Author: Scott McAndless

If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here

Posted by on Sunday, October 18th, 2020 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/0Jr-HWGAgUo

Hespeler, 18 October, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1, Matthew 22:15-22

The children of Israel had been at Mount Sinai for a very long time. According to the Book of Numbers, they were camped near the mountain for 11 months and five days. And what a year (or nearly a year) that had been! It had not all been good, of course. I mean, nobody wanted to talk about the whole golden calf incident. But it was also a place where God had been present for them like never before. The thunder and lightening had flashed from the mountain top, and many swore that they had heard a heavenly voice booming from the dark clouds. There the elders of the people had gone up the slopes of the mountain to eat a covenant meal with Yahweh, Godself.

But most of all, at Sinai, the law code that would be central to the life and identity of the people of Israel had been given to them. Down those slopes Moses had carried the two tablets upon which had been inscribed the Ten Commandments – the centrepiece of a whole body of law that was meant to guide the people into their future.

But now, apparently, it was time to leave. All of the laws and lessons of Sinai were about to be put to the test in the real world. And it is one thing to talk about such matters in theory; it is quite another to deal with living them out in cold hard reality. So can you really blame Moses for the way we see him talking at the beginning of our reading this morning?

“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here,”Moses pleads. “For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” Moses seems genuinely afraid. They are about to head off towards something new. Everything they have learned at this mountain is about to be put to the test. And Moses knows that they’re not going to make it unless this God they’ve come to know at this mountain is going to be with them.

And I’ve got to say that I certainly understand where Moses is coming from here. Anytime you do that – anytime you begin to break away from that place where you have learned so much and which has been so formative to your identity and start to head out into something new, it is natural to seek that kind of reassurance.

I remember, for example, the first summer when I didn’t go to Glen Mohr Camp. Glen Mohr is a Presbyterian Church camp that is up in Muskoka. Today it’s part of a larger group of camps collectively known as Camp Cairn. And, for so many years of my life, Glen Mohr was a huge part of my summer. First as a camper and later on as staff, I learned so much there. It cemented my Christian identity and a whole lot of my personal identity. And I remember the year when I was basically too old to go anymore. It was like I was missing something of myself. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I was fine, but I did feel lost for a time. I was looking for some reassurance.

In some ways it feels as if we are in a time like that in the church today. The Christian church has enjoyed a long and stable history in Western society. Mainline churches like the Presbyterian Church in Canada have learned so much about what it is to live as Christians within this society. We have written endless books on theology and Christian life which are classics and contain so much truth. And of course, we’ve developed these wonderful traditions that we’ve handed down through the decades.

But we seem to be leaving that time of stable learning. Things are changing rapidly for the church, not just because of covid (though there is no doubt that that presents a huge challenge) but also simply because of the rapid change of the society in which we find ourselves. It increasingly feels as if we are heading out into uncharted territory, into a place where we’re going to have to put all of these lessons to work in the midst of the challenges of the real world and it is not going to be easy!

And so I think that we would say, along with Moses, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” And the good news I have to share with you today is that God was responsive to Moses’ request and so, I believe, God will be responsive to ours. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’” And God’s promises are reliable. Moses knew that, and we can know it too.

And yet, Moses knew that there was something more that he needed. He needed to know what would provide for him the reassurance of that presence as they moved on from there. He needed something big, something unmistakable. “Show me your glory, I pray,” he cried.

Now, that is what I call a big ask. The glory of the Lord is generally described in scripture as this unmistakable sign of God’s presence. In a vision, the prophet Ezekiel describes the glory of the Lord as “a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber.”

Moses was clearly looking for something impressive and unmistakable. That is what we often look for as well, thinking that, such open displays from God would make it so much easier to follow God. And I believe that God understands our desire for that, but knows that things really do not work like that. “You cannot see my face;” God says, “for no one shall see me and live.”

Now, I can’t really claim that I understand this idea that humans can’t stand to see the face of God. It seems that it would be so wonderful to just have all of the answers and all of the certainty about life the universe and everything simply handed to us on a silver platter so that we never had to doubt it one bit. But I guess that the problem is that we humans don’t really handle such certainty very well. I have noticed that people who are absolutely certain about something that they believe seem to be the ones who are most likely to hurt or abuse others.

I don’t think that we, as human beings were really designed to have all the answers because we thrive in the quest to understand and to interpret the world around us. If we just knew the absolute truth, yes, I think there is a real sense in which we simply couldn’t handle it. So God says no, I’m not going to just lay it all out there for you in a way that settles everything. But God does say what he will do for Moses, and I think it is what God will also do for us.

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” So, God promises that he will tell Moses (and us) his name. What does that mean? It obviously means more than what you usually mean by telling somebody else what your name is. The name that God is promising to tell Moses – the name that is translated as “the Lord” is the Hebrew word Yahweh. This was considered to be the true and powerful name of God – two syllables that were considered to be so holy that a Jew would not even dare to pronounce them aloud.

But, from what it says in this passage, it is clear that this holy name was like the perfect expression of the character of God and particularly of God’s grace. By proclaiming his name, God is declaring to Moses that he is going to be gracious and merciful in his dealings with the people – not because anyone is forcing God to do that, but because that is simply what God’s true nature is.

And I think that this is something that we need to hold onto as we head out into the unknown. We may be uncertain about many things in such times, but there is one thing that we can just know. We can know that we can trust in God’s never-failing love to be there for us when we need it most because that is just who God is.

Next God says this to Moses. “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” So here we see that not only God’s grace but also God’s glory are at work in this world, but Moses is strangely sheltered from seeing it. This is something that God does with care, as if Moses is being protected from seeing something by God’s own hand.

I believe that this reflects the simple fact that we often do not see God at work in this world while that work is ongoing. You see, when God is at work, the result can often be rather disruptive. God’s calls for justice, for example, can often lead to reactions like protests and civil disobedience. These are activities that are, in their very nature, designed to stir up chaos and make things seem very uncomfortable. This is what is sometimes necessary to bring about genuine change. But chaos and disorder have the effect of making people feel bad or nervous or upset. Nobody likes to have their lives disturbed by such things!

And this can be exactly why we often fail to recognize that God is actually at work in the world. We become focussed on the things that are making us feel uneasy and we find it so difficult to look at the bigger picture of what may really be going on. This passage in Exodus suggests to me that this might just be by design – that God is covering us over with his hand at such times to spare us the difficult transitions. For this or whatever reason, it can be particularly difficult for us to perceive the great works that God performs while they are happening. That is why God offers one more reassurance to Moses.

Once God has passed Moses by as he stands in the cleft in the rock, God promises a very special glimpse: Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” Now what exactly does that mean. It means that we may not always understand exactly what God is doing in this world while that work is ongoing, but we will be able to look back afterward and realize that, yes, God has indeed passed this way.

This is indeed how God most commonly reveals God’s presence with us. We will often only see where and how God has been at work after the events have passed and we can look back on them and see what has happened and what the impact of those things might be.

I think that this is a particular comfort right now with everything that is going on. As we contemplate the deadly impact of this virus, as we look at the political chaos that continually overflows in the United States, as we watch meaningful and yet disruptive protests in the streets, it is easy to get discouraged and to think that everything is only spiraling out of control and getting worse and worse.

But I suspect that the feelings of hopelessness we may have in such times are actually there because God is hiding us within a cleft in the rock. The day will come and it will come soon when what God has been working on quietly in the dark will be brought to light and the hope that results will be for all of us. We will be able to look back on these very days and recognize exactly what God has been doing. And what God does is good and bright and life affirming.

It is hard to move forward at a time like this. Everything seems so uncertain and there are no guarantees. I hope you will take comfort in knowing that sometime soon, you will be able to understand by looking back, exactly what the name of the Lord is, the one who is gracious and merciful because that is God’s very nature.

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My Beloved had a Vineyard

Posted by on Sunday, October 4th, 2020 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/6v3byk04ivA

Hespeler, 4 October, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46 (Click to read passages)

In three of our readings today – in Isaiah, Psalms and the Gospel of Matthew we find the very same very powerful image being used. The nation and people of Israel are described as a vineyard that has been intentionally planted and maintained by a very careful vintner.

Vineyards are a rather interesting kind of farm. Grapes themselves are not really all that hard to grow. They grow wild in many climates and the vines spread easily and spontaneously. Growing good grapes – and especially grapes that make good wine – is another matter. For that you have to have just the right strain, the right soil and even small variations in the microclimate can make or break your batch.

So, the vintner in our Bible passages is very careful indeed, selecting just the right vine – even importing it from Egypt at great personal cost. He carefully roots all of the other strains of grapes out of his garden so that they will not contaminate his precious vine and, of course, he protects his investment by building walls to keep out invasive foragers and a watchtower to guard against bigger threats. This is all to show how valued the vineyard is to the vintner – how much he is looking forward to tasting his excellent vintage.

You can understand, therefore, why the people of Israel liked to think of themselves as a vineyard. It made them feel valued and protected. So, when the Prophet Isaiah and the psalmist and Jesus of Nazareth pulled out this image, I am quite sure that the people in the crowd smiled because they thought that was a pretty nice way to describe themselves.

Of course, we should probably note that it was not an image without its problems. It is one thing to cultivate grapes by carefully eliminating variant strains, but when you do that with a nation and with a people, that is called eugenics. And it’s often a short trip from eugenics to ethnic cleansing and genocide. When, according to the Book of Joshua, God brought the people of Israel from Egypt and “planted” them in the Promised Land, driving out the nations to plant that vine is described in terms of the people of Israel slaughtering whole cities and tribes. But, of course, the people didn’t really like to dwell on that part of the story but rather on that sense of security and importance that they gained from living inside what felt like a well built and protected vineyard.

My beloved had a vineyard

And I think that we as Canadians can definitely understand that sentiment. In fact, it is kind of the same story that we have told ourselves for so long. We are like a vine that God has brought to live in this place. I know that we didn’t all come from the same place. Some, however many generations ago, were transplanted from England, Scotland or Ireland. Many were transplanted from Germany, the Netherlands or from many places far beyond. And, yes, that transplanting involved the displacement of peoples and nations that were here before and a lot of that went very poorly for the people who were displaced.

But, of course, we don’t really like to dwell on that part of the story because we know that we have enjoyed so many blessings in this place. It has been, for us, like a well-protected vineyard with sturdy walls surrounding us from danger and a high watchtower to guard our safety. We have prospered in this land and, in that prosperity, we have been able to spread out and fill the land from sea to sea to another sea in the north. And we have been grateful for that.

Oh yes, we do like to do a fair bit of complaining. We complain against this government or that one. We love to complain about our neighbours in the vineyard to the south and how they have to make everything about them. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t complain sometimes. But we have felt truly blessed and grateful to be able to live in this wonderful vineyard.

That is where all three of our readings start this morning, with a well protected and prosperous vineyard. But actually, the well protected and prosperous vineyard is not the actual topic of any of these readings. In all three cases, we see the wall broken down and strangers coming in and laying ruin to the vineyard. We see the guard tower abandoned so that enemies might have a free hand. You see, all of these passages were written in the aftermath of national catastrophes – three different catastrophes as a matter of fact because these kinds of things keep happening throughout history.

The passage in Isaiah was written after an Assyrian invasion, the psalm was likely written after a Babylonian destruction and the gospel passage was written after the Romans destroyed the nation and city of Jerusalem. So these were three very different disasters but they sought to understand and interpret them with this powerful image of a broken down and wasted vineyard.

It is not a coincidence that we were given these three readings this morning. I don’t think that, if we had had these readings a year ago, we would have heard them in quite the same way. For we had no reason to think that the walls of our vineyard and the protections we thought we had would be broken down. We saw no real reason to think that our long-term prosperity would, in any way, be interrupted.

But today I don’t think I really have to tell you why all kinds of people are not feeling as if this vineyard is so safe and prosperous anymore. The amazing thing is that it really didn’t seem to take all that much to make it feel like that. It took something really small, a virus so tiny that you need a very powerful microscope even to see it. It took little bit of political chaos in the vineyard to the south of us as a number of political norms seem to be fading away.

We are at our own wasted vineyard moment and I believe that God has sent us these three passages today to help us deal with where we are right now. And I know that some people might say to me that I shouldn’t sound defeatist here and imagine that our present problems are going to be permanent. And I agree, I think that it is important to remember that there is going to come a day when a lot of these present troubles are forgotten. But, at the same time, I do believe that there is a need to understand where we are right now and to learn whatever lessons God may have for us in this moment.

And there are lessons to be learned. In fact, in each of our readings this morning I see a different lesson. First of all, we have the psalm this morning. And the interesting thing about the psalm is that it doesn’t actually call for the people to do anything in response to the disaster. Psalm 80 is what we call a psalm of lament. It is basically one long complaint in which the people tell God all the ways that they feel disappointed and let down by what has happened.

But this is actually, I think, an important and necessary response in a tragedy. When things go wrong, I think we often don’t give ourselves the permission we need to just say how bad it is, to complain and tell the honest truth about how we are feeling. I realize that it can be dangerous to let those kind of emotions out sometimes and that there are times when it’s just not appropriate and people with whom we just can’t do it, but we still need to give an outlet to these feelings. One thing that this Psalm is telling us is that it is okay to do that with God. No matter what you may be feeling about the current crises, know that you can take it to the Lord in prayer. Your anger, your fear, your exasperation will be met by the abundant grace of God.

So that is one response, just taking your emotions to God. But our reading from Isaiah takes us to another conclusion, tells us that God is looking for another response from us as well. The prophecy from Isaiah concludes like this: For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

That lays before us a significant challenge. We have a God who is deeply committed to justice – to seeing a society where there is respect and opportunity for every person, no matter who they may be. God is particularly committed to finding such justice for the poorest and most marginalized in our society. So, as people of faith, we are constantly called to be at work for such justice in this world. I believe that this call for justice is particularly highlighted in this passage in Isaiah because, when we are going through times like this – when we are feeling like our nice secure and stable vineyard has been broken down and we’re in crisis mode, we often assume that this is not the time to work on the bigger issues of societal justice – we’re kind of concentrating on just surviving.

But Isaiah reminds us that this is the very time when such efforts are more important than ever. There is a certain phenomenon that comes into play in situations like this. It is called disaster capitalism. Naomi Klein called it the shock doctrine. Basically, there are people who see any sort of disaster or breakdown in society as an incredible opportunity to enrich themselves.

And we have absolutely seen that in this present crisis as the richest people in North America have seen their wealth grow remarkably during this time even as those who are on the lower end of the economic scale have found themselves slipping even further. While we have all been distracted dealing with the crisis, economic disparity has only grown. So, yes, this is the time to be thinking about and working towards justice for everyone and that’s going to have to include a more just economic system, addressing racial inequalities and a whole host of other issues. This, Isaiah makes it clear, is part of the important work we must be doing when the vineyard is in crisis.

So we have one response in the psalm, another in the prophet Isaiah, and then we come to the parable of the vineyard in the Gospel of Matthew. And, I’m going to warn you, this is a very difficult parable to understand and interpret. I could probably spend many sermons trying to understand exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate in it. It’s a troubling parable in many ways. And I think it’s actually a key to understanding the whole approach taken by the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. So I’m not really going to try and come up with a definitive application of this parable to the situation we find ourselves in today.

What I’m going to do is pick out one element that I definitely think applies to the situation where we find ourselves. The key moment in this parable comes, I think, with the appearance of the landowner’s son. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”

And it is pretty clear how we are intended to read that part of the parable. The son seems intended to be 2a reference to Jesus himself – the eternal Son sent from the Father above. And the great tragedy in this story seems to be a failure to recognize what God has done in sending his son. Whatever has gone before, whatever justification the tenants may have had for failing to pay their rents, this is when it all crosses the line – when they fail to recognize that God has somehow stepped into their story.

Does that have an application to the particular moment in which we find ourselves today in this broken vineyard? I think it does. Whatever else we do during this time, we need to keep ourselves open to what it is that God is about to do in this world. We need to believe that God is alive and at work, perhaps surprising ways and, when we recognize what God is doing, we need to be ready to get on board.

My friends, this vineyard of ours is presently in a poor state and that is troubling. We are not the first to find ourselves in such a situation nor shall we be the last. The Bible tells us that, when such situations arise, we can do well if we follow the examples that we find in these scriptures. Be open and honest with God about how you’re feeling through all of this. Be ready, especially at times like this, to stand up for what is just and right in our society. And keep your eyes open for the movement of God within our world. It will happen and, when it does, you’re going to want to be part of it. It is in this last point that I think we ought to be putting our greatest hope.

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Eating Rhubarb

Posted by on Sunday, September 27th, 2020 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/1MGbMoV-HVY

Hespeler, 27 September 2020 © Scott McAndless
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Like you, I am sure, when I was growing up I just loved my mother’s cooking. And one of my favorite things that she made was her rhubarb pie. It was just perfect. Sweet and tasty with a perfect crust on the bottom and the light lattice crust on the top. I loved it.

And my mother tells a story. I have no idea personally whether this story is true or not because I do not recall it, but the story that she tells goes like this. The first time I tried rhubarb pie was at somebody else’s house and apparently I just went to town on my piece of pie and I ate up all the filling off of the crust. The story goes that I then went to the host and asked if I could have some more rhubarb (or I probably pronounced it bubarb) – if I could have some more bubarb on my wee board.

Like I say, I don’t remember anything about that, but the one part that rings true is that I really did like rhubarb pie – still do today. And probably the first time I ever helped out in the garden was when I got recruited to pick rhubarb. I used to love that too and I especially liked the part when you cut the leaf off from the stalk sort of like you were an executioner cutting heads off of criminals.

And I remember one day, when I was picking rhubarb with my dad and he told me that, when he was little, he used to like to go out into the rhubarb patch, grab a stalk and just start eating it raw. And I just wanted to say one thing here today as a kind of public service announcement: I do not suggest that you try that.

There is a reason why rhubarb pie has so much sugar in it; rhubarb is, in fact, one of the sourest foods on the planet. And maybe not for my dad, but for most mortals the reaction to eating anything that sour is quite powerful. I understand that science doesn’t even have an explanation for how we react to sour foods, but the reaction is quite uncontrollable as we purse our lips and set our teeth on edge and make the strangest of faces. If you do not know what to expect, chowing down on a raw piece of rhubarb will really shock you.

And I was thinking about eating raw rhubarb while I was reading our Old Testament passage for this morning. In it, the prophet Ezekiel talks about a proverb that he was hearing among the people of his time. It was, to use the vocabulary of our own time, a meme that had gone viral and everyone was saying it. “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel,” Ezekiel asks, “‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’?”

Rhubarb, of course, does not grow natively in the Ancient Near East, but that doesn’t mean that the Israelites did not have experience with sour foods. And they probably all had the experience at some point in their lives of biting into some unripe fruit, like a grape, and having that reaction that is indeed common to all humanity.

But the proverb did not actually have anything to do with unripe fruit. Apparently, this proverb became so popular because it was a way for people to complain about a situation that they thought was very unfair. Ezekiel was a prophet during the time of the Babylonian invasion and exile. During his times, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by an invading Babylonian army and most of the leading citizens were carried off into a horrible exile. These were bad times, the kind of times that you would not wish upon your worst enemies. And so people were understandably upset to have to live through all of this. And they also naturally asked why this had happened.

And the main explanation that was offered by many people – and it is, by the way, an explanation you can also find in the Bible itself – was that it was not really the fault of the people of Ezekiel’s generation. They had actually done pretty well. They had reformed the nation, shut down sanctuaries to other gods and pledged to serve only Yahweh, the God of Israel. So God wasn’t angry with them.

God, the explanation went, was actually angry at the people of previous generations who had done bad things and served strange gods. The previous generations had eaten the sour fruit, yet it seemed as if the present generation was paying the price for that, their mouths puckered and their teeth on edge.

Now, the prophet Ezekiel brings all of this up with the people of Israel to tell them that they really shouldn’t be using this proverb, that they really don’t understand what’s actually going on. And we will, in a moment, get into how Ezekiel wants them to see things differently. But, first I want to stop and acknowledge that I have a certain amount of sympathy for the people who are saying this because we have all been there, haven’t we?

I mean, things go wrong in this world. That’s just a basic reality of life. Tragedy, disappointment and failure have happened again and again from the beginning of history and will continue to happen long after you and I are gone. And the impulse that we see in this passage is an impulse that we all have. We want to find someone to blame when things go wrong because that seems to make sense of it all. And, of course, we don’t want to put the blame on ourselves. Often those who have gone before us can make for convenient scapegoats.

For one thing, this is often just basic operating procedure when it comes to political leaders. Governments are generally only too happy to take all of the credit for the good things that happened while they are in power. If the stock market is up and unemployment is down, they will happily claim credit for that. But we have all heard how they react when things go wrong. “Oh, we had to make these unpopular cuts because of the out of control spending of the previous government,” they’ll say, or, “This bad economy is thanks to our predecessors’ bad trade deals.”

Sometimes they will even do that when everyone knows how utterly ridiculous it is, like, for example, “The previous administration is to blame for this covid-19 crisis because they should have come up with test for this virus that didn’t yet exist while they were in office.” The amazing thing is that it sometimes seems that the more extreme you get with these kinds of complaints, the more people just nod their heads and go along with it.

But I’m not just talking about how this kind of scapegoating is used in politics. It is something that we all do at least sometimes. When it comes to the environment, we blame the previous generation for our pollution problems and for global warming. When it comes to indigenous issues in Canada, we certainly blame so much on the decisions that were made in the past. On an individual level, children are often very quick to blame their parents for everything they feel that they lack. And on a generational level, the millennial generation is only too happy to blame the baby boomers for, well, just about everything.

And the thing is that this is not all without some merit. I mean, there is simply no denying that the events, policies and actions of the past do have an impact on the present. And, what’s more, we can’t just ignore the impact of the past events. We have seen that, for example, in Canada as we tried to deal with indigenous issues.

When the Government of Canada and organizations like the Presbyterian Church in Canada put out a formal apology for the residential school system, recognizing that the system had done generational damage to indigenous communities as well as visiting abuse of many kinds upon individual indigenous persons, a lot of people didn’t quite know what to do with that. How could we apologize for something that we ourselves had not done but that had mostly been done by our ancestors? That is a difficult question, but I think we have seen that willingly acknowledging that difficult past is a necessary part of healing and moving into a better future. So, I would not just dismiss the idea that the people before us could have eaten sour rhubarb and we are the ones who have to deal with puc2kered lips and teeth set on edge.

But Ezekiel does offer us a caution. As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.” That doesn’t mean that what happened in the past is meaningless or that we shouldn’t think of the consequences, but I think it does mean that we should not be using the past as an excuse. Sometimes we do that. Because, of course, what happened in the past cannot be changed, we do sometimes let it determine our present and our future. But no, Ezekiel says, we are not merely the victims of the past.

“Know that all lives are mine;” God continues through the voice of Ezekiel,“the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” So ultimately everyone can only answer for their own life, their own choices, their own actions. And I realize that that phrase, “it is only the person who sins that shall die,” is a little bit brutal. What it actually means is that God does take our failings and shortcomings seriously. And that death penalty thing, God has demonstrated to us through Jesus, God’s desire to forgo such deadly punishment. But none of that changes the responsibility we carry for our own actions.

And I think that all of this really matters for us today because we are still going around and saying that our ancestors ate sour grapes and that we have had our teeth set on edge. We have allowed the mistakes and missteps of the past to deform our present. The big assumptions of our ancestors – the doctrine of discovery that, our ancestors felt, gave them full right to rule over indigenous peoples, the white supremacist assumptions that were almost invisibly woven into the very fabric of so much of Western society, the exploitation of the natural environment that became the very basis of our entire economy – all of these things are a part of our past and nothing can ever change that.

But one key thing that Ezekiel was saying is that we are not prisoners of our past. We cannot change what our forbearers did, but we can take responsibility for today. We should try and make the changes that we can and, yes, we will no doubt fail and fall short, but what we build will be our responsibility.

And Ezekiel offers us one more promise that we can take comfort in. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and” God promises through the prophet, you can “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” All of us, you see, carry around burdens from the past. Some of these are for mistakes, errors, sins and transgressions that we ourselves have committed or sometimes they really have been passed down to us by those who, in some sense, have gone before us. But the grace of God means this: whatever that past may be, you are not defined by it. Your life belongs to God and God gives you the freedom to establish a new heart, a new spirit, by who you choose to be today. That is the good news.

And if you want to munch on raw rhubarb, go ahead - the pursed lips and teeth on edge will just be your own.

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The Parable of the Generous Landowners

Posted by on Sunday, September 20th, 2020 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/IGSAvPsV5o0

Hespeler, 20 September 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Field is one that everybody seems to think they know what it means. The landowner, people confidently explain, represents God and we are the workers in some sense. The money paid to the workers represents what God gives to us, whether it’s salvation or some other spiritual gift. That’s what the parable means, we say, and then we go on to interpret and apply the parable to our lives within that particular matrix.

But what if that is wrong? I mean, Jesus never says that that is how we’re supposed to read the parable. What he says is, For the kingdom of heaven is like…” and then explains the whole scenario. It is up to us to figure out how what happens in the story is like the kingdom of God. Well, I’ve got to tell you that some of the recent events that we have lived through have made me look at this particular parable in a new light. I have a new perspective on it. What if we were meant to find the kingdom someplace else in this story?

For the kingdom of heaven is like some business owners who went out early in the morning to hire labourers to work in their grocery stores. You see, they had a bit of a problem. There was a crisis going on in society in the form of a deadly illness. Everything was getting shut down to prevent transmission and the people had been given instructions for their own safety not to go out unless it was absolutely essential. But these businesses dealt in essential things so the owners had an extraordinary opportunity. If only they could manage to get what they had out to the people, they could make lots of money!

But they needed people to work in their stores to stock the shelves, to collect the money and to keep all of the customers (who were in a bit of a fragile state) happy. And so they started with the workers that they had and they said to them, “Go out and do the work you have always done because you should be grateful to work when other people don’t even have jobs. We will pay you what we have always contracted with you to pay.

And, let me tell you, over the following weeks those business owners just cleaned up! People flooded into their stores and many of them bought up insane quantities of their products. People were literally fighting with each other to pay exorbitant prices to buy more toilet paper than they would probably need for the next year! And, as the profits came rolling in, the owners were laughing all the way to the bank.

But they had a problem. They couldn’t do any of this without the labourers who worked in their stores. In fact, in order to not miss out on even more profits, they needed more people to keep functioning and to fill a growing backlog of online orders. But the problem was that their message that people should be grateful to work when others didn’t even have jobs wasn’t quite working for them anymore.

The workers were noticing things. They were noticing, for example, that some people – people who were not considered to be essential workers – were actually being paid to stay home and keep the community safe from the virus. And they were being given an amount of money that was considered to be enough to live on. You might call it a basic income. And those people were being paid more or less the same as these essential workers. And, what’s more, the labourers were becoming more and more aware that they were dealing with the actual dangers of working at such a time while the owners weren’t risking much of anything while they got all these profits. So you can imagine that some of them were not quite feeling as if they should just be grateful to be paid anything.

And so the owners said, “Let us make sure that everyone knows that these labourers of ours are being heroic. Let us thank them and praise them. And the workers did appreciate being appreciated and, for a time, this made it easier to retain workers and even hire some new ones so that the profits could be protected.

But still it was not enough and the owners started to realize that there was more profit out there that they could seize if only they managed to maintain and expand their operations. And for that they needed to maintain and even expand their workforce. But this was a very delicate thing because they did not want to let the workers know that they needed them. They liked it far more when the workers felt like they were depending on the owners to give them a basic income – to give them what they needed to survive.

And so they came up with a plan. They would pay all of their workers more money – pay a whole extra $2 an hour. But they would be very clear in their messaging. This was hazard pay. It was hero pay and it was only because of the truly extraordinary risks of the situation. No, it was not because the owners needed the workers. It was because they were kind and generous. And they said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

And so, for a while, the workers bore the burden of the difficult days of the pandemic and the scorching heat of the fear and anxiety that came with it until finally came the day when it was over.

Now, what was over? It wasn’t the crisis. The disease still raged on and the dangers of it spreading still existed. But suddenly, at some point, something changed. It was as if someone flicked off a switch. The owners decided that, though the dangers still existed, the danger pay was no longer necessary.

You see, they understood. They understood that if they gave it to their labourers for too long, those labourers would stop seeing it as a special expression of generosity and start seeing it as something they had earned. They couldn’t have that. So, though profits were still up thanks to the ongoing emergency and the hard work of the labourers, the emergency pay was stopped.

At the same time, it was like the very idea of the heroism of the front line workers grew weaker and growing numbers of people were only to2o happy to take out their frustrations for how bad things were upon them – especially on those who asked them to behave in responsible ways and do things like wear masks. It seemed that the labourers in the grocery stores ended up more or less where they had been at the beginning.

Now this is the question I would like to ask you, where in this story are we supposed to find the kingdom of heaven?

The parable of the labourers in the field is a story that is completely steeped in the historical circumstances in which Jesus lived. He lived in an agricultural society that had been founded with the ideal that every Israelite man should have a piece of land for the support of his own family. But, by the time Jesus came along, that was no longer the case. The land had been increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few wealthy landowners and huge numbers of people had been dispossessed of their lands.

This created a strange kind of dependence. The landowners had no means to gather all of the produce of their land. That’s why the landowner in Jesus story has a real problem. He has a field full of crops, but he desperately needs labourers to gather it for him, otherwise he will lose it all. So, the landowners needed the labourers.

But the system was set up in such a way as to make sure that it was the labourers who were forced to be dependent on the landowners. Because they had no security, their only hope for survival was to be hired by a landowner. To enhance this dependency, the landowners didn’t offer stable employment. They would only hire people on a day-to-day basis. For one day’s hard work, a landless labourer would be paid one denarius. The New Revised Standard Version that we read from today translates “one denarius” as “the usual daily wage” because that was the amount of money that was considered adequate for day-to-day survival.

And I have long wondered about why Jesus would tell this parable about a landowner who desperately needed workers to pick his crops before they rotted on the vine but foolishly did not hire enough workers at the beginning of the day to get the job done (presumably because he was cheap and trying to save a few denarii). He was forced to hire more and more workers as the day went on just to get the job done.

I suspect that Jesus thought it was only fair that people be paid enough money to live on – the usual daily wage. Jesus may have recognized that landowner thought that he was being generous by choosing to pay all the workers the full amount at the end of the day, but I can’t help but wonder whether he might have been saying something important about who was really dependent on the generosity of whom.

So I do take out this parable of Jesus from time to time and puzzle over it trying to better understand where Jesus was expecting people to find the kingdom of heaven in it. The more I think about it, the less I think that the landowner is supposed to represent God – he seems, in fact, to be a perfect representation of how the world worked back then and, in many ways, of how it still works today.

Of course, recent events have given me a brand new perspective on this ancient parable. We have been on a wild ride over the last few months in our thinking about workers who do jobs that have traditionally had low wages. At first, it was as if we suddenly realized that these workers, who had always been there and to whom we had given so little thought, were actually essential to our lives and well-being. We began to celebrate them and praise them. And, yes, here in Ontario there were some employers who willingly gave them that extra boost in pay to represent just how important we were all saying they were.

But, five or six months later, I’ve got to ask, have we really learned anything from this whole experience? It’s kind of stunning to see how quickly and how willingly we have gone back to old attitudes. It is discouraging to see any extra pay or benefits so quickly taken back. It is discouraging to hear all of the stories of grocery workers and other frontline workers putting up with abuse and disrespect. And I get that people are tired of this and that their frustration and anger is coming out, but this is just not right.

I honestly do not know exactly where Jesus expected us to find the kingdom of heaven in this story that he told. I do not know exactly where he expects us to find the kingdom of heaven in the events of our own time. But I do know this, his expectation of us is that we never cease to seek for it. Maybe the kingdom of heaven will be discovered when we suddenly wake up, open our eyes and say that this is not right, that the people who own the companies and the stocks need the people who do the labour more than they realize, that all people need to be treated with respect and all sorts of work should be valued.

I think Jesus told that story to make the people in the crowd realize just how twisted the whole system was, how things could be different and maybe should be different and he might have been saying that, when we realize that, that will be when we actually discover the kingdom of God in this parable.

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All the Chariots of Egypt

Posted by on Sunday, September 13th, 2020 in Minister, News

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/fsGDNEidO_0

Hespeler, 13 September 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 14:19-31, Exodus 15:1-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35 

Pharaoh sat listlessly on his throne. Here he was, the most powerful man on the face of the earth – the king of kings and lord of lords who ruled everything between the third cataract of the Nile and the delta, who was overlord to vast kingdoms far beyond that, and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was disrespecting him, that someone was laughing at him.

He called for his vizier, who appeared at his feet with reassuring haste. “Tell me again what’s happening with those… Hebrews,” he spat the word out as if it left a bad taste in his mouth, “when were they supposed to be back?” The vizier bowed so low to the ground that the Pharaoh thought he heard his teeth scraping against the floor as he tried to speak. “Mmff mff mmm ff,” he said, prompting the pharaoh to kick him with his gold encrusted sandals and order him to lift his head and speak up. “They promised to go three days into the wilderness and worship their desert God and then come straight back.”

The Pharaoh studied his impeccably manicured fingernails. “Three days, huh, and a few days to sacrifice and then straight back. And tell me, Vizier, how long ago did they leave?” The vizier gulped as he said, “About two weeks, my lord. I’m afraid that there has been no sign of them since.” “Well,” said the king, “don’t you think that maybe it’s time for us to do something about that?”

The grand stables were the Pharaoh’s favourite place in all the land. He tried to make a point of visiting them every day if he possibly could. He loved the horses – hundreds and hundreds of them in an almost endless row of stalls. He loved the smell of them, the sound of their whickers and their nickering. But most of all, he loved them because they were a sign of his great wealth. These were the finest horses in the world and each one of them was worth 150 shekels of silver – more money than most Egyptian men could possibly earn in five years.

But, even more than the horses, Pharaoh loved what was housed in the garages across from them: the chariots! Made with iron and inlaid with ivory and silver, each one was a work of art and, even more important, a terrifyingly efficient killing machine.

But here was the real secret of the chariots. Each one of them was worth four times as much as one of the horses. That meant that this stable, horses and chariots together, as well as all 2 the other royal stables spread throughout the land, constituted the greatest accumulation of wealth in all of Egypt. This was more than the temples, the palaces, the pyramids. And the only way it could be created and maintained was through a vast military industrial complex. Pharaoh was angry because someone was threatening that vast military industrial complex.

It was Moses, that traitor to the land that had raised him. He had made the Hebrews think that they had value beyond the labour that they provided. He had deluded them into thinking that some god even knew who they were and actually cared about their worship. Pharaoh had been too indulgent in letting them go.  He now understood that such ideas were so dangerous that they could upset the proper order of society. If these slaves could be allowed to shirk their work, then any slaves could. And that would destroy the supply chain that maintained these magnificent machines of war. Pharaoh did not dare to admit it out loud to anyone, but this was the very kind of thing that could destroy the power of his kingdom. Something had to be done.

And so it was that, days later, Pharaoh found himself riding towards the Sea of Reeds in the midst of a massive company. Six hundred of the Pharaoh’s own chariots has been joined by the massed cavalry of his wealthiest nobles. As he felt the wind blowing through his robes, he let out a great whoop as if he were a boy on his first ride. The horses’ hooves beat upon the plain in such numbers that it sounded like thunder. The dust that the wheels kicked up must have been visible from many miles away. It was a divine cloud of justice that would drive those rebellious slaves into the sea.

The king knew that he was being extreme. You didn’t need over a thousand chariots to take down a miserable huddle of slaves. In fact, just one chariot was enough to make a hundred men turn and run in panicked terror. And the effect was multiplied many times over by even the addition of a few more of the war machines. It was rarely the spears or arrows of the chariots that turned the tide of a battle. The mere appearance of them on the field was enough to make even the strongest men flee. Running through the slaves would be like cutting through papyrus with a sharp sword. What Pharaoh needed was an overwhelming display of terror that would make everyone think deeply before ever trying anything like this again.

Finally the scouts returned and reported to the generals that the slaves had been spotted. They were huddled in a makeshift camp against the edge of the Sea of Reeds, a very marshy lake that was famously treacherous for anyone to seek to cross. “Oh,” said Pharaoh to himself, “this is perfect. All my chariots will need to do is a manoeuvre we have practiced thousands of times. We will charge forward, straight at the slaves, wheeling away at just the last minute. It never fails. Those fools will be so terrified that they’ll run straight into the bog. They will tumble and fall and they will all be drowned before this day is through.” He called out to his men telling them to ride as swiftly as the wind. Their victory was near.

The battle did not go as Pharaoh had imagined. First, the famous cavalry of Egypt took a wrong turn and so did not come to the Sea of Reeds until night had fallen. Pharaoh knew that it was far too dangerous to order a charge when neither the charioteers nor the horses could see the terrain. But worse than the darkness was the thick, heavy fog (so unseasonable for this time of year) that enveloped them. No one see a thing. The men, even the king had to make do with field rations as even the Pharaoh’s cook tent and slaves had gone missing in all the confusion. The men began to grumble about ill omens and dark sorcery.

The really infuriating part was that they could hear the sounds of the Hebrew camp – the slaves jabbering in their barbaric language and the occasional shout that could only be coming from that bastard Moses. He was calling out to them, “Yahweh will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

That was, by the way, the only way to defeat a chariot – you had to stand there and let the thing run straight at you without even flinching. The horses didn’t know what to do when people weren’t terrified. They often stopped in their tracks full of confusion. They weren’t trained, like war horses would be in later ages, to run men down. But, of course, few men had the courage to do such a thing. Pharaoh wasn’t worried, but he couldn’t help but hear the comments of some of his most seasoned charioteers. They muttered together around the evening campfires of the powers of unknown gods. The darkness and the fog had thrown them for a loop and that led to all kinds of irresponsible talk.

There was one more thing that troubled both the king and his men. All night long there was this strange wind that blew across them from the East. The wind was strong enough to blow down tents and spook the horses, and yet it did not seem to be strong enough to move the dark cloud that had descended upon the camp. The men began to call it a godwind and for many it was the worst omen for the battle that they were all anticipating on the next day. So no one slept well in the Egyptian camp that night, but Pharaoh took comfort from the thought that, on the morrow, victory in battle would wash away all such dark talk of strange gods and omens.

But the dawn brought new surprises. The sun came up red, always a bad sign, and with the sunrise also came, finally, an end to the unrelenting wind that blew from the east. For a while, the stillness of the air was even more eerie than the supernatural wind had been. But nothing prepared the Egyptians for what they finally saw when the sun burned off the heavy fog. Pharaoh looked down to see that the shores of the Sea of Reeds were not where they were supposed to be. The east wind had blown so hard and that the marshy waters had been forced to retreat!

But that was not the thing that attracted Pharaoh’s attention. He saw that the Hebrew slaves were taking advantage of the situation and were making their way across the muddy terrain left by the retreating waters. It was an orderly retreat. They were not panicking or screaming, just methodically making their way towards freedom. It was that, more than anything, that infuriated the Pharaoh. They weren’t afraid of him! He was the scourge of the world and yet it was as if he was nothing to them.

The rage felt by the Pharaoh was clearly shared by the charioteers who surrounded him on every side. The horses were also almost as excited as the men as they tossed their heads and stamped the earth. No one ordered the charge that followed. No one stopped to consider whether it would be wise under the circumstances. It just happened. All the chariots of Egypt charged headlong into the muddy ground left by the retreating Sea of Reeds.

And there, in short order, they stopped. The ground that had been crossed with relative ease by a group of slaves on foot was completely unforgiving to the spoked wheels of the chariots. Within a few moments, the wheels were clogged with mud and the horses, with the muck above their knees, could barely move them. Every effort only seemed to make things worse. Soon the axels were buried and the horses were practically helpless.

In the moment, Pharaoh cared not for the chariots, many of which would be damaged almost beyond repair, nor for the horses’ broken legs and torn ligaments. He did not even care about the soldiers who floundered around seeking only to save themselves. He only looked with hatred upon the retreating backs of the Hebrew slaves. They continued to move on without panic or fear and that was what terrified the king.

The story of the Battle of the Sea of Reeds is clearly one of the most foundational stories for the ancient people of Israel. It would have been a story that they told and retold much like Americans tell the story of George Washington and the cherry tree and the British tell the story of King Alfred and the cakes. So it is not very surprising that we have multiple versions of this story in the Bible. There are four in the Book of Exodus alone. We have the poetic versions, known as the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam, which appear to be quite ancient. And, just before the poetry, there are three prose accounts that have been mixed and mingled together.

There is what I like to call the CGI version where God sends down a mighty and terrible blast of wind that makes the waters of the sea stand up like two walls on either side of the passing Israelites and in which God casts the Egyptians into the sea. That is the familiar story, of course, the one highlighted in retellings like Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments. But if you look very carefully, you can see another story, the story I have tried to tell here, in which God acts much more subtly. In this story God sends a gentler but constant wind out of the east, that pushes back the water from the marshy shores of the sea. This creates a passage that allows the Hebrew slaves to escape on foot but, when the chariots attempt the same passage, they become mired in the muck.

Now, there is no question that the CGI version of the story is much more impressive and cinematic. But there must be a good reason for why the other story, let’s call it the “East Wind Version,” was preserved and not simply edited out of the final version of the Book of Exodus. It seems to me that we learn something different about God in the east wind version. In this story, God takes the thing that is the very foundation of the strength of Egypt, the latest military hardware in which they have invested so heavily, and defeats it with the oldest technology in the world: mud and sandal leather. Chariots were supposed to be Egypt’s greatest strength, something in which they had invested so heavily that it distorted their economy requiring them to oppress untold numbers of slaves, and yet God turned them into the cause of their defeat. Now that is a God who I find very interesting.

It is also a God who seems to be very active throughout history. How many times down through the centuries, have great powers and empires invested so much in the technology of war and power only to see those investments wasted by the emergence of a low-tech, low investment response. Think of the massive ships of the Persians rowed by slaves taken from all over Asia brought down by the tiny ships rowed by the freemen of the city of Athens at the Battle of Salamis. Think of the huge numbers of French nobility who were riding horses and wearing armour so expensive that they required the support of millions of peasants, all brought down by the yeoman archers of England at the Battle of Agincourt. It is a pattern that was also seen more recently in the streets of Portland, Oregon in the United States as Federal Agents deployed the latest in non-lethal chemical weapons against protestors only to be effectively countered for a while by a wall of dads wielding leaf blowers of all things. Oh yes, the God we worship has a way of surprising those who seek to rely on the tools of power to their own advantage.

We have all heard the story of the Reed Sea. Our temptation, when we hear it, is to identify with Moses and the slaves. We want to be those people yearning to be free – yearning for a God who will set us free. But I wanted to tell this story from the other side for one big reason. I suspect that, to the extent that we rely for our security on the tools of power and violence, we ought to be identifying with the Egyptians. And, if that’s the case, God might have a bit of a surprise in store for us too.

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Here we (still) are

Posted by on Sunday, September 6th, 2020 in Minister

Watch the sermon video here:

https://youtu.be/3blTva9d5MI

Hespeler, 6 September 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20


Do you remember Easter of this year? It was, many of us confessed, the weirdest Easter any of us had ever experienced. We were about a month into the pandemic lockdown and I think that many of us were still telling ourselves at that point that surely this would be all over soon. Maybe – we held onto this idea for a while – maybe it would even be over by Easter.

But no, when that festival rolled around, there we were; shut up in separate houses. The doors of our houses were locked because we were afraid to be with other people because of the virus that stalked out in the streets. I heard many people say that it didn’t seem like Easter at all and the maybe Easter should be cancelled or postponed. And you may also recall that I preached on that Sunday that far from cancelling Easter, we were actually living it – that we were just like the disciples locked up in their upper room in fear on Easter Sunday. Their fear didn’t stop Jesus from rising for them and ours wouldn’t stop him rising for us.

I could not help but think of Easter Sunday as I thought about our worship here today and, especially, as I looked at our reading from the Book of Exodus this morning. It is now twenty-one weeks after Easter. That is a long time. And, in many ways, it may feel like we’re in exactly the same place we were then – still living with restrictions, still worried about the virus, still often hiding indoors as often as possible because what’s outside is dangerous.

The truth is, however, that we’re not quite in the same place. We’re wearing masks now – that wasn’t really in view in April – and certainly some restrictions are eased. But I’m talking about something else that is really very different. It is one thing to be about a month into a crisis; it is quite another to be six months in. We’ve now kind of blown past that initial adrenaline phase. We’re past the “let’s all pull together and be heroic because we can do this” phase. And even the conspiracy theorist and anti-mask and anti-vax phase of this whole mess has gotten extremely tired. We have just settled into this new routine of a life that just doesn’t seem to be what it’s supposed to be. We are just tired and what do we do with that?

Well, here is the context of our reading this morning from the book of Exodus. The people of Israel have been in Egypt for a long time. They have been dealing with a crisis in Egypt, a crisis far worse than a pandemic, of course, a crisis of slavery. And they have been enslaved so long that they have blown past that initial adrenaline phase. They’re past the “let’s all pull together and be heroic because we can do this” phase. And even the conspiracy theorist of Israelite turning against Israelite and “maybe the Egyptians are actually the good guys” phase of this whole mess has gotten extremely tired.

They have just settled into this new routine of a life of slavery that just isn’t what it’s supposed to be. And the question is, after all this time and when this new reality just seems to be the way the world is, how can you even begin to dream about something different and something better? I kind of feel a lot of kinship with them on that front right now.

And the story we read this morning is about how God transferred them out of that state. The opening words are, I feel, significant. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months;” God says, “it shall be the first month of the year for you.” And here we are too, at the beginning of a new year in the life of the church, of school, of the business cycle. Yes, I know that technically the year begins in January, but practically we all know that it begins in September. And I know that all of us are wondering, as this year begins, what on earth it is going to look like because it ain’t going to work quite like any year we have seen before.

So here is the circumstance as the Israelites begin this new year in their life. “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” And I realize that a lot of people really struggle with this famous tenth plague of Egypt. The idea that God could willfully strike down the children of a country, even for the worthwhile goal of setting people free from slavery, is rather disturbing. But I do not think that you have to interpret the story in exactly that way.

Yes, this crisis is described as God passing through Egypt and striking people down, but it is also described as a plague. There is also no description of how or why people died. Understand that this was a story told by a people who had a tendency to describe any disturbing event as the action of some god. It is not a huge stretch to imagine that this was just their way of talking about a pestilence of some sort that spread through the land and that particularly affected a certain demographic. Such things, after all, have happened again and again throughout human history and still happen today.

So, let’s just imagine for a moment, that that is what this is describing – some kind of deadly epidemic. That would certainly give us a different point of view on the instructions that Moses gives to the Israelites. Isn’t he basically telling them that, in order to survive this disease, they have to take some very specific measures? They have to shelter in place only with the members of their own family or, at most, with one other family in their bubble. They are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one.”

They need to follow some very specific food preparation instructions and leave no leftovers because, of course, food storage failures are a common vector for disease. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.”

And they need to mark the doors of their households to ensure communitywide compliance with these guidelines. The promise is that, if they do all this, the people will be able to survive this particular crisis while those who don’t take these measures, like the Egyptians, will suffer because of it. It is kind of like if you were to compare how Canada and the US did in terms of following the advice of public health experts and then you were to compare how the two countries have done in terms of the spread of covid-19.

But actually the point of this story in Exodus is not to exult over those who did not do as well in following instructions. I firmly believe that the story of the Passover is not intended to entrap the people of Israel in the story of their enslavement and their escape from slavery, but rather to get them to focus on what comes next – on building a new life and a new reality after the crisis. That is why the focus is on Passover being the beginning of the year and it is especially why they are told to eat it in a rather peculiar manner.  This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.”

Now, why do we have this rather odd piece of instruction? Because the Passover is all about beginning a new way of life, a post-crisis life and a post-slavery life. That means being willing to leave the past behind, even though it is comforting and familiar, and embracing the new reality the God is putting in front of the people.

And, if you read on in the Book of Exodus, you realize that this was not really something that came very easily to the people of Israel. They were constantly griping and complaining and wanting to go back to Egypt because the new reality was unfamiliar and it was hard. But it was the way forward and this Passover meal was instituted to cement that truth in their consciousness.

Like I say, I do feel a particular kinship with the people of Israel at this moment in their story. We are gathered today and we are gathered in our own particular homes. We have taken communion together, but we ate it isolated within our household bubbles. It is a Passover meal. This particular meal will not mark the end of this crisis for us as it did for them. We’re not out of the woods yet as far as covid-19 is concerned and I do not know when that time will come, but I do know that it will come. There will be a day, and I pray it will be soon, when we greet the dawn without any substantial worry that there is a coronavirus out there waiting for us.

The plague will pass over. And I am going to suggest to you right now that the way that we ate this meal here today and the way we do other things right now in the time of crisis needs to become all about how we will live in that new reality when it comes. I challenge you to eat it with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.

What does that mean? I realize that the phrase “gird your loins” is not quite everyday speech for most people today and it might even sound a little bit off-colour, but the meaning is pretty straightforward. People in that world normally wore long flowing robes which are great for standing or sitting or walking. They are particularly refreshing in a nice cool breeze, but, as you can imagine, kind of get in the way when you’re doing anything more strenuous. So they would just take up their skirts and tie them around their waist when they needed to run or fight or do anything else of the sort.

So put that together with the instruction to have your sandals on and your walking staff in your hand and what this instruction means is that they are supposed to eat with a readiness to move out and to move on. They are to “eat it hurriedly” because they can’t wait to embrace the newness that God is preparing for them.

Now, as human beings, we generally have this habit of seeing a festival or a holiday as an occasion to look back. On Christmas, for example, we always get nostalgic for the Christmases of the past. Festivals are a chance to breakout old traditions, old recipes and old memories. But Passover is meant to be different. Passover is meant to be a call to look forward to the new life the people are called to live in their new freedom. And that is why I think it is the type of festival that we need at the beginning of this year.

I do not know when our particular release from Egypt will come – when the pandemic restrictions will all be lifted. I know we’re not there yet, but that day is coming. And it is my belief that we need to meet that day with our loins girded, our sandals on our feet and our staffs in our hands. We cannot afford to go into that new reality while we are constantly grumbling and complaining about how things used to be back in Egypt. God has prepared something new for us and I hope that the feast we have shared today has given you a taste for that newness.

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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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