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Minister’s blog

Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity

Posted by on Sunday, July 31st, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch a video of the reading and the sermon here

Hespeler, 31 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

You have heard, I imagine, the proverb that goes like this: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” It is a saying that is usually credited to Benjamin Franklin, who did indeed include it in a book that he wrote, but he was probably not the first to say it.

The proverb has remained popular because it just seems like good common sense. If you wake up early, work hard all day and don’t stay up all night in partying and frivolous pursuits, it promises, you will be rewarded, over time, with security and prosperity.

Capitalism’s Promise

It is, in many ways, the promise that we are given in our modern capitalistic society – which is likely something that Benjamin Franklin also had in mind. We set up our free market, free enterprise system with the hope and expectation that it will create an environment where, if people work hard and apply themselves, they should be able to prosper. It is, in many ways, a wonderful promise.

Very Ancient Idea

But, as I say, it is not a promise that began with Franklin. The fact of the matter is that the Bible, and particularly the Book of Proverbs, is full of very similar promises.

Here are just a few: “A wicked person earns deceptive wages, but the one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.” (Proverbs 11:18) “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labour.” (Proverbs 12:24) “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.” (Proverbs 13:4) “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23 “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)

So we have the same promise given in the Bible as is often made in our society. You work hard and you work smart, and you will be rewarded. And, since it is in the Bible, these Proverbs also add a certain moral promise to the idea. There is something virtuous about hard work and so the material reward that we are supposed to receive is a divine reward.

Looking from the Other Side

But there is also another side to all of this. If, as all of these proverbs state, we can be certain that virtue and hard work will always be rewarded with success and wealth, would that not also mean that we can assume, based on someone’s situation in life, that we know how they got there. That is to say, if we see someone who is healthy, wealthy and wise, can we not assume that they must be early to bed and early to rise hard-working types? If we see someone who is richly supplied, well then, they must have been diligent, right? Any one of these Proverbs we can take and turn around and assume, based on that, that somebody must have deserved their good fortune.

And, yes, that would also mean that if someone is poor or disadvantaged or has just never managed to get anywhere, well, that surely must be because they are lazy, unwise and foolish, right? The logic seems to be quite inescapable.

When the Proverbs fail

And here is where we see that there might be a certain problem with this kind of proverbial thinking. What do we do when things don’t turn out that way, when good hard-working folk just don’t manage to get ahead because of circumstances beyond their control? And what if it really doesn’t seem as if the extraordinarily wealthy are more righteous and hard working than anyone else? What if, in fact, they turn out to be like that man in Jesus’ parable this morning, selfish and self-centred greedy jerks? What then?

It is a question that many seem to be struggling with in these times. You may have heard of some of the unrest that is taking place in the labour market these days. You have certainly noticed, I would imagine, the stories of restaurants and other enterprises that seem to be constantly complaining about how they can’t find anybody willing to work these days. Many businesses are severely understaffed and seem to be unable to find anyone willing to accept the jobs they are offering.

Turning Down Low-Wage Work

What you may not have heard about, however, is the other side of that problem. If you listen in the right ways and in the right places, you can hear the stories of the people who are not taking those jobs. And they will tell you why. They will tell you that they have been doing that kind of low-wage work for years, but, in all that time, it hasn’t mattered how hard they have worked. They have been going early to bed and early to rise, but it has not resulted in them getting any healthier or wealthier. And so now they are getting wise.

They are saying that they can no longer afford to live in the cities where they are employed to serve the people who live there. They can no longer afford to live elsewhere because they would have to travel to the city, and they can’t afford that. They are wise enough to calculate that if they moved to the place where the work is and took that low wage job, they would simply fall further and further behind financially as time went by. The promise of the proverbs seems to be broken. It’s enough to make you think that maybe we need to throw out the proverbs altogether.

Qoheleth Understands

But if you think that all of that is just a frustration of modern life, and maybe especially of younger generations today, you might have another think coming. There is an ancient biblical author who completely understands all of that. We are not quite sure what his name was. He calls himself Qoheleth, which is left like that in some translations and in others translated to something like “the teacher.” He also identifies himself as a king from the House of David, but that may just be a literary device, not necessarily an indication that he was a real king.

Certainly, the things that he writes about are not the struggles of kings who are trying to manage the rule of a country. They are the struggles of ordinary people who are just trying to hold on and make it in a world that doesn’t really seem to care whether they work hard or not, they just can’t get ahead.

Whoever he is, Qoheleth has obviously read the Book of Proverbs and has heard the promise that, if you work hard and apply yourself you will get ahead, and he has taken up his pen to say, “Hey, wait a minute, it just doesn’t always work out like that.”

Man, this is Vanity!

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And, when he says that, I imagine him much like a modern millennial who looks at the system they are inheriting – a system where they graduate from school with a massive debt, get a job that offers them no security and finds that it is financially impossible for them to ever own a home. What do they say? They say, “Man, this is a load of… vanity!” And I know they don’t use the word vanity there, but that is maybe the closest word I could use in church.

And here I see Qoheleth echoing the sentiments of so many in the world today who have gotten so very tired of working for prosperity that never quite seems to arrive. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” You work and you work and you work and instead of getting ahead all you get is behind on your sleep. It does sound very much like something that somebody might write today.

Both Messages in the Bible

And I really just wanted to highlight that we get both of these messages from the Bible. I know that there are lots of people who think that they can turn to the Bible and get an absolute, unchanging nugget of truth that they can hold onto forever. And the truth that we get from The Book of Proverbs would be a wonderful truth to hold onto. If you could know for sure that you deserved all of the good things that came to you and if you could be sure that people who experience misfortune deserve that, man, that would put us all at ease for so many of these anxieties that we carry around with us.

But biblical truth doesn’t work like that. It is not that you can just pull out one text and say you have the perfect answer. What we are actually challenged to do is to find the truth in the tension between these two texts. We have to live with the truth proclaimed in Proverbs that everything happens because everyone gets what they deserve. And we have to live with the truth in Ecclesiastes that everything that happens is, well, vanity of vanities.

Jesus Works Out the Tension

And how you work out that tension is something that we all have to figure out for ourselves. And I do find it kind of interesting that we seem to see Jesus working it out in that parable we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus worked it out, as he usually did, by turning it into a story. “The land of a rich man produced abundantly,” he said.

Here is a man who has experienced great prosperity. According to The Book of Proverbs, we should know why he is so fortunate. Obviously, he must be good and righteous and must have worked hard to deserve such prosperity. And, sure, maybe that is how things should work out. But Jesus is clearly telling a story that is grounded in real life. And he sees that, precisely because this man thinks he deserves all of his good fortune and therefore intends to rest upon it, all of that will be proven to be vanity of vanities.

What do I think that means? I think it is true that each one of us owes it to ourselves in this world to do our best. To work hard, to live the best life possible and to be good to others. It is good that we should hope to be rewarded for such things.

But the reality is that things don’t always work out that way. What Jesus seems to be saying with this parable is that our greatest danger is to fall into thinking that the blessings we have received are given to us by anything but grace. So long as we begin to rely upon them, instead of on the one who is the ultimate giver, we will not find any meaning in any of it, not over the long term. We will also very easily fall into judging people unjustly when they don’t succeed. And that is vanity and a great evil.”

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Abraham’s Fantastic Conversation

Posted by on Sunday, July 24th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here.

Hespeler, 24 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:20-33, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13


here was a very popular legend that circulated in the early Christian church regarding James, the brother of Jesus. He is referred to a few times in the Bible and we see him as one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts. The legend that circulated had to do with how he died and what his death meant.

According to a number of sources, including the Jewish historian Josephus who was definitely not a Christian, James was highly respected, not only by Christians but by the entire populace of the city. They called him James the Just, or it can be translated as James the Righteous One. And he was kind of famous, not only for his leadership in the city but also for his intercession.

Old Camel Knees

The legend has it that James would spend so much time in the temple praying for the people and the city of Jerusalem, that he formed calluses on his knees so thick that people called him “old camel knees.” They may have made fun of the appearance of his legs, but everyone seems to have had a deep respect for what he did in the city.

But, according to the story, a certain faction of Pharisees in the city were concerned by the growth of the Christian sect. Since James was a famous observer of the strict Jewish law, they thought he might be an ally. They asked him to climb to the very pinnacle of the temple and address the people to warn them against the teachings of the Christians.

James agreed, but when the people gathered to hear him, he did not do as expected and refused to denounce belief in Jesus. Instead he cried out, “Why do you ask me about Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!”

Death of James

As you can imagine, the Pharisees were not pleased. They pushed James off of the top of the temple and he crashed to the pavement below. But the fall did not kill him, at least not yet. He struggled to his knees and there, in front of all the people, continued to pray, “I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” The enraged Pharisees quickly gathered a crowd and began to stone James.

Then one of the priests shouted, “Stop! What are you doing! The righteous one is praying for you.” But it was too late. A local fuller took one of the clubs that he used to beat laundry with and smashed James on the head, killing him with one blow.

The Results of the Murder

Since it is a legend, we can hardly rely on every detail of that story being true. But there is some reason to believe that it has an historical core. The detail that James was highly respected by all in the city, attested by a number of the sources, seems to be true.

But what I find especially interesting is what the Christian tradition says about the result of James’ murder. It declares that immediately after this happened, the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem. The events were so closely related in time, the Christian commentator Hegesippus says, that “the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that [the death of James] was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem.”

You know what that tells me? It tells me that the early church (and perhaps many Jews) thought they had the answer to the question that has long haunted me whenever I read our story this morning from the Book of Genesis.

Abraham and the Strangers

Abraham was sitting outside of his tent one day when, all of a sudden, three strangers appeared before him. Now, according to the laws of hospitality that were practiced throughout the Ancient Near East, Abraham knew exactly what was expected of him. To offer hospitality – food and drink and a place to rest – was not just a nice thing to do for them. It was not just an option; it was an obligation.

And Abraham rose to the occasion most excellently. He begged the visitors to stay for a bit of water and a morsel of bread and then proceeded to lay before them an incredible feast that included an entire calf, milk, cheese and cakes that had been made (by Abraham’s wife, Sarah) from about 55 pounds of flour. (I am still not over that!)

After Dinner

But our story today focusses on what happened after that magnificent feast had all been consumed. Two of the travellers headed off towards the city of Sodom, but the other (who is finally revealed to be Yahweh, Abraham’s God) remains. And after a huge feast, what do you do? You sit back and indulge in a symposium, a theoretical speculative conversation. The discussion is about the hypothetical question of how the city of Sodom might have been saved.

The City of Sodom

The city of Sodom serves as the perfect representative, in the Bible, of a wicked city. Whenever a prophet or some other speaker in the Bible wants to talk about a place that is clearly worthy of judgment and destruction, they just bring out the example of Sodom. There’s no clear answer in the Bible about what made Sodom such a wicked place. In Genesis, the reception of visitors in Sodom is contrasted to the reception that they received from Abraham, suggesting that the failure to practice hospitality was what was wrong with Sodom. In fact, Genesis suggests that the city was so inhospitable that they had a practice of gang raping any strangers who came to town.

The prophet Ezekiel, however, ascribes the wickedness of Sodom to something entirely different: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

An Unreal Situation

The entire situation in the Book of Genesis is quite fantastic at this point. I mean, imagine the picture. Abraham and his God are just sitting around outside the tent and shooting the breeze while they digest their enormous meal. I don’t think that this is a realistic experience that anyone who has ever heard this story could imagine living through.

But it’s not meant to be realistic. It is an idealized conversation and so it only makes sense that it should have an idealized topic. We don’t actually know if the city of Sodom ever existed. There isn’t any good archaeological evidence. I mean, sure, maybe the story is based on a dimly remembered city that actually was destroyed in some cataclysm, but the thing about this story is that it doesn’t matter if the city actually existed. It is simply the perfect example of a wicked city.

Abraham Starts a Conversation

And so Abraham, fully recognizing the unreal situation that he finds himself in, opens the philosophical discussion.

“Listen, Yahweh,” he begins hesitantly, “let’s take it as a given, as you suggested to those two strange fellows who just left, that Sodom is indeed the wickedest place in the entire world, the wickedest place that ever has been and ever will be.”

“It is,” Yahweh replies with a nod.

“Okay,” Abraham agrees, “but no matter how bad a place can get, it can’t be true that everyone in that place is irredeemably evil themselves. Let’s say that, in this Sodom that you speak of, there were 50 people who were extremely righteous. If you were to destroy such a city, no matter how wicked in general, you would have to also destroy all those 50 righteous people. Now, you are supposed to be a God of justice, how could a just God possibly destroy 50 righteous people? I mean, what would people think?”

Yahweh shrugs. “Yeah, I guess that would look pretty bad. Okay, fine, if there were fifty righteous people in the wicked city, I wouldn’t destroy it.”

Abraham Haggles

Abraham smiles to himself. He is a man, after all, who has wandered all over the Ancient Near East. He has bought and sold goods in markets from Ur to Haran, from Salem to Egypt. No one, not even a God, could outwit Abraham when he starts haggling. The trick, you see, is to know what matters most to your opponent in the negotiation. Then all you have to do is appeal to that. Well, now Abraham knows that what Yahweh cares about most is his reputation for being just.

“Okay, it is true that no God is as just as you,” he replies. “But let’s just say that a mere five of those fifty righteous people were not there. Surely a just God like you would not consign an entire city to destruction just for the lack of five righteous ones?”

And, yes, Yahweh has to admit that he is indeed as just as all that. Surely 45 righteous ones would be sufficient.

God Cuts off the Conversation

It is indeed a bartering session for the ages as Abraham manages to get Yahweh down from 45 to 40 to 30, 20 and even 10!

But then something happens. After Abraham maneuvers Yahweh into saying, “For the sake of ten I would not destroy it,” we are told something a bit surprising. “And Yahweh went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.”

Why does it end so abruptly? Is this saying that Yahweh felt as if he had been completely outmatched by Abraham, the master haggler, and decided to cut his losses and just walk away from the negotiations? That would be crazy, wouldn’t it? But, as I say, this is a crazy story of a theoretical philosophical discussion. So, maybe that is how we are supposed to understand it.

Left Unsatisfied

But whatever the reason for the sudden end of the discussion, it certainly leaves us feeling very unsatisfied. We are told in no uncertain terms that 10 righteous people is enough to save an entire city, no matter how wicked. But don’t you want to know how far we can push that? What about five righteous ones? What about three or two? And what if you have only one righteous person? So, whatever else is going on in this sudden end of the discussion, it certainly seems to be designed to leave us wondering just how many righteous ones it takes.

The Conversation Continues

And people have been wondering that and continuing that philosophical discussion outside of Abraham’s tent ever since. In some Jewish traditions, they have these discussions about the role of what they call the tzadikim. Tzadik is the Hebrew word for a righteous person. And so various sects of Judaism will enter into debates about how many tzadikim exist and what their role has been in safeguarding the world from destruction. Mystical Hasidic Jews, for example, apparently believe that there must be at least 36 tzadikim – 36 righteous souls – living someplace in the world at any given time to represent humanity before God.

One Righteous Soul

But what about that one righteous soul, will we ever get an answer to the question of how he or she can save an entire city no matter how wicked it might be? Well, as I say, that seems to be the question that the early church thought it had an answer to. Because remember what James the brother of Jesus was famous for. He was called, by believers in Jesus and non-believers alike, James the Just. In Hebrew, that would have been Ya’akov the Tzadik. He is James the Righteous One

Everyone seems to have agreed that there was something about the incredible way that this man lived that was preserving the city of Jerusalem from destruction. And when the city turned against him and he was killed, the destruction of the wicked city was inevitable. They decided that it only took one. It only took James.

What we do with this Story

Now, as I say, that strange discussion in the Book of Genesis between God and Abraham is a fantastic one. It is full of hypotheticals and theoreticals. Maybe it is just a couple of old friends shooting the breeze after a particularly satisfying meal. I don’t think I would draw eternal principles of theology from it because I don’t find it a helpful image of God to see God as set on destruction because of wickedness and needing some righteous person to stand in the way and prevent that destruction. I don’t believe that God requires that. But maybe we do.

But, if there is a practical application, particularly if you find yourself living in a time when things just seem to be going so very wrong, when evil and greed and selfishness seem to be winning and the weak and the marginalized person and the outsider are paying the price, perhaps it is this: When times are evil, sometimes all we need is a James, one righteous person who lives out their righteousness in a way that touches the lives of others.

Sometimes what we need is someone whose compassion is so great that they intercede for others until their knees are so calloused that they look like they belong to a camel. Sometimes I really do believe that’s what we need to save us. And that can be anyone. It can even be you or me. God is actually calling us to step into that role.

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Dough Incidence?

Posted by on Sunday, July 17th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, 17 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
Video of the Scripture Reading

We are told that, one day, Jesus told his simplest, most straightforward parable of the kingdom of God. “To what should I compare the kingdom of God?” He said. “It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” But maybe the parable is not quite as simple as we think. You see, I always assumed that the amount of flour in question was relatively small. You know, that “three measures of flour” was something like, say, three cups of flour. That is, after all, about how much flour it would take to make a decent size loaf of bread.

What is a Seah?

Imagine my surprise when, recently, I took a closer look at that parable. The word that appears there in the gospel is the word seah. Now, seah is a Hebrew word, a Hebrew measure that has simply been transliterated into the Greek text of the Gospels. So, I had to go and look up how big a seah was. The internet, as in many things, was very helpful. The internet told me that seah is about as big as a one and a half pecks. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find that particularly helpful.

I mean, maybe it would be helpful if I knew how many peppers Peter Piper picked when he picked a peck of them, but I don’t actually know how many peppers Peter Piper picked. So, I had to make a few more internet searches.

That’s a Lot of Dough!

I converted three times one and a half pecks into cups. That came out to 168 cups. And then, since we don’t buy flour in cups, we buy it by weight, I converted that into pounds. So, as a result of all of that searching, do you have any guesses how much flour that woman in Jesus’ parable took? Assuming that the flour had been sifted, which of course changes the volume, Jesus is saying that she took like 55 pounds, or, if you prefer, 25 kilograms of flour.

That would be 10 2.5 kg bags!

That leads me to ask a few questions. How much bread was this woman baking? And who did she have to feed? It also rather underlines the central wonder of the parable which is that a tiny amount of yeast is actually able to leaven such a huge amount of dough. Surely that was a point that Jesus was trying to get across by telling this story.

Sarah’s Baking

But here is something else that is really odd about that parable. It is not the first time in the Bible that that strange, enormous quantity of flour appears. It is actually the very same amount of flour – 3 seahs or, if you prefer, 55 pounds – that Abraham tells Sarah to take and make into cakes in our reading from the Book of Genesis. The exact same amount! Isn’t that a weird coincidence?

But here is the thing: I am not a big believer in coincidence when it comes to reading the Bible. I think that this has to be on purpose. Jesus seems to have been intentionally wanting his listeners to remember and connect this parable to what was, to them, one of the most famous Old Testament stories – the story of the time when Abraham unknowingly played host to God.

So maybe, just maybe, we will never understand what Jesus was trying to say about the kingdom of God until we dig in a little bit more into the story of Abraham, Sarah and their strange guests.

Abraham’s Offer

So, the story in Genesis goes like this. Abraham is sitting outside of his tent when three strangers come up. Abraham, like many heroes of ancient stories, responds by offering them hospitality in the expected way. “My lord,” he says, “if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on.”

Now, how would you understand that? If you were the guest, you would have heard Abraham offer you nothing more than a little bit of water to wash your feet and a tiny morsel of bread before you move on. That is it.

What he Actually Prepares

But then what does Abraham do? He immediately runs to Sarah and tells her to start making cakes with, as I’ve said, 55 lb of flour. He also goes and selects the best calf from his herd, sacrifices it and has someone prepare and cook the entire animal. Then he comes back and serves the whole calf, the 55 lb of baked flour cakes as well as milk and cheese.

I have some questions! First of all, that is so much more than a few morsels of bread as to be completely ridiculous. And can you imagine that much food being laid out before three people for a picnic?

How Long did they Wait?

And then there is the question about how long that would have taken. How long does it take to slaughter and roast an entire calf? How long does it take, without an industrial sized bakery oven mind you, to bake that much bread? It is not entirely clear from the story whether or not Sarah leavened all of that dough like the woman in Jesus’ parable, but if she did, that adds many more hours to the preparation time as any baker will know.

So, are we really meant to believe that these three strange visitors were sitting outside of Abraham’s tent just waiting for this massive feast to be prepared? How many hours would you wait for a little morsel of bread that you had been promised? There is something in this story that stretches incredulity, and it is, I think, quite intentional. This is meant to be a story of ridiculous and unbelievable excess. The writer of this story is trying to show us that Abraham’s hospitality was so extreme that it was simply ridiculous.

Over-the-Top Hospitality

That is kind of the point of the story. It is saying that, when we treat strangers and outsiders right, good things will come to us. As a result of their over-the-top hospitality, Abraham and Sarah are given the one thing that they have been longing for more than anything: the promise of the birth of a child within the year.

Their hospitality is also contrasted, of course, to what happens when two of these strange visitors go on to the city of Sodom and receive the very opposite of good hospitality there. The punishment that was visited upon Sodom as a result, is of course famous.

Back to Jesus’ Parable

But I am still kind of left wondering what is the connection between this story and the parable of Jesus. I cannot take it as a coincidence that both women just happened to take the same enormous amount of flour. Surely Jesus intended for us to make a connection between these two passages.

Well, this is what Jesus essentially said in his parable. “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid – that is the word that Jesus literally uses. He doesn’t say that she mixed it, he says that she hid it. “The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid in 55 pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”

 Jesus was constantly talking about this thing that he called the kingdom of God. But he never really told people what the kingdom of God was, he only told them stories of what it was like. And this is one of those famous stories. And he specifically says in this story that the kingdom is like the yeast.

God Uses Small Things

The point of this seems to be that yeast is a very small thing that can transform in big ways. Because yeast is a living organism – because it is actually a community of single-celled microorganisms, it’s ability to grow and spread is only limited by its food supply. And that means that, if you hide a little bit of yeast even in an enormous quantity of dough, like 55 lb of flour worth of dough, it is able to spread and transform all of it.

And transform it does from something that is flat and tasteless and of little nutritional value into one of the best foods ever known to humanity. Yeast is that amazing.

And what does that tell us about being a part of the kingdom of God today. It tells us that we should never be discouraged over matters of size or perceptions of power and impact. We don’t have to be big and influential in order to transform the world. That’s what Jesus was saying.

God Uses Hidden Things

What’s more, he tells us in the parable that the woman hid the yeast in the dough. He literally uses the Greek word for hiding, not the word for mixing. And that tells us something else about what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. We often think that, in order to have an impact, we have to have a lot of visibility. Everybody has to see all of the good things we are doing; everybody has to take notice of how good we are. But Jesus is saying the very opposite in this parable. He is saying that the kingdom advances best in quiet and hidden ways.

And then, of course, we come to the actual scale of impact that Jesus is talking about. Do not forget that he is talking about an enormous amount of dough here. He is saying that, even though we may be small or few in number, even though nobody may notice what we’re doing and we do not seek recognition, he is promising us that we can have an enormous impact. 55 lb of flour and a tiny bit of yeast can feed a lot of people some very nutritious food.


But that still leaves us with one mystery left. I just can’t believe that it’s a coincidence that we have exactly the same amount of dough in the parable and in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Like I said, I don’t believe in biblical dough-incidences. I am pretty sure that Jesus meant for us to make a connection between the two stories.

What then does the story of Sarah making her cakes have to do with the kingdom of God? Well, the Genesis story is a story about hospitality. But it is not just about ordinary, everyday hospitality. It is about extraordinary over-the-top hospitality. It is about saying “stay for a morsel of bread” and then preparing 55 lb of flour.

But it is also about more than that because in this story Abraham and Sarah are astonished to discover that their guests are not ordinary guests. They have welcomed the Lord and the creator of the earth to their tent.

Hospitality and the Kingdom

So, if Jesus was trying to point us to this story in his parable in order to teach us something about the kingdom of God, what do you think he was trying to say? I think that there has always been a tendency in matters of faith for people to take what they receive from God and save it for their own blessing and for the blessing of their own kind.

We covet God’s blessings for our church, our family and for ourselves. This story serves us as a reminder that the blessings that God gives us are not merely for ourselves. They are there so that we might be a blessing to others and especially a blessing to those who are strangers, outsiders and those who live on the margins.

And, as we learn to give to all such people extravagantly, abundantly and beyond what we think we can afford, the promise of this story is clear. God will reward our faith by making sure that, just like a little bit of yeast makes 55 lb of flour literally grow to feed a multitude of people. What’s more, God will also reward us with God’s presence.

Ministry Outside the Church

When we choose to serve outsiders and strangers as an expression of our faith, despite what limited resources we feel we may have, Jesus promises us that we will know the presence of God. We will discover God in the face of that stranger. That is certainly what Jesus meant in another parable of his, when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matt 25:35-36)

Yes, I think that Jesus was trying to point us towards all of that with one little parable about a woman who was apparently making a whole lot of bread one day.

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Listen to me, you fat cows

Posted by on Sunday, July 10th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch the sermon video here

Hespeler, July 10, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Amos 7:7-17, Psalm 82, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
Here is a dramatic reading of the scripture

It all started for Amos in the oddest way that you could imagine. He was returning home from work one afternoon. He had spent his day dressing sycomore trees, a job that was normally done by itinerate workers like him. Sycomores produced a fruit that was considered to be of little value. It was also troublesome to grow because the fruit didn’t even ripen unless workers like him came around and pierced the husk around the fruit with a sharp stick at the right time of the year. The work didn’t pay well, but Amos actually didn’t often have much choice. In between short-term gigs working as a herdsman, it was often they only work he could find.

Though his situation in life often meant that people underestimated Amos, he did have a quick and curious mind. And as he was walking home that day, something did pique his interest. He came upon a man who was working on a house. The house was in pretty bad shape and this man had obviously been hired to do some long overdue repairs.

A Plumb Line

But what Amos found particularly interesting was that the worker was holding a strange contraption as he came up. He held a string that had a weight attached to the end of it up against one of the walls of the house. He was sadly shaking his head.

Amos, ever a friendly man, struck up a conversation with the worker and asked him what he was doing. That was how Amos came to learn that the device the man was using was called a plumb line. The builder used it to show Amos how the wall he was working on was in bad shape.

The Wall

“You see,” he said holding the line up against the wall, “the wall should follow the line of this string, but it is going off at a bad angle. There is too much weight resting on the top of the wall and not enough support from the smaller stones below and so the bottom is starting to crumble. This wall is not in good shape. In fact, if the owner of this house had waited much longer to call on me, I’m pretty sure it would have collapsed.”

For some reason, the image of that plumb line held up against that crooked wall remained with Amos as he continued on his way. He just couldn’t get it out of his head. In his dreams that night, it came to him again and then was followed by a vision of a collapsing house. When he awoke the next morning, he was convinced that there was a reason why he had seen that plumb line. It wasn’t just that construction worker who had shown it to him. He believed that Yahweh, his God, had shown it to him.

An Image Leads to a Journey

And that was really how it started. Because he couldn’t get the picture of a plumb line out of his head, a few weeks later Amos found himself on the road leaving his hometown of Tekoa. He was on his way to Bethel, which was the chief sanctuary of the Kingdom of Israel. After endless days meditating on that plumb line, Amos had concluded that it could only mean one thing. It was a message from Yahweh for the Kingdom of Israel.

Under its king, Jeroboam, Israel was living through a time of unprecedented strength and prosperity. It dominated the entire region both economically and military, so much so that Amos had constantly felt that influence even as a poor migratory worker in the neighbouring land of Judah. How often had he crossed the border looking for work and been mistreated? But the more that Amos reflected on the Kingdom of Israel and the things he had learned about it in recent years, the more it reminded him of that wall that he had seen on the verge of collapsing.

The kingdom had built its prosperity upon the labour of the farmers and workers and, yes, even upon the backs of lowly herdsman and dressers of sycomore trees. But it was the people at the top who had grown fat from all of this. The structure of the whole society was out of whack and Amos could see now that collapse would inevitably follow. Yes, Amos had a message from Yahweh and having received it, he knew he had to share it with the people of Israel before it was too late.

The Sanctuary at Bethel

Amos stood in the middle of sanctuary at Bethel, just off to the side of the main avenue. A larger crowd than he had ever encountered in his life was passing him in his filthy, second-hand shepherd’s robe. He had arrived here earlier this morning shortly after entering the territory of Israel from the south.

He had never seen anything quite like it in his life. There was a large altar connected to a sanctuary that contained a calf that had been covered with beaten gold. There were houses for the priests, a treasury and a huge collection of booths and tents that had been set up by all manner of prophets and seers who were selling oracles and divinations. There were also merchants who were hawking teraphim and idols as well as food and drink.

It was all rather overwhelming for a hick like him from Tekoa. But after a couple of hours in this strange place, he had begun to understand the social structure and interactions of this place. The great mass of the people who had come here for the festival seemed to be poor peasants, some of whom had brought a small lamb or heifer to sacrifice and feast on.

The Samaritan Elite

But there were also others who had come – men and women who were finely dressed and attended by large retinues of slaves and clients. They were clearly the elite who had come from the capital of Samaria for the festivities. As he recognized them for what they were, he knew that these were the ones, above all, that Yahweh had sent him to challenge and defy.

But Amos had yet to find his voice. He was having a hard time believing that anyone would care about whatever he had to say about the situation in Bethel, even if he did speak for Yahweh.

But just then there was a group of wealthy women from Samaria who passed in front of him. They were well-fed and had fine robes and painted faces. They were laughing and giggling together, but the thing that really bothered Amos about them was the fact that they seemed quite oblivious to all the people who surrounded them and who were anything but well-fed.

That was when the rage that had been building inside Amos since he had arrived finally broke through and he began to shout. He addressed the women directly.

“Listen to me you fat cows of Bashan who spend your days grazing on the slopes of Mount Samaria.” He pointed at them directly. “You, you are the ones who oppress the poor, who crush the needy. And how do you do it? You do it by ordering your husbands around. ‘Bring us something to drink! Bring us whatever we desire!’” (Amos 4:1)

Amos Gets an Audience

And just like that, Amos had an audience. Most of the people who were coming to the festival day after day were only too happy to listen to him. Indeed, as the days went on, many came specifically to seek him out and hear what he had to say. They had heard of the strange preacher from Judah who had come to Bethel as word of his oracles spread throughout the surrounding fields and villages. Most of them were only too happy to hear the way that he piled his abuse and scorn upon the Samaritan elite. So he often had them in the palm of his hand.

As for the members of the elite who were coming to the festival, they did what they could to quietly shut him down. They complained to the local priesthood and the authorities, but, for the moment at least, the authorities at the sanctuary could only see the simple fact that Amos was bringing more people out to the festival and so they only made half-hearted efforts at telling him that he needed to tone down his rhetoric.

A Oracle Against the Rich

“Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” he shouted out to the elite while a growing band of admirers egged him on. “Here is what you are saying, ‘When will this damn festival be over so that we may sell grain at a big profit? When will the Sabbath end, so that we may offer our big surplus of wheat for sale?” That one always got a big laugh; you know what they say, it’s funny because it’s true! But what Amos said next inspired much more anger than laughter.

“I know what you say to yourselves,” Amos screamed. “you say, ‘since we control the whole system, we will trick the people with false weights and measures. We will push people into debt over the purchase of something as small as a pair of sandals and then, when they can’t pay, we will make them our slaves. Why, we will even sell off the garbage we sweep up from the floor of our barns at a big profit. And there’s nothing anybody can do about it!’” (Amos 8:4-6)

A Dangerous Core

So did Amos preach through all the days of the festival. And, as long he was speaking in this way and mocking the rich while saying the things that the poor folk didn’t dare to say out loud, it seemed as if he was untouchable. The authorities of the sanctuary did not act against him for fear of driving the crowds away.

But there was a core to Amos’ message that wasn’t quite so popular and that was much more dangerous. It went back to that original vision of the plumb line. For Amos was not only saying that the rich needed to stop oppressing the poor as they had been doing, he was also announcing that the consequence would be the collapse of the society itself.

“Thus says Yahweh,” Amos announced, ‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’”

Amaziah’s Intervention

That was dangerous; that was treason. And the officials decided that they could not stand for it. Amaziah, the priest of the sanctuary, sent word to King Jeroboam of all that Amos was saying and he got back the authorization he needed. It was time to shut the prophet down.

And so Amaziah went, flanked by lesser priests, to confront Amos. He came up to him and cut him off in the middle of one of his rants. “O seer,” he said, “go, run away back home to the land of Judah. You can sell your oracles and earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Amos looked around at the various seers and prophets who were selling their oracles to the people. One of them, in a booth nearby, had a special on that day, two oracles for the price of one. Another was had an offer out; for just a half bushel of grain, he would tell you whether your wife would have a boy or a girl or give you the name of the man that your daughter would marry.

Amos’ Reply

Amos laughed. “You think that I am one of those charlatans and fortune tellers? You think I’m here to exploit these people like their wealthy overlords do? I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son. Know what I am? I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees. There is only one reason why I am here. Yahweh took me from following the herds, and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

“I am not under your authority; Yahweh has sent me here. Therefore, if you try to shut me down, I can promise you this: Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parcelled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”

The First of a New Kind of Prophet

Amos is absolutely fascinating figure. In many ways, he is a man who changed history. Because he was the first. He was the first man who spoke for his God, Yahweh, in a very particular way. At least, he was the first one whose words were written down in a book.

But Amos didn’t see himself as a prophet or a seer. He knew he was just an ordinary person. Before him, prophets and seers were people who hung around at sanctuaries like the one at Bethel and made their money selling trinkets and oracles and auspices to the common people for a few coins or goods. But Amos spoke a message that was a warning to the whole kingdom – a warning that was as much political and economic as it was theological and spiritual. And that was what made him so very dangerous.

Is God Showing you any Plumb Lines?

But the really amazing thing, as far as I’m concerned, is what set him on that track. He saw a plumb line one day, it made him ask some questions about what was wrong with the Kingdom of Israel. And, when he figured out some answers to those questions, he knew he had received a message from Yahweh and that he had no choice but to go and speak it even at the risk of his own life.

It makes me wonder, how many times has God shown us a plumb line or something else that illustrates what’s wrong with the economic or political realities of our kingdom? You see, a prophet is not someone who hears voices and knows without a doubt that this what God is saying right now. A prophet is a herder and a dresser of sycomore trees – an ordinary person who’s got a brain and can interpret what it means when he or she sees a plumb line or some other everyday object. Oh, that the Lord would send us more prophets like that!

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Stockholm Syndrome

Posted by on Sunday, July 3rd, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 3 July 2022 © Scott McAndless
2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Watch a video of the reading here

In 1973, there was a bank robbery that took place in the city of Stockholm, Sweden. In the course of their crime, the bank robbers took four hostages. The hostages were eventually released unharmed. But the public, and particularly the media, were rather puzzled by how the hostages reacted in the aftermath. They defended their former captors and even refused to testify against them when they were put on trial.

For many, this reaction was so irrational that they decided that it was basically some form of insanity. They called it the Stockholm Syndrome, a term that is still brought out and applied in similar situations today. It is defined as a condition in which hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors during captivity.

Why we Like Stockholm Syndrome

Journalists love to talk about the Stockholm Syndrome whenever they report on stories about hostages, but the fact of the matter is that psychologists are rather skeptical that such a thing truly exists. A closer look at the events that did take place in Stockholm in 1973 inspires many doubts. It turns out that the hostages in that ill-fated bank robbery may have been more upset with the police than they were in love with their captors. They were, in fact, very angry with the callous way in which the police had acted and endangered their lives. That likely had more to do with their refusal to testify than did any love for the robbers.

Is it Actually Real?

But the idea of Stockholm Syndrome remains a powerful one. Something similar is often proposed in discussions of slavery – both in the ancient world and in the pre-civil war American South. “But slaves often loved and were devoted to their masters,” the protest goes. “Surely that is an indication that slavery wasn’t so bad.” But I rather suspect that, just as in the case of the robbery in Stockholm, if you look closely the whole thing about slaves loving their masters it is not so simple as that.

So let’s do that. Let’s look closely at one of my favourite stories of a slave that apparently did something out of love for her master

The Aramean Raid

Abriyah woke up screaming. It had been the same nightmare; it was always the same nightmare. In her dreams the Arameans had come yet again, storming into her village in the middle of the day. There had been no warning and no real opportunity for the people to prepare themselves. Abriyah had been out of her house fetching some water from the village well. She would never see her home or her family again. The men had come upon her and two other girls who were at the well. Before she even knew what was happening, her hands had been bound and she had been unceremoniously dumped into the back of an oxcart.

Later that same day she and the others were taken out of the cart and brought before the raiders as they celebrated. They were dividing up their spoils with each man claiming his share of the livestock, fruits and grain. Abriyah had no illusions that she was anything other than just another piece of plunder to them.

The Boogeyman

As she stood there in her ripped tunic, on display before the leering company, they all suddenly fell silent as one man stepped forward. He stood there with such an air of authority and power that there was no question he was the leader of the raiding party. She knew right away that this could be none other than Naaman, a fighter who was so cruel and effective that he had become something of a boogeyman to the people of Israel.

Parents would warn their children when they put them to bed that, if they didn’t settle down and go to sleep right away, that Naaman would come and get them and take them away. Well now, here the boogeyman was, as real as real could be. And he had finally come for her. She cried out in her sleep, cried out to her parents yelling that she was sorry and that she would be a better girl in the future. But she woke to discover that her parents were gone and that she would never see them again.

Life in Naaman’s Household

Naaman chose Abriyah as his plunder from that day’s work. It was indeed a chieftain’s share. He took her home and gave her to his wife as a servant. And Abriyah quickly found herself subjected to seemingly endless toil in the kitchen and around the house.

Naaman was everything that she had expected of him. He was cruel and completely self-absorbed. There was a haughtiness to him. He seemed to think that everything Aramean was better than anything anywhere else. The rivers of Aram were better than any other streams. The food of his land was far superior to what anyone else ate.

As a result, because she was an Israelite, he consistently treated Abriyah as if she were an imbecile. He was rude and crude and he never cared about her feelings because, as far as he was concerned, she was little better than an animal. She didn’t have human feelings.

Naaman Falls Ill

So, life was far from easy in Naaman’s household. But then it suddenly became so much worse. Naaman came home one day from his latest raid, and something was wrong. The skin on his arms and back and legs soon turned red and he scratched at them until they bled. If she had thought that he was a difficult man before, he quickly became unbearable. He was in constant pain and discomfort, and it quickly stripped away any patience or sympathy he might have ever had.

And Abriyah was often the one who was closest when the rage hit him. She was certainly the one that he could attack without consequence. The life of a common slave that she had once had in the household now seemed almost like a lost dream. She began to dream of escaping back to her homeland, but she knew that escape was impossible.

Finding Comfort

Whenever Abriyah found a few moments of respite in her miserable life, or when she lay awake in her bed at night, too afraid to go to sleep for fear of her nightmares, she tried to comfort herself with memories of her home. She told herself the stories that her parents had once told her – stories of Abraham and of Moses. But she found particular comfort in the popular stories that were told in her village about the prophets, especially the stories about Elijah and Elisha. People eagerly told these tales because they were so exciting and because these men were still alive and might well pass through the village at any time.

Abriyah had always felt as if these men were her protectors, or at least they would be if they were given the chance. Again and again, they had taken on the enemies of Israel, including the Arameans, and had triumphed in surprising and fantastic ways. Why, it was even said that once the prophet Elisha had defeated an entire Aramaean army by striking them blind and leading them into a trap! She began to dream of the possibility that Elisha, who was still living the last she heard, would find out about her plight and come and save her.

Talking About her Hope

Once finding some small reason to hope – no matter how unlikely her salvation was – she found that she simply could not stop thinking about it. That also meant that she could not stop talking about it either. She began to talk to all of the other slaves in the household about how Elisha was going to come and save her and about how he would be able to help all of them too.

And then one day, she even spoke to her mistress. She came upon her at an unguarded moment in her chambers and found her weeping. She suddenly realized that, even though she had the status of wife and freewoman, in some ways her mistress was no less a captive in this household than she was. The mistress was certainly not spared from the cruelty that Naaman could dole out when he was taken up in his pain and misery.

And so, Abriyah went to speak to her mistress. That was when something came to mind that she could say to comfort her. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy. And then perhaps you could find some peace.”

To Israel for a Cure

Much to her surprise, Abriyah’s comment caused quite a stir in the household. Both Naaman and his wife were feeling pretty desperate lately. She went running to him immediately with what she had heard. And, even if Naaman had a hard time believing that anyone from Israel could offer anything of value, he was desperate enough to follow up. He did it in the most typical way possible for him. He was arrogant and demanding. He put the king of Israel into a very compromising position that the prophet Elisha had to save him from. And then, when the prophet told him that he had to bathe in a filthy Israelite river in order to become clean, he almost lost it.

But then something happened. Something broke through and Naaman was healed. In many ways, to tell the truth, the biggest miracle wasn’t the fact that his skin condition suddenly improved. By far, the biggest miracle, at least as far as Abriyah and the rest of the household were concerned, was that something had finally broken the arrogance that Naaman carried in his heart.

After he Returned

Naaaman returned to his household bringing with him two mule loads of soil that he had collected in the land of Israel. He understood, everyone understood, that certain gods belong to certain places. You could only worship a god in the place that belonged to that god. But Naaman had decided that now he had to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had healed him of his skin condition. So, he had brought a little bit of the land of Israel so that he could set up an altar upon it to worship the God of Israel.

I wish I could tell you that, after he returned, Naaman was always kind and gentle with Abriyah and the others in the household. Many things about him didn’t change. He continued to be a fearsome war leader and raider. He did sometimes forget the lesson that he had learned, the lesson that people from other places might actually know things or have things of value. Sometimes the old arrogance did shine through. But there were times when he did look at Abriyah and remember to consider the possibility that, even though she was an Israelite, she might know a few things about the world.

The life of a slave remained the life of a slave. Abriyah did not find that her labours or fears were lightened at all. But I will say that her nightmares got better for one reason. She did have the opportunity to worship when Naaman worshiped upon the piece of Israelite soil that he had brought back. And so, in that place, she did find a connection with her home and with the God that had felt so very far away. And that brought her some comfort.

What is this Story About?

For some reason I remember hearing the story of the slave girl who served Naaman’s wife back in my Sunday school days. I remember how I was told to read that story. That little girl – who, of course, doesn’t have a name in the Bible and that I simply had to give a name to in order to tell her story – was held up as the example of a perfect evangelist. She was lauded as someone who did what we are all supposed to do and tell other people about Jesus.

Now, on one level, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that people should be willing to share with others how their faith in Jesus has helped them in their life. I don’t appreciate how some people do that in an imposing or coercive way, but just sharing that honestly can be a wonderful sharing of your own life with somebody else. But I am going to suggest that, if that’s all you get from the story, that might be a bit of a problem.

Failing to Support Victims

You see, the Christian tradition has a history of putting people who have been victimized in various ways into a position where they feel an obligation to endure their suffering without complaint in the service of the gospel. There are too many stories of abused women, for example, who were told to remain in their abusive marriages as a gospel witness. There are too many stories of people victimized by the church in some way who were forced to be quiet about it because it would somehow damage the witness of the church. That, I must say loud and clear, is simply wrong and the very opposite of a good witness.

So I am not, in any way, willing to read the story of this girl in a way that minimizes the trauma and abuse a captive at that time in history would have suffered. Any sort of simplistic understanding of this story that turns her into someone with Stockholm Syndrome, someone who only loves her masters, is a failure to struggle with some pretty dark history. I have to read her as simply doing whatever she can to hold on to her identity and save herself in a horrible situation. That is what we all need to do.

And if God manages to bring some good out of a horrible situation for ourselves or for anyone else, well that’s just the amazing kind of God that we have. But none of that should be taken to mean that it is God’s desire or will that anyone be a victim or tolerate abuse. That is simply not the kind of God that we have. And I think that that needs to be said

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Three Defiant Heroes

Posted by on Sunday, June 26th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 26 June 2022 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 2:1-10, Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

When powerful people decide that holding onto their power and wealth is more important than things like justice and the rights of others, evil things can happen. And the big question then becomes what people can do to resist. What can they do when they have no power or voice? That is not a new question. It is one that comes up again and again throughout the history of the world.

It is true, of course, that we do not have to deal with anything quite as evil today as an order to toss an entire generation of a particular ethnic group into a river in infancy. But just because the evil of our world hasn’t risen to the level of active genocide doesn’t mean that we will never have to deal with the question. I mean, if we wait until that point is reached, we may be too late.

Biblical Heroes

So, I do think it would be helpful to look at some biblical heroes who dealt with that very challenge and who won. And when it comes to that, I can hardly think of better examples than three extraordinary women in the Book of Exodus.

I know that we have often come to think that the Bible, produced as it was in a very patriarchal society, has a habit of dismissing women and suggesting that they really have nothing that they can contribute. But this story, I believe, is a perfect demonstration of just how wrong that assumption is.

Pharaoh’s Problem

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had a problem, a big problem. But it wasn’t necessarily an unusual problem. In fact, it was a problem as old as civilization itself. Ever since the beginning, you see, civilization has had a big built-in problem. Civilization, the building and inhabiting of cities, was something that was only possible because of the development of agriculture to such a level that societies were able to produce a surplus. Season after season, more food and goods were produced than the workers themselves needed to survive.

Civilization was this incredible invention that allowed a small elite to take control of that surplus and keep it for themselves. Yes, they also provided something in return for taking it – they provided security and they took care of matters of administration. Above all they provided a religion that gave meaning to the endless toil of the great mass of people. Surely the people should be grateful for that.

On His Own

But the people weren’t as grateful as they should be. Sometimes they were restive and rebellious. And that was the root of the problem because Pharaoh was aware of one inescapable fact. There were more of them than there were people on his side – a lot more. In fact, it was almost as if it was Pharaoh alone against all of them.

Yes, he had priests and retainers and troops. He had a whole class of nobles underneath him, but none of them benefitted from the system more than he did. He really was the 1%, except it was more like the 0.001 per cent. And as soon as all of the rest figured out that simple fact and found a way to work together, he was done for.

The Hebrew Problem

So, this was a problem that Pharaoh had been constantly aware of, but one particular aspect of it had been troubling him of late. There was a group of people who had been put to work constructing the vast complexes where Pharaoh stored his ever-growing wealth. They were nothing but slaves, but they had begun to form a cohesive identity.

They were called Hebrews and the thing that united them, above all, was the worship of some wild desert god who was beyond the control of the Egyptian religion that was dominated by Pharaoh. Everyday that they grew in strength and in numbers. If they only realized the strength that they had because of their unity of purpose and identity, they had the potential of bringing down the entire system. Pharaoh had to do something about them.

A Failed Plan

He had already attempted to slow the growth by asserting government control over which women could and could not have children. He did this by ordering the Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all of the male Hebrew children at birth. But somehow, Pharaoh was still trying to figure out how, the midwives had betrayed him and allowed the boys to live. But they had clearly double crossed him, and so it appeared he was going to have to come up with a much more open approach to this problem.


When Jochebed, the wife of Amram, heard about Pharaoh’s decree, she was horrified. Pharaoh’s plan that all of the male children born to the Hebrews should be cast into the Nile River, was not only cruel, it was a clear attempt to wipe out the very identity of a people. The Nile River was not just a waterway for the Egyptians, after all, it was a god. With its annual flooding, the Nile River brought life to every single person who lived along its course.

But it seemed as if Pharaoh couldn’t stand the idea that the Nile shed its blessings upon all the people regardless of their station in society. It watered the fields of the peasants as well as the gardens of the rich. And that was simply unacceptable. And so, Pharaoh was determined to transform the life-giving Nile into a ravenous instrument of death. That would teach the people, all of them, that they must look to no one but the king himself to sustain them.

Her Plan

In the face of such unmitigated evil, Jochebed came up with a plan. The decree had gone out when she was only a few months pregnant. She knew, somehow she knew, that it was going to be a boy. And so, she laid her plans. By the time she was beginning to show, she withdrew from all social life. No one must know that a child was on the way. And then, once her boy was born, she managed to keep him hidden as long as she could.

But, by the time he was three months old, she knew that she could not keep him hidden any longer. That was when she made a fateful decision. She would do as Pharoah had decreed. But it would be a malicious compliance. Oh, she would throw him into the Nile alright. But she would also do a couple of other things.

Into the River in a Basket

First, she would place the boy in a basket that she wove out of papyrus (a gift of the Nile itself) and plastered with bitumen and pitch. This would turn the river from the ravenous beast that Pharaoh had declared it to be into a cradling womb for the rebirth of her son.

Second, she would do this in faith – with the trust that there was a God (even if she did not yet know what that God’s name was) who was more powerful than the Nile or even than the divine Pharaoh. Even more importantly, she did it with the faith that such a God cared about her people who had no other protector in the land of Egypt.

The Princess

When the princess caught sight of the basket bobbing in the river, she knew that her day was about to change completely. She knew very well what people thought of her. She was nothing more than a princess – an adornment to the household of Pharaoh. She was just there to be beautiful and to be quiet. She was supposed to spend her days wallowing in luxury and taking endless baths in the Nile.

But she was more than just a pretty face. Pharaoh would have been shocked to hear it, but she actually had a brain, and she understood the very real threat that Pharaoh was trying to counter with his latest decree. But she had real problems with what he was doing.

A Hebrew Baby

When the basket was brought to shore and the princess looked inside, she knew without a doubt that it had to be a Hebrew boy. She understood how desperate Hebrew mothers had grown. What other possible explanation could there be?

But, realizing that, the princess knew she had a choice. On one level, she knew that she was supposed to side with her own people and her own class. The Hebrews were outsiders, and they were a potential threat to the stability of the system. But the princess also knew that she was a woman. And as a woman, she was an outsider to power in her own country. That made her feel as if she might have more in common with the poor woman who, in desperation, had thrown her young son into the Nile. But she simply did not know what she ought to do.


Miriam might have been nothing more than a little girl, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t know what was going on. She knew what people in the community had been talking about, about the terrible thing that had been demanded by the pharaoh. And for months now she had been a witness to the anguish of her mother.

Miriam had done her part, of course, to keep the birth of her little brother from being noticed. She had often taken care of the child when Jochebed and Amram couldn’t be around. She understood how important it was to make sure that nobody outside of the house could hear the noise that he made. Of course, that had only been getting harder and harder as time went by.

Her Part

And so, when Miriam had seen her mother leave the house carrying the child and silently weeping, it wasn’t that hard for her to guess what was happening. She followed and she observed from a distance as her mother laid the child into the small basket and pushed him out into the current. Once she had done this, Jochebed collapsed in despair. She had done what she could do and had to leave the rest in the hands of her people’s God.

But somehow Miriam knew that she still had a part to play. She kept her eyes on the basket as it moved at a steady pace through the reeds that lined the shores, moved towards the place where the royal party often came down to bathe during the day.

Her Courage

And so, she saw the princess arrive. She saw the excitement and consternation as the basket was discovered. And even from the distance, she could see the confusion and indecision on the face of the princess as she contemplated the child.

And that was when Miriam, that poor slave child, that person with the least possible power and influence in this entire story, did the bravest thing she would ever do. She ran forward, past the guards who protected the princess, and then cried out to her in broken Egyptian. “I go and I get you nurse? I get Hebrew woman to nurse baby for you?”

You see, sometimes when people are struggling with a choice – sometimes when they know what is the right thing to do but are seized by indecision because they have never dared to be bold before, all they need is a little push. All they need is one small action that they can take towards doing the right thing because, if they can take that one step, the next will be easier and the next after that as well. Soon they have set themselves on a path towards doing the right thing, the thing they truly want to do. Miriam had provided the princess with that. All she needed to do was nod her head yes and Miriam was off like a shot to find her mother and present her as a wet nurse to the princess.

When Evil Plans are Laid

When powerful people do horrible things in order to maintain their power and position, the powerless often feel as if there is nothing that they can do. And it may be true, especially if we stand alone as individuals, that there is very little that we can do. When the weak stand alone, the powerful only need to pick them off one by one.

But the story in the Book of Exodus tells of three women who were quite powerless. Two of them were slaves, one of them was not even an adult and one was nothing more than an ornament for the powerful pharaoh. They did not conspire together, but they acted. They acted in faith, and they acted in solidarity. Though they might have had every reason not to find that solidarity. The princess in particular had no reason to find kinship with a Hebrew slave. But, simply by choosing solidarity and faith, they each played a key role that put pieces in place to disrupt all of Pharaoh’s evil plans. Now, if only we could find such courage. If only we could embrace such solidarity.

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A Very Troubled Young Man

Posted by on Sunday, June 19th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch a sermon video here

Hespeler, 19 June 2022 © Scott McAndless
1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42 and 43, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39 (Click to read)

We are told in the Gospel of Luke that one day, Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and they sailed off and they landed on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee in a place called the country of the Gerasenes. Jesus was a stranger there, an outsider. But they had perhaps at least heard of him and the notoriety he was gaining on the other side of the lake.

I know that many communities, if they were visited by people who had a certain amount of celebrity, would generally make a point of ensuring that some of their leading citizens would be there to meet them and make sure that they got a good impression. That is why I think it is rather significant that the first person that Jesus met in that country was about the worst representative that you could imagine. He was greeted by a very troubled young man.

The Man who Met Jesus

It was a man who had a fraught relationship with things like clothing and with housing. He tended to walk around naked and had set up a homeless encampment in the local graveyard. What is more, the Gerasenes clearly weren’t quite sure what to do with this man who caused no end of trouble. They had tried everything they could do as far as they were concerned, locking him up in chains and shackles and putting him under guard, but nothing prevented him from ruining their lives.

It makes me wonder. If Jesus were to come rowing up to the shores of our city, our society today, who could we imagine being the first one to go out and meet him? I could nominate a few people who would fit the bill. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence either that just about everyone who comes to my mind is also a young man. Society seems to have a long history of troubled young men.

Who Would Meet Jesus Today?

So, who might Jesus meet as he came to shore? Perhaps the young man who, five years ago, walked into a mosque in Quebec City and began to gun down worshipers there. Perhaps it would be the self-proclaimed involuntarily celibate man who, two years ago, ran down eleven people with a van on the streets of Toronto.

Or, in light of more recent events, how could we fail to mention the man who felt so threatened by the mere existence of black people in his country that he drove over 300 km to find a majority black community in Buffalo so that he could kill as many of them as possible as they shopped in a grocery store. And how could we fail to mention the very troubled young man who celebrated his eighteenth birthday by purchasing two high-powered high-capacity rifles and using them to shoot up an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas?

The Reaction to Troubled Young Men

I believe that, in many ways, we today react to such young men much like the Gerasenes did. Oh, we have tried all kinds of measures in order to prevent the devastation that they cause. We put them in chains, we lock them in shackles, we increase guards and security measures on every school and every other vulnerable place in our society. In some jurisdictions we put them to death.

But somehow it just keeps continuing to happen. Somehow another troubled young individual comes along sooner or later. And, while I agree that maybe taking a few steps towards making it harder for such troubled people to get their hands on highly effective and efficient killing machines, the truth of the matter is that even that is also treating a symptom and can only be a part of treating the underlying disease.

Jesus’ Approach

But Jesus came along that day with a different focus than the local people. He wasn’t there to punish this troubled young man. Jesus wasn’t interested in band aid solutions to the problems that plague us. Jesus was a healer. He did not simply deal with the symptoms of the problem – the fear and the violence that the presence of this young man caused in the community. Jesus was always interested in dealing with the underlying issues. That is what true healing is all about, after all.

So, what did Jesus do when he came on the scene? First and foremost, he engaged the young man as he was. The first words of Jesus that are reported to us form a simple question. “What is your name?” he asks. But, as the answer makes clear, he is not asking the young man to identify himself. He is asking for the name of the demon that possesses him.

Demon Possession

And we should be careful to understand what that means according to the understanding of that time and place. I know that we usually assume that we understand what they meant back then when they spoke about demon possession. I mean, we have all seen movies like The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. They have led us to believe that, those who believe in demon possession, always think of it as some sort of malevolent supernatural being that takes control of somebody’s body.

Now, it is true that there were people in Jesus’ time who believed that such things happened. But that is not the only kind of trouble that they described using the language of possession. You see, they understood most every ailment and trouble that people dealt with – including those we understand in medical terms – in exclusively spiritual terms.

Our Understanding is Different

We know that conditions like depression or addiction or anxiety disorders may have a whole host of medical, physiological, psychological and perhaps spiritual causes. Well, they only saw the spiritual causes of such things and so the only language they had to talk about them was spiritual language.

I don’t think that they were completely wrong in their approach – there are spiritual dimensions to such problems. But I also believe that we can only bring true healing to someone who is struggling when we address the whole person – body, mind and spirit. And I believe that Jesus, in his healing activities, did understand that. So what was Jesus doing when he asked the name of what it was that was plaguing this man? He was demonstrating an openness to consider that whole person and what he was struggling with. And the answer that he received spoke volumes.

Not One Single Cause

“Legion,” the young man said. And that was, first and foremost, a clear acknowledgment that all he was struggling with could not be reduced to a single cause. The cause was legion. I know that that is always going to be the temptation when there are populations struggling in our society. We always want to find just one thing to blame it on: violent video games, broken families, drugs. There have even people who’ve tried to blame it on abortion or the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

But you should be suspicious of any attempt to place the blame on one thing. It is almost never an attempt to come to terms with the real causes but rather an attempt to advance the speaker’s agenda and to keep everything else in society unchallenged and unchanged. The issues are always more complex. They are legion.

The Legions

“Legion,” the young man said. And I suspect that it was no mistake that he used the Latin term for the Roman troops that were occupying the whole territory. What were the legionaries there for if not to make sure that the people who were in charge remained in charge?

We are not told, of course, what events had led this young man to spiral into his violent and self-destructive way of life, but I think, given that his troubled mind went immediately to the word “legion,” it is very likely that the structure of his society, maintained by the legions, had something to do with it.

Structural Issues

And as we think of our troubled young people, we have to be willing to take into account the ways in which they have experienced a system that feels like it is stacked against them. They were raised in a world where it was considered normal to have active shooter drills in their schools – where they were taught to expect that there would be people who were trying to shoot them. They are living in a situation where few people like them have any reasonable path to afford their own home or have job security. They have lived their whole lives wondering whether the environment, as we have known it, is going to be able to maintain their population.

These are systemic problems and I realize that not every young individual will experience them in exactly the same way. Any one of these issues alone might not be an insurmountable problem, but when they are legion they do become overwhelming.

The Problem with Healing

The story of Jesus and this troubled young man is ultimately a very hopeful one because Jesus does bring healing to him. Jesus does this by addressing the whole person and that is what we need to do. But there is another aspect of this story that is rather troubling we need to face up to it. We have to recognize that there is enormous resistance to that healing power in the story.

The story ends like this: “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind… Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”

Now how does that make sense? Here they have feared this man and the havoc he has caused for a long time. But now that Jesus has apparently eliminated this terrible issue, they are upset and they want him gone. Why, it is almost as if they do not like the fact that this man has found some healing.

Healing Disrupts

I believe that that is exactly what is going on because, in order for this man to find healing, the system that was at work in that community had to be disrupted. How else can we understand the destruction of the entire herd of pigs being necessary to the healing? There is no question that such a destruction would have dealt a savage blow to the local economy.

But there is more to it than that, something systemic. People have long wondered why there might have been such a large pork industry in that region. I mean, they weren’t raising hogs in order to sell to the Jewish population, so who were they selling to?

They must have been selling to the foreign occupying troops. They must have been selling to the legions. Yes, they were dependent on the industrial military complex for their local economy. They were deeply embedded in a system that relied on everything remaining exactly the way it was. And the way that Jesus had healed this man had demonstrated to them that his healing required a disruption of that system. So, yes, of course they wanted Jesus out of there.

Why we Don’t Fix Things

And that is precisely the problem with where we are when it comes to dealing with this never-ending crop of troubled young men who are wreaking havoc in our society. Healing is possible; something better is possible. The problem is that such healing will only come with our willingness to change the systems that are maintaining this status quo. And there are certain powers in our society, very influential powers who profit enormously from the way that things are set up right now, who are dead set on making sure that that doesn’t happen. They won’t hesitate to run the healer out of town.

So there we are; that is the challenge that is before us. But let me just say that the hope presented in this story is real. Jesus did bring healing to that young man because he didn’t care about how much it cost. And when troubled people of any age and any gender encounter people who have that kind of sense of priority, I really do believe that healing is not only possible, it is nearly inevitable. It is a question of priorities and it is a question of us being willing to engage people with a compassion and a level of commitment that knows that there are things that are more important than just maintaining things the way that they have always been. Such disruption, in fact, has always been very much at the heart of Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God

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The Verse you Never Noticed

Posted by on Sunday, June 5th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler 5 June, 2022 © Scott McAndless – Pentecost, Communion
Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-27 (click to read)

I want you to do something for me. I want you, for the next couple of minutes, not to look at the reading that we had from the Book of Acts a few minutes ago. Do not look at it on your bulletin or in your Bible. I mean, we only just heard it read and I’m sure that many of you also read along, so it should be fresh in your minds anyways. But I’m also aware that, now that I’ve told you that you can’t do something, you also probably feel this irresistible temptation to do it anyways. That is human. But resist that temptation.

I don’t want you to look because I want to share with you an experience that I had a couple of weeks ago. I was attending the Festival of Homiletics – a gathering that allows church leaders to hear some of the best and most creative preachers in this hemisphere as they preach and talk about preaching. It was a great experience. And I was listening to a conversation between two preachers.

One of them was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a rather amazing Lutheran preacher, and she was talking about how we can sometimes skip over verses. And she pulled out, for example, the passage we read this morning – the passage that is traditionally read every year in churches on this day, the Day of Pentecost.

A Throwaway Verse

And she was remarking that she had been reading and preaching on this passage for years and had found it to be very powerful. But if you had asked her, over those many years, if there was one verse that she could have dropped, that was completely incidental and you didn’t need to bother thinking about, it would have to be the first verse of the chapter.

That verse didn’t matter one bit and it wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t there in the Bible. But then, last year, she took out this chapter and she just couldn’t get past the first verse. All of a sudden that one verse that she would have been ready to just throw right out of the Bible for years meant the world to her.

Now, at this point, I was feeling pretty much like I’m sure you’re feeling right now. Because I didn’t have a Bible with me. I didn’t have a bulletin with the text in front of me. I was asking myself what on earth the first verse of the chapter said. I’m pretty sure every preacher listening was wondering. Certainly, the other preacher up on the stage was wondering because she asked. Then Nadia Bolz-Weber read us the verse. Chapter two of the Book of Acts starts like this: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

Caught Off Guard

And as I heard those words, I felt the tears come to my eyes. I knew exactly what she meant. Whoo, talk about a powerful book, eh? Talk about a tricky book! I mean, it is almost as if God, through some process of inspiration, planted that verse right there so many centuries ago. And it just sat there, unassuming, a completely benign verse that everybody just read over and forgot and then, all of a sudden, in 2022, boom! It hits us over the head. It suddenly means the world.

Because yes, we took it for granted that being able to gather together and worship and pray in one place was something that we could do at any time. Granted, we didn’t always do it. There were other things that got in the way or that seemed more important at the time. I have long said that one of the marks of any Christian in our society is that they are, at the very least, aware of which church they don’t go to on Sunday. But we at least knew that the possibility was there.

But then, suddenly, the possibility wasn’t there. And we did find ways to meet virtually and that was good and it taught us many things. There were some definite pluses to it, as a matter of fact. But that did not change the sense of loss that we felt and still feel. And because God understands how we feel, I truly believe that God has sent us a message this morning. God wrote it for us more than 1900 years ago. It has been delivered to us this morning. And that message is, When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

What its Telling us

So, let us think today about what that verse means in the story of Pentecost. Pentecost is, in the minds of many Christians, the birthday of the Christian church. Yes, the story of salvation centres around Easter Sunday. The resurrection of Jesus brings us the hope of life beyond death and of victory beyond the defeats of this world. But the creation of the church would have to wait fifty days until, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ would bring it into being.

But this verse is a reminder that, before the rushing of the wind and before the descending flames of fire, there was something else that made Pentecost possible – the simple fact that they were all together in one place. And we believe that it was God who made the wind rush. And it was God who made the flames come down. These things were signs of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, a gift that made the church a possibility. But could God have given that gift if the people of the church had not gathered together in one place?

Gathering in Person Matters

On one hand, the answer to that question is yes, of course. God can do whatever God wants. But, on the other hand, there seems to be no question that there was something essential about the church gathering on that day. There is something about feeling the warmth of other human bodies around you. There is something about hearing and feeling one another’s breaths and being able to greet one another with the clasp of a hand or what the early church called a holy kiss. And when we do things together in one another’s presence, when we pray or when we sing, there is always, always a sense that when you put us all together the whole is inexplicably greater than just the sum of the parts. Pentecost can’t just be about the Spirit. It also has to be about these bodies gathered together.

Back to Babel

And yet, at the same time, the gathering alone is not enough. People have long noticed that there is a connection between the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts and the story of the tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. The author of the Book of Acts clearly chose to write his story as a kind of parallel to the story in Genesis. The languages get confused in Genesis and then they get unconfused in Acts. And it is important to note that the story in Genesis also begins with people coming together. “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”

So there, too, we have bodies coming together in a certain place at a certain time. And as a result of that gathering, they too feel the impulse and the ability to reach for something that is greater than just the sum of the parts. They even see in their uniting a possibility to reach a higher spiritual plane, which is represented by this idea of building a tower to heaven.

But, of course, in Genesis that impulse is a negative thing. The story illustrates that the simple fact of us coming together does not always lead to positive outcomes. Sometimes we just come together because we each think that we can build our own tower, our own way to heaven. But when that is all we are doing, it is only going to break down in fighting with each other and starting to speak our own languages because we’re only focused on our own needs. That just ends in division, just like happened on that plain in Shinar.

Pentecost Repairs Babel

But when we pair that coming together in body with an openness to the power of God’s Spirit, we are able to open ourselves to embrace something bigger than just our own ambition. We can learn to put aside our own agendas so that we can embrace the possibility of what God would like to do among us and through us.

I realize that the world has changed in some very important ways over the past two and a half years. I understand that we have learned new ways of interacting with one another without necessarily being together in the same space. Some of those lessons have been very good. I understand that the world is not going to just go back to the way it was, nor do I think that it ought to. But let us not be afraid to take some time to grieve what we have lost. And let us make the effort, starting today, to retake what we can.

Every one of us needs to judge for ourselves. Only you know all of the various issues of safety and protection of others that is necessary in your case. Only you can decide what will maintain the proper balance in your life, but I would challenge you to find some places in your life where you embrace the power that is present in that simple act of being together in one place. I would encourage you to make it a priority to gather with believers in one place, ideally in this place. I would encourage you to find ways to pray in the presence of others and to enter into some experience of worship. There is power in being able to do that.

Open to the Spirit

Yet, at the same time, since it is Pentecost and we are celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, a gift that brought the church into being, let me also encourage us all to do this with an openness to the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. Let us not make the mistake that was made on the plain of Shinar and become so obsessed with our own agendas and accomplishing our selfcentred goals. The true power of being able to come together comes to us when we are able to set aside all of that and to embrace the possibility that God is calling us, in unity, to create something bigger than any one of us as individuals.

But let us find ways to come together as God’s people. Do it online, sure, there will be times when we get a lot of meaning out of doing that. But let us also not forsake joining together because, when we do, we have a God who can do some pretty amazing and surprising things. We have a God so amazing that God hid a message for us today in a text written centuries upon centuries ago.

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Posted by on Sunday, May 29th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch Sermon Video here

Hespeler, 29 May 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

If there is one word that, above all others, people are disagreeing over and fighting over in our days, that word has got to be freedom. We are just hearing a whole lot about freedom. It was the cry on the lips of the people who forced their way into the United States capital on January 6th over a year ago. It was the resounding cry of trucker convoy protesters who occupied the heart of Ottawa earlier this year. It continues to be heard all over the place in protests against pandemic mandates that are mostly no longer in place.

And how many candidates in the ongoing Ontario election have been dogged by protesters shouting about this very thing? Meanwhile, the people of Ukraine are fighting for their freedom while the Russian president proclaims that he ordered the invasion of Ukraine in order to bring those people freedom.

No one is Anti-Freedom

The word has never had more currency, it seems. But, of course, while we are doing all this fighting over freedom, there is nobody who will stand up and claim to be on the opposing side. No one is going to claim the title of being anti-freedom and indeed almost everyone claims to be fighting for it. So, it actually turns out that what we are fighting over is not freedom itself but actually the definition of freedom. That was why I was so interested when I first looked at our reading this morning from the Book of Acts. The word freedom doesn’t actually appear in the story – not even once – and yet this story is all about the meaning and practice of liberty.

An Enslaved Woman

The story opens with a woman who is the absolute opposite of free. She is identified as a female slave which means she has no freedom in this world. She is also possessed by a “spirit of divination,” which was understood to mean that she would lose control of her mind in ways that forced her to foretell the future.

Of course, we might be inclined to diagnose her, if we encountered her today, as having some sort of mental health issue while they spoke of her condition in purely spiritual terms but, however you understand it, she pretty clearly does not have conscious control over what she says and does. That is a particularly devastating kind of slavery.

The Enslaved Men

The next people we meet in the story – the actual main characters – are also not free. It is the female slave herself who points this out when she cries out for anyone to hear, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” And I don’t think that it is an accident that these two men are described using the very same term that is used for the female slave. They also need to be understood as being not free. But, pretty clearly, their slavery seems to be a little different from hers.

These two slaves of the Most High God, Paul and Silas, do have an objection to what this female slave says about them. Paul becomes annoyed with her. This is not because what she is saying is untrue, but simply because he doesn’t like all of the attention that that is putting on him. And so, he sets her free from this condition that has enslaved her mind and spirit.

The Only Free People

It is at this point that we meet the only literally free people in the story. They are the people who own the female slave. And I would draw your attention to the fact that it is these people, the only free people, who are the ones who complain about the loss of their freedom. They are upset with Paul because they believe that he has infringed upon their freedom of commerce. They made lots of money by means of the oracles of this female slave, and their complaint is that Paul has now deprived them of their freedom to profit.

Two Imprisoned Slaves

As a result of this, Paul and Silas, these slaves of the Most High God, are deprived of their freedom. They are thrown into prison and their legs are locked into the stocks. And then what happens? God intervenes in the story to set Paul and Silas free. So, do you see what I mean when I say that this story is all about the meaning of freedom. And, as I look at this story, I really do think that it could help us a lot as we try and sort out the really big arguments we are having about freedom these days.

Of course, the freedom that is at stake in most of this story is not really something that we have direct experience of. We are very fortunate, of course, that none of us has experienced firsthand the scourge of slavery, either as slaves or as owners. Perhaps more of us have some experience with mental health issues, either our own or those of the people we care about, but I know of few who have had to deal with issues that resulted in the loss of the freedom of their minds. And, of course, most of us are fortunate not to have had any experience of either just or unjust incarceration.

Think of the Poor Owners!

So, what is the closest point of contact to the question of freedom that we have in this story? Well, I would say that the kind of freedom we hear most talked about these days is the freedom of the owners that gets disrupted. So let’s just focus in on that for a few minutes.

Indeed, let us just try to have a little bit of sympathy for these poor owners. First of all, let us note, that “owners” is plural. This female slave doesn’t just belong to one master. And it is is not just some mom and pop operation that purchased her either. No, she belongs to a corporation. A bunch of people formed a corporation in order to buy up slaves who had special skills like this young woman. They invested their money with the expectation that they would be able to exploit their property without limit. They’ve got stockholders to think about. Can’t somebody think about the poor stockholders?

What of the Freedom to Exploit?

So, it is these corporate owners who scream loudest about their freedom and who manage to get powerful people to act on their behalf. It seems to me that this is something that still happens. When it comes to the freedom of corporations to exploit their workers, to manipulate their markets or to protect their profits, such freedom seems to be near absolute still today.

But it goes much further than that because, not only are the owners a corporation, they are also part of a privileged class in that society. And people who are particularly privileged for any reason, often simply cannot see how their exercise of privilege might impinge upon the freedom of others. These owners simply cannot see how much damage they are doing as they profit off of the exploitation of a young woman who is deep, deep in bondage.

The Freedom of Paul and Silas

So, that is one ideal of freedom that we see in this passage and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it particularly inspiring. But there is another idea of freedom in the story. Paul and Silas do not have freedom as the world defines it. They are the slaves of the Most High God and then they are thrown in prison and clapped in stocks.

And yet then, when they are at their most unfree, they do not act like it, do they? They start singing hymns of praise to their master even in their confinement. And then the story takes a strange twist when their master, the Most High God, intervenes to grant them their freedom. There is an earthquake, and they suddenly are freed from their bonds while the doors of their prison are flung wide open.

What they do with their Freedom

But here is the really fascinating part of the story. They react to this new freedom of theirs in almost the exact opposite way of the slave owners. You see, they realize something that the masters clearly do not. They recognize that their exercise of freedom will negatively affect the freedom and safety of others. You see, it was common practice for guards who permitted a prisoner to escape to be severely punished and even put to death for their failure.

Yes, the guard who was over that prison was just as unfree as Paul and Silas were in many ways. When he sees the aftermath of the earthquake and concludes, without even needing to bother and check, that the prisoners must have all escaped, the guard is ready to fall upon his own sword to escape such punishment and dishonour. But Paul, though he has been granted freedom by God, has actually not chosen to use that freedom in a way that will impact the life of the guard. He and Silas, and indeed all of the prisoners, have not escaped and so Paul shouts out to the guard, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

The Reaction to Such Freedom

Do you realize that what Paul and Silas do in the story is precisely the thing that gets people labeled as sheep (which is a short form for accusing people of not being free) these days? People go around loudly proclaiming that, because they are free, they do not have to do things for the sake of the safety and well-being of others. They mock and criticize people who make the choice to curtail their own freedoms for the sake of vulnerable people or for the larger community. That is indeed a version of freedom, but I find it to be a lot more like the freedom of the slave owners than the freedom experienced by Paul and Silas.

A Desire to Experience More Freedom

Paul and Silas have been set free by God, but they make a choice to express that freedom by prioritizing something else. They choose instead to value the salvation of the guard. And I mean by that that they literally save him from death at his own hands or the hands of his masters. But then the guard, having been given a taste of true salvation is not satisfied. He needs more. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he cries out.

He immediately assumes that these people, who have chosen to value his salvation above their own freedom, can also save him in ways that go deeper and further. He is, of course, correct in this assumption. They answer him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They tell him that he will find, in this Jesus, salvation so powerful that it extends even to his entire household.

Lessons on Freedom

So, then, what does this story teach us about freedom in this moment when it is such a volatile concept? It certainly shows us that freedom is an incredibly valuable thing. We certainly ought to prize the freedoms that we have. We should not let them be eroded away and should do our very best to make sure that more people should have such precious freedom.

But I also think that this story is telling us that freedom is not an end in itself. Freedom that is used to exploit the minds and the bodies of others in the pursuit of our own goals is not an inspiring form of freedom and is not one that we should aspire to.

Freedom we Choose not to Use

The freedom that is truly valuable is the freedom that we sometimes choose not to exercise because we care about others. And when we do that, when we choose to lay down our freedom because it may save somebody else, the promise seems to be that such salvation, so dearly bought, is so powerful that it may just spread far beyond our one little act of care and compassion for others. And that is how the good news and the message of hope will spread in this world.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, I cannot help but wonder if he was thinking of incidents like this one when he penned this: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13 -14)

Paul was clearly someone who understood a few things about freedom that still seem to elude us today. But I’m hoping that maybe we might be able to learn something from him.

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The Scandal of God’s Grace

Posted by on Sunday, May 15th, 2022 in Minister, News
Watch sermon video here

Hespeler, 15 May, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

In 1985 there was a movie that swept the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It won eight Oscars including best picture, best director, best actor and best writer. So, I am pretty sure that you have heard of this movie. And I wanted to remind you of it today because I think that it contains a perfect illustration of the scandal behind our reading this morning from the Book of Acts.

Beloved of God

In fact, the film zeroes in on the central dispute of our reading so perfectly that it is right there in the title. The movie was called, in case you haven’t guessed yet, Amadeus. Amadeus is a Latin word that means beloved of God. And the scandalous nature of the love of God is at the centre of the story. The titular character is, of course, none other than the great composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but the main character in the story is the Italian composer, Antonio Salieri. The plot centres around a kind of obsession.

Salieri is jealous of Mozart because of his musical genius. But it’s about more than jealousy. Salieri is angry at Mozart for being so talented, but he is actually even more angry at God. At one point he declares this, speaking directly to Jesus in the form of a crucifix on the wall: “From now on, we are enemies – you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you, I swear it. I will hinder (and remember that word, hinder) I will hinder and harm your creature as far as I am able. I will ruin your incarnation.”

Salieri’s Complaint

He recognizes, and I believe he recognizes correctly, that there is divine inspiration behind what Mozart is able to produce. It is a gift of God. But he is scandalized that God should give such a gift to a person like Mozart. He doesn’t work hard to produce it because he doesn’t need to. But, even worse, he does not live a virtuous life as Salieri defines virtue. He is licentious, vulgar and silly. Meanwhile, Salieri has worked and works so hard and lives a life of extreme piety and virtue, and yet the only music that he can produce reeks of mediocrity.

Salieri finds the very idea that God could give such good things to a person so unworthy so objectionable that it drives him to do awful things. It drives him to theft, corruption, attempted murder and ultimately to madness. Now, I think I ought to say in defense of Salieri that the film, though based on historical characters, is mostly fictional. The two composers seem to have actually had a pretty good relationship. But at the same time, there is something that is fundamentally true about the story of the film. There really is something very objectionable about the love of God and the gifts that it gives, something that we need to come to terms with.

Peter Visits the Wrong People

In our reading this morning, the Apostle Peter gets into a lot of trouble with the leaders of the church over this very issue. He has just come back from a visit to the home of a man named Cornelius where he ate and drank with the household, preached the gospel to them and shared with them the gift of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When he returns, however, the people in the Church of Jerusalem are very upset with him. The thing that bothers them is not that he has been preaching the gospel or sharing the love of God or even the gift of the Spirit. This is exactly what the church has been doing ever since the beginning and Peter has done no differently.

No, the only thing that is wrong about what Peter has done is who he did it for. He did it for people who everyone in the Jerusalem church agrees are just the wrong kind of people. They eat the wrong kind of food. They don’t follow the right laws. They’re not even circumcised! They just don’t deserve hearing the good news and they certainly do not belong in the community of the church.

A Personal Question

And I know that we often think of this as a one-time, very special controversy in the life of the early church. It was this important question about whether Gentiles and people who did not follow the Jewish law could have a place in the church. But, as this particular story makes very clear, at the level where this actually touched and affected people’s lives, this was not a theological question. This was a very personal question. It was all about God’s love and grace being lavished on a group of people who simply did not deserve it because of who they were and how they lived their lives. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were upset with God for the very same reason that Salieri was upset concerning Mozart. God was just loving the wrong sort of people.

And, given that this is a controversy that arises again and again throughout the history of the church, I think it is worth taking a good look at how Simon Peter responds to the objections of the church in Jerusalem. He responds to them by telling the story. He tells the story that illustrates that God, despite their limited understanding of what God can do, has clearly decided to love these people anyways by giving to them one of God’s greatest gifts, the gift of the Spirit. And then he ends his story with a statement that I believe should be engraved upon the heart of every believer, should be posted as a sign upon every one of our churches. He says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Who is Peter?

Think of that. Here we have the man who is generally thought to be the first great leader of the church, the one that Jesus called The Rock and perhaps the man who knew Jesus best, and yet he is saying, “who am I to hinder God?” And, given the context, what he is especially saying is, “Who am I to hinder God giving God’s love, gifts or grace to anyone?” And yet I see all the time people who seem to believe that they are exactly the kind of people who can hinder God in that way. That’s why I think that we need to learn, with Peter, to ask ourselves that question: who am I to hinder?

How we Hinder

I do believe that that kind of hindering happens all the time in the church. You know, every time we look at somebody who comes into contact with the church and we decide that they don’t really belong and so don’t make them feel particularly welcome, we are hindering God doing God’s work in their life. If you decide that somebody isn’t dressed well enough and communicate that to them even in a subtle way, are you not hindering them from being recipients of the grace and gifts that God is giving through the church? And it’s the same if you decide that based on race, on class or wealth or age or orientation or gender identity or whatever other criterion you can come up with.

I’m not saying that we do it intentionally, because sometimes we’re often not aware of the subtle ways in which we make people feel like they do not belong. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not taking their ideas or opinions seriously. Sometimes it’s not even considering including them in our little circle of friends. But, make no mistake, we all do it sometimes. And we need to ask, who am I to hinder what God wants to do in their life through the church?

Other Ways of Excluding

But do not only think of this in terms of the kind of grace that usually comes to mind in the life of the church. This is something that we do in many other circumstances as well. How often do we write somebody off – do not consider them for a job, or we write off their thoughts and ideas or any potential contribution they could make – for reasons that simply do not matter? You just never know what God might have in mind to do for that person or through that person and yet because of some prejudgment on your part you can hinder that from happening.

Who Can be Saved?

This also applies to our talk and thought about salvation. Christians have a long history of having a very narrow understanding of who is worthy of being saved by God. We confess, of course, that salvation is by grace through faith, but we often have a very narrow understanding of what that faith has to look like.

In particular, we expect it to look like the faith that we have professed. So, if someone believes differently or puts more emphasis on how they live out their faith than on believing all the same things that we believe, we might easily come to the conclusion that they are not worthy of being saved. I don’t think we realize how, when we do that, what we are really doing is putting limits on the love of God. We are deciding that we are the ones who can hinder what God wants to do in people’s lives.

Who Does it Hurt?

When, in the movie at least, Salieri decides to hinder God’s decision to be gracious to someone that he did not think deserved it, he did not hurt God. The message of the movie, in the end, is that he really only hurt himself – ultimately driving himself to madness. And that is the true tragedy that comes when we seek to hinder the grace of God from being shown in somebody else’s life. We will not stop God from being gracious. Thank heavens that we do not have that power. We will only hurt ourselves. For know this above all, God loves those who love amadeus, who loves those who, however unworthy in our eyes, are beloved of God. And, what's more, I honestly believe that the more we embrace this truth, the more that we will understand for ourselves how truly beloved we are to God.

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