Author: Scott McAndless

The Scandal of God’s Grace

Posted by on Sunday, May 15th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/K5Wkx5yBozI
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 15 May, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

In 1985 there was a movie that swept the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It won eight Oscars including best picture, best director, best actor and best writer. So, I am pretty sure that you have heard of this movie. And I wanted to remind you of it today because I think that it contains a perfect illustration of the scandal behind our reading this morning from the Book of Acts.

Beloved of God

In fact, the film zeroes in on the central dispute of our reading so perfectly that it is right there in the title. The movie was called, in case you haven’t guessed yet, Amadeus. Amadeus is a Latin word that means beloved of God. And the scandalous nature of the love of God is at the centre of the story. The titular character is, of course, none other than the great composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the main character in the story is the Italian composer, Antonio Salieri. The plot centres around a kind of obsession.

Salieri is jealous of Mozart because of his musical genius. But it’s about more than jealousy. Salieri is angry at Mozart for being so talented, but he is actually even more angry at God. At one point he declares this, speaking directly to Jesus in the form of a crucifix on the wall: “From now on, we are enemies – you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you, I swear it. I will hinder (and remember that word, hinder) I will hinder and harm your creature as far as I am able. I will ruin your incarnation.”

Salieri’s Complaint

He recognizes, and I believe he recognizes correctly, that there is divine inspiration behind what Mozart is able to produce. It is a gift of God. But he is scandalized that God should give such a gift to a person like Mozart. He doesn’t work hard to produce it because he doesn’t need to. But, even worse, he does not live a virtuous life as Salieri defines virtue. He is licentious, vulgar and silly. Meanwhile, Salieri has worked and works so hard and lives a life of extreme piety and virtue, and yet the only music that he can produce reeks of mediocrity.

Salieri finds the very idea that God could give such good things to a person so unworthy so objectionable that it drives him to do awful things. It drives him to theft, corruption, attempted murder and ultimately to madness. Now, I think I ought to say in defense of Salieri that the film, though based on historical characters, is mostly fictional. The two composers seem to have actually had a pretty good relationship. But at the same time, there is something that is fundamentally true about the story of the film. There really is something very objectionable about the love of God and the gifts that it gives, something that we need to come to terms with.

Peter Visits the Wrong People

In our reading this morning, the Apostle Peter gets into a lot of trouble with the leaders of the church over this very issue. He has just come back from a visit to the home of a man named Cornelius where he ate and drank with the household, preached the gospel to them and shared with them the gift of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When he returns, however, the people in the Church of Jerusalem are very upset with him. The thing that bothers them is not that he has been preaching the gospel or sharing the love of God or even the gift of the Spirit. This is exactly what the church has been doing ever since the beginning and Peter has done no differently.

No, the only thing that is wrong about what Peter has done is who he did it for. He did it for people who everyone in the Jerusalem church agrees are just the wrong kind of people. They eat the wrong kind of food. They don’t follow the right laws. They’re not even circumcised! They just don’t deserve hearing the good news and they certainly do not belong in the community of the church.

A Personal Question

And I know that we often think of this as a one-time, very special controversy in the life of the early church. It was this important question about whether Gentiles and people who did not follow the Jewish law could have a place in the church. But, as this particular story makes very clear, at the level where this actually touched and affected people’s lives, this was not a theological question. This was a very personal question. It was all about God’s love and grace being lavished on a group of people who simply did not deserve it because of who they were and how they lived their lives. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were upset with God for the very same reason that Salieri was upset concerning Mozart. God was just loving the wrong sort of people.

And, given that this is a controversy that arises again and again throughout the history of the church, I think it is worth taking a good look at how Simon Peter responds to the objections of the church in Jerusalem. He responds to them by telling the story. He tells the story that illustrates that God, despite their limited understanding of what God can do, has clearly decided to love these people anyways by giving to them one of God’s greatest gifts, the gift of the Spirit. And then he ends his story with a statement that I believe should be engraved upon the heart of every believer, should be posted as a sign upon every one of our churches. He says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Who is Peter?

Think of that. Here we have the man who is generally thought to be the first great leader of the church, the one that Jesus called The Rock and perhaps the man who knew Jesus best, and yet he is saying, “who am I to hinder God?” And, given the context, what he is especially saying is, “Who am I to hinder God giving God’s love, gifts or grace to anyone?” And yet I see all the time people who seem to believe that they are exactly the kind of people who can hinder God in that way. That’s why I think that we need to learn, with Peter, to ask ourselves that question: who am I to hinder?

How we Hinder

I do believe that that kind of hindering happens all the time in the church. You know, every time we look at somebody who comes into contact with the church and we decide that they don’t really belong and so don’t make them feel particularly welcome, we are hindering God doing God’s work in their life. If you decide that somebody isn’t dressed well enough and communicate that to them even in a subtle way, are you not hindering them from being recipients of the grace and gifts that God is giving through the church? And it’s the same if you decide that based on race, on class or wealth or age or orientation or gender identity or whatever other criterion you can come up with.

I’m not saying that we do it intentionally, because sometimes we’re often not aware of the subtle ways in which we make people feel like they do not belong. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not taking their ideas or opinions seriously. Sometimes it’s not even considering including them in our little circle of friends. But, make no mistake, we all do it sometimes. And we need to ask, who am I to hinder what God wants to do in their life through the church?

Other Ways of Excluding

But do not only think of this in terms of the kind of grace that usually comes to mind in the life of the church. This is something that we do in many other circumstances as well. How often do we write somebody off – do not consider them for a job, or we write off their thoughts and ideas or any potential contribution they could make – for reasons that simply do not matter? You just never know what God might have in mind to do for that person or through that person and yet because of some prejudgment on your part you can hinder that from happening.

Who Can be Saved?

This also applies to our talk and thought about salvation. Christians have a long history of having a very narrow understanding of who is worthy of being saved by God. We confess, of course, that salvation is by grace through faith, but we often have a very narrow understanding of what that faith has to look like.

In particular, we expect it to look like the faith that we have professed. So, if someone believes differently or puts more emphasis on how they live out their faith than on believing all the same things that we believe, we might easily come to the conclusion that they are not worthy of being saved. I don’t think we realize how, when we do that, what we are really doing is putting limits on the love of God. We are deciding that we are the ones who can hinder what God wants to do in people’s lives.

Who Does it Hurt?

When, in the movie at least, Salieri decides to hinder God’s decision to be gracious to someone that he did not think deserved it, he did not hurt God. The message of the movie, in the end, is that he really only hurt himself – ultimately driving himself to madness. And that is the true tragedy that comes when we seek to hinder the grace of God from being shown in somebody else’s life. We will not stop God from being gracious. Thank heavens that we do not have that power. We will only hurt ourselves. For know this above all, God loves those who love amadeus, who loves those who, however unworthy in our eyes, are beloved of God. And, what's more, I honestly believe that the more we embrace this truth, the more that we will understand for ourselves how truly beloved we are to God.

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Why pray?

Posted by on Sunday, May 8th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/dOVDb5-54Lk
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, 8 May 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Our Bible story from the Book of Acts this morning is really a very uplifting story, isn’t it? We have this woman, Dorcas, and she is a simply wonderful woman. Everybody loves her. She makes all of her friends these beautiful clothes that they treasure. And yes, she gets sick and dies and that is so very sad. But then Simon Peter shows up, he prays and he raises her from the dead and basically everyone lives happily ever after. It is just so beautiful. It reminds us of the power of the resurrection of Jesus to renew our own lives and to give us the hope for a life beyond this one.

A Few Questions

So, it is absolutely a feel-good story. And yet, at the same time, it is also the kind of story that, when you look at it closely, is going to make you ask a few questions. We’ve talked about prayer, and it certainly makes you ask a few questions about prayer.

Questions like, what if Simon Peter hadn’t been in a nearby town so they could ask him to come and pray for her? Would God have just left her dead simply because there wasn’t a good enough prayer around? And what about all of the other really nice women who made beautiful clothes that didn’t have Peter to pray for them? Why wouldn’t God care enough to raise those women?

And then there is an even more delicate question about prayer in general. Why is it necessary? I mean, apparently God had already decided that he was going to raise Dorcas. The story ends by telling us, This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Why Would Prayer Change Anything?

That seems to be the point of it. God wants the message to spread and raising somebody from the dead is definitely a public relations coup! So, if God had already decided to do it, why did he need Peter to ask? And if God didn’t want to do it, why should the almighty Creator of the universe be persuaded to change plans just because this one guy asked God to do it?

In short, the question is, why pray for these things? If God already knows what we want, then why do we need to ask? If God is really in charge, why should we think that God might change course on something just because we ask? These are all really good questions, and they deserve answers.

Transactional Prayer

The root problem, I think, is this. We just don’t understand prayer the way that God does. We tend to think of it, like we do most things, as a transaction. You go into the candy store, you slam down your toonie down on the counter and the cashier gives you a box of Reece’s Pieces®. That’s a transaction. And we think of prayer that way – we do an act of devotion for God, or we ask in just the right way in just the right words, and God gives us the thing that we want in return.

Based on a Certain View of God

The biggest problem with that way of thinking about prayer is the picture of God it is based on. It presumes that God is somewhere “out there,” and that prayer is the post office or the email server that we can use to contact God in that distant place. But here is the thing, God is not “out there.” God is certainly not just up there in the sky looking down. If God is truly God, then God is right here. God is right beside you, perhaps closer than anyone has ever been. Come to think of it, if God is God, then God must be in some sense already within you.

So, of course, when you think to pray and ask for something, God already knows that you need it. God is a part of that need. When you worry and pray for someone who is sick or in danger, God already feels your sorrow, anxiety and fear for that person. Prayer is not a transaction, it is participation. It is God participating in what you need or in what you are feeling. It is you participating with God in the ongoing work of creation.

A Master Dancer Seeking a Partner

On one level, yes, I would affirm that God does not need us to pray in order for God to do whatever needs to be done. But, on another level, I would say that God acting without us entering into that conversation of prayer would be kind of like a master dancer who was able to do all of the steps absolutely perfectly and flawlessly. But the problem with that is that the best Tango dancer in the world cannot dance the Tango without a partner.

God wants you to be that partner. It’s not because you have to say the right thing or do it in the right way. It’s not even because you know all of the steps of the dance. God wants a partner. God wants to give you the privilege of being part of the dance.

Or think of prayer as a song. When you pray, you get to put your concerns into words, however imperfectly, so that God can take up your melody and sing the perfect harmony. That’s what prayer is, not a transaction. It’s a dance, it’s a song, it is an exercise in making that eternal connection between the human and divine perceptible, even if only for a moment. So, yes, let us pray!

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Can People Really Change?

Posted by on Sunday, May 1st, 2022 in News

https://youtu.be/aKRRiDwTZRw
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Hespeler, May 1, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

I would like to begin by saying that I am very much on Ananias’ side in our reading from the Book of Acts this morning. Ananias receives a vision in which Jesus himself appears to him with some very specific instructions: “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

It is a wonderful thing, of course, to be on the receiving end of such a vision, but Ananias hesitates. “But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’” And I just want to pause here and affirm just how very wise Ananias is to hesitate here.

Hesitation is Good

Ananias is completely right (and the Lord does not contradict him) that Saul has been an extremely violent, abusive and angry individual. His mistreatment of the followers of Christ has been so egregious that the reports of it have spread far and wide. He is feared in Damascus because of things he has done almost 300 kilometers away. The point that Ananias is making is that abusive and violent people don’t just change and I feel that I need to underline the simple fact that he has a point. At the very least, we need to be very skeptical when they profess that they have.  

A Common Pattern

For example, anyone who has ever experienced domestic abuse (or has counselled people who have) would definitely be with Ananias at this point. There is a familiar pattern that emerges in many cases of domestic abuse. The abuser (often but certainly not always a man) has a tendency when frustrated, thwarted, intoxicated or otherwise affected to lash out with verbal or physical violence. The victim may tolerate a certain level of this abuse – not because they should, of course, but because it is just human to want to maintain an important and meaningful relationship.

But the abuser will eventually go too far – will do something that scandalizes even themselves or that threatens to expose them for who they are because of the visible damage that they have done. At this point, the abuser will often have an intensely powerful experience of repentance. They will express intense sorrow and regret. They will, above all, loudly proclaim that they have changed, that they have learned their lesson and they will never behave so abominably again. At this point the victim may well forgive them because, as I say, people often feel that they have to maintain the relationship at all costs.

A Honeymoon and the Disappointment

What then follows is a period of time that might be called a honeymoon. Oh, the abuser becomes extremely respectful and caring towards the victim. It is the best of times. But here is the problem, when that is the pattern, the honeymoon never lasts. Sooner or later, something triggers the abuser and the whole cycle begins all over again.

So, if you have ever experienced abuse or you love someone who has, you can certainly be forgiven for being dubious when abusers proclaim that this time is different, that this time they have changed. In fact, by the time most victims finally get to the place where they choose to save themselves and the other people they love by escaping, they have been through that cycle so many times that it’s quite understandable that they then have a very hard time trusting anybody who says that change is even possible.

Also in Race and Group Relations

And I would also note that this is something that we see, not only in personal relationships, but in relationships between groups. How many times have we seen incidents of racial violence against minority groups where the majority were so appalled that they made these incredible promises that everything was going to change, and how many times have those promises been broken?

This is something that seems particularly poignant in Canada in the wake of finding so many secret burial sites at residential schools. Do you remember the promises that were made in the wake of that scandal? Do you remember the pledges that have been made about nation-to-nation relations, on ratifying the terms of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of getting potable water in Indigenous communities? How many times have we said that this time it is going to be different? Every time we do that then don’t really follow through, it just becomes harder for anyone to believe it.

And Yet Change is Possible

So, yes, Ananias raises a very important issue in the midst of his vision of the Lord Jesus. But, as much as I appreciate him raising it, I do not want to fall into complete cynicism. Yes, people who have been abused or endangered by others are understandably reluctant to believe that people can really change. And yet, it is important to say that it is not impossible. People do change.

Saul, who came to be known as the Apostle Paul, certainly did change. He changed radically. And if we are not going to give up belief in humanity altogether, we need to believe that he is not the only one in the history of the world to do so. So how do we know when change is really possible? And how can we tell when an abusive person is just starting the old cycle of abuse all over again? Maybe that is the question that Ananias is really asking.

A Focus on Intense Experience

When people try to convince us that they have really changed, what do they tell us? They usually try to persuade us by speaking about the intensity of their regret or sorrow. They talk about how deeply it affected them when they realized what they had done was wrong. Can’t you just see an abusive domestic partner beating their breast and proclaiming their depth of feelings? Or remember how deeply we all felt our regret about the discovered residential school remains? Why we flew our flags at half mast for months so badly did we feel it!

But are such powerful experiences and expressions of deep emotion truly a sign that great change is coming? Well, certainly the experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus was powerful and emotional. It was powerful enough to knock Saul off of his horse, affecting enough to strike him blind. But there is a strange thing that I noticed.

How the Lord Convinces Ananias

When, in the midst of his vision, Ananias asks for something that will convince him that Saul could have changed, the Lord does not refer to any of that. The Lord does not say, “Don’t worry, Ananias, of course Saul has changed completely because I totally blew him away with my special effects budget.” Nor does he say, “You’ve got to understand that Saul feels really, really sorry for everything he did in the past.” Those are the kinds of things that serial abusers appeal to in order to prove they’ve changed and, as I said, it doesn’t actually inspire that confidence that we think it does.

So, what assurance does Ananias actually receive? “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” So what is it that God thinks should convince Ananias that Saul really has changed? Not his powerful experience, not how sorry he feels, only one thing – the fact that God has given Saul a job to do.

A Sense of Purpose

You see, when God truly wants to bring about change in somebody’s life, that is how God works. What God does is offer people a sense of purpose; God gives them a job to do. This is very clearly signaled in the Book of Acts, particularly in this key story of Saul. Now, if you read very carefully the story of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus that we read this morning, you do not actually get a strong sense that Jesus is giving him some task to do. The emphasis in the exchange between Jesus and Saul is only on the matter of Saul persecuting Jesus because of the ways in which he has been persecuting the church.

There is little more than a rather vague sense that there is a task being given when Jesus says to the blinded Saul lying on the ground, “But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Jesus instead tells Ananias what he wants Saul to do, that he has been specially chosen to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.

The Three Conversion Stories

The interesting thing is that this is something that becomes increasingly clear to Saul as he goes forward. The story of his experience on the road to Damascus is actually told three times in the Book of Acts. And each time, there are significant differences between the stories. Since the entire book was written by the same person, this cannot be something that just happened by accident. The author seems to be trying to reflect Saul’s (or as he eventually comes to call him Paul’s) growing understanding of what had happened to him. At first, yes, it might have all been about the powerful experience. But, by the third time Paul tells the story, he apparently remembers that Jesus said a little bit more than just, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

The third time the story is told, Paul recalls that Jesus went on to say, “But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

Saul’s Increasing Understanding of his Calling

Art depicting the conversion of Saul

This is told this way in order to indicate Paul’s growing understanding of what it was that truly changed his life. Yes, the light that he had seen had been so bright, I mean literally blindingly bright. Yes, the experience that he had had of the presence of the risen Jesus had been so very real and it had remained with him ever since. But, the more he thought about it over time, the more he realized that these were not the things that changed him. Maybe they had gotten his attention, but it was something else that had actually changed the course of his life. It was the simple fact that he realized that there was something he could do – something his Lord was calling him to do and that he alone could do – that drove the actual change of his life.

Understanding for People who have been Hurt

Can a person change? The answer to that question is yes. And yet, I completely understand those who have experienced abuse at the hands of others and how they can be skeptical when they hear claims that any abuser has changed. I would especially counsel anyone who has experienced abuse to be very cautious when their partner comes along claiming that they have changed because of some powerful experience, realization or feeling of sorrow.

You are not necessarily required to trust someone just because they say such things. Trust is a very difficult thing. It can take years to build up and then can be broken in just a moment. Once broken, the task of rebuilding it becomes even harder and will likely take longer.

How to pursue Genuine Change

And yet change is possible. If you are looking to bring about significant change in your life or in your relationship, I would suggest that you should look beyond powerful experiences or even powerful feelings of regret. Real change will come when you embrace a new sense of purpose in your life and when you come to understand how God is calling you to create new possibilities and new beginnings for the world.

When things have gone wrong in relationships, whether in personal relationships or in larger relationships like that between a nation like Canada and its indigenous peoples, it is far too easy for us to focus on what the other person needs to do, how they need to forgive or how they need to get over it and trust us again.

That is not where real change will be found. But when we can get past expressions of regret and sorrow and take on a single-minded purpose towards changing the situation for everyone, we will find that God is able to bring about change both in us and through us.

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A Tale of Two Churches

Posted by on Sunday, April 24th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/9syns2Nk9jo
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, 24 April 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31 (click to read)

This morning I would like to tell you about two gospels that we know were very popular and widely read in the early church. One of them you are very familiar with. It is a gospel attributed to someone who is only identified as the beloved disciple of Jesus, but tradition decided a long time ago that that disciple was named John. That does not necessarily mean that the book was literally written by that disciple, but it probably means that it was produced in a church that traced its stories and traditions about Jesus to a particular apostle, possibly John.

The Gospel of John, as it is known, is rather unique among the gospels in the Bible. Jesus is presented somewhat differently than in Matthew, Mark or Luke. He doesn’t tell parables, for example, but instead gives these long discourses in which he explains many things to his disciples. In particular, the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus came to present a number of signs – seven are highlighted – that would convince everyone that he was the Messiah.

A Missing Gospel Found

But there is another gospel that you are maybe less familiar with that was also very popular in the early church. This gospel doesn’t quite say who wrote it either, but it does say that the traditions in it also come from one of the disciples – specifically the one called Judas Thomas the Twin. And so, it is called the Gospel of Thomas.

We knew for centuries about this gospel. It is mentioned by a number of very early historical sources who even sometimes quote a few lines from it. But for hundreds of years, we could not read it. It did not make it into the New Testament. At some point it seems as if all of the copies of it were rounded up and destroyed. It was sad, but there was nothing that anyone could do about it.

The Gospel of Thomas, found at Nag Hammadi

That is until 1898 when a huge trove of papyrus fragments was found in an ancient garbage heap in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Three of those fragments contained text from the ancient Greek Gospel of Thomas. But we didn’t actually know what had been found until 1945 when an entire library of books was discovered at a place called Nag Hammadi in Egypt. One of those books was a translation into Coptic of the Gospel of Thomas. So, amazingly, we can now read this ancient lost gospel that was so well known and loved in the early church.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is very different from any other Biblical gospel. It is more a collection of sayings than it is a narrative of Jesus’ life. It shows no particular interest in Jesus’ death or resurrection, but rather focuses on his teaching and especially on super secret teachings that it claims to have preserved. Let me read you a short passage to give you an idea of what it is like:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.”

Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous messenger.”

Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”

Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”

Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”

And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him.

When Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”

Thomas said to them, “If I tell you even one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me. Then fire will come forth from the rocks and devour you.”

Two Distinct Communities

There was probably an early Christian community for whom the Gospel of John was their most important document. It contained their best recollection of the person of Jesus and what he had done. These were traditions and teachings that they had carefully cultivated and passed on until it eventually got written down.

But there was also an early Christian community for whom the Gospel of Thomas was that kind of document. These communities seem to have been able to live alongside each other because the gospels they used seem to have been aware of each other. Sure, they didn’t agree about everything, but they respected and honoured the teaching and the portrayal of Jesus that each one had preserved. That does not mean, however, that there was not some rivalry between them.

Imagine it this way. There are two churches in a town. On this side of town, the Church of St. John and on the other the Church of St. Thomas. The churches get along fine with each other. They have a long-standing basketball rivalry between their men’s teams. They also often cooperate in doing good works for the people of the city because they both want to live as their master did. But they still cannot stop from noticing how differently they approach the Christian life.

A Celebration of the Resurrection

The people of the Church of St. John are gathered. They are celebrating the day that is, for them, the most important day of the year. They call it the Pascha; we would call it Easter of course. It is the annual celebration of the day when their Lord Jesus rose from the dead. People of the church have been anticipating this day for a long time. They have prepared themselves by fasting and praying. But now that the day has arrived, they gather with great rejoicing and the place where they meet is decorated with banners and flowers. They greet one another with the good news. “He is risen!” one calls out only to be answered with, “He is risen indeed!”

After a while, they settle down and join in a shared feast. Then they sit and listen while some of the elders share the stories of Jesus that have been handed down to them, traditions that they believe go back to the most beloved disciple of Jesus. One of the elders begins a favourite story.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

“On the day when our Lord rose from the dead, that very evening, the disciples were gathered even as we are gathered on this same day. They, like us, knew that they had many enemies in that city, and so the doors of the house were shut and locked. And yet, despite that, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

She pauses then and waits while the gathered church emulates the disciples with their own shouts of joy and sighs of contentment. But, even as she does so, she notices one young boy sitting nearby who seems a little bit troubled. And so, once everyone has settled down, she turns to him to ask what it is that he is concerned about.

What about the Other Church?

“Oh, nothing, I was just wondering,” he says. “As I came to our Pascha celebration today, I passed by the Church of St. Thomas on the other side of town. And I noticed that it wasn’t decorated for the festival, and they didn’t even seem to be gathering today. Why is it that they don’t celebrate the resurrection like we do? Do they not believe that Jesus rose from the dead?”

“Well,” the elder replies, “of course they believe in the resurrection. That is the basis of all our faith as followers of Christ. But they do think about these things differently from how we do.”

Johannine Traditions about Thomas

She pauses and thinks for a moment. She remembers that the stories of Jesus that have been passed down in her church say a few things about the disciple Thomas – things that she is convinced illustrate the character of the people in the church of St. Thomas. She knows that, when Jesus had first suggested that the group should go down to the Jerusalem near the end despite the clear danger to him, it had been Thomas who had said to the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) And, indeed, the Thomasites have proven themselves to be extraordinarily brave in the way they live out their faith in the city.  The people in the Church of St. John cannot help but admire that.

They also tell the story of the time when Jesus said to the disciples, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And Thomas had had been the one who piped up immediately to say, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5) They know that that has always been something that obsesses the people of his church. They always want to be in the know about everything and nothing disturbs them more than the thought that there might be some secret piece of knowledge out there that they don’t have. Indeed, all the leaders of Thomas’ Church pride themselves on the secret knowledge that they have accumulated.

A Different Focus

The people of this church don’t see things that way. They think it is enough to be aware of all the things that Jesus did openly to show the whole world who he was. They celebrate how Jesus healed the blind man to show the whole world that he was the light of the world, how he gave the bread to the people because he was the bread of life.

The people of John’s Church have always known these things about the believers on the other side of town. They don’t pretend to understand them completely, but they still value them as sisters and brothers who share in a common cause. But this issue does trouble the elder somewhat. The belief that Jesus rose from the dead is so central to everything at the church of John that it is really hard to imagine anyone seeing it any other way. How can she explain how little attention the other church pays to that?

A New Tradition?

But at that point the elder remembers something – a tradition that must have been passed down or that may have come to her in a dream one day. She immediately picks up the story. “On the day when our Lord was raised from the dead and when he first appeared to all of the disciples, there was one who was not present. Thomas was not there.”

This declaration certainly causes a stir among the people of the congregation. How could one of the twelve not have been present, especially on that day of all days? Even on this day, this anniversary so many years later, there is not one of them who could imagine being anywhere else than with their fellow believers.

That Thomas should not have been there seems to imply that he put little importance on the truth that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And yet, as they think about it, it does seem to make sense. Did not those who revered the Gospel of Thomas betray much the same attitude. Is that not why they have not bothered to even meet on this day?

Thomas is Convinced

But the elder has not finished her story. She goes on to relate Thomas’ foolishness – how he refused to believe even when the others had shared with him their experience of the resurrected Christ. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side,” he had said, “I will not believe.” It was his way of saying that whether or not Jesus had risen from the dead didn’t matter to him. Instead, he only sought after the secret knowledge that Jesus could offer him.

“But even Thomas learned better in the end,” she concludes. “For Jesus did return the next week, and when Thomas was confronted with the reality that the risen Christ stood in front of him, all of his secret knowledge was not enough to prevent him from falling upon his knees and crying out, “My Lord and my God,” as he realized that he stood before the risen one.”

Many Different Understandings

We are often given the impression upon reading the New Testament that early Christianity was unanimous in it’s understanding of who Jesus was and what his resurrection had accomplished. This was simply not the case. We have uncovered a great deal of evidence that there was a great diversity of belief among early Christians. Many early Christians did put a great deal of emphasis upon the resurrection. But there seems to have been others, like the communities that greatly valued the Gospel of Thomas, who were less interested in the resurrection and much more interested in amassing special secret knowledge.

It is kind of interesting to wonder how the differences between these churches and the discussions that took place amongst them may have influenced the ways that people remembered the stories of Jesus and how they eventually came to write them down.

John’s Criticism of Thomas

I’ve often thought that poor Thomas got a bit of a bad rap in Christian tradition. The only thing that people know about him, apparently, is that he doubted the resurrection. But I suspect that that story has less to do with anything that the historical Thomas did than it has to do with the attitude held towards those who revered the Gospel of Thomas by the people who revered the Gospel of John.

Yes, they probably were puzzled and maybe even disturbed by the failure of the Thomasites to understand the importance of the resurrection as they did. But really, in the history of the church, such differences in emphasis are hardly unique. Presbyterians and Baptists, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Lutherans and Pentecostals, we are all in our different churches because we have different perspectives on various aspects of the Christian faith and we have clashed over these things both in the past and in the present.

But I would like us to know one thing. The people who preserved the Gospel of John did struggle, I think it is plain, with the people in that other church and how they approached the Christian life. But, even as they criticized Thomas and those whom Thomas represents in the gospel, as doubters who did not bother to be around on the day of resurrection, they still knew that they had a shared mission and that they had one Lord. They understood that Thomas did fall to his knees before his risen Lord just as they did, that he did cry out, “My lord and my God,” together with them. And that was enough.

I hope that that is something that we can keep in mind as we do our best to live out our Christian faith alongside other believers who have different priorities and understandings but still have the same risen Lord.

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Joanna’s Easter Story

Posted by on Sunday, April 17th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/yd_SP-BsMzI
Watch the sermon video

Hespeler, 17 April 2022 © Scott McAndless – Easter
Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

The Gospel of Luke tells us about a very particular group of women who went out to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. They were “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women.” But here is the interesting thing. This is not just a random bunch of women that the gospel writer is talking about at this point. Luke actually went out of his way, to introduce these women at an earlier point in his story. And here is what he says about one of them back in chapter eight. He tells us that she was Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. (Luke 8:3)

Chuza’s Wife?

And I know that, at first glance, that might not seem to mean anything at all, but think about it for a minute. This was a woman who was married and yet she was apparently traveling all over the Galilean countryside with a bunch of men to whom she was not related. I know that, if that were to happen today, it might hardly raise any eyebrows, but think about what that meant for a woman back then. Back then, that would have been considered wildly inappropriate conduct for any woman at best. All sorts of sordid accusations would have certainly been made.

And then there is the question of who Joanna was married to. She was married to Chuza who was a very important official of King Herod – that is Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. Herod is someone who we are told was literally trying to kill Jesus at one point in this gospel (Luke 13:31). So, do you really think that Herod’s top official, Chuza, was good with the idea that his wife was wandering all over the Galilean countryside with a guy that his boss wanted to kill? Somehow, I do not think so! So, what was Joanna’s story?

The Women Go to the Tomb

As she made her way towards the place where he had been buried together with Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and the other women, Joanna was undoubtedly the one who wept the loudest and was the most inconsolable. Jesus had done so much for each one of them. Mary had had such a huge number of problems that it had been said of her that she had been beset by seven demons. But, of all of them, Joanna had been the one who had felt the most unsafe and alone until Jesus had reached out to her.

A Bad Marriage

Joanna had been given to her husband, Chuza, at a very young age by her parents. Chuza was at least two decades older than her and he had already been married twice before. Joanna was never told what had happened to the other wives, why they had died so young, but once she had gotten to know her new husband a bit, she began to have her suspicions.

Chuza was very wealthy and a very powerful official in the king’s court. Much to her surprise, Joanna found herself the mistress of a very prosperous household, with many servants at her beck and call. She had jewels and fine clothes, and she tried to do her best to be kind to all the people of the household.

But Chuza was also a very cruel and demanding man. I will not tell you all of the ways that he mistreated his wife and most of the people of the household. I will just tell you that Joanna quickly found her life to be filled with fear and dread. So hard was her life, that her health began to fail, and it was as if she was fading away.

Sympathetic Servants

But then, one day, the servants decided that they simply could not allow this to go on anymore. They had already watched as two mistresses had faded and died under their watch. They came together and made a plan to save this one who had been so kind to them.

Servants, it turns out, know a great deal about their masters. These ones knew enough about Chuza and, in particular, about how he managed the affairs of his master, King Herod, to cause him a few problems. There were secretaries who kept his accounts for him and other slaves who managed the king’s storehouses on his behalf. They had known for some time that the steward had been embezzling from Herod.

The Servant’s Plan

The plot was fairly simple. The proofs of Chuza’s deceptions were assembled and sent to the king anonymously by means of the trusted slave of another lord who was the distant relation of one of the secretaries. Of course, Herod was furious when he received it! Soon, a summons from the king arrived at the house—a summons that could neither be ignored nor refused. He fretted and complained, but Chuza had no choice. He packed up immediately and headed off to Herod’s court. He would not be able to return for weeks.

Once he had left, the servants went and explained everything to their poor mistress. It was not easy, but they persuaded her that she needed to escape and save her own life. She did not leave empty-handed but took with her some jewels and fine fabrics—not because she desired these things, but because she knew that they could be exchanged for money. It also felt as if she was at least getting some revenge on her husband by taking these things from him.

A Harrowing Journey

Two servants went with her—personal slaves who were very devoted to her and to whom she had grown very close. They were debt slaves from the region north of the Sea of Galilee and their task was to conduct her safely to Capernaum at the northern tip of the lake. The route was very carefully planned, and the travelers were hosted in the slave quarters of many prominent houses without the masters of those households even being aware.

When they arrived at Capernaum, Joanna gave the two slaves their freedom (a small thing for her to give them in exchange for taking such a risk for her sake) and they left her with many tears and cries of blessing, clutching manumission papers in their hands.

Alone in Capernaum

As she watched them go, Joanna realized how alone she was now. She had no friends and no family. No one would dare to help her. She had the precious things that she had brought with her but could not safely sell or trade them for what she needed. She might easily have ended up robbed and beaten to death on the side of some road, or perhaps forced to ply the trade of a prostitute just to survive, if no one had come to protect her. All the same, she could not regret having chosen to live, for a little while at least, free of the tyranny of her husband.

No one should have helped her. To assist a woman who had fled from her husband—and especially a husband as powerful as Chuza—would have been madness for anyone.

A Rescue

That is exactly what the followers of Jesus told him when he heard about her. Peter actually tried to forbid Jesus from even approaching her. But Jesus said to him, “Simon, if I had been governed by fear I would never have even begun.” With that, Jesus simply pushed his way past the Rock that stood in his path and moved directly towards the woman who looked so very lost in the town square. From that day on, Joanna was part of the group, and no one ever questioned it again.

What his Death Meant to her

So perhaps you can understand why Joanna was so distraught on that early morning of the third day after his crucifixion. When she had been at her worst, most lost and alone, he had seen her for who she was. Everyone else had seen her as a problem, a risk. As a woman who was on the run from her husband, she was damaged goods because she would never be able to escape her husband’s power and influence.

But Jesus had seen none of that. He had only seen a beloved child of God. His open embrace of her was the bravest thing she had ever seen anyone do, and yet he done it without fear and without hesitation. The very idea that such a brave man could even live in the world had given her enough hope to go on living and to actually find the first true joy she had ever known in her life in this community of women who had come with him to Jerusalem.

But now his lack of fear, his willingness to do the right thing no matter what the cost, had brought him to this. If the world could destroy such perfect love as was found in him, what would happen to her?

The Incident at the Tomb

The women came to the place where he had been buried. You have all heard about what happened next. The tomb was open. They immediately feared that it had been plundered or, worse, that wild animals had gotten to the remains. Their worse fears seemed to be confirmed when they discovered that his body was gone.

But then, even while they were still in shock, trying to understand what they were seeing, two strangers appeared seemingly from nowhere. They were dressed all in white and their sudden appearance was overwhelming. Already struggling with grief and confusion, they now found themselves filled with fear and terror.

But then the men began to speak, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” said one. “He is not here, but has risen,” added the other. And then they began to speak to them of some of the things that Jesus had said about what was to happen when he went to Jerusalem. And then they were gone—disappeared so quickly that the women were left wondering if they had imagined the whole thing or if it had been a vision.

Joanna Makes Sense of it

The women stood in confusion for some time. It was not immediately clear to them what all of this meant. But it was Joanna that was the first to start to make sense of it all. For suddenly, in the midst of all of the darkness that had been overwhelming her, she could see the possibility of a little bit of light.

When she had been utterly defeated and alone, as good as dead, he had brought her back to life by giving her a place where she belonged. Now he had been defeated in turn. But what if his defeat were able to be turned into a new victory beyond hope and beyond reason. Even the possibility seemed to change her perspective on everything.

What the Resurrection Means

On this day we celebrate that Jesus, once killed, was raised up to new life. And we talk about what that means. We talk about forgiveness, how we can be forgiven for our failures, shortcomings and defaults because of his suffering and his resurrection.

We talk about reconciliation as Jesus brings together all of the warring parties of the earth and demonstrates to us all that violence and power do not bring victory, but his submission does.

Sometimes we talk about how his rising means that we also may be raised and that gives us the hope of heaven. But we mostly think about it in terms of what Jesus’ resurrection accomplishes for us and for people like us.

Raised for Joanna

But we need to realize that Jesus was raised for Joanna who escaped an abusive marriage. He was raised for Mary Magdalene who had been so damaged by the suffering of her life that it had been said of her that she had had seven demons before she met him. Jesus was raised, above all, for the broken ones of this world.

He did it because he was often the only one who was brave enough and loving enough to reach out to them when no one else dared. Throughout his ministry, he had already put his life on the line many times by standing up for people who had no one else to help them. So, of course, when the time came, he was willing to literally lay down his life for them because he knew that no one else would.

Jesus came back for the Joannas and Marys because no one else would. That is how much Jesus cares for those who have been broken by this world. If we want to know the true power of his resurrection, then I would suggest that the best way to do that is to take up that same task—to stand up for the rejected and scorned of this world. As we come alongside them, I promise you that we will see such power in action.

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The greatest among you must become like the youngest

Posted by on Sunday, April 10th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/jzdZOgBoh-s
Watch the sermon here

Hespeler, 10 April 2022 © Scott McAndless – Passion Sunday, Baptism
Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-30

Nicole and Charles, I just have to begin this morning by thanking you for sharing such an important event in the life of your family with us today. It really means a lot to me and to us that you should have invited us into this very meaningful moment. And yet, while I greatly appreciate you, I cannot help but acknowledge that you have given me an enormous challenge today precisely because you’ve given us such a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a joyful event.

The Season of Lent

Here is my problem. Normally, in the church, we are only too happy to focus on the positive and promising things of life. But today is the final Sunday in the season of Lent. And Lent is a bit of a different time for the church. It is still a joyful time of the year, but it is also a season when we do feel it’s important to dwell on the simple reality that there is a lot of darkness and discouragement in the world too.

For how can we be a truly joyful people if we do not come to terms with some of the very real struggles that people have in this world? And so, during this season, we do turn towards difficult questions like what do we do about violence and poverty and hatred. How do we deal with the challenges of living with everything that life can throw at us?

A Difficult Season

And, yes, during this Lenten season we have really embraced that struggle because the situation kind of demanded it. As we entered into the third year of a global pandemic, as Canadians became more sharply divided over questions about how to deal with it and as we dealt with the reality of war in Ukraine and a less peaceful, more chaotic world, we acknowledged those realities. We have symbolized the growing darkness of this world each week by extinguishing a candle each Sunday.

In many ways, this Sunday is meant to be the moment when the darkness feels the greatest. The tradition in the church has long been to read the entire account of the suffering and the death of Jesus from one of the Gospels. I mean, how dark is the world when an innocent man is being tortured to death? And somehow, I need to find a way to connect all of that to the joyful and lovely celebration of Charlotte’s new life that we have just had.

Plans Go Astray

Let me be clear, Nichole and Charles, that I do not blame you for the timing. I know that you didn’t plan it this way. In fact, you tried to make it happen earlier in the year or even tried to make it work last week. But guess what happened to all of those plans. That same thing happened to those plans that have happened to a whole lot of plans over the last couple of years. Covid happened, together with all of the restrictions, guidelines and limitations that it brought. A whole lot of us have thrown out a lot of plans over the last couple of years, haven’t we?

But despite all of that, I am so glad that we got to do this today. I’m convinced that, even though we didn’t exactly plan it to work out this way, that God did. I’m pretty sure that God has a message for us that speaks to us right at this moment.

A Dark Moment

In our reading this morning from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his disciples have come to a pretty dark moment. They have come together to celebrate the Jewish Passover, which should be a moment of celebration, but it doesn’t particularly feel like one.

Ever since they came down to Jerusalem for the festival, tensions have been extremely high. The disciples are not complete idiots. They have seen just how much trouble Jesus has been getting into. They understand that he has made a number of very powerful enemies in the city. It is really looking as if this whole story is going to end very badly – maybe even on a cross. And then Jesus takes the bread and starts talking about how his body is going to be broken and then he takes the wine and talks about his blood being poured out. I don’t know about you, but this is not sounding to me like a light and happy celebration.

A Stressful Time

So, I do feel as if the disciples are in the place where we all are at the end of this season of Lent. The stress of the situation is getting to us. We are exhausted by the experience of a pandemic that just doesn’t want to end. We are frustrated by the limitations and strictures that we’ve all been putting up with for way too long. We are frightened and angry with Vladimir Putin and his decision to victimize the people of Ukraine and take the whole world to the brink of disaster. Add to that some inflation, a housing crisis and various other economic factors and you have a perfect storm. I know that some people might not want to admit it, but the simple truth is that all of this is stressing us out and we’re understandably not really handling it all that well.

And so, what do human beings do when things get that stressful? It is actually perfectly predictable. In the initial phases, as we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, people will pull together and support one another. But as the situation goes on and on, we get into another reaction. We start to turn on each other. We saw that happen during this Lent here in Canada – we literally saw it on the streets of our capital city in the supporters and opponents of the trucker convoy. That is just a very concrete example of what’s been happening in many places in our society most recently. We are cracking up under stress.

Turning on Each Other

That’s exactly what happens to the disciples too. With that whole world turning against them, instead of supporting each other, they start fighting. “A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” And isn’t that just typical? They don’t want to face up to the people who are actually trying to kill them and so they start making enemies of each other. What’s more, they specifically start fighting over which one of them is most important, which one gets to have his way. This is so on the nose about where we are as a society right now that it is kind of scary.

Jesus’ Response

So when Jesus – who, don’t forget, is the actual target of this entire dangerous situation – responds to what the disciples are doing, I think we ought to pay very close attention. Since they are arguing over questions of leadership, he reminds them that he came to model a very different kind of leadership than what they seem to be imagining ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors,” he says. “But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”

True Leadership

He is saying, first of all, that true leadership is not what the world generally assumes it is. The world assumes that it is all about power and dominance. But I suspect that Jesus is saying that that is not a reflection of true strength but rather of a deep weakness and insecurity on the part of a leader. We certainly see that on display in the world right now as everything that Russian President Vladimir Putin does to cow the world with displays of power and force only seem to convince the world of what a poor leader he really is.

But I am particularly interested today in what Jesus has to say about greatness. It is, I think, the more important issue given the challenges we are facing. I really do think that many of the failures of leadership that we have seen in the last couple of years (and I don’t think I need to convince you that there have been many, many such failures) have all come down to various leaders trying to convince themselves and the world that they matter – that they are great.

True Greatness

So what does Jesus teach us about greatness? “The greatest among you must become like the youngest.” And this is what I love about Jesus’ teaching. He doesn’t just offer a definition or explanation of greatness – he shows us something. He promises us that if we look closely at the youngest among us and seek to be like them, we will find greatness.

That is why I am so convinced that Jesus has sent Charlotte as a prophet to us today. There is no question that she is the youngest among us. What’s more, she comes among us at a moment when we have not seen a lot of young people in the sanctuary for quite a while. Jesus sent her to us to teach us about true greatness.

How We Got Here

In order to catch that lesson, we need to perhaps step back and look at the bigger picture of what brought her here. It started with a passion for excellence. Nicole, her mother, had a passion for highland dance. She wanted to be one of the best and to be able to represent her country of Canada. That dream took her to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo where she danced in celebration of the Queen’s ninetieth birthday.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Charles was pursuing excellence in his own ways – including by serving his country in the military. His distinguished service led to the prestigious position of serving in the Queen’s Guard at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in honour of the Queen’s ninetieth birthday.

Was it just random chance that took both of them to that same place and time as they both achieved great personal accomplishments? Some would say so. But I say that God was planning to bring Charlotte here to teach us all something about true greatness. All of a sudden, their pursuit of personal excellence was transformed into a brand-new challenge – a harder one in some ways – building something in partnership.

Parents’ Hopes

I asked Nichole and Charles to share with us today what their hopes and dreams are for their little girl at this moment in time and this is what Nichole wrote to me:

“As parents, our hopes and dreams for Charlotte is for her to live a full, content and happy life. We hope she discovers her passions and hobbies and may they present her with many opportunities. We hope that she has the courage, determination and confidence to always choose the right path. We hope that she is resilient throughout all of life’s ups and downs, stays true to herself and that she shines bright wherever she goes.”

In some ways, I know, that is similar to what many parents might say, but I think you’ll agree with me when I say that those words take on special meaning when you know a little bit about the people who are saying it. You just know that they are going to let her have her own personal passions and will do it with an expectation that something very special (and perhaps surprising and unexpected) will also happen as a result of that.

Charlotte’s Message to us

So, what, then, is Charlotte teaching us about greatness today? Well, she comes among us today in great weakness. At this point in her life she is entirely dependent on others. I think she is telling us something about the true strength that is found in vulnerability.

But she also comes to us as a huge bundle of possibility. As her parents have pointed out, she could grow up to do anything. And as she comes terms with who she is and what her particular passions and talents are, it may lead to some big surprises (just like a chance encounter in Edinburgh led to big changes) but can also bring great new things into the world.

The darkness of these present times can be overwhelming – so much so that they begin to mess up our relationships. Only true leadership and greatness can lead us out of that kind of darkness. We affirm today that Jesus came to offer us that leadership and that kind of greatness. Charlotte, too, has come today to demonstrate that kind of leadership and greatness – a symbol of hope and new possibility during the challenges of a difficult time.

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Rationalizing our Indifference

Posted by on Sunday, April 3rd, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/_5_Ng7B8Gr0
Sermon Video

Hespeler, April 3, 2022 © Scott McAndless – Lent 5
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

How many people are there whose first reaction to our reading this morning from the Gospel of John is to say, “Ah hah, I knew it”?

The story is about, or at least it appears to be about, the whole question of whether or not we ought to give money and resources to the poor. And I suspect that there are a lot of people out there – and I’m not necessarily talking about people out there in the sanctuary this morning or people watching on zoom, I’m talking about people out there in the world at large – who do not want to see their hard-earned money going to support the poor. They don’t want to see it taken in their taxes and spent on things like welfare. They don’t want to give their money to feed or clothe or otherwise help the poor either. It’s their money; they want to keep it.

The Need for Rationalization

It is not an unusual sentiment, I suspect, but it’s also not really one that very many people want to own. Nobody wants to seem unkind or cheap or cruel towards the poor. And so, they’ve got to find a reason not to give to the poor. They need a rationalization. And our reading this morning from the Gospel of John seems to offer two really extraordinary rationalizations. In fact, I think they are the main ones that people offer. One comes to us from Judas Iscariot. The other one comes from Jesus.

So, let’s take a look at these two very biblical reasons not to give to support the poor. When Mary comes in and begins to lavish this really expensive perfume on Jesus, pouring it out so wantonly that the scent of it fills the entire room, it is Judas it brings up the topic of giving to the poor. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he cries out to Mary.

Bad Spokesperson

And the first problem with that is obviously the spokesperson. I mean, it doesn’t seem like a very good endorsement to put the suggestion of giving to the poor on the lips of the most vile, hateful and despicable character in the entire book. If Voldemort made the suggestion that everyone should go down to the beach in a Harry Potter book, it wouldn’t make that seem like a very good idea, would it? And if Pennywise the Clown suggested that we all go down and play in the sewers, I don’t think that would be a big endorsement. So, when we hear Judas making this suggestion, it certainly doesn’t make it seem as if giving to the poor is a good thing to do.

But, of course, it is actually even worse than that because we are also told exactly what Judas’ motivations were. “He said this not because he cared about the poor,” the gospel writer tells us, “but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” And that has got to be the number one excuse that people offer for why they don’t want to give anything to the poor. They are pretty convinced that there must be some sort of theft involved. And this is where I see such people looking at this passage from the Gospel of John and saying, “Ah hah!”

The Assumption of Theft

This is, of course, an assumption that you run into all the time when you are involved in helping those living on the margins of society. There are always stories or suspicions about people stealing – which is to say about people getting benefits that they are not entitled to or that they don’t use in the ways that we want them to. We run into this sometimes here at St Andrew’s. There have been accusations, from time to time, of people taking more clothes than they can use and then selling them on Kijiji.

Often people make observations concerning the lifestyle of people who come. Maybe they observe that they are driving a car that seems like it’s in good shape or that would have cost too much. They also make comments when people have expensive habits like smoking. So, the argument seems to go, if there are some people who don’t look or act poor enough or they use the resources in ways we don’t like, that is stealing and it invalidates the entire exercise, even if only a small percentage of the people are doing it.

Government Programs have the Same Problem

We also see the same argument being employed on larger scale efforts to alleviate poverty. Welfare programs have often been cut back based on accusations of people using drugs or not wanting to work. In a number of jurisdictions, things like drug testing and rigorous requirements that people be searching for work have been put into place.

Now I am not saying that there should be no restrictions or regulations surrounding people accessing programs. And obviously it is not sufficient simply to provide the monetary support without giving people the tools and assistance they need to move towards supporting themselves. But the fact of the matter is that, when punitive measures have been put into place because of the perception that generosity leads to theft, they have generally failed. Programs, for example, that have required drug testing for people to receive welfare have been an enormous failure. The numbers of positive tests were ridiculously low, and the programs did not save any money, they made the whole program cost a lot more. All of that makes me feel as if this tendency to suggest that programs to help the poor are ridden with theft is not really about a concern for any theft itself, but rather a way of justifying not doing anything.

Second Rationalization

So, that is one rationalization, the accusation of theft, that we should be wary of. The second rationalization is also found in this gospel passage. What’s more, it is actually Jesus who says it this time. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” And I know exactly how a lot of people will interpret that saying of Jesus. They will understand Jesus to be saying that it is okay that the money was not given to the poor because the problem of poverty is not going to go away. They would take him to mean that we shouldn’t give money to help the poor because the problem of poverty is intractable. So, this quickly becomes another excuse not to do anything for poor people and it even seems to have Jesus’ endorsement on not doing anything.

But is that really what Jesus is saying? No, he is not. One of the main reasons why we can know that for sure is because this saying does not have its origins with Jesus. What Jesus is doing here is quoting from an Old Testament passage. The passage is found in the Book of Deuteronomy 15:11 where Moses says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’”

The Context in Deuteronomy

When Jews did that kind of thing, when they quoted one line from their scriptures, they did it with the expectation that their fellow Jewish listeners or readers would recognize the quote and go back and read it within its larger context. So, when he quotes this passage, Jesus does not expect the disciples to take that quote alone but rather to go back and see what it was that Moses was talking about around that.

That passage in the Book of Deuteronomy is a description of a specific law in Ancient Israel known as the Sabbath Year law. It describes a series of measures that were to be taken every seven years. These measures included things like canceling debts and giving freedom to those who had been sold into slavery because of their debts. The Sabbath Year law was a series of measures, in other words, that were intended to address the systemic problems in society and in the economy that tended to push people into a state of permanent poverty that they could not find their way out of.

Addressing Systemic Problems

There is evidence to indicate that this law and others measures like it were very active in the popular imagination in Jesus’ time. They were popular because the people in general were very aware of the kind of systemic issues in society, things like inflation, income inequality and the structure of taxation that had made it quite impossible for large portions of the population to escape from endless cycles of poverty. So, essentially what Jesus was doing by directing his disciples’ attention towards this law was saying something very important about how we ought to address the problem of poverty.

Jesus was pointing out that there is a problem with focusing only on giving money or doing things like running food banks and giving away clothing. That kind of charity is obviously essential when people can’t feed or clothe their children, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem behind poverty because most of that problem comes down to the system, the way that society is set up and the economic and political policies that are in place. The ancient law of the Sabbath Year was an effort to address some of those larger systemic issues.

That is not to say that such a law is a perfect tool to address those issues or that the ancient law would actually work in our modern society and economy. I am pretty sure that it wouldn’t work and would probably make things much worse. But the principal is an important one. It is not enough to just give to the poor without addressing those larger systemic issues.

The Danger in Just Giving

I believe that we are truly blessed in this congregation and in the church in general when we are able to reach out in compassion and support people who are really struggling to get by. It is actually a privilege to be able to have that kind of ministry. But there is a danger that comes with such a ministry; we may fail to look at the bigger picture. If we really cared about the poor, we should be advocating for policies that address the systemic issues in our society. We should be involved in pressing for changes in how people are compensated and respected in their work. We should be involved in addressing income inequality.

And I do realize that some of that is a bit problematic for a church that does not want to become directly involved in partisan politics. We are not in a position where we can endorse a certain party’s policies about these things. But none of that should get in the way of us speaking out and informing ourselves as citizens because these really are systemic issues that affect the whole of society. I think it is important for us to understand that Jesus was saying that, as good as giving to the poor is, it is not the whole response that we need to be making.

Changing the Atmosphere

Perhaps a good image for what we need to be doing about poverty would be that woman, Mary, and her jar of expensive perfume. Yes, that perfume was costly, and the money could have been used to support many struggling families. But what did she do with it? I think it’s significant that the gospel writer points out something that she did accomplish with that perfume. He tells us that, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” He notes that she literally changed the atmosphere in that entire house. And I think that that is what we need to aspire to as we address the problem of poverty in our society. There is a need to change the atmosphere.

People will always find excuses and justification for not giving to those who are in need. The accusation of theft is often a handy excuse, but when you look at it closely you recognize that it is mostly based on misrepresentation. The excuse that poverty is an intractable problem and that meeting the needs of one poor person will not fix the systemic issues is definitely one that requires more thought on our part. If we really want to pay attention to what Jesus is saying in this passage, I believe that we need to find ways to balance the need to respond to immediate problems with the imperative of addressing the larger issues in our society and the way it is structured by actually changing the atmosphere and the way that we and others think about how the system needs to work.

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The Parable of Parsi and Proddy

Posted by on Sunday, March 27th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/AcpbvcGzCaQ
Watch the Sermon Video

Hespeler, 27 March 2022 © Scott McAndless – Lent 4
Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

For two long years he had nursed his grudge. He had done so, he felt, for very good reason. He had always known that his little brother was a bit of an idiot. And I know, I know, almost all big brothers believe that, but he knew it was especially true in this case. Even as an infant, the boy had been wasteful about everything. When big brother was called upon to help out and feed his little brother his lunch, the food – cheerios, dunkaroos, brussels sprouts – would always end up strewn all over the floor and yet the boy would still be asking for more.

Proddy and Parsi

When he was about eleven years old, big brother found a dictionary. He looked up a word that would perfectly describe his brother. That was when he stumbled on the word prodigal: a person who spends resources in a recklessly extravagant way. It seemed perfect, and so from that day forward he resolved that that was what he would call his brother. Soon the nickname caught on with the entire family – Prodigal; they started calling him Proddy for short.

The next day, the younger brother sought some revenge on his elder and tried to come up with a nickname for him. He took the dictionary and looked up a word for someone who was stingy and unwilling to give anything. He found the word parsimonious and gave that to his brother. That one stuck too: Parsi for short.

A Wasteful Lifestyle

Proddy didn’t really mature as he got older. Anything that he did – any job or chore that he took on – he managed to carry out in the most wasteful way possible. When the time came for him to go out for some higher education, of course he chose to go for the most expensive program that would never lead to any sort of lucrative job opportunities. That’s right, he went for a theology degree.

Proddy just never seemed to learn. But what really bothered Parsi was that his father never seemed to learn either. He just kept on enabling Proddy. Whatever crazy scheme he came up with, somehow their dad just found a way to go along with it. And so, he was somehow not all that shocked when Proddy told him about his most ridiculous idea yet.

A Bad Idea

“Hey, Parsi, “Proddy said one day, “you know how Dad is getting a little bit long in the tooth these days. I’ve been thinking. Someday, when he’s finally gone, everything that he owns will be passed on to us. And I know, that you, as the eldest, will get the biggest share. I don’t see how that’s fair, but I know that’s how it’s going to be. So, I was thinking. What if I were to go to the old man today and ask him if I could have my share of the inheritance now while I can still have a bit of fun with it. What do you think?”

“Oh man, this is it,” Parsi thought to himself. “Proddy has finally gone too far. When he goes to Dad with this idea, he is going to freak out. I mean, it’s almost as if he was telling Dad that he wishes he was already dead.” So he told his brother to go ahead and ask and see what happened. Imagine his surprise, therefore, when Proddy came back a few minutes later and he asked, barely able to contain his glee, “So, how did it go?”

I don’t think I need to tell you that his jaw dropped when his brother responded, “Fantastic, Dad said that he was fine with the idea. He said to just give him a couple of days to get his affairs in order and he’ll have the money ready for me.” “Fantastic,” replied Parsi.

Proddy Leaves

It only took a matter of days, once Proddy had received his inheritance, for him to pack up and head out into the big wild world. The older brother tried to talk to their father about it, tried to convince him that this was going to be nothing but a disaster that would bring shame on the family name, but the father would hear none of it. He just said that, someday, Proddy would come to his senses and come home. He would wait for that day and welcome him when he arrived. In fact, since Proddy had left, the old man seemed to spend every hour he could standing and watching the road approaching the house. Everyone knew that he was doing nothing but waiting for the first glimpse of his son.

But Parsi was not going to just wait. He knew that this was going to be a disaster and he resolved that he would document it and throw it all in his father’s face when the day came. Through his father’s business connections, he managed to put together a network of informants who would keep an eye on what Proddy was doing with his inheritance. They began to report back at regular intervals and every time he received the report, Parsi got more and more enraged.

Bad Reports

He somehow wasn’t surprised to hear all of the ways in which Proddy was wasting his wealth on parties and luxuries. He was scandalized when he got word that he had been spending money on prostitutes, but he made sure that he got all the proof of it. Oh, how superior he would feel when he showed that evidence to his father.

After a while, he began to receive a very different kind of report. Apparently, Proddy’s money had run out and there had been a famine in that far off land. When he heard the report that Proddy had been reduced to working for a pig farmer, his brother laughed and laughed and laughed. He had the most intense experience of schadenfreude – of joy at the misfortune of somebody else – he had ever had in his life.

Surprise Party

One night, several weeks later, the older brother was coming back home after a long day’s work in the fields. He was just expecting to have a late supper and a few quiet hours at home before turning in. But, much to his surprise, the house was anything but quiet. He heard music playing and the sound of people dancing. Everyone seemed to be having a grand old time. He quickly called over one of his father’s servants to ask what was going on and the man joyfully explained that Proddy had finally returned home. The father had sacrificed his best young calf and everyone was busy feasting and celebrating. It was a party, and the older son should come and join in.

I don’t think it will surprise you when I say that Parsi was not happy. He absolutely refused to come any closer to the house. Finally, his father came out and began to beg him to come in. It was at this point that Parsi gleefully pulled out all of the information he had been documenting on his brother for the past few years. He had been carrying it with him every moment of every day all this time waiting for this very opportunity. He began to relate all of the irresponsible things that Proddy had done with their father’s wealth. He ended with a flourish, pulling out a huge stack of copies of receipts from various brothels in the distant land. “Look, Father,” he cried, “can you believe what Proddy spent on prostitutes alone?”

But the father just looked at him sadly. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” he said. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

What we Should Call the Parable

The parable that we read this morning is popularly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Of course, Jesus never called it that and neither did the author of The Gospel of Luke in which it appears. It was tradition that decided a very long time ago that this parable was all about the younger son, the prodigal or Proddy for short. But I am pretty sure that tradition is wrong about that.

Oh, there is no question that the younger son’s story is very important and meaningful. In fact, it is a wonderful story that has brought a great deal of comfort to people down through the ages. It stands as a great teaching that, no matter what mistakes you’ve made, how much you have messed up your life and done everything wrong, there is always a way back to God and God is ready to welcome you with open arms and perfect love and approval.

So what Proddy went through is important, it is just not the main reason why Jesus told the story. He told it, apparently, because the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” He told it specifically because there were people who were criticizing the fact that Jesus was celebrating and partying with the wrong sorts of people. He was telling it to a bunch of party poopers. And who, do you suppose, is the party pooper in this parable? This is not the Parable of the Prodigal, it is a parable of the sanctimonious Parsimonious brother! It is the Parable of the Party Pooper.

Did he Go to the Party?

Let me just ask you the only question that Jesus’ parable leaves open: did the elder son go to the party? Did he give into his father’s pleas and join in the celebration? Or did he just keep sulking? In a way, that’s the only question that matters. Because, if I understand anything that Jesus is saying with this and other parables like it, the point of the parable is the party. The kingdom of God is what you discover in the middle of that kind of celebration. The message of the parable, therefore, is that even if you make all kinds of mistakes, even if you waste every opportunity that is sent your way, even if you make some wicked choices, you are not cut off from the promise of God’s Kingdom because God is like that father in the story. God is gracious and welcoming to those who lose their way.

But if you hold on to your resentment against those who, in your mind, don’t deserve to be forgiven, if you are much more interested in cataloging the sins of those who have gone wrong and telling them their mistakes and sanctimoniously declaring how they are not worthy of God’s love, you are very much in danger of cutting yourself off from the celebration, which is to say from the kingdom of God.

How we Cut Ourselves Off

Now, please do note what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that God is going to cut you off from the kingdom. I’m not saying that God will refuse you entrance. I’m just saying that you’ve cut yourself off. To understand the difference, let’s return to the parable and imagine a certain outcome. Let us say that the father somehow convinced his eldest son, Parsi, that he had to come into the party. Perhaps he made him feel as if it was his duty or turned it into an obligation in some other way. But, because it was simply an obligation, Parsi attended while still holding onto all of his resentment, judgment and grievances against his brother.

How do you think that Parsi would have looked as he sat in the corner at that party? Yes, pretty much like that. Is there any sense in which someone who looks like that is really attending a party? Oh, they might be in the party, but they are not in the party, if you know what I mean.

Do we Make the Same Mistake?

And it would be one thing if it was just him who made that mistake. And I suspect that he made that mistake. But how many of us make it too? So long as any of us are obsessed with making sure that people who, for whatever reason, we think are undeserving do not get what they need, we are cutting ourselves off from the kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about. A kingdom, by the way, to be found first and above all in this world.

And that includes wanting to cut people off from having enough money to subsist in this world because they haven’t worked hard enough according to our definition of what hard work is. That includes wanting to cut people off from our generosity because maybe they’re not poor enough for our standards or because they have been so damaged by the system that they’re no longer willing to play by its rules. Oh, we find all kinds of reasons not to want to extend God’s grace to certain people. If we really understood what Jesus was saying in this parable though, we would understand that what we are really cutting ourselves off from it is the celebration of life that is the kingdom of God.

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Crazy Scott’s Discount Emporium

Posted by on Sunday, March 20th, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/3l1u6ZjgFbg

Hespeler, March 20, 2022 © Scott McAndless – Lent 3
Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

Come on down to Crazy Scott’s Discount Emporium today! You won’t believe the deals I’ve got for you. You better grab them while you can, before they take me away for being so crazy!

Would you like to have some gasoline? That is right, I am talking about that precious liquid that, as of last night, was selling for $1.70 litre at the local gas station. At Crazy Scott’s, you can have as much of it as you possibly could desire! Want to fill up your Humvee? Here you go! Heck, if you want to fill up your swimming pool you can do that.

No Money

What’s that? You want to know how much it costs? Well, that is the truly crazy part because this gasoline is not being pumped based on how much money you have but rather based on what your need is. In fact, let me say this: “You that have no money, come, buy and guzzle!”

In fact, let’s not just make this about gasoline. What if you are in need of the basics of life: bread, meat, vegetables or wine? Or how about water? Everybody needs water! We’ve got all of those things too and you can get them right now at the amazing, unbeatable price of, well, no money at all – no money down, no payments, no interest. I’m sure you’re all asking how do I do it? Well, if you are asking that then you haven’t been paying attention because there is only one explanation: I’m just plain crazy!

Inappropriate Commercial

So, what would you think if you saw a commercial like that right about now? In the middle of some kind of economic crisis, at a moment when inflation seems to be galloping out of control, there are a lot of people, especially those who are living on fixed incomes or whose pay has been depressed for a very long time, who are really struggling to make ends meet. Meanwhile people all over the place just can’t afford to live in homes anymore. How would that make you feel?

You might take it as some kind of joke, perhaps a bad joke, but at least as an attempt at humour. Or you might receive it as something in pretty bad taste. How cruel to make fun of people who are struggling to get by making a joke of giving all of this stuff that’s getting too expensive away. You might even say it would be inappropriate to include it in a sermon. But what if I were to tell you that that commercial was inspired by our reading this morning from the Prophet Isaiah?

The reading starts out very strangely. It starts with about the closest thing to a television commercial that you could find in the ancient world. Basically, back then, the only way that merchants had to market what they had to sell in the marketplace was to literally call out to the people passing and tell them that they should buy their wares. It’s the kind of thing that still sometimes happens in marketplaces to this very day. But back then, it was really the only way to market. So, the really weird thing is that this prophecy from the book of Isaiah begins with one of these calls that merchants traditionally would have made in the marketplace.

The Merchant’s Call

“Ho,” they would cry out to passers by, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” One would call out. And then, from another booth, “You that have money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk.” Still another would be calling, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food!” Everyone would have been very familiar with these cries; they heard them all the time.

But, although the prophet is clearly imitating these cries, he’s not copying them precisely. And that is because of what was going on at the time that this prophecy was made. There was an economic crisis. Inflation was out of control. As a result, huge numbers of people were just unable to afford the basic needs of life. They were being forced into debt that they would never be able to pay off. People were losing their homes and even having to sell family members into slavery.

The Prophet Changes it

So rather than call out what all the merchants would have called, he does the Crazy Scott’s Discount Emporium version of the traditional market call: Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Now, the really unfortunate thing about these ancient prophecies is that all that got retained and written down were the words. Nobody wrote down the stage directions. Nobody wrote down what the prophet was doing as he or she said these things. But, in this case, I think it’s pretty easy to imagine what he was doing. I am pretty sure that he actually set up a stand in the marketplace, probably in the big marketplace in Jerusalem, and he stood there alongside the other merchants and he was literally giving away his entire stock to anyone who needed it. This was actually the kind of thing that ancient prophets often did in Israel.

And of course, it was ridiculous. No one is going to sell their goods in the marketplace for nothing. And can you imagine the reaction of the other merchants who were trying to profit from all the inflated prices on everything? They must have been livid.

Why He did it

So why did he do it? He did it for the same reason that a prophet did anything. He did it because he was trying desperately to get a message from the Lord across to the people. And it was not a message that was just about spiritual realities that were totally disconnected from the physical struggles of people’s lives.

I imagine that he really was giving away free water and bread and other things that people couldn’t afford to buy. But, at the same time, he was not just playing at running a food bank. He was proclaiming something really important about God, and especially about what God cares about when people are really struggling to make ends meet.

Reacting to a Bad Economy

What happens when we are living through trying economic times? We see the reaction very clearly in our world right now. The worst economic effects in the last while have been in Russia, of course. Because if you think that we have been experiencing inflation lately, the Russians – reeling from sanctions and a plummeting Ruble – would probably tell you that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

But we see the extreme reaction to economic disaster on full display there. There have been runs on the banks. People, who cannot even exchange what they have for foreign currency, have been desperate to buy anything they can possibly get their hands on. They’re buying anything that might actually maintain its value. Basically, it seems, the present crisis has shown up just what an illusion the entire economic and monetary system is. The things that we thought had all the value, things like money, turn out to be almost without value and we are desperately searching for something valuable to replace them with. It is kind of a metaphor for the whole of modern society.

The Message We Need to Hear

So, what message is the prophet trying to get across, because I’m really starting to think that it might be a message that we need to hear. I believe that it particularly comes down to this verse: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” We have all been caught up for so long in this endless cycle of working in order to get the good things in life. But we don’t get the good things in life. We get money, and money, it turns out, does not necessarily equal value. The value can just disappear. Even more important, having the money, even if you spend it on things, does not mean that you will get the satisfaction that you truly need.

Yes, we are all struggling to get by in difficult times. It is heartbreaking to watch families having trouble feeding their children. It is disheartening to watch those who are on fixed incomes as their purchasing power gets less and less. But what we are discovering is that the things that we have built our economy on have a lot less value than we have been led to believe. They have value that can disappear so easily. We are learning that we cannot put our trust in these things.

What We Can Trust

So what can we trust instead? Well, that is really interesting, because the prophet reaches out to these people all around him who are just struggling to get by, and he tells them what they can trust in. “Incline your ear, and come to me; Listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” The one thing that you can count on, in other words, is God’s commitment to you. God has made an everlasting covenant and so will never fail to love God’s people. The world teaches us to trust in money, but money will fail us.

We are seeing it happening in the world right now. I know that many would consider it foolishness to trust in God instead. I would argue that, at the very least, it is no less foolish to trust in that than in the false and potentially vanishing value that is found in money.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, And the unrighteous their thoughts.” Of course, our tendency is to do the opposite. When we discover that our way of doing things is empty and meaningless, what do we do? We tend to double down. We bail out our currencies, we take measures to build up their false value because we are afraid to let go of the illusion of value. But we really ought to take advantage of times of crisis like this to be willing to look at the entire system and just ask the question, can we really think of value in a very different way?

“Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, And to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” I think we would all be better off putting our trust in a God who is forgiving rather than a currency system that is anything but – that never offers any grace for those who fall through the cracks of the system for any reason.

The Prophet was Crazy

Was the prophet crazy to do what he did? Did everyone think he was being just plain foolish? Absolutely. But he was trying to shock the people who were living through a crisis into seeing a fundamental truth about God’s ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” So high above the ways of this world that, yes, they certainly do seem like complete and utter foolishness as far as this world is concerned. That was kind of the point of what he was doing.

And, I’ve got to tell you, I think we’ve seen some of that foolishness here at St. Andrews. We have become a key place in this community for people to turn to when they are struggling to make ends meet. They come here, not because it’s the only place they could go, not because there are more resources available here than any place else.

They come here because we try to do our best, and the incredible volunteers we have here try to do their best, not to treat people as the world treats them. We try not to judge them according to the system of this world and how they measure up within it. And make no mistake, my friends, that is pure foolishness. That is craziness according to this world. And yet by the grace of God, we have seen good things happening here in people’s lives because of it. God’s love has been made real in countless incidences.

I do not say any of this in order to toot our own horns. We have done nothing really apart from being in the right place at a time of need. We have just been fools who have rejected the wisdom of this world. And God has brought blessing into our lives and into the lives of others as a result. There is real value in that, just not like the world measures value. No, the world is pretty sure that we are crazy.

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Settling for Eliezer

Posted by on Sunday, March 13th, 2022 in Minister, News

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/vWA9j10OLh8

Hespeler, 13 March 2022 © Scott McAndless – Lent 2
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35 (click to read)

First of all, let me make one thing perfectly clear. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Eliezer of Damascus. He was a very nice young man. And Abram had felt very close to him ever since he was born to one of the slave girls in his household. He was reliable, trustworthy and had risen until he became the steward of all of his master’s possessions. So long as Eliezer was managing things, Abram rarely had to worry. He knew that, no matter what, the man would do well in life.

So, Abram certainly knew that he could do a whole lot worse than to pass down all of his possessions to such a fine young man. There was only one problem, despite the rumours that unfortunately did still persist in the household, Eliezer was not his son. He did not carry his blood and would never be able to carry his name. And Abram had held onto the hope that someday he would be able to have a child of his own body who would be able to carry on his true legacy. He had thought that it was something that God had promised him that he could have and he had clung to that promise beyond all reason. But maybe it was time to re-evaluate that.

Past the Point of Hope

Abram was seventy-five years old now. Sarai, his wife, was closing in on sixty-five. It was now way past the point where you could call Abram hopeful or optimistic. We were now talking in terms of him being downright delusional. So, he had finally made the decision. He was going to call in some of the local elders as his witnesses and make the formal declaration that Eliezer would inherit everything when he was gone. He kept telling himself that this was just wisdom and prudence. He wasn’t settling, he was embracing a new and realistic possibility. It was the right thing to do. It was a good thing to do. But, no matter how often he told himself that, he just couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it.

An Eliezer in your Life

And I can’t help but wonder today whether you might have an Eliezer of Damascus in your life. And please understand me that I’m not talking about a person in your life, or at least not necessarily a person. I am more wondering whether there’s not a situation in your life which is an Eliezer situation. Is there something that you are settling for? Now, remember that in this story Eliezer is not a bad option. In fact, he seems to be a pretty good option. He is someone who would do a pretty good job as an heir of all of Abram’s goods. He’s just not the best option. He is not what Abram has always dreamed of, and he’s not the fulfillment of what God has called Abram to be.

So, what is the good thing in your life that you have settled for instead of doing what, somewhere deep down inside, you know is really the best thing? Obviously, this is a very personal question. It is also not something that anyone else can decide for you. But perhaps you know of something in your own life that just doesn’t quite measure up to what you know it could be. Have you opted for some job or for some activity not because it’s what you know you should be doing but just because it seemed like the safest option to go for? Or maybe you have settled for a certain level of knowledge or a certain proficiency even though you know that you are capable of more.

Why it’s Sometimes Necessary

Now, there are all kinds of reasons why we make these sorts of decisions. And they may be very good reasons. There may be a real need to embrace the safe option for a time because you need to give your family some stability, for example. That is perfectly legitimate. But it also doesn’t mean that you need to stay with the safe option forever.

Or perhaps think of it in these terms. We have been living through some very difficult times for the last two years almost to this very date. And as a result of that, we have all made some choices. And those have been very good choices. It is good to stay home and not socialize in certain ways when there’s a great danger that you will spread a dangerous illness if you do so. It was a good choice for people not to come to church in person. And there are all kinds of other good choices that people have made. I don’t really need to go on and make a list here because I know that you have all been making these kinds of choices again and again over the last couple of years.

If you are like most people, you have likely also fallen into certain patterns to manage the stress of these unusual times. Perhaps you have indulged yourself in ways that would not have been normal for you before such times. I certainly know that there are people who have imbibed more or eaten more or been less active than is ideal. There are also other habits that people have embraced that might be addictive – gambling, social media doom scrolling and even, dare I say it, Wordle. (Okay, I am totally joking about that last one. And I was actually able to solve yesterday’s puzzle in two lines!)

Survival is Good

If any of that reminds you of the things that you have settled into over the last couple of years, then perhaps you should consider that to be an Eliezer response. Because you did something good: you survived. You managed to make your way through a very difficult time. That is not just good; that is fantastic. But what if we are getting to the place where you don’t need to settle for Eliezer of Damascus anymore? What if it is time to get back to embracing a little bit more of who you are really meant to be?

Well, if any of what I have said speaks to you and where you feel you are in your life right now, then please do pay heed to what happened to Abram next. Abram had resolved to settle for the good thing that was Eliezer, but then he apparently took a step outside of his tent. Now, Abram was in the middle of a desolate place. There was clearly nobody around. There were no streetlights or big city lights, there were not even any campfires or lamps burning.

The Night Sky

And so, Abram was immediately confronted with a sight that folks like us who live in cities rarely see. For there, blazing over his head was the most breathtaking display of stars imaginable. And if you have ever been out in the wilderness and looked up and seen that sight, you know that it can greatly affect you. It’s not just a beautiful sight, it is a sight that can overwhelm you with the sheer size of it. There is this sense that you are looking on something that is truly infinite. It is no accident that since ancient times, people have looked up at nighttime and found themselves confronted with powers and beings far beyond their understanding.

And so, when Abram looked up that night, just after making that fateful decision about the disposition of his assets, he was reminded that he was dealing with a God of infinite possibility. When such a God is involved, anything can happen. He realized that it was not only possible that he might have one child, there could be as many as there were stars overhead.

Abram Believed God

And in that moment, Abram did a very simple thing. It was small, but it changed everything. He believed God. He didn’t believe in his own body’s ability to produce an heir. He didn’t believe in Sarai’s ability to carry a child at her age. Maybe that had been the problem up until now. He had been trying to believe in those things. But somehow the sight of that infinite heaven, of the stars far beyond all counting, that made it possible to believe in a God of infinite possibility.

And there is a message in that for you as you ponder that question of whether you should settle for your Eliezer of Damascus or if it is time to aspire for what you were really made to do and be. I am not suggesting, and no one should suggest, that you have been lacking in faith before this point. I am sure that your faith has brought you this far. But perhaps a vision of a God of infinite possibility might persuade you to approach the question of where you go from here from a new perspective.

What if I don’t Deserve it?

Ah yes, you might say, but there is a problem. Maybe Abram was an extraordinary man. Maybe he just deserved to have the deepest desire of his heart realized. But what if that doesn’t apply to me? After all, I’ve made too many mistakes in my life. I’ve let too many opportunities go by, I’ve been weak or indecisive or foolish in my choices. That’s why I don’t really deserve to have my deepest desires, hopes and dreams fulfilled. In short, what if I’m just not good enough to have it? I don’t feel like I deserve it.

I know that that is how we often feel. I honestly feel that, for many of us, that is the real reason why we don’t reach for the things that we are meant to do. It is not because we are lazy or timid. It is because, somewhere deep down inside, we are just terribly afraid that we just don’t deserve to succeed. Maybe Abram felt that too and that was the real reason why he had decided to settle for Eliezer. But that is why what happened next is so important.

When Abram had been swept away by the sight of those stars and decided that he was going to trust God to fulfill God’s promises instead, this is what happened. And [Abram] believed the Lord;” it says, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

The Theme of Grace

What does that mean? It means that right there and then, God decided that Abram was good, that he was worthy of all sorts of good things to happen to him. And on what basis did God decide that? It was not because Abram had done anything special. It was not because he had worked hard for it or because he had made all the right decisions. God simply took Abram’s willingness to believe and trust as enough to declare him righteousness and worthy.

This is, in case I need to say it, a key theme that runs through the whole Bible (not just the New Testament like some people think). It is the simple truth that God loves, accepts and approves of us, not because we have done all the right things, but just because we are willing to trust and believe in God. It is when we forget that truth that we are most likely to stop believing in ourselves, which sometimes means we usually end up settling for Eliezer.

Two Reasons not to Settle for Eliezer

 So, there you are. There are two reasons why you can ask for and expect something better for your life than just settling for Eliezer – for the thing that is just good enough. The first reason is that you have a God whose potential is as vast as all the stars in the sky. If you have been limiting your expectations because the God you think you serve is too small, let me suggest that you do like Abram and spend some time contemplating the vastness of the heavens that your God created.

The second reason why you have settled for Eliezer may be because you don’t think that you deserve any better. That is a lie. You deserve it all and more. But not because of anything you have done, not because you made all of the right decisions or worked the hardest. You deserve it because of what Christ has done for you. All God is looking for is that you trust him. God will count that as righteousness and will declare you worthy. So don’t settle for Eliezer. Dream of what God is truly calling for you to be.                                                                        

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