we do not mean that God is a man for he has no gender. But I want to emphasize God’s Fatherly attribute of wanting nothing less than for his children to grow in faith to grow into holiness just as our Father in heaven is holy.

But how does the seed of faith grow?

The first parable is about the mysterious growth of the seed. The word “seed” in our Gospel comes from the Greek word sporos or spiro which also means “to scatter.” And Jesus was telling about the parable of the growing seed to describe the kingdom of God. What do we think or imagine when you hear the word kingdom of God. Not just any other kingdom, but the kingdom of God. And that kingdom of God is established here on earth. Maybe you think about castles in heaven. Or pearly gates. And not only glorious structures but also powerful and influential systems made up of strong, cultured and well-educated people. That’s what a kingdom looks like. And if that is the kingdom of the God of the universe, then it should be the best kingdom the world has ever known. To be able to build and grow that kingdom, you have to plan well. You have to strategize. You have to plan about your budget. Strategize how to raise that budget, what materials to use, when do you start and when will construction end. You have to organize what needs to be done and who are the point person in charge. You have to plan what should be accomplished within a timeframe? That is how you establish a kingdom. You have to plan, strategize, organize and think of a formula. And so imagine the shock of the people when they heard Jesus say, that the kingdom of God is like a little seed that you will scatter. “Ikakalat” mo. No plans or organizing needed. Ikalat mo lang. Building God’s kingdom should be almost in a disorganized, non-specific and non-systematic manner. Just plant the seed without plan, without strategizing where it will fall. At best, the sower can only plan to direct if he wants to scatter the seeds in the left or the right but he does not plan on which specific area the seed should grow nor how many feet away from the other seeds or other meticulous planning and strategizing. Imagine building a kingdom through a disorganized and unsystematic manner. That is an absurd idea. It almost guarantees that such kingdom will be a failure.

Planning and organizing has been essential part of our lives to ensure that our goals are met. Just think of the time when you were a kid and you were planning to be somebody when you grow up. You were planning to be the president of the Philippines, a well-traveled stewardess, an adventurous astronaut, a famous model, a professional basketball player or any other profession. The good father works hard to ensure that their kids will grow up to their potential. As we grow up we keep working out our plan to grow up the way we wanted to be. Because we know careful planning and organizing is key to achieving success. But Jesus said, the kingdom of God will grow without such plan and strategy. Just like the kids who did not end up growing as they planned, they still grew up to be fine man and woman because their father worked hard for their future. And so absurd as it may sound, God’s kingdom will grow even if there is no plan, even if it’s in a random and disorganized manner. Only because our Father is working, God is at work to grow the seed of faith.

And then we read that the farmer will sleep then wake-up and sleep again and do almost nothing, yet the seed will mysteriously grow although we may not see it. This is even more intriguing. How can we say the seed grew if we do not see evidence?

Alam niyo mga kapatid, we always fall on this trap. We always look for signs that a person has grown in his faith. We want to see the seed grow forgetting that the seed takes time to grow and the seed may in fact be growing underneath the earth away from our perception. Because we do not see the how the seed grow does not mean it is not growing. Even I fell on this trap. I lead a Bible Study group in my work place for three years now. And for the longest time I have been frustrated because I do not see any evidence that my co-workers are growing in their faith. I tried so hard to make the Bible Study interesting, I tried to encourage them to actively participate in our study, and sometimes I ask them to lead in the prayer or share some insights about the Bible. I gave my best effort hoping to see fruits that my co-workers are growing in their faith. Nut I still see no fruits. Well last month, I was away for almost a month, they told me that they missed the weekly Bible Study that we have. It turned out that our bible study group was the closest thing that they have to a spiritual family. And it was a venue for them to grow in their faith. I said, how can you grow in your faith when I do not see any fruit. I mean I do not see you volunteer to lead our bible study, or lead the group in prayer or any other similar signs. These are the signs I wanted to see. Because I do not see it, I thought they were not growing in faith. Two of them said, their actions may not have drastically changed but in their heart they felt the real presence of God in their life. Another one said, he has now been an active member of a Christian fellowship group in his residence since last year after being encouraged by our work. But one older doctor really had me reflecting, she said, “I don’t have confidence to pray aloud in our big group but now I always pray before meals.” And I realized that it was true. “Sya yung sumisigaw every lunch time namin, kasi sabay sabay kami kumakain sa office.” She would shout, “O pray na tayo.” I have taken that for granted when two years ago, it was a typical workplace where people would just grab a food and eat without praying. There are simple things that we do not see as signs of growth in the seed of faith in people’s hearts.

How does the seed of faith grow when we do not see it?

Most often we want to see the fruit before we say the seed has grown. Yet we forget that, even when we do not see it, even when slower than we expect, even when it was not to our expectations, our Father is working, God is at work to grow the seed of faith.

Here is another problem. Because we do not see the mysterious growth of the seed, we think our effort is necessary to help it grow. We think human work is important to build the kingdom of God. Our lack of understanding about the mystery of faith is exemplified at different levels with our typical attitude towards a person we think needs to grow his faith, needs to be changed and become Christian. And so we plot to do something so his faith will grow. When I was a UMYF, my professor was also my campus minister. I was so impressed by his passion in leading our group. He told me that campus ministry was his ministry. And so he asked me to invite some of my friends to attend an evangelistic night with an American Pastor. Someone that needs me to grow into a better Christian. When it was time for the altar call, the preacher said, “all those who felt that God is calling you, come to the altar.” Nung nakita nila yung baguhan kong kasama na hindi lumapit sa altar, the pastor went down from the pulpit and stood in front of us and said, “don’t be ashamed to come to God, just take that one step, and come to the Lord so you will be blessed.” I looked at my companion as if to signal him but he whispered to me, “hindi ko nararamdaman na tinatawag ako eh.” And so when my friend still did not come, when almost everybody who was new was kneeling in front, the pastor called some of the worship leaders and they circled around my friend as if they will gang up on him. So my friend was probably intimidated kaya sumama na din siya and he knelt in front. But that left a lot of question in my heart. What does the campus minister mean that this was his ministry? Isn’t it God’s ministry? And he was just taking part of God’s ministry? Bakit niya inaangkin na sa kanya yung ministry nay yun? And what did he mean that there are people who need me, my help to become better Christians? What can I do to make other people better Christians? Isn’t it God’s work to grow people’s faith? And what does it mean that the preacher almost wanted to drag my friend to come to the altar call? Was God too slow to change my friend’s heart that God needed the preacher’s help? This is an example of how ignorant we are to the work of God thus we try to put human effort to grow the seeds when faith is supposed to be the work of God.

In 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 we read, What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” It is clear that God alone grows and increases our faith. If there was human effort, it is nothing but part of God’s work. With or without the human effort, God will mysteriously work.

Our great Methodist founder, John Wesley said, that the growth of the seed is a growth toward Christian holiness and it is possible by God’s grace alone. Wesley said just as the earth will grow the seed into a shoot, an ear and a corn God’s grace will move us toward justification, then sanctification and ends with our glorification. Wesley understood that our faith journey to Christian perfection is only possible through the grace of God. No human response is possible apart from God’s grace. Similarly, the growth of the Kingdom of God is not dependent to human work. Human effort has nothing to do with growing the seed of faith. We are not the ones who will build God’s kingdom. So we ask ourselves, how does the seed of faith grow? God’s kingdom will grow not because men are at work. It is because our Father is working, God is at work in growing the seed of faith.

Not only does the kingdom of God grow regardless of human effort, the kingdom of God can grow and will grow even if it starts from something small.

The parable of the mustard seed tells us that even a tiny thing known to man is enough to build a kingdom. A mustard seed is a very small seed almost similar to the seed that we see in a burger bun. And that is the smallest seed known to the Jews during the time of Jesus. It is indeed amazing to imagine that such a small seed can make an entire farm field be covered with the mustard weed. Yet, the fact is that small seed will grow up and notoriously spread itself. When it has grown big, it will attract birds which in turn will help spread the mustard seeds to grow in other areas. As the new mustard seed grows and spread more birds will come and more seeds will scatter. And almost an entire field will be covered by this unwanted weed. It would be nice to think that the point of the parable is to compare the growth of the kingdom of God with the spread of the mustard weed. We must understand that the mustard seed grows into a weed, something that farmers don’t like. The Greek word for mustard seed is sinapi or sinomai which also means to sting or hurt. The mustard seed indeed grows into a weed that hurt and destroys the other crops in the field that is why farmers crop it out. And yet despite the cropping out of the farmers, despite the suppression it gets, the tiny mustard seed will continue to grow and spread. More importantly, the weed that is despised by farmers will ironically attract birds that will help it spread more its seed. Such is the kingdom of God. It will be unwanted and its growth will be suppressed by people, circumstances and events. They will try to weed it out to prevent its spread. Despite that, God is at work in growing the little seed of faith.

My dear brothers and sisters, there will be farmers who will try to weed out and suppress the growth of our faith, there will be people who will destroy our faith, there will be circumstances where our faith will be shaken, there will be events where our faith will be tested, there will be division among our churches, there will be quarrels in our congregations, hurtful words that will be thrown against us, there will be false accusations, there will be retaliations, there will be aggression, there will be violence, friends will stab us in the back, there will be broken relationships between parent and child or between husband and wife, there will be brokenness, we will hate church, we will hate church members, there will be hatred, there will be dwindling membership, there will be finger pointing, there will be losses, we will loss friends and family members, we will be discouraged, there will be temptations, there will be difficulties and challenges, in our lives, in our relationships, in our work, in our home, in our church, and all these will happen to destroy our faith – to suppress the growth of the tiny little seed of faith in our heart. How can the seed of faith grow and spread with all these difficulties? The good news my dear brothers and sisters, is that our Father is working. God is still at work in growing the little seed of faith in our hearts. And the little seed in your heart will, despite and inspite of everything, it will attract another person which will plant another seed of faith in that other person’s heart. And it will attract another person and the seed of faith will continue to spread. All this will happen because of a tiny mustard seed. All this is possible because God is at work.

My dear brothers and sisters, when we do not see the sprout from the seed, when we do not see the outcomes we have envisioned, when everything did not come out as we have expected, or when our faith is being destroyed, do not despair. God is not yet finished. Remember the good news you have heard today, our Father is still working, God is still at work.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Circuit Rider

The Circuit Rider
       To discuss the biblical basis for the itinerant system of our church
       To remind pastors the difficult but rewarding task of being sent in the name of Christ and their task of sharing the grace of God for the sanctification of the church
       To remind churches of their task in continuing the ministry and maintaining the health of the local churches

Whenever I lead the Bible Study in our workplace, I always ask questions.  So to give a twist on this Bible reflection, I will ask some questions and raise your hands if you know the answer. So for the first question:
       Who is the famous circuit rider, also one of the first American Methodist Bishops, that become iconic with the image of a horse rider?
a)      John Wesley
b)      Francis Asbury
c)       Thomas Coke
The correct answer is b.) Francis Asbury. John Wesley also rode the horse and he indeed travelled great distance to preach the gospel. Despite being credited as the founder of Methodism, Wesley was not an American Bishop. That distinction belongs to Asbury and Coke who were consecrated at the same time as Bishops of American Methodist. Although both travelled on horseback, it was Francis Asbury who became associated with the circuit rider. His iconic image of riding the horse is a monument found in Drew University.
The circuit rider has been a name used to refer to the early Methodist preachers in America. As the name suggest, they are riding a horse to move around their circuit, the circuit is composed of many congregations. For his part, Bishop Asbury travelled 6,000 miles each year to preach. Do you have any idea how far that is? The Philippines is 1150 miles from the tip of Luzon to the end of Mindanao. That means Bishop Asbury rode the horse from Luzon to Mindanao at least six times within a year. And to think he had to do that every year. The distance is already a very tiring task to imagine. Add to that the dangers of travelling in a forest, the exhaustion of the body, the loneliness, the discomfort and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Yet, the circuit riders went on. Now, if being sent as a circuit rider was a difficult and challenging task the question begs to be asked:
        Why did John Wesley sent Circuit Riders to preach the gospel?
a)      It was part of his theological understanding of doing the mission
b)      It was a strategy adapted from the Bible to reach the wide field for evangelism
c)        All of the above
In her Theology of Mission paper, Pastor Jody Spiak noted that John Wesley saw practical and theological reasons in sending circuit riders.[1]
John Wesley wrote in a letter in 1756, "We have found by long and consistent experience that a frequent exchange of preachers is best. This preacher has one talent, that another; no one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.”[2]
She added that the itinerant system of sending preachers was Wesley’s practical solution to the Great Commission. It is Wesley’s Theology of mission.
The itinerant system is a Wesleyan Theology of Mission[3]. It is a response to the concept of Missio Dei – God is a missionary God. The task of the church is not to do mission but to be part of the mission of God. Just as God the Father sent Jesus, so are we sent to the world to do the mission of God. Do you remember where can we find this verse?
       Where  can we find this verse, “Peace be unto you, as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you?”
a)      John 20:21-22
b)      John 11:35

We are sent. That is clear in John 20. In that chapter, Jesus was about to leave his disciples. He showed himself to them after his resurrection and commissioned them.First, Jesus appointed them to go on with his work, spread his gospel, and set up of his kingdom. The disciples were sent the way Jesus was sent. But the question we need to ask ourselves, how was Jesus sent? If we are to be sent just like Jesus, we should know how Jesus was sent. And that will be the model we will follow in performing the mandate that was given to us. So let us look, how was Jesus sent?
Read John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38
In Henry’s Commentary, Jesus was sent, not to be ministered to, but to minister. Jesus was not to do his own will, but the will of him that sent him – the Father. He was not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fill them up. As the Father sent Jesus to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, so he sends us into all the world to find the lost. This is how we must also behave if we are to be sent like Jesus was sent.
Read John 8:29; 2 Cor. 5:9-11; Eph. 5:10; 1 Cor. 7:32; Phil. 3:7-8
In the following verses, we see that Christ was sent not to please Himself, but to please His Sender. In a posted Biblical reflection, the author noted that the danger of doing mission is we try so much to reach out to people by pleasing them when in fact it displeases God. [4] He then continued the reflection with the following verses.
Read John 3:34; 7:16; 12:49-50
Here we find in these verses that Christ was sent into the world, not with His own words and doctrine, but with the words and doctrine of His Sender.[5]
Read John 8:29; Matthew 28:20
         After Jesus was sent, he elaborated that the one who sent him did not send him alone. The Holy Spirit was always with him and so it will be with those Jesus will send. These verses are very comforting knowing that the mission we are tasked to do is difficult and full of challenges. The itinerant system that we Methodists go through every year is met with anxiety both by the “circuit riders” and the “parishioners.” There will be dangers and trials  to where we will be sent but as Wesley said, “the best of all, God is with us.”
        As we end our holy conferencing and go to our different church appointments, let me leave you with these words for reflection. Pastor Spiak asked these similar question but let me frame it in our present context. Despite a strong missional theological basis for our itinerant system, we have focused too much on the system of “sending/appointments” to which we resist so much. I believe that we only resist the system because we “forgot” the theology behind it. Now, my challenge is - how can we re-claim the missionary purpose of itinerancy? In the same way, how can the local churches reclaim its active participation in the missionary purpose of our itinerancy?

[2] The Encyclopaedia of World Methodism, Vol 1. 1974
[3] John Nuessle,
[5] Ibid.