Category: Minister

Minister’s blog

New Life in the Valley of Covid-19

Posted by on Sunday, March 29th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 29 March, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Watch the sermon in video here!

The Book of Ezekiel in the Bible is a strange book – I mean really strange. It is full of all of these fantastic elements. In one memorable episode, for example, Ezekiel is standing by a river when he sees these strange beings flying through the air that have made some modern readers think of UFO’s – unidentified flying objects carrying aliens. Of course, they are not that, but what are they exactly? At other points Ezekiel claims that God’s spirit literally picks him up and carries him through the air over huge distances.

This has led many scholars to wonder how, exactly, we are supposed to read this book. Clearly Ezekiel is having visions – not everything he reports is happening in the real world – but how are we to know what is real and what isn’t. Where does the vision end and the physical world begin?

For example, our reading this morning starts like this: “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” It makes you wonder; what kind of spiritual mode of transportation is Ezekiel describing here and does it have any applications for modern mass public transit? But is Ezekiel really saying that the spirit of the Lord physically transported him? Couldn’t he just as easily be saying that he was taken in a vision to the valley – that there was not actually a real valley full of bones?

Or here is another possibility: maybe he was just out wandering one day, and he wandered into a real valley and noticed that it was full of bones. He realized that there was something that God wanted him to see here in this valley and so he said, “It must not have been random that I walked into this place. God must have wanted to show me something here; the spirit of the Lord must have brought me here.”

I think it must have been the latter and I’ll tell you why. It is not just because it was quite possible to go wandering around the countryside in the ancient world and stumble into a valley filled with bones. It certainly happened, after some battles, that battlefields could be left littered with dead bodies. Nobody buried them and it wouldn’t take long for scavengers and decay to turn those bodies into so many old dry bones.

So yeah, Ezekiel could well have wandered into such a valley and if it really was an old battlefield (perhaps even a battlefield where his own people had been defeated by the invading Babylonians) he certainly would have seen it as a deeply meaningful place – a place where God might well have something to show him or tell him. Believing that the spirit of the Lord had brought him there would have certainly put him in the right frame of mind to receive whatever message that might be.

But that’s not the main reason why I think that that was how it happened. I think that that is how it happened because that is kind of what has happened to us. Here we were actually just a little more than a couple of weeks ago (though it seems hard to believe that it has been so little time) – we were blissfully rambling through the countryside as if we had no cares in the world. And then what? We suddenly looked up and realized that we had wandered into a valley and this valley is rather disturbing because it is filled with bones. And these are the bones of death and the threat and fear of death. This is a serious valley where we find ourselves my friends.

A picture containing outdoor, photo, sitting, black

Description automatically generated

And, just as there were no doubt people back in Ezekiel’s day who wandered into that very same valley and noticed the bones but didn’t find any meaning or have any visions because they didn’t have any sense that the spirit of the Lord had sent them there to give them an important message, there seem to be lots of people today who are looking at our particular valley of bones called Covid-19 and they’re not detecting any messages or visions. They are just thinking of themselves and their own needs and not thinking at all about how everything that is happening ought to be making us rethink everything about how things should happen.

But there are some who are like Ezekiel. There are some who will decide that, if we are passing through, this particular valley of bones, maybe God has some lessons for us to learn here – maybe the spirit of the Lord brought us here. (Not, by the way, because God wants terrible tragedies like pandemics to occur, but because terrible things sometimes happen for reasons we may never understand and yet God has this way of bringing something good even out of the worst situations).

Now, that may seem like a hard thing to believe when you are faced with a tragedy as bad as something that leaves a valley full of bones. But that despair was something that Ezekiel felt too. As he wandered around that valley, he particularly noted how dry all those bones were – how they were completely polished clean of life. That, in itself, must have been extraordinarily discouraging. And then he is confronted with a question – a question that he says comes from God, which is to say that it is an inspired question. “Mortal,” God asks, “can these bones live?” And of course the answer to that question is obvious. Of course they can’t live – they’re bones. They’re dead. To quote a wise man, “They’ve kicked the bucket, shuffled off the mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!!” These bones are ex-living beings!

But, of course, that is not what Ezekiel says. He very wisely, and perhaps diplomatically, says, “O Lord God, you know.” In other words, “I’m not going to stick my neck out too far on answering this one. Things look pretty bleak, Lord, but maybe you’ve got an answer on this one.”

And I don’t know about you, but I’m going to confess that there are moments when I feel a bit like Ezekiel. I look around this valley filled with dead, dry bones and all I can see is death and decay. The fact of the matter is that it often seems as if there is little reason to trust in human nature at times like this. I can’t make dead bones live, can you? I don’t know where the hope lies but I will hold on to this: maybe, Lord God, you know.

And here is where we get to the real meaning of the vision that Ezekiel had in that valley full of bones. The fact of the matter was that in that situation, as well as in much of the situation that the nation of Judah was facing at that time, there was no hope in human terms. There is no human means to make your way out of a valley of bones. Death is a dead end for human beings. That’s the reality that Ezekiel didn’t want to admit. But a lack of human hope is not the same thing as a lack of hope. “O Lord God, you know. I may not know, but you know.”

And where is the hope that Ezekiel finally finds in the depths of that valley? Is it found in the discovery of a new vaccine? Is it found in the practice of social distancing or even in quarantine? Will these things bring our salvation? Well, no question, they are good things. God bless the researchers who are working on vaccines and treatments. God bless everyone who is listening to directions of the medical leaders and isolating and maintaining social distance. But these things, as good as they are, the best that they can do is get us back to where we were before all of this began. But I’m not sure there is any going back there. This crisis has just exposed too many of the flaws and weaknesses that were there in our society before all of this started. I suspect that the way out of this valley, if we’re going to do it right, is going to lead to a different place.

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” That is what Ezekiel is told to do. And the word of the Lord never simply takes us back to the way that things were – it always take us to something new. The vision that Ezekiel receives when he prophesies is something quite fantastic. The dry bones come together, are covered over in muscle and sinew and then with skin.

But even this is not enough because a body is nothing if there is no life to animate it, so a final step is needed. For the ancient Hebrews, the life of a living being was always to be found in the breath. And breath was the same thing as the wind and it was the same word as spirit. So it was not enough for Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones; he had to prophesy to the wind as well: “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” And it is only at this point that the defeated and decayed host in the valley full of bones can come alive.

Note that this is a reenactment of the creation of Adam in the second chapter of Genesis: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” This makes a very important point. What God is offering here is not a little bit of help or a healing or a cure. God is offering a whole new creation; we are starting all over again from the very beginning.

Now, Ezekiel is quite clear. All of this was a vision. If he had it because he had wandered into a valley full of bones, then the bones were still there when he left. But the vision was a metaphor for what the hope of his people was in that time of hopelessness. This was where they were: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” When you are in that situation, you don’t need a cure. You don’t need a vaccine, you need resurrection, which is like a whole new creation and a starting all over again from the very beginning.

I am beginning to feel as if that is what we need in our present situation. I know we all may long for things to go back to how they used to be – to how everything was just a few weeks ago – but I really do not think that that is what actually needs to happen. We can’t just go back to the old guard, the old elite who sought to control everything and manipulated it all their own profit. If we get through all of this only to find that the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer and that thousands more have fallen through the cracks of our society, then we will have failed. We need a resurrection, a whole new beginning.

I don’t know exactly what that will look like – not any more than Ezekiel knew what vision he was about to have when he obeyed the Lord and prophesied the word of the Lord, but I know how we will get there. We will get there by doing what Ezekiel did, by not being afraid to prophesy and to speak the word of the Lord. I believe that that is our task. It is, first of all, to believe that God can create a resurrection in these circumstances – that God can even make living beings out of dead, dry bones.  Secondly, we need to not be afraid to prophesy in the name of the Lord, to declare, especially at times like this, that God does not tolerate profiteering, that God demands justice and not just a return to business as usual.

Prophesying has always been a dangerous occupation because those are things that this world will always resist, but do not forget what Ezekiel discovered, that that word of the Lord is a powerful thing – so powerful that it is able to bring new life even to valleys filled with dead, dry bones.

Continue reading »

A new paraphrase of the Story of the Rich Young Ruler for the Age of Corona Virus.

Posted by on Monday, March 23rd, 2020 in Minister

Suddenly a man came up to Jesus. Keeping a safe two meter social distance he asked, “Teacher what good thing must I do in order to be safe in this time of corona virus?”

“Why come to me with the questions about what to do?” Jesus retorted, “You know what the authorities are saying, do that.”

“What are they saying?” he asked.

"Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hofmann. Public domain.

“You know,” Jesus answered, “wash your hands for twenty seconds, cancel all gatherings, keep a safe social distance of two meters. Self isolate if there’s any chance you have been exposed. Do these things and you will live.”

“But I’m doing all of these things,” the man answered. “I have even stored up a great supply of surgical masks and gloves and essentials in my basement, but still I do not feel safe.”

“There is one thing more,” Jesus answered, “you must give away all of those masks and gloves and essentials to the people who actually need them. Even more important you need to let go of the notion that the things that you have are what will keep you safe. It is only by making sure that everyone has what they need that we can all be safe.”

“When the young man heard him say that, he went away very sad. He had a lot of stuff stored in his basement.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “I’m telling you the truth: it’s very hard for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. Let me say it again: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s Kingdom.”

This paraphrase was inspired by N.T. Wright's translation of Matthew 19:16-26 in Lent for Everyone Matthew, Year A (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013). A few of the phrases are lifted verbatim.

For commentary on this paraphrase, see the video devotional at the top of this page.

Continue reading »

Fill your Horn with Oil and Set out

Posted by on Sunday, March 22nd, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 22 March 2020 © Scott McAndless – 4th Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

The Prophet Samuel was just feeling so depressed. He wasn’t sleeping, he hardly ate and he could hardly even work up the passion to punish any sinners or slaughter any foreigners. He had it in a bad way. And what was it that was depressing Samuel so much? Well, it was Saul. He just felt let down. He had invested so much in Saul. When Saul was just a young man, Samuel had found him and anointed him and made him king over Israel – the first king the nation had ever had. Saul had been so tall and so handsome – a good head taller than any other man in his tribe. He just really stood out from the crowd.

And what a king he had made! Saul had rescued the city of Jabesh and attacked the outpost of Geba. He had won at Gibeah and beaten the Moabites and the Amonites and the Edomites and the kings of Zobah and the Amalakites. There had been so much blood, so much death and mayhem. Ah, good times… good times.

A picture containing mirror

Description automatically generated

But, all good things must come to an end sooner or later. Saul had messed up big-time. Samuel had told him that he had to do it – that he must kill all of the Amalekites and not leave one alive, but had Saul listened? No. He had gone and left one of them alive. So, Samuel really had no choice. He had to tell Saul that he was finished, that God had rejected him as king over Israel.

But Samuel just couldn’t get over it. If he couldn’t have Saul – could never enjoy the thrill of battle and the smell of blood at the side of that beautiful, tall man again – well then, what was the point of anything? What was the point of living!?

Those are the kind of dark thoughts that Samuel is dealing with in the opening of our reading this morning from the book that bears his name. That can be the only reason why God would come to him and say,“How long will you grieve over Saul?” Samuel was stuck. He couldn’t get over what he had lost in Saul, something that had given meaning to his whole life. And he didn’t know how to get past it.

And I’ve got to say that I’ve got all the sympathy in the world for Samuel here because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Every single one of us has lost something that mattered to us. I realize that there are some who have lost loved ones who have passed away and that loss can be tremendous. But even if you haven’t suffered that, you no doubt know the meaning of losing, in some sense, someone or something that meant the world to you. We’re probably also all struggling today with the loss of things like social contact and even just good old-fashioned physical contact. It is really hard to get over any loss and, honestly, often the last thing you need to hear is someone saying to you, “How long will you grieve?”

There is an important place for grief – we should always allow the space and the time for the processing of it – but it can become a problem if we are failing to work through our grief and allow it cut off our own health and growth. I suspect that was what was happening to Samuel. And God called him on it. God called him on it because, as much as God does respect your grief, God is always interested in helping you to embrace a larger vision for your life.

God’s intervention with Samuel in this moment has a great deal to say to us as we deal with the challenges of life these days. I see a lot of grief in our world today – not just with people who have lost loved ones but also those who have lost in other ways. People are grieving the many changes in our world. Every time you hear somebody say, “Remember when…” or “Back in my day…” they are probably about to express their grief over a loss. It is especially something that we do in the church a lot. We love to talk about the church that used to be – the good old days when there were hundreds of kids in Sunday schools and the pews were packed. We have come to believe that that was the real church (even though, in many cases it was only a blip that lasted for a few decades) and that what we have in the church today just doesn’t measure up in comparison.

But what if God is saying to us in the church today, and sometimes in society today, “How long will you grieve?” How long will you grieve the loss of the church that used to be? How long will you grieve the changes of the modern world? How long will you grieve the loss of the power and influence that you once enjoyed? This is not because grief in itself is bad, but because God has some things for us to do: “Fill your horn with oil and set out.” God wants us to set out for new horizons and new beginnings but, so long as all we can do is grieve the loss of the way things used to be, it will prevent us from doing that.

Samuel was stuck. That much is clear, not only from what God says to him but also from what he does. Samuel does, perhaps reluctantly, do as God says. He takes a hollowed-out ram’s horn and he fills it up with oil and sets out. The meaning of this act is clear. They didn’t crown kings back then, what they did was anoint them with oil and the oil is to go on the head of a new king.

But even as, in outer form, Samuel obeys, it is clear enough that he is still mourning for the past. How do I know that? I know that because when he arrives at the home of Jesse, the family to which he has been directed, his eye immediately falls on Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab. And what is it that attracts Samuel’s attention to Eliab? Well, this is what God says when he notices Samuel looking at the boy, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature.”

Clearly, Samuel had noticed two things about the boy: he was really, really good looking and he was tall. That’s what made him think that Eliab would make a good king. Hmm, can you remember anybody else who’s most distinguishing feature that he was really tall and good-looking? Oh yeah, that was Saul, wasn’t it? Clearly, Samuel maybe looking for another king, but he’s looking for a king just like the one that just got away. He might say he’s over Saul, but he’s not over Saul because clearly the only new king that he can imagine looks a whole lot like the old king.

That is the danger when we do not process our grief or loss in the ways that we ought to. It is alright to feel the ache of loss, it is alright to miss what you miss and it is alright to remember with sadness, but if you can only manage to imagine a successful future as basically a rerun of the past, then you have a problem.

I know that this is a problem that we run into in the life of the church all the time. I don’t know how many times I have walked into a different church and had somebody tell me, almost within the first minute, everything about how things used to be in that church. “Well you know,” they’ll say, “fifty years ago, they used to have to bring in extra chairs and have people sit in the aisle because there were so many people here for some services!” “Forty years ago, our youth group was so big that we had twenty weddings in the space of two years.” “And thirty years ago, there were so many kids in that Sunday school that we used to have to hold a class in the Men’s room!”

Oh, you give me ten minutes with most church people and I’ll be able to tell you everything about their church several decades ago, but almost nothing about how it is now. (And, by the way, I have learned that, if you say to them, “Wow, you had that many kids in Sunday school thirty years ago you must have so many people in their thirty and forties now, they tend to get really quiet.) They just aren’t as excited about talking about what is going on now.

And it is not even because there aren’t exciting things about their church now. There are often some pretty wonderful things going on now but, because they still define success in terms of that past and the exciting things that are happening there now don’t really fit with that definition of success, they don’t quite know how to talk about that. “Oh church, how long will you grieve over Saul? Fill your horn with oil and set out.” God has a new adventure for you.

Samuel doesn’t anoint Eliab, the new Saul; he ends up anointing David who is kind of the opposite of Saul. Where Saul was the tallest, David is the smallest of Jesse’s children. Where Saul had a noble bearing that immediately made the people hail him as kinglike, David was ruddy which probably meant that he looked kind of rustic and common. The future was going to look very different from the past but that didn’t mean that there would not be success in that future, it just might look very different from the success that they had known in the past. So it will be for the church. God is giving the church success and will give it, I believe, even more abundantly in the future. But if we don’t stop grieving for Saul, for the church that used to be, we will probably miss it.

All of this seems very relevant today, doesn’t it? There is a lot of change in the air. This virus has so disrupted everything that, not only is it going to take a long time for things to go back to normal, I’m beginning to suspect that “back to normal” is not really going to be possible. At the very least, today I am probably as far as I ever have been from being able to say that I have the faintest idea of what the future might look like. That is a scary thought. It is a scary thought for the church, and it is a scary thought in a lot of other ways. But should we be scared? No, the future is in the best place that it could possibly be – in the hands of God. Just because the future is different, doesn’t mean that God can’t be in it. In fact, as many of the illusions of this world and how it worked fall away, it might even be possible that the kingdom of God is closer now than it has ever been before.

But do you know what might make us miss out on whatever new thing God is doing among us? We might miss it if all we can do is imagine the future in terms of the past. We might miss it if we define the success of the future in terms of what seemed like success in the past and we will especially miss it if we are looking for a new Saul and God is putting a David in front of us.

Grief has its place and you may well find yourself in the coming times looking back and missing things that you loved and that you liked and that made your life easier. That is fine and don’t be afraid to express that grief. But when God comes to you and says “fill your horn with oil and set out,” you had better get ready to believe that the future success that he wants you to anoint will be something different from what it might have looked in the past – not Saul but David – and that is a good thing.

Continue reading »

Devotions for People at a Social Distance Part 2

Posted by on Tuesday, March 17th, 2020 in Minister

My second "Devotion for People at a Social Distance." This one is inspired by the famous words written 400 years ago by John Donne, a British priest desperately ill in epidemic stricken London.

What can Donne's "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions," say to us today? Lots!
Continue reading »

“Devotions for People at a Social Distance.”

Posted by on Monday, March 16th, 2020 in Minister

I have committed to do what I'm calling a series of "Devotions for People at a Social Distance." Every day, I will be speaking to and praying with people who are isolated and maybe afraid and worried about the future. Where is the hope and comfort. This devotion is based on the story of the disciples afraid in a boat on the lake.
Continue reading »

Here is the full worship service for March 15, 2020

Posted by on Sunday, March 15th, 2020 in Minister

First of all, here are four videos of the morning worship:

Part 1: Prelude to Life and Work of the Church

Part 2: Scripture Readings and Hymn

The Readings of the day were Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:1-11, Romans 5:1-11 and John 4:5-40

Part 3: Sermon -- When there is no water on the journey

You may read the full text of the sermon below.

Part 4: Offering, a lovely offertory by Margaret MacKenzie-Leighton, and the end of the service.

As I say in the invitation to the offering, this is something very important for everyone to be involved in now. Here are some links that you can use to give.

Full text of the sermon

Hespeler, 15 March, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-40

The children of Israel were tired of their journey and, you know what, I don’t blame them. It is a hard thing to pass through a desolate territory. Resources are scarce. You don’t know where your next meal is coming from, where you are going to be able to set up your tent or whether some wild animals might decide to invade the camp. I’ve gone camping before – been out in the wild and away from all of the conveniences of modern life. I’ve really enjoyed it – for about four days. At least for me, that was when a real weariness kicked in.

So, when the people arrived at a place called Rephidim – a green oasis in the midst of the desert – it would have immediately raised their expectations. This was just the kind of place where they could finally relax a bit – where water would be plentiful for a change and they might not have to worry for a few days. So, you can imagine how they reacted when they discovered that the spring in that place had ceased to flow. The promise of the oasis turned out to be nothing but a great boulder that loomed in the place where the spring ought to be. Now, that’s got to be frustrating – to have water so near and yet so out of reach!

Now, make no mistake, that was a big problem. Access to water supplies when you are travelling in the desert is not a matter of luxury; it is a matter of survival. They had a legitimate reason to be concerned. So why did Moses get so upset with them? I think it might have something to do with how they phrased their complaint: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” they asked. The problem with that is that it is what we always do. Whenever God is leading us though some new and unfamiliar situation, and the going gets rough, we always default to what is old and familiar. It doesn’t even matter whether the old thing was a good thing. In this case, they are pining for a situation where they were literal slaves!

God calls us to move forward. God calls us to take risks for the sake of the kingdom of God. Obviously, when that is the kind of thing that you are involved in, there are going to be problems. There are going to be bumps along the road and difficulties to deal with. The problem comes when our response to those difficulties is merely to look back and complain about the loss of what we were once used to. The real problem comes when our attachment to the past traps us and keeps us from embracing the opportunities that God places before us and that was what the children of Israel seem to have been doing. So I cannot help but feel that, if the church is going to find its way through whatever challenges God may be placing in front of us today, we’re going to need a better example and model than the children of Israel passing through the desert place. Fortunately, we have one.

Jesus was tired of his journey and, you know what, I don’t blame him. For one thing, he was heading for Jerusalem which was the place that was so dangerous and so stressful to him that it would actually be the death of him eventually. He was also passing through a very stressful region if you happened to be a good Jew like he was. You might even say it was a cultural desert to him. He was in Samaria and Jews hated Samaritans; the feeling was mutual. So, though he was surrounded by people, he really had nothing in common with them. They might as well have spoken in a different language. But that was not the worst part. The worst part was when Jesus arrived at a place called Jacob’s well, a place famous for its pure, clear water, and he couldn’t drink any. The problem was not that a great boulder was blocking access to the well, but it was almost as hard to overcome: Jesus had nothing to draw water with. Now, that’s got to be frustrating – to have water so near and yet so out of reach!

Now, if Jesus had just followed the example of his ancient ancestors in the wilderness at this point, what would he do? He would whine and complain about how God had brought him to this cultural wasteland so that he might die of thirst. He would talk about how this kind of thing never happened when he was back in Galilee among “civilized” people. But Jesus marked a sharp departure from that whole way of thinking. Instead, he looked around and asked himself the question, what possibilities has God placed in front of me in this place?

And that is why, when a woman came along carrying a water jar, Jesus didn’t react as his ancestors would have done. He didn’t say, “Well I can’t talk to her because that would give her the impression that she’s a human being instead of a filthy Samaritan. And I certainly mustn’t give her the impression, as a woman, that she’s worthy of being addressed in public by a man!” He should not have even acknowledged her existence. Is that what Jesus did? Did he define his actions in the moment by what had worked for him in the past or by the traditions that he had received? If he had done so, he would have remained thirsty and frustrated.

Now, what Jesus did say: “Give me a drink,” makes it sound as if Jesus is only concerned with his own needs in the moment. But think, for a moment, about how extraordinary that is. He genuinely has a need that only she can meet in that moment. How should we interpret that? Here we have the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father, the living Word of God who was a participant in the creation of the universe vulnerably acknowledging his need to this foreign woman.

That is an important part of the example Jesus gives us here because, out of his vulnerability and need, arises a whole new way of relating to a group of people who had been, up until that point, cut off from the good news that Jesus had brought. Out of that begins an entire ministry among the people of Samaria.

When the children of Israel were in the desert place and had no water, all they could think of to do was grumble and complain about how things used to be. They did, in the end, get some water, but that was it. They merely survived. When Jesus was in a cultural desert without water he took a different course and ended up not only with the water he needed to survive but some pretty amazing new opportunities for the gospel.

Which brings us, of course, to the particular desert where we find ourselves today. We are not in a literal desert, nor are we in the kind of cultural desert that Jesus found himself in that afternoon in Samaria, but we are in a desert, my friends. Let’s call it a church desert.

There was a time when churches like ours – I’m talking about Presbyterian, Anglican, United, Lutheran, Catholic churches and the like – were known as mainline churches. It is a word that is still sometimes used to talk about such churches, but the word no longer means what it once did. What that used to mean was that those churches were plugged into the main line of the culture and society. The church had power and influence.

When, for example, the government of Canada was looking around for someone to run Indian residential schools, it was some mainline churches who stepped up, and took on those contracts in what was seen as a win-win type situation for both the church and for the government. Of course, it was anything but a win for Canada’s indigenous people, but obviously that was not a really big concern at the time. So, for good and for ill, and there was a lot of ill in some circumstances like the one I just mentioned, churches had their finger on the pulse of Canadian society. We were in the main line.

But we’re not really in that position anymore. For good or for ill, we find ourselves pretty much on the sidelines of culture today. And the thing is this, when you are used to being in the mainline, when you’ve been used to having a certain voice and a certain position that people automatically respect, when you start to lose that, it doesn’t just feel like a loss of privilege. It can feel as if you’re suddenly dumped out in a desert place.

When you are used to being the people who set the tone for the whole culture and you suddenly find yourself in a place where the culture doesn’t much seem to care what you think, it can feel like you are in a cultural desert. And what happens then? Well, when you have depended upon your position and clout in society to get everything that you need, it can feel like you have arrived at a freshwater oasis only to discover that there is no water and you begin to worry that maybe you’re not going to make it.

We all end up in that sort of situation sooner or later. The question is how will you react? Will you react like the children of Israel? Will you whine and complain about the loss and talk about how good we used to have things while we say, “Couldn’t we all just go back to Egypt?” If you do that, yes, God might give you what you need to survive and muddle through. He might make the water flow from the rock, but I suspect that you will have missed out on an incredible opportunity that God is offering you when he brings you to this desert place.

I would much rather see you do what Jesus did when he came to that well in Samaria. I think it might be more appropriate where we find ourselves today as well as more successful. What might that look like? Well, first of all I think it might mean recognizing that we are, to a certain extent, on foreign territory here. Yes, maybe at one time we were the ones who established the cultural norms in this place, that’s no longer the case. We are like Jews who have wandered into Samaritan territory and it is a strange country to us. Secondly, and even more importantly, we, like Jesus, need to not be afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help in this place. When we go around pretending like we have all the answers and that nobody can tell us anything, it creates an impossible distance between us and the people who live in this place.

Jesus knew that a little bit of vulnerability can actually go a long way to create connection. In the story of Jesus and the woman by the well, it certainly creates a connection and an opportunity for deeper conversation and honestly that is what we need to have with the society around us. And it is in the midst of that conversation, after he has confessed his own need, that Jesus is able to offer to the woman what he and he alone can give and that is the living water that will quench a thirst that she maybe doesn’t even know that she has.

We still have that water to offer. We have it in the words of the gospel that we can share. We have it in the faith and trust in Christ that we can model. And we have it in the supportive model of Christian community that we are called to live out. And you better believe that that living water can make a difference in people’s lives that is much needed. But no one will ever get that living water from us if we are unable to have the kinds of conversations that Jesus has with that woman by the well and never forget that that conversation begins with Jesus being very tired and weary from his journey and frustrated that is not able to get the basic thing that he needs to survive and it begins with him being vulnerable to that woman and choosing to treat her, contrary to everything that he’s been taught as a good Galilean Jew, as a person who has value and importance.

Friends, we are tired and thirsty wandering through some sort of desert these days. Lots of things make us feel that way. And of course it is frustrating to come to the spring and find that there is no water. But consider that perhaps God has led us to this place, that God is calling on us to engage with the strangers who live in this strange land. Will you engage with those people? Will you let your guard down, even show your vulnerability? If you do, God has some opportunities for genuine ministry that might blow your mind.

Continue reading »

And Abram went

Posted by on Sunday, March 8th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 8 March, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 12:1-4, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-18, John 3:1-17

Now the Lord said to Ashurbanipal, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Ashurbanipal went, “What, are you crazy, Lord? You want me to leave behind everything that is familiar and comfortable, the land that I’m supposed to inherit from my father and all of the family supports that are supposed to protect me from all the unpredictability of life. That’s okay, Lord, you can keep your blessing.

But the Lord was not discouraged and he went and said to Utnapishtim, “Utnapishtim, same command. Leave your country and everything and you can have all these blessings.” But Utnapishtim said, “Lord, I am very flattered and everything, but I am totally swamped this month, can I get back to you later on your plan.”

So, the Lord went on to others – to Nahshon, Ammishaddai and Zuriel – but nowhere could he find someone to take on the challenge of what he commanded them – until he found Abram. And Abram, to everyone’s surprise, he just got up and went.

That is the kind of amazing thing about the story of the call of Abram in the Bible, isn’t it? There really was nothing special about Abram before that. He hadn’t done anything, hadn’t proven his value in any way. When we first meet him in the Book of Genesis, there is only one thing that sets him apart, one thing that indicates that he is different: when God says go, he goes. He doesn’t talk back. He doesn’t ask questions or hesitate. He goes.

That is what made me wonder how we’re supposed to read this story. Was Abram the only one that God spoke to, or where others given the same offer? Do we not hear about those others – are they entirely lost to history – simply because they turned God down?

And if the only thing that Abram did to set himself apart, at least at first, was respond to this command, what is the significance of that? What did Abram do right? You might think that it was his instant obedience that impressed God, which would mean that God is really only interested in what you might call “yes men” (for lack of a more inclusive term). What God wants more than anything else is someone who, when God says jump, only says, “How high sir?”

But no, that cannot be it. If God were looking for nothing more and nothing less than unquestioning obedience, he could have chosen to adopt unthinking beasts instead of a human family. No, what set Abram apart was not the instant obedience itself but the thing that made him react that way, and that thing was faith.

In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul is referring to a later event in Abram’s life when he writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” but what he says there certainly applies to this earlier event. What set Abram apart right from the very beginning was his willingness to believe the promises that God made to him. Paul goes on from there to explain what belief in God means in that kind of situation, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Paul says that the faith that God is looking for is a willingness to trust God.

As I thought about the season of Lent this year, I noticed that there was a certain theme that kept coming up in our readings for Sunday mornings – a theme that is most clear in this Genesis reading this morning. The readings are full of stories of people who step out and embrace new things, new concepts and ideas, who leave things behind because they feel called to something new. We see that theme, for example, in our gospel reading from this morning. We see it as Nicodemus engages with Jesus of Nazareth who pushes him to rethink just about every aspect of the Judaism that he has held onto as a teacher of Israel. If Nicodemus is going to embrace what Jesus is saying to him (which apparently according to this gospel he eventually does) he is going to have to let go of many of the ideas and ways of thinking that have told him who he has been up until this point in his life.

So, looking at that, my question was why are these the stories that seem to be coming up during Lent? Lent has always been a very important season in the life of the church. It is a time of reflection, of repentance and of rededication. In the early church, it was also a time for focusing on the basics of the faith. Throughout the season new members of the churches would be taught what it meant to be followers of Jesus in preparation to be baptized on Easter Sunday. So I think that we should also think of it as a season when we focus on the absolute essentials of what makes us followers of Christ.

With all of that in mind, how should we think of this theme that seems to be introduced by this decision of Abram to just get up and go, leaving everything that is familiar, just because God says so? I believe that this is meant to teach us something absolutely essential about faith and what it means for us as followers of Jesus Christ in the world today.

Let me ask you, how is faith generally perceived in our society today? I would suggest that a very big stereotype of people of faith is that they are people who cling to the past. That perception is not always true about Christians, of course, but it is persistent, and it is not based on nothing. There are many Christians today, for example, who cling to beliefs and ways of seeing the world that are outmoded and largely discredited – those who insist, for example, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the world was all created about 6,000 years ago, and that it was all created in a span of six 24-hour days. There are those who would claim that believing that, in the face of all that contrary evidence, is a perfect example of what faith is.

But it’s not just in matters of what people believe that Christians can be particularly stuck to the past. It is also in matters of practice and ways of doing things. We cling to old songs and old forms of prayers and old traditions. Have you ever heard that favourite old hymn that goes, “give me that old time religion, it was good enough for my father; it’s good enough for me.”

And I am not saying that that is a horrible thing in and of itself. Just because something is old doesn’t mean that it can’t be good. Old traditions can obviously still be meaningful and comforting. Old truths can still be true, and we should never abandon the truth. There is no problem if we simply value these things and hold on to them appropriately. The problem comes when we confuse blindly clinging to these things with faith; the problem comes when we start to see stubbornness in itself as a virtue. And I’m afraid that we often think in exactly that way.

If faith really were what we often assume it is, then Abram would not be the ideal example of faith. He would be a negative example. If faith was just about stubbornly clinging to the familiar and comfortable, then the example that we would be celebrating today on this second Sunday of Lent would be Ashurbanipal or Utnapishtim or whoever else turned God down flat before Abram said yes. But there is a good reason why nobody knows who they were.

The season of Lent is often compared to a journey. We talk about how it is the path we have to travel in order to arrive at the sad but beautiful truth of what happened on Good Friday when God’s love for us was demonstrated so powerfully. It is a journey towards the incredible victory of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. But every journey towards something is also a journey away from something else; that is the truth that Abram demonstrates to us so clearly. When he left on God’s orders, what he was journeying towards was very nebulous. God hadn’t even actually told him where he was going yet – had only promised to let him know when he got there.

But if Abram destination was unclear, what he was leaving was anything but. He knew exactly what he was giving up and what it was costing him. And that is often how it works and that is why change is hard, why it is so much easier to cling to what you know than to embrace what you have not yet seen.

And so, if we are going to think of our passage through Lent this year as a journey, I’m going to propose that, instead of focussing just on where we are going, we think about what God might be calling us to let go of in order to get there. As you may know, it is a tradition in certain churches to give up something during the season of Lent. People might make a vow to stop eating chocolate or desserts or to stop doing some favourite activity during the forty days of the season. That is may be close to what I’m talking about here, but I think we may need to look for something a little bit more serious than that.

I’m not talking about giving up something you like for just a short period of time. I’m talking about giving up permanently the things that are keeping you from grasping the full truth of what God did for you on Easter and on Good Friday.

Let me ask you, what might you be clinging to, not because it a good thing or a healthy thing, but simply because it is what is familiar or comfortable. Perhaps it is an old grudge – something that you have been holding against somebody for so long that you may have even forgotten why it was that you were mad at them in the first place. Holding on to something like that might make you feel good – there is a comfort to it – but it is not doing anyone any good, least of all you. I would suggest to you that part of the Lenten journey that God is calling you to is a journey away from that grudge.

Or maybe you’ve been resisting something – some change in your personal life or something that you are involved in – even though you know deep down inside that the change is inevitable. Change is hard and God understands why we resist it, but your Lenten journey this year might well involve you walking away from the resistance. That will mean that you will walk into something new and unfamiliar and probably disturbing because of it, but the walk forward is a walk of faith for you as much as it was for Abram.

I just think that you need to be reminded that, if your faith is merely something that makes you hold onto what you’ve always known, resist change and complain about any disturbance to what you are used to, it is not the faith of Abram. It is not the faith that prompted God to bless Abram and make him a nation that would bring blessing to the whole world. Walking away from some of that will be hard, of course, but the same promise of blessing that God gave Abram is the promise he is offering to you this Lenten season. So let’s embark on the journey together.

Continue reading »

“Come up to me on the mountain”

Posted by on Sunday, February 23rd, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 23 February, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

When, six days later, Jesus came up to Peter, James and John and quietly said, “Hey, what do you say that the four of us take a hike and climb up to the top of that mountain over there?” did they have certain expectations about what he was saying and what might happen? There are all kinds of reasons to think that they did.

Ever since human beings (or maybe even their primitive ancestors) first stood up on their hind legs and raised their eyes to the distant horizon, those eyes were drawn to the hills and mountains that punctuated that horizon. And from very early times, they seem to have come to see those mountains as significant mostly because they were places where extraordinary things happened.

In Southeastern Turkey, not far at all from the place that the Bible seems to be talking about when it describes the location of Garden of Eden, there is a mountain called, in the local language, Göbekli Tepe. In recent years, archeologists have made some amazing discoveries at that location. They are unearthing structures made of massive stones carefully arranged in circles with even bigger t-shaped stones standing in the middle of them.

The site was clearly built up over many centuries, but the truly surprising thing about it is that there are absolutely no signs of inhabitation – there are no remains of houses, of fire pits, or of the garbage heaps that human beings seem to be so good at leaving wherever they go. Nobody actually lived there, but large numbers of people built it and visited it over many many generations. Even more astonishing, the site is over 11,000 years old.

Do you have any idea how old that is – 11,000 years? That is older than the invention of agriculture. So it wasn’t built by farmers but by people who are sometimes called “hunter-gatherers.” At some point, there were primitive hunter-gatherer people who lived in that part of the Anatolian Peninsula, what is today Southeastern Turkey, who one day looked up and saw, in the distance, that mountain of Göbekli Tepe and said to one another, come, let us go up that mountain and spend enormous amounts of time and energy constructing massive circles of stone on that mountain, but let’s not live there, let’s just visit from time to time.

Now, hunter-gatherers don’t necessarily have a lot of extra resources to spare. They tend to live at pretty close to subsistence levels. So, this was no minor decision they were making. It would have cost them a whole lot. Why, then, did they do it? The only theory that the archaeologists can come up with that makes sense is that they believed, in some sense, that if they went to the top of that mountain and built those massive structures, they would be able to encounter God, or maybe gods, there.

And that speaks to something that I suspect is built into the human psyche. We seem to think of mountains as places for divine encounters. This is something that cuts across all people and all cultures. The ancient Celts spoke about the idea that there are places in this world, they refer to them as “thin places,” places where the boundaries between this world and some other reality that we can’t even imagine are easily penetrated. And mountains seem to be particularly thin places for many peoples. Maybe this was an idea that first occurred to people because they thought of their gods as living in the heavens and mountains were as close as you could get to the heavens while still remaining on earth. But I think that this is about more than just geography.

The Bible records many divine encounters on mountaintops. Most significantly, God invited Moses to the top of a mountain to give him the law. And it just seemed to make sense to everybody that such an important encounter had to happen in such a place. Such dynamic revelations could only happen in elevated places. Later, it would make sense to everyone that the only place to worship God was upon his holy mountain, as we read in our Psalm this morning: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.” The impulse to seek to encounter God on a mountaintop is deeply ingrained into our human souls. Maybe it has been ever since Göbekli Tepe

So yes, it seems quite likely that, when Jesus invites the three to go up the mountain with him, they are expecting that they might experience something divine. And indeed they do! They have an experience that is very much a parallel to the story of Moses on that other mountain. There is the same encompassing cloud, the same frightening light and Moses himself even shows up for the party.

There has been a lot of talk down through the centuries about what actually happened on that mountain and what it means. The story has a certain otherworldly quality to it, as if it is not quite real. Jesus himself refers to what happens on that mountain as a vision, which adds to that impression. But, whatever it was, what they experienced there seems to have been a powerful confirmation of what they had only begun to suspect about Jesus: that he was not just an ordinary person and that God was uniquely present in him.

This was not something that was clear under ordinary circumstances. Surely, as Jesus moved through the towns and villages of Galilee, he appeared to be nothing more and nothing less that an average Jewish male just like anybody else. But the unique setting of the mountaintop was a place where the inner truth of who Jesus was could literally shine through. God’s presence in Jesus became undeniable.

I think that we are all offered moments like that in our lives – moments when God is present in powerful ways. They may not all be quite as dramatic as this gospel story, but they are real. God does break through into our reality at certain times and places. There is a universality to such experiences. Not every individual has them, of course, but every society seems to have individuals who experience such things. I think our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced such things on Göbekli Tepe. Maybe their understanding was limited and they couldn’t interpret what they saw as clearly as Moses would on his mountain or Peter, James and John would on theirs, but that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there for them on their hill.

I think we do have such experiences, but the real question in this story is how are we going to respond to them. Peter’s first impulse is significant. His idea is to make three dwellings, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. There is something about that that seems very familiar to me, something that has been there in the human spirit for at least 11,000 years. Just as the ancient hunter-gatherers encountered something divine on top of Göbekli Tepe and said, “Guys, we have got to build something up here. I don’t care if it takes us centuries and consumes all of the extra energy of our primitive hunter-gatherer societies, we are going to build something on top of this to contain and preserve this experience so that we never lose it.” Peter is possessed by that very same spirit.

Why do we do that? Why do we build shrines and temples and churches on those locations where we, or perhaps where our ancestors many generations before, had those significant experiences with God? I believe it stems from a desire to tame or control such powerful experiences. We want to bind the experience within a structure or institution so that we can maybe come back and visit it from time to time, but it doesn’t escape and begin to change everything in our lives.

Remember how I said that the ancient people who built Göbekli Tepe expended all of that time and effort building the shrine but that nobody actually lived there on the mountain? That was all about keeping the experience of God at a distance – letting God or the gods know that they don’t have a place to speak to our daily lives but that we promise to visit them on special occasions.

Well, things really haven’t changed in the many millennia since. Peter is still reacting just like the hunter-gatherers who had come to Göbekli Tepe. Though he calls what he wants to build “dwellings,” (some translations have “tents” or “tabernacles”) it is clearly not because he wants to live on the mountain. He wants Jesus and Moses and Elijah to stay on the mountain so that he can go on with his life without Jesus, Moses and Elijah interfering too much. He wants to keep the powerful experience of God safe and remote on the mountaintop.

And again, all of this is quite understandable. It is, as I say, what people have been doing to their powerful experiences of God for at least 11,000 years! The really surprising thing about the story of the transfiguration is not that they had that really extraordinary encounter with God, the really surprising thing is that they learned that day to deal with the experience in a new way.

God speaks. God steps into the story in a very powerful way at this point as the voice of God thunders from the enveloping cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” That is a pretty impressive way of making sure that we pay very close attention to what Jesus says next. Peter is given a warning that, if he ignores the next thing that Jesus says, he will be doing so at his own peril. And with such a setup, you might expect that Jesus will have a lot to say. He, like Moses was when he was covered by the enveloping cloud, is in a perfect position to deliver an entire law code and Peter, James and John would be bound to receive it as a new law.

So, our anticipation builds; what is Jesus going to say? What he does say, of course, doesn’t seem to live up to the hype. All he says is, “Get up and do not be afraid,” and then he presumably says, “Let’s go back down the mountain.” That is it: don’t be afraid and let’s go. But what he says must be loaded with meaning because we have been warned to pay heed to it.

And indeed it is. It marks a stunning new teaching, undoing the thing that has been built into humanity since Göbekli Tepe. For Jesus is announcing to us that, because he has come, the experience of God is not something that we have to respond to in fear. We don’t have to keep the presence of God locked up in some safe spot in a temple, dwelling or tabernacle on some mountaintop. We do not need to live in fear of it because Jesus has come and brought God near.

But old habits die hard, don’t they? I think that, in many ways, we are still very much like those hunter-gatherers on the ancient Anatolian Peninsula. We still want to keep God at a safe distance in some special place. Sometimes we treat our holy places, like for example, this sanctuary here, as if they were on some remote mountaintop far removed from our daily lives. We visit here, but we don’t bring our whole selves here. We leave the rest of our lives out there and we try not to let the one affect the other. When Jesus said that he came to announce the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, which was his way of saying that that separation was over, God’s reality was about to spill over into the daily world.

This is not a place for you to merely visit from time to time and reconnect with God, this place is where the revolution that the world still needs is supposed to begin. God is not safe here, kept apart from the struggles of the real world. The God you meet here in Jesus Christ is going with you and before you out into the world and into daily life. If that sounds like something that might change everything, you’re right it is. Jesus came to change everything, especially about how we relate to God in our daily lives.

Continue reading »

Mature Christians

Posted by on Sunday, February 16th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 16 February, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

Crying Baby

How would you recognize an immature Christian – someone who was just starting out in their walk of following in the way of Jesus Christ? I’ll bet if you surveyed your average group of Christians, you would probably find a great variety of answers. Say you went to a fairly normal congregation like this one and asked people, confidentially of course, who they felt were the most mature Christians among them, they might say something like, “Well, brother Bob over there has taken many courses in theology and Bible study and he probably understands more about God than just about anyone. He is a very mature Christian.” And then someone else might say, “But look at sister Susan over there, she has served as an elder for so many years she has chaired many committees and even headed up that big building project. Now there’s a mature Christian for you.” Or someone else might point out brother Phil, who can pray like nobody’s business, or maybe sister Catherine who has taught generations of students in that Sunday school room.

Those are the kinds of things that we look at. We look at education, leadership, ability and service. We look at what people have accomplished and sometimes just it how long they’ve been around to judge whether or not they are mature in how they live out the Christian faith. And, I’ll be honest, that is generally how I think about it too. And I will say that I have certainly been blessed, down through the years, to have known many mature Christians according to those criteria. That is why I was kind of shocked when I realized what it was that the Apostle Paul was saying in our reading this morning from his letter to the Corinthians.

Paul speaks to the Christians in Corinth and sadly tells them that he can’t treat them as mature Christians. In fact, he says that they aren’t just immature, they are babies. He has to feed them milk, he says, and not solid food. Paul is speaking here as if he were a nursing mother with a little baby. Nobody knows for sure how long mothers nursed their children in the ancient world. There are some indications that they may have nursed them until they were at least three or four years old! But they still must have introduced solid foods well before that age. Perhaps they exclusively fed their children on milk for about the same period of time that modern mothers are recommended to do so by the experts today: about six months

So what Paul is implying to the Corinthians is not merely that they are immature. He’s suggesting that they are little more than newborn infants. He’s actually casting himself as a nursing mother with a baby who cannot even handle pablum. But what is really surprising is how it is that Paul knows that they are immature because he doesn’t look at any of the things that we would look at. He doesn’t look at education or experience or service or ability or any of that stuff. There is only one indication that matters to him. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” The fact that they are quarreling with each other is all Paul needs to look at to know that they are spiritual infants.

What would it be like if we in the church today had the same understanding of spiritual maturity as Paul? Because I’ll tell you that we don’t tend to think that way at all. We often go to the other extreme. What do you do, for example, if you have a person in your congregation who is, let’s say, really forceful when it comes to getting their point of view across, who has this way of making sure that everybody goes along with their plans? What do we do? Well, we usually let them do whatever they want because we are scared of how they might react if we don’t. We also tend to look at them and say, “Wow, there’s a leader for you; there’s somebody who knows how to get things done.” And so we advance them into leadership or put them in charge of some project.

And then, before too long, you find yourself in a position where almost all of your leadership team is made up of exactly that type of person and if you don’t watch out you soon have them butting heads with one another because, I’ll tell you, none of them are about to back down on anything. We behave as if these people are the spiritually mature, responsible leaders and not the spiritual babies that Paul would have seen. We act as if quarrelling and fighting are an essential part of being the church and even reward the behaviour.

And I know that we often excuse it. We say that people are not really fighting because it isn’t physical. We call it being passionate or forceful and often even push the blame onto those who complain or feel hurt by the process – tell them that it is their fault because they are being too sensitive. You know, maybe we ought to check with Jesus before we say things like that.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment,’” and we agree. We think, that because people aren’t murdering each other everything’s fine. We’d go even further and say that so long as nobody’s having fist fights in the parking lot or keying people’s cars, we must be all good. But here’s the thing. Jesus said that in order to reject it and say that it wasn’t good enough. He said it in order to say, “but I say unto you…”

Jesus is giving us, in this short passage from the Sermon on the Mount, some instructions on becoming the kind of mature Christians that Paul was looking for but didn’t find in Corinth – the kind of Christian who doesn’t give into quarrelling and fighting. And this first instruction is key. He says that it’s not just about not murdering each other. It’s not just about avoiding actual physical violence. We need to look at deeper questions about how we treat each other, how we speak to each other and how we behave. Words can hurt just as surely as blows can. Raised voices and aggressive movement can frighten and even terrify.

And I know that some people might find that to be too much to ask. How can we censor our every word and movement all the time? It is a lot to ask and I know that it is something that we will all fall short of at least from time to time. I fall short often enough. But Jesus never said it was supposed to be easy. He demanded more of his followers and it is the kind of maturity that we may sometimes fail to achieve but that we must always aspire to.

But that is just one part of the advice that Jesus gives to us as he encourages us to maturity. He also teaches us to, “Come to terms quickly,” when we are faced with such strife. That is (I suspect Paul would agree) what a mature Christian should do rather than quarrel and fight. Now, coming to terms is something that takes some work, it takes some communication and in some cases it might take some mediation. It might even take some give-and-take or what you call negotiation. Sometimes it’s really hard and sometimes it is nigh impossible, but coming to terms is something that we can all work towards together.

But I’ll tell you something that coming to terms isn’t; it isn’t what we often do. What do you do, for example, when you find yourself in a situation, whether in the church or someplace else in life, and somebody begins to act inappropriately with someone else – insulting them, making fun of them or maybe speaking in inappropriate racial or sexual ways? I know how people often react and I’ve done it, sadly enough, myself. People withdraw, look down as if they had suddenly become very interested in their shoes. And I understand why we do that, we are afraid to speak up, afraid of the discomfort of it or that maybe the person who is misbehaving will turn his or her attack on us. We hope that maybe, if nobody says anything, it’ll just be over and we can pretend that it never happened. And, indeed, that is exactly what we sometimes do afterwards as well. But let me ask you, is that kind of response what Jesus was thinking of when he said that we should “Come to terms?” No, he was not.

But, of course, that is just one way that we deal with the discord that sometimes arises among us. Sometimes, when somebody has hurt you in some way, maybe even without realizing that they have done it, you might respond by withdrawing from that person, becoming cold and even hostile in your reactions to them. I get that reaction. It can really feel so good, you almost feel as if you are getting back at them by doing it. But, let me ask you, do you think that that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said “Come to terms”? No, it was not.

Okay then, how about, “agreeing to disagree”? Is that what Jesus was talking about when he spoke about “coming to terms”? Sometimes, I will admit, that is a position that we’re going to have to take. The simple reality is very clearly that we are not always going to agree about everything. There is no escaping that. But sometimes I feel as if we can say that in a rather cynical way, as if we are grudgingly giving someone permission to be wrong from our point of view and somehow I really don’t feel that that’s what Jesus was getting at when he spoke of “coming to terms.” Surely there are ways to say that and to truly respect and honour that person who holds a different point of view, to be willing to learn from them even if, in the end, you don’t agree. I think that could be close to what Jesus was talking about when he said, “come to terms.”

But most of all, what I think Jesus was saying was that we need to truly love one another. And if you truly love one another and you run into one of those inevitable patches when you see something differently or are hurt by something that somebody does either intentionally or unintentionally, then you are going to put in the effort and the time to actually communicate what you feel and what you need. You will put in the time and effort you need to understand where somebody is coming from and why they might be feeling the way they are (which, I have found, often has little to do with the disagreement at hand but with something deeper that might be going on in their life).

It also means you are going to be willing to tell somebody the hard truth, like how they might have hurt others with their behaviour. That is a hard thing for anyone to hear, but when it comes from a place of love, it can be a transformative moment. I think that that might just be a piece of what Jesus was getting at when he told us that we should come to terms.

Is any of that easy? Of course it isn’t. Is any of us going to be able to do that all the time? Of course not. We will all fall short at least from time to time. But, as Paul makes very clear, our failures to do this do not mean that we are not followers of Christ or that we have no place in the kingdom of heaven. It means that we are immature Christians who can’t quite handle solid food. But full maturity is what we should all desire. It is what Christ has called us to. So let us all put in the work to get there.

Continue reading »

The fast that I choose

Posted by on Sunday, February 9th, 2020 in Minister

Hespeler, 9 February, 2020 © Scott McAndless
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

God, I don’t mean to complain, but I’ve got to ask, what is the problem here? I mean, we Presbyterians, we have got it all figured out, don’t we? We believe all the right things. We have to because we work so hard at getting it right. We believe in God the Father the creator of heaven and Earth. We believe in Jesus Christ his only son and all the right stuff about his life and his death and his resurrection. We believe correctly about the nature of Christ and the nature of the trinity even if (if I can be candid here for a moment) it doesn’t make a lot of logical sense to us.

And empty plate with the words, "The fast that I choose."

We believe all the right things about the church and how it should operate. In fact, we are so careful about that that every time we even think of making any change in church policy we send it out to all the committees and go over the wording with a fine-tooth comb and make sure that we’ve got it just right before we adopt it. We don’t care if it takes us years, maybe even decades, we will not make that change until we get it just right.

We are so careful and so correct, and yet what do we see happening in our church? As our friend, John-Peter, shared with us a couple of weeks ago, we find ourselves today in a denomination that is undergoing a steep decline, a decline that has been fairly steady and straightforward ever since 1959. Day after day we seek you and delight to know your truth and be correct in all of it, and yet this is what you let happen to us?

Why do we work so hard to be right, but you do not see? Why convince ourselves that we’ve got the answers, but you do not notice? Well, I guess the only thing we can do is just try harder to be all the more right all the time. Surly you will soon come around and give us what it is that we most desire.

I puzzled for a long time over our reading this morning from the Book of Isaiah. In it, the people of Israel are clearly going through a difficult time. They are feeling as if God is not giving them what they think they need. Now, I could probably tell you what it was that they were struggling with. Biblical scholars actually have some pretty good ideas about the enemies that surrounded them, the hard economic times they were dealing with and things like that. But I really think that the point of us reading it today has less to do with the things that they were actually struggling with and more to do with the things that we today sometimes struggle with.

The main point is that they were struggling just like we sometimes struggle. But they were complaining to God specifically because they figured that they were doing everything right and so God ought to be giving them a better time. And, honestly, I think there are times when we also feel like that. So this passage suddenly seemed very relevant to me.

But here was my problem: the thing that they figured they were doing right was fasting. Now, fasting is something that does come up in the modern world from time to time, usually in the form of a diet craze. For example, these days everyone is talking about the 5:2 Diet where you eat normally five days a week and then fast two. But they weren’t fasting for health or because they were hoping to lose some weight. They were fasting because they had this notion that, if they went without food and suffered because of it, God should notice and give them what they really needed. And, what’s more, they figured that they had this fasting thing just right, that not only did they have the hunger pangs, but they were also bowing down and humbling themselves just beautifully. It was a perfect fast. That is why they thought that their complaint against God was so legitimate. They were doing everything right, but God wasn’t holding up his part of the bargain.

And I, honestly, have a bit of a rough time identifying with that. I mean, I know that there are some Christians in the world today who really get hung up over carrying out religious actions like prayers or fasting or rituals and doing them just perfectly, but that’s not really how Presbyterians or most Protestants think about these things. You would never catch us suggesting that the only way to solve some problem we are having is by finding a certain ritual and executing it perfectly. So, it really seemed like there was no way for us to relate to the people that the prophet is addressing in this passage.

But then I thought about matters of belief. Protestants, you see, have this obsession about believing all the right things. I guess that, when we understand that we access our salvation by faith, it does make a certain amount of sense. If faith is so key, then surely what you believe matters. What’s more, we all believe the truth matters and if truth matters, well, then it matters that you believe true things.

That is all fair enough, but there is a dangerous leap that we tend to make within that logic. We easily seem to fall into thinking that faith is just a matter of believing the right things about God, about Jesus, the Bible and a host of other things. And when we think that way, the stakes are suddenly very high. Suddenly, if I believe one thing and you believe something that’s maybe slightly different, that is not just a matter for discussion, it becomes a matter of salvation! Suddenly questions of belief become things to fight over, maybe even die over. We also begin to expect that God should reward us and give us preferential treatment because we happen to believe all the right things.

But just as the prophet came to the people of Judah in our Old Testament reading this morning and said, “Do you really believe that God is going to give you all of these things that you think that you need simply because you do the right kind of fast?” so would God come to us today and say, “Why should I grant to you, as a church, all of these blessings and victories and growth because you think that you figured out all the right stuff to believe?” Just as they were focussing on the wrong thing by trying to get their fasts right, I believe we might be doing the same thing in our focus on belief and doctrine.

Again, this is not because these things don’t matter. Of course, they matter. They are of ultimate importance. But there is a great danger when we put all of our energy into working out these things that we miss the bigger aspects of our calling. What happens when, for example, we substitute “right belief” for fasting in the prophet’s diatribe?

“Look,” he might say, “you may get your beliefs all right, but you only seem to be serving your own interests as you do so. Sure, you do an admirable job in figuring out the right things to believe, but you seem to only do it in order to quarrel and fight with each other. Such good doctrine will not make your voice heard on high. Is this the right belief that I choose, creating perfect statements of doctrine and theology? Is this belief that is acceptable to the Lord?”

Now, to be perfectly clear, the prophet was not trying to suggest to the people of Judah that fasting and other similar religious observances and practices were bad things. On the contrary, he believed that fasting was a good thing. In the same way, the prophet would not chastise us for our quest to work out a belief system that is most perfectly aligned with the truth about God, the universe and everything. His caution was that the pursuit of that good thing was preventing them from seeking the better thing. Even worse, he was accusing them of substituting the good thing for that better thing that was absolutely needed from God’s point of view.

And what is that better thing? That better thing is justice. That better thing is the pursuit of a world and a situation where all are treated fairly, where outcasts and marginalized people are welcomed in and where those who are enslaved in any way are granted freedom. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

I can only imagine how that was a problem with the ancient Judeans – how they were so obsessed with pleasing God with their perfect fasts, piously going without food and feeling so holy for it, that they totally failed to notice the people next door or homeless in the streets who were going without food for anything but pious reasons. I can only imagine how it was for them, but I know exactly how it is a problem for us. When we get caught up in believing the right things, it can be so easy for us to reject certain people because they do not fit our idea of what a Christian is supposed to be or of what righteousness is and, even if we may not intend it that way, the result is often rejection and deep wounding.

Jesus understood and believed in the importance of right belief. Truly I tell you,” he said, “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” But he taught that compassion and care, especially for the outsiders, the rejected, the sinners and the forgotten, always trumped the importance of right belief. For what was the point of having the light of the knowledge of the truth if it did not shine before others. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Our Old Testament prophet is very clear about how that could happen. It was only when you learned to prioritize justice, when you reached out to those living in the margins and when you shared what you could with those who did not have enough, that this promise was activated: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard… If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Jesus understood that and agreed. It was what he was talking about when he spoke of the lamp set up on the lampstand and the city built up on the hilltop. It is still the only way for us to be what Jesus envisioned. So, by all means, do think about and joyfully discuss the things that you believe. They matter and it matters that you get them as right as you can (for none of us, I believe, will ever understand it all), but know that, far more than that you believe the right things, Jesus requires of you that you live out the faith in practical terms, that you act with compassion, love and understanding, because Jesus really does want your light to shine forth.

Continue reading »