Author: Scott McAndless

Umpteen Days Later

Posted by on Sunday, May 24th, 2020 in Minister

https://youtu.be/k3oVjeLFWco

Hespeler, 24 May, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Acts 1:3-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

If you were to ask people today how long it has been since everything shut down for this pandemic, what sort of answer might you expect? Someone might give you the literally correct answer, of course, and say that we have been locked down in Ontario now for 68 days. But really, most people wouldn’t have that number at their fingertips and, short of somebody stopping and taking out a calendar and counting, I would not really expect that answer

What somebody might say is, “It’s been umpteen days,” or “a bajillion days” or “a zillion days.” Everyone would understand that answer and I suspect that many people would see it as an answer that is about as accurate as 68 days. Umpteen days would probably better capture how many people feel about the extent of time than any specific number.

Words like that – a jillion, umpteen, a bazillion – are what are called fictitious numbers. They do not refer to specific quantities or amounts but are rather a way of expressing a large, perhaps overwhelming amount. In that sense, it is pretty accurate to say that we’ve been under lockdown for umpteen days.

Those are English fictitious numbers, of course, but many other languages have their own ways of expressing the same kinds of ideas. Some use actual numbers as fictitious numbers. In Latin, for example, the word sescenti literally meant 600, but it was commonly used to mean a lot.

Upteen Days Later

Ancient Near Eastern languages also had a number that they used in the same way; that number was forty. That is the reason why the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” has forty thieves in it. I hope this is not a shock to you, but nobody actually counted the thieves in that story, they didn’t need to, they just knew there were a lot of them so they said forty.

That is probably also why the number forty comes up a lot in the Bible – 40 days of rain during Noah’s flood, 40 years in the wilderness for the children of Israel, 40 days of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil – the people in that culture understood whenever they heard that number 40, that the number didn’t need to be precise. It just meant a long time.

With all of that in mind, I’ve always wondered how we are supposed to read the beginning of the book A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generatedof Acts when it says, “After his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Is Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, referring to a very specific period of time when he says forty days or is he basically saying that Jesus was with them for umpteen days?

Ah, but you might say that hanging around with Jesus following the resurrection is not at all like living through a pandemic. That is a joyful thing, not something that’s going to seem like it’s lasting forever, is it? Why would it seem like it was umpteen days long? But, you see, it is not just negative events that can seem interminable. Sometimes it feels that way when you are anticipating something and that seems to be the case here.

We’re told that, during those umpteen days, Jesus was incessantly speaking to them about “the kingdom of God.” That was indeed one of Jesus’ favourite topics of conversation and an exiting idea, but maybe – just maybe – the disciples were feeling as if they had listened to Jesus’ talk about the kingdom long enough and it was time for them to see some action.

In fact, that is exactly what they say: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” In other words, “Enough with the talk! We’ve heard all of the parables and the sayings. We remember the time when you said ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ It’s time for less talk and more showing: show us the kingdom now!”

And I’m going to be completely honest here. I am kind of with the disciples on this one. And that is especially true right now after umpteen days in lockdown. Now, I will admit that I probably don’t mean it in exactly the same way that the disciples meant it. It seems, from what they said, that they had a very particular idea of what the kingdom of God looked like and that they were assuming that it had to include the restoration of Judean sovereignty over what had once been the Kingdom of Judea. It meant, in other words, kicking the Romans out. But, if that is what they were expecting, they really weren’t listening all that closely the parables of Jesus. The kingdom that he announced did not require a particular political resolution.

But even if I don’t see the kingdom of God in exactly the same terms that they were imagining, I’ve got to say that I am feeling very impatient for the kingdom of God that I understand Jesus was talking about. Why can’t we see it now?

Jesus spoke of a kingdom where “the first would be last and the last would be first,” where, in other words, the ordinary social and economic order would be completely disrupted and overturned and where the poorest and the weakest came out on top. He spoke of a kingdom where the outcasts were included and the neglected and forgotten were given a place at the table and where God demanded justice for all. These are the kinds of themes that come out consistently in everything that Jesus said about the kingdom of God. And I have long felt as if the world has been in great need of some of that. But, I will confess, since all of this crisis began umpteen days ago, I, like the disciples, have been feeling all the more impatient for the kingdom to be established.

I don’t know about you, but for me this particular crisis has made me think a whole lot about who is first and who is last. And the people we used to think of as being first, the millionaires and the celebrities for example, it’s been amazing to see how irrelevant they have become – how little they seem to deserve to command vast amounts of wealth while the people who were near the bottom of society, the lowly people who laboured away in the service industry and in the supply chain and who produced and connected us to our food supplies, how very important they have become. I’ve got to say that it has made me think that it is well past time for the first to become last and the last to become first.

The long-term care crisis in Canada in particular has really pointed out many of the shortcomings of our ways of operating. Do you realize that, over the past several weeks, long-term care facilities across this country have seen infection rates from covid-19 that are roughly the same whether those facilities are government-run, nonprofit or for-profit. But here is the huge difference between those different types of facilities. Once an infection has made its way into a long-term care facility, residents are four times more likely to die if they live in a for-profit facility.

It is not all that hard to see why this has happened. For-profit facilities receive the same amount of funding as other facilities but they need to generate profits to pay dividends to their investors. Because of this, they need to save money someplace and generally do that by paying as little as possible to their workers and saving as much as possible on equipment. The result is that these facilities are understaffed and staff are under equipped. That calculation – placing profits over people – has proved to be especially dangerous and deadly in the age of covid-19.

This pandemic has been a tragedy in so many ways but it would be a double tragedy if we failed to learn anything from it. What I find myself yearning for us to learn is some of the basics of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached. So I stand with the disciples in their demand: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” But I guess that I, like them, would be wise to listen closely to Jesus’ answer.

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Of course, that’s not really the answer I would like to hear. I, like you, am kind of tired of waiting around for somebody else to tell me that it’s time to exit the present state of emergency. But I think we’ve all come to appreciate the wisdom of listening when it comes to such important matters.

What Jesus is saying here is that the times are not merely in the hands of chief medical officers of health or politicians but ultimately in the hands of God and that is a good place for them to be. As hard as that may be to hear, we are going to have to trust in God for the establishment of the kingdom of God and the justice that comes with it. If we were to seek to bring it about on our own it could easily devolve into violence or worse injustice as those who have attempted to set up utopian societies in the past have often discovered.

But just because it is not up to us to create the kingdom of God whole cloth, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a part to play in its establishment on earth. Jesus goes on from there to say, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We do indeed have a part to play, and that part is to be witnesses to Jesus. And that means that we must bear witness to everything about Jesus – to his birth, his life, his death and resurrection and what that has meant to us for new hope and healing and salvation.

It also means bearing witness to his teaching including all of the teaching 2about the kingdom of God. What might such witness look like in our present situation? It might mean that we are to point out what we see going on in our society and the need for change and the reasons why the first might need to be last and the last first right now. Bearing witness to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God might be extremely unpopular at times like this, but Jesus calls on us to do it anyways.

But just in case that all seems a little bit overwhelming, don’t worry that is not the entirety of Jesus’ message because, before he says, “you will be my witnesses” he gives this promise, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” My friends, do not be afraid because not only has Jesus given to you a message that can challenge and change this world by turning it upside down, Jesus has also given to you the power you will need to bear that witness even when things are hard and no one wants to hear it. That power is made available to you in God’s Holy Spirit.

Next week is Pentecost Sunday and on Pentecost we will turn our minds to the exploration of the power of God’s Spirit and how it gives us what we need to be those witnesses in the world. But know for now that that power is real and it is transformative. It is the power that was at work in creating this world and it is available to us. It is the power that brought the church into existence and it is available to us. It is the power of God to transform the world and it is available to us.

I can’t promise to you that the kingdom of God is about to be established because such timing is in God’s hands. But you have a part to play and you can be bold to speak, to act and to challenge – maybe especially at such times as these.

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Paul turns the tables on the Areopagus

Posted by on Sunday, May 17th, 2020 in News

Sermon video:

https://youtu.be/_IpwDYSIIRQ

Hespeler, 17 May, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

When the Apostle Paul first arrived in the city of Athens, according to the book of Acts, he was really just kind of killing time. He was waiting for some of his friends to catch up with him and, until they got there, he did what you do in a place like Athens. He started behaving like a tourist. And there was a lot to visit. The city had once been the centre of a great empire. Upon its Acropolis were some of the most celebrated buildings and temples in the entire world.  And that was just the beginning; it was a city of temples. There were also theatres that were not only places where some of the greatest plays of all times had first been staged but that were the stages upon which the thespian art itself was invented.

And then there was agora, the legendary marketplace in the city to the north of the Acropolis. There, the very idea of democracy, the rule of the people by the people, had been born. And there, among the stalls, great thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had walked and talked and argued.

But here was the thing, when Paul arrived in the city, all of that was ancient history. It had been about four hundred years since Athens had been the centre of anything. But here is a tip for you, you’d better not tell the Athenians that. As far as the Athenians were concerned, they were still the greatest people on the face of the earth and they judged everyone else accordingly.

Paul  speaks before the Areopagus in Athens

And so, when the Apostle Paul had finished visiting all of the tourist sites in Athens and taken all his snapshots and sent his postcards (or whatever tourists did back then), he started talking to people in the legendary Athenian agora, talking about their gods and ideas in ways that seemed to challenge the notion that they knew everything. The Athenians they were not very impressed. They called him, according to the Book of Acts, a babbler. At least that is how it is translated in the NRSV Bible. What they literally called him was a scavenger, a seed-picker and a gossiper. They hauled him off to court to be judged.

Now, the court they took him to was called the Areopagus and the Areopagus has once been a real happening place. Oh yes, five hundred years ago, the men of the Areopagus had ruled Athens as elder statesmen. But the Areopagus was no longer the institution it had once been. It was still a court – sort of – a court where they discussed violations of religious protocol. Yeah, I know, that doesn’t sound too powerful, and it wasn’t. But I am sure that some of those areopagites thought that their inquest there was actually really important. They were there to judge this babbler and seed picker and they looked down their noses at him and waited for him to embarrass himself. It is an extraordinary moment as the dying embers of what had once been the greatest civilization on the face of the earth face down the rising star of this crude new thing called Christianity.

It’s all the more extraordinary because I realize that it might just be the moment we are living in right now. Because I feel like I and many others have been walking around the marketplace of Athens lately (except, of course, that we’re not actually allowed to walk around the marketplace these days and have to engage with it from within the safety of our own homes), but many things that we’ve seen of the world lately have led us to call into question the assumptions that our world makes.

To put it bluntly, this pandemic crisis has shown up so many of the cracks and weak points of our society. We have been shown so clearly the flaws and the problems in our long-term care system. We have seen how short-sighted it was to allow the concentration of so much wealth into the hands of a very tiny portion of our population. We have seen how foolish it was to look down on and distain the low-wage workers who provided for us the very basic needs of life. These are just a few examples, of course, but these together with other things have led us to think that maybe our society and the way it functioned was not really as successful and secure as we once believed that it was. Maybe it was not strong at all. Maybe it was all just an illusion.

Well, that is what Paul saw in Athens, he saw all of the cracks and shortcomings of Athenian society. And when he was put on the spot and was expected to react to the apparent impressiveness of the Areopagus by folding up and bowing before Athens’ greatness, he didn’t do that. He stood up to them and called them out for what they were. “Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” And yes, they took that as flattery. They puffed up their chests at the thought of all of their fine religious traditions.

But Paul had actually noticed a certain hollowness to their religious beliefs. He had seen it, in particular, when he found an altar dedicated to an unknown god. That seemed to indicate that, though they honoured the traditions of their ancestors, there was a sense in which their religion was just a question of covering all the bases and pleasing all the powers. Their religion was just going through the motions and had no real depth to it.

So Paul began to introduce to them the God that he knew – that he had come to know through Jesus. “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth.” But as he spoke to them about this God, he said something – something that I fear we often miss in this passage but that was a very important challenge to those people in Athens: “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.”

What Paul is talking about here is an aspect of the rule of God in this world that we don’t often think about. He is describing this notion that God rules over the peoples and the nations of this world in a very particular way. This is an idea that is highlighted many times in the Bible, maybe especially in the Book of Daniel, but that we don’t tend to talk about very much because it’s not really a very comfortable idea.

You see, the ancient people of Israel watched from their unique observation post right in the middle of the ancient Near East as the empires and cultures that surrounded them rose and fell. They saw the rise and fall of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. They saw Alexander the Great and the Greeks rise and fall and then the rise of Roman civilization.

They noticed something. Every empire and every civilization thought that they were the final word and that they would last forever. But every single one of them was wrong. Empires, no matter how powerful they were, all came to an end sooner or later; civilizations, no matter how civilized, never lasted. And the prophets of Israel developed this controversial idea that all of this was actually part of God’s plan. That God was the one who set limitations and boundaries on the great empires and civilizations.

So what was Paul saying as he stood before the Areopagus? He was announcing that God had decided that their civilization – the great Greco-Roman civilization – had run its course. It had had a good run; it had accomplished great things. God had blessed it, which was why it had been able to accomplish what it did, but its time was almost up!

That was a pretty gutsy thing for Paul to say, but amazingly the Athenians let him get away with it. They were even interested in having him come back so they could continue their conversation with him at another time. They did it, I suspect, because they knew deep down that there was truth in what Paul was saying.

And here is where I see this incident in Paul’s life really speaking to us where we are right now. I realize that, in the midst of this pandemic crisis, a lot of people are focusing on their desire to resume life as it was before all of this started. I understand that. In the midst of all this uncertainty it is natural for people to grasp onto the last thing that felt normal: the world as it was a few months ago. And so, if anyone suggests that maybe the way things were a few months ago wasn’t so great and maybe we shouldn’t just want to go back to that, they are going to have people pushing back at them.

But a prophetic word like what Paul said in the Areopagus may be in order. God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” Who are we to think that the civilization that we had built up until February of 2020 was going to last forever? Who are we to think that it can just resume as it was after a brief pause to deal with a pandemic crisis? Everyone assumes that their way of life is just going to continue on unchanged forever but everyone who has ever assumed that has been wrong. The future of any civilization is in God’s hand and always has been and we are foolish to think otherwise.

That is a very disturbing thought, of course, because it means that our future might have a lot of uncertainty in it. And I am not, by the way, trying to imply that the whole of Western civilization is about to fall. I think it’s got a little bit more resilience in it than that. But I do suspect that we might, in short order, see some enormous changes in the order of our world.

It could be, for example, that we are going to see the end of the American Empire. (I know we are not supposed to call it an empire, but that is the closest biblical term to the kind of power the US has exercised in the world. And the Bible is also very clear that empires do not last forever.) I also suspect that we’re going to see some serious disruptions in the economic order of our world as people can’t help but notice how unessential the billionaires are to us in times of crisis while the essentialness of the people who toil at the bottom of the economy has only been highlighted. Of course, I don’t claim to be a prophet and my particular predictions may be completely off base, but I think I am right about one thing. Nothing is going to just go back to the way it was before. We are in for some very serious change.

This kind of change is unsettling and scary, and it will definitely impact people’s lives. But I think that what Paul would say to us is what he was trying to say to the people in Athens. Our comfort and our reassurance should not be taken from a promise that everything’s just going to be the same or go back to the way that it was before. Nobody, not even God is going to promise you that. That is why our comfort needs to be taken in the Lord our God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

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To the Exiles of the Dispersion

Posted by on Sunday, May 10th, 2020 in Minister

Sermon Video:

https://youtu.be/qkr6QzZCEq8

Hespeler, 10 May, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14

The First Letter of Peter begins like this: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” That makes it pretty clear that this letter was written to a group of churches in various parts of what we call Asia Minor today. In fact, all of those territories are today a part of the country called Turkey. So it seems pretty clear that this letter was written for some very particular Christians living in some very particular areas. But apart from that, we really don’t know anything about them. What were they dealing with? What were their struggles, their dreams, their aspirations? We really don’t know.

Biblical scholars will argue over exactly when this letter was written and even over who wrote it. Many scholars have expressed great doubts about whether it could have been written by Peter. It is just written in Greek that is far too good and using rhetoric that seems far too educated to imagine that it could have been written by a fisherman from Galilee.

But whether it was written by Peter himself or it was written, perhaps, by one of Peter’s disciples who sought to honour him, it is clearly a letter written to Christians who are struggling to figure out what it means to follow Christ in their time and place. The big clue that we do have to the situation of the people who are addressed is found in that cryptic phrase, “To the exiles of the Dispersion.” Whoever these people are, they are people who see themselves as part of a dispersion – of a people who have been scattered far and wide.

The word that is used here is actually the same word as diaspora, a word that is often associated with Jewish history. The long history of Jews living outside of the land of Israel – a history that began two and a half millennia ago with the Babylonian exile – is generally referred to as the Jewish Diaspora and many Jews around the world still see themselves as part of that diaspora to this very day.

So, whoever these Christians were who had settled in these various parts of Asia Minor, they really didn’t feel as if they belonged there. They came from someplace else – someplace where they had put down roots and where they knew how to be the church. But then they had been spread far and wide from the places where they did feel as if they belonged. Perhaps there had been some sort of persecution that they had fled. Perhaps, if they were Jews (and of course most early Christians were Jews), they were refugees from the war that had been fought between the Jews and the Romans in Judea between 66 and 70 ad. But however they came to be there, they recognized – and everyone else around them recognized – that they didn’t quite belong and they were trying to figure out how to be the church in this new place to which they had been spread. This letter was clearly written to help them to figure that out.

A dispersion or a diaspora… in many ways wouldn’t that be a good term for the situation where we find ourselves as Christians today? We had it all pretty well figured out, you see. We had settled down and put down our Christian roots in a certain place, in a building. And we knew how to be the church in that place. We had practices and rituals and traditions that we had set in place that were all very comforting and that built us up in many ways.

And then something happened, didn’t it? Very suddenly, everything changed and we found ourselves dispersed to the winds so that on a Sunday morning, when we would normally be all gathered together and would greet each other with friendship and joy clasping hands and even sharing embraces, we are now in many different places. It makes me wonder, when this letter is addressed “to the exiles of the dispersion,” is there not a sense in which it is addressed directly to us? We, like those Christians in Asia Minor, are given the unenviable task of figuring out how to be the Church of Jesus Christ in an unfamiliar place. So I cannot help but think that perhaps some of the advice given by the Apostle to them might be very helpful to us in the situation we are dealing with today.

We didn’t read from the opening chapter of the letter this morning though. Our reading is from the second chapter, so what particular advice for diaspora Christians like us might there be in this passage we read this morning? Here is Peter’s first piece of advice for us (and let’s call the writer “Peter” for the sake of convenience despite any scholarly doubts). Like newborn infants,” he writes, “long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”

Now, if those words are being addressed to people like us, I’ve got to ask, aren’t they a little bit insulting? I mean, Peter seems to be implying that we are all newborn infants – babies who can’t even handle solid food. How can he say that to us or even to those first century Christians in Asia Minor? We are not new to the Christian faith. Ah, but remember that he is addressing Christians in a diaspora. We might well have long experience at being Christians in a certain place and context, but we have been dispersed into this strange new situation and the first thing we might need to recognize is that we don’t know how to be Christians in this new situation. I wonder, is it possible that that is what the Apostle is trying to teach them and us. He’s saying that it’s time to go back to the very basics. Maybe we can set aside those contentious theological debates and differences of opinion that we had with other Christians and just concentrate on being a people who are willing to trust in Christ to feed us.

And, since it is Mother’s Day, I cannot help but take note of the particular metaphor that the Apostle chooses to use here. When he says, “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good,” He is quoting from Psalm 34 – a passage that speaks of God’s gentle care for his people. We often quote that verse, for example, at the communion table. But isn’t it interesting that First Peter uses that verse just after telling us that we are all like newborn infants who are craving their mother’s milk? And if we are infants, what are we tasting? The sweetness of a mother’s milk! This is yet another time when the Bible speaks of God’s care for us as being like a mother’s care for her children.

So it would seem that the first piece of advice for us in the Christian diaspora is that it’s time for us to go back to basics and learn all over again what it means to place our trust in God like little babies in their mothers’ arms. But, of course this letter has more to say to us. One of the key problems that the Christians dispersed throughout Asia Minor had was that they didn’t have buildings. All of the other faiths and religions had amazing buildings in first century Asia Minor. The temples of the pagan gods in regions like Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia were legendary for their beauty and magnificence. But the Christians had none. If they were dispersed Jewish Christians, they were also perhaps strongly feeling the devastation of the destruction of the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, which had been reduced to rubble by the Romans in 70 ad. So they probably struggled with wondering how they were supposed to serve their God without a building. They, like most early Christians, only met in private homes or even in the open air.

We are definitely in the same boat as them when it comes to that. We have all been surprised and troubled by the need to be Christians together without a building in these days. So I’m very interested in what sort of advice the apostle has for them. Is he going to tell them to focus on getting into a building or at least building up some sort of institutional structure as soon as possible? Is he going to put into them the dream of someday being able to build a cathedral to rival the beautiful pagan temples of Asia Minor? Because honestly, that has been the program of the church ever since this letter was written as Christians have tried to build some kind of structure to rival the organizations and buildings of the non-Christian world. You can understand why Christians have done that. We have been taught that you need that kind of thing to be successful.

But First Peter has a big surprise for you if that is what you are expecting. Instead we are offered this surprising invitation: like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Instead of calling on these dispersed Christians to aspire to have religious buildings of their own, he says that they themselves are the living stones from which a new and very different kind of temple can be built. I think that that was a very powerful message to Christians living in that particular situation, and it is also a powerful message to us living in ours.

For one thing, it meant that they didn’t need to compete with the glorious achievements of the Pagan world in order to find honour and glory for their church. Not because they couldn’t, of course. I think we all realize that the great Christian cathedrals of the western world did indeed come to eclipse the architecture of ancient temples in time, but they didn’t need to compete in that arena. The church was not meant to impress with buildings and structures of authority but rather by being living stones who lived lives so authentic, with such kindness and grace, and doing it in communion with others in such a way as to create a whole new structure made out of those living stones. People would see something like that and could not help but give all glory to God.

I think that we have missed the importance of this message in the church over the past two thousand or so years. As I look back at the history of the church, what I see is a Christian Church that has simply tried to mimic the models of success that it sees in the world around it. Not only have we done that with our buildings, but with just about every aspect of our lives together. We’ve done it in our structure and organization. Back in the middle ages, for example, when the model for success was found in the hierarchy of society, the church built a structure that was all about hierarchy with Bishops and Archbishops and Cardinals.

Today, of course, we have a tendency to define success in the church differently and we tend to find that the churches that mimic the success of the business or marketing world are what it is all about. In many ways we are still like those Christians who were dispersed in Asia Minor. We’re looking around at the magnificent Pagan buildings and aspiring to build something like them. But the Apostle says that all of that is misguided. We have a different identity and we have a different definition of success.

We are living stones and, yes, he suggests that those living stones might even look like rejects as far as the world is concerned and that we, like Jesus, are the stones that the builders rejected and just left dispersed around the work site. That is because we are not made to impress in the way the world seeks to impress. But, when we work together and we manage to support and uplift one another, we can build something truly amazing.

It is not easy to be a people dispersed, ripped away from the things that are familiar and comforting. But I guess that what First Peter is saying is that even if that is where we are right now, our God has not abandoned us and can be with us in this strange place. If we are missing that sense of presence, that is all right because these are indeed unfamiliar times. I think that if we’re going to follow the apostle’s leadership on this one, what we need to do is to go back to the basics, the mother’s milk that nourished us in our first faith as we learn to love Jesus all over again. And then we need to be willing to be those living stones and to be built into a new structure in this strange place, a new way of working together and supporting one another that maybe doesn’t quite fit the models that we’ve been used to and that may not impress in the ways that the world measures success but that God will use to do great things.

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Nobody here but us sheep!

Posted by on Sunday, May 3rd, 2020 in Minister

Sermon Video

https://youtu.be/vQgEZ4tYBns

Hespeler, 3 May 2020 © Scott McAndless
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-15

The sheep huddle up close together with each other. There is a great deal of comfort in being here warm, safe and secure in the sheepfold. They are protected behind the fences and the gate. They know that the world outside of the fold can be very dangerous. Sheep are naturally skittish and timid creatures – and not without good reason, of course! When they are out in the hills and valleys, it can seem as if everything is out to get them: wolves, coyotes and lions. They can never relax. But here, in the fold it is so different, and they feel as if they can let their guard down.

So, the fold is good, but lately they have been feeling as if it has been a little bit too much of a good thing. There has been word out in the hills and dales lately of a new ravenous beast – something called a covid monster – that has been terrorizing sheep everywhere. So, the flock has been under lockdown for what seems like forever. And, as safe as it is, the fold gets a little bit tired sooner or later. Yes, the straw that has been gathered and brought in for them fills their stomachs and keeps them alive, but it is nothing like the tender grasses of the hillsides with which they long to fill their bellies. Water in the trough keeps them going but tastes nothing like the waters of a cold mountain stream.

Me snuggled up to the sheep

And so lately there has been a lot of bleating in the flock, various sheep complaining about the shepherd and his policies. “This is ba-a-a-a-d,” they say. “The job of a shepherd is not just to keep us sa-a-a-a-fe, it’s not just to give us life. He’s supposed to give us life more abundantly. Life more abundantly includes lying down in green pastures and walking beside still waters, it means travelling down right paths with his rod and his staff to comfort us. We just can’t live that kind of abundant life if we can’t even get out of the fold. This is ba-a-a-a-a-a-h!

So, there is a lot of discontent – and not without some good reason! For it is true that sheep are not made only to shelter in the fold. Safety is good, but when you are only taking care of safety, you can never truly fulfill your purpose. But how to balance that need for green pastures with the requirement of safety in dangerous times? That is a question that the poor sheep cannot answer, and they are becoming frustrated and restless. And so perhaps it is not surprising that when the dissenting voices begin to be heard, some listen.

Where the voices are coming from, I do not know, but I have some suspicions. Maybe they are Russian wolves who are once again seeking to stir up trouble, or perhaps they are secretly funded by the corporations who know that their profits will continue to plummet so long as the sheep are not out in the fields. But wherever they are coming from, those voices are being heard within the flock.

And sheep, well, here is the thing about sheep. They are social animals. They like to think that they are rational and that they do things because they decide that they are logical and reasonable. But they mostly act in certain ways because they want to belong to the group.

Did you know there was a story from about fifteen years ago about a flock of sheep in Turkey who were left grazing near a cliff. At some point, one of those sheep apparently decided to jump off the cliff. No one knows why, maybe it was suicidal or maybe it was just a misstep, but it was only one sheep and not the end of the world. But guess what happened next. One by one, the rest of the sheep, 1,500 of them, calmly followed the leader over that cliff. Over a thousand sheep died that day and a third of them only survived because the pile of sheep at the bottom of the cliff had gotten so big that their fall wasn’t so bad.

But that is sheep for you. Their need to belong is so great that it can easily trump logic and reason. So, some in their frustration begin to listen to those strange voices. And others, out of that deep desire to belong, listen to them. There have always been thieves who have come to steal and kill and destroy. They have always been interested in using and manipulating the sheep to their own ends and to their own profits. They have gotten particularly good in recent years at manipulating the sheep to vote for certain parties and policies that hurt the sheep more than helped them.

They manipulate through social media with techniques like astroturfing – creating fake groups that make certain opinions seem more popular. Sheep are always looking for greener pastures, so they easily fall for astroturfing. Or the thieves might use clickbait – drawing people into conversations by posting stories and memes that are so intriguing people can’t help but click on them but then they get sucked into conversations where, again, they start to feel like they have to go along with some pretty crazy notions in order to fit in.

It might be true that sheep will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” But we seem to be living in strange times where the really good thieves have been very creative about using the flocking instinct to get the sheep to listen to them anyways.

Now, I’ll be honest with you all here. I don’t speak to you today from outside of the fold. I am just another sheep who is under lockdown with the rest of you. I feel the same frustration that you do at not being able to go out and frolic in green pastures and lie down beside still waters. It is making me very discontent as well.

I will also confess that I have the same flocking instinct as all of the rest of you sheep in here. I do love to think that all of my actions and decisions are driven by my intellect, knowledge and reason. But the honest truth is that I am very much influenced by what my friends think and the particular sources of information that just feel right to me. Because of this, it is quite possible that I will not act in rational or even sensible ways. That’s where we all are right now.

But here is also the reality of our present situation: the covid monster is still ravaging the hills and dales out there. We will indeed be able to leave the safety and security of the sheepfold at some point. But it matters a great deal whose voice we listen to when it comes to being called to go out of the gate of that sheepfold. So how, in these complex times, and given our flocking instinct, will we know which voice to listen to?

There is one who is called the Good Shepherd who has the sort of voice we need to listen for. And how can we tell? What makes the good shepherd’s voice different from the voices of thieves and robbers? Good Shepherds know the sheep – know them so well that he can call each one by name. That is the first thing we sheep must look for. And I fear that many of the voices that are now calling us sheep to go out of the fold, do not know us.

Even more damning, they are not really interested in us sheep. Oh, they might be interested in our wool or our milk or our meat, they might be interested and how they will be able to profit from what we do out there in the dangerous hills and dales, but they are not interested in us – in our hopes and dreams and aspirations. They may be interested in the abundance of their own goods and possessions, but they are not interested in making sure that we have life and have it abundantly.

That is key thing about the Good Shepherd. The thief may come only to steal and kill and destroy. The Good Shepherd comes that they may have life and have it abundantly. I would suggest to you that any who are arguing that we need to trade life for abundance in terms of a stronger economy have fundamentally misjudged the needs of such a moment.

For this is how you will ultimately know the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down the shepherd’s own life for the sheep. You see, if there are any calculations to be made in terms of paying with lives for the opportunity to exit the safety of this fold, the Good Shepherd sees those calculations in a very different light. The Good Shepherd is far more willing to put his or her own life on the line for the sake of the safety of us sheep. Now, how might that make us all hear a bit differently the voices that are calling us to exit the safety of this fold?

Yes, we will leave. And we will not leave without there being a cost in terms of life. That is just the reality when you are dealing with a monster as dreadful as the covid beast. The temptation might be to sacrifice the weak and the vulnerable in order to make that transition. That is the calculation that a hired hand might make, one who has no real connection with us sheep. That is the calculation that might be made by leaders who have come to see themselves as serving whoever can pay them the most. But the Good Shepherd is different. The Good Shepherd is there to serve all of the sheep and, if there is a life calculation to be made, the Good Shepherd’s own life will be laid down first.

So listen, will you? Listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd because, the fact of the matter is, the Good Shepherd is out there and is calling.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes seven “I am” statements. “I am the light of the world,” “I am the bread of life,” “I am the vine,” and “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” to name some of them. Each “I am” statement is a powerful metaphor that Christians have reflected upon and meditated on down through the centuries. But I would suggest to you that, maybe, one of the most powerful “I am” statements of all is, “I am the Good Shepherd.” but I wonder sometimes if we haven’t missed some of the key meanings in that metaphor.

At least in my experience, most Christians seem to think of this saying of Jesus in terms of their own personal relationship. It’s all about me and Jesus and what Jesus does for me and how I follow Jesus. In this regard, the idea of the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sake of his sheep certainly seems very meaningful and closely tied to the story of the death of Jesus for our sakes. That is all well and good, of course, and definitely a good part of the intended meaning of this saying.

Nevertheless, I would like us to remember that the obvious meaning of this metaphor makes us into sheep. And sheep are among the animals whose herding instinct is the strongest. Sheep, to put it bluntly, don’t act simply as individuals. And I think any interpretation of this saying of Jesus that does not take that into account is deeply impoverished.

And it just really strikes me right now, when we are in the position where we find ourselves, that when we put ourselves in the shelter of the fold waiting for the Good Shepherd to come and open the gate so we might go out into the hills and valleys and experience life more abundantly, that maybe this saying of Jesus was also intended to teach us something about the kind of leaders that we look for and settle for in times of great peril.

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The Prayer of the Covid-19 Survivor

Posted by on Sunday, April 26th, 2020 in Minister

Here is a video of the sermon:

https://youtu.be/OEZTnMTYmUg

Hespeler, 26 April, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35

There have been many stories over the last several weeks of people who were struggling to stay alive. They were in hospital, dealing with high fevers and shortness of breath. Some were taken into intensive care and even put on respirators. Others, for various reasons, were not taken to the hospitals but struggled all the same in their home or residence. That struggle was also often made much worse by a strong sense of isolation as people could not have their loved ones with them and those who did care for them could only do so behind several layers of protection.

This struggle with death is very real and all too many have not survived it. And yet we can also celebrate the fact that the great majority who have contracted this disease have not succumbed to it and that those who have suffered even from its worst symptoms have, in the majority, survived and come out the other end. We do remember and mourn those that have been lost and that might yet be lost. But today, I want us to also spare a thought for the survivors of this pandemic, and most of us will probably be able to put ourselves in the category of survivor. What does it mean to survive such a thing is this?

The psalm that we read this morning, Psalm 116, may be uniquely able to help us answer that question. There are different kinds of psalms in the Bible, written to be used in different situations by different kinds of worshippers. Psalm 116, does seem a little bit unique. It seems to have been written for people who are dealing with a very specific situation, but a situation that arises often enough. It is pretty clearly the prayer of someone who has been seriously ill and in fear of death and yet has survived. Presumably, this was the prayer that worshipers would pray once they had recovered, probably as they came to the temple and gave an offering of thanksgiving. That much seems clear when the worshiper prays, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’”

Being thankful is indeed something that we all need to think about how we can practice as we look at our lives as survivors going forward. I think it will be helpful to all of us to be able to practice gratitude in small and large ways in months to come because those months will not be easy. But this psalm is not just about being thankful. Its main focus, instead, is on the life of the survivor going forward and what is going to be different.

Being a survivor, brushing close to death and yet surviving, has always had great power to transform people’s lives. This is something that the ancients understood, and it is absolutely reflected in this ancient psalm. One thing that people have a tendency to do when they are in brushes with death is to make vows and promises which is something we see in this psalm as well.

This may not be an entirely helpful impulse. One thing that people do, you see, when they are in fear of death is that they have a tendency to want to make bargains. People are afraid, of course. Fear in the face of death, even for people of faith, is a natural human response. And one human way of dealing with that fear is to try to make bargains with God or with the universe or with other key figures in your life – basically with whoever you feel might have the power to save you. This kind of bargaining is actually a way of trying to pretend that you have control over something that is ultimately uncontrollable. It is not really a healthy response, but we all have a tendency to do it anyways because we are scared.

So people will make promises to God – you know, donations, vows of chastity, promises to be a missionary, that kind of thing. It becomes an exchange; if God gives you your life, you will give this valuable thing in exchange. It is not really a good response because, first of all, God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t make bargains for human life. As the psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Nothing you could offer to God has more value to God than your own life.

God doesn’t make transactions with us over our life and death, but God recognizes that facing times like that – times when you don’t know if you’re going to make it – gives you a certain perspective on your life and priorities. I think we’ve all seen something of that in recent weeks. Do you remember all of those things that we got upset over or argued about with each other or with the people we loved just a few weeks ago, they were things that seemed so very important. But this pandemic has given us all a certain perspective – those things just don’t seem to matter all that much anymore. Lots of things don’t seem to matter as much as they once did – including perfect haircuts, deodorant and pants!

So living through this kind of crisis can and should make you think very differently about many things. And when you get a good look at your priorities in that situation, it is good to respond to that by seeking some change. I like to think that that is the kind of vow that the writer is talking about keeping with God in this psalm. So I think it would be good for us to think about the kinds of vows we really ought to make coming out of this thing.

Do you think that you could promise, for example, to hold on to some of that perspective once this disaster is all over? Could you vow not to fight with other people and not to make enemies of other people over matters that really are not of ultimate importance. Could you remember what is so clear right now, that people are more important than money, than whether or not your sports team wins and than maintaining certain practices of the status quo. I honestly feel as if many things could change if we, as individuals, could make such vows.

But there is something else that we have learned through this. If we’re going to make it through this thing – and we will make it through this thing –  we will not just do that as individuals. We have to do that as a society together. I realize that that’s probably been about the hardest thing to pull off in this crisis, but we’ve also realized just how essential it is. So the question of who survives and what we learn by surviving is also a question we need to ask of society as a whole.

Our society has already done a certain amount of bargaining in this crisis. We have made the bargain that if we took some costly steps, like instituting social distancing and shuttering non-essential businesses, we would make it through and survive together. That bargain, prayerfully, will succeed. But the bigger question will be what will we learn as a society by surviving this thing? And what sort of vows moving forward do we need to make to enshrine those lessons into our recovered society.

The first lesson, clearly, is simply that, that we have to look beyond our welfare as individuals. You need to remember, moving forward, that your health is not only dependent on you. I may be healthy at the moment, but if my neighbour is not healthy or the homeless person down the street or the prisoner or the person on disability support or welfare is not healthy, then my health will be compromised.

This should absolutely prompt us all to give up on the myth that whatever success you are able to amass for yourself in this life is totally up to you. This should make us vow to look beyond the glory of individual success and discover how we can create a successful society together. Can we say, together with the psalmist, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.”

We have also learned through this pandemic that about $2,000 a month is apparently what an ordinary person needs to live within our society. But we have also learned that some of the people in our society, people that we have deemed essential for our survival, are routinely not paid that much. I’m talking about people like grocery store employees, warehouse workers, food delivery people, farm workers and a whole host of others who ensure that we can get the things that we need. Many of these people are paid minimum wage or less and that works out to be less than $2,000 a month.

Now, as far as I am concerned, if we do not come out of this crisis without learning something about that disconnection between somebody being deemed essential and their work being adequately compensated, we will have absolutely failed as a society. Can we say, together with the psalmist, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.”

What other lessons may God have for us in this pandemic? What about lessons for the church? There will be many. The church has done what many of us thought to be impossible during this time. We have learned to be the church without a building. The building is closed and locked. We cannot gather in it, nor can we use it as the base of operations. Almost everything we did before this all started was centered around that building – about attracting as many people into it as possible, using the building’s resources to feed and clothe and otherwise minister to people in the community, to fellowship together and support one another and above all to meet with God in a sacred space.

We have had none of that, and yet we have managed to continue to be the church during this time. Yes, it has not been as we would like it. And it may not always meet our needs or the needs of others in the same ways, but we have proven it is not impossible. So I think that we need to make a vow that, when the day comes and we are able to gather again in our building, we don’t just do what will feel most comfortable – we don’t just go back to being the church as we were. We need to think a whole lot more about how we are the church without the building, it will make us stronger in the building too. “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.”

No one wants to go through a serious illness or crisis, but serious illnesses and crises are part of life in this world. We could get into some serious philosophical or theological discussions about why these things happen or why God allows them to happen, but the bottom line is we don’t actually have answers to those questions. What we do have is a God who cares about us and about what we struggle through and who is committed to walking through the worst with us. One of the big benefits of that is that there are things that we can take out of the story of our survival and that will lead us into better things going forward. So, by the grace of God, let us pay our vows to the Lord.

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John 20:19-31 (Revised Covid Version)

Posted by on Sunday, April 19th, 2020 in Minister

https://youtu.be/9_GmDUtukTM

Hespeler, 19 April, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Every time I read a book or watch a movie these days, I immediately start to correct things in my mind. There are some things in the ways that people behave that just don’t seem right anymore. “Well, obviously James Bond shouldn’t be standing that close to Blofeld,” I’ll say, or, “Hey, Lady and Tramp, that strand of spaghetti is not two meters long!” I just find it a little bit hard to reconcile stories that were told or filmed in that long-ago time before we began to practice social distancing.

That is especially true when it comes to reading Scripture these days. I can hardly open the Bible without wanting to correct it and retell the story for the age of Covid-19. So, I have been thinking, maybe I actually ought to write a Covid-19 version of the Bible – to rework Biblical stories so that they can connect more readily with this new normal that we are living with.

I don’t mean that seriously. I’m not going to rewrite the entire Bible. But there are some stories that I’ve come across recently that I just can’t help rewriting like, for example, our gospel reading this morning – the traditional church reading every year for this second Sunday of Easter – the famous story of “Doubting Thomas.” I just have some very different reactions to the story when I read it in the age of Covid-19. So here is the Covid-19 version of John 20:19-31.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the disciples were inside and the doors of the house were locked for fear of the virus. Now, the fact that they were inside and not venturing out except for things that were absolutely essential, was obviously a good thing. Any foray out, especially something that put them in contact with other people in a confined space, only created a risk for community transition. So, their staying in was all very wise and good, but that doesn’t mean that all was going well.

In fact, Peter and James – who honestly both had a bit of a tendency to be hotheads – had been getting on each other’s nerves a whole lot. James kept asking Peter, “Say, don’t I know you from somewhere? Weren’t you with that Galilean?” and then, whenever Peter started answering him back, he would just go, “Cockadoodledoo!” Peter was getting so mad that he was turning red in the face. And they weren’t the only ones. Nathaniel was getting on everyone’s nerves with the way that he jumped at every sound from outdoors and Matthew was spending all of his time reading social media posts and coming up with the most ridiculous viral news stories about conspiracy theories and miracle cures. Philip was just stockpiling essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer in one corner of the room and the pile was getting so big that people were tripping over toilet rolls.

Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas with masks.

Everyone was just on edge. And it wasn’t just because they were trapped together in such close quarters, though that didn’t help. They really actually liked one another; they had been through a lot together before this. There had been times on those travels around Galilee when they had really struggled. When food had been scarce and there had been no place to stay, it really made them pull together and that had helped them to make it through.

What was different about this situation, what made it different from everything they’d faced together before, was the fear. Their whole world had changed so quickly and so suddenly when Jesus was taken from them. They were left lost, bewildered and, above all, afraid. And fear, especially when you are living in it over an extended period of time, has a way of tearing you down bit by bit until you feel as if nothing at all is holding you together and you might just come apart at any moment. It wasn’t the isolation, it wasn’t the necessity of sheltering in place that was wearing them down. It was the relentless fear that permeated everything that made them fight and want to hoard things and annoy one another.

And so, when Jesus came and stood among them and did so despite the doors that were locked and barred, he knew what it was that was troubling them. He knew of the fear that was eating away at them. And that was why he said the words that they most needed to hear. “Peace be with you,” he said.

Now think for a moment, if you would, about why that would be the first thing that Jesus would want to say. There are other lines, lines that Jesus was kind of famous for, that he could have used at that point. He could have said, “Be not afraid.” Lord knows there are many times when that was Jesus’ go-to rebuke. Or he could have said to them, as he often did, “O ye of little faith.” That would have been accurate under the circumstances. But he went with, “Peace be with you.”

The peace that he was offering them was not just about pacifying Peter and James who were practically at each other’s throats, though of course that was part of it. But peace, the way that Jesus spoke about it and the way that the Bible speaks about it, is not merely about putting aside disputes. I know that we, rather simplistically, think of peace as what happens when there is no war, but Jesus did not.

The word that Jesus would have used, of course, was the word shalom. And in Hebrew, the word shalom can be used to mean many things including harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Shalom, in other words, does not refer merely to a lack of conflict but actually to the kinds of conditions that make conflict unnecessary and unlikely. People who feel whole, complete and see their welfare taken care of will not be inclined to fight with others.

So what did it mean when Jesus entered that locked room wishing peace for the disciples? It meant that he was meeting them where they were, that he could understand what it was that they were struggling with. And since what they were struggling with most of all was fear, he knew very well that that fear was what was preventing them from finding peace.

I realize how hard it is for us as Christians on this Sunday after Easter to not be able to gather together in a building that has been specially consecrated for that purpose to celebrate the resurrected Christ. But remember the disciples of Christ did not have that on the first Easter Sunday nor, as we shall discover as we continue to read, on the Sunday after Easter. They, like you, were locked away in their rooms for fear of what lurked outside. But Jesus came to them where they were, and Jesus brought them peace – Jesus brought them shalom.

Jesus comes to you today where you are with that same gift. I know that the situation where you find yourself has not changed and will not change for a while at least. But Jesus has come to you to address whatever is going on in your life that is preventing you from experiencing God’s peace despite the circumstances where you find yourselves. Jesus comes to you so that you may not be controlled by your fears, for, though these are indeed frightening times, you do have a loving father in heaven in whom you can trust. In that trust may you find peace in your heart even in these times.

So Jesus brought peace to them in their locked room. He brings it to us today as well. He also brought to them the gift of God’s Spirit who would form them into the church and who forms us into the church despite the fact that we are separate and apart. He also brought them the gift of forgiveness. No longer would they have to hold onto past hurts, past failures and shortcomings.

But, more than anything, he brought them his presence. Jesus, their Lord, was truly risen and was with them. And that is why when we gather to this very day – even when we cannot gather in body but must gather over the internet – Jesus is right there with us. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus promised us, “I am there among them.” And gathering at a distance is still gathering in Jesus’ name.

So Jesus gave the disciples what they most needed on that day, but there was a problem. One of their number was not there. One of them did not receive those gifts of peace, spirit, forgiveness and presence. Where was Thomas? Shouldn’t he have been there with the others hiding away behind the locked doors? Well, obviously, at least from our point of view in the post covid-19 reality, isn’t it obvious where Thomas was? Clearly he had been deemed an essential worker.

Maybe he was a doctor or a nurse or a grocery store clerk, but, whatever it was, he must have had a good reason to go out into those dangerous streets. Surely we must appreciate Thomas for that, even as we appreciate today those who continue to carry out such vital functions.

But, as I think we’ve all been realizing, that is an awful strain to put people under. It means you live with a constant stress that has a way of accumulating – building up in your mind and your soul and your body. Thomas, frankly, was exhausted in body and in spirit. And though these people were the closest friends that he had ever had, he was getting short with them. They just didn’t understand what it was like to be out there and in constant fear for your own health and wellbeing. They spoke longingly about going out and walking around in public, but he knew very well that not one of them would have changed places with him.

So I kind of understand why, when he finally came back and they told him about an experience that they had had, an experience that had given them a sense of peace, of power and forgiveness and an assurance of the presence of their Lord Jesus that could transform everything, he didn’t buy it. After all, he knew that he would have to go out there again. He knew that people would continue to behave badly, how they wouldn’t respect social distance and would give little thought to his safety. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he said, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And I, for one, don’t think we ought to be too hard on Thomas for his reaction. It is true that those who go out into to the world these days – and may do so at the risk of their own health and of the health of those they care for – can get hard and cynical. But the amazing thing about the story of Easter is that Jesus came for Thomas too. And he didn’t come to tell him how wrong he was or to say “I told you so.” He came with an invitation: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

For that is the story of Easter. The risen Jesus meets us where we are. Are we fearful and starting to get on each other’s nerves? Jesus meets us there. Are we weary and worn down by living in such times? Jesus meets us there. Are we cynical and doubting because of what we have seen? Jesus meets us there. He comes to us with a simple invitation to believe. And it is not a “believe that” – he doesn’t merely want you to believe that he was actually raised from the dead. He wants you to believe in him – to trust in him. When you do that, he has a gift for you, and that gift is peace, shalom.

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Is Easter Cancelled or Postponed?

Posted by on Sunday, April 12th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 12 April, 2020 © Scott McAndless – Easter
Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon Video:

https://youtu.be/IpNrN6XQaYw

It is Sunday, the 12th of April in the year 2020 and my ecclesiastical calendar states very clearly that this is Easter Sunday. And yet the question of the day seems to be, but is it really? The question people have been asking me for a few weeks now is, “Is Easter postponed? Or is it cancelled?”

I mean, I suppose it’s inevitable that people would ask that question this year because frankly we are not going to be able to celebrate Easter today in the way that the Christian church has come to celebrate that day. We are not going to gather in large numbers and greet each other with a warm handshake or familiar hug and the ancient words, “He is risen. He is risen indeed” We cannot gather together in one big room and lift our voices in one common song, “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” We cannot even hold a big scavenger hunt and watch and laugh while the kids compete with each other to win a cache of chocolate.

And, maybe most disturbing of all, we will not be able to gather over this long weekend with friends or extended family and feast together on roast lamb or ham or whatever it is that you love to share with your family. And, honestly, what kind of Easter is that? Is that any way to celebrate the ultimate triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death, his victory over the grave. Did Jesus rise from the dead so that we could have such a celebration?

The guard set on Jesus' tomb.

And, instead of finding ourselves celebrating Easter like we would love to do, where are we today? We find ourselves indoors and the doors of the houses where we are are locked for fear of what lurks outside. We huddle together with those few with whom we feel safe. We are shut out from all news, good and bad, which means that anything that might come from outside is something to be feared and scorned. Now, is that any place to be on Easter?

Except, of course, wasn’t that exactly where the disciples of Jesus were on Easter morning? They were huddled together, their doors were locked in fear and while they were indeed shutting out things that were absolutely genuine threats to them and their lives, that did not stop God from acting, that did not stop God from doing something that changed everything, including life, death and the moral universe. Did those locked doors and fearful huddles mean that Easter was cancelled or postponed? No, it did not.

Ah, you might say, but you don’t understand. We are dealing with more than just that. On this Easter we are dealing with situations in various parts of the world where the authorities are clamping down, where armed guards are being sent out to enforce quarantine orders and to make certain that certain people who are deemed to be a threat to society do not so much as set one foot out of the place where they have been confined upon pain of… of what exactly? I’m not quite sure if the authorities have got that all figured out, but whatever it is, it is serious. We are living in times when the power of the state seems to be without limit and, while it is being exercised for the good of all right now, it does make you wonder what might be next. These are, at least, somewhat disturbing thoughts. Is this any place to be on Easter Sunday?

Except, well, wasn’t that exactly where Jesus was on Easter morning? Once he had been sealed within his tomb, we are told, “Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.” And those guards stood all around the tomb, assigned one somewhat ridiculous duty all things considered, to keep a dead man confined within his tomb at all costs. But however ridiculous the assignment, they were top-notch soldiers and could be expected to do their duty with brutality and excellence. But did that armed guard enforcing that quarantine mean that Easter was cancelled or postponed? No, it did not.

But no, you don’t understand we are dealing with even more than this. We are dealing with grief and with loss. For this dreadful pandemic has definitely brought the specter of death in its wake. At this point in time, on a global level, some 100,000 people have died. Hundreds have died in Canada, a bit less than half of them in Ontario. And when you are dealing with unexpected death on that scale you can expect that it is going to affect just about everyone in some way. They will know someone who lost someone or maybe almost lost them. They will be touched in some way by so much collateral damage. There is a huge weight of grief lying upon us as a nation and perhaps awaiting us.

But then there’s this other reality that is part of this whole thing, the fact that we cannot deal with grief and loss in the ways that our people have always done so. We cannot gather to mourn and grieve in community. We cannot shake the hands and hug the bodies of our loved ones to comfort each other and, in many cases, we cannot even be with those who are sick and dying to comfort them and ourselves in those final moments. So we don’t even have the proper tools to deal with this loss. Is that any place to be on Easter Sunday?

Except, wasn’t that exactly where those women were on Easter Sunday. They had suffered a grievous loss of a man who had meant the world to them and yet they had been denied their grief. In that culture, women had a very particular way of expressing their grief. They would lovingly wash the body of the beloved and then anointed it with oil and spices and ointments. It may seem an odd custom to us, of course, but to them it was a very helpful way of dealing with grief. But they had been denied this when it came to Jesus. He had died in such a way and at such a moment that made the customary observances by women impossible. They had been denied. Such horrible grief and yet no proper way to express it. That’s where they were on Easter Sunday morning. But did their grief and the denial of their mourning practices mean that Easter was cancelled or postponed? No, it did not.

Easter doesn’t depend on how we feel or where we are or what has been denied us. Easter especially doesn’t stay away because we are afraid. Did you notice that in our Gospel reading this morning? There is so much fear. There is fear even in the face of something joyful and wonderful. First of all there are the guards. They are big strong and well-armed men. They have fought in wars and seen things so terrible that they would make your blood run cold and yet they have never flinched. And yet we are told that when an angel appears “his appearance… like lightning, and his clothing white as snow,” the courage of these big tough guards completely fails them. “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

So they are frightened and the women are certainly frightened. The first thing the angel says to them is, “Do not be afraid.” These instructions, however, they completely disobey and they leave the tomb “with fear and great joy.” So great is their fear that the first thing the risen Jesus says to them is a repeat of the words of the angel, “Do not be afraid.” Everyone was afraid. Everyone was terrified. So don’t tell me that it can’t be Easter because we are afraid.

No, all of this is quite clear. Easter is not dependant on the circumstances, on our fears or on our limitations. That is because Easter is not and has never been up to us. When Jesus was quarantined in that stone-cold tomb, there was no human power on the face of the earth that could have busted him out. Nor is there any sense in which Jesus busted himself out. It was entirely up to God. And that is exactly what God did. He is risen, he is risen indeed.

The reality of the world had changed, but did the disciples know that as they huddled in their locked upper room? No. Did the soldiers dispatched to stand guard outside of the tomb have any sense whatsoever of the magnitude of what had just happened inside the tomb? No. Did the women, still weeping in their grief and frustrated by their inability to demonstrate it as they wished, did they realize that the reason for their grief had just been eradicated? No. But that didn’t mean that it hadn’t happened.

The women, perhaps because they were closest and most in tune with their own grief, were the first to realize that something really had changed. Their fear and terror still stalked them, but they were the first to find the joy that was in what had happened. The guards also found out pretty quick, but didn’t quite experience2 it as good news. Quite the contrary!

The disciples, huddled and locked in their room, took the longest. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew kind of suggests that most of them didn’t quite accept the reality of what had happened until they met with him in Galilee which must have been weeks or maybe even months later. Even then, Matthew says, some still doubted. But that delay and that doubt did not change the reality of what had happened.

We are perhaps most like the disciples today. We come together virtually and not physically, but we do it because we want to proclaim the truth of the resurrection. We proclaim it despite our fears and despite our doubts. And those fears and doubts may stay with us for a while, I cannot do much about that. But that does not change the reality of what God has done for us in the resurrection of Jesus. I know that it might take us weeks or months to fully experience it, but it will come. It will come, for some, and indeed for all of us at some point, on the other side of physical death and that is a hope that we can cling to in even the darkest moments.

But the promise of resurrection will also come to us in this life, for Jesus is raised for us in this world. This present trouble will pass. We can count on that. And despite whatever vale of tears we might pass through – a vale of tears that Jesus himself understands only too well for he passed through his own – there will be something good that comes out of this for this world because we have a God who specializes in exactly such miracles. This is the good news and it is for all of us today.

To close, therefore, I am not going to use my own words, but instead the words of hope and promise spoken by the prophet Jeremiah to a heartbroken people a long time ago. They seem to be the kinds of words we need to hear today and they are all the more valuable because they are true: I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’”

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New Life in the Valley of Covid-19

Posted by on Sunday, March 29th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 29 March, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

https://youtu.be/4-4mtq-WxOM
Watch the sermon in video here!

The Book of Ezekiel in the Bible is a strange book – I mean really strange. It is full of all of these fantastic elements. In one memorable episode, for example, Ezekiel is standing by a river when he sees these strange beings flying through the air that have made some modern readers think of UFO’s – unidentified flying objects carrying aliens. Of course, they are not that, but what are they exactly? At other points Ezekiel claims that God’s spirit literally picks him up and carries him through the air over huge distances.

This has led many scholars to wonder how, exactly, we are supposed to read this book. Clearly Ezekiel is having visions – not everything he reports is happening in the real world – but how are we to know what is real and what isn’t. Where does the vision end and the physical world begin?

For example, our reading this morning starts like this: “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” It makes you wonder; what kind of spiritual mode of transportation is Ezekiel describing here and does it have any applications for modern mass public transit? But is Ezekiel really saying that the spirit of the Lord physically transported him? Couldn’t he just as easily be saying that he was taken in a vision to the valley – that there was not actually a real valley full of bones?

Or here is another possibility: maybe he was just out wandering one day, and he wandered into a real valley and noticed that it was full of bones. He realized that there was something that God wanted him to see here in this valley and so he said, “It must not have been random that I walked into this place. God must have wanted to show me something here; the spirit of the Lord must have brought me here.”

I think it must have been the latter and I’ll tell you why. It is not just because it was quite possible to go wandering around the countryside in the ancient world and stumble into a valley filled with bones. It certainly happened, after some battles, that battlefields could be left littered with dead bodies. Nobody buried them and it wouldn’t take long for scavengers and decay to turn those bodies into so many old dry bones.

So yeah, Ezekiel could well have wandered into such a valley and if it really was an old battlefield (perhaps even a battlefield where his own people had been defeated by the invading Babylonians) he certainly would have seen it as a deeply meaningful place – a place where God might well have something to show him or tell him. Believing that the spirit of the Lord had brought him there would have certainly put him in the right frame of mind to receive whatever message that might be.

But that’s not the main reason why I think that that was how it happened. I think that that is how it happened because that is kind of what has happened to us. Here we were actually just a little more than a couple of weeks ago (though it seems hard to believe that it has been so little time) – we were blissfully rambling through the countryside as if we had no cares in the world. And then what? We suddenly looked up and realized that we had wandered into a valley and this valley is rather disturbing because it is filled with bones. And these are the bones of death and the threat and fear of death. This is a serious valley where we find ourselves my friends.

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And, just as there were no doubt people back in Ezekiel’s day who wandered into that very same valley and noticed the bones but didn’t find any meaning or have any visions because they didn’t have any sense that the spirit of the Lord had sent them there to give them an important message, there seem to be lots of people today who are looking at our particular valley of bones called Covid-19 and they’re not detecting any messages or visions. They are just thinking of themselves and their own needs and not thinking at all about how everything that is happening ought to be making us rethink everything about how things should happen.

But there are some who are like Ezekiel. There are some who will decide that, if we are passing through, this particular valley of bones, maybe God has some lessons for us to learn here – maybe the spirit of the Lord brought us here. (Not, by the way, because God wants terrible tragedies like pandemics to occur, but because terrible things sometimes happen for reasons we may never understand and yet God has this way of bringing something good even out of the worst situations).

Now, that may seem like a hard thing to believe when you are faced with a tragedy as bad as something that leaves a valley full of bones. But that despair was something that Ezekiel felt too. As he wandered around that valley, he particularly noted how dry all those bones were – how they were completely polished clean of life. That, in itself, must have been extraordinarily discouraging. And then he is confronted with a question – a question that he says comes from God, which is to say that it is an inspired question. “Mortal,” God asks, “can these bones live?” And of course the answer to that question is obvious. Of course they can’t live – they’re bones. They’re dead. To quote a wise man, “They’ve kicked the bucket, shuffled off the mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!” These bones are ex-living beings!

But, of course, that is not what Ezekiel says. He very wisely, and perhaps diplomatically, says, “O Lord God, you know.” In other words, “I’m not going to stick my neck out too far on answering this one. Things look pretty bleak, Lord, but maybe you’ve got an answer on this one.”

And I don’t know about you, but I’m going to confess that there are moments when I feel a bit like Ezekiel. I look around this valley filled with dead, dry bones and all I can see is death and decay. The fact of the matter is that it often seems as if there is little reason to trust in human nature at times like this. I can’t make dead bones live, can you? I don’t know where the hope lies but I will hold on to this: maybe, Lord God, you know.

And here is where we get to the real meaning of the vision that Ezekiel had in that valley full of bones. The fact of the matter was that in that situation, as well as in much of the situation that the nation of Judah was facing at that time, there was no hope in human terms. There is no human means to make your way out of a valley of bones. Death is a dead end for human beings. That’s the reality that Ezekiel didn’t want to admit. But a lack of human hope is not the same thing as a lack of hope. “O Lord God, you know. I may not know, but you know.”

And where is the hope that Ezekiel finally finds in the depths of that valley? Is it found in the discovery of a new vaccine? Is it found in the practice of social distancing or even in quarantine? Will these things bring our salvation? Well, no question, they are good things. God bless the researchers who are working on vaccines and treatments. God bless everyone who is listening to directions of the medical leaders and isolating and maintaining social distance. But these things, as good as they are, the best that they can do is get us back to where we were before all of this began. But I’m not sure there is any going back there. This crisis has just exposed too many of the flaws and weaknesses that were there in our society before all of this started. I suspect that the way out of this valley, if we’re going to do it right, is going to lead to a different place.

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” That is what Ezekiel is told to do. And the word of the Lord never simply takes us back to the way that things were – it always take us to something new. The vision that Ezekiel receives when he prophesies is something quite fantastic. The dry bones come together, are covered over in muscle and sinew and then with skin.

But even this is not enough because a body is nothing if there is no life to animate it, so a final step is needed. For the ancient Hebrews, the life of a living being was always to be found in the breath. And breath was the same thing as the wind and it was the same word as spirit. So it was not enough for Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones; he had to prophesy to the wind as well: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” And it is only at this point that the defeated and decayed host in the valley full of bones can come alive.

Note that this is a reenactment of the creation of Adam in the second chapter of Genesis: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” This makes a very important point. What God is offering here is not a little bit of help or a healing or a cure. God is offering a whole new creation; we are starting all over again from the very beginning.

Now, Ezekiel is quite clear. All of this was a vision. If he had it because he had wandered into a valley full of bones, then the bones were still there when he left. But the vision was a metaphor for what the hope of his people was in that time of hopelessness. This was where they were: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” When you are in that situation, you don’t need a cure. You don’t need a vaccine, you need resurrection, which is like a whole new creation and a starting all over again from the very beginning.

I am beginning to feel as if that is what we need in our present situation. I know we all may long for things to go back to how they used to be – to how everything was just a few weeks ago – but I really do not think that that is what actually needs to happen. We can’t just go back to the old guard, the old elite who sought to control everything and manipulated it all their own profit. If we get through all of this only to find that the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer and that thousands more have fallen through the cracks of our society, then we will have failed. We need a resurrection, a whole new beginning.

I don’t know exactly what that will look like – not any more than Ezekiel knew what vision he was about to have when he obeyed the Lord and prophesied the word of the Lord, but I know how we will get there. We will get there by doing what Ezekiel did, by not being afraid to prophesy and to speak the word of the Lord. I believe that that is our task. It is, first of all, to believe that God can create a resurrection in these circumstances – that God can even make living beings out of dead, dry bones.  Secondly, we need to not be afraid to prophesy in the name of the Lord, to declare, especially at times like this, that God does not tolerate profiteering, that God demands justice and not just a return to business as usual.

Prophesying has always been a dangerous occupation because those are things that this world will always resist, but do not forget what Ezekiel discovered, that that word of the Lord is a powerful thing – so powerful that it is able to bring new life even to valleys filled with dead, dry bones.

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