Hespeler, Dec. 1, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Advent 1, Communion
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
You brought a sleeping bag and wore your long johns and your warmest coat, but after sitting out here for many hours, you are completely chilled to the bone. How many times have you asked yourself over the last few hours, are you crazy to do this? I mean, what kind of fools put themselves through this kind of trial of their own free will? If your boss ordered you to go out and sit on a cold sidewalk from midnight until six in the morning and then fight off a bunch of other people in order to get your hands on a certain piece of merchandise, you would refuse. You would file a grievance with the union. You might even just quit right there on the spot. But here you have chosen to do that very thing of your own free will.
And why do you do it? Because your life actually depends on getting that particular piece of merchandise at a low, low price? No, not really. You do it because do you know that it’s just what people do. Besides this, you know what time it is. It is Black Friday and the doors will be opening in just a few minutes and those door crasher specials are waiting for you and you have vowed that this time you will get them. It is just what people do at this moment in time.
And that is just one example of people doing strange things at this time of year just because they know what time it is. You know very well that on December 19th, just a few minutes after midnight, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of people lined up to see the biggest movie of the year, which I’m guessing will be Star Wars, the Rise of Skywalker, and they will do it simply because it matters to them to be the first to see that movie on the day that it opens. It just will not mean the same thing the next day when it’s not the right time. This time of the year is, more than any other, the time when we do things just because this is the time when we do them. “‘Tis the season,” isn’t that what we say. We gather with friends and family at this time of the year, not because it is always the most convenient time to travel (travelling can be horrible!), but because you are just supposed to do it and you will drive through the snowstorm to get there if you have to because you know what time it is. We give gifts to people, not because they are things that they need but just because this is the time when we are supposed to do it.
And, you know what, so much of that is great. I do so look forward to so many of those things that we do just because it is the right time at this time of year. And while I am not particularly interested in some of those events that take place at certain times (you will never find me crashing the door at a Black Friday sale, for example) if those things do bring joy to you during this season, by all means go ahead and make the most of them. There is great power and advantage to be gained by knowing what time it is.
But there is a question that we need to ask, maybe especially at this season of the year: what if you are wrong about what time it is? What if what the world is telling us about what time it is is wrong? That’s not my question, by the way; it is the Bible’s. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus gives several examples of people who thought that they knew what time it was – who believed what the world was telling them about what time it was – but who were horribly and tragically wrong. Jesus speaks of the people in the days of Noah – people who were living just before a looming disaster but just did not recognize what time they were living in. If they knew what time it was, they would have been busy building ships like Noah and his family, but instead they were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”
He speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding grain at the mill when it is clearly not the time to take care of those everyday tasks but instead a time to be prepared for a looming disaster that takes one of the two in both cases. And of course, Jesus gives the example of the homeowner who thought that it was time to relax and go to bed when there was actually a thief who was casing his house and getting ready to rob it; it was a time to be vigilant and prepare to resist intruders. The point of all of these illustrations seems clear. You had better not just take for granted what the world tells you about what time it is. To get that wrong could be very dangerous, even fatal. So, the stakes are very high.
In fact, some of these passages we read this morning really seem kind of annoying at this time of year. After all, it is Christmas time. There are so many disturbing things that are going on in the world all the time, can’t we, just for this one season, forget all about that and celebrate and have a good time?
I don’t think that any of this means that we are just supposed to ignore whatever the world says about what time it is. By all means go ahead and plan your special times with family and friends. Enjoy those special times and events of the season. But Jesus would say that, even so, you ought to keep your eyes open for any indication that God is operating under a different timetable.
Jesus’ reference to the days of Noah makes me think of all of the ways in which we often deal with potential or looming disasters in our modern world. A majority of people, for example, accept these days that we are facing some serious environmental crises, but many go on with their regular activities and make their usual choices as if there really was nothing to be concerned about.
Yes, I know that there are some who will deny that there is anything at all to worry about, but it seems to me that the more common response is just to not think about it and to go on “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” as if the worrying signs all around them didn’t exist.
I believe that that is what the Genesis story of the flood is about. I think the point of the story is that the world was on a course for destruction and it was plain for anyone to see. The problem in that story wasn’t environmental destruction; it was the spread of deadly violence. But the reaction seems to have been the same.
And I know why we react that way; I do it too often enough. Sometimes you just have to act as if the terrible possibilities didn’t exist in order to get on with your life and keep from going insane. But Jesus may be warning us that there are consequences for failing to recognize what time it really is. So, yes, carry on with your life, by all means, but remember that your life does not simply stand alone. You are part of a much larger system and your actions and your activism matter. And, somewhere deep down inside, you really do know what time it is.
But I don’t mean to just talk about dire or looming threats here. I do not think that being a follower of Jesus means that we have to be people who are constantly thinking of the worst thing possible that could happen. In fact, it is mostly the opposite. Knowing what time it is in God’s timetable, also means joyfully embracing the opportunities that God places before us. What that means is that, when we are busily going on with all of the things that the world tells us that we must do, God will interrupt us.
And you all know what that is like! You have just managed to get a couple of hours out of your busy schedule to get to the mall and finally finish all that Christmas shopping, or you’re heading to the grocery store and you absolutely have to concentrate and get everything you need for the big meal this time when something just happens to break in and disturb your flow. Say it is an opportunity to help someone – someone who needs a little kindness or a little bit of help and you, all of a sudden, are in a position where you can do something.
Oh, that’s frustrating, isn’t it? Here I’ve got a million things to do and then something unexpected comes out of nowhere. It’s enough to make you cry. But if you know what time it is – if you are sensitive to God’s time – you know that those things don’t just happen by accident. They are God’s timing. And, if you see them that way, you will be able to respond with joy and your joy this season will multiply. If you don’t, they are just another annoying interruption and the frustration will multiply. That is the difference that knowing what time it really is can make.
I’m going to lay another case of God’s timing on you – another challenge. The world is telling you these days what time it is – it is a time to buy and buy and buy. It starts on Black Friday and continues on Cyber Monday and all the way to December 24 as we count down the real 24 days of Christmas as the world defines them. It’s about buying and then receiving on Christmas Day, a frenzy that will lead to many a meltdown between now and then.
But we have discerned God saying to us that it is a different time. After Black Friday a couple of days ago and Cyber Monday tomorrow, the next day will be Tuesday – Giving Tuesday. We have joined in the Giving Tuesday campaign this year because we believe that, while the world is saying that it is time to exercise purchasing power, God is saying that it is time to exercise the practice of generosity. And if you can hear what God is saying about what time it is, you will find the greater joy of this season.
I do not say this because I am afraid that St. Andrew’s is not going to be able to pay its bills. That’s not what this is about. Sure, we are behind, but it is God who will provide for the needs of this church as we remain faithful to the work God calls us to do, so I’m not asking you to give because we need it. We will be sharing with you some of the amazing things we do here at St. Andrew’s for our community and you definitely want to say after the service and join us in a celebration of those ministries, but this is not about making sure that you give to support those things.
Give prayerful thought about where God wants you to give and what God wants you to support. If it is not to St. Andrew’s, that is not an issue at all, but just don’t miss the opportunity that God is placing before you. I am calling on every single person here, on Tuesday or whatever day you can make it work for you, to give in some extraordinarily generous way as God has enabled you. I don’t want you to do it out of compulsion. I don’t want you to do it out of our need (that is in God’s supply), I don’t want you to do it grudgingly. I want you to do it joyfully because, besides you know what time it is.
Hespeler, 24 November 2019 © Scott McAndless – Christ the King
Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
“This is the king of the Jews?” The Gospel of Luke tells us that these were the words that were posted on the wood of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. And, since crucifixion was all about public display and warning others not to threaten the stability of the Roman Empire, it is plain enough why that sign was posted there. It was the charge upon which Jesus had been convicted. Pontius Pilate had sentenced him with the crime of sedition, insurrection and of threatening the sovereignty of the Roman Empire.
And yet I cannot help but wonder if, when Pilate ordered that those words be printed, he maybe didn’t say it like that, as a serious and solemn charge. I think that what he said was, “This is the king of the Jews?” as in, “Is this the best you can do? It this really what you call a king?” For Jesus had none of the trappings of a king. He did not wear a diadem or a royal robe. He had a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors (all of whom seemed to desert him when the going got rough) rather than royal retainers and trained bodyguards. And, though he spoke with such authority, he had absolutely no earthly power to back it up. He wasn’t a king; he was a joke, a farce, a minor annoyance at best. So did Pilate declare, or at least so he tried to convince himself.
But we know different, don’t we? We declare Jesus to be our prophet, our priest and our king. Today is the Sunday of the year devoted to his kingly power and position. But, if Jesus is king, he is a king unlike any others that we have ever seen in this world. So what does it mean, on a day like this, to claim Jesus as our king?
I find that there is a certain reluctance these days to talk about Jesus as a king. In many churches, the last Sunday before the start of Advent is not called “Christ the King Sunday” anymore, but rather “Reign of Christ Sunday.” I understand why people do that, of course. The word king is archaic; as modern people who have had no experience of an effective ruling monarch (Queen Elizabeth, after all, is explicitly banned from exercising any political power), we aren’t quite sure how to relate to the notion of a king.
But I actually think that there are some good reasons to hold on to the original language. Jesus lived, after all, for his whole life within an actual kingdom. He lived in the Kingdom of Galilee and the Peraea. (Actually it was technically a tetrarchy and its ruler, Herod Antipas, was technically a tetrarch and not a king, but that was actually something that made no practical difference to the people who lived under Herod’s rule.) That meant that every single time that Jesus used the phrase, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, and suggested (as he did all the time) that there were people living in the reality of such a kingdom, he was essentially denying the very real political reality that surrounded him. He was denying that he lived under the jurisdiction of King Herod Antipas. And if Jesus was, in any sense, a king, he was clearly a king who stood in sharp contrast to King Herod and everything that he stood for.
So actually, if you want to understand what it means to call Jesus your king and to belong to his kingdom, you have to look at the kingdom of Herod and understand it. You have to see what kind of contrast Jesus was trying to set up. For example, the kingdom of Herod was set up on one principle above all others: exploitation. Galilee contained a unique resource, the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake anywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world. Did you know that King Herod Antipas attempted to dominate the fish trade by controlling that lake?
During Jesus’ lifetime, Herod built an entirely new capital on the shores of the Sea of Galilee for the purpose of taking as much profit as he possibly could from the fishers on that lake. Fisherman like Peter, James and John followed Jesus because, when he spoke about an alternate kingdom, the kingdom of God, he challenged the authority of the kingdom of Herod that had been bleeding them and their families dry.
When Jesus fed the multitude in the wilderness by giving to the people of Galilee the bread and the fish of Galilee, he was doing it in direct defiance of King Herod who claimed all of the bread and fish of Galilee for himself and his buddies so that they could get even richer.
Jesus’ claim to be a king was not made in a vacuum, it was not something that only applied to spiritual things or to heavenly realities and it was not just about getting people to heaven when they died. It may have been all of these things, but it was also much more – it was the intentional opposite of Herod Antipas and everything that he stood for. What’s more, Jesus’ own contemporaries – both his disciples and his enemies – knew that that was exactly what it meant to call Jesus a king. It was clear to them.
It is going to take a little bit more work for us to sort out today what it means to call Jesus our king. It is not immediately clear what the kingship of Jesus stands in contrast to. But consider this description from the letter to the Colossians: “[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Having Jesus as your king, belonging to his kingdom, means, according to this, being rescued and being transferred. In Jesus’ lifetime, that meant being rescued from Herod and the darkness of his plans, and transferred into the different reality of the kingdom that Jesus preached. Today we might understand that as being rescued from all the ways of this present world and the ways that they tend to darkness and being transferred to an alternate reality.
Think, for example, of the ways in which modern society drives people into relentless consumption. It’s a message that we are constantly surrounded with. If you have a problem, you need to buy something that will save you from that problem. If you are overweight and out of shape, for example, you need to buy yourself a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment. And so people go out and do that, and then what happens? They don’t follow through. They never actually go to the gym and the exercise equipment gets stored in the attic until eventually it gets put in a yard sale. But that doesn’t matter, you see, because we have been convinced that the way you solve your problems is by buying something. The purchase is enough to save you.
And that’s true in many other ways. When people feel a spiritual lack in their life these days, what do they do? They go out and buy something. That’s one reason, for example, why the Bible remains one of the best-selling books in the world. They are constantly putting out new editions of the Bible because they know that people will buy them seeking to fill that spiritual hole. But, while the Bible is still the best-selling book in the world, it’s also one of the least read. People seem to assume that just purchasing one is enough to spark that spiritual revolution they know they need. But actually reading the book, or continuing to read it when the going gets tough, that’s where people drop out.
This is the philosophy of our society. And the relentless consumerism continues until what do we see? We see people buying and buying and buying until they can’t pay their bills and they go into debt. And does it solve anything? Usually not. But that doesn’t matter because the message we get back is that the next thing you buy is going to solve everything and so you just keep going. That’s one example of the darkness of our present age. Acknowledging Jesus as your king means that you get rescued from that relentless cycle and transferred to a different reality, the reality where you recognize that material goods are never going to fill that void that is within you. Are you willing to take Jesus as your king if that is what it means?
That is but one example of the darkness of our present age. Consider the extreme competitiveness of our time. People seem to be locked into a relentless battle to be seen as better than the people who surround them. In our capitalist society that is most often achieved through financial means; if you can manage to be paid more or to own more than your neighbours, you can see yourself as a winner. In some other arenas, money is not what is used to keep score. Sometimes it’s other signs of privilege or standing. But whatever it is, the competition and our modern world is relentless. People fall into depression and despair because they simply cannot keep up. This is a darkness of our present time. It drives things like inequality and poverty as some people inevitably get to claim much more of the resources of this world, even what they don’t actually need, to the detriment of others. And, in such a world, to take Jesus as your king means that you are rescued from needing that relentless competition to find your self-worth. It means being transferred into a kingdom where your ultimate worth is not based on how much you’re paid or what title you have but on the love that you receive from God and the love that you give.
But perhaps the greatest element of the darkness of our present age is found in the relentless desire to punish and seek revenge. How many wars are fought, how many people are vilified or ostracized because they belong to a people who, for whatever reason, somebody else has decided is the enemy. The ways that we hold on to past hurts and the wrongs that are committed against us are slowly tearing this world apart and yet we cannot let go of it because this enmity has become a part of who we are. This is the darkness of the kingdom of this present world.
But when you acknowledge Jesus as your king, you are rescued from that world and you are transferred to the kingdom of a king who had the greatest indignities committed against him, the greatest pain inflicted upon him and yet hung there and said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” His kingdom, the kingdom of the one “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” is a kingdom where we learn the power of forgiveness.
That does not mean, of course, that we continually have to let the people who have wronged us off from the consequences of their sins or their crimes, but it does mean that we are set free from that relentless need to take vengeance in order to feel good about ourselves. That need is a part of the darkness of this world and you have been rescued from that and transferred to the kingdom of the king of forgiveness.
That is the king that we serve. That is what it means to call Christ our King. And I fully realize that other people will look at that and incredulously say, “you call that a king?” The world won’t understand. The world is trapped in darkness. We belong to a different Kingdom because we have a different kind of king and his rule will last forever and ever, amen.
Hespeler, 17 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
In 1974, news and magazine stories began to appear about a woman named Linda Taylor in the United States. She was, apparently, quite a phenomenon. She didn’t work and collected welfare. In fact, it seemed, she collected a lot of welfare. If fact, she was eventually convicted of illegally obtaining 23 welfare checks using two aliases and was sentenced to prison. It was in these articles that a special name was coined for her and people like her, a welfare queen.
A few years later, in his campaign to become president of the United States, Ronald Reagan took that term, welfare queen, and kind of ran with it. At his campaign rallies and speeches, the welfare queen became a regular feature. Linda Taylor was not just one person, in fact, he never mentioned her by name. She was but one example of many. Welfare queens were apparently everywhere, they were bleeding America dry and they were at the heart of everything that was wrong with America. Reagan never actually offered any proof or statistics about any of this, he just confidently proclaimed it and you had to believe it; he was so sincere. People certainly did believe him.
And thus, after coming to office, Reagan had a mandate to carry out welfare reform – something that quickly caught on and spread to many other places including Canada. The idea behind it was that welfare was not only a drain on public funds, it also actually harmed the poor people that it was supposed to help. It encouraged them to be lazy, to give up control over their own lives and led them into the fraud and crime represented by the welfare queen. The solution, therefore, was to stop giving welfare to people, at least not without requirements – especially the requirement that they had to work. This was not presented as something mean-hearted or cruel, but actually a kind of tough love, a way of doing what was best for people even though they might not like it.
At that time, and often afterwards, the scripture that was used by Christian supporters of these initiatives was the one that we read this morning from the Second Letter of Thessalonians. “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” I am not sure, of course, that when Paul wrote those words what he had in mind was everything that happened with welfare reform. I do rather suspect that he was speaking pretty specifically to particular problems that were happening in that church in Thessalonica and not necessarily putting forward general principles. And I am not entirely sure that welfare reform has been an unmitigated success over the last few decades, but I do agree that there is some wisdom in this general idea. Setting aside particular circumstances, of course, I do think that people have a natural need to contribute to their own sustenance and well-being, to do so is to fulfill what you are called to be as a human being.
And yet, at the same time, I believe that the Bible would invite us to look a little bit deeper when we are thinking of problems like poverty and people being unable to eat. I am particularly drawn to our reading this morning from the Prophet Isaiah. It is a famous passage in which the prophet lays out his vision of the world as it will be someday. It is a vision of peace and hope for all peoples. So peaceful is this world that the prophet describes that “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” In other words, the peacefulness of the human world will overflow into the natural world until even predator and prey can dwell alongside each other.
But there is another element in this vision of a world perfected that may be even more important. Isaiah goes on to say: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat… and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain.”
Think about that for a few moments. Think about the contrast between that and the “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” that we find in Second Thessalonians and in the world of welfare reform. When the prophet comes to imagine the perfect world, he doesn’t imagine a world where people don’t have to work. In fact, the people in this vision seem to be working very hard – building houses, planting vineyards and generally toiling all day long. The difference in this vision is that the people are working for themselves. It is their house, their vineyard and the work of their hands that they themselves are enjoying.
They are intimately connected to the work that they do and the outcome of their labour. There is no question that they will work. If they do not work, their vineyard or their field will not produce. Nobody has to tell them that those who do not work do not eat. If work has meaning and people are able to enjoy the fruits of their labour, you’re not going to see too many problems with people shirking work that just needs to be done.
So that is the ideal vision of the world as it is supposed to be that you find, not just in this passage in Isaiah but in many places in the Old Testament. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that that is how God designed us to live, with a close connection between the work that we do and the resulting production that provides for us life and sustenance. Under those conditions, I’m not saying that everything was perfect, but at least the connection between labour and being able to eat was not something that anybody could miss.
But then guess what happened, the world changed. It had already changed quite significantly by the time that Paul was writing his letters to the Thessalonians. The growth of slavery and the large-scale movement of people from the countryside into cities like Thessalonica, meant that entire generations of people had lived without ever seeing how their work produced anything of value to themselves.
Other people had seized control of things, like the land, that were able to produce what people needed and they only worked for those demanding masters, employers and patrons. Is it any wonder that there were some people in the church in Thessalonica who got carried away with the new freedom that they found in Christ and decided not to do any work because they didn’t have anyone forcing them to work? They had lost that connection and could no longer see how their failure to contribute impacted the whole community.
And if they struggled with the effects of that loss of connection, how much more has that become a problem for us in the modern world? We live in a society today where most people have become completely unaware of where the things that sustain them come from. Pork chops on styrofoam trays just appear on grocery shelves, fruit comes in rolls by the foot and who has a clue what Rice Crispies are made of? And the labour of very few is connected in any meaningful way to the production that sustains their lives. For the most part, we work to serve the profits of companies and corporations. We may live in fear that, if we don’t work or we can’t get a job, we won’t eat, but we no longer have a clear sense of how it is all connected.
Part of this, of course, just has to do with the complexities of modern life and modern economics. You do almost need a degree in economics these days to map out the chains of production and consumption, supply and demand. But it also does have something to do with how we have chosen to distribute the ownership of those things, like wealth and land and resources, that are the things that are able to provide to human beings what they need to survive. When these things are increasingly controlled by an elite few, you are bound to have problems as people fall into apathy, idleness and poverty.
This also has to do with what we truly value because everything in our economy seems to be screaming these days that we don’t really value work. Those who contribute their capital, their investment and their ownership generally expect to receive a much higher rate of return these days than those who merely contribute their labour. What is more, labourers are often seen as expendable – the first to get cut when there is any danger that profits will fall.
Now, before you all start to think that I am going to go off and start quoting from the Communist Manifesto here, let me say that I am not an idealist when it comes to economic systems. I know that we live in a capitalist society and I am okay with that. I don’t think capitalism is perfect – it certainly has some pitfalls – but I am not inclined to overturn it, though I’d like to see it work better for everyone. I’m not preaching economic systems here, I am just preaching what the Bible preaches, and that is economic justice.
Prophets like Isaiah really did dream of a world where every family lived under their own vine and their own fig tree, where they had the means to produce what they needed to live with their own hands and the work that they did all had meaning as a result. I know that we no longer live in a world where that is possible, but I still believe that we can be informed by that biblical vision and it can have an impact on how we deal with people today.
One thing I know is this: it doesn’t help when we simply treat people as categories and problems. In my work, I have often had time to deal with people who are unemployed or underemployed and don’t earn enough to live on. I know that it doesn’t help to categorize them as welfare queens or even as problems. I have known people who don’t work for various reasons, but few have been what I would call lazy. They may have issues that have not been resolved or injuries of mind or of body that are unhealed. They may have never been taught or given what they needed to be able to work and they may have missed out on certain opportunities, but they aren’t simply lazy, and I don’t really see what it helps anything to treat them as such.
People are not categories, they are people. They need to be treated as people. And if you take the time to get to know them and really listen to them (which may take a lot of time because they have often built up barriers around themselves) they may just let you in and you will see.
That is honestly one of the things that I really appreciate about the outreach ministries that we have here at St. Andrew’s. I know that we do give a whole lot of people free meals, extremely subsidised food to take home through the food bank and free clothing through Hope Clothing. But honestly, I do not think that these things are the most important services that we provide for people who live on the economic margins. We offer them a place and a context where they are treated as individuals. We sit beside them as they eat their meals, we enjoy their company as they select their food or clothing. We actually take the time to get to know them and their struggles and trials. I’m not saying that doing that will suddenly fix all of the problems in somebody’s life or enable them to make the jump to an excellent job tomorrow, but I am saying that it is in those kinds of personal connections that healing begins.
The problem is not that our welfare systems were too generous. Yes, there probably was some need of reform and improvements, but it is not true at all that welfare is a driver of poverty. The problem, you see, went much deeper than that. The problem was disconnection – disconnection from the land, disconnection from the means of production. We are not going to fix all of that simply by cutting people off even more from compassion and care, the solution and the hope is to be found in connection and that is something that we can all be part of.
You, simply by choosing to treat an unemployed or marginalized person as a person – by caring about them and their story – are part of the hope and the healing, part of the vision of God for what this world could truly be.
Hespeler, 10 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
I have a disturbing question for you here this morning. What if the Sadducees – the people in this morning’s reading from the gospel – what if they are right? No, I’m serious, they come up to Jesus because they don’t believe in the resurrection and they, just like all of the people you talk to on Facebook and Twitter these days, want to prove that they are right and Jesus is wrong.
And don’t get thrown off by the convoluted argument that they use. It seems rather silly – in fact it is kind of intentionally silly. They invoke a law that really doesn’t make sense to us. You see, in ancient biblical times it was seen as the duty of every Jewish man to have a son. This was because they believed that God had given the land of Israel very specifically to the families of Israel. That meant that every family had to produce an heir (a male heir because that was how that society worked) in every generation who would own a plot of land.
But, as we all know, things don’t always work out perfectly that way. Sometimes a man will die before he has sons. That’s just the reality of life in the real world. So, the Old Testament came up with the plan to fix that problem. It is a bizarre plan from our point of view, but apparently it worked for them. The dead man’s brother would take his widow and have a son with her, and this son would be the heir of the dead man.
Like I say, pretty weird, but it kind of made sense in their world. So anyways, these Sadducees come up with a somewhat ridiculous scenario in which an entire family of seven brothers dies one after the other after being married to the same woman one after another. Their argument is that there can be no resurrection simply because, in that society a woman was defined absolutely by her relationships, particularly her relationship with her husband. They think that there can be no resurrection because it will be unclear basically who she belongs to in the next life. You can’t have that!
So, we have lots of reasons to simply dismiss what they are saying. Their question is misogynistic, in that they assume that a woman has no identity apart from her husband, and it is based on an archaic law that makes no sense to us. But I’m not so sure that we should just dismiss what they’re saying. There is a kernel of truth in it.
Let me ask you this, who are you apart from your relationships? You are somebody, of course. You do have your own independent identity. But in many ways that identity has been shaped and formed by your relationships. You are who you are because of who your parents were and what they shared with you and put in you. You are also somebody’s sibling, somebody’s friend, maybe somebody’s mother or father. And, of course, there are particular relationships, like your relationship with your spouse, that have contributed much more than all the rest.
All of these relationships affect you, change you. Therefore, there is not just one you in this life but rather one long progression of yous as you grow and change throughout your life. So, who will you be in the afterlife? The person you were in the prime of life? What would it mean to be reunited in the afterlife, say, with your grandmother who may have known you and loved you when you were a child but who knows nothing about the person you have since become?
We remember today and tomorrow in particular those who served in wars and conflicts and in other very dangerous situations – giving special thought for those who went to serve and did not return, many of whom lie in graves far from home. We think with fondness of being reunited with them some day.
But, at the same time, you have to ask about what that reunion is supposed to look like. They say, you know, that the relationships that are formed in combat situations are unlike most any others. Men and women under fire together will form iron bonds with each other that will never fail.
In fact, so powerful are these relationships that it is said that, when it comes right down to it, they are what enable people to fight in impossible situations. In the heat of combat, soldiers won’t necessarily put their lives on the line for abstract notions of patriotism or nationalism, but they will not hesitate to do so for their friends who stand on the right and on the left of them. The bonds formed in combat have, without doubt, changed the course of many a battle.
And of course, when you speak of such meaningful relationships, it is only natural for those who stood together under fire to want to be reunited with one another. But do you remember the words that we often repeat at this time of year: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” That is what we say of those who did not come back from war. So, say that you have one comrade who is killed in World War II in Europe, dead and buried at, say 20, years of age. He doesn’t return and he doesn’t get to grow old. But his friends do. They return home, they marry and have children and have many things happen in their lives that change them and affect them profoundly. And then they die at 60, 70, 80 or more years of age.
They can be reunited in the afterlife, that’s what we believe, isn’t it? But what sort of reunion would it be between a 20 year old and an 80 year old who were once so close but who have now been so separated by life experience – one frozen in time while the other has changed profoundly? It is questions like that that make the afterlife so hard to conceive of. If I am to be raised after death, what person will be raised, the person that I was, the person that I am or the person that I will be one day. As a resurrected person, how will I then relate to those I have known before?
Well that is the issue that the Sadducees are actually raising with Jesus with their question, and it’s a pretty good one. But, fear not, for Jesus is not going to leave us hanging with this one. Jesus actually has an answer to the difficult question posed by Sadducees. Actually, there are two answers. First of all, Jesus says this: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Now what is Jesus saying here? He is not saying that there is no reunion with people that we love in the afterlife. What he is saying is that the relationships that we seek to re-establish in the afterlife just don’t work the way there that they do here. In other words, you may think that you know how it’s going to work and how we’re going to relate in the afterlife, but you are wrong. You have no idea.
And that is actually the biggest issue that we have in all our talk of a life after death: we don’t have a clue what it’s like. This is simply because we don’t have the minds to comprehend it, nor do we have the language to describe it. Everything that the Bible says, everything that anyone has ever said of the afterlife, is not and cannot be an exact description. At best, what we have are similes and metaphors. We cannot say what heaven is, we can only say that it’s kind of like this or kind of like that. But just because we cannot precisely describe it, that does not mean that it is not real. Just because we do not know how we will relate to one another after we are raised, does not mean that we will not be raised.
So, these words of Jesus are ultimately very helpful, but they might still leave us with some questions. If we can’t offer a precise definition of the afterlife, after all, doesn’t that make it a bit hard to take comfort in the very idea of an afterlife? And if we can’t precisely define the relationships that we’ll have with those who have gone on before, how can we be sure that there will be comfort in being reunited?
But, as I said, Jesus also has a second response to their question. He talks about that famous scene when God met Moses at the burning bush and said that he was “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Now, of course, by the time Moses came along, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been dead and buried for a very long time. Nevertheless, Jesus notes, God spoke of being their God in the present tense, not in the past. That is like if I were to say, I am the brother of Robert. When I use the present tense, it implies that my brother Robert is still alive (which indeed he is). So, Jesus is saying that God was saying the same thing about the patriarchs long after their deaths, that they were still alive. Therefore, the conclusion is, there must be an afterlife.
So, Jesus’ argument does make some good, logical sense. But I think the Jesus is doing more here then just offering a logical argument to counter that of the Sadducees. Honestly, I would be disappointed if that was all he was saying because who wants to build your argument for the reality of life after death on something as minor as the tense of one verb in one thing that God once said.
But no, Jesus is not saying that it’s just about the tense of the verb. He is saying that it’s actually about the nature of God. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” You see, the true promise of the resurrection is not found in which of seven husbands a certain woman was married to and what happens to that relationship after she dies, it is found in her God. Her relationships might change; she might change with time and experience, but God remains the same and to God she is always alive.
And God is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the God of the soldier who was killed in action and left in some graveyard on Vimy Ridge and he remains alive to God. The same God is the God of the soldier who stood in the line beside that other soldier but came home and married and grew old and had a whole lifetime. Their reunion is possible because both are equally alive to God.
I get to preach at a lot of funerals – I find it to be a great honour – and so I am often very attuned to the things that make people feel a bit better at such times. And I know that people do talk a lot about that idea of being reunited someday. I know that promise is real, but Jesus is right, we really can’t imagine what that future life is going to be like. It is far beyond our imagination and understanding. So how do I know that it is true? I know it because the same God who is there for us with each breath, giving us life and hope and meaning, is the God who will always be there for us. To God we are all alive, now and always and that it what provides for us the foundation of hope beyond this present existence. That is enough. That is everything.
Hespeler, 3 November, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11,12, Luke 19:1-10
The PR people came in with their graphs and charts and PowerPoints and laid out the situation for him.
“Mr Zacchaeus,” they said, “you definitely have an image problem but we think we can help you. You are, without a doubt, the richest man in the city of Jericho so you ought to be the most popular. But there’s a bit of a problem. We thought at first that it might be because people are jealous that you have done so well, but we don’t think that’s it. Nor is it because you are too short. I know you don’t like being short of stature, but actually most people seem to think you’re a little bit cuddly and cute.
No, it seems, the problem is how you managed to amass your enormous wealth. It seems that the people aren’t as foolish as we all assumed. They know that, when you bought the contract to collect taxes here in Jericho, the Romans let you keep whatever extra money in taxes you were able to get out of the people. They understand that, if you’ve gotten rich, it’s because you have been cheating and squeezing people for everything that they are worth. Strangely, people seem to resent that in a tax collector. So, they just don’t like you.
“But don’t worry, we’ve got a plan to rehabilitate your image in the city. We think that if you can show yourself to be a really religious person, you know, somebody who celebrates all the festivals, the new moons and Sabbaths, who commissions sacrifices at the temple and participates in holy processions, it’s going to make a big difference. People love things like that, they eat it up. You do a little bit of that stuff in the city, lots of public praying and lavish donations to the temple, and people will start to think that you must really be a good person.
“And, by the way, don’t worry, you can still keep ripping people off all you want. That’s the beauty of it. If you show yourself to be all pious and religious like that, they’ll just assume that you really must be a good person despite the terrible things you do. If you project the right image, you can get away with anything.”
That is what the PR people said to Zacchaeus, or at least it’s what they would have said if the profession existed back in the first century because that was how it was done. In many ways, it is how it still works. Everybody understood that open and outward religious displays were the best way to win over all of the people who thought you were a terrible person because they thought that all of that religious stuff was pleasing to God. There are still a lot of people who think that way today. It’s one good reason, for example, why it’s very hard to get anywhere as a politician these days if you do not profess to belong to some religion or at least have some religious leaders backing you.
I’m sure that Zacchaeus listened to that kind of advice and maybe even tried to follow it. That’s exactly what people in his position always did. And maybe, at least in some outward form, it actually worked. He probably did get some powerful people to applaud his outwardly religious displays. Project the right image and people will respond. But I suspect that, at some level, Zacchaeus knew that it was all just a show. He might be fooling some of the people, but he was not fooling himself and there was no way he was fooling God.
And so, when he heard of a new teacher and wonderworker passing through town, a Galilean from up north, he paid attention. Everyone was saying that this man was different, he saw you for who you really were and didn’t really care about image and all the other things that everyone else seemed so obsessed with. Zacchaeus figured that this man would be able to see through all of that religious stuff he had learned to hide behind. What’s more, everyone said that this Jesus was completely authentic. He didn’t hide behind anything. So, Zacchaeus became obsessed. He had to know who this Jesus was. He felt certain that if only he could discover that, he would finally know who he himself truly was.
That is, by the way, something very odd about the way that the story of Zacchaeus is told in the Gospel of Luke. When Zacchaeus goes out to try to see Jesus, we’re told that he has a very particular goal in mind and it is not what you might expect. Normally, if I were to go out to see some minor celebrity who was passing through Hespeler, I might say that I was going to see what he was doing here or what she might say or do and I might even say that I was going to see what all the fuss was about and why everyone else was going. Those are all good reasons why Zacchaeus might have gone out to see Jesus, but that is not why we’re told he went. He went – and this is what it literally says in the original Greek text – he went to see “who is Jesus.” In other words, he was not drawn by the man’s words or actions or his fame so much as he was drawn simply by his identity.
And I think there is an important message in that all by itself. The story of Zacchaeus is the story of transformation – real transformation. It is the story about how a rich man decided to change the very basis of his life and to stop living by exploiting others – especially the poorest of the poor in his community. That is the kind of transformation we all need to learn about and understand because, I’ll tell you, there is a tremendous need for all kinds of individuals in our modern world to make exactly that kind of transformation. Relentless exploitation lies at the heart of so many of the problems that plague our modern world including poverty, the opioid crisis, the environment and climate change. The more people make that kind of transformation, honestly, the more hope I see for the world.
And it is Zacchaeus’ encounter with the authenticity of Jesus, Luke seems to be telling us, that lies at the heart of his transformation which maybe explains why we don’t see more of that kind of transformation in the modern world. We live, after all, in a world where everything is more about image than it is about who somebody really is.
Take a look, for example, at the recent federal election in Canada. I have not found very many people who saw that campaign as particularly inspiring. This was not, as far as I can see, because Canadian politicians are not, many of them at least, very fine and excellent people who, in some cases at least, have good policies. It is because the campaign was not fought in such terms – it was fought in terms of image. It was all about candidates trying to put forward the best constructed image that they could and everyone else trying to destroy that image. In Zacchaeus’ world (and in the world of our Old Testament reading from the Book of Isaiah) that kind of image was usually constructed through various forms of religious observance. Today the experts have come up with much more elaborate forms of image construction, but the problem, at its heart, is still the same. It’s still all about the image you project. I think that people are getting tired of that kind of thing and are craving for something much more authentic.
So, I find it very significant that Zacchaeus’ craving for authenticity in Jesus is the first step of his transformation. Is a reminder to me that, if the church today wants to play a part in the transformation of people in ways that will bring renewal to this world, we’re not going to do that by presenting a flashy image or an entertaining presentation. We are going to do that by being authentic, by not being afraid to be who we truly are and who God made us.
So, Jesus’ authenticity is the first step in Zacchaeus’ transformation. The second step comes in the moment when Jesus first spies Zacchaeus as he looks down from his sycamore tree. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says, “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” That is the last thing, indeed the only reported thing, that Jesus says to Zacchaeus before he decides to totally change everything in his life. Why is it so transformative?
I realize, of course, that what Jesus says might sound a little bit rude to us. In our culture it is considered a bit presumptuous to just inform somebody that you’re staying at their house. But in ancient Palestinian culture, inviting yourself to dinner was actually a very common way of honouring people and treating them as important. What Jesus is doing, by saying this, is letting Zacchaeus know that he is seen and known for who he is and that Jesus can see past all of the terrible things that he has done to people.
This is the flip side of the authenticity that Jesus presented and that first attracted Zacchaeus’ attention. Because Jesus is not concerned about presenting a correct and acceptable image to the world, because he has found the freedom to just be who he is, he can just blast past the images that everyone else gets hung up over. He can see that, whatever else he is, that Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. Jesus sees him with the eyes of grace.
At the end of the story, Jesus proclaims that salvation has occurred, that it has entered into the household of Zacchaeus. It should be noted that the salvation he speaks of is specifically for that household. There are still many others who suffer and are in need of salvation because, whatever Zacchaeus himself does, the unjust tax system that is rife with abuse and exploitation will still continue to suck the people dry. But Zacchaeus is set free from the hold that it had over him. And he is set free from continually trying to pretend to be somebody he’s not, putting on some image that never quite works in order to seek the approval of the people around him. It doesn’t change everything for everyone, but it is the beginning of the kind of change that truly can remake this world.
As I have already noted, we do live in a world today where relentless image making seems to be the only thing that matters. Those who present the best public image, be they politicians, business people or influencers are perceived to be the winners. And I feel that the church often feels the pressure to play that image game. We are made to feel as if we’ve got to present a slick, polished product in order to be what the world calls “successful.” And there is no question that there are some churches out there that are able to accomplish some amazing things by projecting that kind of image, though there have sadly been some cases of late where such churches have been exposed, underneath that slick image, to be something quite different and that has certainly damaged the cause of Christ.
But I don’t really want to spend my time criticizing churches that put all that energy into image building. Let them enjoy the success that the world gives them. I just want to ask the question whether that is the kind of success that we should be pursuing.
What if the true goal of the church is the transformation of people like Zacchaeus? What if it is to encourage those people to rip away the image that they’ve so carefully constructed to present to the world and allow God to bring the change that is necessary into their lives? Is that not what success in the kingdom of God really amounts to? If that is what we are called to do, I don’t think it matters how slick of an image the church presents to the world, that’s not what is going to get us there. But when we all learn to drop the pretenses, to let go of that image work that we cling to to make ourselves seem acceptable and decide to just be who God created us to be and to see people as God sees them, then, maybe, true transformation that matters can begin.
Hespeler, 27 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless – Baptism
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14
Did you know that locusts and grasshoppers are actually the same animal? Most grasshoppers live their whole lives without bothering anyone. But something very strange happens in their tiny little brains under some very particular conditions.
When there has been a bad drought, a serious lack of rain, and everything that has been planted begins to wither and die and then there is a break and the rains, long hoped for, finally begin to fall and there is a sudden and abundant new growth of greenery, in that very scenario, its like a switch is flipped inside some species of grasshopper and they become locusts. Nothing physically changes in the insect, but it is completely transformed in its behaviour. It breeds like crazy and begins to swarm and migrate in huge numbers. Locust swarms can grow so big and thick that they completely block out the sun bringing darkness in the middle of the day. That alone is terrifying, but its nothing like destruction that is wrought as these swarms devour absolutely everything that is green in their paths.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that from ancient times, people have had a tendency to blame the formation of locust swarms on the gods? Their arrival just seemed to be so mean and vindictive. You had just lived through a terrible drought, had watched everything that you had planted dry and wither away and then, when things looked the very worst, the rains had come and your heart swelled with joy as you watched everything turn green again and begin to sprout. And then, just when you began to dare to hope again, you see the sky turn black with locusts and watch as every living thing that grows is picked clean. Who wouldn’t, at that point, come to the conclusion that the entire universe (or at least some vindictive god) was out to get you?
So I understand why ancient people blamed God for locust swarms (even if I don’t agree that God operates like that). I understand because I understand how it feels to go through a very dry time, find a new reason to hope that things might get better and then have that little wisp of hope crushed. I’ve been through times like that and I wouldn’t be surprised if you had too. If you haven’t, I’ll bet you have a friend or loved one who has. And what do you say to someone who is feeling like that – who is convinced that God must be out to get them? Because I’ll tell you that the usual platitudes – “You’ll see, everything will work out,” “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” “Just look on the bright side,” – platitudes like that are just not going to cut it.
Well, guess who got the very difficult job of comforting and giving hope to the people of Israel who were feeling exactly like that in the aftermath of a locust swarm: a prophet named Joel. We read a part of his message this morning. How does he try to help the people? First of all, he teaches them that they should find comfort not in promises or optimism but in the very nature of God: “I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten,” God says, “the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.”
This is a pledge, a promise, grounded in Godself. “I will repay you,” God is saying, “everything that you have lost is on my account.” It is like the richest person in the world undertook to pay off all of your business losses or your debts. And I think that that is a message you do need to hear at that moment. When, rightly or wrongly, you have become convinced, because of the things that have been happening to you, that God is out to get you, the first thing you need is a corrected view of God. You need to understand that the creator of the universe actually seeks your good and not your harm.
I honestly feel as if this is one of the greatest battles that we face. Many people’s problems, their low self-esteem, their struggles with feelings of guilt or shame, their sense that they are never good enough, are rooted in the false image of God that people have given to them. If the image of God that was given to you by your parents or that was perhaps modelled by them was an image of a mean, judgmental and vindictive God, concluding that there must be something wrong with you simply make good sense.
And the only way that that attitude is going to shift is if you begin to see God in a different way. Joel begins to nudge the people towards that new way of seeing God with this pledge and promise, “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”
So that is Joel’s first response to everything that the people are dealing with – he begins to instruct them on who God actually is. But he is not done. Obviously, the people are going to need something more in order to recover from the emotional and physical blow that the locusts have dealt them. And so Joel gives them another remarkable but somewhat unexpected promise. “Then afterwards,” God promises – after you have recovered from this terrible devastation – “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
And that seems like a great promise. Just like God has poured out the rain that has brought the new growth, he is going to pour out his Spirit on all of his people. He is going to guide them directly and show them how to live with the ups and downs of life. But if you know anything about the history of prophecy and the movements of the Spirit, you will know that there might be something there to be a little bit concerned about. When God speaks; when the Spirit of God moves powerfully in individuals, it does tend to upset things.
From very early on, the church became very nervous about the movement of the Holy Spirit among the members of the church. It tended to be very disruptive. The Spirit often said things that the leadership didn’t really want to hear. And so, some Christian churches decided to shut that kind of thing down. Reformed churches like our own, for example, taught that the Holy Spirit basically stopped speaking to people once the scriptures had all been written. Other churches, like for example the Roman Catholic, were okay with the idea that the Spirit still spoke, but declared that the Spirit only spoke to those who were already established as leaders of the church.
So in difficult times, like in the aftermath of a locust swarm, the tendency is to clamp down, get everything back to normal as quickly as possible. What you don’t want is some new message from God that is going to shake things up and so if anyone is going to receive a message from the Spirit, you would rather that it be someone who isn’t going to shake up the status quo. You want the Spirit to speak only to established people, the elders, the old people who will be slow to embrace change when they receive a message from God’s Spirit.
Isn’t it rather interesting, therefore, that Joel promises the very opposite in his prophecy? The Spirit, he says, will be poured out all willy-nilly. It will be poured on the old but also on the young. It will be poured out on the sons but also on the daughters. Most shocking of all, Joel proclaims that God’s Spirit will be given even to the slaves, even to those who are least interested in keeping things the way they have always been.
There seems no doubt in what Joel is saying. After the locust swarm has passed, we will be not just going back to the way things used to be. We are meant to be inspired by God to seek out new directions, new messages and new beginnings and we are especially called to listen to what God might be saying through the youth and through those who have traditionally been cut off from power and influence.
I believe that in the church today, we are in a kind of post locust swarm situation. The church has been shocked in recent years to find itself in a world where the old assumptions and the old ways of doing things just don’t work the way that they once did. It used to be that we could just plant a few seeds, open the doors and expect near instant growth to occur. The last few decades, therefore, have felt a bit like the aftermath of a locust swarm for many churches. That’s why I think that Joel’s message is very relevant to us today.
We need to be reminded, first of all, that the image we have received of God in many cases – the image of a mean, vindictive God who is out to get us if we just step just a little bit out of line – is false and dangerous. But it also means that we need to be open to the second response that Joel offers: the promise of a new pouring out of God’s Spirit on God’s people.
A couple of weeks ago I used this passage from Joel to begin our session meeting. It was an unusual start to our regular meeting because we had invited our new youth group to join us during that time. So I pointed out to the youth group that the session is made up of a group of people called elders. And what is the meaning of the word elder? The word literally means old person. Now, that doesn’t mean that all of our elders here at St. Andrews are senior citizens. But it does mean, to a certain extent, that the members of session have been chosen and elected to be careful and small c conservative leaders of the congregation – people who won’t mess with the status quo too much. And Joel speaks of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the elders as they are called to lead God’s people. But, I pointed out, as much as we need the leadership of the elders, they cannot do it alone. God’s Spirit is also poured out upon the youth, Joel says, because they also are anointed to lead us especially at difficult moments when it feels like we’re in the aftermath of a locust swarm and God is urging us to find new ways to be relevant in a world where many things have changed.
That is why I’m so excited today to be celebrating the sacrament of baptism for Lily. Today we welcomed her into the life of this congregation. We heard the promises, made by her parents, that they will tell her about Jesus and give her the opportunity to experience the life of Christ’s Church as she grows up. That is something that is wonderful and that we can all look forward to. But I look forward to even more. We called down the presence of God’s Holy Spirit among us today, symbolically represented in this water. Just as the water was poured out on her head, I know that if only we leave open the possibility, God will pour out his Spirit upon her. That’s why she has been anointed as our leader today. She will lead us out into the world at the end of the service today.
Lily will grow up in a world that we can only imagine at this point. Who knows what changes are coming our way? Who knows how the environment, society and even Canada’s political system will change in years to come? Who knows how the church will need to change? We need new voices to guide us into that future, and God has chosen one such voice today. I know that you will cherish her and her presence in this congregation in years to come. That’s great. The bigger challenge that God lays before you today is will you listen to her and others like her in years to come when the Holy Spirit speaks to them and tells us what incredible new thing God wants to do among us and through us.
Hespeler, 20 October, 2019 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
The story we read this morning from the Book of Genesis has got it all: weirdness, strange unexplained details and a midnight wrestling match. But the really amazing thing about this story is that it’s not just a story about what happened to one man a long, long time ago. It’s actually the story of a nation and how it found its identity. It’s the story about how the people of Israel got their name. And their name tells you a whole lot about who they are as a people, and especially how they relate to their God.
You’ve got to pay attention to stories like that. They tell you a whole lot more about the true nature of a people than all of the laws, rules and policies that get written down and are given much more attention. A good story, especially a founding story like this one in Genesis, can sometimes tell you everything.
And, to show you what I mean, I got somebody else to tell you that kind of story about this congregation. Jack Krueger is a long-time member and sustaining elder of St. Andrews Hespeler Presbyterian Church. His current state of health means is unable to join us here, but he is no less a part of this congregation today than he ever was. And if you know Jack, and a lot of people around Hespeler know Jack, you know that he’s a storyteller. Over the years he’s told me many stories about this congregation. Some of them, I wouldn’t repeat here, and he wouldn’t want me to. But some of them have really taught me a lot about this congregation and so the other week I got him to tell one of them for you. I’m going to share his story with you now.
There are a couple of things you need to know to properly understand Jack’s story. First of all, you need to know that when this sanctuary was built over a century ago, it had a particular high church design, especially up here in the chancel area. The choir pews did not face the congregation as they do now, but rather faced each other with rows of pews in front of the organ pipes on each side. And that space, on the far side of the choir, the space that we don’t really use anymore and that you may have wondered why it was even there, that was where the communion table sat. That was how the sanctuary was designed and how it remained until the time when Jack’s story begins.
In addition, you need to know a few of the characters that Jack mentions in his story. When he says Wallace, he is talking about the man that most knew as the Rev. Wally Little, long-time minister of this congregation. The Jack that he refers to is Jack Wehner, who was music director for many years. And when he mentions “the Mill,” he’s talking about a group of people associated with one of the biggest employers in the town – prosperous people who were big financial supporters of the congregation for many years, and who clearly had some strong ideas about what could be changed in the sanctuary and what could most certainly not. Here is Jack’s story:
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The Bible says that the identity of the Israelites was born in a midnight wrestling match. Jacob is about as close as we get to the literal father of the nation of Israel – the actual father of twelve men who will, in their turn, found the twelve tribes that will make up the entire nation. And in this story he gets a new name, the name that the nation will bear: Israel.
And if we all spoke Hebrew, the original language of the text, we would immediately understand the meaning of the name because, in Hebrew, the name sounds like God-wrestler, the one who fights with God. That makes perfect sense in the story, of course, what better nickname could you give to someone who just spent the entire night grappling with a divine being? But this story is not just about who Jacob is, it is also about who his descendants will be. They will be a people who will be defined by their struggle with God and the midnight wrestling match foreshadows many of the ways in which the nation will struggle with their God throughout their history.
For example, one of the reasons why Jacob is fighting with God is in order to know who he is. “Please tell me your name,” Jacob pleads, though God doesn’t answer. This represents the oldest human struggle of all, the struggle to come to terms with who God is. And it is indeed something that we still struggle with today and that we will never fully resolve.
Even more important, Jacob struggles with God for a blessing. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he declares. Jacob is not seeking this blessing merely for himself but for his descendants who are about to meet with Esau, Jacob’s brother, who has vowed to destroy them all. This struggle for a blessing for our descendants is one of the key aspects of the ongoing human struggle with God.
Jacob’s wrestling match with God is an indication that human-divine relationships are not easy. They are a struggle and they sometimes leave deep marks on us, just as Jacob is left with a limp because of his wounded hip. But the blessing that Jacob receives is an indication that the struggle is nevertheless worthwhile. So, you see, these kinds of foundation stories really do tell us a lot about the identity of a people and how they operate.
Which brings me to Jack’s story about this congregation. I think that is a great founding story for us as a people. Even though many here did not live through that story, I believe that it continues to help define who we are as a congregation. And I’m sure you noticed that Jack told it as the story of a fight. To use his own words, he saw himself as wielding a knife and flaying his enemies alive! Now, granted, Jack was a butcher so I guess that’s a kind of imagery that comes to him naturally. He obviously didn’t mean to literally describe a knife fight. But he was definitely talking about a kind of conflict where everyone picked sides and there were clear winners and clear losers. And I see in that a pretty good model for how this congregation tends to deal with change.
The change they were struggling with in Jack’s story, basically the movement of the communion table closer to the people of the church, was an inevitable one. There was a time when the old high church setup really worked for people, maybe conveyed a certain seriousness, but that time was passing when Jack’s story began. Change was needed to keep the church relevant in a changing world. The only issue was how was the church going to deal with that change. And, apparently, they did it by choosing sides and having a knife fight if I understood correctly.
I think that that story is as much a part of our identity as a congregation as the story of Jacob is about the identity of the people of Israel. They were a people who dealt with change by struggling with God, we are a people who struggle with each other. I’m not saying that we constantly fight with each other. We actually get along great and work well together most of the time. It’s just that when we have to process serious change, we tend to do it by fighting it out. We don’t do that because we like it or because we don’t like each other. We just do it because we don’t know any other way to deal with change.
We don’t plan it, different people take different roles and play different parts at different times in the conflict, it just kind of happens. It’s part of who we are. And yes, that way of handling change has brought us some blessings, just like Jacob’s battle brought a blessing. But it has also sometimes left us wounded and limping. So, yes, pay attention to the stories that we tell; they are an essential part of who we are. It may surprise you to learn, however, that that is not the only way that churches can deal with change. There actually are other ways!
Jesus was a storyteller too, as you know. And perhaps one of his stories could help us think a bit more creatively about dealing with change. He told a story about a widow who got into a fight with a judge. She wanted something from him, some justice, and he didn’t want to give it to her so she had to fight him. And the battle between the two might be more violent than it seems when you first read this. The usual interpretation of this story is that the widow just wears the judge down with her persistence and insistence until the judge says, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” What you need to know is that the judge’s words can also be translated as “I will grant her justice, so that she doesn’t end up slapping me in the face!” So that widow might have been a bit scrappier than you’ve been led to believe!
Jesus seems to have told this story to illustrate how people related to God in prayer and in other ways and the underlying assumption seems to be that you have to fight with God to get anything from him. It’s just like the Jacob story – Jacob had to fight with God to get a blessing, the widow has to fight with God to get justice. Jesus is saying that that’s how we think it works. But then he goes on to say that God actually isn’t like the judge at all. In other words, we may assume that we need to fight with God to get the blessing but God would rather just give it. Maybe Jacob’s wrestling match and Israel’s ongoing struggle with God is not about who God actually is, but is rather caused by our failure to understand God at all.
Which leads me to wonder, have we in this congregation learned to deal with change by picking sides and fighting it out until somebody wins and somebody loses because we too have failed to understand the true nature of God? The idea that, in order for one person to win, somebody else has to lose, is actually based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the church and of God. It is a way of behaving that humans have always adopted when resources are scarce. But we do not have a God of scarcity; we have a God of abundance. Change is inevitable as we move forward, my hope and prayer is that we deal with it in the best ways possible. There really is no need for there to be winners and losers. The more we know God, the more we can create a church where everyone is heard, everyone’s respected and we actually all win together.