Author: Scott McAndless

Hey There Delilah

Posted by on Sunday, October 2nd, 2022 in News

https://youtu.be/m51CepqMGaU
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 2 October 2022 © Scott McAndless – Baptism, Communion
Judges 16:4-22, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10 (click to read)

Matthew and Venessa, you have shared a lovely gift with us today. You have invited us, as a church, into this very important and significant celebration of your family. Most of all, you have shared your beautiful daughter with us and introduced her into the life of this church. She is a beautiful girl, and she has a beautiful name.

I was a little bit curious about her name, Delilah, and just how popular the name has become over the last decade or so. Did you know, for example, that back in the 1980s and ‘90s the name Delilah was very rarely chosen for girls and that remained true right up until about 2007. Then it suddenly boomed in 2008. I’ll get to why that happened in a bit, first I want to acknowledge why it didn’t take off any sooner.

Delilah is a biblical name. It is also a very beautiful name that means delicate and so seems rather fitting for a little girl. But it was unpopular for a long time. And I’ll tell you why; it suffered from the bad girls of the Bible syndrome. Like a few other women in the Bible – women like Jezebel or Salome – she may have had a beautiful name, but it was overtaken by some of the disturbing events of her life.

Delilah’s Bad Rap

Delilah is credited, in the Book of Judges, with getting the Israelite hero, Samson, captured by his enemies, the Philistines. But it is not just the capture that made her infamous, it was the way that she pulled it off. The traditional understanding was that she used her feminine wiles on him which made her almost the perfect example of the extremely sexist (and I would say offensive) trope of the beautiful woman who tempts good men down evil paths.

So, I guess, parents hesitated to name their daughters Delilah because they didn’t want them to turn out to be that kind of woman which is pretty silly. First of all, the name you give your child does not predetermine what kind of person they will turn out to be. But, even more importantly, it was based on a sexist stereotype of a woman rather than the actual woman who appears in the Bible.

Samson and Delilah

So, let me tell you a few things about the biblical Delilah. We are told, first of all, that Samson “fell in love” with her. And, sure, that sounds very nice and romantic, doesn’t it? Sounds like the beginning of a love story. That is until you take a quick look at Samson’s story up until this point. He has already been married once. It was to a woman who he saw one day and said to his father, and I quote, “Get her for me, because she pleases me.” (Judges 14:3) And then he threw a tantrum until he got what he wanted.

So, this tells me that Samson is not really a man who has a mature attitude towards women. He apparently thinks of them as pretty playthings that he wants to possess. And we certainly see that play out in his first marriage when he loses interest in his wife and abandons her, at least until it is convenient for him to go and look for her again.

So that is Samson’s history with women. You will perhaps forgive me if I am a little doubtful about his deep and abiding feelings towards Delilah when he “falls in love with her.” But worse, that is all that we are told about Samson and Delilah’s relationship. That he fell in love with her. Whether she felt the same or whether she just felt as if she had no choice but to give in to this big strong guy who had a tendency to throw tantrums, we are not told.

But my impression is that there was not really a mature, mutually loving and affirming relationship between these two people. Delilah appears, above all, to have been pushed into what is not a particularly healthy relationship.

Delilah and the Philistines

And then, of course, Delilah gets manipulated by the Philistines to discover the secret of Samson’s incredible strength so that they can capture him. Again, there is no indication that this is something that Delilah wants to do. At one point, they do offer her money to betray Samson, but it mostly seems to me that they are putting her in a position where she just can’t say no to them. They are threatening her, or maybe threatening those who are dear to her.

So really, the impression I get of Delilah in the Bible is of a woman who is deprived of choice and agency in her own life. She has Samson take possession of her without consulting her desires. She has the Philistines using her whether she wants to be used or not. And I can’t help but wonder how differently her story might have turned out if she had been allowed to be in touch with what she wanted and needed as an individual. I certainly don’t believe that she was fated to go down a bad path just because of her name.

Name Popularized

So, I hope you understand a little better why Delilah was not a popular name up until 2007, even if I think the reasons for that were a little bit silly. So, if people stayed away from the name up until that year because of scripture, what changed at that time? We know exactly what happened. In 2007, a song by the American rock band Plain White T’s hit the top of the pop charts. A certain number of months later, thousands of girls were given the name Delilah. The song was called “Hey There Delilah.”

So is that it? It just took a really popular song to turn the fortunes of a name around? Well, I think there was a little more to it than that. I know that I usually interpret scriptures in these sermons that I do, not the text of popular songs. But I’m inclined to make an exception today. In many ways, I feel as if that song did not just popularize the name Delilah. There’s a sense in which it redeemed it.

Another Silly Love Song

You might make the mistake of thinking that the song is what Paul McCartney would call just another silly love song. But I say there is more to it than that. It is a song that a boyfriend sings to his girlfriend, Delilah, when the two of them are separated because she is pursuing her studies on the other side of the country. It is sweet and sentimental, but it is also more than that.

In many ways, the fictional relationship in this song is the antithesis of the relationship between Samson and Delilah. The young man singing the song obviously misses his girlfriend and would like to be with her. He says so several times. But he also shows a deep understanding that both of them are in the midst of pursuing their own goals and becoming the people they are meant to be. In other words, Delilah is not there merely to please him or to be the object of his love.

There is a real sense in which they are both there to bring the best out of each other. As the singer puts it at one point, “We’ll have it good. We’ll have the life we knew we would. My word is good.”

Empowering Delilah

So, I see the Delilah of the song as having something that the Delilah of the Bible never really had. She got the opportunity to define her own life and she had at least one person in her life who was supporting her in that even at great emotional cost. And I cannot help but wonder how the biblical Delilah’s story might have been so differently if she had just been given that kind of support rather than having a bunch of people around her telling her exactly what she was supposed to do and who she was supposed to be.

And that is why it is so good to be here today and to celebrate what we are celebrating. I do not know what the future course of Delilah’s life is going to be. Nobody does. She has many choices ahead of her that will define who she is and what she accomplishes. That is exciting. And we are here today as the people who love her, her family and her church, because we want to do our very best to make sure that she sets a good course in her life. We want her to be the kind of strong person who can stand against those who would use her like the Philistines and Samson used Delilah. But how can we do that?

A Prayer for Delilah

I would say that my prayer for you, Delilah, would be that you would have the spirit that is spoken of in our reading this morning from Second Timothy: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” That is what you need, what we all need, in order for you to become the best person you are meant to be and not simply the person that everybody else thinks you are supposed to be.

But the question remains, how can we make sure that somebody has that kind of spirit? How can we make sure they don’t fall into the trap of just conforming to everyone else’s expectations of them? Well, the exemplar of that in our reading from the letter this morning is Timothy, the one to whom the letter is addressed. This is what the writer says about Timothy: “I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”

And that makes it pretty clear, doesn’t it? One of the things that helped Timothy to avoid a spirit of cowardice and develop instead a spirit of love, power and self-discipline was the incredible support and love and acceptance he received from extraordinary people in his life like Lois and Eunice.

Extraordinary Support

Now, Delilah, I do not know all of the members of your extended family. But I do know your mother and your father, and I know some of your grandparents. I know that these are people who love you with a fierce love and are absolutely devoted to accepting you for who you are and giving you the space and the power to become the person that God made you to be. I know that, while you will face your own unique challenges and you will have your own unique capacities, that they will be there to love you and support you in who you are and who you become. That is exciting. I am also excited that they have invited this church to be a part of all of that and that we will do all we can to support you in similar ways.

Delilah, the best and most exciting part of this celebration today is that we get to watch you become the incredible person God has created you to be. You are not merely someone to be possessed by somebody else, even somebody who falls in love with you. You are not somebody to be manipulated by others for their own ends. You are going to build your own personhood and accomplishments with the help of these incredibly supportive people, your church and your God. That is what we get to celebrate today. And if I’m going to end with a promise, it’s going to have to be this one:

Delilah I can promise you
That by the time we get through
The world will never ever be the same
And you’re to blame.

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The Cousin that No One Talks About

Posted by on Sunday, September 25th, 2022 in News

https://youtu.be/Kta3QptVfzU
Watch the sermon video here

The Cousin the No One Talks About

Hespeler, 25 September 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 32:1-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31 (click to read)

Every family seems to have at least one member that everyone else just struggles with. I’m not just talking about those members who hold different political positions from the majority or who happen to believe weird theories about vaccines or international cabals of child traffickers. I mean, family is family, and the truth of the matter is that we don’t all have to believe all of the same things in order to get along and love one another.

No, I am talking about the kind of family member who just has a way of taking all of that too far – who just refuses to talk about anything but their strange theories, even when it is clear that everyone else is doing their best to change the subject so as to not start an argument. I’m talking about the person who floods everyone else’s social media with photos and quotes from dubious sources and who is very quick to say that anyone who disagrees is an idiot or a sheep. That can be a little bit much.

Family and Divisive Times

And so, what do we do in that situation? These are divisive times when people everywhere seem to be at odds with each other, but the very last thing we want to do is see that division creep into our families. So, we don’t really want to cut ourselves off from those family members completely. Sure, we might choose to block them on Twitter or Facebook because we just can’t deal with their issues on a daily basis, but we won’t cut all ties.

We will still make a point of inviting them for Thanksgiving or Christmas even though we know things may get uncomfortable. We will include them in the family discussions about what is going to happen to the old family homestead when Mom and Dad eventually pass on. We don’t write them out of any wills because, well, family is still family, and we are willing to tolerate a bit of discomfort in order to stand up for that.

Hanamel’s Cousin

So, can you imagine the person that I’m describing here. If you don’t have somebody like that in your own family, chances are but you know somebody who does. It seems to have become a very common experience. Well, I want you to understand this morning that, for Hanamel, the son of Shallum, his cousin Jeremiah was that person in the family. Nobody in the family liked Jeremiah.

Do you want to know how bad relations were between Jeremiah and that extended family? The whole family had lived in the town of Anathoth in Judah for as long as anyone could remember. As is the way in many a small town, just about everyone who lived in Anathoth was related to everybody else by blood or by marriage.

Jeremiah had grown up in Anathoth, had become a man there. But he didn’t turn out like most people who lived there. He began to have visions and insights. He had an extraordinary ability to not only see what people were doing wrong, but also to foresee the dreadful consequences of their actions. Above all, he had absolutely no hesitations about sharing such insights.

Jeremiah was Annoying

So, Jeremiah started going around and pointing out to his friends and relations what they were doing wrong. He didn’t care if someone was his elder or if they had been in their position for years and were highly respected. It was just not in his nature to hold back.

And the most annoying part was that he was often right. People were getting things wrong. But being right didn’t make things better. Jeremiah could never be gracious about it; he was too self-righteousness. So, people generally ended up hating him all the more. To say that things got very strained in Anathoth would be a gross understatement.

When Jeremiah Left Town

Let’s just put it this way, Jeremiah left Anathoth because nobody wanted him there anymore. And, yes, he went from there to Jerusalem, the big city. He went on to bigger things and to have a bigger impact and to find a lot more people to hate him. But he also did not leave on good terms. There were a whole lot of hurt feelings in his wake.

As he left town, Jeremiah said, “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the people of Anathoth who seek your life and say, ‘You shall not prophesy in the name of the Lord, or you will die by our hand’— therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: I am going to punish them; the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine, and not even a remnant shall be left of them. For I will bring disaster upon the people of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” (Jeremiah 11:21-23)

When that is the last thing you say to your family and the people you grow up with, there really is no coming back from that.

Jeremiah in Jerusalem

Of course, his friends and family in Anathoth were hardly the last people that Jeremiah rubbed the wrong way. As time went by, he managed to offend just about everyone in Jerusalem as well. He particularly clashed with the kings who ruled in the city, especially the latest, King Zedekiah. When Zedekiah’s nephew had rebelled against Babylonian overlordship, Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon had come and deposed him, elevating Zedekiah to take his place.

Zedekiah should have supported Nebuchadrezzar in return. But, pushed by the anti-Babylon faction in the city, he had followed his nephew’s foolishness and stopped paying taxes, rebelling against the powerful king. It was pure, unadulterated stupidity. And Jeremiah was not the kind of man to stand idly by while this kind of thing was going on.

New Enemies for the Prophet

Jeremiah condemned the king and everyone who had supported this doomed rebellion against Babylon. He proclaimed that he spoke for the Lord and declared that such a course would doom the entire nation to destruction.

Nobody, least of all the king, wanted to hear any of it. In fact, as tensions with Babylon rose, more and more people started calling Jeremiah a traitor and a foreign agent. He was barred from speaking in the temple. Once they even threw him into a deep cistern. Lately he had been placed under arrest in the court of the king’s guard.

The worst part, as usual, was that Jeremiah was right. Things went badly very quickly. The Babylonian army came. They invaded the land of Judah, laid waste to towns and villages everywhere including Anathoth, by the way. And they put Jerusalem under siege. At this point nobody needed prophetic powers to know that the city would fall, the kingdom was doomed. But being right didn’t endear Jeremiah to anyone, especially as he was the kind of guy who never hesitated to say, “I told you so.”

Hanamel’s Decision

When Hanamel went to see his cousin Jeremiah, he was not looking forward to the visit. Sure, they had grown up together, but, after everything that had happened, they hadn’t spoken in years.

He especially wasn’t looking forward to it because of why he was going. He was going because Jeremiah had been right all along. As he had prophesized so many years ago, their shared hometown of Anathoth was suffering from a disaster.

The Babylonian invaders on their way to Jerusalem had, almost as an afterthought, destroyed the entire countryside. Anathoth was in ruins. There was nothing left there for Hanamel and his family and they had fled to Jerusalem with many others before the city was put under siege.

Why he Needed to See Jeremiah

They had, like many other refugees in those days, decided to escape and go to Egypt. But in order to make it there, Hanamel needed to raise some cash. His decision to sell a piece of land that had been in his family for generations was an act of desperation. I mean, who would want to buy a field that was occupied by the enemy? But desperation was their only course of action at this point.

According to the ancient laws of Israel, lands were supposed to remain in the extended family forever. So, before he even tried to sell it to anyone else, Hanamel had to offer it to his last living male relative. Yup: Jeremiah.

A Dreaded Interview

Hanamel made his way into the king’s palace where his cousin was under arrest in the court of the guard with a sinking feeling. He had replayed the conversation he was expecting many times in his head. He fully expected Jeremiah to laugh in his face, to tell him that he should have listened to him all those years ago and left Anathoth too. He expected Jeremiah to make him feel like an idiot for thinking he could get anything at all for a now worthless piece of property.

Hanamel braced himself to hear the inevitable words of his cousin, “I hate to say it, but I told you so.” He didn’t want to put himself through such an ordeal but, you know, family is family.

Jeremiah’s Prophetic Performance Art

I find it fascinating that we are told this story in the Book of Jeremiah from one point of view. We get Jeremiah’s side of the story. And Jeremiah, the prophet, only tells us that the reason why he choses to do what seems to everyone to be a foolish thing and actually buy Hanamel’s field and pay what it would be worth in ordinary times is because God tells him to.

Jeremiah, as a prophet and a natural showman, makes a big deal of doing the purchase in public and then taking the unusual step of preserving both copies of the deed to the land in an earthenware jar so that they will last.

This all makes a clear prophetic point. Even if Jeremiah is right and the whole country will be destroyed, God will not completely forget God’s people. There will be a return. People will again possess the land. They will just need to wait a really long time – like a deed preserved in an earthenware jar.

That was the prophetic performance that was inspired by God. But just because Jeremiah did that because it was what God wanted him to declare, doesn’t mean that it was his only motivation. I’d like to think that there was also a personal dimension – you know, cousin to cousin.

How it Went

The guards let Hanamel into Jeremiah’s cell. When they heard why he was there, they decided to permit his visit because it might be a laugh to see his disappointment. But when he entered, nothing went as Hanamel expected. Jeremiah embraced him immediately – seemed genuinely pleased to see him.

“God told me that you were going to come,” Jeremiah said matter-of-factly. “I would be so pleased to buy your field.”

Hanamel was so taken aback that he began to apologize. All of the positive things he had rehearsed saying about the field went out of his head and he actually began explaining how worthless it was now.

Reconciliation

But Jeremiah just waved all of his objections away. He would hear none of it. I’m going to give you seventeen shekels of silver and I don’t want to hear another word about it. And I know that I’m doing this because God wants me to say something to the whole people at this moment when everything seems so dark, but I am glad that the message that I have to give allows me to do something that will do some good for you and your family.

I’m not going to say that I was right. I’m not going to say I told you so because now, now that the worst that I feared is coming to pass, I have finally realized that there are things that are more important than being right – things like hope and family and the people we love.

Families Divided

We find ourselves living, it seems, in very divisive times. Everything, from politics and public health policy to electric vehicles and wind turbines, seems to be an excuse for people to line up on opposing sides of the issues and start fighting. But it is one thing for such issues to divide us on a political level, it is quite another to see them disrupting some of the most important relationships in people’s lives. When families start to fall apart because they can no longer abide one another because of differing opinions, that is devastating on a very personal level.

There seems to be no question that Jeremiah was that kind of divisive figure in his own day. His prophecies and pronouncements definitely had a way of setting people at odds with each other. But what he did when he decided to buy his cousin’s field was a definite break from the way that he usually operated. For the nation, he offered an unusual message of hope, even if it was a hope that was a long way off.

Never Too Late

But I am also struck by how that act of hope was an act of mending broken relationships with his family. I am pretty sure that Hanamel had given up a long time before on any hope of being reconciled with his cousin. But maybe this story can stand as a reminder that, no matter how much water has flowed under the bridge, it is never too late. We should never give up on those people. I’m wondering, even if you were right in the dispute that you had with someone you care about, what might you be able to do to bring about reconciliation that previously seemed impossible?

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The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

Posted by on Sunday, September 18th, 2022 in News

Watch the Youtube version here: https://youtu.be/2U4g5WlUjgE

Hespeler, September 18, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

The parable of Jesus that we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke is one that has troubled many readers down through the centuries. How many people have read this parable, put it down and said, “Why on earth is Jesus praising the manager in this story who starts out being merely incompetent at his job and then goes on to apparently swindle his master on behalf of his master’s clients by forgiving their debts to him?”

Not only is it strange to think that Jesus would have praised a man for doing such a thing, he even says that the master himself, the man who was swindled, praised him too. “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Who praises a robber for robbing them shrewdly?

Luke is Struggling too

And it seems as if the author of this gospel has about as much trouble with the parable as we do. He tries, as he often does, to sum up the parable with a kind of moralistic lesson. He just throws out a bunch of morals for this strange story that may sound pious but don’t make much sense. He finally ends up by saying this: “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” I mean, what does that even mean?

So, what I think has happened is this. Luke received this parable. It was handed down to him by Christian tradition and he felt certain that Jesus had told it. So, he felt he had to include it in his gospel. But he didn’t really get it, possibly because he didn’t adequately understand the cultural context in which Jesus told the parable.

Making Sense of it

But, if that is what happened, we are even further removed from that context than the author. So, what hope could we possibly have of making sense of this very disturbing parable? Well, perhaps some recent events have brought us a little bit closer to that ancient cultural context. So, maybe, if we just play around with Jesus’ story a little bit, we might find that it makes more sense than we originally thought. Would it make more sense if Jesus told the parable with these modern characters that we can relate to?

The Chief Executive

Once upon a time there was a very powerful and rich country that decided to hire somebody to be the manager of all their affairs. He was the chief executive, the president if you like. Now, they didn’t choose this man because they loved absolutely everything about his policies and his past work history. There were some issues. But he just seemed like the better option when compared to the man who had held the office before him, so they decided to give him a chance.

A Rocky Start

But this president’s time in office was pretty rocky almost from the start. And a year or maybe a year and a half into his tenure, many in the country were beginning to feel as if their affairs were being mismanaged. I won’t go into all of the things that were going wrong, but let’s just say that inflation was out of control, businesses were unable to get workers, a terrible virus continued to cause death and sickness, forest fires raged and hurricanes threatened.

And so, the polls put the president on notice that he was bound to lose power. The people would overwhelmingly vote for his opponents in the upcoming midterm elections and things were definitely not looking good for his own re-election down the road.

A Plan

And so, the president said to himself, “What will I do now that my country is taking the position away from me? I am getting a little bit old, Jack. I am no longer strong enough to dig ditches, and my voice and elocution is not good enough to make money narrating documentaries on Netflix.

“So, I have decided to do something that will make people love me and maybe even welcome me back into their homes and hearts again.”

And so, this is what he began to do. He called in one by one the people in the country who had gone to school and who had large debts that they owed as a result.

$30k to $120k

One woman[1] came in and she said, “I went to school to get a professional degree. To do that, I needed to borrow about $30,000. But I now owe almost $120,000 due to compounding high interest and income-based repayment programs that only drove my principal higher and higher even when I never missed a payment. I’ve paid a fair amount over the years that has done nothing to decrease my balance.

“I have been a hard-working professional all my adult life. The government has collected far more in taxes (which I’ve paid cheerfully) than the cost of my education, yet still, I owe four times what I borrowed.

“I was 17 years old when I entered the student loan program as a college freshman,” she continued. “I had no experience with lending. I thought I was doing the right thing by attending college and trying to lift myself out of generational poverty. Instead, I wound up further in debt, with death or permanent disability being the only way I’ll ever get out of it.”

$25k to $35k

Another student came in and told the president a story in terms of very simple and succinct numbers. “My original debt, when I first graduated, was $25,170.50. In the 21 years since I have graduated, I have repaid $45,650.19. Today, thanks to the wonders of compound interest, I still owe $34,713.11 on that same loan.”

Writing Down Less

The stories went on and on. The numbers varied, of course. Some were large, some were relatively small, but in so many cases the debts that these people still carried had had a huge negative impact on their lives. And so, the president went to the first person and said, “Here, take your account and where it says that you owe 120,000, write down 60,000 instead.” And to the second he said, “Where it says that you owe 35,000, write down 25.”

And so, he went from one debtor to the next providing relief that was maybe not huge and maybe not sufficient in every case, but at least it made some difference in each person’s life.

The Reaction

And what was the reaction when the president did these things? Well, there is no doubt that the reactions were mixed. There were certainly some who said that it was not enough. That it was too little to really help some who needed it most. Others complained that to offer such forgiveness was completely unfair and unjust to those who, in previous times, had managed to pay off their own debts with hard work.

But there were certainly some for whom this began to change their perspective on what had seemed to them to be a failed presidency. Some even began to praise the president, or, at the very least, they had to admit that he was a much more shrewd politician then they had perhaps given him credit for.

A Story to Stir Our Thoughts

I assume that many of you have followed the discussion about the forgiveness of student debt in the United States. It has been all over the news and connects to some similar issues in Canada. But I wanted to tell this story of recent developments around the issue in the United States for a very particular reason this morning.

It is not because I want to make a political point or endorse a political position. I do have my own political beliefs about the forgiveness of student debt, but I’m not here to push them. I just wanted to bring it up because it seems to be an issue that everybody has opinions on.

Varied Opinions

And there are wildly different opinions. Some will declare the forgiveness of such debts to be terrible and unjust while others will say the same thing about the debts themselves. This is actually not very surprising because we are talking about a load of debt that, collectively, is so large that it affects the entire economy. Student debt is totally connected to the inflation crisis, the housing crisis and the employment crisis. These are things that affect us all.

And so, if you hear me tell a story about a president forgiving debts to students in our present context, everyone immediately knows exactly what I’m talking about. Not only that, they also immediately have strong opinions about it.

The Reaction Jesus was Looking for

And I wanted you to understand that, when Jesus told the story about a manager who was forgiving debts that were owed to his master, the reaction would have been almost exactly the same. They all would have known immediately exactly what he was talking about. And they all would have had their strong but various opinions about it as well because Jesus told this story in a very similar situation.

A Debt Crisis

Galilee at that time had a debt crisis. It wasn’t a student debt crisis; it was spread throughout society. People everywhere were being crushed by their debts. They were losing their family homesteads, being pushed into homelessness, begging, marginal labour and even slavery.

This was also complicated because, according to the ancient laws of Israel, debt was actually illegal. The laws of Moses were quite clear, lending at interest was simply not permitted. And yet, in Palestine in Roman times, it was found everywhere. How could that be? Well, when money is involved, it seems that people are infinitely creative. So here is what they did.

How Things Worked

When someone was in a desperate state and needed to borrow, say, eighty bushels of wheat, they would go to rich people and beg for their help. And the wealthy would help, but, as is often typical, they also wanted to know what was in it for them. They wanted interest, but they couldn’t legally demand it.

So here was what would happen. When the manager wrote down the debt, he wouldn’t write, “I owe you eighty bushels plus 25% interest.” No, that would be illegal! No, instead the manager would write down, “I owe you 100 bushels,” even though the poor person only received eighty. There would be no mention of interest, no paper trail so nobody broke the law, right? Only the manager, the master and the debtor knew what had really happened.

Vulnerable Rich People

Except, of course, that everyone knew exactly what was going on. They just couldn’t prove it because there was no paperwork. But Jesus told this parable to illustrate the vulnerabilities of rich people in this system. Basically, their managers had all the dirt they needed to bring them down. So, when a manager falls out with his master, all he has to do is go around to all of the people who owe his master and rewrite the records of what they owe.

The Shrewdness of the Manager

Everyone who heard this parable would have understood that this was what was going on. The manager wasn’t robbing the master of anything but the illegal interest that he had charged. And the best part, of course, was that the master couldn’t do a thing about it. To punish his crooked manager, he would have to admit that he was charging interest which was illegal. So, he really had no choice. He actually had to praise him.

And I can just imagine the press conference. “Uh, I would just like to thank my blessed manager for, um, uncovering the egregious and totally unintentional errors in my financial records and restating the correct amounts that these people owe me. I will be eternally grateful to him.”

So, really, everyone who was listening to Jesus tell this parable would have understood exactly what it was about. They would have understood that it was about forgiving interest on debts. They would have understood exactly how the shrewd manager managed to get away with it.

What Jesus was Doing

So, why did Jesus tell them this story? Was he trying to press them to take a certain position on the forgiveness of debts and what it could do? Possibly. But he may have also just been trying to tap into all of the conflicting thoughts and ideas and opinions that were swirling around at that time. Jesus told his parables, above all, to be provocative, to make people think about the things that they had been trying to avoid thinking about.

That’s why I think that, maybe, what Jesus is looking for us to do right now is not necessarily to embrace any particular party’s policy on the issue of debt, but he is asking us to think and think carefully about what we do with the debts we make people carry. He wants us to think creatively about what we can do about the burdens and the harm that they can cause. He is pushing us to at least think about what we can do to address a huge problem that affects us all.


[1] These are based on real stories found at studentdebtcrisis.org

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A God who repents?

Posted by on Sunday, September 11th, 2022 in News

https://youtu.be/CKfqRhnq4tM
Watch Sermon Video here

Hespeler, 11 September 2022 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

There are a couple of things that are deeply disturbing about our reading this morning from the Book of Exodus. The first is kind of obvious. We have the image of a God who has just saved a people from lives of slavery and hardship and made them God’s own people. And yet we see this same God choosing to devote the whole lot of them to genocidal destruction. “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” God says to Moses, “Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”

Why God is Angry

And I realize, of course, that the people of Israel have definitely messed up at this point of the story. God has set before them, in the form of a commandment, the requirement that they must have no other gods before Yahweh. And yet they have created an idol and declared that they trust more in this idol to save them than in the God who has brought them out of Egypt.

So, it is definitely not as if they have done nothing to deserve God’s anger with them. But you have got to at least wonder whether the punishment – complete annihilation – fits the crime. Is total destruction justified?

An Extreme Reaction?

Could you imagine any authority figure whose temper was so severe that, if someone showed them a little bit of defiance or failed to follow an instruction, their outbursts of rage killed people? I think that if we saw anyone responding to disobedience in that way, we would find it to be not just unacceptable but criminal. And yet this is the reaction that we see in God.

Stories About People Struggling to Understand their Experiences

But remember what these stories are there to do in the Bible. These are stories that were written by people who were struggling to come to terms with their experiences of God. They were people who had lived through all kinds of troubling circumstances and yet came out of them with the conviction that, somehow, their God had been with them as they passed through those difficult times.

And, pretty clearly, this story was told by people who were disappointed with themselves. They knew that they had failed, that they had not lived up to what God expected of them and they believed they were coming face to face with the consequences.

When these Stories were Created

Most of these stories of the wandering of the people of Israel in the wilderness actually came to be written down while the people of Israel were coming to terms with their defeat and exile by the Babylonian Empire. They were asking themselves why God had allowed such a terrible thing to happen to them and had concluded that it was because they had failed to live up to God’s expectations.

Since they had decided that they must have deserved all of the bad things that had happened to them, it made sense to tell a story about a God who was angry with them because that was the only way they could make sense of the things that they were living through.

We All Want to Make Sense of Tragedy

That is actually something that we all do. Today is the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. How much energy has been spent in the last twenty-one years trying to make sense of that disaster and why it happened?

We all have a deep need to make sense of the tragedies that we have experienced. Accepting that we may be somehow to blame for it is one of the ways that we do that. Strangely, this can actually be a comforting thought. I mean, it doesn’t feel good, of course, to blame yourself, but at least it feels better than the alternative which is to think that tragedy just happens for no reason at all. That seems frighteningly chaotic.

Finding Comfort in an Angry God

This story was told by the people of Israel when they were at a particularly vulnerable moment. Bad things had happened to them, and they needed to understand why. Recognizing their own failure, they needed the image of a God who could not only be angry with them, but who could also be so angry as to consider wiping them out entirely.

They found this to be a comforting image of God because what was the alternative? The alternative was a God who had let such terrible things happen to them out of neglect or disinterest. And so, yes, they did find something oddly comforting in this story because it at least showed that God cared.

But please understand that this does not mean that that was therefore a complete and entirely correct image of God. It was just people trying to make sense of what they were experiencing of God at that moment. That is always a work in progress.

This is a Common Reaction to Difficulty

They are also not the only ones to do this kind of thing as they seek to come to terms with God. I am sure that many of you have known people who have lived through some terrible tragedies in their lives. Perhaps they have come out of abuse or addiction. Maybe they have made some deeply troubling choices that led them into dark paths or maybe they have been deeply damaged by others.

I have noticed that, in the initial phase as they try to heal from that kind of hurt and create some sense of order and morality in their life, it is not uncommon for people to embrace an image of a God who is rigid, inflexible and who has a sense of justice that is hard to satisfy. There is, in such an image of God, something that is deeply helpful to people who are trying to heal in that kind of circumstance.

At the same time, that does not mean that they should remain with that one image of God ever after. In fact, if they are going to mature spiritually, their understanding of God will necessarily change as they do so.

Moses Talks him Out of it

Which brings us to the second troubling thing about this story in Exodus. When God tells Moses that God intends to destroy the people, Moses talks God out of it.

Moses does this by saying. “Don’t you have a reputation to maintain? Here you have saved this people from the Egyptians and made them your own. If you destroy them now, the Egyptians are going to have a field day! They will make fun of your failure to follow through. And what’s more, what of all the promises you made to these people's ancestors? Won’t that reflect badly on you if you break your solemn promises?” And so, God is persuaded, one might almost say shamed, into changing God’s mind.

How Can God Repent?

And that has caused a certain amount of consternation for many Bible readers. “Isn’t God…. God?” They may ask. “So how can the mind of the eternal, unchanging and immutable God be changed?” They might even appeal to scripture itself. After all, does it not say in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

This story in Genesis is even more troubling in some older translations that translate the concluding verse, quite correctly, as And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Somehow the word repent, though it essentially means the same thing, feels even more uncomfortable when applied to God!

A Difficult Question

People have long struggled with this part of the story for that very reason. It seems to be saying something about God that is deeply troubling. Some people have tried to explain it away by saying that God never really intended to destroy the people, that he was only testing Moses.

But I don’t think that such an explanation takes this scripture seriously. I think that this story is saying something important about the nature of God and to explain that meaning away is to rob it of that power.

People Struggling to Understand their God

Remember how I said that this story functioned for the people who told it? It is a story that people told because they were struggling to come to terms with a terrible tragedy that they had lived through, and they were wondering where their God had been in it. They made sense of that by embracing a view of a God filled with righteous anger who would justly destroy his people for their failures and shortcomings.

Such a view can be comforting when you have lived through a trauma. But that’s not the best place to end your spiritual journey, it really is just the beginning of a process of understanding God.

Surprised by Grace

So, what we also see happening in this passage is a people who have been surprised by God’s mercy and grace. They have experienced tragedy which has brought them into a recognition of their failure to themselves and to their God.

But, just as they have recognized that they may be worthy of destruction, they have also recognized that God has not destroyed them, that there may yet be a path to redemption and hope for them. And the best way for them to make sense of that is to see that God had every right to wipe them away because of their failures, but that God thought better of it.

God’s Unchanging Commitment

This story is not actually about the changeability of God. There is actually something that is deeply unchanging about God in this story because the reason why God ultimately changes God’s mind is because of God’s longstanding commitments to this people.

To act out the wrath of a moment would be to forget the long-standing covenant that God has made with them, promising to be their God and claiming them as God’s people. No, this is not about God changing but rather about God defaulting to God’s truer self and deeper commitments.

It is the People’s Understanding that Changes

It is not really God who changes in this story, it is the people who see their understanding of God change and grow. Once they were living in the Promised Land and they maybe took God’s faithfulness to them for granted. But then they lost the Promised Land which confronted them with the reality of their own failures to live up to the commitments they had made.

Thus was born in them the fear of a vengeful and angry God who wanted to wipe them away. It was, perhaps, a helpful thing for them to believe in that moment of trauma.

But their journey of discovery of who God did not end there. For there, in the land of exile, they met a God who had not forgotten the covenant and whose commitment to them as a people would remain firm despite their failures. In the moment of their greatest fear, they met a God of grace. And it may have been disconcerting and distressing to have to shift their understanding of God in that moment, but it also greatly deepened their experience and understanding of their God.

Are We Worthy of Consequences?

We might be able to learn a great deal from the people who told this story. We too seem to be living in an era when we are coming to terms with our own failure as a people. We are waking up to the uncomfortable truth, for example, that we have not cared for the earth that God has given to us because we have not learned how to live upon it in a sustainable way.

And the sad truth is that we are now living with the consequences of those failures. Extreme weather events, massive forest fires, floods and famines and at least some of the diseases that have been plaguing us are consequences of some of the ways in which we have failed to live well upon this earth. And some are beginning to wonder, to fear, that we might well be wiped from the face of the earth as a consequence of our failure.

The ancient Israelites gathered up those kinds of fears and personified them in the form of an angry God facing off with Moses on Mount Sinai. We, as modern people, may not turn it into that kind of story, but the fear of consequence that we are living with is nevertheless quite real.

Continue Struggling to Understand God

It is a good thing that we are coming to terms with our own failures as a collective human race.  And if we are reacting to that with fear in guilt driven action, that might be the start of something better. But I’m not sure that’s the end of the spiritual journey we are supposed to be on right now. I hope you don’t just stay with the image of an angry God who is ready to wipe us out. Our spiritual journey of discovery has only begun.

I hope you hold on and continue to argue with God – like Moses argued with God on the mountain – because there is another, deeper truth about who God is. God is more than just an angry God intent on punishment. Jesus came to introduce us to a God of compassion and sympathy – a God who understands what it is to be human. Press on, despite the challenges, to know that God. In the very nature of that God is great comfort and actually the best hope that we have for a faithful future.

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Useful

Posted by on Sunday, September 4th, 2022 in News

https://youtu.be/Tn_t4rkjXC8
Watch reading and sermon video here

Hespeler, 4 September 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14:25-33

The letter of Paul to Philemon is unique in the New Testament. It is the shortest of the letters of Paul, but other things set it apart too. While the others are addressed to entire churches and all are focused on the matters of church life, this one is really only focused on one individual, on Philemon, and it is seeking to resolve a personal matter between the two of them – a matter of property.

The Letter About Onesimus

Philemon, who was a leader of the church that met in his home, was also a relatively prosperous man. The measure of prosperity, in that ancient world, was defined by one thing: the ownership of slaves. A poor person in ancient Rome was someone who couldn’t even afford a single slave so Philemon, apparently, must have owned several. One of them was named Onesimus.

Does it surprise you that an early Christian leader was also a slave owner? It probably shouldn’t. The idea that good Christians could own slaves is taken for granted in much of the New Testament. When the topic comes up, New Testament writers never condemn the practice, though they do advocate for good and fair treatment of slaves.

Was Philemon at Least a Good Master?

But at least Philemon must have been a good master – one who treated his slaves well, right? You might hope so, but Onesimus doesn’t seem to have thought so because he ran away.

Onesimus, by fleeing, became a thief and an outlaw. He also became stolen property. So, I can’t imagine that he did it lightly. He must have had a good reason to run. Being a slave of Philemon couldn’t have been a great experience. Though he was a church leader, that apparently did not mean that Philemon lived out Christian ideals in every relationship in his life. Sadly, he is hardly the last church leader to have had that particular problem.

Paul and Onesimus

The occasion of the letter is that Paul has become acquainted with this fugitive slave. In fact, Onesimus has become a convert to faith in Jesus under Paul’s influence. But, now that he knows he is stolen property, Paul has a legal obligation to send Onesimus back to his owner. What we have in our Bibles is a copy of the letter that he writes and places in Onesimus’ hand to give to Philemon on his return.

In this letter, Paul pulls out every trick he can possibly think of to persuade Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom when he returns. And the mere fact that Paul puts so much pressure on him suggests that Philemon needed a lot of persuasion.

That is where the attention is usually placed when people read this letter, on Paul’s persuasion. But I have always wondered about Onesimus. Even if the title of this letter is, according to tradition, the letter to Philemon, it is the letter about Onesimus. The mere fact that this letter made it into our Bibles tells us something about God’s priorities. So, who was Onesimus?

Born a Slave

When he was born to a female slave in Philemon’s household, his mother, who was a Judean by birth, wanted to call him Simon. It was a common name in her family. But Philemon wouldn’t hear of it. He preferred it if his slaves didn’t have too strong a sense of personal identity and he didn’t like for them to feel a strong attachment to their ethnic heritage either. He wanted them to see themselves as belonging primarily to the household and he wanted them to understand that their value was found in one thing only: their utility to him. So long as they were helpful and beneficial to him, fine, but the moment they weren’t, they became disposable.

So, Philemon looked at the little baby that his mother wanted to call Simon and he said no. No, this one would be called Onesimus. It was not a name, not really. It was an adjective. It meant “useful.” Anytime anyone used it for the rest of his life, Onesimus would be reminded that there was only one thing that gave him any value or meaning. He was there to be useful.

Being Useful

Onesimus never allowed to forget it. As soon as he was old enough to contribute, in any way, to the household or the comfort of his owners, that became the entire purpose of his being. As paterfamilias, Philemon had the power of life and death over every member of his household. He certainly had the right to employ corporal punishment for any reason. I’m not saying that Onesimus was constantly beaten. It was just that he was never allowed to forget that beatings were possible.

But more than the fear of punishment, he grew to resent the narrow definition of his value of which he was reminded every time he heard his name. He couldn’t help but wonder if there was more worth in him than whatever usefulness his master found.

Some Things Change for Philemon

One day, something changed in Philemon. He encountered a traveling preacher named Paul and became a believer in someone called Christ Jesus – a man who Paul said had been raised from the dead and who reigned in heaven at the right hand of power.

Coming to believe in Christ and becoming part of the church didn’t really make much difference to Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus though. When someone has been conditioned all their life to think of a slave as little more than a useful object, it is not a pattern of thinking that is easily changed.

Onesimus was glad, he supposed, that his master had found something that gave a sense of meaning and purpose to his life, but where was there anything like that for Onesimus? He was so convinced that there was something more for him, something beyond mere usefulness to his master, that he simply couldn’t bear it anymore. He saw his opportunity and he took it. Onesimus ran for freedom.

Life on the Run

Once he was free of the household, there was something exhilarating about being responsible for the course of his own life. He could scarcely believe that he didn’t need to be useful to anybody and yet he still existed. But, at the same time, the life of a fugitive slave was filled with many pitfalls. It was not easy to find work. Who would hire a man who had to constantly keep on the move, who was always looking over his shoulder?

Onesimus quickly found that he had to resort to petty theft just to survive. That is how he came to be caught while thieving and, while the authorities were trying to figure out where he properly belonged (for Onesimus was not about to tell them where he had come from) he was placed in detention.

Imagine his surprise when he found himself incarcerated alongside the very man of whom his master had not ceased to speak ever since he had first met him. There, right beside him, sat Paul of Tarsus. And, to tell the truth, Onesimus was not particularly impressed with the man at first. What he had heard from his master had led him to believe that Paul was just like everybody else, that he had won Philemon over by flattering him for his wealth and his ownership of so many other human beings. But, as he came to know Paul, he started to realize how wrong that initial impression was.

A New Creation in Christ

Over the following days and then weeks, Onesimus learned a great deal about the Jesus that Paul preached. One thing stood out to him. Paul taught him that, when Jesus was raised from the dead, he transformed the previous structure of this world. In particular, Paul said that if anyone was in Christ Jesus, that person became a completely new creation. Everything old had passed away; all had been made completely new.

Even more stunning, as far as Onesimus was concerned, was the church that Paul said had been created because of Christ. It was, he said, like a body in which every member could play a vital role. He also said that when all were one in Christ, there was no longer Jew or Greek, there was no longer slave or free, there was no longer male and female. The more Onesimus heard about this church, the more he felt as if it could be, for him, a place where he could find himself, where he could truly belong. Onesimus began to look to this Christ Jesus to save him.

Father and Son

The more Onesimus remained with Paul, the more he saw him not only as a teacher and preacher, but also as a father – the father he had never had and the father that Philemon had certainly never been to him. And, as that bond was formed, something very strange began to happen. He started to feel a deep desire to be useful to Paul – to serve him in ways that would allow him to pursue the important work he was doing.

I am not sure you understand how significant such a thing was to one such as Onesimus. For him, his usefulness had always been his only currency – the only thing he could offer to justify his existence. It was an obligation, an imperative. And so, he had always experienced it as something that drained him of energy and of identity. But now, with Paul who treated him like a son and did not require that he be useful in order to be loved, Onesimus felt filled with the desire to be useful to Paul in whatever ways he could. Even in the menial tasks he performed, tasks that had once only irritated him, he found a sense of meaning and of purpose because he offered them freely.

The Letter

Onesimus came to feel that there should be nothing that he could hide from Paul, and so he did reveal to him what his status was. Paul actually laughed when he discovered that he knew Onesimus’ master. He was also pleased because he knew that Philemon would really have no choice but to give to Onesimus his freedom, at least if Paul asked with the right degree of pressure.

There was really no choice. Now that all was revealed, Paul would have to send Onesimus back to his master. But Onesimus was in the room when Paul dictated the letter. The words that Paul said would remain with him always. As he carried the letter with him on the way to his old household, he repeated the words again and again to himself.

What Paul Wrote

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed usefulboth to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

As he clutched the letter close to his heart, Onesimus felt certain that everything would be well.

Slavery and Early Christianity

There are some uncomfortable things about the attitude of early Christians towards slavery. We would like to think that they would be against slavery because of what they had learned from Jesus. But the practice of slavery was so deeply entrenched into every aspect of society that most Christians simply couldn’t imagine going on without it. What we mostly find in the New Testament, therefore, are passages that just take for granted that slavery will continue to exist but put forward measures that will at least make it a little bit less cruel and that will create a certain amount of mutual respect between masters and slaves, at least within the church.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says something that is very provocative about life inside the church. “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) There is also another similar statement in Colossians 3:11.

Internal Practice of the Church

And this does seem to reflect an attitude that was common in the early church. There is evidence that people who were slaves did hold important leadership positions in the church, as did women. But, at the same time, it seems clear that this attitude towards slaves, and probably women too, only applied inside the dynamics of the church. As soon as you left the meeting, you became a slave again and your life once again belonged to your master, who may have called you a brother or sister and even acknowledged your leadership moments before.

So, the early church did begin the work of changing attitudes towards slavery in its practice. But it did not confront the institution, at least not outside of the church. And that’s what makes the letter to Philemon so significant. Here we do see Paul looking at Onesimus and seeing more than just a slave. Paul is keenly aware that Onesimus’ name means useful. It was a common name for slaves. Paul makes reference to this meaning several times in his letter. But he does it in a way that looks beyond Onesimus’ utility to his master.

How we See People Matters

Paul sees Onesimus as a true person in every sense of the word and that, my friends is the beginning of revolutionary change. In fact, I would suggest that Paul’s decision to see Onesimus as being more than useful, to see him as a multifaceted person, contains the roots of the eventual destruction of the institution of slavery. The world changes when the people we saw as categories we learn to see as people.

And I know that we see ourselves today as well beyond the scourge of slavery. In many ways we are and that is a very good thing. But I will tell you that I am often disturbed by the way we talk about people in our modern economy. We have a great tendency to judge people according to their productivity. That is to say, we judge them based on whether they are useful – whether they are Onesimus – to the economy or not. And whenever we fall into that kind of thinking, whenever we see usefulness as the only thing that matters, we may be heading down a dangerous road.

I would also add this. I think many of us tend to see our own value only in terms of our usefulness to others. Onesimus discovered his value beyond simple usefulness, I believe that God wants you to discover your true value in the same way.

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Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity

Posted by on Sunday, July 31st, 2022 in Minister, News

https://youtu.be/bu54mi0DB-k
Watch a video of the reading and the sermon here

Hespeler, 31 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

You have heard, I imagine, the proverb that goes like this: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” It is a saying that is usually credited to Benjamin Franklin, who did indeed include it in a book that he wrote, but he was probably not the first to say it.

The proverb has remained popular because it just seems like good common sense. If you wake up early, work hard all day and don’t stay up all night in partying and frivolous pursuits, it promises, you will be rewarded, over time, with security and prosperity.

Capitalism’s Promise

It is, in many ways, the promise that we are given in our modern capitalistic society – which is likely something that Benjamin Franklin also had in mind. We set up our free market, free enterprise system with the hope and expectation that it will create an environment where, if people work hard and apply themselves, they should be able to prosper. It is, in many ways, a wonderful promise.

Very Ancient Idea

But, as I say, it is not a promise that began with Franklin. The fact of the matter is that the Bible, and particularly the Book of Proverbs, is full of very similar promises.

Here are just a few: “A wicked person earns deceptive wages, but the one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.” (Proverbs 11:18) “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labour.” (Proverbs 12:24) “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” (Proverbs 13:4) “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23 “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

So we have the same promise given in the Bible as is often made in our society. You work hard and you work smart, and you will be rewarded. And, since it is in the Bible, these Proverbs also add a certain moral promise to the idea. There is something virtuous about hard work and so the material reward that we are supposed to receive is a divine reward.

Looking from the Other Side

But there is also another side to all of this. If, as all of these proverbs state, we can be certain that virtue and hard work will always be rewarded with success and wealth, would that not also mean that we can assume, based on someone’s situation in life, that we know how they got there. That is to say, if we see someone who is healthy, wealthy and wise, can we not assume that they must be early to bed and early to rise hard-working types? If we see someone who is richly supplied, well then, they must have been diligent, right? Any one of these Proverbs we can take and turn around and assume, based on that, that somebody must have deserved their good fortune.

And, yes, that would also mean that if someone is poor or disadvantaged or has just never managed to get anywhere, well, that surely must be because they are lazy, unwise and foolish, right? The logic seems to be quite inescapable.

When the Proverbs fail

And here is where we see that there might be a certain problem with this kind of proverbial thinking. What do we do when things don’t turn out that way, when good hard-working folk just don’t manage to get ahead because of circumstances beyond their control? And what if it really doesn’t seem as if the extraordinarily wealthy are more righteous and hard working than anyone else? What if, in fact, they turn out to be like that man in Jesus’ parable this morning, selfish and self-centred greedy jerks? What then?

It is a question that many seem to be struggling with in these times. You may have heard of some of the unrest that is taking place in the labour market these days. You have certainly noticed, I would imagine, the stories of restaurants and other enterprises that seem to be constantly complaining about how they can’t find anybody willing to work these days. Many businesses are severely understaffed and seem to be unable to find anyone willing to accept the jobs they are offering.

Turning Down Low-Wage Work

What you may not have heard about, however, is the other side of that problem. If you listen in the right ways and in the right places, you can hear the stories of the people who are not taking those jobs. And they will tell you why. They will tell you that they have been doing that kind of low-wage work for years, but, in all that time, it hasn’t mattered how hard they have worked. They have been going early to bed and early to rise, but it has not resulted in them getting any healthier or wealthier. And so now they are getting wise.

They are saying that they can no longer afford to live in the cities where they are employed to serve the people who live there. They can no longer afford to live elsewhere because they would have to travel to the city, and they can’t afford that. They are wise enough to calculate that if they moved to the place where the work is and took that low wage job, they would simply fall further and further behind financially as time went by. The promise of the proverbs seems to be broken. It’s enough to make you think that maybe we need to throw out the proverbs altogether.

Qoheleth Understands

But if you think that all of that is just a frustration of modern life, and maybe especially of younger generations today, you might have another think coming. There is an ancient biblical author who completely understands all of that. We are not quite sure what his name was. He calls himself Qoheleth, which is left like that in some translations and in others translated to something like “the teacher.” He also identifies himself as a king from the House of David, but that may just be a literary device, not necessarily an indication that he was a real king.

Certainly, the things that he writes about are not the struggles of kings who are trying to manage the rule of a country. They are the struggles of ordinary people who are just trying to hold on and make it in a world that doesn’t really seem to care whether they work hard or not, they just can’t get ahead.

Whoever he is, Qoheleth has obviously read the Book of Proverbs and has heard the promise that, if you work hard and apply yourself you will get ahead, and he has taken up his pen to say, “Hey, wait a minute, it just doesn’t always work out like that.”

Man, this is Vanity!

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And, when he says that, I imagine him much like a modern millennial who looks at the system they are inheriting – a system where they graduate from school with a massive debt, get a job that offers them no security and finds that it is financially impossible for them to ever own a home. What do they say? They say, “Man, this is a load of… vanity!” And I know they don’t use the word vanity there, but that is maybe the closest word I could use in church.

And here I see Qoheleth echoing the sentiments of so many in the world today who have gotten so very tired of working for prosperity that never quite seems to arrive. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” You work and you work and you work and instead of getting ahead all you get is behind on your sleep. It does sound very much like something that somebody might write today.

Both Messages in the Bible

And I really just wanted to highlight that we get both of these messages from the Bible. I know that there are lots of people who think that they can turn to the Bible and get an absolute, unchanging nugget of truth that they can hold onto forever. And the truth that we get from The Book of Proverbs would be a wonderful truth to hold onto. If you could know for sure that you deserved all of the good things that came to you and if you could be sure that people who experience misfortune deserve that, man, that would put us all at ease for so many of these anxieties that we carry around with us.

But biblical truth doesn’t work like that. It is not that you can just pull out one text and say you have the perfect answer. What we are actually challenged to do is to find the truth in the tension between these two texts. We have to live with the truth proclaimed in Proverbs that everything happens because everyone gets what they deserve. And we have to live with the truth in Ecclesiastes that everything that happens is, well, vanity of vanities.

Jesus Works Out the Tension

And how you work out that tension is something that we all have to figure out for ourselves. And I do find it kind of interesting that we seem to see Jesus working it out in that parable we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus worked it out, as he usually did, by turning it into a story. “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” he said.

Here is a man who has experienced great prosperity. According to The Book of Proverbs, we should know why he is so fortunate. Obviously, he must be good and righteous and must have worked hard to deserve such prosperity. And, sure, maybe that is how things should work out. But Jesus is clearly telling a story that is grounded in real life. And he sees that, precisely because this man thinks he deserves all of his good fortune and therefore intends to rest upon it, all of that will be proven to be vanity of vanities.

What do I think that means? I think it is true that each one of us owes it to ourselves in this world to do our best. To work hard, to live the best life possible and to be good to others. It is good that we should hope to be rewarded for such things.

But the reality is that things don’t always work out that way. What Jesus seems to be saying with this parable is that our greatest danger is to fall into thinking that the blessings we have received are given to us by anything but grace. So long as we begin to rely upon them, instead of on the one who is the ultimate giver, we will not find any meaning in any of it, not over the long term. We will also very easily fall into judging people unjustly when they don’t succeed. And that is vanity and a great evil.”

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Abraham’s Fantastic Conversation

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

https://youtu.be/JAbV27TbD5E
Watch the sermon video here.

Hespeler, 24 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:20-33, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13

T

here was a very popular legend that circulated in the early Christian church regarding James, the brother of Jesus. He is referred to a few times in the Bible and we see him as one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts. The legend that circulated had to do with how he died and what his death meant.

According to a number of sources, including the Jewish historian Josephus who was definitely not a Christian, James was highly respected, not only by Christians but by the entire populace of the city. They called him James the Just, or it can be translated as James the Righteous One. And he was kind of famous, not only for his leadership in the city but also for his intercession.

Old Camel Knees

The legend has it that James would spend so much time in the temple praying for the people and the city of Jerusalem, that he formed calluses on his knees so thick that people called him “old camel knees.” They may have made fun of the appearance of his legs, but everyone seems to have had a deep respect for what he did in the city.

But, according to the story, a certain faction of Pharisees in the city were concerned by the growth of the Christian sect. Since James was a famous observer of the strict Jewish law, they thought he might be an ally. They asked him to climb to the very pinnacle of the temple and address the people to warn them against the teachings of the Christians.

James agreed, but when the people gathered to hear him, he did not do as expected and refused to denounce belief in Jesus. Instead he cried out, “Why do you ask me about Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!”

Death of James

As you can imagine, the Pharisees were not pleased. They pushed James off of the top of the temple and he crashed to the pavement below. But the fall did not kill him, at least not yet. He struggled to his knees and there, in front of all the people, continued to pray, “I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” The enraged Pharisees quickly gathered a crowd and began to stone James.

Then one of the priests shouted, “Stop! What are you doing! The righteous one is praying for you.” But it was too late. A local fuller took one of the clubs that he used to beat laundry with and smashed James on the head, killing him with one blow.

The Results of the Murder

Since it is a legend, we can hardly rely on every detail of that story being true. But there is some reason to believe that it has an historical core. The detail that James was highly respected by all in the city, attested by a number of the sources, seems to be true.

But what I find especially interesting is what the Christian tradition says about the result of James’ murder. It declares that immediately after this happened, the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem. The events were so closely related in time, the Christian commentator Hegesippus says, that “the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that [the death of James] was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem.”

You know what that tells me? It tells me that the early church (and perhaps many Jews) thought they had the answer to the question that has long haunted me whenever I read our story this morning from the Book of Genesis.

Abraham and the Strangers

Abraham was sitting outside of his tent one day when, all of a sudden, three strangers appeared before him. Now, according to the laws of hospitality that were practiced throughout the Ancient Near East, Abraham knew exactly what was expected of him. To offer hospitality – food and drink and a place to rest – was not just a nice thing to do for them. It was not just an option; it was an obligation.

And Abraham rose to the occasion most excellently. He begged the visitors to stay for a bit of water and a morsel of bread and then proceeded to lay before them an incredible feast that included an entire calf, milk, cheese and cakes that had been made (by Abraham’s wife, Sarah) from about 55 pounds of flour. (I am still not over that!)

After Dinner

But our story today focusses on what happened after that magnificent feast had all been consumed. Two of the travellers headed off towards the city of Sodom, but the other (who is finally revealed to be Yahweh, Abraham’s God) remains. And after a huge feast, what do you do? You sit back and indulge in a symposium, a theoretical speculative conversation. The discussion is about the hypothetical question of how the city of Sodom might have been saved.

The City of Sodom

The city of Sodom serves as the perfect representative, in the Bible, of a wicked city. Whenever a prophet or some other speaker in the Bible wants to talk about a place that is clearly worthy of judgment and destruction, they just bring out the example of Sodom. There’s no clear answer in the Bible about what made Sodom such a wicked place. In Genesis, the reception of visitors in Sodom is contrasted to the reception that they received from Abraham, suggesting that the failure to practice hospitality was what was wrong with Sodom. In fact, Genesis suggests that the city was so inhospitable that they had a practice of gang raping any strangers who came to town.

The prophet Ezekiel, however, ascribes the wickedness of Sodom to something entirely different: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

An Unreal Situation

The entire situation in the Book of Genesis is quite fantastic at this point. I mean, imagine the picture. Abraham and his God are just sitting around outside the tent and shooting the breeze while they digest their enormous meal. I don’t think that this is a realistic experience that anyone who has ever heard this story could imagine living through.

But it’s not meant to be realistic. It is an idealized conversation and so it only makes sense that it should have an idealized topic. We don’t actually know if the city of Sodom ever existed. There isn’t any good archaeological evidence. I mean, sure, maybe the story is based on a dimly remembered city that actually was destroyed in some cataclysm, but the thing about this story is that it doesn’t matter if the city actually existed. It is simply the perfect example of a wicked city.

Abraham Starts a Conversation

And so Abraham, fully recognizing the unreal situation that he finds himself in, opens the philosophical discussion.

“Listen, Yahweh,” he begins hesitantly, “let’s take it as a given, as you suggested to those two strange fellows who just left, that Sodom is indeed the wickedest place in the entire world, the wickedest place that ever has been and ever will be.”

“It is,” Yahweh replies with a nod.

“Okay,” Abraham agrees, “but no matter how bad a place can get, it can’t be true that everyone in that place is irredeemably evil themselves. Let’s say that, in this Sodom that you speak of, there were 50 people who were extremely righteous. If you were to destroy such a city, no matter how wicked in general, you would have to also destroy all those 50 righteous people. Now, you are supposed to be a God of justice, how could a just God possibly destroy 50 righteous people? I mean, what would people think?”

Yahweh shrugs. “Yeah, I guess that would look pretty bad. Okay, fine, if there were fifty righteous people in the wicked city, I wouldn’t destroy it.”

Abraham Haggles

Abraham smiles to himself. He is a man, after all, who has wandered all over the Ancient Near East. He has bought and sold goods in markets from Ur to Haran, from Salem to Egypt. No one, not even a God, could outwit Abraham when he starts haggling. The trick, you see, is to know what matters most to your opponent in the negotiation. Then all you have to do is appeal to that. Well, now Abraham knows that what Yahweh cares about most is his reputation for being just.

“Okay, it is true that no God is as just as you,” he replies. “But let’s just say that a mere five of those fifty righteous people were not there. Surely a just God like you would not consign an entire city to destruction just for the lack of five righteous ones?”

And, yes, Yahweh has to admit that he is indeed as just as all that. Surely 45 righteous ones would be sufficient.

God Cuts off the Conversation

It is indeed a bartering session for the ages as Abraham manages to get Yahweh down from 45 to 40 to 30, 20 and even 10!

But then something happens. After Abraham maneuvers Yahweh into saying, “For the sake of ten I would not destroy it,” we are told something a bit surprising. “And Yahweh went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.”

Why does it end so abruptly? Is this saying that Yahweh felt as if he had been completely outmatched by Abraham, the master haggler, and decided to cut his losses and just walk away from the negotiations? That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? But, as I say, this is a crazy story of a theoretical philosophical discussion. So, maybe that is how we are supposed to understand it.

Left Unsatisfied

But whatever the reason for the sudden end of the discussion, it certainly leaves us feeling very unsatisfied. We are told in no uncertain terms that 10 righteous people is enough to save an entire city, no matter how wicked. But don’t you want to know how far we can push that? What about five righteous ones? What about three or two? And what if you have only one righteous person? So, whatever else is going on in this sudden end of the discussion, it certainly seems to be designed to leave us wondering just how many righteous ones it takes.

The Conversation Continues

And people have been wondering that and continuing that philosophical discussion outside of Abraham’s tent ever since. In some Jewish traditions, they have these discussions about the role of what they call the tzadikim. Tzadik is the Hebrew word for a righteous person. And so various sects of Judaism will enter into debates about how many tzadikim exist and what their role has been in safeguarding the world from destruction. Mystical Hasidic Jews, for example, apparently believe that there must be at least 36 tzadikim – 36 righteous souls – living someplace in the world at any given time to represent humanity before God.

One Righteous Soul

But what about that one righteous soul, will we ever get an answer to the question of how he or she can save an entire city no matter how wicked it might be? Well, as I say, that seems to be the question that the early church thought it had an answer to. Because remember what James the brother of Jesus was famous for. He was called, by believers in Jesus and non-believers alike, James the Just. In Hebrew, that would have been Ya’akov the Tzadik. He is James the Righteous One

Everyone seems to have agreed that there was something about the incredible way that this man lived that was preserving the city of Jerusalem from destruction. And when the city turned against him and he was killed, the destruction of the wicked city was inevitable. They decided that it only took one. It only took James.

What we do with this Story

Now, as I say, that strange discussion in the Book of Genesis between God and Abraham is a fantastic one. It is full of hypotheticals and theoreticals. Maybe it is just a couple of old friends shooting the breeze after a particularly satisfying meal. I don’t think I would draw eternal principles of theology from it because I don’t find it a helpful image of God to see God as set on destruction because of wickedness and needing some righteous person to stand in the way and prevent that destruction. I don’t believe that God requires that. But maybe we do.

But, if there is a practical application, particularly if you find yourself living in a time when things just seem to be going so very wrong, when evil and greed and selfishness seem to be winning and the weak and the marginalized person and the outsider are paying the price, perhaps it is this: When times are evil, sometimes all we need is a James, one righteous person who lives out their righteousness in a way that touches the lives of others.

Sometimes what we need is someone whose compassion is so great that they intercede for others until their knees are so calloused that they look like they belong to a camel. Sometimes I really do believe that’s what we need to save us. And that can be anyone. It can even be you or me. God is actually calling us to step into that role.

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Dough Incidence?

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

https://youtu.be/T1AFWd5MAk0
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, 17 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

https://youtu.be/wtRr9Taln0w
Video of the Scripture Reading

We are told that, one day, Jesus told his simplest, most straightforward parable of the kingdom of God. “To what should I compare the kingdom of God?” He said. “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” But maybe the parable is not quite as simple as we think. You see, I always assumed that the amount of flour in question was relatively small. You know, that “three measures of flour” was something like, say, three cups of flour. That is, after all, about how much flour it would take to make a decent size loaf of bread.

What is a Seah?

Imagine my surprise when, recently, I took a closer look at that parable. The word that appears there in the gospel is the word seah. Now, seah is a Hebrew word, a Hebrew measure that has simply been transliterated into the Greek text of the Gospels. So, I had to go and look up how big a seah was. The internet, as in many things, was very helpful. The internet told me that seah is about as big as a one and a half pecks. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find that particularly helpful.

I mean, maybe it would be helpful if I knew how many peppers Peter Piper picked when he picked a peck of them, but I don’t actually know how many peppers Peter Piper picked. So, I had to make a few more internet searches.

That’s a Lot of Dough!

I converted three times one and a half pecks into cups. That came out to 168 cups. And then, since we don’t buy flour in cups, we buy it by weight, I converted that into pounds. So, as a result of all of that searching, do you have any guesses how much flour that woman in Jesus’ parable took? Assuming that the flour had been sifted, which of course changes the volume, Jesus is saying that she took like 55 pounds, or, if you prefer, 25 kilograms of flour.

That would be 10 2.5 kg bags!

That leads me to ask a few questions. How much bread was this woman baking? And who did she have to feed? It also rather underlines the central wonder of the parable which is that a tiny amount of yeast is actually able to leaven such a huge amount of dough. Surely that was a point that Jesus was trying to get across by telling this story.

Sarah’s Baking

But here is something else that is really odd about that parable. It is not the first time in the Bible that that strange, enormous quantity of flour appears. It is actually the very same amount of flour – 3 seahs or, if you prefer, 55 pounds – that Abraham tells Sarah to take and make into cakes in our reading from the Book of Genesis. The exact same amount! Isn’t that a weird coincidence?

But here is the thing: I am not a big believer in coincidence when it comes to reading the Bible. I think that this has to be on purpose. Jesus seems to have been intentionally wanting his listeners to remember and connect this parable to what was, to them, one of the most famous Old Testament stories – the story of the time when Abraham unknowingly played host to God.

So maybe, just maybe, we will never understand what Jesus was trying to say about the kingdom of God until we dig in a little bit more into the story of Abraham, Sarah and their strange guests.

Abraham’s Offer

So, the story in Genesis goes like this. Abraham is sitting outside of his tent when three strangers come up. Abraham, like many heroes of ancient stories, responds by offering them hospitality in the expected way. “My lord,” he says, “if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on.”

Now, how would you understand that? If you were the guest, you would have heard Abraham offer you nothing more than a little bit of water to wash your feet and a tiny morsel of bread before you move on. That is it.

What he Actually Prepares

But then what does Abraham do? He immediately runs to Sarah and tells her to start making cakes with, as I’ve said, 55 lb of flour. He also goes and selects the best calf from his herd, sacrifices it and has someone prepare and cook the entire animal. Then he comes back and serves the whole calf, the 55 lb of baked flour cakes as well as milk and cheese.

I have some questions! First of all, that is so much more than a few morsels of bread as to be completely ridiculous. And can you imagine that much food being laid out before three people for a picnic?

How Long did they Wait?

And then there is the question about how long that would have taken. How long does it take to slaughter and roast an entire calf? How long does it take, without an industrial sized bakery oven mind you, to bake that much bread? It is not entirely clear from the story whether or not Sarah leavened all of that dough like the woman in Jesus’ parable, but if she did, that adds many more hours to the preparation time as any baker will know.

So, are we really meant to believe that these three strange visitors were sitting outside of Abraham’s tent just waiting for this massive feast to be prepared? How many hours would you wait for a little morsel of bread that you had been promised? There is something in this story that stretches incredulity, and it is, I think, quite intentional. This is meant to be a story of ridiculous and unbelievable excess. The writer of this story is trying to show us that Abraham’s hospitality was so extreme that it was simply ridiculous.

Over-the-Top Hospitality

That is kind of the point of the story. It is saying that, when we treat strangers and outsiders right, good things will come to us. As a result of their over-the-top hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are given the one thing that they have been longing for more than anything: the promise of the birth of a child within the year.

Their hospitality is also contrasted, of course, to what happens when two of these strange visitors go on to the city of Sodom and receive the very opposite of good hospitality there. The punishment that was visited upon Sodom as a result, is of course famous.

Back to Jesus’ Parable

But I am still kind of left wondering what is the connection between this story and the parable of Jesus. I cannot take it as a coincidence that both women just happened to take the same enormous amount of flour. Surely Jesus intended for us to make a connection between these two passages.

Well, this is what Jesus essentially said in his parable. “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid – that is the word that Jesus literally uses. He doesn’t say that she mixed it, he says that she hid it. “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid in 55 pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”

 Jesus was constantly talking about this thing that he called the kingdom of God. But he never really told people what the kingdom of God was, he only told them stories of what it was like. And this is one of those famous stories. And he specifically says in this story that the kingdom is like the yeast.

God Uses Small Things

The point of this seems to be that yeast is a very small thing that can transform in big ways. Because yeast is a living organism – because it is actually a community of single-celled microorganisms, it’s ability to grow and spread is only limited by its food supply. And that means that, if you hide a little bit of yeast even in an enormous quantity of dough, like 55 lb of flour worth of dough, it is able to spread and transform all of it.

And transform it does from something that is flat and tasteless and of little nutritional value into one of the best foods ever known to humanity. Yeast is that amazing.

And what does that tell us about being a part of the kingdom of God today. It tells us that we should never be discouraged over matters of size or perceptions of power and impact. We don’t have to be big and influential in order to transform the world. That’s what Jesus was saying.

God Uses Hidden Things

What’s more, he tells us in the parable that the woman hid the yeast in the dough. He literally uses the Greek word for hiding, not the word for mixing. And that tells us something else about what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. We often think that, in order to have an impact, we have to have a lot of visibility. Everybody has to see all of the good things we are doing; everybody has to take notice of how good we are. But Jesus is saying the very opposite in this parable. He is saying that the kingdom advances best in quiet and hidden ways.

And then, of course, we come to the actual scale of impact that Jesus is talking about. Do not forget that he is talking about an enormous amount of dough here. He is saying that, even though we may be small or few in number, even though nobody may notice what we’re doing and we do not seek recognition, he is promising us that we can have an enormous impact. 55 lb of flour and a tiny bit of yeast can feed a lot of people some very nutritious food.

Dough-Incidence?

But that still leaves us with one mystery left. I just can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that we have exactly the same amount of dough in the parable and in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Like I said, I don’t believe in biblical dough-incidences. I am pretty sure that Jesus meant for us to make a connection between the two stories.

What then does the story of Sarah making her cakes have to do with the kingdom of God? Well, the Genesis story is a story about hospitality. But it is not just about ordinary, everyday hospitality. It is about extraordinary over-the-top hospitality. It is about saying “stay for a morsel of bread” and then preparing 55 lb of flour.

But it is also about more than that because in this story Abraham and Sarah are astonished to discover that their guests are not ordinary guests. They have welcomed the Lord and the creator of the earth to their tent.

Hospitality and the Kingdom

So, if Jesus was trying to point us to this story in his parable in order to teach us something about the kingdom of God, what do you think he was trying to say? I think that there has always been a tendency in matters of faith for people to take what they receive from God and save it for their own blessing and for the blessing of their own kind.

We covet God’s blessings for our church, our family and for ourselves. This story serves us as a reminder that the blessings that God gives us are not merely for ourselves. They are there so that we might be a blessing to others and especially a blessing to those who are strangers, outsiders and those who live on the margins.

And, as we learn to give to all such people extravagantly, abundantly and beyond what we think we can afford, the promise of this story is clear. God will reward our faith by making sure that, just like a little bit of yeast makes 55 lb of flour literally grow to feed a multitude of people. What’s more, God will also reward us with God’s presence.

Ministry Outside the Church

When we choose to serve outsiders and strangers as an expression of our faith, despite what limited resources we feel we may have, Jesus promises us that we will know the presence of God. We will discover God in the face of that stranger. That is certainly what Jesus meant in another parable of his, when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt 25:35-36)

Yes, I think that Jesus was trying to point us towards all of that with one little parable about a woman who was apparently making a whole lot of bread one day.

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