Author: Scott McAndless

A Prophet Away from His Home Pulpit

Posted by on Saturday, July 6th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Knox Crieff, July 7, 2024 © Scott McAndless Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10, Psalm 48, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

Jesus said, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown and among their own kin and in their own house.” And have you noticed that that is not really one of his most famous sayings? It is not up there with “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” or “Turn the other cheek,” but I suspect it might be one of the most important things that he ever said.

It is, on the surface, just his reflection on a bad experience he had when he took his disciples with him and visited his hometown of Nazareth. Apparently, even though they had heard great things about what he had been doing, about how he had been spreading his wisdom and doing great deeds of power in other towns and villages of Galilee, they were not inclined to give him any respect.

They Knew him too well

And it is at least suggested that this was because they knew him too well – that they knew his brothers and sisters and mother because he had grown up among them. They knew that he had made a living as a carpenter which they clearly saw as a rather lowly profession. Maybe we can also read into that that they remembered what he was like as an annoying little kid who, like any other child, must have gotten into trouble and gotten on other people’s nerves.

Hometown Heroes

But that can’t quite be the whole story, can it? Because that is not how people usually behave. When somebody from your hometown makes it big on a larger stage, is your first reaction to disrespect them? Of course not! In a couple of weeks, the whole world will focus on Paris, France and the Olympic Games. Now, as far as I know, there will be no athletes from Puslinch at the games this year. Though, if there is, I’m sure that someone will let me know at the end of the service.

But, if there were, and if they did really well and won some medals, can you imagine people from around here saying, “Oh, that’s no big deal. I don’t respect them because I once saw them in diapers”? Of course, not! We celebrate our hometown heroes. We vicariously take their victories as our own. So, what is up with this reaction in Nazareth?

Jesus as a Prophet

I think that it is not just that they think they know him too well. I think that Jesus is saying something very specific and that we need to pay attention to it. It is because he is a prophet. This incident is the only place in the gospels where Jesus claims to be a prophet, so I think it is very important that we understand what he means by that.

I know that “prophet,” in the popular imagination means somebody who is able to predict the future, but that is not the primary job of a biblical prophet and that is not what Jesus is talking about here.

Biblical Prophets

A biblical prophet was someone who spoke the word of God for the people of his or her own moment in time. They said, “This is what the Lord is saying to God’s people at this moment.” Now, sometimes that included warnings about the future in the sense of, “If you don’t do what God says, this will be the consequence,” but it is actually a misunderstanding of the role of a prophet to think that they went around saying things that wouldn’t make any sense to their audience until years, maybe centuries, in the future when their predictions eventually came to pass.

So, when Jesus says that he is a prophet, what he means is that he is proclaiming what God is saying to the people of his own time and that that is what the people of Nazareth are unable to accept.

Preacher Prophetic Role

Think of it this way. A Christian preacher is supposed to have a similar prophetic role. Are we put in place, to tell people what they want to hear and make them feel good? Not really, though comforting people can be part of the job, it is not what it’s all about. The prophetic job of the preacher is to push and challenge and correct when that is what God is calling for.

And honestly, being prophetic like that is often not a very easy thing in your home church because you know what are the things that are really important to the people in that church. You understand the habits and ways of doing things that they don’t want to let go of. You know what they expect you to be. And I have found that God often challenges us about those very things. And so, the more you know your congregation, the harder it is to be truly prophetic. In some ways, I think that’s what Jesus was saying to the folks at Nazareth.

What was the Prophetic Message?

And so, what was the prophetic message of Jesus that they were having a hard time accepting? Well, I think it may have had something to do with those observations that they were making about Jesus. They had noticed the incredible ministry that he was having elsewhere, the extraordinary teaching and healing that he was doing. But, you see, the very fact that he was doing it elsewhere would have been a sore point for them because they would have had expectations of him.

We often don’t realize this, but there actually were many examples at that time of people doing the kind of thing that Jesus did. There were famous teachers and storytellers. Healers and wonderworkers are also well attested in the historical record. I know we would insist that Jesus did both of those things better than anyone else, but it was not as if other people weren’t engaged in the same kinds of activities.

How You were Supposed to Do It

But there was an expectation about how you were supposed to do it. You were supposed to settle down in one place, usually, of course, in the town that you came from. You were supposed to make the people come to you for what you could offer.

And now can you see why the people in Nazareth might have been a bit upset with Jesus? They were wondering why he hadn’t stayed in Nazareth. If he had, he would be attracting all kinds of people to their little town and they would be selling souvenirs and reaping the economic benefits of having multitudes pass through their village. Jesus wasn’t doing it right! And they felt as if they were missing out on the benefits of his fame.

The prophetic message that he was giving to them was not what he said so much as it was about how he was operating in a way that defied their expectations.

How We Planned this Experiment

As I read this story of Jesus and thought about what I would preach on this, my first opportunity to preach during our grand summer experiment, I’ve got to tell you that these particular words of Jesus really jumped out at me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but we did our best to set this experiment up so that we preachers spent the summer not preaching in our own churches.

The prophets, in other words, are spending the summer away from their home pulpits. And I think there is a challenge in that for me. I think that God might be calling me, might be calling all of us, to be bold in our preaching and to maybe say those things that it might not be safe to say in our home congregations.

What We don’t Want to Hear

So, what is God saying to our churches? What is God saying that maybe we do not want to hear? In particular, what might we be holding onto that is preventing us from seeing the kinds of deeds of power that were associated with the ministry of Jesus? Well, I think it may be the same message that was implicit in the simple fact that Jesus was just paying a visit to Nazareth and not opening up shop there. He was saying that the kingdom of God, this thing that he had come to announce and proclaim, was not tied to your place.

They Loved Nazareth

They loved Nazareth; of course they did. They had probably lived there all of their lives. Every significant spiritual experience in their lives had taken place there. They had encountered God in meaningful ways in the meetings of the synagogue. They loved the buildings and the people that they had shared both good times and bad times there with. But here was Jesus showing them that the kingdom of God was not tied to their place. Is it any wonder that they took offence to him?

And I don’t think that it is any coincidence that that is the very same message that many of our modern-day congregations don’t want to hear from their own prophet or preacher. But, as I said, I am not in my own home pulpit today. So, will I dare to preach the word of the Lord?

That message for today is not, as far as I’m concerned that we’re going to have to all give up our church buildings and sacred spaces. Yes, there may be some major shake-ups coming in terms of how we relate to those spaces. Some of the models that we’ve had that have been so centred on those buildings will probably need to change, but I do believe that God sees the beauty and value of our cherished church buildings as much as we do.

A Shift in Understanding

I think that the shift that Jesus is calling us to is in our understanding of where our ministry takes place. We have fallen into the habit of assuming that these lovely spaces are where ministry occurs. The church has focused its strategy around bringing people in here so that they may minister and be ministered to. But that model hasn’t been working very well for a while now. We need a new understanding of the work that God is calling us to do.

How Jesus Organized His Ministry

I do not think that it is a coincidence that immediately after this whole incident in Nazareth, the Gospel of Mark jumps immediately into an account of the way that Jesus organized his ministry. Far from settling down in one place and expecting that people would come to him to be ministered to, what did Jesus do? He organized his disciples to go out to the various towns and villages of Galilee. They were to go to where the people were. This is the ultimate refutation of the expectations of the people from his hometown of Nazareth. And it may be the key message that prophets should speak to their home churches today.

We rightly cherish these sacred spaces of ours. The wonderful spiritual experiences we have had and continue to have in them are valid. But I do believe that Jesus is calling us to step out of these comfortable and familiar spaces to explore what it means to live out the good news of the kingdom of God in the community and in the wider world. Jesus is sending us out to make the good news of hope and new beginnings real in the lives of the people that we encounter.

Away from the Familiar

That is indeed one of the reasons why I am so excited about what we’ve chosen to do in our summer experiment. We are stepping out of what is familiar and predictable. We’ve chosen to be the church in innovative ways outside of our usual buildings. The very idea of such an approach was what shook up the people in Nazareth. And Jesus seems to have been saying that such a shaking up was prophetic. It may be just what we need.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that our little summer experiment is the ultimate solution to what is ailing the church today. But I do think that it is symbolic of what Jesus is calling his church to. We need to be willing to conceive of new ways of being the church. We need to be willing to live our faith out in new ways as we meet people where they are with the good news about Jesus, his compassion, care and healing.

If this little experiment helps us to take even a few steps in those directions, then I do believe we will be heeding a prophetic voice. And that is what we need to be doing in these days above all.

Continue reading »

We’re all in the same boat now

Posted by on Sunday, June 23rd, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here:

Hespeler, June 23, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

It was a lovely morning when you and Jesus got into the boat and started sailing. The gulls cried overhead, and the herons and egrets waded through the shallows around you. The cormorants swam cheerily alongside as you raised the sail and caught the gentle breeze that would make for an easy crossing to the other side.

And so, you just had a lovely time. You sang some of your favourite songs, had some fine uplifting prayers and Jesus even spoke to you about the scriptures and their application to life in Galilee in your day. It all made being a disciple of Jesus feel so free and easy. Many of you were so comfortable that you began to nod or even doze off in the bottom of the boat.

The Other Boats

There were other boats drifting alongside you as well. There was one nearby that was filled with disciples who were very faithful to Jesus but just had a slightly different way of living out the practice of baptism – insisting that only adults could be baptised. Another boat was full of disciples who were very fond of burning incense, ringing bells and doing things like that to enhance their practice of faith.

And then there were some other boats where their practices were hardly different at all from those in your boat. It was just that they really liked their boat and, even if it was a bit rickety and let a little water seep through, they really wanted to stay in it. So, despite the minor diversity among the boats, everyone just had a wonderful morning of pleasant Christian fellowship and formation.

Why Don’t We Get That Story?

That pleasant crossing must have happened prior to the story that we read from the Gospel of Mark today. But did you notice that we didn’t get the story of that crossing? Such times are very meaningful and are keys to discipleship. Jesus and his friends no doubt had many such times while they were together. The accounts of them just didn’t make their way into the gospels.

In the same way, there have been many eras in the life of the church when we have been able to enjoy together the peacefulness of the voyage of this Christian life, when we can coexist amicably with other Christian groups but don’t worry about them too much because we are all moving in the same general direction.

These have been wonderful and meaningful times that have been fundamental to the formation of our faith, practice and priorities. We cherish them. But are we living in such times? It seems not.

A Promised Destination

And so, despite the fact that I know we love to talk about such times in the life of the church, I don’t want to talk about that morning crossing today. I want to talk about the one that is described in the gospel. And let’s note that the story of that crossing actually starts out pleasant enough. Jesus has just wound up a lovely day preaching to the crowds and he turns to his disciples and says, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” Now, that sounds nice enough, doesn’t it? Jesus seems to be promising just as gentle a crossing as you had this morning.

But, if you pay close attention, you will realize that he doesn’t actually promise anything about the ease of the crossing. He does promise that you are getting to the other side which will turn out to be a very important promise indeed. But you should never mistake God’s promises about your destination for promises about how easy it’s going to be to get there. Nevertheless, when God gives you a promise, you should hold onto it.

The Other Boats Still There

And so, you get back in the boat. Just before you push off from the dock, I want you to notice something. Mark makes a point of saying at this point in the story that, “Other boats were there too.”

I can find no other way to understand that than the way I described those other boats during the morning crossing. Mark seems to be dropping into his story a reference to other Christian groups that existed at the time that this gospel was written.

Of course, that early on, the division between disciples of Jesus would not have been as formal as what we have today. There were no denominations and there were not even church buildings for people to become attached to, but there are all kinds of indications that different groups of Christians had different understandings of how to be faithful disciples almost right from the very beginning. This is the reality that Mark is giving a nod to at the beginning of the story of this crossing. And he refreshingly even seems to be acknowledging that it is okay that different groups have different approaches to Jesus.

So, everything seems to be pretty promising and harmonious as you set out to go back across the lake. But, of course, that is exactly what is about to change.

The Challenge of Stormy Times

It is one thing to be a Christian and live out your faith as a church when the breezes are gentle, the water is calm and the passage is easy. It is quite a different matter when the storm comes. And that is exactly what this story in the gospel is about.

And there have been many storms in the history of the church. The storms have been different in intensity and power. The church has dealt with barbarian invasions, persecutions and reformations. Those were terrifying storms for those caught in them. Other storms have been a little less ferocious and have had more to do with societal change and economic troubles.

A Regular Refrain

But my studies in church history have taught me that, no matter how intense the storm may be, we always seem to respond in the same way – the way that the disciples respond to the storm in this story. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?” we cry with them.

Have you noticed that this seems to have become the refrain in many churches these days? Not all, certainly, there are places and congregations where they seem to have found their way through the present storm, but when I was at the General Assembly the other week, that was certainly a very common refrain.

Mark’s Lessons for Us

I feel as if Mark has very intentionally told this story of Jesus in a way that is intended to help the church of his time and down through the ages to navigate such storms and so I would like us to pay close attention to what we can learn from it. The first lesson we need to hear is the most important. The story begins with Jesus saying “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” And it ends with them arriving at the opposite shore.

The meaning of this is, I hope, clear. Jesus does not abandon his church. Jesus will see us over to the other side. That doesn’t mean that the crossing won’t be frightening. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be afraid that we will die. It certainly doesn’t mean that we will not change in some significant ways in the crossing. But we will get there. Hold onto that promise. Never forget it.

When We Forget

When the disciples forget that promise in the middle of the storm, Jesus rebukes them, and rightly so. He wonders why they have no faith. And so, though I certainly understand why we are tempted from time to time to cry out, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?” we will be rebuked when we do so.

I do believe that Jesus understands and appreciates it when we express our fears and worries. But do not make the mistake of giving into despair because you have forgotten Jesus’ promises. When you believe them, you will begin to see the new possibilities that Jesus is creating for you in the midst of the storm. It is true that you may not arrive at the far side of the lake in exactly the same condition as when you embarked. The storm will bring change. But Jesus’ promise of arrival is secure.

Where Are the Other Boats?

But, speaking of potential change, we come to the second lesson of this story. As I noted, when the disciples began their journey, Mark made a point of saying that “other boats were there too.” I think I made it clear that I don’t think that is just a random comment. I think that Mark is saying something about the church outside of storm times.

But, if that is the state of things before the storm comes, what happens once it starts? A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” Yes, it seems as if once the storm starts, we are no longer thinking in terms of our boat and the other boats.

When We’re All in the Same Boat

And that is exactly how it goes, doesn’t it? When all is going well, when the breezes are gentle and the currents are not against you, it is easy to let all those little things matter. The disagreements over theology, the differences in polity, and the particular preferences in pious practice can seem really important and the resources are abundant enough that you can justify each maintaining your own boats.

But once the storm hits what happens? You suddenly realize how much we are all in the same boat. When the water is washing over the gunnels and the waves threaten to capsize you, all of those distinctives and differences just don’t seem to matter anymore.

Downside and Upside

Now, I need to be honest here and admit that there is a downside to this inclement weather realization. When storms have struck at various times throughout the history of the church, those have been times when various traditions or distinctiveness have been lost. It just became too much to maintain all of the different ways of doing and being. And those losses are real and very painful. The present storm the church is facing will see some of those kinds of losses and we must be compassionate in the face of them.

But the “we’re all in the same boat” reality of the storm also brings with it a very large upside. The storm is also a time of great creativity and we particularly experience that in terms of finding ways to work together. All of a sudden, those distinctions that you have between your various groups, even if they are still very meaningful to you, no longer seem to be a big enough reason for you not to get in the same boat together.

When the storm hits, there is often a willingness to suspend and sometimes even ignore those rules and structures that might get in the way of you working together. You would never dream of doing such things in the calm weather, but everything seems possible in the storm.

The Summer Experiment

That is exactly what happened, by the way, with our summer experiment this year. This whole idea of us working together and worshiping together was not something that we asked the Presbytery to make happen, despite the fact that the Presbytery is ultimately responsible for the relationships between its congregations. We worked this out between ourselves, respecting the wisdom of the sessions in each congregation.

Now, if, at the end of this experiment we discern that God is calling some of these congregations to work together in ongoing ways, we may have to go to the Presbytery and figure out how to do that according to our Presbyterian polity, but, in the storm, there is a kind of freedom to experiment. And there is some exciting about that.

Fright and Faith

And yes, I know that it is also frightening. You are afraid that your boat might sink. The terror of the disciples in this story, even though many of them are experienced fishers, is palpable. I don’t expect that we won’t be dealing with fear. But, if you remember Jesus’ promise to the church, that we are going to get to the other side, you do not need to lose faith and that is what matters.

But is not just the promise that Jesus gives you before you start this crossing that gives you reason to hope. It is also what he does for you in the midst of the storm. Jesus stood up and commanded the wind, “Be quiet!” and he said to the waves, “Be still!” The wind died down, and there was a great calm. Never forget that, as we learn to trust in Jesus, he will give that same comfort and peace and calm even though the storm may rage all around us.

We have his promise that we will get to the other side. We have his offer of peace and calm in the midst of the storm. And so let us embark with faith. “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.”

Continue reading »

Samuel Gathered the Bethlehemites for a Sacrifice

Posted by on Sunday, June 16th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, June 16, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

I don’t expect you to remember this but, three years ago I preached a sermon on the story that we read this morning from the Book of Samuel. And I focused on the part near the beginning where it says that, “Samuel grieved over Saul.” It was a verse that seemed to speak to us pretty directly where we were three years ago. We were looking at change, which seems to be a constant in the world these days, and recognizing that the church was going to need to embrace change if we were going to find a place in the world moving forward.

Feeling Optimistic

And I will confess that I was feeling a bit optimistic about change way back then. We were, you will recall, still in the middle of a pandemic, but signs of hope were surfacing. New vaccinations had been approved and we were just getting to the tipping point where a majority of Canadians were going to be protected. There was a lot of goodwill being expressed about scientific research, healthcare professionals and front-line workers.

It seemed possible that this crisis would lead us towards a better society overall with renewed confidence in truth and science and a new respect for the work of those traditionally paid low wages. In many ways it felt as if we were all about to come together and sing “kumbaya” in sweet harmony.

And in that optimistic spirit, I imagined that the greatest impediment to the church embracing the change that was needed was nostalgia. We, like Samuel, were so busy grieving for the glorious lost past of the church that we couldn’t even bring ourselves to think about what could be different.

Was it Just About Samuel’s Grief?

And so, I imagined Samuel’s grief as nostalgia for the “good old days” with King Saul. He was sitting around remembering all of the wonderful battles, the blood and guts and gore. He was sighing over how good Saul looked in his armour and how tall he had been. He was stuck in the past and God had to push him to let go of all of that before he could even think of going out to find someone else to anoint as king.

In the same way, I suggested, all that the church needed to do was let go of its attachment to the past and, as God says to Samuel, “fill your horn with oil and set out” to anoint the new future that God was calling us to.

Things Feel Different

As I return to this story today, though, I am not sure that I am feeling quite as optimistic. That good will that I was hoping for, didn’t quite materialize. Far from coming together to meet the challenges of the moment, we seem to have fragmented as a society over the last few years.

What’s more, the statistics have come in from the pandemic and it has been confirmed that our statements about valuing front-line workers and healthcare professionals were meaningless. The only people who saw their situation improve through the pandemic turn out to be those who were already rich when it started. The only change we seem to have seen has been doubling down on how things have always been.

Maybe I’m a bit more pessimistic, but as I revisit this story today, I notice something. It is not just Samuel’s nostalgia and sentimentality about the good old days with Saul that are in the way of the change that needs to happen. There is something much more sinister. There are indeed powerful and dangerous forces at work that are arrayed against what needs to happen.

Saul’s Power and Privilege

And so, Samuel feels extremely threatened. When God tells him to go out and anoint a new king, Samuel protests. “How can I go?” he says, “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” This indicates that Saul is aware that Samuel is a threat to his rule. Samuel is being watched and if he makes an open move that even suggests that he might be considering replacing Saul with somebody else, there is a very real threat of violence. Samuel knows this, and he is not the only one.

When Samuel travels to Bethlehem to secretly choose a successor to Saul, the local elders also understand the threat. “The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” Why are they trembling? Obviously because, though they might not know exactly what it is, they also recognize that Samuel is trying to change something, and that Saul is going to resist any change with violence.

Violent Resistance to Change

That is why I think it is very important to recognize that change – even positive change – is not only resisted passively with nostalgia and people not wanting to let go of the familiar. It will absolutely be resisted actively with anger and even violence.

And the reason why is obvious. Saul doesn’t want things to change because, the way things are, he gets the power and the privilege. He can set up the monarchy to run in a way that benefits him and his family. He naturally sees change as a threat to his power and privilege and so will use his power and privilege to prevent it.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that every powerful and wealthy person will always use their power in corrupt ways. There are exceptions, wonderful people who have used their privilege to create a better world that did not necessarily benefit themselves. But such people are rare enough that we should hardly be surprised when the opposite happens.

The Need to be Wary

That is why, when we are living in times when change is in the air, we need to be wary and ready. We need to be asking who has something to lose in the change and, if they have power or influence, we need to be ready for when they choose to use it.

As I said, change did seem to be very much in the air in the early days of the pandemic. The recognition of the importance of low-wages workers, the admission that income support could be a good thing, the realization that the health of the poor and marginalized could affect the health of everyone else all strongly suggested that things had to change.

So why didn’t things change? Why, a few years later, is everything not just back to the way it was but we’ve even seen the wealth gap between the rich and the poor grow dramatically? More and more people all the time are slipping through the cracks in the economy. Do you think that that just happened by accident? I suspect that it had more than a little to do with the powerful in our society flexing their muscles and intentionally taking society to where they felt that it should be.

God Comes Up with a Plan

Embracing change, it turns out, is about more than just our unwillingness to let go of how things used to be. But that does not mean that we should give up hope for change; it just means that we need to do a bit more of the right kind of work for it. After all, when Samuel reminds God of what he is up against, God doesn’t just reply, “Oh, okay, never mind.” God comes up with a plan that we ought to pay attention to. And the Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.”’”

Now, to be clear, God is not sending Samuel to Bethlehem because God desires a sacrifice. It is a ruse. But it is an intelligent one. Saul doesn’t want Samuel going around anointing kings, but Samuel knows that Saul would never prevent him from performing sacrifices. That is kind of the opposite of Samuel fomenting change. Samuel is falling back into his traditional prophetic role which is to support the status quo by keeping God happy.

But even as Samuel falls into his traditional and non-threatening role, he is doing it in a way that will bring about new connections. “Invite Jesse to the sacrifice,” God says, “and I will show you what you shall do, and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.”

Samuel’s Sacrifice

So, this is what Samuel does. He convenes all the families of Bethlehem – including, of course, the family of Jesse that he is particularly interested in. And note how he takes particular care to make sure that everyone is there including seemingly insignificant people like the youngest son of Jesse. That is because Samuel needs to take advantage of the one thing that could possibly counter the power that Saul has. Only by people joining together in solidarity and mutual care can we find the way of defeating the malicious powers of this world. So, Samuel uses the unique ability and privilege he has as a prophet to gather people around a sacrifice.

This is symbolic of the power that we have as the church. I am fairly certain that God never really cared about animal sacrifices. Why would the creator of the universe need such things? But God has always understood both the human need to find connection in community and the power that is inherent in that. And so the sacrifice of animals was always an excuse to gather people together and make connections.

We may not slaughter animals anymore as part of our religious practice – something that I must say that I am very glad about. I mean, can you imagine some of the classes I would have had to sit though in seminary to prepare for that? But we, like Samuel, do have the privilege in our society of bringing people together around acts of worship and it is time for us to recognize that there is power to bring about change in that.

This is the secret that the wealthy and the powerful don’t want anyone to find out about. Their kryptonite, the one thing that can defeat them, is the power of the people united. And, honestly, that is precisely why the powerful few have lately been able to control the agenda of our society so overwhelmingly. They have somehow managed to keep people divided.

A Divided Society

As you have probably noticed, the deep divisions that separate us from one another have particularly contributed to our malaise as a society of late. We have become increasingly fragmented over politics, over public health issues, over news sources or, as Christians, differences in interpretation and biblical application.

It is not just that we disagree about such things – disagreement is a healthy thing. It is that we come to the place where we no longer see the people who are on the other side of the disagreement as worthy conversation partners. We see them as nothing but enemies or heretics. I imagine that things were much the same in Saul’s kingdom. Despotic rulers and wannabe dictators have a way of fostering such a state of affairs.

But Samuel found a way to begin to break that down – to gather people together in a way that transcended the differences. He used an act of worship to do that. I think that there is untapped potential in that the church today needs to embrace.

The Power in Gathering in Worship

I am not going to pretend for a minute that everyone who enters this worship space agrees on their view of God or of what exactly God wants from us. I don’t think we are all on precisely the same page in our understanding of major issues like climate, health or inclusion policies. I really don’t expect us to agree on politics. But somehow, we are here. We are gathered to worship one God, trusting in one saviour and gathered around one table. That unity in diversity doesn’t seem to happen in too many places in society today. But it happens here. That is one of the unique powers of religion when it is done well, it can bring a great diversity of people together.

And if Samuel could harness that possibility and begin a change that would challenge the power of Saul, why couldn’t we? There are powerful forces at work in our world that are preventing positive change both for the society and for the church. I believe that we can be part of challenging those powers if only we use our common devotion to create the sense of unity that is necessary.

I think of this especially in terms of our experiment this summer. Over the next couple of months, we will be gathering with Christians that we do not know. We will be gathering in acts of worship. That is what Samuel did when he went to Bethlehem. Can we do it with the same expectation that Samuel had that God will use such gatherings to show us a new way forward in some new kind of unity? I am engaging in this summer experiment with a heart full of just such an expectation. I hope you will too.

Continue reading »

Remembering the Sabbath — Observing the Sabbath

Posted by on Sunday, June 2nd, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, June 2, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Second Sunday after Pentecost, Communion
Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Psalm 81:1-10, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

Did you know that there are two accounts of the giving of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The first one is likely the one that you are familiar with. It’s the one that gets played out in the blockbuster movies. It takes place at Mount Sinai in Exodus chapter 20. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments directly from God while the people stand trembling at the foot of the mountain watching the terrifying sound and light show from a distance.

The Second Giving

But the second giving of the commandments, the one we read from this morning, takes place about forty years later. The people of Israel, a whole new generation of people who have replaced those who died during the wilderness wandering, are just about to enter into the Promised Land. Moses, as one of his last acts before his death, is addressing them in what we know as the Book of Deuteronomy. As part of his address, he goes over the Ten Commandments one more time.

These two versions of the Ten Commandments don’t contradict each other. They are clearly getting the same points across. But there is a strange thing you will notice if you read them side by side as I did. There are these slight variations in the wording. Nothing that would change the intent, but I find it interesting, nonetheless.

The First Sabbath Law

For example, take the commandment we read this morning. In Exodus, speaking from Mount Sinai, God says, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” The commandment continues from there much like we read from Deuteronomy this morning, but it starts with a command to “remember.” Remember that.

And then, after laying out what it means to remember the Sabbath, God gives the rationale for this commandment. “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” So, in Exodus, the reason for the Sabbath is that you need to imitate God. God rested and so therefore so should you.

The Second Version

But the passage we read this morning is just a little bit different. Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” Did you observe that? The command here is not to remember but to observe. Not enough to really change the meaning, I know, but maybe enough to make you go, “Hmm.”

It goes on to lay out what observing the Sabbath means in the same way – working six days and then not on the seventh. It lists, in the same way, the people who aren’t supposed to work: “you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns.”  But then it adds a phrase not found in Exodus: “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” So, it makes a point of saying that your slaves get the day off twice.

Then Moses gives the reason for the commandment, and it is different from the reason given at Sinai. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” So, instead doing this to be like God, the people are told to do this because of their past history of enslavement. And the command to remember has now been moved from remembering the Sabbath to remembering their past bad treatment when their taskmasters never gave them a day off.

How These Differences Function

Now, if you read biblical scholars, they will have fancy literary and historical explanations for the variations between those two passages. Such studies are interesting but are not particularly what fascinates me today. I am much more interested in how these little changes function in the overall narrative that we find in the story of the people of Israel. I think the variations between the two commandments have been placed here quite intentionally and that there is a very important message in them for us today.

Think of it this way. At Sinai in the Book of Exodus, we are given the commandments in the direct voice of God. They offer a pure and idealistic view of the way that things should be. But in Deuteronomy, we have Moses’ restatement of the commandments just before the people enter into the Promised Land where they are supposed to live these commandments out. This is where the rubber meets the road, where the practical issues of living out God’s perfect will for God’s people need to be ironed out. That is how I understand the subtle rewording of this commandment.

The Created Need for Rest

And I really do think that there is a very important message for us in that. It is precisely in the shift between the ideal and the practical that we struggle with the idea of Sabbath rest.

On one level, surely, we all agree that rest is a good thing. Everybody deserves a break. Everyone should get some time off. We recognize that, as human beings, we are not designed to be working and producing 24/7. This is something that has been confirmed by all kinds of scientific studies.

A Biological Need

Human beings break down on a biological level and on a mental health level without proper breaks and rest. And when we try to overcome that biological design by pushing ourselves to work beyond what we were designed for, not only do we suffer for it, but our work also suffers from poor quality.

So, no one can argue against the idea of Sabbath. It is something that we are designed for. And I would say that that is exactly the way the commandment is presented in the Book of Exodus. There, the reason why you must remember the Sabbath is because of the way the world was created. Because God rested on the seventh day of creation, that means that all creation was designed with the necessity of rest in mind.

That’s why scientific studies into the nature of human beings find that rest is necessary. God designed us that way. Whether they believe in God or not, everyone accepts that basic idea. We do not have any issues with Sabbath rest on the level of ideology.

My Struggle

But man, do we have issues when it comes to the practicalities! Let me tell you about my own struggles with writing this sermon. When I saw that all the readings today were connected to the idea of Sabbath, I knew that that was what I had to preach about – that it was something that God was calling us to consider.

But then, for two whole days, I just found that I could not even start writing. I sort of knew what I needed to say, but I couldn’t figure out how to say it. Now I do not usually have that kind of problem getting started on a sermon. The demand of producing one every week honestly means that I can’t really afford to not be writing a sermon almost all the time.

So, what was my problem? I do believe in Sabbath rest; I think it is something that we all need. But when it comes down to practicing it in the real world, I will confess that I am a bit of a failure. I generally work seven days a week. There was a time when I would have been in the church office six days a week, and I have at least and thankfully gotten away from that. But I am still working all those days wherever I happen to be.

Just too Much to Do!

And if you challenge me on my work schedule, as you probably should, I will answer you and say that I know that God did not design us to work without days off, but that, given all I have to get done in a week, this is what the practicality of the situation demands. When the rubber meets the road, it’s just not practical to stop working. There’s just too much to be done. The problem with the Sabbath is not the idea of it, it is the practice.

I am far from unusual in this. I know that each and every one of us has times when we let the busyness of work take control of our lives because of very practical reasons. So that is one big reason why the idea of Sabbath breaks down when it encounters the real world, we make too many exceptions for ourselves because of the practicalities of real life.

Christian Practice

And then, of course, there is a question of how we treat others. I have known many Christians who have a firm understanding of the practice of Sunday as a Sabbath. They will insist that they will always refuse to work at their job on Sunday. They go to churches where they preach regularly about the importance of keeping Sunday as a Sabbath.

But they fail to recognize that, given the society that we live in, that is something that only a privileged few can do. Our society is simply not set up like the ancient agrarian society of Israel. And, as much as we may rail against all the things that are open or active on Sundays, the very structure of our society and economy demands that things stay open. Lots of people simply cannot opt out.

It would be one thing if Christians who had the privilege to opt out did that personally as a sign to our society that things could be different. I could get behind something like that. But that is often what I do not see.

I see Christians who go to church on a Sunday morning and are all smug about how they don’t work. Then as soon as the service is over they run to a nearby restaurant where they expect to be waited on hand and foot and are often not even very charitable towards those who serve them. Sabbath for me but not for the ones who take care of me is, unfortunately, an attitude that I have sometimes encountered among Christians. I am not speaking about present company, please understand me. But I have certainly seen it.

Moses’ Address

So, Moses addresses the people of Israel just as they are about to leave the ideal time of the wilderness – a time when God has provided for their needs directly – and enter the real world where everything they need will be provided only through work and labour. He knows that they will be particularly tested in how they keep the Sabbath and so he tweaks the commandment for the new challenge.

Maybe it is not going to be enough to merely remember the Sabbath when they are in the Promised Land. Life in the real world requires a bit more. You are called to observe it, which means exactly the same thing in the Hebrew as it does in English. It means to watch, to keep your eye on it because, if you don’t, the demands of practical life will keep creeping up on you and you will never rest.

Keeping Watch

To personally practice Sabbath requires that you keep a watch on yourself. The fact of the matter is that the things that you feel you must do are not always necessary. They may be based on unrealistic expectations that others have put upon you or that you have put upon yourself.

I know that I do that in my work. I place huge expectations on myself on what I need to do before I consider my work done. Some of these expectations are good, of course, but others are more about me trying to control things that I don’t need to control – about me refusing to trust in God for an outcome and feeling that I have to control every step of the process.

I’ll bet that you all do that in certain areas of your life. But you will never know that if you do not observe and carefully evaluate the choices that you make. Life in the real world may require that we do more than just remember the Sabbath. It requires that we observe.

The Reason for the Law

But where Moses particularly revises the Sabbath commandment for the new challenges is when it comes to the reason for it. We no longer see the appeal to creation and the nature of God, instead we learn that the reason for this command is rooted in the human condition. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

The biggest reason why we must watch to keep the Sabbath is because of the human tendency to exploit the labour of others. That is what we must remember and, because we remember it, we must watch to make sure that it doesn’t happen. That is what Moses is saying. So it is never enough for you to enjoy whatever privilege you may have to rest.

Valuing Labour

We live in a world that increasingly devalues the labour that people do. That is why, over the last several decades wages for labour have not kept pace with the earnings of the investment class. That’s why people have to work more and more just to make ends meet. Those are exactly the trends that Moses is telling us that we need to watch out for. That’s why he repeats the insistence that your slave needs to rest too. Those are the trends that increasingly mean that Sabbath rest of any sort is a privilege enjoyed by the few.

Moses is speaking to us as we seek to live out faithful lives in the real world. This commandment is not given to judge you and certainly not to give you a reason to judge others. But the command for you to build rest into life is given to teach you to trust in God enough to take a break from trying to control everything around you. It is given in order to encourage you to stand up for those who are exploited for their labour.

I know that we can’t simply take the notion of Sabbath as it applied in the ancient agrarian society of Israel and apply it directly to life today, but, with Moses’ help and wisdom, I do believe that we can observe the Sabbath in the real world of today.

Continue reading »

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night

Posted by on Sunday, May 26th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 26, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. I want you to think for a moment about what that means. This very gospel tells us that Jesus was “The true light, which enlightens everyone.” (John 1:9) It tells us that Jesus is “The light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overtake it.” (John 1:5) But Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.

This gospel says that a woman, a despised Samaritan, came to Jesus as he sat by a well at the very moment when the sun was at the zenith of the sky. It was the hottest part of the day to be sure, a time when others hide in their homes. But she was not afraid of the light and in the illumination of that day, she could see that Jesus was a prophet and messiah. But Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.

Jesus himself said that he was the light of the world and proved it by giving a blind man sight. He taught that “Those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” (John 11:9-10) And yet Nicodemus came to him by night!

A Respected Man

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a man who was greatly respected by all for his commitment to the law. He sat on councils and spoke in meetings where he was honoured and people were always willing to hear his opinions and judgements. He counted powerful people like Joseph of Arimathea among his friends – Joseph who went in and out even among Roman governors and who could put his hands on large sums of money to bury a friend on short notice.

Everywhere he went, Nicodemus could count on a warm welcome and friendly conversation. He was always given an honoured place whenever he was invited to dinner.

People Assumed the Best

If ever he happened to be caught in what looked like some compromising position, people always gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone can count on that. When something is missing, for example, there are certain people who are always suspected because of their race, their status or their living situation. They might be accused despite there being no evidence at all.

Some people live with the constant expectation of such accusations, but Nicodemus never had to worry about such things. On the contrary, people always assumed the best of him even when he gave them no particular reason to do so. He was a man whose days brought him nothing but honour and respect, and yet Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.


Nicodemus knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God. He had no doubts about that because he had seen and considered the things that Jesus had done and recognized that they were powerful acts that could only be accomplished when God is with somebody. When he said that to Jesus, he said it with utter sincerity. And yet, knowing all of that, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night.

There is something wrong with this picture, isn’t there? When you are somebody who has a privileged position in society, you will act openly and carry out your deeds in the full light of day. When you truly believe that somebody has come from God and that the goals that they pursue are good ones, will you not say so openly? What is the point of believing something if you will not say it at times and places where people will hear it? If you are a person who loves the light, why are you skulking around in the darkness of the night?

Criticism of Dr. King

But here is the truth. Nicodemus is not alone. In fact, there have been many others like him who have come to Jesus by night. In 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and imprisoned in the Birmingham City Jail for disobeying an injunction that banned public protests against racial policy, a group of eight prominent white Christian leaders made a statement.

They said that Dr. King’s goals of racial equality were good, that it was the right thing to do to build a more just society. They might as well have said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for you teach a way of justice.” But there was one problem. They came to Jesus by night.

They called the actions of King “unwise and untimely.” They thought that he was acting in a manner that was too open and confrontational. His demands for justice and change were being made in the full light of day. They felt that the only way to effect the change that was needed was to work without disturbing things, without shaking things up. They wanted to come by night so that no one would see and maybe no one would even notice the change.

Letter From Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King Jr’s response is justly famous. When he read about the statement of the white leaders, he began writing a response immediately on the newspaper clipping. He continued on scraps of paper passed to him by one of the black trustees working in the jail and finally finished it using legal pads supplied by his lawyers. It was finally published as “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a great work of American literature.

There is one passage in the letter that I know that I must return to regularly to challenge myself. “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King writes. He might as well be saying, “I am disappointed in those who come by night.”

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion” he continues in the language of the time, “that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”

Need More than Good Intentions

I think that that was what Nicodemus was doing with Jesus. He was trying to say, “I agree with you in the goal you seek,” but I am not willing to risk my standing or my reputation by using them to support what you are doing. I’m going to come, but I’m going to come by night.

And Jesus understood all of that. Just as Martin Luther King Jr recognized that the eight leaders were men of goodwill who were speaking with all sincerity, Jesus understood that Nicodemus had good intentions and wanted to do the right thing, but the fact that he had come by night told Jesus that Nicodemus desperately needed more than good intentions.

What Nicodemus Needed

Jesus cut him off immediately and told him this: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus was puzzled. He had come, he thought, to discuss the finer points of creating justice in this world without having to risk himself by showing his intentions in the light of day, and Jesus seemed to have suddenly changed the subject. He blinked and declared that what Jesus had just said seemed nonsensical: “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’”

But Jesus hadn’t changed the subject. What he had just said made perfect sense. It didn’t matter if Nicodemus agreed with Jesus’ goals. It didn’t even matter if he believed all the right things about Jesus. None of that was obviously going to persuade Nicodemus to give up on what had convinced him that he could just come by night. Nicodemus needed to be born again.

Double Meaning

For centuries people have wondered what Jesus might have meant by the demand that he made of Nicodemus. Even Nicodemus was puzzled over the phrase. It doesn’t help that the Greek phrase that Jesus uses in the Gospel has a double meaning. It can mean both “born again,” and “born from above.” And that quickly becomes a reason for misunderstanding between Nicodemus and Jesus.

But what he was saying – and what Nicodemus failed to understand – was that Nicodemus didn’t need just another birth to a life that was oriented towards the values of this world. Had he gone back into his mother’s womb to be born again, as he suggested, it would have only been to be born once again to the world of privilege and honour given to him by his first birth. He needed to be born anew from a new place, from above and with the very different attitudes and priorities of heaven.

“Born Again”

As you probably know, that phrase that Jesus used with Nicodemus, that demand that he be born again or born from above, has since taken on a life of its own. People have pulled that one phrase out of the context of this story and used it as a definition of their kind of Christianity. “I am a ‘born again Christian,’” they will say.

They are saying that their faith began with the kind of experience that Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to have. And that is all fine and good, assuming that you understand what it was that Jesus was saying to Nicodemus.

Sometimes when people say that what they mean is that they have had a powerful experience of the presence of Jesus. Maybe they were at a particularly low time in their life, regretting some things that they had done perhaps, and they experienced the presence of Jesus in a way that brought them the healing and forgiveness that they needed most at that moment. Others might experience the presence of Jesus in a public worship context where, among the people of God who are praising, they find themselves transported into the presence of Jesus.

Not Just an Experience

Such experiences are truly wonderful. If you have had such an experience in your life, you are indeed blessed. I would never question the validity of someone’s experience of Jesus. But let me ask you this. If you encountered Jesus, but you came to him by night, did you really have the “born from above” experience that Jesus was talking about? I mean, Nicodemus encountered Jesus. He was right there in front of him talking to him. And yet Jesus told him that he was still in need of that second birth.

What I mean is that, if you are blessed to have such a wonderful experience of Jesus, and it doesn’t transform your priorities, it doesn’t make you willing to stick your neck out like Jesus did for what is right and just, Jesus might still be looking for more from you.

Jesus’ Acceptance

Let me be clear about one thing, however. Jesus was glad that Nicodemus came to him whenever he came. In the same way, Jesus is extraordinary glad that you came to him as well. Later on in this passage, as we read this morning, we have one of the most powerful statements of God’s love and acceptance in the entire Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

On whatever terms Nicodemus was willing believe in Jesus, whatever trust he was willing to place, even if he came by night, Jesus accepted that. In the same way, Jesus accepts whatever trust you are able to place in him as well.

But for your sake, he would rather that you not come by night but in the fullness of the day. He would have you be born from above so that you do not value the fleeting things of this earth – things like wealth or status – over the priorities of heaven. Jesus wishes this for you and for Nicodemus because he wants you to be a part of his great work in this world – work that is done in the day.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, but you don’t have to. And if we can all remember that, we are on our way to carry out the works of the day and change this world for the better.

Continue reading »

Transitions: They’re Not Always Easy

Posted by on Sunday, May 19th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 19, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Day of Pentecost, Baptism
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

We as a congregation and I as a minister have been given the honour this morning to join with Frances’ family to celebrate her baptism. I am always amazed at how we are given this wonderful privilege to enter into one of the most significant moments in a family’s life with them.

But there is also something that makes it particularly special for us today. This is part of our ongoing journey with her family. We also had the opportunity, just a few years ago, to celebrate the baptism of her older sister and then, a few years before that, her older brother. But, even more interesting, each of those special events not only gave us a reason to celebrate but also helped us to come to terms with something important – the often-frightening pace of change that we have been living with over the last few years.

An Apocalyptic Fire

Frances’ brother came to us just as his family resettled here in Cambridge from Fort McMurray in Alberta. And they had left that place just as a terrifying wildfire destroyed huge parts of that city. Do you remember how we all felt about that fire at that time? It was unprecedented. It was apocalyptic! We had never seen anything quite like it before and we certainly hoped that we’d never see the likes of it again.

I think we probably have come to see that fire in a bit of a different light today, though, haven’t we? It is no less frightening, and we have no less sympathy for those who were caught in its path, but for some reason we don’t quite see it as unusual anymore.

Especially after last summer (and I doubt that the coming summer will be any better) we recognize that the Fort Mac fire was apocalyptic alright, but not so much as a singular event as a harbinger of the kind of disaster that is increasingly become a new normal for life in this country. In fact, this very week Fort McMurray has once again been evacuated in the face of just as large a fire. I am very thankful that we had that opportunity given to us by Frances’ brother to reflect on where we can find God when the world is falling apart all around us.

A Pandemic

By the time Frances’ sister came along, the world had changed yet again. She was born into the confusion and isolation of the pandemic. And, when she first arrived, we didn’t even know how to practice baptism because, despite some creative internet posts, I wasn’t about to do it with a squirt gun. So, she waited.

And when we were finally able to carry out the baptism somewhat later, it was another opportunity to reflect on how much things had changed for the church especially throughout this disrupting experience of the pandemic. And I was grateful that she gave us that wonderful opportunity to talk about how God is with us through such disruption.

A Big Move

And now Frances has come to us today. And somehow, I am not surprised that she comes to us at a moment of great change. It is a personal change for her family, but also symbolic of a change in our society that we need to grapple with. Her family is about to make a big move back to Fort McMurray. It is a change that is a positive and promising one for them in many ways. There is a great new job opportunity that can work well for their family.

But it also shows up some of the challenges that families are facing right now because one of the motivating factors is the realization that they could probably never afford the kind of housing in this area that would be ideal for raising their family, which I think we all recognize is not an uncommon problem for young families these days.

Making Transitions

I’ve been thinking a lot about changes as we navigate so many of them. Change is a part of life. Sometimes we choose it, sometimes it is forced upon us, but no one can really escape it. But while change is something external, something that happens to us, there is also an internal process that goes along with that that we do not always pay enough attention to. Let’s call that process transition. And transitions can often take longer and can be much more difficult than a simple change of circumstances might seem. Sometimes a bad transition can have the power to derail a positive change when it is not handled well.

Think of it this way. Once this family has packed up, traveled to Fort McMurray, moved into a new house, started jobs and registered for schools and all the things that go with that, we can say that things have changed for them.

How We Navigate Transitions

But think of all the transitions – both psychological and social – that they will have to go through to get there. This new thing will start with many endings – winding up things here, saying goodbye to friends and family who will continue to be in their lives, but not quite in the same ways. Transitions always start with endings.

After that comes a long period of great uncertainty. You are in a new place, and you must learn to do all kinds of things differently now. You figure out how to get around. You make new connections and habits. There is a lot of trial and error, some good experiences and bad. It’s a great time of innovation which can be both scary and exciting. It can also be the time when you are most tempted to give up on the new thing.

And it is only after you have navigated all of that that you can fully embrace where you now are. That’s why the transition can take a lot longer than just change. And you cannot make a good change if you don’t manage to make a good transition as well.

Our Transitions

I mention all of this, of course, because we want to pray for Frances’ family and do all that we can to help them to have a good transition. But I also think that this is all very timely for us as a church.

We are changing. We must change because this church, like most churches these days, can’t just keep doing what it has always done. But if we want that change in our situation to lead us to a better place, we will need to do a great job of making a transition.

What Ezekiel Lived Through

The Prophet Ezekiel was living through a time of great change. During his lifetime he saw the collapse of his homeland, the Kingdom of Judah, and was taken away into exile in Babylon. This was not a change that he was happy about at all. But he still had to live through it. He still had to make the transition. And the passage that we read today is all about a vision that God sent to Ezekiel to help him through his transition.

Ezekiel was wandering around one day outside the city when he came upon a valley. As he looked at that valley, he saw that it was full of bones. I imagine that it was a valley where some battle had been fought in previous years. The bones were all that were left of the soldiers who had been slaughtered on that day.

But for Ezekiel, that valley suddenly became the symbol of everything that he had lost. He had lost his homeland. What had once been the strength of the people of Judah had been reduced to nothing but dead, dry bones.

In the Valley

And I think it was there – in that valley – that the depths of what he had lost finally hit him. The question that came to his mind was this, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And he knew it was a divine question.

But as he considered all the devastation and loss he had experienced, the answer to that question seemed obvious. No way! Everything that he had known, everything that was familiar or comfortable had been reduced to dead, dry bones. What hope of life could there be? But he didn’t dare answer a straightforward no, so he only answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

And that is what transitions can feel like. Especially those initial phases of letting go and saying goodbye can feel like nothing but a valley full of dead, dry bones and you can wonder if anything will ever feel alive again. But here is what we need to learn from Ezekiel’s vision. God brought him to that valley for a reason.

A Prophecy

Once Ezekiel had been brought to the lowest of the low and had had to admit to himself that he didn’t even know if there was any hope of life left, something amazing happened. He was challenged to prophesy. “Prophesy to these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” And that is exactly what we need sometimes. We need a word that can penetrate through to us from somewhere outside and help us to see a way through the difficulties of transition.

And so it is that, only once Ezekiel has been able to find and speak that word of the Lord, that he can begin to see his way towards the new future that God has prepared for him. And he sees that very explicitly in the bones that come back together, the bodies being rebuilt before his visioning eyes, and then finally and crucially the Holy Spirit comes and fills them. And Ezekiel can see that, yes, there is life on the other side of this difficult transition when we learn to place our trust in God.

An Experiment

We, like Frances’ family, are going through a time of transition. We have been recognizing over the last while that, if we want to be a strong congregation, we can’t just keep on doing things as we have always done them. And so, it is time for us to plunge into that transition. Recognizing that we’re living in an age when our churches really can’t afford to just go it alone anymore, we are going ahead with this experiment over the summer. We will worship together with four other churches and do it in various places during those summer months.

This, to be very clear, is an experiment. Everything will go back to how it was when the summer ends. But at the same time, we do hope that we learn some things over these months about how we can work together and support one another. We hope that that will help us to think about change that will create a strong Presbyterian Church ministry in this area for a long time to come.

Exploring the Transition

But, as I said, we are not really changing anything, so what is the point of doing it? Well, I would say that what we are doing is that we are exploring the experience of transition in a safe environment. This is an opportunity for all of us to work through our own sense of how we have to transition for the future that we will be dealing with. What are the things that we might lose and how do we feel about that? And, yes, there might be some negative feelings that we will have to grapple with as we think about transitions into the future. There may be things that feel like valleys full of dry bones.

But the wonderful thing about what we are doing is that this is absolutely not about what we’re losing. It’s about starting to find our way towards a different future. Part of that, certainly, will be practically doing things like meeting our fellow Christians and finding our ways to the places where they worship. That’s a moment of discovery and, even if there is some confusion along the way, there’s always something exciting about that.


But the best thing about transitions is that they are a great time for innovation. We’re going to get to be creative over the summer. Having more clergy and other leaders present, will give us a chance to try new things and have a lot of fun doing it. This is not going to be a summer of just managing to survive while school is off and people are away on vacation, we are going to allow God’s Holy Spirit to inspire us and lead us in some very interesting directions. Not all of them are going to work out, sure, but we are going to have a good time trying them.

Ezekiel had to go down into the valley of bones. He had to experience some sense of loss and disappointment that some things were never going to be quite the same again. But please remember that God did not leave Ezekiel down in that valley. God sent him a vision of new life and of an animating Spirit that would lead to exciting new things. That is what I pray for us and for Frances and her family.

Continue reading »

By the Flip of a Coin

Posted by on Sunday, May 12th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, May 12, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Christian Family Sunday
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19

The Book of Acts opens with a very dramatic scene as Jesus ascends into heaven forty days after his resurrection. And in the second chapter of Acts the story is told of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church that happens fifty days after the resurrection.

And in between those two awesome events, the apostles were left for about ten days on their own. Jesus had left, the Holy Spirit had not yet come, and they had some time to kill. So, what did they do with it? Well, we are told that they spent their time constantly in prayer, but apart from the prayer, they only actually accomplished one thing.

Seems Important!

It was something that seemed important in the moment. You see, Jesus had chosen twelve disciples. And the number obviously seemed significant. Just as there were twelve sons of Jacob and twelve tribes of the nation of Israel, it seemed fitting that there should continue to be twelve key apostles. But there was a problem. One of the disciples, Judas Iscariot, turned out to be a bit of a washout. And so, the remaining eleven decided that the one thing they could do while they waited for further instructions was replace Judas.

With this setup, you might think that the rest of this book is going to be all about what these twelve men are going to do. I mean, after all, isn’t it called The Acts of the Apostles? But remember that the author didn’t put that title on this book, and it really doesn’t turn out that way.

What is this Really About?

You might expect, based on this passage, that Matthias, the man chosen to replace Judas, was about to go on to do great things. Maybe he did, but if he did, this book isn’t at all interested in them. Nor is it really interested in the acts of the other eleven either. Apart from Peter and a few quick mentions of John and James, the twelve mostly drop out of the story which quickly shifts focus to the acts of Peter, the seven deacons, James the brother of Jesus and, in particular, a man named Paul and his companions.

So, why is this little incident even recorded? Well, I’ve got a theory. I think there’s a message hidden in this episode for us. And it’s hidden in the identity of the person you would think of the least. No, not Matthias. The other guy; the guy who didn’t get chosen. He’s a guy that has more names than just about anyone in the New Testament, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus,” but I think he may have also had another name. I think there’s more of his story to be told in this book.

Anticipating the Cast

Joseph stared; he could not look away as Peter took the flat, smooth stone in his hand. It was about the size of a drachma. In fact, if they’d had a drachma, that was what they probably would have used. But amongst them all, all they could scrape together was this flat stone. Peter had taken a knife and roughly scraped letters onto it – a yodh for Joseph on one side and a mem for Matthias on the other. Peter prepared to cast it.

Ever since this meeting of the followers of Jesus had begun, Joseph had had an earworm – a strange melody running through his head. Look at all my trials and tribulations Sinking in a gentle pool of wine…” He felt troubled that the outcome of this one toss seemed to mean so much to him.

Joseph’s Qualifications

He had spent the last few years following Jesus all over the place. He had observed him at work healing and preaching. He had been one of the seventy sent out by Jesus to the towns and villages of Galilee. Most significantly, he had been there at the end and then experienced for himself the reality that Jesus continued to be with his friends even after his death.

All these experiences certainly qualified him to be in a select group – to be counted as on the same level as the twelve apostles. And now that one of the twelve – that traitor Judas – was dead, there was an opening. The thing he had always dreamed of was finally in his grasp. Always hoped that I’d be an apostle. Knew that I would make it if I tried.”

There was just one problem, and the problem was named Matthias. He also had been there for everything – was just as qualified to be one of the twelve as Joseph was. And Peter had been unwilling to choose between the two of them – proposing instead that they should cast lots.

A Well-Known Method

Such a thing had long been an acceptable way of consulting God when faced with a dilemma. As a Levite, Joseph was certainly aware of the ancient Israelite practice of consulting God using the Urim and the Thummim – two stones that were cast and the Levitical priest would then interpret some answer from Yahweh in how they landed on the ground. This was essentially the same kind of process and there was no reason to doubt that God would indeed make his will known through this casting of lots in the same way.

And yet, Joseph could not help himself. He had this nagging feeling in the back of his mind that his entire future was being left to a completely random flip of a coin. As he watched the stone fly up in the air, the earworm continued to play out in his mind. “Then when we retire we can write the gospels So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.” (by Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber)

Mem, it landed on Mem for Matthias. And just like that, Joseph was left with only one question. What was he supposed to do with his life now?


Have you ever had a goal or expectation that you’ve built your whole life around? Maybe it was a career, a prize, a championship, a relationship. You plan for it. You study and train. You spend hours imagining what your whole life will be like once you get it. We have all had things like that in our lives. And you are a rare person indeed if you have never had any of those hopes or dreams squashed. Failure and disappointment are unavoidable in life. And the test is always how are you going to respond when that happens.


There is always a temptation, isn’t there, to let yourself wallow in your bitterness and disappointment? And that bitterness can manifest itself in various ways. For some, they might retreat into apathy and passiveness. They have a hard time finding meaning or purpose in anything. And then there are those, of course, for whom the bitterness comes out in more active ways. They might set out to sabotage the success of the people they perceive as having stolen the thing they desired from them.

And I know that none of you would ever deal with your disappointment in such unconstructive ways any more than I would. But who among us can honestly say that we’ve never felt the temptation to react so unhelpfully to the experience of disappointment? That’s how I know that Joseph must have felt at least a moment of temptation to become bitter or take his disappointment out on his apostolic rival, Matthias. Of course he did! But the question is what did he do with that temptation. Did he let that temptation control him, or did he choose to channel it into something not only constructive but powerfully encouraging?

A Better Response

Maybe Joseph would not have the attention and prominence that he had dreamed of. But he decided to make something of his seemingly diminished role. He determined that, from now on, he would live out his faith in Christ Jesus in a way that maybe would not seek out the limelight, but that would seek to constantly build others up, and maybe especially those who needed that support the most.

So that is what he did. When somebody new came into the church and they struggled to fit in because they were different or because people had a hard time getting past things they had done in the past, Joseph Barsabbas was always the one who went out of his way to welcome them and make introductions while he encouraged others to see them as new people in Christ. When somebody failed or washed out in some project that they had taken on, it was Joseph who went and let them know that it was okay and that everyone could have a second chance.

Selling the Field

And when the whole church in Jerusalem was struggling to meet the needs of the poorest among them, it was Joseph who led the way by selling a field that he had inherited in Cyprus and bringing the proceeds to lay them at the feet of the twelve (including Matthias!). Let them be the ones who got the credit, who used it to provide for each according to their need.

He insisted that nobody needed to know that the money came from him but, somehow, the word got out and others were encouraged to follow his example. That ultimately led to a whole new phase in the life of the church as they expanded their ability to care for one another in the name of Jesus.


No one was quite sure who first suggested the nickname. In fact, maybe the first time it was just something that happened by accident. Somebody referred to him not as Joseph Barsabbas, that is, the son of Sabbas, but just changed one letter and called him Barnabas instead. And as soon as people heard it, it just seemed right to them because Barnabas means the son of encouragement. It didn’t take long until everyone was calling him that. Joseph and his Latin name, Justus, were all but forgotten and everyone just called him Barnabas – including and perhaps especially the apostles and not one of them smiled more broadly when he did so than Matthias.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Some wise man once wrote, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes Well, you might find You get what you need.” I guess you might say that that is what happened for Barnabas. He wanted to have an impact on the world. He wanted to realize something of the vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus had placed before his disciples. And he thought he had it all worked out how he could do that. He wanted to be an apostle and to act with the authority that came with that to make it happen.

But he didn’t get that; it was denied him on the flip of a coin. And he never did quite work out whether he thought that was just random chance or the voice of God. But did it really matter? What mattered was that he chose to take it as an opportunity to accept what he received as a gift from God and to make the most of it.


As I said, Matthias may well have gone on to do great things as one of the twelve. But if he did, we’ll never know because the author of this book never bothered to tell us. But I suspect that he did not want us to miss the impact that was had by Joseph the Son of Encouragement.

Think of his legacy. Not only is he credited with kick-starting the extraordinary economic system of mutual care in the church in Jerusalem, but he is also apparently responsible for the careers of at least two other people who had an extraordinary impact.

Saul of Tarsus

When, for example, a man named Saul showed up at the church in Jerusalem, nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. He had persecuted the Jerusalem church, after all, and gone off to persecute it in Damascus too. And sure, he said that he had changed – that he had met the risen Jesus and now saw things differently. But would you have believed that?

So maybe Saul would have never met the apostles if not for the actions of one man. Any guesses who? Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him.” (Acts 9:27) And then later, when leadership was needed for the church in Antioch, it was Barnabas who went and found Saul (who came to be known as Paul) to recruit him for the job. He set him on his way and then became his first companion in Ministry. (Acts 11:22-30)

John Mark

And later, when Paul rejected a potential companion because he had disappointed him before, Barnabas did it again. He went to the washout, a young man named John Mark, and personally took him on as a companion – he gave him the second chance that Paul didn’t want to give him. That was just the kind of person that the Son of Encouragement was. (Acts 15:37-39)

And if you just take those two people – the Apostle Paul and John Mark who, Christian tradition has it, was the author of the Gospel of Mark, you might say that Barnabas had a greater influence on the future shape of Christianity than did most of the twelve – certainly more than Matthias.


Every one of us has experienced disappointment in our lives. We all know what it is like to have your heart set on one thing and to end up with something else.

Many of us have also made the calculation at some point that, in order to pursue one goal we had to give up on another one. On this Family Sunday, for example, we certainly recognize the huge sacrifices that both mothers and fathers, often make to prioritize the raising of children.

It’s What You Do with it

Such circumstances are a part of life. But the life of Barnabas reminds us that it will always remain up to us what we do with them. I hope he can remind us all of the potential that each one of us has to choose to take our situation as a gift of God and make the most of it. I am sure that all of your lives have been affected by a Barnabas – by someone who resolved to be that encourager and who worked tirelessly in the background. I certainly know a lot of people on this day who would point to their mother as that person.

Thank God for the children of encouragement. And thank God for the great potential that God gives to each of us to respond well to the circumstances of our lives – even those that are created by something as random as the flip of a coin.

Continue reading »

Does anyone object? Anyone? Anyone?

Posted by on Sunday, May 5th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video Here

Hespeler, May 5, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

When I had a class on performing marriages. I remember that the person teaching us gave us a few pieces of practical advice. They said to never marry anybody who was drunk, because you have to be sober to sign a binding contract. They taught us that you had to keep the photographer on a short leash. And they said to never wait too long when you ask that “Does anyone object?” question.

No One Wants an Answer

You have to ask the question, but despite what you see in the movies, you never want somebody to answer it. Nobody wants the whole drama of that scene where somebody comes in and says, “No they need to marry me instead!” That’s going to do nothing but cause trouble on somebody’s wedding day.

And it’s even worse if somebody comes forward claiming to have a valid legal reason for why the marriage shouldn’t take place. Because, if they do, that has to be sorted out before anything else can happen. So, you just ask the question, and you hope against hope that nobody uses it as a last-ditch opportunity to throw the whole wedding off the rails.

How You Ask

But I always feel that millisecond of temptation. What if I actually searched for an answer to that question? “Come on, there’s got to be somebody who objects. How about you sir? You look like somebody who might have a reason for why these two should not be bound in holy matrimony. What is it?” But no, I always play it safe and do my best to make sure that question slips by without incident.

I was thinking about all of that when I looked at our reading from the Book of Acts this morning because the question that Peter asks in it is a lot like that question that I’m supposed to ask at a wedding. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” It basically comes as that one last question that you need to deal with before we can get on with a marriage ceremony – concluding it, not with the sharing of rings but with the covenant of baptism. So, you might expect that it would be asked much like the minister asks the question at a wedding. But I wonder if Peter really asked it like that.

A Romance?

After all, this question does not really come at the end of some romantic tale. It is not as if Peter and this Gentile household have had a whirlwind love affair leading up to this point. There has been no courting or falling in love. On the contrary, Peter has resisted at every step of this relationship.

It all started when Cornelius, the patriarch of this Italian family, had a vision. Cornelius is described as a God-fearer, that is, a Gentile who worships and admires the God of Israel but does not follow all of the requirements of Jewish law concerning circumcision and things like diet. But in this vision, he is told to send for Simon Peter who will instruct him about what he should do.

What it Takes for Peter to Go

Now this, you would think, should be an opportunity that Peter would jump at. The apostles, after all, have been instructed to preach the good news about Jesus to the ends of the earth. That command is in the opening chapter of this book! And here Peter has a golden opportunity to access a whole new people group with this meeting that has been set up by heavenly messengers. But surprisingly, Peter seems to be nothing but reluctant.

While Cornelius’ messengers are on the way to give him the invitation, Peter receives his own vision. He sees a sheet lowered from heaven filled with animals. But the animals are all considered to be unclean according to Jewish law. As a good Jew, Peter has been taught all his life that such animals are disgusting and that no decent person would ever eat them. And so, when, in his vision, he hears the voice of God say, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” he basically replies and says “Yuck, I would never eat such things!” And Peter has this same vision three times in a row.

And when, at the conclusion of the third time through this vision, the messengers from Cornelius show up at the door asking for Simon Peter, the interpretation of the vision seems clear. Even though these Gentiles may be dirty and eat disgusting things, it seems that God wants Peter to go visit them anyway.

Peter’s Reluctance

But just think for a moment about what that means. God had to send a vision to Peter not once, not twice but three times just to persuade him to go out the door towards the home of Cornelius. Peter didn’t want to do it and he needed some pretty extraordinary persuasion just to get in the chariot.

But he goes. And when he gets to the house, he does share with them the good news about Jesus. He has gotten into a bit of a groove in his preaching at this point. But he doesn’t seem to speak with any great expectation. They’re just a bunch of filthy Gentiles after all. He doesn’t really think that this good news is for them. It’s only for people like him.

That seems to be his entire attitude because, when these Gentiles begin to respond in an undeniable way – when they start to speak in an ecstatic manner – all the people who have come with him are completely astounded. They were never looking for such a reaction and there is no indication that Peter feels any differently.

How did He Ask it?

And so, I don’t think we can necessarily assume that when Peter asks the question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” he asks it like we ask the question at a wedding. Doesn’t it make more sense that he’s speaking to his posse and saying something like, “Listen, guys, I realize that it looks like these Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit like we have, but surely somebody can come up with some reason to withhold the water for baptizing them.” The problem with a written story, after all, you never quite know with what expression somebody says something.

And the thing is that there were all kinds of reasons, according to their existing understanding of baptism, to withhold the water for baptism. Gentiles were not circumcised, they ate unclean foods, they did not follow the purity laws that defined the people of Israel. These were all potential red flags at the wedding ceremony, all reasons for raising objections. But the reason why nobody raised those points was that it was actually about something else.

They didn’t like Gentiles. They had these stereotypes and bad feelings about them that they couldn’t get past. But somehow, with the help of the Holy Spirit acting in the lives of this Gentile family, they knew they had to give this relationship a try. But let us not pretend for a moment that any of this was easy for them. It was very hard. And so, I don’t think it unlikely that, even up to the last moment, Peter was still looking for an excuse to stop the whole ceremony.

Part of Our History

And, in many ways, that is a perfect reflection of the history of the church. God is always on the move seeking for the church to grow by drawing more people into it. The good news about Jesus Christ is and always has been good news for everybody. We can find hope. We can find forgiveness where we need it. We can find ways to lay down the burdens that we are carrying and that keep us from being the people that God has always intended for us to be. That is always going to be something that is going to meet a whole lot of people exactly where they need to be met. The problem when it comes to drawing people to Christ is never the message.

The problem is often us, however. We are always on the lookout for reasons to withhold water for baptizing. And it is not because God is putting up those barriers. God is not the one who is saying that this type of person or that type of person has no place in the kingdom of God. We do that.

The most common reflex that we have is the same one that Peter started out with. We assume that if people are not like us, then we shouldn’t have to make a place for them.

Many Kinds of Prejudice

That sense of somebody not being like us can take many different forms. I am quite sure that at least some of the reluctance of people like Peter to include the Gentiles had as much to do with racial and cultural stereotypes as it did with questions about the requirements of the law. And that is a barrier that has continued to stand in the way of the growth of the church throughout its history.

Oh, we will often say that we are only too glad to welcome people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but we also often erect hidden and even overt barriers. Many times, Christian leaders have required people from various backgrounds to give up their cultural heritage, in order to be considered acceptable.

Indigenous Culture

Churches in Canada, for example, including our own, often demanded that indigenous people give up their drums and cut their long hair and braids that were such an essential part of their identity, in order to be considered acceptable Christians. Even churches that made abundant use of incense smoke in their worship, declared that the indigenous use of the smoke of cedar, tobacco, sweet grass and sage were abominations.

We demanded that the First Nations people become culturally like us in order be acceptable. And it is always so easy to fall into that same pattern when we encounter people who come from various ethnicities and cultures.

European settlers who colonized this place came here with the notion that their culture and practices made them superior and that everyone else would need to become like them to be acceptable. We should have learned by now how foolish such ideas were, but we still so easily fall into such ways of seeing the world. And so, we still often assume that someone has to become culturally European to be worthy of the gospel.

Other Reasons

So, demanding cultural assimilation is one of those ways that, historically and still today, we subtly withhold the water. But different cultural backgrounds are not the only reason why we sometimes struggle to give people a place.

In many cases, we have built our churches around certain assumptions about how families are supposed to work. And so, we might make it fairly easy for a family that fits certain traditional patterns, like, for example, a traditionally married couple with kids. But we really struggle when it comes to families that don’t quite fit our traditional expectations. Single-parent families, blended families and families that just don’t fit what we might be used to are given extra barriers when it comes to fitting in.

Oh, once again, it might be subtle and it might only be communicated with a glance or a stray comment, but we do find ways to make it more difficult for those who don’t quite fit our expectations.

God Doesn’t Want to Exclude

The lesson that I would have all of us take away from the story of Peter and Cornelius and his family is this. God doesn’t want to exclude anybody. God doesn’t want to set up any barriers between people and the good news that’s going to bring some hope and light into their lives. The problem with the spread of the gospel has never been on God’s end or any sort of problem or unacceptability with the message.

The problem is us. The problem is that we, like Peter and the others, are constantly looking for some reason to withhold the water. And God is always pushing, sending us messages encouraging us to go out and encounter people where they are. God is not going to let up from sending that message of inclusion two or three times if that’s what we need for it to get through.

But maybe what we need to do is stop looking for reasons to withhold the water, stop finding excuses for why somebody can’t really belong, and just go ahead and take the risk. It is time to love, accept and value people for who they already are.

That’s the power of the gospel. And when we set it free to truly speak to any person’s life wherever they are, here is what we will discover. It doesn’t just have the power to transform that person’s life and bring them hope. It also has the power to transform the church as a whole and bring us all to new life in Christ. Having heard no objections, let the wedding proceed!

Continue reading »

Right Time, Right Place

Posted by on Sunday, April 28th, 2024 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, April 28, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Our reading this morning from the Book of Acts tells the story of an extraordinary encounter between Philip and a man who is described only as a eunuch from Ethiopia. It is one of the most extraordinary stories of a right place at the right time encounter that you may have ever heard. On the one hand, Philip is there, apparently because he has received a divine message directing him to this place, a deserted road in the middle of nowhere.

What About the Ethiopian

That in itself is quite extraordinary. But I’m actually a little bit more curious today about how the other person in the encounter came to be there. It says that he was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

That description makes me ask a few questions. What was he doing on that road? What was an African and a eunuch doing worshiping in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem? And what kind of experience would a man like that have had in that temple at that time? Perhaps even more interesting in an age long before the printing press made books affordable to anybody, how did he get his hands on a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah? There must be quite a backstory before he ever met Philip on that road.

An Ethiopian Jew

His name was Bachos – at least that is the name he is given in Ethiopian Christian tradition. He had lived in Ethiopia all his life but had lived there as an outsider – a Jew. Jews had had thriving settlements in Africa for over seven centuries at that time and, though they had intermarried with the natives, they had maintained their traditions and worship. There was a huge Jewish settlement at Elephantine on the upper Nile where Jewish mercenaries served the Egyptian Pharaoh by guarding his southern frontier. They had even built their own temple there and carried out their own sacrifices.

Bachos’ parents had come from there. They had travelled south to Ethiopia to seek opportunities and a better life for their children. And they had placed many of their hopes upon their eldest son. The operation he had had to undergo had been a necessary part of that.

A Rise in Court

Ethiopia was prosperous and ruled by a powerful queen, called the Candace, who was wise and beloved. Her faithful servants were rewarded with wealth beyond all dreams. But, in order to gain such a privileged position, the Candace needed to know that her servants were devoted to her alone.

It was understood that, if a man could have a child, he would be honour bound to provide for his family first. It would be shameful for him to do otherwise. So, there was a requirement to cut off even the possibility of having children.

And so, it had been done. It was a great risk for his parents to take, of course, for there was no guarantee that he would even get a position at court. But that gamble paid off. Bachos was smart and talented. He quickly rose in the ranks of the civil service until he had control of the Candace’s vast treasury. It was everything that his parents had ever dreamed of.

Personal Discontent

But was Bachos content? He was daily aware of the enormous price he had been forced to pay for his success. He wondered what all his wealth meant and if it would all come to nothing when he was dead. He began to seek out a deeper meaning in his life and some sense of something that would last beyond this present life.

Having been raised among the Ethiopians, he had been constantly surrounded by Ethiopian gods and the worship of them. He had mostly gone along with the local customs to get along. But as time went by, he found that the teachings about Wak, the Adbar and Ayana were not satisfying his deep craving for meaning. He decided to explore the Jewish heritage that he had mostly forgotten.


He went to his queen, fell to his knees and begged for permission to connect with his roots and find the meaning he was craving. He wanted to go all the way to Jerusalem and the great temple of the God Yahweh. The Candace understood that this would be a very long journey and that she would be without one of her most trusted eunuchs for nearly a year. But she was a wise woman. She had seen him struggle with his identity and purpose. She knew that, if he was granted this, it might make him a better servant. And so, she granted him permission to go.


Five months, that was how long it took to get to Jerusalem. He had found a ship on the Red Sea that had taken him to Lower Egypt. He had seen the pyramids and ancient Egyptian temples on the way to the great city of Alexandria. There he had connected with the large Jewish community in that city – studying for a while in their synagogue and learning a great deal about their understanding of the tradition. But he still felt as if he had to go to Jerusalem. And so, he took a ship and sailed to Gaza and then hired a chariot to drive to the city.

The Court of the Gentiles

The temple at Jerusalem, even after the incredible wonders he had seen in Egypt, was a marvel. The courtyard of the Gentiles was filled with people, not only with locals and with Jews who had been dispersed all over the known world, but also with many Gentiles who had come to see this famous place and to observe the strange Jewish rituals.

But Bachos was not here just to observe strange customs. He wanted to connect to his own heritage. And so, he headed across the courtyard to the gate that led to the court of the people of Israel. It was also known as the women’s court because there was another court further in that was reserved for Israelite men. The gates to each court would be a test.

The Court of Women

There were temple guards at the gate. And as he approached, they looked him up and down with clear skepticism. He could understand why, though it did feel vaguely insulting to him. His skin was much darker than that of almost anyone he could see beyond the gate. His facial features looked different. And his black hair was thicker and curlier. It was like he could hear what they were thinking. He certainly didn’t seem to belong here.

But when he was asked, he could provide the names of his Jewish ancestors back almost a dozen generations. They let him through with a few sideway glances.

The Court of Men

The next gate was a little bit more complicated though. As he approached, he could tell that the low-level priests standing by the door were examining him carefully. They saw, in the shape of his face and his body, the telltale signs of someone who had been mutilated in childhood.

As he drew near, one of them stepped forward to block his path with a sneer. “Sorry, friend, but this court is restricted only to the men of Israel. I do not believe that your kind is allowed. And that immediately started something.


When Jews have the leisure to study and discuss the Torah, they love nothing more than to argue and disagree with one another. And so, the whole area around the gate almost immediately erupted into a great shouting match. On one side were those who agreed with the man who had barred the door. “The law is quite clear,” one cried. “Does is not say in the Fifth Book of Moses that ‘No one whose…’ well, that no one like him…  ‘shall come into the assembly of Adonai’?” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

But others quickly came forward to argue. “Ah, but does not the Prophet Isaiah say, “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3-5)

Bachos’ Reaction

Bachos really just wanted to go into the courtyard – to be in the place where the God of Israel was said to meet with his people. He was looking to experience God. But instead, he had suddenly become a thing for people to fight over! None of them seemed to care about him. They just cared about being right!

Even those who were arguing for him to be given access only seemed be speaking of him as if he were an inanimate object – and a flawed one at that! And we often do that, don’t we? We often value being right more than we value the people who cross our paths. Such an attitude is damaging both to us and to the people we encounter.

Bachos was turned off. Somehow this was not quite what he had been looking forward to. He quietly slipped away while the learned scholars continued to argue over him, not even realizing that he was gone.

The Words of the Prophet

But there was one thing that remained with him from that encounter at the gate. The words that one of the scholars had shouted, the words that he said were spoken by the Prophet Isaiah, they remained with him. In fact, he couldn’t quite get them out of his head.

He hadn’t completely understood what the man had said. He did not speak the local Aramaic very well; the language of the small Jewish community in Ethiopia was quite different. But he had certainly picked up the idea that, according to this prophet, there really was a place for eunuchs, at least in the heart of God if not in the court of the congregation of Israel.

The Bookseller

And so, he decided that he needed to know something more about the words of Isaiah and his book. The court of the Gentiles was surrounded by a covered walkway lined with pillars. Various shops were set up along this walkway for the sale of sacrificial animals, incense and various other things. There was a small booth that contained a few scrolls. The Scroll of Isaiah was prominently displayed among them. It was obviously a popular work.

It would have been painstakingly copied out by hand by some slave. When Bachos’ eye caught sight of it as he walked past, he suddenly realized that this was the reason why he had been drawn to this place. It was not to perform a sacrifice in the court of the Israelites. He had been brought here to be connected with this book.

An Arm and a Leg for a Scroll

When he asked the price of the scroll, he winced at the answer. With that kind of money, he could probably buy a second house for himself back in Ethiopia. But, of course, what need did he have for a second house? He didn’t even have anyone to pass his one residence onto when he was gone. The Candace had been incredibly generous to him over the years, but none of it meant much of anything to him. And so, he arranged for his chariot driver, a very large man that no one would ever dream of robbing, to come by later with enough gold coins to purchase the scroll.

Reading on the Road

And now, as that driver steered the horses down the desert road, Bachos had the scroll spread out on his knees while he strained to read the Hebrew script. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

It was not easy reading – trying to make out the characters syllable by syllable while the chariot bounced along beneath him. But he was grateful to be forced to read so slowly. It was making him think and ask so many questions. “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” (Isaiah 53:7-8)

A Personal Message

He was struck by the words. They reminded him of his own journey, of the fear that he had felt when his parents had taken him for the operation. He had tried not to think of the unfairness of it all – the injustice of what he had been put through as little more than a child. And, though he hated to think of it, there was a sense in which he had indeed felt cut off from the land of the living ever since.

Now, Bachos had never felt as if anyone could understand his deepest feelings – never until now. But now his mind was left reeling. “About whom,” he asked himself, “does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” He needed to know who could understand his feelings. But he did not know the answer.

That was when he heard the voice of someone who had seemingly come out of nowhere in this desert place. “Do you understand what you are reading?” the stranger wanted to know.

The Gift of Belonging

We don’t really know what the backstory is for the eunuch being on that road to Gaza. But if he had gone to Jerusalem to worship – either as a Gentile (which certainly happened) or as an expatriate Jew – he would have no doubt been treated as an outsider, both as an African and as a eunuch. Even if he was a Jew, most would have had trouble accepting him as a true Israelite, as a man and maybe even as a human being.

We don’t really know what Philip said to him to make him feel like he did belong somewhere. We just know that he began with that passage in Isaiah and used it to tell him the good news about Jesus. But I suspect that, whatever he told him about the good news, the thing that got his attention was that he told him that he could be loved and valued for who he was – that, even if he fit in nowhere else, he had a place in the heart of Christ. That is where the good news always begins.

Continue reading »

“By What Name?” “What is on Second!”

Posted by on Sunday, April 21st, 2024 in Minister, News

Hespeler, April 21, 2024 © Scott McAndless – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

I would like to start by reminding you all of what is probably the greatest comedy routine ever created. I am speaking, of course, of the one that goes kind of like this.

Costello: Look Abbott, if you’re the coach, you must know all the players.

Abbott: I certainly do.

Costello: Well you know I’ve never met the guys. So you’ll have to tell me their names, and then I’ll know who’s playing on the team.

Abbott: Oh, I’ll tell you their names, but you know it seems to me they give these ball players now-a-days very peculiar names.

Costello: Funny names?

Abbott: Strange names, pet names...Well, let’s see, we have on the St Louis team, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…

Costello: That’s what I want to find out.

Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: Are you the manager?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: You gonna be the coach too?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: And you don’t know the fellows’ names?

Abbott: Well I should.

Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy playing…

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: I’m asking you who’s on first.
Full routine!

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Explaining Comedy

Now, I know that comedy shouldn’t need to be explained in order to be funny, but I would just like for us to reflect for a moment on why that particular routine works. Abbott and Costello are both using the very same words, but they mean something entirely different by what they say. That is the premise of the bit. But the reason why the humour works so well is because, through the genius of their writing and delivery, we, the listeners, are made to feel as if we are smarter than both of them.

We understand that every time Abbott uses the word “who,” he’s referring to a player’s nickname. But every time Costello uses the word who, he’s using it as an interrogative pronoun. We are smart enough not only to understand that but also to understand that the people on both sides of this conversation do not understand each other at all.

There is an inherent humour in that kind of situation where two parties are failing to understand each other despite using the same words. And it’s always funnier when we feel superior because we are in on the joke. And I actually think that this is the kind of humour that the Book of Acts has set up for us in our reading this morning.

Peter, John and the Council

In our reading, the Apostles Peter and John have been dragged in front of the council in Jerusalem who want to know something very specific about something they have done to disturb the peace. We didn’t read the whole story, so you need to understand that it all started when these two men were at the temple and were accosted by a lame man begging at the gate. Peter didn’t have any money to give him and so decided instead to heal him in the name of Jesus.

When a man that everyone knew had been lame from birth suddenly started walking and leaping and praising God, well, you can imagine that people noticed. A crowd quickly gathered. And Peter began to speak to them, preaching about Jesus, his death and resurrection. At this point the council had the two men arrested and brought in for questioning.

Now the reason why they arrested them was specifically because they were causing a disturbance by preaching to the people. They were riling up the crowd and the council was particularly upset because Peter had been accusing the Jewish leadership of aiding and abetting in the execution of Jesus. But Peter and John, apparently, thought that they had been arrested for something else.

The Misunderstanding

And that is where the Abbott and Costello routine begins. The council asks the apostles, By what power or by what name did you do this?” And since they brought these people in for disturbing the peace and stirring up the crowd, what they mean by “this” is obvious to them. They are asking who said that they could cause this trouble.

But what we don’t realize is that there are a whole bunch of social assumptions behind that question that are not apparent to us. That question meant something very specific in that kind of situation. But in order to understand that we need to understand something essential about ancient Mediterranean Society.


The most important social power in that society did not rest with kings or priests but actually with a group of people who were known as patrons. Patrons were wealthy and influential people. They were also usually men. And the more powerful a patron was, the more clients he had.

The patron-client relationship was very much a two-way relationship. The patron did things for his clients. He would get them jobs and favours and defend them in court. If the need arose, he would send his thugs to beat up someone who insulted his client.

But the clients also owed a great deal to their patrons. They would vote the way their patron told them. They would turn out and cheer anytime their patron did something in public. Whatever their patron asked of them, they would do. And, of course, if they ever disappointed their patron in any way, the punishment would be swift.

Behind Everything

Behind the scenes, almost everything in the entire Roman Empire was run by the patronage system. The most powerful patrons could count whole cities, towns and villages among their clientele. Indeed, the only thing that made the emperor so powerful was the fact that he had more clients than anybody else, including, of course, many powerful patrons in their own right.

Even more important, though, no one could escape this power structure. Everyone had to be a client of somebody. Even slaves, the moment that they were given their freedom, automatically became the clients of their former masters.

So, when the council asks Peter and John by what power or name they were acting when they caused the disturbance, they are asking who their patron is. They are essentially asking what powerful and wealthy person they need to complain to who will discipline these two unruly men for what they have done. They think that they are telling Peter and John that they are in deep trouble.

Peter and John’s Understanding

But Peter and John do not get any of that because they completely misunderstand the question in an Abbott and Costello way. When the council asks, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” they think they are asking about something else entirely. “Rulers of the people and elders,” they reply, “if we are being questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are being asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

Did you catch that? As far as the apostles are concerned, they have been arrested, not for causing a disturbance and trash-talking the council, but for doing a “good deed” by healing a lame man. And, instead of being interrogated about who their patron is who can rein in their rowdiness, they assume that the council wants to know what name has the power to bring about such a powerful healing. They may be using the same words, but they are talking about something completely different.

Why the Writer is Doing This

And if this episode were written by a mid-twentieth-century comedy team, that misunderstanding would be stretched out for a while and hilarity would ensue. But the author of the Book of Acts is interested in more than just making us laugh. He does, however, want to make use of one element of the comedic scenario. He wants us, the readers, to be in on the joke. He wants us to realize that, in this situation, we are smarter than both sides of this conversation because we actually understand what each is talking about.

You see, this story is not just about the power of the name of Jesus to bring about healing in somebody’s life. It is about that, of course. But the author is using this story to expand our understanding of the power of that name. In fact, I believe that he has set up this whole comedy routine to get us to think about the power of the name of Jesus in a new way.

Showing Us Deeper Meaning

You see, the members of the council have asked a question according to their understanding of how power and authority work in their world. They’ve asked for the name of Peter and John’s patron. Peter and John have answered according to their experience of the power of the name of Jesus to bring healing.

But the very juxtaposition of those two quite different understandings of the meaning of a name is designed to make us ask a question. And that question is, what does the powerful divine name of Jesus do when it is put up against the powerful secular names of our world? It turns out, you see, that the name of Jesus might just be powerful in ways that even the disciples have not yet suspected.

Power in Jesus’ Name

I am not sure to what extent Peter and John have understood the power of Jesus’ name at this point. They know it is powerful to heal, that it connects with people where they are struggling and in need of help. But they just seem to be coming to understand something more about its power. It is not that Jesus is their patron (at least not in the way that the council would have understood that), it is that the name of Jesus calls into question the very system of patronage and its lines of power and authority. And so, Peter boldly proclaims that there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now my purpose in talking about all of this is not to explain an ancient joke. Nor is it to give you a lesson about how power and authority worked in the ancient Roman Empire. That is, quite literally, ancient history that has little effect on life today. What I would like you to learn is not to do what the members of the council and, to a certain extent, Peter and John did. Do not underestimate the power of the name of Jesus.

More Power than You Thought

It is a name that is powerful to bring healing. Because Jesus entered into our suffering and weakness – especially doing so upon the cross – he certainly can meet us in our suffering and our struggles. And when we go out in that name to share love and compassion, we will learn firsthand the power that is in the name. That is what Peter and John had discovered in the temple.

But when they were brought before the council, they discovered the power of Jesus’ name to call into question the lines of power and authority in their society. They discovered that the name was stronger than the most powerful patrons. And I believe that we are greatly in need of discovering that power as well.

Our Power Systems

Though we live in a democratic country where, at least in theory, everything is not supposed to be controlled by a small group of wealthy and elite influences, we often discover that it doesn’t work out that way.

Wealthy companies and corporations certainly seem to have a lot of control over what we have to pay to get the basics of life. Influential developers seem to exercise a lot of power over what kinds of housing can be built and how much it costs in the midst of a housing crisis. Powerful influences seem to be at work to make sure that wages do not keep pace with inflation.

Now, none of these nebulous entities have official power. We did not vote to give them this influence. They tend to work in back rooms and behind the scenes much like the patronage system did in the ancient world. But their impact on our lives – often greater than that of elected officials – is undeniable.

Challenging Names

And I don’t know about you, but I am often dismayed by how this prevents us from building the kind of country and society that we actually desire and need. And I think that kind of dismay has become so common, that it has made us apathetic and prone to give in to despair about the possibility of anything ever changing.

If only there were a name that was powerful enough to call into question the hidden powers and authorities of our present world. Wouldn’t that be something if we could tap into that kind of power? Well, apparently that was what Peter and John realized they had tapped into on that day before the council.

That name still exists, and it is still that powerful. The question is, what wouldn’t we be able to do if we were able to truly believe that?

Continue reading »