Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Year A 2017 - 5th Sunday after Epiphany

Text Matthew 5:13-20 - Salting the world

When I read the bible reading for today the first thing I did was googled “can salt lose its saltiness.
Apart from the bible reading I’ve never heard of it before – and apparently no one else had either.
According to the responses that I read it was said – salt simply can’t lose its saltiness.
So what was Jesus speaking about when he said that?
Did he have his understanding of salt wrong?
Well, I don’t believe so.
I believe that what Jesus was referring to was when salt was not doing the task it was intended to do.
Salt has various applications but the ones that come to mind and which could be seen as something Jesus would see as applying to the church would include:
Salt a a purifying agent; a preservative; and providing taste.
Salt as a purifying agent
Salt can be used for healing.
Some people gargle salt water when they have a sore throat or infection.
Some people find that going to the beach can heal cuts and abrasions in their skin with the salt water.
Likewise the church can bring healing to a person who is hurting or grieving.
The church can bring comfort in times of distress.
But salt can also be used in the wrong way in times of hurt and we are familiar with the term “rubbing salt into a wound”.
Likewise the church can also bring hurt during times of difficulty or suffering when it focuses on blame and judgment as to why that person is suffering.
How often don’t we hear people say – “I must have done something terrible to be suffering like this”?
A person who is hurting doesn’t need to hear the cause of the hurt – they need to hear the comfort God brings.
A person who knows that they have done the wrong thing doesn’t need to be reminded of what they have done wrong – they need to hear the word of forgiveness – that God loves them.
When Jesus came and spent time with the “tax collectors and sinners” he was criticised by the righteous Pharisees because they felt he should be spending time with them and not those who disobeyed God.
And Jesus reminded them “"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17).
Jesus came to heal the hurting people.
When the woman was caught in adultery and the righteous people wanted to put her to death, Jesus told them to look at their own sin while the woman who knew she had done wrong was forgiven by Jesus.
So often the church has brought hurt rather than healing which is when the salt of the church loses its saltiness.
Salt as a preservative.
Salt is used as a preservative and especially before we had refrigeration it was an essential preservative.
Today salt is misused as a preservative.
As we look at a lot of our refined goods they are laden with salt where nutrients are lost so that shelf-life can be increased.
And we know that those salt laden foods are not good for us and the cause of so much obesity.
Likewise the church can sometimes preserve too much.
It’s a fine balance where we don’t want to throw out everything so we can be like the world but we also don’t want to lose touch with the world.
So the church has changed some of the older traditional ways – modernising the Lord’s Prayer while preserving its meaning  – modernising the language of the bible while preserving the accuracy – modernising its music while preserving its focus on God.
But the church can sometimes misuse preservation.
So often the church’s message has been along the lines of – you need to change your ways and then you can come back to God.
In those cases the church has preserved its ways and it’s the world that needs to come back.
But as we look at Jesus’ ministry – he went out to the people where they were.
He didn’t change the ways of God but because the people had strayed from God’s ways didn’t mean that he didn’t go out to them.
Like the woman caught in adultery.
He went out to her to bring her grace, love and forgiveness to restore her relationship with God and only after that he said – go and sin no more.
He didn’t tell to her go and sin no more before you can experience God’s love and grace and forgiveness.
And so the church has often been seen as a relic of the past and the people have not come back.
People see the church as being preserved in a time past and that it is no longer relevant.
But we know that’s not true.
The church is always relevant because God’s grace always needs to be experienced.
And remember what Jesus said – he is the same yesterday, today and forever.
We don’t change our ways as Jesus said –
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”. (Matthew 5:18)
But what we do is we apply God’s love into a situation to restore.
Luther used the term “3rd use of the law” to explain the commandments as a response of love towards God’s love for us and not to receive God’s love.
Restoring a person is different to preserving.
Salt providing taste
Salt is an important ingredient in drawing out or supplementing flavour.
Can you imagine fish n chips without salt?
Even the most expensive restaurant with a world class chef as its cook will have salt on the table.
Salt, used properly will enhance and draw out flavour.
Salt is different to tomato sauce which we pour on our food to perhaps disguise or cover up the taste of food.
Likewise Jesus calls on the church to be the salt in the world.
And it does that when it brings flavour to the world by seeing God’s blessings in things.
When the church goes out into the world and takes God’s love and blessings into people’s lives.
But salt can lose its “saltiness” when it is misused.
When we put too much salt on food it can totally ruin the taste and all you taste is the salt.
And so too the church can lose its saltiness when it goes out into the world but fails to provide a source of blessings in the world.
When the church divides the world into good and evil.
When it sees things that it disagrees with as “evil” or works of the devil rather than seeing it as part of the smorgasbord of God’s creation.
The church struggles in contemporary ways and can be guilty of condemning rather than supporting and understanding.
And that’s why so many of our younger demographic feel estranged from the church.
They feel that the church is not bringing a message it understands or relates to.
And that’s when it loses its saltiness.
That’s when people reject the church’s message because all it sees it as is an organisation that condemns and rejects and turns people away.
We’ve all heard criticisms of the church and heard images of the church that do not resemble what Jesus’ true meaning for the church was.
The Church was established by Jesus to be his presence in the world – a presence that is to bring grace into the world to restore people’s relationship with God.
And that relationship is restored through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for our sins not by obedience.
It was “WHILE” we were yet sinners that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)
As St Paul says today:
I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
If we are to be salt in the world that also needs to be our message too – a message of Jesus Christ and his death for us.
His death was to bring God grace and love and forgiveness and restoration – true salt.
Let us not lose that saltiness by bringing something other than salt of Jesus Christ so we may enhance the flavour of God into the world.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Year A 2017 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:1-12 - Blessed by looking outside of ourselves

The phrase which we heard over and over again during the American Presidential campaign by Donald Trump and in his inauguration speech was “make America great”.
And he said that the way he was going to do that was by “putting Americans first”.
Making America Great – Putting Americans First.
Basically he is saying that if something is not in the best interests of Americans then he is going to scrap it including any trade deals with other countries.
It spoke to a lot of people because it’s the fundamental thinking of human beings and it is used by marketing quite frequently.
Make your life great by putting yourself first.
That’s the basic message of marketing.
It’s the underlying human condition as we seek the best for our lives.
Jesus tackles this type thinking as he sits with the people and preaches to them his first sermon which has become known as “The Sermon on the Mount” or the Beatitudes.
It was a sermon that challenged the “me first” thinking that goes right back to Adam and Eve and the “you will be like God” promise made to them by Satan:
You will be great – your eyes will be opened and you will be like God – was the trick Satan used.
It was the same trick that Satan tried on Jesus when he tempted him to put himself first:
Turn these rocks into bread – put yourself first and eat if you’re hungry.
Throw yourself from the temple and see if God loves you enough.
Bow down and worship me and I will make you great by giving you all the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus turns this around and says that greatness is found in very different places:
Jesus says that there are blessings that are found outside of ourselves and highlights qualities that would normally be associated with weakness and defects.
Being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, those who hunger and thirst for the needs of others, not themselves, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers, the persecuted and reviled.
These do not look like symbols of greatness but they are where true greatness can be found.
And the reason is because we are led to understand that our help comes from God.
As Paul said when he needed to look outside of himself and discovered – when I am weak then I am strong.
And he said that because in times of weakness, in times of suffering he realised that it wasn’t about him making himself great but about God’s greatness being revealed in him.
And as a result he said he wasn’t going to boast about his own greatness but about the greatness that is given to him when he lets go of his self-greatness.
When he stops boasting about his own greatness:
He said: I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
What both Jesus and Paul are trying to highlight is that human greatness is always limited.
It is limited by availability – someone greater will always come along – or something may happen to take away our greatness – a sickness – an accident – or an external influence like a recession in the economy that can wipe away our possessions.
Human greatness is artificial – someone will take our place like a sporting champion who is defeated by a younger, hungrier, up and coming star or because of age we are forced to retire.
But greatness bestowed by God cannot be taken away.
But it can be ridiculed, it can be made to look weak, it can be made to look foolish.
But we don’t worry about what others say.
Instead we remain focused on where God has shown his power and strength and that is in the cross of Jesus Christ where his power and authority was revealed in death and defeat.
In Jesus’ death was where God revealed his power by raising Jesus from the dead.
And so Paul keeps directing us there as he says:
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The cross looks like weakness – it looks like failure – but it is where God has hidden his greatness.
People will make fun of what we hold dear to our faith.
They will mock us in the same way they mocked Jesus while he was hanging powerless from the cross.
But it was only powerless in human terms not in Godly terms.
So what Jesus and Paul are telling us is that we are blessed when - whatever our circumstances - we know our need of God.
And sadly, our need for God is often when we can no longer rely on ourselves to provide for our needs.
In times of suffering when we cannot find healing, God comes to remind us of the full and final healing when our time comes to be called home to heaven.
In times of grief when we lose a loved one, God comes to us to comfort us by reminding us that Jesus is the resurrection and life and that whoever believes in him shall never truly die. (John 11:25)
In times of poverty God comes to us as he came to the poor man Lazarus where we see the reversal of fortunes as Lazarus is comforted by Abraham. (Luke 16:19-31)
In times of persecution and ridicule God comes to us to remind us that our Lord is going to return and everyone will see him— even those who pierced him. (Revelation 1:7)
Our comfort and assurance doesn’t come by human effort, they come through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Knowing our need of God allows us to endure the bad things of life knowing they cannot utterly destroy us.
And so as Christians we are called to go through this life trusting God’s plan for us.
And even if in this life we go through those experiences that Jesus speaks about –
Poor in spirit, those who mourn, showing meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful and pure in heart, being the peacemakers, being persecuted, we know that we have God on our side and that he is going to turn these around and ensure we receive justice.
As Paul assures us – if God is on our side who can be against us (Romans 8:31)
The world doesn’t operate under those principles.
You only have to read the letters to the editor and read people’s suggestions as to what should happen to the person who drove down the Bourke Street mall killing and injuring innocent bystanders including children and babies.
As Christians we are called in those situations to speak about mercy and being peacemakers.
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be punished.
But it means we are careful about the words we use and the judgments we make publicly.
There are enough calling for punitive justice – and there is a place for that.
But there is a different sort of justice that Jesus preached.
It’s the justice that we have been shown by God in that while we were yet sinners Christ died. (Romans 5:8)
It is the justice Jesus showed when he was ridiculed because “he eats with sinners”. (Matthew 9:11)
It is the justice Jesus showed to his executioners when he cried out “forgive them Father – they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
And this is the difference that Jesus is trying to teach – to look outside of ourselves as it is God’s will that all people be saved – not just the people we believe should be saved.
When I see the atrocities in the world – the violence, the crime, the injustices – my initial response is very worldly:
I want them punished severely and I even feel at times that there’s a special place in hell reserved for them.
And that’s when I need to stop and think again about the sacrifice Jesus made not just for me but for all people.
And that’s when I need to remember what Jesus said today:
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
That’s when I need to remember the message of the cross which is the power of God for those who are saved.
And if we limit to whom that grace can be shown then we must ask ourselves whether we deserve God’s grace.
And the answer is – we don’t.
For it is by grace that we have been saved so that none of us can boast.
And so we are constantly called to look outside of ourselves and put the salvation of others first,

And by looking outside of ourselves to the salvation of others we shall be truly blessed.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Year A 2017 - 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Text Matthew 4:12-23 - Called by God

230 years ago a fleet of 11 ships was sent from England to Australia to establish a penal colony for the sending of prisoners.
On January 26th this week we remember that occasion as we commemorate Australia Day.
Just 50 years later Lutherans in Prussia would set sail to Australia to avoid becoming prisoners in their homeland because of their fight for religious freedom.
Today thousands trek across dangerous oceans risking their lives and the lives of their children in flimsy leaky boats in search of freedom as refugees.
The human life is one that at times sees us taking a risk and journeying to unknown lands and situations.
In our gospel reading today we see also that the journey of the first disciples of Jesus meant taking a risk, giving up security and following an unknown religious teacher by the name of Jesus.
John the Baptist began that journey as he left his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah to live a life in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey wearing camel hair clothing.
John didn’t know what the journey would bring about.
He most likely would not have expected that a journey called by God would lead to his imprisonment and subsequent cruel death by being beheaded.
Likewise for Peter, Andrew, James and John – they left their livelihoods and family to follow a call by Jesus without hesitation when he called them to “follow me”.
Follow where?
How will we survive?
Will our family business survive without us?
A call by God can be an uncomfortable call as we are sometimes called to give up the things that bring us hope and security.
It has been the example seen throughout the Old Testament with God’s people constantly on an unknown journey following God’s call:
Adam and Eve called out of the comfort and security of the Garden of Eden now needing to fend for themselves.
Noah and his family called to build an ark and let God take them on a journey to start a new civilisation.
Abraham called to leave his country and family to a land God would show him.
Jacob called away from his family to escape the murderous threats of his brother Esau.
Jacob’s son Joseph also received a call that was totally against his will and power when he brothers sold him as a slave to Egypt – a call that would see him become the 2nd most powerful person in Egypt and in charge of a food bank that would save the world from starvation.
Israel called out of Egypt to wander the desert for 40 years to their new home.
And in our Gospel reading, Jesus’ reference to Zebulun and Naphtali was another journey as the first tribes of Israel sent out of their homeland and into exile as punishment as the people taunt them: Where is your God?
So we see that the types of call by God and the situations vary and sometimes includes an unknown destination, and uncertainty about how things are going to turn out.
And sometimes, like Joseph, it may be against our will.
And it’s not always seen as a positive call.
And that’s because our call is part of a bigger mission field of God that we do not always see or understand.
As we look at the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John, it’s easy to miss the enormous sacrifice and difficulties of answering God’s call.
But put yourself in their position.
If you were to receive an undeniable call from God, would you leave your work, your family, your home?
It’s easy to say yes – until it actually happens.
They were called out of everything that gave them assurance for their physical future.
They could have stayed in their comfortable lives as fishermen providing for themselves an income and even if money was scarce they always had a source of food.
Sometimes God calls the church out of its comfort zone for the sake of God’s mission.
We live in a society where the mission field is growing bigger but the church is getting smaller.
As Jesus once said – the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few (Luke 10:2)
So God keeps calling.
It’s nice to feel comfortable and have everything in church working like clockwork.
But a call from God always seems to come at the most inconvenient moment.
Just when we’ve paid off the loan at Knox an opportunity arose to build a new kitchen and reach out to the community.
Then we lost 2 of our long term tenants of our church.
But that’s how the call of God works.
Peter and the others could have replied to Jesus by saying that the time is not right at the moment.
We’ve got lots of orders for fish and we’ve got some mounting bills to pay – now’s just not the right time to go with you.
That’s not how a call from God works.
That may be a situation also in your own life.
Maybe God has placed a call on your heart.
It may be a call to a certain task.
It may be a call to visit someone you haven’t seen for a while at church.
It may be a call to reach out to someone who has hurt you.
If it makes you feel a little out of your comfort zone then the chances are that that is a call from God.
Sometimes what we believe our gifts are for a particular ministry may not be what God calls us into.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen.
Matthew was a tax collector.
It’s not always about the gifts we believe we have but what God sees in us for his mission work.
So we need to listen and pray and not just say – I don’t have the time or I don’t the skills.
That’s up to God to determine and God will always equip us even if we believe we don’t have what it takes.
Remember what Paul said to the disciples at Corinth when they were starting to doubt their strength and wisdom:
Remember that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. (1 Corinthians 26-28)
So when we are called and there are times when it seems like this is not working, that maybe God got it wrong, we need to remember that God never gets it wrong.
God will always be there guiding us through.
From the experience of John, Zebulun and Naphtali whose journey led them into dark times Jesus reminds us:
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
There are dark times in our lives and sometimes they come even when we have been faithful to God’s call.
When Jesus came into the world the world was living in darkness but they didn’t notice it because they didn’t know any difference.
So Jesus became the light that overcame the darkness.
And seeing a light after a long time of darkness can be very uncomfortable.
So too in your lives when you follow Christ there will be a light calling you.
And sometimes that call into the light can be uncomfortable.
We must never be deterred or afraid to follow when Jesus calls even if it seems like this is not working out.
I’m sure John the Baptist must have wondered where things went wrong when he sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether they should be following someone else.
I’m sure Zebulun and Naphtali and all the tribes of Israel must have wondered “where is God in all this” when they went into exile.
When the call comes to you don’t look at whether you’re good enough or have the skills to do it.
God calls those whom he calls because God knows what he can achieve through us.

Remember that God created the world out of nothing so he can use you to bring about amazing things when you follow his call.