Author: Scott McAndless

David’s Walk on the Roof

Posted by on Sunday, July 25th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/b5eaaaC9c00

Hespeler, 25 July 2021 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 11:1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21 (click to read)

For centuries, Western Christianity was pretty sure that it knew what was going on in the story of David and Bathsheba. It was plain enough to see if you looked at the art and read the literature or if you listened to the sermons that were preached. It was obvious, everybody thought it was obvious, that Bathsheba was to blame – that she had intentionally set out to seduce David and lead him astray.

The scene where David sees Bathsheba bathing, was one of the classical scenes painted by many a western artist. And every one of them is the kind of painting that you probably wouldn’t show in a church because Bathsheba is always oozing with sexuality and seduction, she has clearly set out to target David with her feminine wiles.

Sebastiano Ricci's painting of Bathsheba

Leonard Cohen’s Take

That was the story and remained the story at least until 1984 when Leonard Cohen wrote what has probably become his most famous song: “Hallelujah.” The song doesn’t name Bathsheba in it, though it does name David so the reference is pretty obvious when Cohen writes, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof. You saw her bathing on the roof. Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya. She tied you to a kitchen chair, She broke your throne, and she cut your hair. And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.”

That verse illustrates well how the story has been heard down through the centuries (at least, if you leave out the little bit where he makes reference to Delilah cutting Samson’s hair). It portrays David as the hapless and impotent victim while Bathsheba is the active one. David has strong faith but apparently just has a weak moment. She is the one who overthrows him, who breaks his throne.

Most of all, of course, she is out there bathing on her roof where she obviously knows that David is going to see her and be entranced. I love that Leonard Cohen song and where he went with it. But, in his references to the story of David and Bathsheba, he really did not stray far from the typical reading of the story that had persisted in Western society for a long time and still persists in many ways right up until today.

Another Story

And there is a reason why the story has been read in that way. It is not, as I intend to show you, because that is what the story actually says in the Bible. It’s because of another story that has long been told in Western society about men and women and how they relate to each other. It is a story that declares, for one thing, that men, at least if they are real men, have a natural drive that makes them aggressive and dominating. This drive is so powerful that, when presented with something alluring, they practically cannot control their response. This is the myth of male sexuality, and it is a myth that is reinforced every time you hear somebody say, “Boys will be boys,” and try to explain away aggressive or abusive behaviour.

At the same time, a story is told about women. The story is that women do not have the same kind of intense drives. Therefore, women need to take on the role of making sure that men are not overstimulated. They are encouraged to dress modestly and not revealingly, the idea being that if a woman shows too much skin, it is her fault if a man responds with sexual aggression. After all, he can’t control himself, but presumably she can.

A False Story

And I want to be clear here that that story is pure bunk. Men and women might feel their drives and desires a little bit differently, but there is no difference in intensity. Even more important, both men and women are quite capable of controlling their response to stimuli and of acting in a way that respects the autonomy of others. No one is powerless to stop themselves from harassing or abusing somebody else.

But that is the story that we have kept telling ourselves for a very long time with the predictable result that, when somebody is raped or harassed, the victim is often the one who gets all the blame. That is why we often ask what she was wearing or why she was where she was. It is why we are often more interested in her sexual history than in his. Meanwhile, the aggressor is often able to find some way to justify his (and yes, it is usually his) behaviour.

And somehow that Western story of the relationship between the sexes got read into the story of David and Bathsheba with the result that we have come to see things in that story that were never part of the original text.

Where was she Bathing?

Bathsheba at her bath by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Take, for example, the question of where Bathsheba was taking her bath. Everybody just knows that she was taking it on the roof of her house, that is to say that she was taking it in a place where she knew that David might see her because she intended to be seen. Isn’t it what Leonard Cohen sings in his song? But he certainly didn’t invent that idea. As I said, Western art has delighted to portray this particular scene down through the centuries, and you can be sure that that is exactly where the artists have placed Bathsheba, on her roof.

So, we all know where Bathsheba was bathing. There is just one problem, that is not what it says in the text. This is what it says: “It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful.”

Who is on the Roof?

Who was on the roof there? Well, David of course! Actually, it doesn’t say where Bathsheba was bathing, but the obvious thing that we are supposed to assume, given the practices at that time, is that she was bathing where women would normally bathe at that time and in that culture. She was bathing in a closed courtyard, either the courtyard in the centre of her own house, or perhaps she is in a public courtyard that was maintained exclusively for women in the city for their monthly ritual bath that was required under the law.

Whichever kind of courtyard she was in, however, it was considered to be private space where she would be hidden from passersby on the streets. She certainly wouldn’t have been seen from the roof of any ordinary neighbouring house.

David’s Height Advantage

So why could David see her? Well, obviously because he didn’t live in any ordinary sort of house. His wealth and power meant that his palace towered over all the houses in the city so that he could peek into any courtyard he liked. And the suggestion of the story seems to be that, when David was feeling restless, he liked to go up on the roof of his palace and pass his time peeking into the houses of his neighbours – perhaps specifically looking for women taking their monthly ritual baths! So there really is no question; Bathsheba was doing nothing to entrap David’s gaze. David, in fact, was actually seeking to direct his gaze where it really didn’t belong.

Bathsheba’s “Consent”

But there is another part of the story where people have traditionally sought to blame Bathsheba and that is in the fact that, when David sends for her, she goes to him. Surely, it has been suggested, this is an indication that she had been seeking to ensnare him all along. If she didn’t want it, she should have just said no. Since she went, she must have consented.

But you only need to think for a moment before you realize that it is much more complicated than that. It says that David sent messengers to her. Well, who did he send? Did he send one of his warriors with a sword strapped to his side? One of his bodyguards, a muscle-bound enforcer dressed in leather? If you were a woman living alone in your house and you were confronted with a messenger like that, how free would you really feel to say no?

To be honest, even if David sent the mildest of messengers that he could find, Bathsheba would not have felt the freedom to say no because, no matter who the messenger was, she knew the kind of power the sender of the message had. She knew that he had the power to punish her and even to kill her if she said no. And any consent that is given under those kinds of conditions is not genuine consent. The reality is that Bathsheba had no opportunity and no power to say no.

Let’s Call it Rape

And so there really is no doubt about what David did to Bathsheba. We’d call it rape today. By every modern legal definition, that is what David did to her. The definition was a little bit different in ancient Israel where power of consent did not actually belong with the woman, but, even there, there is no escaping that that is what David did. And the Bible really was never ambiguous about that. Indeed, it tells us that the prophet Nathan confronted David with that very accusation.

So, I think it’s plain to see that when you examine the story of David and Bathsheba closely, it really doesn’t say what western society seems to have decided a long time ago that it says. That, for me, is one of the really powerful things about the Bible. It has this way of correcting our willful misinterpretations

Misusing the Bible

We often act like everything the Bible says has always been settled. “The Bible said it, I believe it and that settles it,” the argument seems to go. And people have used that approach to the Bible to support horrible things. The institution of slavery, people confidently taught, was right and good because that was how the Bible said it should be. The Indian Residential School system was a good thing, preachers taught, because the Bible taught that these people were merely savages that needed to be converted, by force if necessary. And women were evil temptresses who needed to keep their sexuality under control because the Bible said that Bathsheba led David astray by bathing on her roof.

People will indeed use the Bible to support all kinds of things, even evil things, that they have already decided to do. But the wonderful thing about the Bible is that it is always there, the original text still accessible, and we can always go back and look at the story within its wider context, and we suddenly realize that maybe these things were not quite as clear cut as we were taught.

Repentance

So I think it is time for us to repent of some of the things that we have said that the Bible said about sex, sexual assault and rape. Let me declare it here and now, women are not responsible for the sexual sins of men. We are, each one of us, responsible, no matter what the situation, to treat other people with respect as human beings created in the image of God. Our teaching around sexual assault should not be that women need to be modest or cautious, it needs to be that men must be respectful of the autonomy and value of women and of all.

We also need to teach that those who have more power, like David represented by his lofty palace had more power, need to be even more careful about respecting others. The greater your power, the greater your responsibility. There have been far too many stories of men, in particular, who have amassed power in this world – movie producers, comedians, politicians and many others – who have gotten away with abuse, harassment and rape simply because of their position. That needs to change.

And really the church should be at the forefront of asking for that change. But the problem is, there have also been all kinds of stories of powerful men in churches – pastors, teachers and other leaders – who have been doing exactly the same thing. Clearly the church is not immune from this problem, and we need to stop pretending that it is.

So, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that, just because we’ve always been told that this is what a certain passage or story from the Bible means, that is necessarily true. Why not let the Bible speak for itself. And where we have gone wrong, and where our interpretations have led to people being hurt and victimized, let us not fail to repent and to make the necessary changes.

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I Will Make you a House

Posted by on Sunday, July 18th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/eChi4ZGBc_I

Hespeler, 18 July 2021 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 7:1-14, Psalm 89:20-37, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

It just seemed obvious that that was what needed to happen. It was the necessary next step. For so much of their history, the people of Israel had lived an unsettled life. They had been displaced from here to there, first living as nomadic shepherds in the Levant, then taken away and made to live as slaves in a foreign land of Egypt, and then, even when they were released from Egypt, they ended up wandering around in the wilderness for forty years. So it only seemed right and sensible that, if they had a God who had chosen them and whom they had chosen, that such a God would not be tied down to one place either.

The Ark of the Covenant

And so the God that they encountered and came to know during those years was with them in many different locations. Being human, they still needed some way to focus their worship of such a God, and so, on God’s instructions, they created something. They created a box, a beautiful box covered in gold. And on the top of that box they built a seat.

Oh, it was a very fancy seat. It was constructed out of golden cherubim, unearthly winged creatures, but that did not change what it was. It was a chair, a throne, and they believed that their God would sit upon that throne. They couldn’t see God sitting there. God was invisible, and so insistent on not being seen that it was forbidden to make any image of God. But even if they couldn’t see it, that throne was the sign and symbol of the presence of their God with them.

But actually, the most important feature of the golden box, which, for some reason, we have come to call an ark, was on its sides. On its sides were fixed golden rings. And those rings were there so that you could pass long poles through them in order to carry God’s portable chair from place to place. Everything was designed for mobility. And whenever the box was put down in one place for a while, they would just pitch a tent to keep it in.

David Brings Stability

And that was how they knew their God. And that made sense to them. They were people without roots, so why did their God need any? And this continued to work for them even after they had entered into the Promised Land and began a more settled existence because, even then, leadership kept on shifting and changing and there always seemed to be some group or another coming along and invading or pillaging.

But when David established his kingdom and there was finally a period of relative peace and security, it seemed clear that it was time to make a change. So once David had established an administration and built a palace, the obvious next thing to do was to build a permanent residence for the God of Israel. In fact, this was so obvious that Nathan, the prophet and the man who never hesitated to question or challenge the king’s ideas, didn’t even have to think about it. He just said, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

Our Need for Buildings

And I think we can all understand that. When the Christian Church first emerged in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, it did not meet in what we would recognize as church buildings. They met in the homes of members, on factory floors and sometimes in open spaces on the edges of cities. The Letter to the Ephesians that we read from this morning was written to a group of churches that met in such places. They were an unsettled people – a people who lived mostly on the edges of society, so it kind of made sense that they would meet with their God in the many and varied places where they lived out their lives.

But something odd did happen to the church at some point. It didn’t happen everywhere all at once, but as the decades and then the centuries went by, in various parts of the empire, the church did find a certain measure of stability. There were local officials who tolerated them, even liked to have them around, and they offered to the church a certain amount of protection. And no sooner did that sense of being settled come, than churches began to construct buildings as special houses where they could experience the presence of God. They felt exactly the same impulse that David had felt, and, like Nathan, they never really even questioned whether it was the right thing to do.

Suddenly Churches Everywhere!

And then in 313 AD, Emperor Constantine finally made Christianity legal everywhere and there was no turning back. All of a sudden, such worship houses were being constructed everywhere and each one made more beautiful and elaborate than the next. And so it went from there with every church of every kind deciding that, if they wanted to encounter God in the midst of their settled life, what they needed was a special house built for that purpose. And that story culminates, for us, with the arrival of Scottish settlers in this place and their decision to build this beautiful house to encounter God right here in Hespeler.

But should we Just Assume?

But all that time, like I said, everyone just assumed, like David and Nathan, that it was the right thing to do. We enjoyed living a somewhat settled life in a house, so surely God would appreciate that as well. But David and Nathan forgot something, something that I think we often forget too. They forgot to ask what God actually wanted.

But God told Nathan anyways. The message came that very night. It doesn’t say whether Nathan was awake or asleep, but I’ve always imagined that it came in the form of a very troubling dream. But however it comes, God’s opinion is made very clear. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God neither desires nor requires a house. This could not be made clearer. It doesn’t matter that the situation of God’s people has changed. It doesn’t matter how settled and secured they may feel, God does not require permanent housing in order to relate to those people wherever they may be.

So that is the first part of God’s answer. But I would note that it is not the whole answer. In fact, by the end of Nathan’s vision, we learned that God will allow for the construction of a temple. This is because God recognizes that, while God doesn’t need a temple, the people who are now living a more settled existence, just might.

Something Else Needed first

But there is something that must come first, and this is the stunning surprise that comes with Nathan’s vision. You see, David has just said that he wants to make a house for God, but God turns that around and says instead that God wants to make a house for David. “Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” David is interested in making a house of cedar, but God requires a house made of people, that is to say a dynasty, first.

What does that tell me? That tells me that God is much more interested in building up people than architecture. That tells me that God is much more likely to place God’s glory in people than in a building made of wood or stone.

Picked up in the New Testament

And to show you that this is not just a one-time thing but rather an ongoing priority for God, let’s make a quick visit over to our New Testament reading this morning. The Letter to the Ephesians was actually written to a group of churches in a large region, but it was a region that had a long and highly esteemed religious tradition. The temples in and around Ephesus were world famous for their beauty and the glory they brought to their gods. And so I can well imagine that the churches that received this letter felt rather self-conscious about their lack of a beautiful building in which they could meet with their God.

At that point in Christian history, having a church building was really just a pipe dream, but they must still have talked about it and longed to be able to make a house for God. But, in this letter, God writes back through the apostle to say there is something much more important than that they build a house. You are… members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

It is lovely that you want to make me a house, God says to them, but first let me build you into a house. It is the same answer that David got through Nathan.

God is not into Buildings

So, what can we take from all of this? One thing seems quite clear. The God that we worship, the God that David knew and the God that we have come to know through Jesus, is not as much into churches and temples as we probably assumed that God was. God never much felt the need for such things, at least from God’s own point of view.

Nevertheless, God does give in to David’s suggestion of a temple, at least after a certain delay. There seems to be a recognition in this that, while God doesn’t need buildings, sometimes we do. It seems to be helpful for us as human beings to have this place where we can gather and where God seems more present, even though, of course, there is no place where God is any less present. There’s also no question that buildings do sometimes create possibilities for ministry and outreach that would not be possible without them. So, God does recognize that they are useful to us.

God would Rather Make us a House

But, while God may accept our need for such buildings, there is a higher priority from God’s point of view that we need to take into account. God would much rather make us a house than that we should make God a house. God is wildly enthusiastic about building us up as a community together, about creating us as a people who go out and have a positive impact on the community around us, about creating unity among us despite whatever differences we may have. God is much more interested in building that than in houses of cedar or of bricks and mortar. God is so insistent on that, that God would rather make us a house before we get around to making God a house.

Getting Christians Back in Buildings

There is a lot of focus right now on getting Christians back into church buildings. Of course, I can understand why that is. Many of us have been worshiping outside of them for a very long time now. I suspect there may even be some fear that if we don’t get them all back soon, they may never want to come back. So I do understand the desire, but I am not sure that God is as desperate to get us back into buildings as we might be.

God Wants to Make Us a House

God never actually asked us to make God a house, though God did understand our desire to do so. But wherever we may be worshiping over the next while, do not forget what God’s priority actually is. God wants to make us a house. And I do believe that God has been doing that even as we have been away from our buildings.

We have certainly learned some new ways to connect with each other in our worship during these times. I don’t know about you, for example, but I found that some of the ways we’ve been able to connect through prayer during this season have been extraordinarily nourishing to me. I love that I am able to pray for the things that are on your hearts as we share requests in the zoom chat. This is one of the ways in which God has been building us in unity, making us a house. I certainly hope we don’t lose what we have learned as we begin to transition to ways of worshiping that are more closely connected to a building.

We have also been able to connect with people who simply cannot come to a building, or at least cannot come so often. I pray that we don’t lose that way in which God has been building us into a house either.

God’s commitments are clear. They are commitments to us as a people. My prayer, especially over the next season, is that we don’t become so obsessed with making a house where we meet with God, that we lose sight of God’s commitment to us. God wants to make us a house.

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When you See the Plumb Line

Posted by on Sunday, July 11th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/vnyp6z9NqzU

Hespeler, 11 July 2021 © Scott McAndless
Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29 (Click to read)

I am sure that you all heard the story of the terrible tragedy that took place in Surfside Florida at the end of last month. A condominium tower in that city just collapsed in the middle of the night. So far it has been confirmed that 32 people died and the remaining missing, 124 in all, are now presumed dead. The whole event is just horrible and frightening to consider and, of course, we feel for all those who grieve and mourn.

But what was horrible was made somewhat worse when the news came out days later of an engineering report that was made on the condo tower and brought before the management board in November of 2018. This report noted that there had been major structural damage in the building that had been caused by a leaky pool over top of a parking garage. Nevertheless, a building inspector came in and told the board meeting that he had reviewed the engineering report and assured everyone that the building was in good shape.

Now, I realize that all of those events that I just referred to are contested and are being litigated. I’m hardly in a position to say for sure who is actually to blame. But it does seem to me that, if any of that is true, it points to serious problems, and I’m not just talking about the problems with one particular building. There seem to be some significant problems with how these kinds of things work in general.

Amos and the Plumb Line

My mind turned to those recent events when I first read our passage from the Book of Amos as I prepared for this week’s service. Amos starts out talking about an odd vision that he had. “The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’”

This is actually how a lot of Amos’ prophetic oracles go. He starts out by saying that God showed him a pretty ordinary and everyday thing – a small swarm of locusts, a basket of fruit – and then tells us that God had a message to bring through that ordinary thing. I suspect that this may be Amos’ way of telling us that he would often just meditate on ordinary objects until he was struck by some connection to some of the issues of the day. That was how he discovered that God had a message for him, something that he needed to say to the people.

Why a Plumb Line?

But I find it interesting that this oracle begins with Amos seeing a plumb line. A plumb line is, of course, one of the most ancient of all engineering tools. It is the simplest thing in the world. It is just a weight tied to the end of a string. But since it has this wonderful ability to always create a perfectly straight line that is perpendicular to the surface of the earth, it has so many uses in building.

Before the invention of laser levels or even of bubble levels, plumb lines were an absolutely essential tool for building walls and houses that would actually remain standing. And, of course, if they were useful for building, then they were also useful for checking on any ongoing stability and security of a structure. If you held a plumb line up against the wall that was built to be plumb and you discovered that the string and the wall no longer followed the same line, well, that was a pretty good indication that that structure might not remain standing too much longer.

What the Vision Meant

And that is what Amos saw in his vision. He saw God holding a plumb line up against a wall that was no longer plumb. To put it in modern terms, you might say that Amos saw the 2018 engineering report on Champlain Towers South Condo in Surfside Florida and he saw God’s name signed at the bottom.

And Amos understood what that vision meant. He was smart enough to see that the structure in question was not a particular wall or house, it was the structure of the entire Kingdom of Israel. And that put him in a very difficult position.

Imagine that you are that engineer who made that report on the building in Florida. You know what you have discovered in your study, and you know the very real danger for the people who live in that building. Clearly you have a moral and ethical duty to tell people what you have seen.

What if People won’t Listen?

But what do you do when you have very powerful and connected people who, as seems to be the case in that story, have a vested interest in making your report go away? Who don’t want, for example, to spend millions of dollars to make the necessary repairs. What if they are people who can cause problems for you or your family, who can disrupt your career or who can just make your report disappear on a whim? What do you do then?

You might reply, and rightly so, that that does not change your ethical duty, but there is no denying that it certainly makes your next steps a whole lot more difficult and complicated.

The Cost of Speaking Up

Well, when Amos saw the structural problems that were there in the Kingdom of Israel, problems that were leading it towards a terrible disaster, he quickly decided that he knew what his duty was. He spoke up loudly and often. He went to the City of Bethel, one of the key worship centres for the entire kingdom. There Amos spent his days preaching at all of the people who came to sacrifice at the sanctuary and warning them that the condominium was about to collapse. And, yes, Amos only did this at enormous cost. In particular, Amaziah, one of the most powerful officials in the entire kingdom threatened him saying, O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

And there is something kind of typical in Amaziah’s threat. Did you notice the assumptions that he makes about Amos? He assumes that he is a seer and says that he is just hanging around the sanctuary at Bethel in order to earn his bread. He is accusing him of being little more than a fortune teller who is making money selling prophecies about people’s futures to those who come to worship there.

This is very telling. Those people who use whatever power or influence they have in order to exploit people and enrich themselves often just assume that that is what everyone else is doing as well. The only reason Amaziah can imagine for why Amos is doing what he’s doing and causing such disruption is because he must have some angle, some way in which Amos is enriching himself. It would never occur to somebody like Amaziah that Amos might be doing what he is doing because he feels dutybound to try and save the whole nation from itself.

Amos’ Reply

And that is what makes Amos’ reply so important. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” he says. He is saying that he is not a professional, not someone who does this for a living. “But I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

Wow, what a statement. He is saying that he does not need all of this aggravation. He is certainly not interested in making any money by it. He could be living very comfortably, thank you very much, looking after his herds and dressing the odd sycamore tree. But something happened. He saw the plumb line. He saw that the structure was in bad shape and a danger to the people. He spoke up because he knew that the people needed to know. That is what he means when he says, “the Lord took me.”

And I believe that what Amos says there has many applications to the challenges of living in the world today. Back then, it was the expectation that only certain people, prophets and the sons of prophets, were allowed to speak up on national issues – and it is very clear from what Amaziah says that they were expected to tow the party line and support whatever the king wanted. But Amos says something very different. He says that those who have seen the plumb line, who see how the structures are out of alignment, simply have the duty, given by God, to speak up. That is a challenge for all of us.

Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce

It makes me think of a story that I heard recently. In 1904, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce was named as the chief medical officer for what was called then the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs. Bryce was not an indigenous person; he was just a doctor with a great deal of experience and many honours in the area of public health.

Peter Henderson Bryce

One of the first jobs that he was given was to investigate an issue that had that had arisen in the country’s Indian residential schools. Apparently, it seemed that a lot of the children who were being placed in these schools were dying. We are talking of a death rate among students that averaged at that time about 50%. Yes, you heard that right. About half of the children being sent to those schools were not surviving. In some schools, the death rate was as high as 69%.

So, Bryce went to work to try and get to the bottom of this mystery. He came back a few years later with a well researched report in which he laid the blame for the unconscionable death toll of the residential schools primarily on the federal government for its failure to enforce even a minimal level of health standards in the schools. Bryce had held a plumb line up against the entire system and revealed that the wall was completely off-kilter. And he apparently thought that he had finished his work. He had identified the problem and fully documented it. Now that the government knew what the problem was, surely they would just fix it.

Duncan Campbell Scott

Duncan Campbell Scott

But any guesses what happened when Bryce submitted his report? He was confronted by his own Amaziah in the form of Duncan Campbell Scott, the head of Indian Affairs, a man who declared that it was his job to “get rid of the Indian problem,” and was apparently quite comfortable with doing that by killing about half of the indigenous children who came into the government’s care. When Scott saw the report and conclusions that Bryce had come to, he quickly sprang into action. He dismissed the report and immediately cut all of Bryce’s funding. From there, Scott and the government set about destroying Dr. Bryce’s career, preventing him from speaking at conferences and eventually pushing him out of the public service altogether.

Bryce’s Response

But what was Bryce to do? This had become a political hot potato and he was no politician nor a politician’s son. He was just a doctor and a man of faith (a Presbyterian, in fact) and he had seen the plumb line. He knew that he could not remain silent. When all political action was closed off to him, he chose to speak in a different way. He wrote a book, “The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada.” He got it published and began distributing it himself, particularly handing out many copies of the book throughout Ottawa. He knew what he had seen, and he was committed to get the word out about what he had seen no matter what the cost to himself.

That – that kind of courage and commitment to speaking the truth – is, I believe, what our passage in the Book of Amos this morning is about. I think Amos makes it clear that prophets – true prophets of the – are not special people with unique gifts or insights. They are ordinary people – herders, sycomore tree dressers, doctors and engineers. They are any one of us, whatever we may do, but they are people who have seen the plumb line and know the danger that the system is in. They are, above all, people who have the courage to speak up and say what they have seen. That, my friends, can and should be any one of us.

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The Idea of a Nation

Posted by on Sunday, July 4th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/-shvW5dqzrM

Hespeler, July 4 2021 © Scott McAndless
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10, Psalm 48, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13 (click to read)

Did you notice something as we read from the Old Testament this morning? I don’t know about you, but for me it was unmistakable. Something changed; something just clicked. Now, I will admit that maybe it was just me. Maybe the click just happened in my own head and it was so loud that I thought everyone could hear it. Because, you see, I am a bit of a historian. I actually have a bachelor degree in history. That does give me an awareness of something that others might not notice. And what I noticed, as I read this passage, was that we had suddenly entered an era of documented history.

Independent Confirmation

You see, when it says, So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel,” there is something different about that statement from any other biblical statements that go before it. You see, David is the first person in the Bible for whom we have independent confirmation of his existence. That is to say, he is the first individual in the Bible for whom we have extra-biblical evidence. I mean, there have been some archaeological discoveries that confirm a few things older than David – the existence of certain cities or population groups – but nothing that you could use as evidence that a certain person existed.

The Tel Dan inscription contains the first reference to the "House of David."

But, for David, we have that. We don’t exactly have proof of the existence of David himself, but there are ancient inscriptions that have been uncovered that refer to something called the House of David. So we know for sure that there was a dynasty of ancient kings who traced the foundation of their rule to a man named David. That is about all we can prove about the man, and I know that might not seem like much, but it’s really quite significant for that time and place.

The City of David

And there is a little bit more that we can say. Our reading goes on to describe how “David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inwards.” As you read on, it becomes clear that this is a reference to David establishing his capital at a little place called Jerusalem. You might have heard of it.

And archaeologists have found evidence of some ancient construction near the top of Mount Zion in Jerusalem that seems to correspond to that period of time. In particular, they have discovered a large retaining wall that they have identified as the Millo that is mentioned in this passage. It was apparently considered to be quite an engineering feat at the time as it is mentioned several times in the Bible.

Even a Date

And if you put all of that together, we actually even have a date. If David is the guy responsible for the construction of what is called the City of David, then we can say that he must have ruled in Jerusalem in about the year 1,000 BC. If you ever want to impress people at a party with your biblical knowledge, pull out that one! It’s easy to remember and the first confirmed date in the Bible: 1,000 BC.

Now, some of you – maybe especially those of you who don’t get excited by history – may be saying “So what? What does it matter that something has been confirmed by extra-biblical sources? After all, just because something isn’t mentioned outside of the Bible doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.” And, yes, that is absolutely true. But it does mean something. It means that, with the story of David, we finally have something concrete that we can hold up and compare to the biblical account.

The Traces of David’s Kingdom

The Bible does say many things about the rule of King David. Of course, we are not going to find historical evidence for every little detail, but we should be able to find some corroboration. In particular, the Bible says that David established a very large kingdom that united all of the tribes of Israel over a large territory for the very first time – a united kingdom that endured during his life and the life of his son Solomon before coming apart and never being reunited. Now that is an enormous achievement for that time and place.

What’s more, it is the kind of administration that you might expect to leave significant traces in the archaeological record. If there was such a united kingdom in David’s time, we ought to be able to find the traces of it. And so, of course, archaeologists have searched for those traces. And, news alert, they haven’t found them.

On the contrary, they find that there was very little in the way of political unity in the area at the time. As a result, most scholars and archaeologists would say that the evidence seems to indicate that, if David was a real person and he ruled in Jerusalem, his kingdom was probably more of a chieftainship and likely didn’t extend all that far from Mount Zion. It seems that, as time went by, kings in the line of David looked back on the time of David and Solomon as a great golden age and so, kind of naturally, they exaggerated the size and importance of that kingdom.

The Idea of a United Kingdom

So there really is little evidence of a united kingdom under David. But I will tell you something that there is a lot of evidence for, and that is for the idea of that united kingdom. For much of its history after 1,000 BC, there were two kingdoms in the land of Israel – the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. And for much of that time, the northern kingdom was by far the largest, strongest and most prosperous of the two. The kingdom of Judah in the south was really a runt of a kingdom. But the southern kingdom had Jerusalem and it had the House of David in charge.

And it seems clear that the idea that there had been a united kingdom under the rule of David and Solomon was established and grew in that southern Kingdom of Judah. Based on this idea, yes, the rulers of the House of David did claim that they should also rule over the people in the north. This claim became even more insistent when the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire and, in a seeming miracle, the southern kingdom just barely managed to survive.

At that time, prophets such as the great Prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the time had finally come to re-establish the united kingdom, though it never actually happened. Over time, the idea of a united kingdom became linked to the idea that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where people could correctly worship Yahweh, the God of Israel.

The Idea Outlives the House of David

The idea of the united kingdom continued even once the ruling House of David ceased to exist after the Babylonian exile. When the exiles returned from Babylon, many of them returned with the idea that God had sent them back to rebuild the old kingdom of David, even if it didn’t really work out that way. Centuries later, the Hasmonean kings, who did not claim to be descended from David, still wanted to re-establish his kingdom and entered into a war of conquest to bring Galilee under Judean control.

In fact, to this very day the idea of David’s kingdom has been a driving force behind the modern Israeli state, especially in the establishment of Israeli settlements in occupied territory. Of course, this has often rendered the hope for peace in that part of the world somewhat complicated.

So, it is kind of amazing, when you think about it, that the very idea of the kingdom of David and Solomon had more influence on the future course of history than did the actual reality of those kingdoms on the ground. But, as I think of it, maybe that is not so strange after all. In fact, I think that is how it always works and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

National Days of Celebration

We gather today just three days after Canada Day, and we also gather on the American Independence Day. And there has been a lot of discussion this year about how or even if people ought to celebrate Canada Day, especially because, over the last couple of months, we have been confronted in a particularly graphic way with some of the failures and shortcomings of our country, particularly in regards to our relationship with indigenous people and the residential school system. And there doesn’t seem to be anything to celebrate about that.

As for our good American neighbours, I’m quite sure that they would never tone down their patriotic celebrations today, but there is no doubt that the past year may have tarnished the image that many of them have of their country when you think of the events that prompted the Black Lives Matter movement, a terrible pandemic experience and an insurrection at the nation’s capital.

As I think of these celebrations and of how the idea of David’s kingdom was bigger than the kingdom itself probably was, it makes me ask the question today, what exactly do we celebrate when we celebrate a nation?

Looking Critically at our Past

I know there are some who really struggle with the idea of looking at our past with a critical eye. This is because we have long associated the idea of our country with a glorified view of that past. We have looked to stories of heroic settlers heading out into the clearings, to visionary leaders like John A. Macdonald and Edgerton Ryerson, to brave leaders like Generals Wolf and Brock to tell us who we were and what we stood for.

But, if that is who we are, that makes any act of looking critically at those heroes feel very dangerous. It makes any act of looking back feel dangerous because very few people or policies of the past will stand up against our present-day sensibilities. So, all of a sudden, indigenous people asking to have their experiences heard and validated or maybe just historians doing their jobs feels like people are attacking our patriotic spirit. But I do not believe that we should be afraid of history, and we certainly should not be afraid of the truth of our history.

In many ways, our idea of our country has been based on an idealized picture of our past, as romanticized, in some ways, as the united kingdom under David. But just because that past was not as ideal as we may have thought it was, just because it turns out that we may have blinded ourselves to some of its flaws, does that mean that the idea does not have a purpose?

An Idea of Canada

I do have an idea of a Canada – a Canada that takes care of its people, all of its people. I have an idea of a Canada where we do not value people less because of their race or their origins. I have an idea of a country where we value and care for the land and honour those who have lived in relationship with it for thousands of generations. That is my idea of Canada. I suspect that it is God’s idea as well.

Did that ideal Canada exist in the past? No, certainly not in entirety and there have been many cases when we fell far, far short of that idea. Does that ideal Canada exist in the present? Well, I’m afraid I have to say that the answer there is also no. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not the real Canada. The idea is real and, if we commit ourselves and if we work at it, if we really work at it, that idea will begin to align more closely to the reality on the ground in the future because, I believe, that is where my idea of Canada will be found – in the future, and in my heart. Where will yours be found?

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A not so level playing field

Posted by on Sunday, June 20th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/if4J__Bp-3g

Hespeler, 20 June 2021 © Scott McAndless – Father’s Day
1 Samuel 17:1-9, 32-40, 48-51, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41 (Click to read)

The story of David and Goliath has become a bit of a cliche. It is used as a metaphor for all kinds of situations – in sports, in politics, on the schoolyard – where you have an underdog going up against an opponent who seems to have all of the advantages. And, indeed, that is exactly what the story is about. But I think it is also a little bit more about that than we usually realize.

People often just look at the picture of the matchup between David and Goliath. They see the huge hulking giant with bulging muscles facing off against a small boy and they recognize, rightly so, that it just doesn’t look like a fair fight. But there is much more to the unfairness of that situation than the two individuals. The two individual opponents may not be evenly matched, but there is even more that is seriously wrong with that picture. They are also clearly not fighting on a level playing field. And I mean that literally.

The Geography

Socoh and the Valley of Elah

To understand that you need to know just a little bit about the geography of this story. We are told that the Philistines had mustered at a place called Socoh, which archaeologists have identified with a rounded, elongated hilltop in the territory of Judah. This was a very strong natural position just to the south of a deep valley known as the Valley of Elah.

And where were the Israelites? Well, they were in the Valley of Elah. They were in about the worst defensive position you could imagine. In order to attack the Philistines, they would have to run up a steep slope and would have been exhausted before they even got there. In addition, the Philistines were in a position where they could easily throw down rocks and missiles upon the heads of the cringing Israelites. This was anything but a level playing field. There is likely only one reason why the Israelites might have taken a position in the valley and that was because they were terrified of the Philistine chariots which could not get to them there.

The Philistine’s Equipment

But there is another reason why the playing field was not fair: military hardware and technology. Did you notice how Goliath’s armour and arms are described in such detail, almost as if the writer is carried away in his praise of them? He goes on for three verses!

The writer wants you to understand exactly how well the Philistine was equipped. Most of his armour is made of bronze. In fact, he appears to be wearing pounds and pounds of the stuff. Bronze is, of course, an alloy made out of copper and tin. The invention of bronze revolutionized the art of warfare all over the ancient Mediterranean world when it was discovered. Indeed, it was so important that a whole era of history is named after it: the Bronze Age.

Bronze is strong and remarkably durable – it never rusts – but it is a relatively soft metal. Nevertheless, during most of the bronze age, it was considered to be state of the art, the best possible material for making weapons. But here is the thing, this story of David and Goliath is not set during the Bronze Age. Bronze was already being replaced by another metal; people were learning how to make things out of iron. Iron had one huge advantage over bronze, it was extraordinarily hard. It could cut through bronze like a knife through butter.

And did you notice how Goliath’s spear is described? “The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron.” Goliath had a massive iron tipped spear. Think of it as an armour piercing round because he could probably have thrown that thing straight through a man wearing bronze armour.

The Israelite Equipment

So Goliath and the Philistines had the best, latest technology arms. And what did the Israelites have? Well, it seems that they scarcely had any bronze weapons, and they certainly didn’t have any iron. In fact, there is a passage a little bit before this in the Book of Samuel in which it explains that the Philistines maintained a monopoly on iron and much of the metallurgy throughout the entire region. Only Philistines were allowed to smelt or to work with metal. If Israelites needed metal implements to work in their fields – plows and sickles and pruning hooks – they had to go to the Philistines and pay very dearly even just to have them sharpened. As a result, the Bible says, the only people in the entire kingdom at that time who had proper metal weapons were King Saul and his son Jonathan and they likely didn’t have any iron.

That’s what that whole episode where Saul lends David his armour is all about. David puts on the armour and finds that he can hardly move and so decides not to use it. I always thought, when I was growing up, that that was because David was just a boy and too small to wear it. But that’s not the point of that at all. You see, in order to use bronze armaments, a warrior had to train in them, had to learn how to move in them, and if they had no bronze armour, there was no Israelite warrior who had that kind of training.

So that standoff between David and Goliath is just way worse than we all have imagined it was. It really doesn’t matter that David was smaller than Goliath. Any Israelite fighter of any size who had chosen to stand up to the Philistine warrior could have expected the very same fate. With one blow, Goliath could have put that iron spearhead right through the body of any one of them.

A Systemic Disadvantage

You see, we tend to think of the contest between David and Goliath as a contest between two individuals. But Goliath didn’t just enjoy individual advantages. He had a systemic advantage. And that is something we often struggle to understand. We’d like to think that everyone, if they work hard and apply themselves, will be able to succeed. We’d like to think that David, had he just worked hard and applied himself, could have made himself good enough to beat Goliath. But the world doesn’t always work out that way, does it? It doesn’t matter how hard David worked, the system was rigged to make sure that he didn’t have any iron.

Systemic Injustice

There are certainly individuals in our society who have prejudicial attitudes towards others – who live, speak and act as if certain other people are of less value or importance because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or any number of other factors. We might call such people racists or sexist or by other names, all of which are seen as bad, and rightly so, in our society.

But as wrong as such individual attitudes and actions are, as horrified as we may be when an individual runs down a Muslim family in London or attacks a mosque in Quebec, the problem cannot just be reduced to individual racists. If all of the individual racists went away, there would still be a problem. If Goliath simply saw David as his equal, there still would have been a problem. That’s what we mean when we talk about systemic racism and systemic injustice. It means that the whole problem is much bigger than just the sum of its parts.

At the same time, just because there is systemic racism does not mean that everyone in the system is a racist. On the contrary, individuals may set out to do their very best to give everyone a fair and equal shake, but somehow the overall system still finds a way to give advantages to some and disadvantages to others because that is what systems do.

I guess that all I’m saying here is that you ought not to look at the picture of David facing off against Goliath in the simplistic terms of two individuals facing off against each other with their own skills and strength. It is much more complicated than that. But unfortunately, we do not always see that complexity.

God Sees Systemic Injustice

But I’ll tell you one thing that I think this passage and many other passages in the Bible are saying. We may not see all of the complexity that gives certain groups advantages and other groups disadvantages, but God does. God sees all of the disadvantages that David has. God understands that he doesn’t even know how to fight with weapons of iron and bronze because these things have been denied to all of his people. God sees that David is just a boy in comparison to Goliath. And that is why God chooses him as God’s champion. It is not because David is a better man – I suspect that God already knows all of David’s flaws, and they are many. It is because David is a victim of systemic injustice and is open to trusting in God to help him. That is it; that is why God chooses him.

God’s Option for the Systemically Disadvantaged

That is how God operates throughout the scriptures. God did not choose the people of Israel because they were somehow better than other people, but merely because they had a whole system rigged against them as slaves in Egypt and had nothing on their side except a yearning for freedom. And the Jews are not the only ones that God chose for such a reason. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of the creation of the Christian Church in these terms: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29)

God loves those whom the system has forgotten and consistently disadvantaged. Again and again, if you read through the Psalms you see a God who takes the side of the poor, the widows and the orphans who were, in that world, the people who most often found themselves facing a system that was stacked against them. Indeed, in one of the Psalms, God even criticizes the gods of other nations for the way in which they take the side of the rich and the powerful and tells them that they must instead “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”  (Psalm 82:3,4)

What God Does About it

So there really is no doubt, if you take the Bible seriously, where God’s sympathies lie. But the question becomes, what does God do with those sympathies. I mean, God is all powerful so you might expect God to use all of that power to come down hard on the side of the disadvantaged of this world. But, very clearly, the Bible says that that’s not how God prefers to do it. This is probably because the application of power is actually the root of the problem that causes all of this systemic injustice. To try and solve it through the application of power might make things better in the short term, but it is likely to create new systemic injustice over the long term. And so God seems to prefer to work through less direct means, even though we can often be rather impatient with that.

For one thing, as we see in that Psalm that I quoted from, God does call on those of us who have the power and influence, who already enjoy a certain amount of privilege in society, to do what we can to redress these kinds of problems. But that doesn’t always work, because those who do have power and privilege do not find it very easy to give it up. So God also has another approach.

Five Smooth Stones

That brings us back to the story of David. He doesn’t have armour. He doesn’t have iron weapons. All that he has is the traditional weapon of a nomadic shepherd. All he has is five small stones and that is not iron age technology, that is not even bronze age technology, that is literally stone age technology. It is not a weapon so much as it is an act of desperation, but David uses it in an act of trust in God and God uses this small thing to change the whole narrative.

That is how God likes to act in this world. God likes to take our small acts – our little stones – that are used in faith to change the story. God particularly likes to use the faith of the powerless, like David. Small things – a cell phone video of a police officer with his knee crushing a man’s throat, a small news release about the discovery of the remains of 215 children, the leak of the tax returns of a few of the world’s wealthiest people – these are just small stones, but they can change everything. So consider, are there any small stones that you can deploy in this world to challenge the way the system is set up? God would love to use you to do that very thing.

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Walking In the Garden at the Time of the Evening Breeze

Posted by on Sunday, June 6th, 2021 in Minister

https://youtu.be/4GDxUN3w2M8

Hespeler, 6 June 2021 © Scott McAndless – Communion
Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

When I was growing up in what is now the City of Toronto, we didn’t live all that far from a place called Edwards Gardens. Edwards Gardens was, at that time, a showcase for the parks department of the City of North York. Nestled along the banks of the lazy Wilket Creek. It was, and still is, a beautiful Botanical Garden. It is a peaceful place of colourful flower beds, majestic weeping willows and little waterfalls and fountains, a beautiful and refreshing place.

And, from time to time, especially during the hot summer months, our family would pile into the car after dinner and make the short drive down to Edwards Gardens where we would stroll around for a while. After a hot summer’s day, it was a perfect place to go to be refreshed and renewed while you felt the cool breezes and smelled the sweet scent of blossoms. In my heart, the place represents memories of belonging and being a family together and at peace with one another. So I can tell you that there is nothing quite like walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

God Enjoys the Garden

Apparently, God understands the feeling because that is what we discover God doing at the beginning of our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” It is a wonderful and very human picture of God, isn’t it? I mean you can just imagine God after a long, hard day’s work running the whole universe feeling the need to relax and unwind in such a refreshing place.

Walking in the Garden at the time of the Evening Breeze -- Edward's Gardens, Toronoto
Edwards Gardens

In fact, doesn’t it suggest that maybe that is why the garden is there – to provide God with that comforting place of retreat? You can certainly read this passage in Genesis like that. It doesn’t say why God planted the garden, but it does strongly imply that it was for God’s own rest and enjoyment. And God even created and appointed a gardener to tend it and make it beautiful, just like the City of Toronto hires gardeners for Edwards Gardens.

A Demanding Gardener

But, you know how it is. When you hire workers to make a place like that beautiful, you also have to make sure they have everything they need. And the gardener certainly had his needs. First of all, he was lonely. And so God went to work trying to create some kind of companion for the gardener. God created all sorts of animals and brought them to the man and the man was happy to name them, but, alas, not one of them was found to be the kind of companion that could be his equal.

And I know you’ve all heard the story about how the best kind of companion was found and, yes, she was not created as a lesser being but rather taken from his side to be his equal and so that they could work together to be the best that they could be.

Everything is Worked Out

And so, God had it all worked out. God had a gardening team who could be glad in their work because they were together and, when God was tired after a long day of running the universe, God could drop by and shoot the evening breeze with the gardener as they walked and talked of begonias and hostas. And all was well and everyone could be at rest and at peace with one another.

And there’s a description of just how great things were between them all that comes at the end of that whole story. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”

An Anthropomorphic Depiction of God

Now, I realize that some of us may have some problems with how I have told that story, indeed, with how the Book of Genesis tells that story because of the way that it portrays God. The story imagines God strolling around the garden in the evening breezes. It is too anthropomorphic for the taste of some people – God is described in a form that just is too human.

But, of course, that whole description of God doesn’t have to mean God literally went strolling in the garden feeling the breezes on his cheeks. It is just that from ancient times, people, not having any other way of imagining a God that they could relate to, resorted to imagining and describing God in very human terms. It was the only way we could manage to talk about God, but that doesn’t mean that that is what God is.

What we have in this story is a narrative that people created to help them relate to what they had experienced of God. It may not be literally true that God strolls in the garden, but it is actually a very true description of the kind of relationship God wants with humans like us.

What is Shame?

Which brings us back to that description of how things were supposed to be between the man, the woman and the Lord God. “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” That tells me something very important. That tells me that it was never God’s intention that shame would be something that would disrupt our relationships with one another or with our God.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment and just make sure that we all know what we’re talking about when we talk about shame. It is something that we have all felt, I know, but is it something that we all truly understand? Let’s start with defining the difference between guilt and shame, because that’s something we often muddle up.

When you do something wrong, either intentionally or unintentionally, you may feel guilt, especially if you’ve hurt somebody else in what you have done. This can be a helpful impulse sent from God that is there to push us, when we can, to make things right with somebody that we have hurt. Guilt, as long as it is properly dealt with and not carried around and allowed to fester, has its useful place and, even better, it is ultimately something that God can lift from us so that we do not live in it.

But shame, shame is something different. If guilt is feeling bad for something you’ve done, shame is feeling bad for who you are or for things about you that are beyond your control. Shame is also something that people will often use to try and manipulate others for their own goals or to make themselves feel better.

Shame is Not a Good Thing

My friends, shame (defined in those terms) is not a good or helpful thing. Oh, I know that sometimes people try and make it a good thing. They will even decry the lack of shame in some people as if this was a terrible thing: “Oh, the young people have no shame these days!” They like to pretend that shame is something that impels people to be better, but it actually rarely does. I have also noticed how, though people are often happy to wish shame on other people, very few seem to wish it upon themselves!

But this story in Genesis makes it quite clear that shame was never intended to be part of how we relate to each other or to God. And, far from a lack of shame being a cause of disobedience or wrong action, we discover in this story that it is the other way around and that shame comes from disobedience.

The Invention of Shame

But that takes us back to our opening scene when God is strolling in the garden in the evening breezes and God is looking for some companionship, God wants to talk to the gardener and shoot the breezes about the hostas and the begonias. But the gardener and his lovely wife are no place to be found. They are hiding and they are hiding because they have discovered something: they have discovered shame.

In fact, shame is such a new invention that they don’t even know what to call it. Did you notice that? When God calls them out, all they can say is, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” What they are afraid of is that, because they are exposed and cannot hide themselves, they will be judged for who they are. That particular fear is what we call shame, they just don’t have a word for it yet.

And the Lord God responds to that and says, “Who told you that you were naked?” Listen to that question because there is so much meaning wrapped up in it. “Who told you that you were naked?” means, “who told you that you were exposed?” It means, more importantly, “Who told you that you had anything to be ashamed of?”

But that is the power of shame. Before, they had been quite naked – utterly exposed both in body but also in terms of being completely unafraid to show the whole world exactly who they were in every way. When Lord comes to the garden looking for the gardeners, nothing has changed about them. They are still the very same people that they were before. All that has changed is that shame has come into the picture.

Shame and the Knowledge of Good and Evil

We could certainly ask where that sense of shame came from. Is it there because they have been disobedient to what was commanded of them? Possibly, but the story doesn’t actually say that. I find it’s a little bit more likely that shame has been introduced because new knowledge has come to them – the knowledge of good and evil, which is what the tree represents.

Now, knowledge, and especially the knowledge that allows us to discern between good and evil is a good thing. In Jewish tradition, it is the kind of knowledge that makes a person an adult, somebody who is responsible for the consequences of their own decisions. But it is also a kind of knowledge that unlocks a certain dark potential – the temptation to make other people look bad so that we appear to be good in comparison. And it is out of that tendency that I believe shame is born.

Using Blame and Shame to Deflect

We see it in this story that we read this morning. When Adam and Eve are confronted with their failure to live up to the commandment that they were given, their immediate instinct is to try and blame and shame others. The man says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” And then the woman says, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The whole point of having the knowledge that allows you to discern between good and evil is that you should take responsibility for the discernment that you make, but they fail to do that. By failing to take their own responsibility – by seeking to transfer it to others – they begin that process of tearing down others to build themselves up and it is from that process that shame gets its power.

This Story isn’t about Sin

You know, I was always told that this story of the garden in the Book of Genesis was a story about how sin entered into the world. In fact, the Bible that we read from this morning still tells me that. The translators of this story in the New Revised Standard Version have given it the title, “The First Sin and Its Punishment.” There is just one problem with that. The word sin is not mentioned even once in this whole story. The concept of sin is only introduced later in the story of Cain and Abel. The whole idea that this story is about sin is actually something that later theologians came up with.

So let me ask this question, what if this story is not really about sin but rather about a much more insidious problem – the problem of shame. For this story makes it very clear that it was never God’s intention that we be controlled by shame. It also strongly suggests that it was the alienation caused by their shame that made it impossible for the man and the woman to enjoy the peace and fellowship of the time of the evening breezes with their creator. Sin will come, but in this story, shame is the enemy.

Shame is the Enemy

And shame is still the enemy. For many of us, shame is that thing that prevents us from expressing who we were truly made to be and makes us feel bad about things that ultimately do not matter. And shame is still a tool that is used to keep people down and prevents them from standing up for what matters to them. But shame is not needed. We are beings, the Bible tells us, who were created to be unashamed when naked – not just physically but in every way.

So I leave you with a question. “Who told you that you were naked?” Who told you that you needed to be ashamed because maybe they were wrong? Maybe they didn’t really have your best interest at heart. And maybe you ought to think before telling others they should be ashamed too.

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Isaiah was bored!

Posted by on Sunday, May 30th, 2021 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/SeFYKKLmeFE

Hespeler, 30 May 2021 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17 (click to read)

Isaiah yawns. He feels bad for doing it. He can see his parents shooting dark looks at him from the opposite side of the room, but he really can’t help it. This ceremony just seems to keep going on and on and he is bored. He just wants it to be over and for the people to move onto the feast.

I guess you can’t really blame Isaiah for being bored. He is hardly the first person in the history of the world to be bored during a religious service that has gone on too long, and he certainly won’t be the last. And it doesn’t help that Isaiah is still a young man with the common affliction of impatience that many young people have.

But it is also more than that, it is also that this whole ceremony seems to be a meaningless farce. All of the leading citizens of the City of Jerusalem have come together at the temple to witness the enthronement of the new king, Jotham son of Uzziah. It is supposed to be an exciting and magnificent event, full of pomp and circumstance and even a little bit of suspense – with everyone wondering whether or not Jotham will be accepted as king by Yahweh and his priests – but everybody knows how meaningless all of that is.

Jotham has already been running the entire government of the nation for over a decade during his father’s illness. All of the ministers and the priests are already beholden to him. This ceremony is going to change nothing in the day-to-day reality of everything about the kingdom. And yet the people are expected to ooh and ah at the spectacle and pretend like this is the most important thing that has ever happened in Jerusalem. Isaiah just can’t help but find the whole thing so ridiculous.

High and Lifted Up

But there King Jotham is, high and lifted up on a raised platform that has been built just for this occasion. He is wearing the most sumptuous robes imaginable with a train so long that it wraps around and around the temple several times.

Four high ranking attendants hover over him as he sits, like flies circle over a cut of meat in the marketplace. They also wear gorgeous robes with long sleeves and hems, but, of course, each one has carefully dressed so as not to outshine the king. They flatter him, telling him how great he is, and they repeat every flattery three times: “Mighty, mighty, mighty is the Lord our King Jotham. The whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah rolls his eyes every time he hears such effusive praise.

The Oppressive Incense

It is not just the plodding pace of the ceremony that is making Isaiah feel so weary, however. It is also the infernal incense. The priests have filled every pot they can with the stuff, and it is sending up great clouds of smoke – so much so that it has become difficult to even see to the other side of the hall. The smoke, together with the soft and repetitive music, is sending Isaiah into a kind of dreamlike state.

Presumably the clouds of incense are supposed to make the people feel that they are closer to the presence of Yahweh in his heaven, but Isaiah suspects that the priests might have another motive in burning so much of it. Isaiah has heard the story, everyone has, and he cannot help but think that the priests are taking advantage of this ceremony to remind the new king of it. In the drowsiness induced by the incense smoke, Isaiah finds himself imagining how the events must have played out.

The Incense Incident

It all happened over a decade ago, but nobody has really stopped talking about it ever since. King Uzziah got into a dispute with the priests. He pointed out to them, and rightly so, that the kings of the House of David had long had a special relationship with Yahweh. And so he argued that it would be a good thing if, from time to time, the king could make a sacrifice of incense before Yahweh in the temple in recognition of his near divine status. The priests, and especially the chief priest Azariah, strenuously disagreed.

But the king was not interested in hearing their arguments and warnings. He just went ahead and did what he felt he had a right to do. He walked right into the sanctuary carrying a brazier from which sweet smoke was rising. The priest confronted him, warning the king that, if he dared to go forward with this mad plan of his, he would be cursed by God.

The king just shrugged it off, of course, but no one ever forgot what the priest had said. King Uzziah woke up one morning weeks later to discover white blotches on his forehead. He covered them up and attempted to go on with his day, but the next day they had spread and soon they could be hidden no longer. People began to react to him in horror; the king was a leper. He was unclean.

So it was that the king had to withdraw from all public life and the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom fell to his son. And you can be sure that the priests did not let anyone forget that the leprosy had come after the chief priest had uttered his curse. And now, clearly, all of the priests were going to make sure that the new king, Jotham, didn’t forget it. It was they who had filled the enthronement chamber with oppressive amounts of incense smoke as they exulted in their victory over royal prerogatives.

The Holy King

Achoo! The smoke induced sneeze suddenly pulled Isaiah out of his reverie and he forced his attention back to the spectacle that was being played out upon the dais. It seemed that the hovering attendants had progressed in their praise of the new king. They had now moved on to proclaiming that he was holy – that he was set apart from all other normal human beings. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord our King Jotham,” they cried out even louder than they had yet cried. “The whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah could tell from the angry looks on the faces of the priests that they were not happy to hear such rhetoric from the royal court. They had begun to argue that holiness was a description that should be reserved only for priests who had been consecrated. It had been a sore point in their relationship with Jotham’s father and it looked like it would continue to be with his son.

Isaiah is Triggered

Suddenly, Isaiah was completely distracted from the ongoing struggle for authority between the monarchy and the priesthood however. The shouting from the attendants and the ever-increasing volume of smoke had triggered something in him. He found himself staring at the thresholds of the temple and he suddenly had the strange, and yet distressingly familiar sensation that they were shaking violently, that the whole earth was shaking.

The Earthquake

This was not the first time that Isaiah had suffered this kind of episode. It had happened to him before in times of great stress and in reaction to loud noises. These kinds of situations made him return to the most traumatic moment he had ever experienced.

Isaiah’s first memory was of when the great earthquake struck his city. A young boy at the time, he had been alone in the house and had been terrified as the ground shook, pieces of ceiling fell and the furniture tumbled. He had felt sure that it was the end of the world. When his parents found him later, they were frankly amazed that he had survived, as a piece of the wall had come very close to smashing in his head.

Isaiah had escaped it all unscathed in his body, which many people told him marked him as one who was specially favoured and chosen by Yahweh. But Isaiah did not feel particularly favoured for he was deeply wounded in his spirit. He had cried out in terror at every aftershock and tremor he had felt in the weeks that followed the great quake and, in the years since, he had been plagued by these repeated sensations that it was all happening again.

The Vision

As it had sometimes done before, this sensation that he was in another earthquake took Isaiah out of himself. He entered into a strange state where he began to see everything very differently. As he looked now towards the platform where the king was enthroned, which suddenly seemed much higher than it had before, instead of the king’s attendants, he saw cherubim – strange unearthly creatures – and the flapping sleeves and hems of the attendants were transformed into wings that covered their faces and feet and allowed them to hover in the air.

And, as Isaiah turned his gaze to the man who sat on the throne amongst them, he realized that it was no longer Jotham who sat there. It was not a man, but a God. And the train of his robe was now so long that it filled the entire temple.

Isaiah is Afraid

Isaiah was suddenly filled with dread. He had seen Yahweh and no one could see Yahweh and live! He jumped and cried out, greatly disturbing the people standing near him, and even waking up one young man behind him. But, as people often do in this kind of situation, most of them just decided to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Isaiah did not have that luxury. He was terrified. His heart was filled with only one thought: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Sabaoth!”

Isaiah is cleansed

Isaiah was completely beside himself, but his strange vision was not yet finished. As he watched, one of the cherubim flew over to one of the braziers where the incense burned. It took some tongs and picked up a hot burning coal. It then flew over to where Isaiah stood, and he felt a burning sensation as the hot coal was pushed against his own lips. Then the creature spoke to him in a strange hissing voice that Isaiah heard only inside his own head: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” And it was as if a great burden was lifted from Isaiah’s shoulders.

Because of that, when Isaiah heard the voice of Yahweh booming from the platform and saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” he was not afraid as he would have been but moments before. Instead, he spoke up boldly and much to the shock of everyone else around him. “Here am I;” he cried, “send me!” And it was from that day forward that Isaiah was recognized by all who knew him in Jerusalem as one who saw the truth like few others, as one of the prophets.

The importance of Isaiah’s Vision

What happened to Isaiah that day was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest moments in the history of the people of God. It was a vision, that is to say that it was something that happened entirely within Isaiah’s own mind. But I have a conviction about visions. I would argue that just because something happens entirely inside somebody’s mind, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not real, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Isaiah gained deep insight into the nature of God that day and what he saw has greatly influenced how we conceive of God to this very day.

What Prompted it?

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that it happened much like I have described it. Isaiah says it happened in the year that the old king died and what he describes seems very much like the common enthronement ritual of a new king in the ancient Near East, there is every reason to believe that he saw this vision while he was attending the enthronement of the new king.

We also know from the Book of Chronicles that there had been an incident in the temple some ten years earlier when the new king’s father had tried to sacrifice incense and, shortly afterwards, he had been afflicted with leprosy and forced to hand the reins of government over to his son. There had also been a massive earthquake during the reign of Uzziah. It is mentioned by the Prophets Amos and Zechariah and has been confirmed by archaeologists who estimate that the quake must have been about an eight on the Richter scale.

Can you imagine just how frightening that would have been to those people who did not even understand how such things could happen? And if Isaiah, years later, was having visions that included shaking thresholds at the temple, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that it is quite likely that Isaiah was suffering from some post-traumatic symptoms after what he had experienced in that earthquake.

What We Can Learn from Isaiah’s Vision

I find Isaiah’s vision to be enormously fascinating, but you might well ask what does what he saw have to teach us? I think there is a lesson in his experience. I think there is every reason to assume that, when Isaiah saw what he saw, he was a man who was deeply disturbed by some of the things that he had lived through. He struggled with post-traumatic stress and perhaps some sort of dissociative disorder – at least that’s what the initial part of his vision sounds like to me.

Isaiah had been damaged by the events of his life, just like all of us, to various degrees, have been affected by the things that have happened to us. But we see here that Isaiah’s unique traumas and experiences put him into a frame of mind and position that allowed him to see God in a truly unique way that continues to affect how people think of God to this very day. Even more important, it gave to Isaiah a unique voice and insight that allowed him to speak to the many trials that were coming for the people of Judah.

I cannot help but think that if we were to bring all that we are, both the things in which we’ve been strengthened and the things in which we have been damaged, and open ourselves up to the vision that might come, we too could be given such an extraordinary opportunity. You may have suffered damage or loss in your life, but you too can cry out, “Here am I, send me.” You may have limits or disabilities or problems that weigh you down, but these things may uniquely gift you to bring hope to others. Will you cry, “Here am I, send me”? Or maybe you’re just bored with conventional religion and cynical about the ceremonies that the world makes too much of? Maybe there is a calling in that too. Will you say it? “Here am I, send me!”

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