Category Archives: Epiphany Season

Love your what?

Readings
Genesis 45.3-11, 15
Luke 6.27-38

After I finished my lecture Professor Jürgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’ It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called ‘četnik’ had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a četnik—the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would justify the embrace? Where would I draw the strength for it? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. ‘No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.’ — Miroslav Volf, Preface to Exclusion and Embrace

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Perhaps you’ve heard this before: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’ Or so they say.

Joseph’s brothers were lucky he didn’t subscribe to that little piece of wisdom. They had thrown him into a hole, sold him to slave traders, and never expected to see him again. Years later, they were begging for food while he had risen to the top in Egypt. Now, they were at his mercy. Would there be any mercy, or would they get what they deserved? Would they get the reward for their dreadful actions toward Joseph, or could something else be born out of their situation?

Well, the story goes, Joseph treated them with grace. Unmerited favour. And Jesus today speaks about treating people with grace, even our enemies.

One of our kids came out from preschool after his first day there. His face was beaming, and I wondered what he would say to me about his day. Excitedly he said to me, ‘Dad, I made two […pause…] enemies today!’ I never did get to the bottom of that; but most of us like to think we don’t have any enemies. 

But suppose you do. Just suppose there’s someone in your past or present who’s tried to do you harm. To damage your reputation, or undermine you at work, or just dead-head your favourite flowers in the garden. It could be anything. Enemies don’t all come in one size or shape. They’re not necessarily obvious at first. 

(Maybe you really don’t have any enemies; but there may be people who annoy you, irritate you or rub you up the wrong way…)

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Readings
1 Corinthians 12.12–31a
Luke 4.14–21

We held a long-planned service last week, and so held our Day of Mourning service today rather than last Sunday. In this service, we remember the truth of our history and honour the culture of Australia’s First Peoples, their families and the next generations.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. — Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

In choosing this passage from Isaiah to read in his hometown synagogue, [Jesus] announces the year of the jubilee, that all-bets-are-off year described in detail in Leviticus 25. Debts forgiven, slaves freed, bad real-estate transactions redeemed—economic, agrarian, and even domestic life in the year of jubilee will be quite unlike life as most people live it, which is why scholars have had their doubts about whether the jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel. — Feasting on the Gospels—Luke, Vol.1

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I’d like to make two brief comments today. The first is to quote St Paul:

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

We often talk about being church members, but I’m not sure we always get what St Paul meant. We’re not members of the church like being members of a book club or a knitting circle. 

We’re members of the church like being members of a body—the body of Christ. We don’t often use the word ‘member’ like that these days, but Paul is using the word ‘member’ to mean organs, or parts, of a body.

The closest we get these days is watching a grisly forensic pathology show on tv where someone ‘dismembers’ their victim. 

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

We do know that. I know what it’s like to have back problems, and when your back really hurts that’s all you can think about. Or if you have a really bad toothache, or you have a spot on your skin that’s looking like it’s changing. You tend to focus on that.

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

That’s an indication of how close we are to be in the church. You may not feel close to every single person to that degree, but it’s beyond sad when a member isn’t that close to anyone in the church. 

A lot of members of Christ’s body have suffered in our lifetimes. We can name asylum seekers, LGBTIQ people, or the First Peoples of this country. 

When they suffer, we all suffer. And the church does suffer, even if individuals within the church don’t care at all. The church suffers because it becomes known as a place where people don’t care. A house of hypocrisy.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress has done a great job of reminding us of what has been done to First Peoples; it has sought to exercise its own life and make its own decisions within the Uniting Church; it has invited us to go further in covenanting with them; it has challenged us to recognise continuing Indigenous sovereignty; and it has extended a gracious hand of forgiveness and fellowship to us as Second Peoples. Yet, 

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

Indigenous people have suffered since Europeans came to this land, and they continue to suffer.

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Spirit-wind, Spirit-fire

Readings
Acts 8.14–17
Luke 3.15–17, 21–22

Baptism is Christ’s gift.
It is the sign by which the Spirit of God
joins people to Jesus Christ
and incorporates them into his body, the Church.

In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity
in its brokenness and sin;
that baptism was completed in his death and resurrection.
By God’s grace,
baptism plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ,
so that whatever is his may be called ours.
By water and the Spirit we are claimed as God’s own
and set free from the power of sin and death.

Thus, claimed by God
we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit
that we may live as witnesses to Jesus Christ,
share his ministry in the world and grow to maturity,
awaiting with hope the day of our Lord Jesus. — from Uniting in Worship 2

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Some of you know that I used to be part of an Open Brethren congregation as a young man. When the Brethren talk about baptism, they seem to be describing quite a different thing to baptism in churches like the Uniting Church. 

Briefly, the Brethren only baptise adults. And they say that a person should only be baptised once they have been converted, once they are someone who ‘has’ the Holy Spirit inside them. 

We baptise people of any age. I’ve baptised old people, children, babies—including babies that were about to die. 

What can a baby who is about to die bring to the life of the church? We don’t baptise people for what they can bring to us, although a dying baby brings so very much. We baptise people to declare and demonstrate the infinite grace of the triune God. 

Why did John baptise people? Luke tells us that John the Baptiser

went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… 

‘A baptism of repentance.’ What on earth was that?

Well, to repent is to change your mind, it is to turn around and move in another direction. John’s baptism signified a change of life. 

According to Luke (3.15), 

the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…

But John was preparing the way for the Messiah, Jesus. And repentance, changing your life, was the way to prepare.

And when the Messiah came, John said,

He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

What on earth?

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A New Authority

Reading
Mark 1.21–28

…the unclean spirit recognises Jesus, yet the crowd’s reaction focusses instead on Jesus’ authority, not his demonically disclosed identity! Through this ‘secret’ readers are brought in on an insight that characters in the story fail to notice. The upshot is that neither the miraculous exorcism, nor even authoritative teaching, is sufficient for faith. This also underlines the fragility of the gospel promise that Jesus embodies. – David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries), (Kindle Locations 973-975), Fortress Press, Kindle Edition.

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Capernaum, on the shores of Lake Galilee, was where Jesus had made his home. It is in the synagogue of Capernaum that today’s story is set. My wife and I were standing there in the ruined synagogue almost five years ago, on a journey to Israel. From memory, the current structure dates from somewhere around the third century. However, you can see at its base a darker stone which dates from the first century. Jesus would have seen this same stone.

This is the very site at which

the people who heard [Jesus] were amazed at the way he taught, for he wasn’t like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority.

The people in Capernaum were amazed. Gobsmacked. At the way Jesus taught, and at his authority over the demonic spirit.

But amazement was not enough. It wasn’t what Jesus was looking for.

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Jonah’s Backstory

Readings
Jonah 3.1–5, 10
Mark 1.14–20

The LORD is nothing if not persistent, always ready to begin again. But this time things should be different. For Jonah is not just starting over again; he has been given a new life out of the depths of Sheol, like Israel freed from exile in Babylon, like a man buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life. The second half of the book of Jonah tells the story of one reborn from the dead. — Phillip Cary, Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 2279-2282). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Often, I find when I’m at the funeral of an older person that they had a very interesting backstory over their long life. I think, I wish I’d known about that before. I would have loved to have heard more about that!

But it’s too late.

People are much more interesting when you know their backstory. All you have to do is ask questions! It’s a great way to get to know someone.

We have two stories of people called to God’s service today: Jonah the runaway prophet; and the disciples Simon and Andrew, James and John.

People sometimes try to invent a backstory for the four disciples, to explain why they followed Jesus so immediately. They must have met Jesus at some earlier time. But Mark gives us nothing.  Mark wants us to see that the power of Jesus’ call summons them away from their boats and their nets, and into a new life. It’s almost as if  the word of Jesus has recreated them.

But today, I want to look more at the main character, Jonah, and his backstory. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the Bible. It’s only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home—it’s far more than a story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t always like that. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, and not a hero at all.

Jonah flees to Tarshish when God calls him to speak out against Nineveh. Nineveh was the superpower of the time; it was a bit like God saying to me, ‘Ok Paul, I want you to go to North Korea and tell Kim Jong Un to change his ways’. I’d be off in a flash, somewhere the back of Bourke.

Tarshish was a ‘back of Bourke’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. God can’t reach me there, he thought.

We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights he is thrown up. While in the fish, he has time to sing a psalm.

After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins to cooperate with God.

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Love your neighbour—seriously?

Readings
Leviticus 19.1–2, 12–18
Matthew 5.38–48

Christianity is always political. But not in the ways we imagine—for the Beatitudes are its constitution, and love is its only law.
Diana Butler Bass

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I’m going to say something a congregation rarely hears from me. Are you ready? It’s this: ‘Let us listen to what the Book of Leviticus has to say to us today.’ That doesn’t happen often.

Leviticus is slap-bang in the middle of the so-called ‘Books of Moses’, the books that form the basis of Jewish law. It is number three of the five books of the law. It follows Genesis and Exodus, and is in turn followed by Numbers and Deuteronomy. Most of Leviticus deals with rules about the priesthood and also about daily life—for example, what you can and cannot eat or wear, and what are proper—and improper—sexual relations.

It reads oddly to us; what can you expect? It was written a long time ago. It’s a ragbag. Different topics are jumbled together, nestling cheek by jowl.

The passage we read tonight ends with ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.

That’s a very high theme; but it is immediately followed by laws about not breeding different animals together, not wearing clothes of mixed fabric, and then rules about what happens when a man has sexual relations with a female slave.

Leviticus is a mixed bag.

But when Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment, he says (Matthew 22.37–40)

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [and] ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Then he says, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Remember the Golden Rule that fulfils the law and the prophets?

Jesus is quoting from two books of the law. ‘You shall love the Lord your God…’ comes from Deuteronomy 6.5. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ is from our passage today. Leviticus 19.18.

From among all the laws in Leviticus about not wearing polyester-cotton shirts and not eating bacon or prawns and when you’re ritually clean or unclean, Jesus zeroes in on this one. We should look at it more closely. Jesus did.

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But I say unto you…

 

Epiphany 6A, 12 February 2017

Readings
Matthew 5.21–37

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated.
Basis of Union, para. 5

The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. ― Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth

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We’ve got unfinished business from last week, and it’s not about cooking with salt.

It is about last week’s reading though. We didn’t look at the whole thing.

After his words that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus said,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil… (Matthew 5.17)

What does Jesus mean about not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it?

Some people concentrate on not abolishing the law. Let me tell you about someone I knew at school.

When I was at school, one of the lads in our class was a Seventh-Day Adventist.

Seventh-Day Adventists have a very strong witness of keeping the law as it is written in the Bible. Yet much as I may admire them, I respectfully disagree with them.

My schoolfriend and I had a lot of conversations about which day should we worship, Saturday or Sunday; and whether we should eat bacon. (Now, I’m a bacon fan! Don’t try to convert me to a religion that bans bacon. It won’t work.)

I can’t remember all the details anymore, but my friend would have looked at this verse and said that Jesus had not come to abolish the law; therefore, Christians should obey the Old Testament laws. To the letter.

That meant keeping the Sabbath. On Saturdays only. And no sneaky bacon sandwiches behind the bike sheds.

The Gospel of Matthew presents us with a Jesus who does not abandon the law. Yet Matthew also says Jesus has come to fulfil the law. More than that, he says

unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

What does that mean? How can our righteousness exceed that of people who spent their lives searching how to obey the law?

Was my school friend right? Do we need to follow the Old Testament law to the letter? Not only a life with no bacon, but let me add—no prawns either?

Today’s reading shows us how Jesus fulfils the law; it is by deepening its meaning, by drawing it down into our hearts. But first, let’s just stay with last week’s Gospel just for a moment.

What does Jesus say again?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil…

The prophets are in there too. What does Jesus mean by mentioning ‘the prophets’?

In many instances, ‘the prophets’ took the law of Israel and deepened it. They interpreted the law for their day.

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