Author: Scott McAndless

Overwhelmed

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

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/FaD_EyrYCgM

Hespeler, 26 July 2020 © Scott McAndless
1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, Mat 13:31-33, 44-52

Have you ever heard someone say, “Don’t worry, God won’t send you more trouble than you can handle.” It is a phrase that is so common, repeated by so many people, that you maybe just assumed that it came from the Bible. You may have even gone looking for that verse. Or maybe you are thinking right now, yes, I’m going to go look for that verse later.

If that is what you are thinking, let me save you a little bit of time. You won’t find it; it’s not there. The Bible never promises you anything of the sort. But I probably don’t need to tell you that because, really, this year of 2020 has, up until this point, pretty much been continual demonstration that the troubles of this world can come at you and be totally overwhelming. And, because it is 2020 and not one of us has any clue what yet might be in store for us during this year, I just want to say that it is time for us to give up on that saying and that, if you have been or are feeling completely overwhelmed these days, you shouldn’t feel bad about that. You should not feel as if you have failed somehow. I suspect we’ve all felt like that at some point this year.

So, that is what the Bible doesn’t promise you in a year like this, but I think we’re all looking for a little bit of encouragement at this point. So, let’s ask, what does the Bible promise us? Well, if there was ever a good passage to read during a bad year, I think that the passage we read from the letter to the Romans this morning is a good place to turn. God may not promise you not to send anything you can’t handle, but he does promise you this: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And, while that other saying might set us up for some unrealistic expectations, I do think that this one is particularly helpful at a moment like this.

It doesn’t say that everything that happens is good or even that everything happens for a purpose. That, by the way, is another trap we easily fall into, thinking that every bad thing that happens must have some divine purpose behind it. That sets people up, makes them think that, if only they can figure out this hidden purpose behind whatever tragedy they are dealing with, everything will all just make sense and everything will be good. I have known people who drove themselves into mental and bodily illness in a fruitless quest to find the purpose behind various tragedies they have lived through.

I have also seen well-meaning friends and family members torture their loved ones with speculation about the purpose they claim to see in a tragedy. I knew a couple, for example, whose daughter had died at a young age of cancer. That is, of course, a horrible thing for anyone to live through. But it was made worse, for them, by the people around them at that time who kept trying to explain to them the purpose that they thought God had in making that terrible thing happen. None of the proposed purposes was good enough, of course, and I met this couple years later and they were still tortured by a question that, I believe, really had no answer.

So it’s not that everything that happens is good or has a purpose, the promise, instead, is that God makes things work together for good or, to put it another way, that God has a way of bringing good out of even the worst circumstances. I think that this is an important difference. I don’t pretend to understand why God allows various bad things to happen in this world. I happen to believe that God is just as grieved when people die in a pandemic or in a war as any of us are – probably more so. But even in the worst of circumstances, God does have a way of bringing good out of it.

I’ve seen that throughout this pandemic. There really is this potential for good things to come out of it – for communities to pull together, for us to rethink how we treat and how we value people who do essential work, to do a better job in long-term care and there are many other great things that could and should come out of it.

22That doesn’t mean that these positive things will all happen, of course. In fact, as I look at the response to this crisis and how people are retrenching and protecting old privileges, I am often worried that the people in charge are going to stubbornly resist learning anything from this whole thing and that powerful forces will exert themselves to make sure that nothing really changes. But whether we manage to find the good and bring it out of the bad thing that happens, I think, is up to us. And we’ve got some work to do to make sure it happens. God’s promise is to work to make that good a possibility.

But, still it has to be said, even if all that good did come from this pandemic, I would not suggest, even for a moment, that that is something that would make the suffering, the death and the deprivation all worthwhile. It doesn’t work that way – no positive outcome could make that a fair exchange.

And as for purpose, there is purpose to be found in this and in every tragedy, that is also a promise that is made in this passage. But note that Paul doesn’t say that the purpose is to be found in the tragedy itself. This is what he says: All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” The purpose, you need to understand, is not in the tragedy or the bad thing that happens. The purpose is in you. You, as someone who loves God, have a purpose. God calls you according to his purpose for you.

What does that mean? It means that, while it is often a fool’s errand to try and find the purpose in some particular tragedy, you may always believe that there is a purpose for you that you can realize in the midst of whatever your circumstances are. That purpose is most completely fulfilled in love. That’s what Paul has to mean when he refers to those who love God.

When you’re in the midst of some awful events, you do have a purpose. You are called to comfort and support others according to your ability. Or sometimes, when you are truly overwhelmed and have nothing to spare, your purpose can simply be accepting that, in this moment, you are called to receive love and compassion and care from other people.

Paul goes on to write, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Paul wrote this as someone who had experienced hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword in his work of preaching the gospel. And he was writing it to people who had also experienced these things or lived in fear of experiencing them.

They all understood that the promise was not that God would never send you any trial that you couldn’t handle because nobody can handle all of that. Nobody can go through it without feeling overwhelmed. And I think we all have a better understanding today about what it means to handle hardship. When this crisis started back in the middle of March, I think that most of us felt like we could ride out the storm. We would hunker down, load up on some supplies – hopefully score a big pile of toilet paper as if that was all that really mattered – and we’d make it through this thing. But then we all know what happened, it dragged on and on and on a psychological level and a physical level it became harder and harder to bear.

I’m not trying to suggest, of course, that we are living through the worst tragedy that human beings have ever had to deal with – far from it – but I’m just saying that the length of this and the uncertainty of the length have definitely taken their toll on us. And it has given us a taste of what it is like to be in a situation where everything is out of control and you just can’t handle it. That happens. That is part of life in this world and people of faith, people who love Jesus, are never given the promise that they will be spared that.

But the promise that Paul gives us in this passage is significant. He is promising you that, though you may pass through some trials, nothing you have to face is going to separate you from the love of God that has been shown to you in Christ Jesus. You may sometimes feel overwhelmed. You may have things going on in your life or in the world around you that you just can’t handle. What Paul is promising is that when you are overwhelmed by circumstances, God will overwhelm you with love.

So those are the truths and those are the promises that you need to be holding onto, especially in uncertain times like these. But that still leaves us with one lingering question: how are we supposed to manage all of this? I mean, it is all well and good for me to stand here and tell you that nothing bad that could happen to you could possibly separate you from the love of God, but, when you’re in the middle of it, when you are feeling totally overwhelmed by what is going on, what are you supposed to do with those feelings? What are you supposed to do to help you cope in the middle of it?

I believe that the number one tool that God gives us to help us cope when we are feeling overwhelmed is prayer. In fact, sometimes prayer is nothing more and nothing less than the act of admitting to yourself and to God that you are overwhelmed. It is saying to God, I know I can’t handle this. I mean, I’ll do what I can. I’ll try and do the best that I can for the people I care for in this situation, but I just know that there are parts of this that are out of my control and so, God, I’m going to have to hand those things off to you. Prayer is simply the act of giving over to God what you know that you can’t carry.

But there is a problem that may come with that when you are feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes the situation is so complex that you honestly do not know what is needed and what is going to help. And so people might wonder how they can pray when they don’t even know what they’re hoping for or what to ask for.

Paul speaks to that very issue in this passage. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” You see, prayer is not really an exercise in figuring out what is needed in a situation and then telling God what to do about it. Prayer is first of all about God meeting us where we are. And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed, we cannot even put into words what we want or what we need.

The promise we are given in that kind of situation is this: nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not our inability to pray, not our inability to express what we need, not our feeling of being overwhelmed. When all we have left are the cries and groans of our own hearts, God can and does meet us there. The promise is not that we will be spared the troubles of this world. The promise is that we do not have to face them alone and without the support of the love of God. And that, I promise you, is what you need most.

Many people have no doubt been wondering why it is that we are the ones who have to deal with the crises of our present time. I don’t have an answer to that question, I only have a promise. God is alive and God is with his people to support those who lean upon him and who trust in him. And I know that that is enough.

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Who put all those weeds among my wheat?

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

https://youtu.be/_nJONypA7KM

Hespeler, 19 July 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Many years ago, I was called on to do a funeral. The family really only had a slight connection to the church where I was ministering, but they were hurting and grieving and I wanted to be able to do my very best for them – to say something that would give them comfort. But finding those words was not necessarily going to be easy.

You see, this was the situation. The person who had died was a beloved daughter, sister and aunt. She had died far too young and she had struggled. She had struggled, specifically, with alcoholism. She knew it was a problem. She knew that it caused no end of problems for the people who loved her. She knew she needed to stop drinking and she had tried – oh how hard she had tried! But she never succeeded for anything longer than a short season. We were gathering for her funeral because she had finally drunk herself to death.

And what do you say? What can you possibly say under those kinds of circumstances that will be of any help? I didn’t have a clue, but I did have a resource. I turned, as I always do, to the scriptures for help. I often turn first, when I am in need, to the parables of Jesus – they just seem to be able to speak so powerfully to a surprising array of circumstances. And something drew my heart to the particular parable that we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds.

Picture of weeds growing in a field of wheat.

Now, you might think at first glance that this parable really doesn’t have anything helpful to say about a woman who has drunk herself to death because, of course, the Gospel gives us an interpretation of this parable – an interpretation that declares that it is all about judgement and the end of the world and people burning up forever and ever. I am not personally inclined to preach about such things at any funeral, and I especially wasn’t at this one. But you need to know something about interpreting the parables of Jesus. One interpretation may be given to us in the Gospel of Matthew and it is a good and true one, but the power of a parable of Jesus is quite limitless. If you come to a parable with a need, I believe that Jesus can and does meet you in that need.

So, as I came to this parable in my need, I believe that Jesus spoke to me through it. He showed me that this poor too-young woman, like the field in the story, had been founded in so much good. She was loved. She was smart. She had so much potential. And, what’s more, so much of that goodness had stayed with her throughout her troubled life. Her family still loved her – they had put up with a lot, but they still loved her. And she had touched the lives of her friends and family in some very meaningful and sustaining ways.

And yet, despite all of that, a great deal of evil had crept into her life. Most of it had come in the form of addiction and of the side effects of addiction. Her life was like a field that had been sown with good seed but that had become overrun with weeds. And I know where we like to get hung up at this point of the story. We want to know where that evil came from. Was it all on her and her responsibility for the choices that she made? Or was this actually an evil that came upon her from outside of her? As we might ask it today, is alcoholism a disease or is it simply the result of bad moral choices? Alcoholism is a disease, and yet, it is one that is often driven by our choices. The question doesn’t have a simple answer.

And isn’t it interesting that the parable of Jesus gets hung up over that very point as well? When the weeds first show up in the garden, the slaves ask that very question. Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” Now I’ve always figured that this was an odd question because I’ve got to tell you something: I’ve planted many seeds in many gardens in my life. Every single time I’ve done so, I’ve had weeds come up. I’ve never thought to ask where weeds came from. I’ve always just figured that weeds were something that just happened when you planted something.

But the master operates under a different theory. He apparently has absolutely no doubt when he blames all of the weeds on an external enemy: “He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’” So there is some strange debate in this parable about the origin of evil in the world and in the lives of people like that woman who had died. But, and this is the really important point, the point of the parable is not to argue over where the evil comes from in this world. The point is to talk about what we do with this evil and what its ultimate fate is.

Here is the plan that the master comes up with for dealing with the weeds. “The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” Now, as I sat there preparing for that particular funeral and reflecting on that poor woman’s life, the meaning of that part of the parable was only too clear to me.

As the beloved friends and family of that woman sat there in that funeral, they knew only too well what it was to see a mix of weeds and wheat in somebody’s life. To be with her, to have her in their lives, meant that they had had to put up with a whole lot of bad things. They had had to put up with benders, with drunken fights, with bailing her out of jail or visiting her in hospital. They had to put up with crushing disappointment again and again.

And yet they didn’t have to put up with any of it, did they? They could have gotten all of those weeds out of their lives by simply kicking her out of their lives. But not one of them ever considered doing so because that would have meant losing all of the good times and the love and the really wonderful memories that they had shared with her. Despite all the problems, they loved her and she loved them and they would not have given that up. Oh, they knew exactly what the master was talking about when he said that you had to let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side.

And then we get to the punchline of the parable. What happens at the end? What happens when the weeds in her life finally lead to her drinking herself to death and the family comes together to mourn that passing? What happens at harvest time? “At harvest time,” says the master, “I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”

That I also believe they understood. They knew that the weeds of her life had been hard on her and on all of them, but that was all done now. It was over and it would all be burned away. But the good stuff – the wheat – the happy memories, the shared laughter, the times when she had been there for them and they for her – those were treasures that would be stored up forever and ever like so much wheat gathered and stored up in barns.

And that was it, that was the message that I received in my particular need to say something uplifting in a very difficult circumstance. God showed me how that parable was really spoken for that woman and her family to teach me something about the grace of God. It spoke to me about her life and its value more than it did about her death and her place in the afterlife – other, I suppose, than to say that she was now in the hands of a God who probably understood what she had struggled with far better than any of us. I honestly believe that none of us could possibly ever be in better hands beyond the grave. But, as you can no doubt see as I recount the story now, the lesson of that parable has remained with me and continues to speak to me.

And I’m going to tell you something. Whenever, in the garden of this world, I see weeds coming up in situations where we all thought that only wheat had been sown, you can bet that I return2 to this parable in my heart. I don’t just apply it individuals who have lived troubled lives, but to larger developments as well. When, for example, a deadly pandemic shows up and disturbs everything we had taken for granted about this world, I come back to this parable. I don’t spend a lot of time arguing with myself or with others over the origin of the badness that is in the pandemic – whether it was sown among us by some nameless enemy or whether it is just a product of natural functions. I just recognize that it’s here – that the weeds have grown up among the wheat. And, yes, that does mean that, for now, we are going to be experiencing a lot of really bad stuff like limitations on gatherings and people getting sick and some people dying. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good crops growing at a time like this as we are forced to look at life in new ways, to recognize the value of people, like essential workers, that we have neglected, as we experience creativity and possibilities we never dreamed of before. Some good things will come of this, and I know that that doesn’t make covid-19 worthwhile. But it does mean that sometimes you can’t uproot the one and still keep the other.

Or think of some of the other terrible things that we have seen recently – George Floyd dying on the ground with a policeman’s knee on his neck in Minneapolis, a young indigenous woman, Chantel Moore, shot to death during what was supposed to have been a wellness check, people upset and protesting on the streets with the occasional predictable side effect of rioting, looting and violent reactions from the police. It is all bad stuff, the evil of this world at its worse. These are weeds, honestly, that have been there in our society for a long time but, in recent days, we have noticed them much more clearly growing up among the wheat that we thought we had planted in our society.

And, once again, we could get caught up in a discussion about where these weeds come from and who planted them among us. I could probably name a few enemies, both human and supernatural, who have sown such weeds. But, rather than arguing on the sources, we ought to put our energy into figuring out what to do about the weeds. And I am very sure that we will find that there will be a great deal of trouble pulling out those particular weeds without disturbing a lot that is really good in our society. We may have to put up with some disquiet and unrest for a while but, if we do so and if we work on it, I really do believe that we can create a better harvest in this world and a harvest in which more people will feel that they have a part.

When I got the call to do that funeral so many years ago, I knew it would not be an easy task to figure out what to say. But I will never regret agreeing to do that service because, in that work, God spoke to me in a pretty powerful way and gave me a message that I keep with me and that comforts me and gives me peace as I deal with some of the very difficult events of life in this world. I will be forever grateful to that woman who lived a very troubled life and yet who taught me something vital about the kingdom of God. That was the good harvest that I received from a difficult job that I was once given to comment on a life that was filled with weeds and with wheat.

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Can I interest you in a nice bowl of stew?

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

Sermon video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLhO1PftoUc

Hespeler, 12 July, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

When the ancient people of Israel gathered around their campfires, they did what all ancient people did: they told stories. And the stories they told taught them who they were, who their God was and about the peoples who were their neighbours. The stories were remembered and passed down and some of them were eventually even written down and preserved in the Bible.

We read one such story this morning in the Book of Genesis – the story of two brothers – twins – Jacob and Esau. The Israelites told stories about Jacob because they saw him as their common ancestor. In Jacob’s actions and heroics, his adventures and mistakes, they saw indications of who they were and who they were supposed to be. Esau, for his part, was claimed as the ancestor of another people, the Edomites, who lived in the land just southeast of the ancient Kingdom of Judah.

The Israelites clearly felt that they had a close kinship with the Edomites. Why else would they picture the founders of those two nations as twin brothers? And the connections were quite clear. The two peoples spoke a very similar Semitic language. They had very similar customs and even religion. The chief God of the Edomites was called Qos, a God who is described in very similar terms to Yahweh, the God of Israel, leading some to speculate that maybe Qos was merely another name for Yahweh.

The Israelites knew that the Edomites were a proud, strong and noble people, but, for a long time, they also saw them as a subjugated people. The Judahites ruled over the Edomites and there are some indications in the Bible that the Judahites may have mistreated the Edomites, so much so that the Edomites celebrated Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.

And I believe that, when people do that, when they demean, mistreat or exploit another people group on the basis of their race, creed or identity, something inside them at some deep level tells them that this is wrong. Something creates a desire to justify such an attitude and so what they do is tell stories. Every racist, for example, has a stock of stories that they can tell you that, in their mind, proves that all people of a certain race are dirty or devious or lazy or whatever vile thing they happen to believe. Racists need those stories to justify themselves. If they lose those stories, their racism will be undermined. That’s how powerful stories are.

Well, I believe that the stories of Jacob and Esau, for at least some Israelites, fulfilled that kind of role. These stories convinced them that those blasted Edomites deserved every bad thing that happened to them. But all stories, including racist stories, can be seen from another angle. And that made me wonder. If what we have in Genesis is the story that the Israelites told each other about the Edomites around their campfires, what stories did the Edomites tell around theirs?

Exhausted after another long day, the Edomite tribespeople settle in around their evening cook fire. They are a tough people and have never minded hard work but these days there is plenty of grumbling because they see so little of the fruits of their own labour. They also grumble over the food that they share. It consists mostly of a stew made with the rations that are provided to them by their overlords – rations that mostly consist of lentils. The stew is nutritious and gives them the strength they need to continue to work, but the diet is monotonous and red lentils are a food mostly considered to be fit for slaves.

Eating together like this always reminds them of the noble heritage that they have, but also of the sovereignty over their own affairs that they lack, but no one wants to dwell on the grimness of their situation. So, before long, voices begin to clamour for some diversion. The best storyteller in the tribe is besieged with requests. “Tell us the story of our great ancestor. Tell us the story of Edom, whom the Judahites call Esau.”

As storytellers are wont to do, the old man demurs, insists that surely there must be somebody else who has a story to tell, but, in the end, he gives in as he always does and the people fall silent as the story begins.

“Edom was the firstborn son of Isaac by his wife Rebekah. He was born to be a prince among men, but, even before his birth, his way was troubled by his brother. For there were two children in the womb of Rebekah and Edom’s brother, though he was always a scrawny and skinny little thing, harassed and harried Edom as he grew. The contention between them became so violent that their mother could barely stand it and she feared that she might die.

“That was when she went and inquired of the Oracle of Qos, whom the Israelites call Yahweh. And the Oracle of Qos answered her saying: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided.’”

The faces that shine in the firelight all nod at the familiar words of the oracle. The words of the poem are often repeated to explain the enmity between the two nations. But the people then visibly lean forward to listen to the next words, knowing full well that there are two different versions.

“‘The elder shall be stronger than the other,’ the storyteller continues to the murmured approval of the people. ‘But watch out for that younger one, he’ll be a tricky bastard.’” That line always brings forth a peal of derisive laughter.

“When the time came for the twins to be born, Mother Rebekah brought them into the world. The firstborn was strong and had a red complexion and so Rebecca called him Edom, the red one. He was all covered in hair even as he left the womb, surely another sign that he would be powerful and manly. But even that moment of triumph, the moment of his birth, was marred by his brother who came after him grasping his heel and so they called him Jacob, the grasper, and so he remained.”

“Edom grew and became a powerful man. He was a hunter who ranged far and wide. There was no beast that he could not take down with his spear and his bow. He was the mightiest of all hunters since Nimrod.

“His twin brother, the grasper, for his part would not risk the dangers of the hunt. He remained in safety close to his father’s tents. He watched over flocks and gardens while his brother faced down lions and bears, antelope, wild ox and deer, ostrich, crocodile and hippopotamus. Esau was lord of the wilderland, while Jacob ruled over the kitchens.

“But Edom knew not that he had chosen the wrong place to establish his domain. He knew not that there was more power in the kitchen than on the hunting range. Again and again, Edom would bring back the finest game and hand it over to the servants in the kitchen tent but then he was always given some bogus reason for why he couldn’t have any to eat himself and he was only offered a tiny barley cake and a little bowl of gruel to fill his growling stomach. Jacob used his influence to starve his brother half to death so that he grew desperate.

“And then came that day – and I know you have heard of that day. You have heard the story as the Judahites tell it, saying that our ancestor despised his birthright, the honour of his place as the firstborn son. They rub our faces in it, tell us that we are deserving only of this red stew that we eat because our ancestor sold everything for it. But we know the truth.

“Edom had come back from the hunt. He was exhausted for he had chased the antelope all day long and, for once, they had evaded his spear and he had brought home nothing. It was something that never happened, but this time, for once, it had happened. Jacob had watched his brother approach the camp empty-handed. And he knew that Esau would be both discouraged and famished. He knew that this was his chance.

“The potage that Jacob prepared that day was different, unlike any that Edom had seen before. He made it with onions and red lentils that Jacob had cultivated in secret and the family had never seen before. It smelled fabulous and looked so intriguing. And when Edom came into the kitchen tent, Jacob was there alone. Edom rummaged around looking for some bread or cakes or something, but Jacob had taken care that there was nothing of the sort. The only food was in that delicious smelling pot that bubbled on the fire as Jacob stirred it.

“‘My brother,’ Edom cried, ‘you have to give me some of that, uh… some of that red stuff that you’ve got there. It’s making my stomach grumble so much that I fear it shall consume me from the inside.’

“‘Oh,’ replied Jacob, ‘and what will you give me in exchange for my magic stew?’

“Edom laughed. He just thought that Jacob was his brother who would only respect his place as the eldest child. He did not see the evil glint in the man’s eye. ‘Ha, ha, ha, I’m about to die here and you’re asking me what I’ll give you. What wouldn’t I give you? You’re about to save my life!’

“Jacob laughed too, but if Edom had really listened, he would have heard the sinister undertones in the laughter. ‘Heh, heh, heh, fine, then how about you give me your right of first born.’

“‘Done!’ laughed Edom without a care as he grabbed a bowl and a ladle.”

The storyteller cast his eye around the circle of his listeners. “You know how the Judahites remind us of this tale and how they hear it. They throw the jars filled with red lentils at us from their carts. They laugh at how much they say that we love them. They tell us that our father despised his birthright and sold all of us out for the sake of a bowl of lentils. But we know better and we will not forget. And we believe that the day will come when Qos will remember the firstborn son of Rebekah.”

Have you ever heard a story or an anecdote about somebody who belongs to a particular race or group – a story that implies something about all of the people who belong to that group? It might even have been a true story, or at least a story that had some truth behind it, but the problem with such stories is that they have this way of making us look at a particular group that can make us justify the way that we treat them as if they were all drunks or cheats or lazy or whatever.

You have heard such stories, I know that you have. I wanted to tell you the story of Jacob and Esau the way that the people of Edom might have told it because it was a story that was used to treat a whole people with injustice.

In the 137th Psalm, the psalmist complains specifically about the people of Edom to God. “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites,” he says, “the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’” The Edomites, Judah’s closest neighbours and their close ethnic kin, hated them enough to cheer their destruction by Babylon.

My friends, that kind of animosity does not come from nowhere. It is not okay, obviously, to cheer somebody else’s destruction, but, man, the people of Edom must have had some legitimate grievances. When people start crying out for the defunding or even the abolition of some established institution, you should maybe listen to where that level of outrage is coming from.

I think it’s kind of instructive to consider that the stories we tell about other peoples – and in particular the stories we tell to justify the way that we treat other people – absolutely matter. So, the next time you hear a story that seems to paint all people of a certain ethnic group or social group with one broad brush, maybe just ask yourself, how would the people who lived that story from the other side of it have heard it?

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The matter was very distressing to Abraham

Posted by on Sunday, June 21st, 2020 in News

Sermon video:

https://youtu.be/4Pic7qETS78

Hespeler, 21 June, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. Why, when he paused to think of it for even a moment, it practically made him sick to his stomach. He hadn’t been able to sleep all night thinking about it and early in the morning, while it was still dark, he finally gave up even trying and got out of bed.

He went to the kitchen tent. The servants, as they were supposed to be, were already at work on the day’s baking and he quickly grabbed the first loaf out of the oven. It was warm and had a firm crust – made with the better flour that would normally be reserved for Sarah and him and for their honoured guests, but he thought that, maybe, this time he could make an exception. He thrust the bread in his bag. Then he took a water skin – a good one that he was sure would not leak – and went to fill it from the well.

Abraham’s African slaves lived in a group of tents a little separate from the main camp. He did not visit that neighbourhood often. And as he walked between the tents, you could not help but notice that many of them were shabby. The skins were all patched. They were, no doubt, quite leaky and had a bad smell. It was very distressing to Abraham to think that these poor slaves of his only ever got to use the hand-me-down tents when people like him were finished with them. It was just so maddening that that was how things were.

He found the tent of Hagar the Egyptian, the mother of his son Ishmael, and called softly for her. She came, very much surprised to see him at her door. It was very distressing to Abraham to think of how little time he had ever spent with her, how little he even knew her. But there was no time for that now. He told her that the decision had been made – that she and her son would both have to leave. They would have to go out into the desolate wastelands of Beersheba with nothing to sustain them but the bread and water that he had brought. “It is all very distressing to me on account of my son,” Abraham said. “But I’m afraid that there is no choice. This is just the way that it has to be.”

Hagar, strangely, seemed to have little sympathy for Abraham’s distress. She was selfishly far more concerned with questions about how she and Ishmael might survive the harrowing journey that was being forced upon them. But then again, hadn’t it always been so with Hagar? Even back when she had been sent into Abraham by her mistress, she had hardly seemed concerned at all with the suffering that Sarah had gone through – the anguish of not being able to have a child. She hadn’t been concerned with the urgent matter of supplying Abraham with a son who could be his heir. Instead she got all worked up over how Abraham was raping her.

That… incident had been very distressing to Abraham as well, but it had been unavoidable. It was just what you did when your wife couldn’t have a child for you and there was a lovely young slave girl available. I mean, what was he supposed to do, allow Hagar to have control over her own body? The next thing you knew, she would want to be able to claim Ishmael as her own son! If you started to allow things like that to happen, before you knew it the very foundations of society would begin to collapse. The economy would crater, there would be fear and insecurity everywhere as people who didn’t know their place demanded all sorts of change. Abraham shuddered at the very thought

As he lay awake in bed that night, Abraham had turned the question over and over in his head. He had wondered if this was really the right thing to do. He was supposed to be different from other people, after all. Yahweh, the Lord, blessed be his name, had chosen him specially and set him apart from all of the people of the other tribes who surrounded him. God would build a great nation out of him, that was the promise.

And, true, the promise was that his new son, Isaac, would be the one through whom that would happen, not Ishmael. But was it really auspicious to begin such a new nation by sending Hagar and the boy out into the desert with nothing but a water skin and a bag of bread? Did the supremacy of one nation really have to be built upon the repression of another? Something just seemed wrong with that and Abraham had wrestled with it all night long. Was it really what Yahweh wanted?

But finally, just before he rose, he did make peace with the idea. God had made him a promise, after all. Surely that promise extended even to Ishmael and God would take care of the boy so that Abraham didn’t have to. Yes, yes, Abraham would just take care of the water skin and the bread – it was the least he could do. Abraham would do the very least and leave the rest up to God. Surely Yahweh didn’t want Abraham to stay distressed after all.

The wilderness of Beersheba was extremely desolate in those days. There were no settlements and nomadic bands were very few and far between. Hagar and the young Ishmael had no clear direction to go and they stumbled onwards towards the south. They saw not one single human being all day and the scattered wildlife stayed far away from them.

Ishmael was 14 years old at that time. He was old enough to understand exactly how dire their situation was. He watched carefully as the bread in the bag grew less and less and with great alarm as the water skin grew thinner and thinner. But most of all his eyes turned to his mother. She was obviously concerned with the challenge that they were facing, but he did not see in her face the terror that he might have expected to find there. He took comfort from that, of course, but still it puzzled him. Finally, he had to ask her. “Mother,” he said, “is there something that you know that I don’t know? Why are you not afraid when we are facing such an enormous challenge?”

Hagar had, by that time, told her boy very little of his own story. She had not told him the story of how Abraham had become his father. She had known that it would have disturbed him and estranged him from the father that she had hoped might give him a better inheritance than a bag of bread and a skin of water. But now, that didn’t seem to matter so much. As they walked on, she told him the whole story of the worst night of her life and how she had felt so powerless in the bed of that vile old man.

She did not dwell on that part of the story, though, for that did not explain the hope that she carried with her now. She focussed, instead, on what happened afterwards. When Ishmael started to grow inside her, Sarah had been so jealous that Hagar had done what she could not and had been able to conceive. In her wrath, Sarah was so cruel towards her that Hagar felt as if she had no choice but to run away. Then she had not been able to take anything with her – not even a bag of bread and a skin of water. She had been truly terrified that she would die.

She had wandered until the hunger and the thirst began to make her see things.Ah, but what had she seen! There, in the midst of her delirium, she saw Yahweh, the God of Abraham, of all gods! Except it wasn’t the God that old Abe had always spoken of. That God, at least when Abraham spoke of him, had only been concerned with how many cattle and goats Abraham had and, of course, whether he would have a son.

But when Hagar saw Yahweh, she noticed something very different. She saw a God who saw her, who saw all of the anguish and pain that she suffered and who loved her. On that day, Yahweh promised her that she would have a son and that he would become a great nation. It was a promise for her, not for Abraham. And, in return, Hagar named the God that she met in the desert. She called him El-roi, the God who sees. And on the strength of that vision, Hagar was able to go back and return to her mistress to find that Sarah had repented, somewhat, of her cruelty.

Hagar told Ishmael that the reason she was not afraid was because she knew that El-roi was still her God and still saw – that he saw the powerless and the persecuted and knowing that she was seen was enough.

The water skin ran out the next day. Hagar squeezed the last few drops into her son’s mouth. When he looked at her, imploringly, she could only shake her head. Ishmael didn’t say anything; there was nothing to be said. He wandered off to find the shade of some bush. He would sleep; if something didn’t happen soon, he might not wake up.

Hagar had given more water to the boy than she had taken for herself and so she was, perhaps, in a worse state than him. Indeed, she could already feel the delirium coming upon her, the familiar delirium that had been there when she fled fourteen years ago. But, instead of seeing this as a reason to despair, this time she felt it was a sign of hope.

A strange light began to flash on the edge of her vision. She turned towards it and followed it. It led her on for a few more steps until it finally came to rest upon a flat rock on the floor of the desert. It was just a rock. It did not look much different from many of the other rocks that surrounded her. But the flashing light remained on it and did not shift and she fell to her knees before it. With the last of her fainting strength, she pushed against it and, to her surprise, it shifted just a little bit. There was a cavity underneath it and she immediately detected a dampness and a smell of water. She called out to her son.

The chances of stumbling on a well that has been dug in the desert and then hidden with a rock by a band of nomads have got to be infinitesimal. This was no accident; Hagar knew that her God, El-roi had seen her again. Hagar and Ishmael drank. They filled the skin. They lived and continued to wander deeper into the wilderness. And, as Ishmael grew and came into his full strength and maturity, he did well and went on to become the father of a great nation. And as for Abraham, well, did I mention that he was very distressed about the whole affair?

Hagar is a fascinating character in the Bible. She is totally powerless – a woman and a slave who is impregnated without anyone even thinking to ask what she thought about the whole matter. And yet, she is one of the few women in the Bible to receive a promise from God and the only woman who is given the incredible honour of giving a name to God. But I actually don’t think that I have told the story of Hagar in this sermon. Other people, women in particular, have told her story better then I probably ever could. No, I set out to tell the story of the one person in the passage that I could identify with and that most of the people that I know could identify with. I said I want to tell the story of the person who has privilege – who has been given every opportunity to build and find control over his own life and who has been deeply blessed because of the way in which his society is structured. I set out to tell the story of the person who feels distressed when he notices the ways in which certain people have to live with systemic injustice and disadvantage and yet who feels quite powerless to do anything to change the system. I set out to tell the story from Abraham’s point of view, which is the point of view of the Bible.

But even if the Bible does often take the point of view of the privileged and chosen one, I think there is still much in this story that should point out to us that our distress at how things are is not enough and that the God we are coming to know as various people in this world who have suffered from systemic injustice stand up and demand change, does not take the side of the poor, the forgotten and the outcasts simply in order that we might feel better in our distress about how things are. This story should push us to ask more of ourselves than that we feel a little bit of distress.

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Eldad and Medad, the Slacker Prophets

Posted by on Sunday, May 31st, 2020 in Minister

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Hespeler, 31 May, 2020 © Scott McAndless – Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30, Psalm 104:24-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 7:37-39

The summons was sent out through all the Israelite camp. Moses had called for the elders of all the tribes to come and assemble at the tent of meeting. Each of the twelve tribes was to send six elders and the word was that it was all very important. They would be meeting not only with Moses but also with Yahweh, the God who dwelt within the tent, who sat enthroned upon the cherubim upon the ark of the covenant. And so, all of the very important men in each of the tribes quickly donned their finest robes and hurried away to the very important meeting. And so it was that, later that same afternoon seventy men gathered around the tent, standing around it on every side evenly spaced two metres apart as if they were people living in the time of covid-19. It all looked oh so very formal and ceremonial.

Except… wait a minute… something is not quite right here. Let’s see… six elders times twelve tribes… carry the one… Math was never really my strong suit but I’m pretty sure that six times twelve is supposed to be seventy-two. There are two elders missing! Oh no, this is a disaster! Who could have possibly ditched such a high-level meeting? What an insult! What an affront to the authority of Moses among the people to not show up when summoned! Who would do such a thing?

Oh wait, never mind. Don’t tell me. It was Eldad and Medad, wasn’t it?

Eldad and Medad, the Slacker Prophets

Yes indeed, while the seventy elders were all holding hands and singing “kumbaya” as they stood around the tent of meeting, where were Eldad and Medad? They were in the camp in a tent not far from the place where the weekly market was held. And it was not, by the way, because they hadn’t received the summons to the meeting. They had received it alright. In fact, they were talking about it at that very moment – talking to each other about why they felt so utterly justified to have not bothered to go.

“Can you believe that Moses,” said Eldad to Medad. “Every time he comes up with a new idea or receives a new revelation from Yahweh, he has to summon all of the people and turn it into some big event. And then, you know how it goes, he starts complaining about how he’s carrying this heavy burden and trying to do the right thing and protecting the people and how nobody ever listens to him and does what he says. He goes on and on about this great big burden he has to carry.

“Now, I recognize what Moses has done for us. He brought us out of Egypt. He did what everyone thought was impossible and managed to get us away from the pursuing Egyptian chariots even if he had to take us through the Red Sea to do it. And I’ll grant you that we Israelites can be pretty stubborn and stiff-necked when we put our mind to it. But why do we have to constantly put up with Moses’ bellyaching about all of it. Why doesn’t he do something? Why doesn’t he let somebody else help out with the load of leadership?”

“I hear you,” replied Medad to Eldad. “But I’m telling you that it’s just not going to happen. Moses just likes complaining and controlling too much. He’s never going to let go of any part of his leadership or his ability to complain about it.”

But as it turned out, that was exactly what was going on around the tabernacle at that very moment. The reason why Moses had summoned the elders was in order to do the very thing that he had resisted for so very long. He had finally decided that he couldn’t make every decision or control every person’s action. Most of all, he had finally learned something. He had thought that the power of God’s Spirit that had been given to him, that thing that gave direction and meaning to everything that he did was a rare and precious thing. He had thought that it was something to hoard to himself and only exercise after much deliberation and care. He had finally come to understand that the Spirit of God did not work like that. In fact, like love, the more that it was shared the more of it there was to go around.

And so the elders had been called in to receive a portion of the spirit. As they stood around the tent, they could feel the excitement and the anticipation. It was as if the air was filled with electricity. Something was happening.

Perhaps the men gathered around the tent of meeting had been given some warning, some inkling that they were about to have a very strange experience. But Eldad and Medad never knew what hit them. People wonder what it is like to be suddenly filled with the Spirit of God. Is it a sudden strange feeling of ecstasy? Is it a way of feeling connected to the people who surround you in a strange unusual way? Is it just a calm assurance of God’s presence with you?

Well it can certainly be all of those things. Everyone experiences it very differently because the action of the Spirit of God very much depends on your own make up and personality. Let’s just say that Eldad and Medad were particular kinds of people. You know the kind of person who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. The kind of person who sits in the back row and grumbles about the person running the meeting. You have that type of person in mind? Well, there’s your picture of Eldad and Medad.

The excitement spread throughout the Hebrew camp. The people were somewhat aware that there was something going on around the tent of meeting with the leadership of the tribes, but they weren’t expecting anything to happen where the people were camped out. So there was quite a stir when, all of a sudden, they heard a great deal of shouting emanating from one of the plazas between the tents. It had been a quiet day and so the people quickly began to gather. It was, of course, Eldad and Medad.

The two men were prophesying. I know how people usually understand that. When most people hear the word prophesy, they assume that someone is foretelling events in the future. They assume that Eldad and Medad were revealing things like, “Your lucky number for the draw is 77694.” or, “In the year 2020 ad a terrible pandemic will ravage the globe.” You know, that kind of thing.

But the fact of the matter is that, in biblical times, prophecy was not primarily a matter of foretelling future events. The job of a prophet was to proclaim the word that the Lord was speaking to the people at that moment based on what their situation was and what they were struggling with. It is about truth-telling more than it is about future telling and that is what makes it so dangerous because often the truth is the last thing that people want to hear.

So what was it that Eldad and Medad were crying out in the middle of the camp? Whatever it was, it was something that was explosive enough that it made somebody freak out and go running off to tattle against Eldad and Medad to Moses where he was gathered with the elders of the people. What could have been so frightening and offensive? I’ll tell you what I think Eldad and Medad were saying:

“Hey man,” cried Eldad, “don’t you all know that this whole thing is a scam? You don’t need Moses. You don’t need all of the trappings of the Tent of Meeting and the careful sacrifices performed by the priests. You don’t even need laws and rules that lay out all of the proper ways for you to act. They want you to think that you need them but you don’t. All you need is love, man. If you love your neighbour, you’re not going to covet his stuff. You’re not going to murder or steal or lie. If you love Yahweh, you’re not going to go off and find some other god to worship.”

“That’s right,” Medad took up the diatribe, “all you need to know is that ‘the Lord is nigh to those in distress.’ All you need is God.”

When the message of the disruptive prophecies of Eldad and Medad was reported to Moses, Joshua, Moses’ assistant and his designated successor, was frantic. “We cannot tolerate this sort of insubordination,” he cried. “My lord Moses, stop them!”

But Moses had come a long way since taking on God’s plan to free his people from slavery. He had begun to realize, not only that he could not bear all of the weight of leadership himself, but that also this was not about his personal status or leadership at all. He knew that Joshua would have to learn that lesson for himself, but he could not help but point out what he knew was a weakness that Joshua bore.  “Are you jealous for my sake – or maybe for your own future privilege?” he asked. “Do you really think that the only way for us to experience the power of God is to keep it only in the hands of the chosen few so that we can control the message. That is just not how the spirit of Yahweh works.

“I used to think like you, Joshua. I used to think that it was all about my control and my authority. But do you know what I say today? I say, Would that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, and that Yahweh would put his spirit on them!’”

And so, to the surprise of everybody – and of Eldad and Medad most of all – there were no punishments inflicted upon the slacker prophets. Their words were allowed to stand and the memory of what they had said was passed down.

That didn’t mean that the people always actually lived by the word that they had proclaimed. There is something about human community that always seems to pull us back into conformity and we find a great deal of comfort from things like ritual and putting our trust in people who exercise authority.

Old patterns die hard. But the message of Eldad and Medad didn’t just disappear. Down through many centuries there were other prophets who were also not sanctioned by the authorities in charge. They were great men and women. Some are famous, like Elijah and Amos and Jeremiah. They spoke a word of the Lord that was not popular, but somehow their oracles endured and some hearts in some places began to move. In time there would even come to be an entire movement of people centered around the idea of the transformative power of the spirit of God, but that is, perhaps, a story for another time.

According to the Book of Acts, the Christian Church came into being in an event that was very similar to the story of the seventy elders and of Eldad and Medad. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, the Christian believers were filled with the spirit of God and began to speak the word of the Lord. This cements the idea that the power of the spirit of God was absolutely central to the foundation of the Christian church and has been essential to its life ever since.

But ever since, it seems, the church has been in a struggle between those, like Joshua, who believe that the action of the Spirit must always be ordered and under proper authority and those, like Eldad and Medad, who hear the spirit calling us to freedom and disruption. I believe that we need both kinds of people, both approaches to the Spirit, to thrive. There is a danger, when we cut ourselves off from the disruptive potential of God’s Spirit because we’re afraid of it, that we may also be robbing ourselves of the real transformative power that is available to us.

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Umpteen Days Later

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

https://youtu.be/k3oVjeLFWco

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

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

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

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

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

Upteen Days Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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