Fifth Sunday in Epiphany pdf

These sermon notes were prepared before the sermon was delivered and so do not transcribe the actual sermon word for word.

2 months ago I was in Cambodia with a group of 33 students and staff from CCGS and St Mary’s Anglican Girl’s School. We were nearing the end of 12 days working with the Cambodian Children’s Fund. The CCF is a remarkable organisation which is the vision of Scott Neeson, an Australian former Hollywood movie mogul, who has given his life and wealth to the education of 1000s of the world’s poorest children. Most of them live on Stueng Meanchey, the fetid rubbish dump of Phnom Penh.

It is a beautiful thing to see our children from the western suburbs of Perth – a universe removed from Stueng Meanchey, get alongside the local kids in the classrooms, dusty playgrounds, archaic computer labs and dance classes where they proudly taught us some traditional Khmer routines. Something magical happens as the basic needs of education and childhood - sharing, fun, friendship, safety, touch and laughter transcend a multitude of differences. It’s the same magic that I am privileged to see in an orphanage in Fiji and a variety of remote Indigenous communities in my role as CCGS’s Service In Action Coordinator.

And the experience that is most confronting, emotionally challenging and ultimately hope-filled is to join Scott Neeson on his nightly rubbish dump walk as he seeks out the utterly lost and abandoned. This remarkable man, along with running a multi-million dollar NGO as its executive director, goes back EVERY night of the week from 5.30 until it’s over, to retrace the steps that led to his life conversion in 2003.

I would try to explain the experience to you, but one of our party, Judy Lague the year 7 coordinator from St Mary’s, has done it far better than I could. I quote an excerpt from her reflection after her 1st ever rubbish dump walk;

We kept walking, past the shanties with open fires cooking unidentifiable food, past the mangy dogs and the small children crouched in the dirty darkness playing whatever it is you play when you have no toys and no light to play by. Eventually we arrived at the first of the satellite schools, deliberately located in the midst of this poverty so that its services are accessible to the children that need its sanctuary the most.

The familiar, happy classroom sounds were an incongruous contrast to the sinister surroundings we emerged from. It was well lit, filled with colour and the smells of the food program. Little children with wet hair and powdered bodies and faces – products of the shower program – cheerfully threw themselves at Scott’s legs. After moving from room to room distributing gifts and certificates we merged back into the gloom.

Twice more we repeated this process, visiting these amazing little pockets of energy and education in the midst of the steamy darkness. As we advanced, Scott became a Pied Piper to the children. Our numbers grew and grew. Halfway through, a tiny dirty hand slid into mine and clung. She was a barefooted urchin – totally undemanding. She quietly pottered along beside me, silent and solemn. I worried about her thin limbs and her bare feet but she spoke no English and I spoke no Khmer so we just held hands.

! Many things touched me deeply in Judy’s reflection, but in the context of a homily based upon St Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, there are two images that struck a chord. The first was that of the “oasis of light, sound, colour and hope” that the satellite schools represented in the midst of their “sinister surroundings”.

Last Sunday we heard again Jesus’ radical manifesto for the Kingdom of God – his Jewish code word for the way God would like the world to be. Jesus chose to identify with the rubbish dump dwellers of his day; the poor, disabled, despised and outcast. And his clarion call for justice that has echoed and inspired down the ages talks of blessings for the poor, meek, mourning and persecuted. That vision has been an oasis of sound, light, colour and hope for countless suffering ones ever since.

This morning we are reminded to go a step further and actually BECOME that light or beacon of hope. Whatever our context, if we truly study, pray and strive to emulate the sermon on the mount, we WILL be lamps to those around us who suffer in any way. We are called to flavour or salt our families, communities and churches with the radical spices of blessing the lost, lonely and forgotten.

But it is incredibly hard to do this. Kurt Vonnegut, an American author and satirist once wrote; “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, the demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!”

I wonder what the Australian equivalent of this observation might be? Certainly mercy seems to be in short supply for refugees and asylum seekers and justice goes begging for so many of the residents of the remote indigenous communities I visit with our students as part of our service programs. I have seen living conditions just as bad as the ones that I quoted in Judy’s piece about the rubbish dump of Phnom Penh in the town camps of Alice Springs and a number of communities throughout the Gascoyne, Pilbara and Kimberley.

This is the unavoidable social implication of the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine if we had it plastered over our public buildings? If our God, in Jesus, was born as an outcast, it is impossible to view or treat outcasts in quite the same way. A God who fled as a refugee, preferred the company of shepherds, lepers, the morally questionable and fishermen and died as an accused criminal - will influence our disposition toward refugees, the poor and those in prison. Let us allow the wonderful stories we hear each week deepen our understanding of and empathy towards those in need – Jesus did not stand by, nor should we. As I say to our privileged children in their last debrief on all of our service trips – now you have looked into the faces, eyes and hearts of poverty, don’t let the rhetoric back home that blames the poor and excuses our inertia, stop you from doing something for the rest of your lives. In this way, especially those of us baptised into ministry in Jesus’ name, become “oases of God’s light, sound, colour and hope”. The second image that has seeped into my soul from Judy’s beautiful piece is; Halfway through our walk, a tiny dirty hand slid into mine and clung. She was a barefooted urchin – totally undemanding. She quietly pottered along beside me, silent and solemn. I worried about her thin limbs and her bare feet but she spoke no English and I spoke no Khmer so we just held hands.

The level of trust that we encounter in these children is simply breathtaking. Out of their horrible circumstances they come to us with open hearts and hands. Our cameras are full of images of us hugging beaming children, many of whom have been unimaginably treated or neglected. Christians believe that God did this in the life, person and work of Jesus.

At Christmas, in the form of a baby, he slides his vulnerable “tiny hand” into ours. On the mountain sharing God’s vision for love and justice he holds out his rough carpenter’s hand - offering to walk with us through both the rubbish dumps and oases of light and hope in life and into the deeper possibilities of God-love

Today we are invited to take that hand in ours. How easily we reverse the truth that we are in this life to “use things and love people”. As we discovered around that rubbish dump last December, even when material comforts are almost nonexistent, human touch still brings joy and hope. The tears and love we felt at the concert offered by the Cambodian children in our honour on our last night in Phnom Penh, was a beautiful testament to this truth. The gift we are given is far richer than what we bring. We make a difference for a while – they transform our lives.

And so this hand is waiting for you and for me. Taking it requires courage. It means embracing a reality where the suffering deserve blessing, and we are often called to bear that blessing on God’s behalf. May it not end as the evenings at CCF 5 so often did.

Our students had to turn away dozens of children at the back of the queue when the food ran out. It was heart breaking. And the children who did not have a sponsor who still lived on the rubbish dump rather than in the simple but safe CCF “boarding” houses, would melt into a darkened corner, take their borrowed school uniform off and put their rags back on to walk home into the “sinister surroundings” that Judy described.

There is much work to do in so many places. Let us deeply reflect for a moment upon how we can be the salt and light required to usher in the Kingdom in our own small way.

Richard Pengelly